Archive for March, 2013

These days, Euro is a term that brings to mind countries falling into bankruptcy, chaos in the streets, and potential destruction of the United States through shared hedge fund markets.

But there’s one Euro that we can all be proud of – Euro Disney, the parent company of Disneyland Paris.  And next month, it’ll be playing host to a cornucopia of spoils as the Themed Entertainment Association presents SATE 2012, which stands for Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience.  It’s the TEA’s annual Themed Design Conference taking place Sept 19-21.

The conference is being chaired by Joe Rhode, the Disney Imagineer who brought us animals and adventurer clubs, and Yves Pepin, the man who’s reinvented the perception of water almost as much as Moses.  Both are Thea Lifetime Achievement Award recipients (I would have called them winners, but I’ve been told there are no losers with the Thea’s).

Not enough?  Here’s a rundown of presenters.  Links will take you to speaker bios.  And if you do attend, make sure to catch Ray Hole’s presentation on how to theme gas (“this one smells like rose petals”).

Martin ARNAUD, Les Petits Francais 
Manal ATAYA, government of Sharjah, UAE
Jean Christophe CANIZARES, ECA2
Chris CONTE, Electrosonic 
Andrea DEARDEN, Science Museum London
Bart DOHMEN, BRC Imagination Arts BV
Ray HOLE, ray hole architects ltd
Keith JAMES, Jack Rouse Associates 
Matthew JESSNER, Franco Dragone Entertainment Group
Berni JO, Yeosu Expo 2012 Organizing Committee
Sanjay KARA, Akshardham Temple Representative; Director for BAPS Charities
Christian LACHEL, BRC Imagination Arts
Michel LINET-FRION, Center Parcs/Pierre et Vacances
Jeanette LOMBOY, WDI Show Producer
Alex MCCUAIG, MET Studio 
Andrew MCINTYRE, Director, Morris Hargreaves MacIntyre
Lesley MORISETTI, Morisetti Associates
Frederic NANCEL, Chateau de Chantilly 
Audrey O’CONNELL, Natural History Museum 
Sophie POIRIER, MU-Events 
Steve RHYS, Forrec
Djuan RIVERS, Disneyland Paris 
Steve SIMONS, Event Communications
Carmen SMITH, Walt Disney Imagineering
Patrick STALDER, Event Producer
Vernon TEO 
Koert VERMUELEN, ACT Lighting
Bob WEIS, Walt Disney Imagineering
George WIKTOR, The GW Group 
Jean Francois ZURAWIK, Lyon’s La Fete des Lumieres

For more information or to register for SATE, click HERE!

Maris Ensing and David Willrich are two of the leading audiovisual integrators working in museums today.  They’re also good friends.  Earlier this year, I was asked by Sound & Communications to write a piece about projects each of them had just finished.  Among the photos Ensing sent me was this one of a visitor encountered during a research trip for his Airboat Adventure simulator at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale.

dsc000872When I told Willrich about it, he sent me a couple of photos of a bear he encountered in Alberta while working on Northern Light at the Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park.

img_6120 img_6122

Ensing’s response: “He probably had it fabricated!”

Read about these two amazing projects in Sound & Communication.


timthumbThe origins of a California-themed park would seem mired in the mists of time.   Rumor holds that the ill-begotten idea was concocted by Michael Eisner, Paul Pressler, and Jody Foster at a tequila and mescaline infused party at Jack Nicholson’s house.  I can assure you, dear reader, that this theory holds no credence, for Mr. Nicholson has had a long standing restraining order against the lovely Ms. Foster.

The California theme, though perhaps not oulined in marketing collateral, was tied in to the state’s sesquicentennial and it was an easy theme on which to design a park on a budget.

In early 2002, CalTIA, now known as the California Travel Association, held an event at Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX Theatre for travel industry professionals.  They screened a rough cut of the IMAX film Adventures in Wild California, the official motion picture of the state’s 150th anniversary celebration.  Wild California (its working title at the time) was underwritten by a number of California corporations, including The Walt Disney Company.  In return for Disney’s investment, viewers could witness  an IMAX-sized Walt on the giant screen introducing his Anaheim Park and ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with Roy E. Disney.

