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I recently finished a book called Beneath the Surface.  When I was done, I was certain that Michael Phelps deserved every single of one of his Olympic medals, no matter how under the influence of pot he was at the time.  Then I came across another book, also called Beneath the Surface. This one is the new memoir and anti-captivity diatribe by former SeaWorld San Antonio killer whale trainer John Hargrove.  It was interesting to say the least and certainly not what I expected.  And that’s my official review.

I’m not going to discuss the controversial practices that Mr. Hargrove alleges SeaWorld conducts. Those that have read my coverage of the film Blackfish know that I tend to shy away from such matters, referring the reader instead to the hundreds of websites that portend to offer an answer on the subject one way or another.  Rather, I’m going to look at the aspect of the book just about everyone seems to have overlooked as they concentrated on food deprivation, trainer deaths, and mother/calf separation – the fact that John Hargrove has a horrible memory and is piss-ass poor when it comes to dates.

Many of Hargrove’s errors rest in his memories of that first trip to Orlando in 1980, at the age of six. In the book, he tells us:

Summer vacation for me always meant a road trip with my parents. And in 1980, my mother and my stepfather decided we’d all go to Orlando.  We couldn’t afford to fly so we drove the nearly 900 miles from our home among the bayous of east Texas to the theme park capital of America. The contrast was dramatic: Orange, Texas was a monotonous, flat swampland while Orlando was punctuated with architectural extravagance, from Cinderella’s castle in Walt Disney World to the adamantine giant golf ball of EPCOT Center.  And then there was SeaWorld.

The adamantine giant golf ball of Epcot Center, Spaceship Earth, in summer 1980.  The park opened October 1, 1982.

The adamantine giant golf ball of Epcot Center, Spaceship Earth, in summer 1980. The park opened October 1, 1982.

Hargrove continues:

We joined the crowds headed into Shamu Stadium.  The coliseum for killer whales was already the largest animal performance space in the marine park, far bigger than the theaters built for the dolphins or the sea lions and otters.

SeaWorld Orlando's first Shamu Stadium.  Construction completed 1984, fully operational 1985.

SeaWorld Orlando’s first Shamu Stadium. Construction completed 1984, fully operational 1985.

Kotar performing with

Kotar performing with “friends” in the Whale and Dolphin stadium. Killer whales and dolphins performed together in the single stadium through 1985, when Shamu Stadium opened on the opposite side of the park.

Kotar at Sea World of Florida's Whale and Dolphin stadium

Kotar at Sea World of Florida’s Whale and Dolphin stadium

Map of Sea World of Florida, 1980.  This would have been the park as encountered by a six year old John Hargrove on his first visit.  Note no Shamu Stadium to be seen during that visit as described in

Map of Sea World of Florida, 1980. This would have been the park as encountered by a six year old John Hargrove on his first visit. Note no Shamu Stadium to be seen during that visit as described in “Beneath the Surface.”

So how is it that an author that goes into excruciating detail on the history of the marine mammal display industry could get this simple fact wrong about Shamu Stadium?  There are two possibilities at play here.

First, based on the fact that the writing the writing style in the section about killer whale captures differs greatly from the remainder of the book and matches word for word similar descriptors in recent lawsuits filed against SeaWorld (this is not the first time wording has been reused. Both the Washington state House and Senate anti-cetacean captivity bills are verbatim duplicates of California’s AB-2140 killer whale bill), it appears to have been written by a third party.

Second, Hargrove has never been a SeaWorld fan.  A true die hard SeaWorld fan would know that for close to fifteen years, the killer whales and dolphins performed together in a single tank and that there was no dedicated killer whale stadium until 1985.  Hargrove’s colleagues John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre are aware of this, writing in a recent paper titled “Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival,” which was published in the April 20, 2015 issue of Marine Mammal Science:

In 1985 an enlarged pool (completed in 1984) marked the beginning of improved captive killer whale breeding by enabling adequate nursing behavior between a mother and captive-born calf.

For Hargrove, there was no true dedication to the company nor to its philosophy.  He was like a Jungle Cruise fanatic who couldn’t care less about the rest of the Disney empire.  The parks were nothing more than a way to a means for fulfilling his addictive dream of swimming and performing with killer whales.

To counter Hargrove’s book, SeaWorld released a five year old cell phone video of a very intoxicated Hargrove wearing a SeaWorld shirt stating racial epithets about African-Americans.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on the video by a number of people.  I lived in Texas for close to a decade, a couple of hours from where Hargrove grew up.  I give everyone the same response: “It’s a drunk white Texan saying what drunk white Texans say.”   People who have not lived in East Texas often find it hard to recognize that racism is embedded in the local culture – especially in the small towns.  Hargrove appears to agree, writing:

The one real thing that always got people excited was the football rivalry between the two local high schools: Little Cypress Mauriceville versus West Orange Stark.  My cousin Tracy remembers my trailing along to all her pep rallies.  The underlying ugliness was that Little Cypress was the white school and West Orange was the predominantly black one.  In my town, in the 1980’s, the races still lived apart, coming together only to clash via football – with all the combined awfulness of sports fanaticism and bigotry.  Orange, however, had nothing on the notoriety of the city of Vidor, just about 20 miles away.  The Ku Klux Klan marched there well into the 1980’s; and when black families moved into public housing in Vidor during that decade, they were greeted with burning crosses. [Blogger’s note: the cross burnings continued through August 1993, the month before Hargrove’s swim test at SeaWorld.  The Klan would be represented in court by an African-American attorney appointed by the ACLU – big news in Texas]

For a book whose secondary theme is persecution of the author as a gay man, I’m surprised that the issues of rascism, homophobia, and sexism were not addressed more in the text.

Is John Hargrove a racist?  Yes.  Becoming an animal rights advocate or surrounding yourself with decent people does not remove racism.  That requires a life altering experience, often with someone you would typically have racist leanings against.  Hargrove has yet to experience that.  Until then, a part of him will retain the racism that is built into his hometown’s DNA.

Even though they might not be racists, every one of the SeaWorld trainers that was present when that video was filmed is complacent in racism for doing and saying nothing.

And the theme park industry itself has a racist history.  It was not until 15 years ago, when Terry Prather, now one of SeaWorld’s highest ranking executives, took the reigns at Jazzland park in New Orleans, that an African-American was given the title of “General Manager” of a major US theme park.

Much has been made about the lack of black trainers at SeaWorld and other marine life parks.  Part of this is an aesthetic that goes back to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when theme parks catered primarily to white audiences.

However, a recent five year study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that African-American children were five times at risk of drowning as their white counterparts, up from three times in the prior five year study.  According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children lack the ability to swim, compared to 40 percent of caucasians.  The reason: racism.

I’ve been asked why I don’t like John Hargrove and the truth is I do like John.  But I don’t like the John I’ve seen since just before the book came out.  Watch John in this interview, then listen to his presentation to the Commonwealth Club.  Everything he says, word for word, in these two recordings and in hundreds of other audio and print interviews, is exactly the same.  It’s canned.  He’s become like a killer whale repeating the same tricks over and over for his handlers.

I miss the John Hargrove that I performed dolphin necropsies with in 1993.  And I miss the John Hargrove I spoke with extensively before he testified at the AB-2140 hearing.  I miss the John Hargrove that was free to speak his mind.  This isn’t him.  This is an automaton.

And yes, he is a racist automaton, but thank goodness he’s not a pedophile.

There are reasons why parks such as LEGOLAND restrict adults from entering if not accompanied by minors.

In 2011, a Kentucky man named Ronald Thompson was arrested at SeaWorld San Antonio’s waterpark for taking indecent photos.  Prosecutors discovered more than 70 photos on his camera – all closeups of the breast and buttocks areas of young children.  Thompson was charged under Texas’s new “improper photography” law and the ruling by a Texas Appellate Court in September 2014 not only set him free, but struck down the law as a violation of First Amendment rights.

So, in Texas, you might be served fries by a Klan member in your local McDonalds, and that man taking photos up your skirt at the mall or getting too close to your children with his camera in order to later gratify himself, has every Constitutional right to express himself in such a manner under the law.

Welcome to the Lone Star State – racists and pedophiles to the front of the line.


10370377_10152480888589026_7468982667913589742_n (1)One of the biggest news stories to come out of the Thea Awards ceremony in Anaheim actually came out of New York. Family members of some of the firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center were up in arms that the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum was receiving an award from the Themed Entertainment Association.  You read that right – Entertainment.  And this award for entertainment design was being handed out at, of all places, Disneyland!  How on earth, these folks argued, could a solemn memorial on hallowed ground be awarded for entertainment unless it’s actually a big amusement entertainment attraction and not a serious memorial and museum?

10253984_10152480888669026_3385461179014578598_n (1)It’s important to note that the folks complaining were either detractors or on the fence about the museum to begin with.  When people are passionate about their cause, they often overlook the obvious, either because they don’t know to look or they don’t care to.

In the past, the TEA has recognized the places that honor America’s servicemen, who protect our freedoms, with its Thea Award – the National WWII Museum, and the museums of the Marine Corps and the Army Infantry.  It has celebrated patriotism with awards to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the National Constitution Center.  It has memorialized another great tragedy by awarding three different exhibits on the Titanic.  And most importantly, just out of site beyond the blinders worn by these family members of lost fire fighters, is the Thea Award handed to FDNY Fire Zone in 2002.  All of the proceeds from the Fire Zone and its store go to the FDNY Foundation, and some of those funds go to leadership and professional development education for the city’s fire fighters utilizing lessons and strategies developed in the wake of 9/11.  Other funds go to counseling programs for fire fighters and their families.

Fire-Zone1200x800Is the term “themed entertainment” archaic?  I could argue that just about everything is themed to one degree or another these days.  And, especially in a museum, it’s important to install some facet of entertainment into exhibit design to maintain engagement, be it through interactivity or catchy graphics, when most visitors are now connected online through a portable device.  Perhaps it’s time to drop “entertainment” from the TEA name.  With new technologies and out-of-the-box approaches to projects, the industry has entered a phase of experiential design.  It’s no longer enough to have a designed exterior and a designed interior.  Everything now is encompassing and emotionally engaging.  Perhaps “Themed Experience Association?”   You can contact my trademark attorneys.

It’s important to remember that the artistic skills in a number of fields that began in entertainment migrated to the design of educational institutions.  The same people the apply their skill sets to one apply them to the other.  If it were not for the inclusion of these skills garnered in the entertainment industry, the 9/11 museum would use antiquated display methods and look like something out of the 1950’s.  Entertainment design has transformed museums into institutions that engage their visitors through the senses and create an emotional link between the museum’s message and the visitor.  Passivity is a thing of the past.