The Disneyland Resort sponsored the Sacramento screening and used it as one of the first official introductions of the new resort and its California Adventure park to the travel industry.  Outside the theater, at a private reception under the stars, salads and chowder with Boudin sourdough bread, enchiladas made with Mission tortillas, and glasses of Robert Mondavi wine could be enjoyed, with each food station featuring a concept painting of that company’s respective California Adventure “attraction.”

Whether or not Disney intended to get sesquicentennial funding from the state for its new park is unknown on this end.  What is known is that a broadly open theme such as “California” fell right into the micromanagers’ hands at a time when penny pinching theme park executives where pushing Primevil Whirl and Triceratops Spin as the next big things.  A combination of off the shelf rides with minimal thematic coverings and corporate sponsored “attractions” likening to a grander version of Innovations would dramatically reduce construction costs.  Unfortunately, they would also dramatically reduce attendance.

The theme of California itself appears to be the result of a single event a decade earlier – Disney’s 1989 purchase of the Wrather Corporation.  Jack Wrather, a prolific television producer whose credits included The Lone Ranger and Lassie, began to invest in a number of hotel and resort properties around the country, in luxury markets such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and Newport Beach.  He was asked by Walt Disney to build an “official” hotel adjacent to the Disneyland park in Anaheim and the upscale Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955.  Over the years, Walt and his successors offered to purchase the hotel property, and over the years, Wrather refused them.  It was not until after Wrather’s death that Disney CEO Michael Eisner was able to work out a deal to purchase the Wrather Corporation.

With the hotel came another property – the Wrather Corporation also managed the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose attractions in Long Beach, including the Queen Mary’s on-ship hotel.  With the acquisition, management of the Queen Mary suddenly became the responsibility of Disneyland.  Imagineers worked hard on devising new tours and attractions while Disneyland began offering a multi-day pass that also included admission to the Queen Mary.

Then in order to finance his grand plans for expansion, Eisner startedan unnecessary and farcical war between two municipalities.  In 1991, he and Disney President Frank Wells had announced the “Disney Decade,” which would include new shows and attractions, huge parking garages, a new Tomorrowland, an entirely new land – Hollywoodland, a shopping and entertainment district, live concert amphitheater, and WESTCOT – a whole new West Coast version of EPCOT.  In order to pay for the infrastructure, Eisner needed both the financial and governmental support of the City of Anaheim.  And to get his way, he threatened to cancel the entire project by building another huge theme park in another city – Long Beach – built around the Queen Mary.

The Long Beach park, DisneySea, never happened, although a modified version did become a hit at Tokyo Disney Resort.  And what about WESTCOT?  Well, it seems very few guests were purchasing those multi-park tickets that included admission to the Queen Mary.  Surveys were taken in the Entrance Plaza asking where they went when they left Disneyland.  The answers started coming in – Hollywood.  The beach.  Knotts.  Six Flags.  Yosemite.  Monterey.  Napa.  Fresno.  Everywhere but the Queen Mary.

And thus California Adventure was conceived – a park that was a fascimile of a trip around California in an effort to retain guests at Disneyland, a mirror of Eisner’s idea for Disney’s America on the East Coast.  Why visit when we can take you there in ways reality can’t?

Disneyland itself is a representation of the ideals that interested Walt Disney the man, as seen through the imaginative lens of 1950’s and 1960’s optimism.  There are no leeches in Adventureland, no horse shit lining the streets of Frontierland, and no drunkards haggardly stumbling home down Main Street.  Welcome to Walt’s sanitized utopian vision of the memories and fantasies of his brain.

Because the core blueprint of the park has remained the same for over fifty years, children of each “generation of Walt” have been able to experience practically the same narrative.  For you see, there are four distinct “generations of Walt,” each based upon when our formative years took place and how we related to Walt Disney the man and to his company during those years.

First are those that grew up prior to the Second World War, at a time when the Disney Studio was exclusively an animation studio.  These souls lived through the Depression and the Disney characters held a unique position in their continued survival.  Second are the Baby Boomers, who experienced both the birth of television and the introduction of Disneyland, who considered the much more accessible Walt to be “Uncle Walt.”  Third are those who grew up in the late ’60’s and the 1970’s, at a time when Walt the man was not part of their lives, but the company continued under the stunted philosophy of “What would Walt do?”  Finally are those who grew up in the Eisner/Iger era, when the company went in radical new directions and Walt Disney the man progressed into the marketing and consumer products item of Walt Disney the legend.  Separated by decades of time, the marketing juggernaut turned him into a fanciful character whose true identity was lost to time – the new Lincoln or Shakespeare, if you will.