Some of the family members brought up the fact that Harry Potter attractions were awarded along with the museum.  It’s important to note that many of the same design firms that worked on those Harry Potter attractions also offered their services to the 9/11 Museum.  And yes, the event took place at Disneyland.  With “it’s a small world” receiving an award as a classic attraction, and everyone knowing where the Disneyland hotel is, it’s much easier than having to give them travel instructions to Stavanger, Norway (look for the tractor with the human eyes – he received a Thea too).

10391044_10152433725279356_1940791356860502329_n (1)

The newly trademarked logo for SeaWorld's Orlando resort

The newly trademarked logo for SeaWorld’s Orlando resort, obtained legally through eighteen lawsuits and a 7-2 ruling in the US Supreme Court

Based on new CEO Joel Manby’s experience at Herschend Family Entertainment, here are a few of the things we’re likely to see happening over the next five years at SeaWorld:

  • An increased emphasis on education, especially interpretive signage.
  • More artisan craftspeople in the parks to feed into the targeted family demographic.
  • Non-theme park standalone attractions.  SeaWorld has already attempted this with its bids for the river tour in downtown San Antonio and the giant wheel in San Diego.  Manby has a successful track record in this market segment.
  • Management contracts over non-SeaWorld owned theme parks, private zoos, and aquariums.
  • The purchase of one or more hotels surrounding the Orlando park and their complete refurbishment and rethemeing, transitioning the Orlando operations from utilizing partner hotels to becoming a fully integrated resort along the lines of Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World, and LEGOLAND Florida.
  • A fourth theme park in Orlando, likely the size of Aquatica or Discovery Cove, to feed into that integrated resort.  Although the type of park is unknown, it would likely carry over the oceans or sea theme of the other three parks and the hotel(s).

showleonmarino120 (2)The reality of it all is that he was framed by the dolphins, but the deed itself was carried out by the park’s sea lions, who in the end wound up with the girl.  It’s true.  I read this in social media.

On the morning of March 3, Jose Luis Barbero Hernandez kissed his wife goodbye, stepped into his Peugeot, and drove from his home in the town of El Toro on the Spanish island of Mallorca to a meeting at which he never arrived.  Out of concern that he had reported death threats following the release of an accusational video on YouTube and to the media, The Spanish National Police and Civil Defense mounted a search for Barbero, head animal trainer at Marineland Mallorca, utilizing helicopters, boats and foot power around and throughout the island.  Four days later, Barbero’s body was found inside his car in a parking garage at the Palma Airport.

According to Barbero’s complaint with Spanish authorities, the picture and sound of the video, which allegedly shows he and other Marineland trainers punching and kicking dolphins during off season training sessions and using abusive and threatening language towards the animals, “had been maliciously tampered with, leading to a result that does not correspond to reality.”

I’ve reviewed the video in question.  It is extremely grainy in nature and contains a number of rough cuts.  It is fairly impossible, as Marineland’s investigators determined, to tell who’s in the video.  The verbal reprimands allegedly made by the trainers carry across edits between scenes, so as to make it difficult to tell which point of action they belong to.  Frame rate in the video has been sped up.  When viewed at a lower frame rate, due to the graininess of the image, it becomes difficult to tell if actual punches and kicks are taking place, as suggested when viewing the faster frame rate, or if the trainers are utilizing conventional and accepted hand and foot commands.  My assessment is based on my 20 years experience working with IMAX and other cinema technologies, combined with extensive authorship on those technologies, frame rates, and image resolution.

A second video, at higher resolution was released, but suffers from the same issues – not enough resolution to discern the individual trainers’ faces, sped up frame rate, and the inability to tell if the abusive dialogue, which in this new video has migrated to a different scene, is authentic or has been overdubbed.  The one thing I was been able to confirm, by comparing the tank configuration and background elements with overhead satellite photography, park maps, and visitor videos of shows at each Western European dolphinarium, is that the video indeed was shot at Marineland Mallorca from two different angles – one a residence adjacent to the park and the second from what appears to be within the dolphin stadium itself.

The video was posted by SOS Delfines, a project of la Fundación Asesoramiento y Acción en Defensa de los Animales, or FAADA, one of Spain’s largest animal rights groups.  SOS Delfines has stated that it targeted Marineland Mallorca by making the video public out of concern for the dolphins’ welfare. However, timing suggests that the target may be much bigger.


Marineland Mallorca is one of sixty parks and attractions operated by Madrid-based Aspro Parks.  The company’s portfolio includes aquariums, theme parks, waterparks, a zoo, and five dolphinariums throughout Western Europe.  Most recently, Aspro added the Aquarium Harderwijk in the Netherlands, completing its purchase in January from Compagnies des Alpes.  Aspro will soon announce a new director for Harderwijk, as its current director, Marten Foppen, is leaving in April to run the Spoorwegmuseum (winner of a 2014 Thea Award for De Vuurproef).

Aspro is part of a partnership vying for the management contract of L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, Europe’s largest combination aquarium and dolphinarium.  With Parques Reunidos opting not to continue its contract (with suits and countersuits taking place between it and the city of Valencia over moneys owed), three major contendors are vying for the job.  First is Rain Forest, whose Spanish zoo Bioparc is considered a pioneer of exhibit design, partnered with Italian aquarium operator Costa Edutainment.  Aguas de Valencia, which started out as the local water company and is now operating internationally, is partnering with KET, the company that constructed and first operated L’Oceanografic, and the Vancouver Aquarium.  Finally, Aspro is partnering with live event operator Mundosenti2.  The winning bid will be announced either later this month or early April.


Timing is everything when running a targeted campaign.  PETA, one of SeaWorld’s most vocal detractors, has mastered this art.  On February 22, 2013, as a nine year old girl was being bitten on the wrist by a SeaWorld San Antonio dolphin, 100 PETA organized protesters were picketing outside the entrance to the Orlando park, and a PETA employee in Washington, DC stood up and heckled SeaWorld speakers at a travel industry show.  All this made its way into a single article on the PETA website seven days later, along with notice of a USDA citation against SeaWorld Orlando for two violations of the Animal Welfare Act (one of which was resolved while the inspector was still on premises.  By comparison, the San Diego Zoo was cited for 13 violations during the same general inspection period, a fact PETA has never mentioned).

In a similar way, in 2012, PETA acquired freshly shot footage of a dolphin that had fallen out of its tank at a SeaWorld park, allegedly shot by either a PETA volunteer or a SeaWorld employee.  The advocacy group held onto the video for almost a year, finally releasing it nine days after a YouTube video of a newly rescued pilot whale stuck on a tank slideout in Orlando went viral, taking advantage of the attention the other video was receiving.

Approximately half of the SOS Delfines video bears a time stamp of March 2014, yet it wasn’t made public until its posting on YouTube on February 4, 2015.  Five days earlier had been Barbero’s final day as an employee of Marineland Mallorca. After more than 30 years at various Aspro parks, he was headed to Atlanta to become the Vice President of Training at the Georgia Aquarium, an institution at which he had provided consultation services for the prior eight years.

The video and then death of Barbero could not have come at a worse time for the Aquarium’s training department, just coming off a sexual harassment lawsuit in Federal court, settled out of court this past December.  It’s another issue, however, that has made the Aquarium a focal point of the anti-captivity movement.

On June 15, 2012, Georgia Aquarium filed a permit request with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which overseas provisions of the Marine Mammal Act, to import eighteen beluga whales caught in the wilds of Russia under the authorization of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  The majority of the whales would be dispersed on breeding loan to the three SeaWorld parks, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, and Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium (which has since left the partnership).  This would mark the first time a whale or dolphin would be intentionally caught in the wild for public display in the United States in close to thirty years.

NOAA denied the permit request, primarily based on three criteria:

“We were unable to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock.  We believe that it is likely that total removals from this stock have exceeded the total net production on an annual basis resulting in a small, but steady and significant decline over the past 2 decades.  We believe the ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions.

“We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.  There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock.

“We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.”

On Sept 30, 2013, Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint in Federal court to overturn the denied permit request.  On January 14, 2015, it filed for the case to be dismissed under summary judgement, stating that NOAA’s decision had been erroneous based on both use of incorrect data and misinterpretation of accurate data.  On March 16, the government and a group of animal advocacy organizations acting as intervenor-defendants filed their responses to the Aquarium’s summary judgement motion and their own requests for summary judgement.

While belugas from the same Russian facility have made their way to the Polar Ocean World chain of parks and aquariums and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, both in China, the eighteen intended for the Georgia Aquarium have remained in a collection of small sea pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Black Sea, some since 2006, under a nonrefundable deposit.  If Georgia is not able to import these animals, they will likely be resold to other parties in Russia or Asia.


Since I first started writing professionally about the conflict between animal rights advocates and marine life parks in 2012, the social media arena has exploded as a canvas for discourse by both those in support and in objection to the parks.  Some of the conversations have remained civil while quite a few verge into hostile territory. There are over 1000 groups on Facebook discussing the marine mammal captivity issue and “tweetstorms” and trolls have become commonplace on twitter.

With thousands of impassioned individuals discussing the issue on social media, it’s quite easy for incorrect and untrue facts, along with unvetted claims, to be promulgated, either through misinterpretation or intentionally.  In essence, social media in the conflict over marine mammals acts much like a game of telephone – what comes out is not always what went in on the other end.

One of the more easily traceable examples of this is the 2013 declaration by India that whales and dolphins are non-human persons.  This was reported by such reputable mainstream news sources as Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) and the Houston Chronicle.  Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the anti-SeaWorld film Blackfish, mentioned the declaration during an interview on the film’s DVD.   Others, such as National Public Radio’s Robert Krulwich, noted that:

“‘Cetaceans [dolphins, whales and porpoises] in general are highly intelligent and sensitive,’ the Ministry said, ‘and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that [they have] unusually high intelligence … compared to other animals.’

“This means, the Indian ministry went on: ‘that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights.’ ‘Non-human persons’ — what a pregnant phrase! People-like, but not like people.”

Thus, there are two different interpretations on the matter.  The first states that the government of India declared cetaceans to be non-human persons.  The other, that the government declared they should be non-human persons.  The reality is that neither took place.  In its proclamation banning dolphinariums in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests stated:

“Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.”