The new California Adventure park was designed by a group of Imagineers who, for the most part, never met Walt the man.  It is, again, a fanciful take on the themes that interest him disguised as a trip around the state through his “eyes.”  Within one will find 1920’s and 1930’s Los Angeles and Hollywood, aviation (a huge interest, especially during and post-WWII), the mountains, nature, the automobile, and the amusement park where Walt sat on a bench while his daughters went on a ride without him, an idea that led to the creation of Disneyland as entertainment for the full family and of the new Dumbo at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where in the virtual queue parents can sit on a bench while their children play without them.

Most ironic, is that every account I have read of Disney arriving in California says he did so by train and, as part of the redevelopment of the park, the only train in California Adventure has been removed.  But that’s ok, because the Route 66 in Cars Land can be used as a metaphor for Walt’s Journey – from Chicago to Missouri to Los Angeles.

There’s another place that traces the journey of Walt from Chicago to Missouri to the intersection of 66 and Los Angeles.  But in this case, the 66 is 1966, the final year of Walt’s life.  The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco uses actual documents and artifacts to trace the life of the man, not the character.  Exhibits start with his birth in 1901 and end with is death in 1966.  I can’t say the museum is unbiased.  Although it does cover some negative aspects of his life, such as the studio strike and his testimony before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, it is designed to concentrate on his achievements, and incredible achievements they were.

So now there are two ways to experience the life of Walt Disney – through the fictional world created around the character based on the man, or through the collection of artifacts telling his true story.

Plan a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum by visiting


1202012125303logo1-jpgWhen the VES nominees were announced this year, I wasn’t too particularly excited about two of the three attractions nominated.  Sure, ILM did a fantastic job on the animation of Transformers the Ride (the winner) and Star Tours:  The Adventures Continue, but story-wise there’s nothing unique about these attractions.  In fact, I’ve gotten quite bored with simulator attractions.  Once a concept’s been tried, it’s used over and over again to the point where the technology of the attraction is no longer carrying the story and the story becomes nothing more than an excuse to use new technology and increase visitation.

Something is stolen or goes wrong, a chase ensues, and all is well in an exciting confundle of an ending.  Granted, sometimes there are original applications where pure imagination is the heart of the story, such as Peter Gabriel’s Mindbender (directed by Brett Leonard) and Midland Productions’ Funhouse Express.   In the mid-1990’s, filmed attraction veterans Charlotte Huggins and Ray Spencer came up with the following formula, which is still followed to this day:  The genre is split into six plot categories: 1) Rollercoaster/Track, 2) Flying, 3) Underwater, 4) Racetrack/One Plane, 5) Object/Person point-of-view and 6) Dark Ride. Within those plots, the following devices are most common: A) Sister Ship, B) Molecular Shrink, C) Time Machine, D) Crisis Landing, E) Something’s Wrong With Our Ship, F) Save the Planet, G) Oops! Wrong direction, H) Time Clock, I) Encounter an Evil Creature, J) Camera point-and-shoot and K) On-camera “host.”*  So…using the formula, Back to the Future: the Ride comes across as 2ACDEFGHIK.

Beyond that, key plot points are simply only given a new varnish when integrated into newer attractions.  The stolen allspark on Transformers is no different than the stolen Statue of Liberty on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man (does anyone even remember this is about the stolen Statue of Liberty, a fact that became even more confusing after that portion of the preshow was excised post-9/11?), the stolen DeLorean time machine on Back to the Future: The Ride, the stolen pickle on Spongebob Squarepants, or even the wickedly attractive kidnapped archeologist on Doug Trumbull’s Search for the Obelisk.  Likewise, having a rebel spy on board your starcruiser is the same as having an ancestor of Jean Luc Picard pushed forward in time to board the Enterprise.  It’s nothing more than a plot tool.