The key phrasing in this paragraph – “various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights” – refers to the beliefs of “various scientists,” and was used solely as the basis for the dolphinarium ban, not as a separate declaration.  To date, the Ministry has not declared or suggested it be declared that dolphins be named as non-human persons and cetaceans do not have that legal standing in India.  However, the claim that they do still arises frequently within social media.

Within the marine mammal debate on social media, SeaWorld is one of the most common targets.  The majority of the claims lobbied toward its business practices often show either a disregard or a lack of knowledge of theme park operations.  One of the more visited crowd-sourced websites, The Dodo, whose majority owners include Discovery Channel and Animal Planet parent company Discovery Communications, recently released a video which it claims is “SeaWorld’s entire downfall explained in 1 minute.”  It features the release of the film Blackfish, student protests, the USDA violation at the Orlando park (which not only features the incorrect month in the video, but uses audio from the film Blackfish about conditions at a now closed Canadian park, which is dubbed over video unrelated to the USDA violations), and the termination of SeaWorld’s partnership with Southwest Airlines as factors leading to stock and revenue drops and the resignation of the company’s CEO Jim Atchison.

What the video doesn’t include is the 2014 competition that SeaWorld’s three most visited parks endured with new and newly redesigned attractions in their markets.  San Diego had to compete with heavily marketed attractions and events at Disneyland Resort, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Knott’s Berry Farm, along with a new waterpark at LEGOLAND California.  Both SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa suffered attendance losses with blockbuster attractions opening in Central Florida – New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.  Busch Gardens Tampa’s 2014 thrill ride, Falcon’s Fury, suffered technical difficulties and was out of commission the entire busy summer season, finally opening after schools had gone back into session.  Another drop in attendance resulted from the transition of Christmas Town at the two Busch Gardens parks from a separate hard ticket event, as has been done in the past, to an event included with daily park admission.

Another misleading claim in social media is that SeaWorld is planning international expansion due to pending state and federal legislation that would ban whale and dolphin captivity in the United States.  AB-2140, which InPark previously reported on, has been undergoing review and is expected to be reintroduced to a California Assembly committee in 2016.  Bills were recently introduced in the Washington State House and Senate to ban cetacean captivity, although it is a state that currently does not house any. The text of the two Washington bills are identical to the California bill, exchanging California’s orca for Washington’s cetacean.

SeaWorld’s primary business is as a theme park company.  It has developed the SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Discovery Cove, and Aquatica brands and has other park concepts that have been developed and may be implemented in other markets.  A large number of major theme park operators – Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Merlin, Parques Reunidos, Village Roadshow, USJ (parent company of Universal Studios Japan) – are undergoing major expansions into the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  SeaWorld is in a unique situation among theme park operators in that its two largest parks, San Diego and Orlando, operate both like regional theme parks and as international tourist destinations, drawing large attendance from Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe.  This has given the brand high recognition in international markets.  In addition to its multi-park complex in Dubai, with the first park scheduled to open in time for Dubai’s EXPO 2020, SeaWorld executives have completed location scout visits with Village Roadshow in China, Malaysia, and South Korea.  Under the completed terms of cooperation, the new SeaWorld IP parks will be operated by Village Roadshow.

The conspiratorial nature of social media sometimes stretches to what would otherwise be respected organizations.  On March 14, a group of protesters interrupted a presentation by a former SeaWorld trainer now critical of the park at Whalefest, a large annual conference which, among other things, advocates the ending of cetacean captivity.  In response, Whalefest issued a series of tweets alleging that the protesters had been paid and placed within the meeting hall by SeaWorld.

Accusations are lobbed both ways in the realm of social media.  Many SeaWorld supporters group all park protesters together under the overriding title of PETA.  I speak often with a number of protesters and anti-captivity advocates who not only have told me that they are not associated with PETA, but that they also do not support the animal rights organization.  As one said, “Most of what PETA does actually makes our efforts look bad, but because they’re so big and vocal, we have to work with them on a lot of things.”

One of PETA’s most recent efforts to undermine SeaWorld, which will be paying them $28.35 this quarter in dividends for PETA’s 135 shares of SeaWorld stock, involves SeaWorld’s efforts to rescue emaciated sea lion pups on the Southern California coast.  This year to date, SeaWorld San Diego has rescued over 400 pups, placing its sea lion show on hiatus to free up trainers to help with the rescue effort and sending additional staff specialized in sea lion care from its San Antonio park.  Other marine mammal rescue centers in Southern California have reached capacity and have sent overflow to San Diego.  According to Federal regulations, SeaWorld is the only marine mammal rescue organization allowed to work within San Diego County.

On March 12, PETA attempted to not only undermine SeaWorld’s efforts, but placed extra stress on other already overwhelmed rescue organizations, by posting the following comment on its Facebook page:

“Please contact your local Marine Mammal Stranding Center here:

 or PETA at . . . .“. . . .The animals released by SeaWorld are most often manatees, sea turtles, and other animals who cannot be used as ‘performers’ in their shows. Dolphins, whales and sea lions rescued by SeaWorld who can be forced to perform tricks for food are kept and used as performers.”


Both Marineland Mallorca and Georgia Aquarium officials had the SOS Delfines video investigated and were not able to find anything conclusive.  Shortly after Barbero’s death, Georgia Aquarium CEO Mike Levin released a statement that in part said:

“. . . . After allegations were levied against him, we took the situation very seriously. Georgia Aquarium began a search for truth in hopes of disproving these unsubstantiated claims. Sadly, he and his family received death threats, and groups and individuals rushed to judge him. He was not given the right or the privilege to be considered innocent until proven guilty, a principle I hold dear. His death is untimely, unnecessary and unjust.

“We were not given the chance to thoughtfully and thoroughly review the allegations against him before activists, consultants and some in our own community tortured him with enough hatred to cause him to allegedly take his own life. I hope the death of Jose Luis Barbero teaches those who were quick to condemn him a lesson about being hasty to charge and indict.”

Barbero‘s attorney, Mateo Cañellas, has stated that he will be moving forward with pursuing defamation charges against animal rights activists, groups, and media outlets that exhibited the video and declared it to be in fact Barbero abusing the dolphins without first ascertaining its authenticity.

Cañellas also stated that the prosecution (slander is a criminal matter in Spain and prosecuted by the State) could automatically charge individuals who publicly cheered for Barbero‘s death in social or other media, citing precedence in other Spanish cases.

The morning of her husband’s death, Barbero’s wife posted a thought from a family friend on her Facebook page:

“My friend Jose Luis Barbero Hernandez was found dead in his car. A month ago, SOS-Dolphins FAADA disseminated a video in which he was wrongly accused of mistreating Marineland’s dolphins.

“The lynching that was submitted truncated his brilliant career and the helplessness that he has suffered has led him allegedly to a suicide. Now I still have to read the comments and posts of these ‘self-styled’ animal activists who are pleased with his death. They express their joy, but I’m already blocking them.  On my wall and in my life, the undesirable do not fit.”

If I were him, I’d make it a priority to block the dolphins and the sea lions, the real culprits behind it all.  Like I said, it’s there in black and white in social media.

(L to R) Martin Palicki, myself, Judith Rubin

(L to R) Martin Palicki, myself, Judith Rubin

I’ve known Judith Rubin since the mid-90’s.  We’ve spoken often, she’s hired me to write for various publications throughout the years, and she’s been a mentor.  If you don’t know Judy, she’s a ghost.  You’ll be talking to her face and face and suddenly she’s no longer there, vanished like vapor.  It’s because she’s the ultimate multitasker, flowing with the wind to where she’s needed.  And then fourteen months later, you’re at Rosco’s in Oakland enjoying their famous chicken and waffles and in walks Judy.  Not because she was headed there to eat.  Because she’s everywhere all the time.  Because she knows.  And she picks up that conversation at the very spot she vaporized into the mist more than a year ago and a whole country away.

I have now worked for Marty Palicki for three years, but I have only met him in person once – a full five years before he hired me.  It was at the 2006 IAAPA Attractions Expo in Atlanta.  I walked up to him at the InPark booth and said, “My mentor, Judy Rubin, says I’m a pretty good writer.  Are you looking for writers?”  Marty replied, “I’ll let you write for me if you buy an ad.”  And I walked away.

A little disclosure here – I was at the trade show representing a TEA member.  And to be honest, it was likely not the best decision to turn down an ad, for I would have been able to write an original piece about my company’s projects and have a full color ad in a publication that not only sees print distribution, but my ad and article would have appeared online as well. As the magazine has grown over the past decade, it’s found its way to the floors of IAAPA, EAS, AAE, IMERSA, TEA, AAM, WWA, and my Cantor’s bird cage.  I gave him a copy and then found it was in there when I came over as a guest for supper.  He blamed his wife, but I quizzed him on the issue’s content and he did pretty good, so I know he read it.

In the Jewish tradition of Kabalah, we are taught that numbers have meaning.  The tenth anniversary is the combination of two identical numbers – 5 and 5.  55 – the number of the 10th Anniversary issue.  55 – the year that Disneyland opened and the industry breathed a new life.

GT.PT9.SL17.SO3 GT.PT9.SL17.SO1The booth at the IAAPA trade show is 1949.  This was the year of the Exposition Internationale du Bicentenaire de Port-au-Prince, which showcased an ideal to turn the Haitian city into a modern metropolis on the Caribbean.  And just like Port-au-Prince, sitting in an ocean of countless islands, Marty and Judy sit in a campground surrounded by innumerable booths.

IMG_3325 (1)So, if you’re Orlando visit Marty and Judy (maybe even Bob Rogers, you never know!) at the InPark booth, 1949.  If you’re looking at raindrop products, you need to move one aisle over.  If you’re not there, follow us online at  And if you’re dining in Rosco’s, expect Judy to suddenly show up and finish a conversation from a few years back.  It’s what she does.

One last thing.  I want to thank both Marty and Judy for including me in this endeavor.  My understanding of design and technology have grown significantly.  I know facets of the industry now that I never would have before.  They’ve encouraged me to pursue my own reports (such as the Asian Casino Report) and think differently when writing for different audiences.  And for this, I say thank you and adieu.

For it’s now time for me to post the news from IAAPA on the InPark website.

beluga-chariot-090412In 1861, eleven year old Sarah Putnam wrote in her diary about witnessing one of the first public shows featuring a trained beluga whale: “I went again to the Aquarial Gardens and there we saw the Whale being driven by a girl. She was in a boat and the Whale was fastened to the boat by a pair of rains [sic], and a collar, which was fastened round his neck. The men had to chase him before they could put on the collar.”