At Resorts World Sentosa, Super 78 Studios took a much different approach when creating Typhoon 360, the third VES attraction nominee, for the Maritime Experiential Museum and Aquarium.  The show links a maritime museum on the top floor with an aquarium below.  The technology and techniques are nothing new.  In-theater experiential effects (or 4D) have been in existence since before the days of motion pictures.  Expanding screens are a byproduct of such films as Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon and Merian Cooper’s 1952 This is Cinerama.  And integrating a descending floor as part of the show harkens to numerous world’s fair exhibits and Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

But in this case, unlike the other two attraction nominees for the VES Award, Typhoon uses the technology as a tool to tell the story.  In Transformers and Star Tours, a faux emotional connection is contrived through a combination of adrenaline and familiarity with storyline and characters.  On Typhoon, the emotional reaction is real.  It is a connection to the actual live actors on screen and their predicament, the ending of which segues into the aquarium portion of the building not as an introduction so much as a the culmination of a journey.

In order to maintain cohesiveness in themed environments, there is what I like to call the “bridge.”  A bridge can be as subtle as a shared roofline in two adjoining themed lands, or as complex as shared themes across multiple attractions.  At the Las Vegas Hilton, had the entrance to Star Trek: The Experience been built directly onto the main casino floor, the juxtaposition between the two adjacent areas would be difficult for the brain to accept.  Hilton, however, built the Space Quest casino as a bridge between the two, taking elements from both the casino on one end and the science fiction attraction on the other.

Typhoon 360 acts as a bridge between the maritime museum and the aquarium.  It tells a story linking two different exhibition areas and does it in such a well thematically designed manner so that one feels he or she has truly taken a journey from a seaport to the bottom of the ocean.

And when you shed tears, it’s a real emotion.

Bridge the gap in your knowledge and visit to learn more about Super 78 Studios’ projects.

*Special thanks to Judy Rubin for documenting the formula.


It’s very appropriate that Universal Orlando is reopening The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man this Thursday with a complete HD upgrade.  After all, this marks the 50th anniversary of the famed web-slinger’s first appearance.  But sadly, another anniversary is being overlooked.  On Jan. 2 of this year, Jaws at Universal Studios Florida ceased operation in order to make way for something new.  The attraction opened in 1990, but Jaws made its first Orlando appearance much earlier than that.  Thirty years ago this Summer, filming began on the third Jaws film – in 3D  – right down International Drive at SeaWorld.

So although we won’t have the Jaws ride at Universal Orlando to celebrate this milestone, we can celebrate it with another film about other carnivorous fish attacking an aquatic park – in this case, the waterslides of Wilmington, North Carolina’s Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park.

Which brings us to ThemedReality’s first Obscure Trivia Break, for as hard as it may seem, the Piranha franchise can just as easily link the SeaWorld and Universal theme park chains as Jaws can.  Here’s how:

  • The original Piranha (1978) was director Joe Dante’s third film.  In 2003, he directed a 4D film R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse for Busch Entertainment Corporation, which played at the two Busch Gardens parks and at SeaWorld parks in San Diego and San Antonio.
  • The sequel, Piranha Part II: The Spawning (1981) was James Cameron’s directorial debut.  It was a far cry from the work he did on Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time (1996)  for the Universal Studios theme parks.
  • In the reboot of the series, 2010’s Piranha 3D and this year’s Piranha 3DD, the character of Mr. Goodman is portrayed by none other than Christopher Lloyd, who starred in both SeaWorld’s Haunted Lighthouse, as Cap’n Jack, and as “Doc” Emmett Brown in Universal’s Back to the Future: The Ride (1991) and its replacement The Simpsons Ride (2008).

There are plenty of other theme park connections, ranging from film tie-ins to Cameron at News Corporation parks in Australia and Mexico, Everland in South Korea, and Disney parks worldwide, David Hasselhoff’s legendary work for Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and Elisabeth Shue’s performance in that Leonard Nimoy-directed thrill ride at EPCOT.

But I don’t really want to talk about all those.  I guess when it comes down it, we can all learn something from Universal and SeaWorld.  Don’t dismiss B-movies.  After all, there might just be some good theme park talent in there.  I mean, I recall a really horrible Korean-American film from 1985 called LA Streetfighters (later renamed Ninja Turf)…

la_streetfighters_poster_01…and one of the actors from that film went on to host the Thea Awards.