More than 160 years later, SeaWorld San Antonio’s show Azul features belugas dancing with high divers and synchronized swimmers.  In Orlando and San Diego, the beluga live in “the wild” next to a research base in the Wild Arctic. At Chimelong’s white whale stadium, a giant curved screen above a rocky set can portray everything from the night sky to a closeup of the performers.

img_6981Over time, different ways are sought to interpret the same subject.  When technology is needed, as at Chimelong, it supplements the way a technology savvy audience perceives the world, creating a connection between the subject and viewer.  Art, as in Azul, can achieve the same outcome.  And sometimes, what’s needed is an overall suspension of disbelief – an acceptance that we have actually traveled into the subject’s natural realm.  Technology, art, and story (or in a number of cases, backstory) when combined successfully, create an emotional connection between the show, exhibit, or attraction and the patron.  They become important tools in updating perception as societal mores change over time.  With advances in technology and increased debate over keeping animals in captivity for entertainment, children two generations from now might very well be experiencing the beluga through advanced robotics, interactive virtual reality, and gamification.

This week, leaders in the themed entertainment design field will be meeting at the Ringling Museum of Art and other campuses of Florida State University in Sarasota for the 2014 edition of SATE — Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience — to discuss the latest trends in these fields and their cross-integration in the successful development of new experiential activities and attractions.

So why did I start off with the Boston Aquarial Gardens in 1861?  Barnum, who had been involved with the business from its inception in the 1850’s due to a strange chain of events involving the bankruptcy of his American Museum in New York, had gained full ownership of the Aquarial Gardens by the time of Sarah Putnam’s visit.  The Gardens had begun a transition away from being a science oriented venue to a showman’s paradise.  Trained non-marine animals were brought into the building and heavily showcased.  Magicians performed shows.  And aboriginals from South America performed.  Just like a century later, native Americans would perform at Disneyland and after that Polynesians at a Cultural Center living history museum in Hawaii.  Just like local craftspeople showcase their skills at Silver Dollar City and Japanese artisans spin candy sculptures at Disney’s EPCOT.

Everything began with Barnum.  Dolphin Tales at the Georgia Aquarium owes as much to Barnum and that beluga swimming around the central pool as it does SeaWorld.

In 1875, Barnum financed P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome, which in 1882 merged with the Cooper and Bailey Circus to form Barnum & Bailey.  In 1907, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers, who continued to operate it separately from their own circus.  Eventually, in 1919, the two were merged into Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey.  In 1967, the Feld family purchased the circus.  And as Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Feld Entertainment, is headlining SATE, there’s one connection.

J2_caAnother is the grounds itself.  John Ringling, one of the five Ringling Brothers, began construction on his $1.5 million ($21 million by today’s standards adjusted for inflation) Sarasota mansion in 1924.  That mansion and its grounds eventually became the centerpiece of the Museum.  In 1927, John Ringling made Sarasota the winter home for his circus.  In 1948, a museum of circus artifacts was added, which is still a major feature of the museum.

J3 Day-2-Pt-2_045So who’s who at SATE?

Chairing the Storytelling segment of the SATE design conference, Oct 2-3 in Sarasota, FL, Phil Hettema of The Hettema Group announced speakers and sessions:

“A Conversation with Kenneth Feld,” in which Phil Hettema interviews the CEO of Feld Entertainment Inc., will headline the conference on Oct 2

Orchestrating Desire: Using Story to Create Compelling Experiences – Raul Fernandez of Brainwave ThoughtProducts

The New Crossroads of Storytelling, Design, and Personal Technology – Denise Chapman Weston of WhiteWater West

About the SATE ’14 Storytelling speakers

Denise Chapman Weston
Owner & Creator of Cool Inventions, Apptivations
Director of Imagination, Whitewater West
Denise Chapman Weston is a professional Playologist. Since the age of seven, she has been inventing magical experiences and bringing them to life. She co-wrote three books on play and has a career in creating interactive experiences and toys. Chapman co-owns over 45 patents on family attractions, toys, and technology. MagiQuest, a live adventure game is one of her “actual-reality” accomplishments. Slideboarding, a mash of Guitar Hero and waterpark slides is her most recent invention as a partner at Whitewater West. The Memory Machine is her first transmedia novel using digital devices to tell a story. She lives in Rhode Island with her three children and a home filled with imaginative steampunk characters of her creation.

Raul Fernandez
CEO, Brainwave ThoughtProducts, Inc.
Raul Fernandez has written, designed, or provided creative direction for interactive theme park attractions around the globe for over 20 years. Amongst his favorites are the Thea Award-honored Enchanted Tales with Belle and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold at DisneyQuest; Monsters Inc’s Laugh Floor, Stitch Encounter (both Paris and Hong Kong), Magic Words With Mickey (Magic Kingdom’s talking Mickey character greeting), and Turtle Talk with Crush (especially the one in Tokyo DisneySea). He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and an MFA from USC Cinema School.