Twenty-five years ago this year, I interned in the Aviculture department at SeaWorld San Diego.  For those not in the know – it means I took care of birds.  And that includes penguins.  Now back in that day, the park was owned by book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  It had just undergone a major expansion, doubling its size with a new entrance, the world’s largest captive orca tank, and a huge larger-than-life map of the United States.  But for me, the best attraction was the Commerson’s dolpins, freshly arrived from the Strait of Magellan.

To see these beautiful four-foot long creatures, you would enter the old mermaid show building and watch a slideshow about the dolphins, their capture, and how all cetaceans descended from land-bound cows.  Then the screen and would rise and you would watch them swim.  Fast.  In circles.  Over and over again.  Until you got bored.  Or you could go in a different auditorium just to view them if you wanted to avoid the slide show altogether.

SeaWorld at that time followed traditional zoo and aquarium principles, with the central attraction being the animal exhibits with audio-visual presentations providing optional background information.  Once SeaWorld was purchased by Busch Entertainment, things began to change.

First, there was a thematic integration with animals and thrill rides.  At SeaWorld Orlando, Commerson’s dolphins were integrated into the Journey to Atlantis attraction and later into the Dolphin’s Plunge waterslide complex at the Aquatica waterpark.  Likewise, rays were integrated into the queue for the Manta coasters and the Stingray Falls attraction at Aquatica’s San Antonio location, opening this Summer.

At the same time, animal attractions began taking on the theme of a human expedition to remote regions.  This includes such projects as Wild Arctic, with its helicopter flight motion simulator followed by a walkthrough of animal enclosures disguised as an Arctic research base, and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Rhino Rally, a cross-country rally/safari experience containing both encounters with live animals and thrill ride components.

Starting last year, the parks began taking a different approach with animal interpretation.  Instead of human exploration to where the animals live, the new adventures places humans into the lives of animals themselves.  It began with Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.  A combination animal exhibit and ride, the rollercoaster portion of the attraction, designed by Intamin, takes its cue from the cheetah itself.  Although it contains a number of traditional coaster elements, such as scaling a tower and an inversion, the ride features 3 LSM launches and tight curves that mimic the way a cheetah hunts in the wild.  Sea World San Diego’s Manta, a Mack ride, will take a similar approach with multiple launches and twists, attempting to mimic the motion of the wild manta ray.

At Sea World Orlando, a pavilion dedicated to manatee rescue has been redesigned into TurtleTrek.  Inside, a 360 degree dome will envelope audience members in the life story of a sea turtle in a wraparound 3D experience.  34 Christie 4K projectors will be combined to create a seamless image in this latest project from Kraftwerk, a followup to their Bubble Theatre at Macau’s City of Dreams (showing Dragon’s Treasure).

When I was young and interning at Sea World, guests would take a moving walkway past a recreated Antarctic environment and see penguins swimming and rooking and moving about.  After, they could backtrack to a viewing platform and watch videos about the birds’ exciting lives.  Occasionally, we keepers would come onto the ice and kids would be happy to see the birds run around us begging for food.  There were always two rules – never look at the glass and make eye contact with the guests, and always wear a jacket to give the illusion of a freezing environment (even if it was actually 59 degrees inside).

SeaWorld Orlando is demolishing their Penguin Encounter.  In its place will rise Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.  It’s central feature will be a ride where guests will “experience the mystery and wonder of life on the ice through the eyes of a penguin, sensing the beauty and drama of their sometimes-dangerous habitat. Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin combines closer-then-ever animal connections with state-of-the-art interactive ride technologies for adventures that are different each time.”

A human in a jacket replaced by an animal spirit guide.

To learn more about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, visit


Recently, Martin Palicki, publisher of InPark Magazine, and I sat down with podcaster Doug Barnes and Super 78’s Brent Young to record an episode of the Season Pass Podcast.  The discussion was rife with talk of many conspiracies evolving within the themed attraction industry, although the case of “Peter Penguin and the Vanishing Communist Ballerina” never made it to the table.   Perhaps another day.

You can listen in on all the mayhem by downloading at Season Pass Podcast’s webpage or by downloading the epiosde from the iTunes Store.  Remember, it’s episode 192, just like that famous highway that links t-shirt shops in Kissimmee with t-shirt shops in Melbourne Beach.

Learn to love the Season Pass Podcast at their website.  You only have until Dec. 21.