Kenneth Feld
Chairman and CEO, Feld Entertainment Inc.
“Our only limits are our imaginations, and I want our audiences to reconnect to that part of them that makes each one of us unique and powerful,” says Kenneth Feld. Kenneth was a sophomore at Boston University when his father, entertainment impresario Irvin Feld, purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® in 1967 and celebrated that feat by staging a signing ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome. After earning his degree in business management in 1970, Kenneth began what he calls his “graduate education” by working side by side with his father in all facets of the company to learn the live entertainment industry. After Irvin passed away in 1984, Kenneth assumed the role of CEO, and Feld Entertainment has grown exponentially under his watch. Today Feld Entertainment is still a family-owned and operated company with performances appearing in more than 75 countries. Kenneth is the second generation of the family in the business and he has been joined by his three daughters, Nicole, Alana and Juliette, who represent the third generation of the family with the company.

Phil Hettema
President & Creative Executive, The Hettema Group
Phil Hettema has directed the design and production of numerous theme park rides and shows, cultural attractions and museum exhibits over 35+ years. The Hettema Group is known for attractions that maximize guest experience through innovative storytelling, compelling technology and a commitment to emotional resonance. Recent projects include The One World Observatory, currently under construction at the new World Trade Center in New York City, the High Roller observation wheel for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, “Dragons Wild Shooting” at Lotte World, South Korea and the USA pavilion at Yeosu Expo 2012. Previously, Hettema was Senior Vice President, Attraction Development for Universal Studios Theme Parks Worldwide for 14 years. He began his career as a designer at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Chairing the Architecture segment of TEA’s SATE conference, Oct 2-3 at FSU, Al Cross of PGAV Destinations announced sessions & speakers.

Emotion & Architecture
Architect, historian, theorist & philosopher Dr. Timothy Parker will discuss the myriad ways architects compel emotional response out of physical space.

Light & Feeling
Pioneers of lighting design Zack Zanolli (Fisher Marantz Stone) and Abbey Rosen Holmes (NYXdesign) lead a discussion on the psychological dynamic in moments and places shaped primarily by light.

The Psychology of Place
Panel discussion focused on the deeper societal and cultural meaning behind our structures. Speakers to include Jeff M. Sugar, RLA, ITEC Entertainment Corporation.

Meet the speakers

Timothy Parker
Assistant Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture and Art
School of Architecture and Art at Norwich University, Vermont
Dr. Parker’s primary area of specialty is the interpretation of modern religious architecture. He is co­-editor and contributor for the recently published Sanctioning Modernism:Architecture and the Making of Postwar Identities. Having received several substantial fellowships and awards, including the Carter Manny Award from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, he has presented his research broadly, from community settings to international professional conferences.

Zack Zanolli IES USA829 LEED AP
Associate Principal
Fisher Marantz Stone
Zack began as a theatrical lighting designer before joining the award winning architectural lighting design firm, Fisher Marantz Stone in 1984. In 1990 he became the Lighting Director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and was responsible for over two hundred exhibits over thirteen years. In 2003, Zack returned to FMS to apply his unique expertise to such projects as the Gettysburg Visitors Center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, and the 9/11 National Memorial and Museum in New York City.

Abigail Rosen Holmes
Abigail Rosen Holmes works internationally, creating lighting and video design for the concert touring, television, architecture and corporate events industries. Abigail has designed international concert tour lighting for many of the most iconic and critically acclaimed artists. Architectural projects include the High Roller Observation Wheel for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas. Abbey previously worked at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Jeff M. Sugar, RLA
Director of Planning
ITEC Entertainment Corporation
Jeff Sugar’s talent in crafting creative design solutions for unique projects has earned him a reputation for exceeding each client’s expectations. His ability to blend practical design ideas with complex, one-of-a-kind visions enables Jeff to consistently achieve high level results. Whether it is a traditional Landscape Architectural project, resort wide master planning or detailed area development design; Jeff uses his strong experience in project management skills to insure that all design details are fully realized throughout every phase of the project. Jeff holds a bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Florida’s College of Design, Construction and Planning.

Al Cross
Vice President, PGAV Destinations
Al Cross continues to create designs in a wide variety of building and project types. His work includes Chimelong’s Hengqin Ocean Kingdom near Macau, China as well as Thea award recipients Georgia Aquarium (2007) and Discovery Cove (2001). Al received his Master of Architecture in 1979 from Washington University in St. Louis before becoming a Licensed Architect in 1982. Al is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Themed Entertainment Association.

Chairing the Technology segment of TEA’s SATE conference, Oct 2-3 at Florida State University, Mk Haley of Walt Disney Imagineering and FSU announced sessions & speakers.

Tech me out to the Ballgame
Mark Francis will moderate a panel on technology and guest engagement in sports venues. Prof Francis teaches The Business of Sports at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and is a sports management consultant. Panelists will include Johnny Miller of BambooEngine, Matthew Chaka Bainbridge Esq. of Bainbridge Sports Management, Bill Walsh of the Tampa Bay Rays, Daren Dulac of Extreme Networks and Larry Blocker of Miami Marlins.

From Vegas to Theme Parks
Tommy Bridges of ATI, Stephan Villet of Smart Monkeys and Eric Cantrell of Medialon will address how newer AV and show control technologies seen in Las Vegas nightclubs and media installations can be applied to theme parks. Panel moderator: Martin Palicki of InPark Magazine.

Educational Models
Peter Weishar, Dean of the College of Visual Arts, Theatre & Dance at Florida State University (FSU) will lead a showcase of new themed entertainment curricula at FSU and other colleges. Speakers include Shirley Saldamarco of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), and James Oliverio of the Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida.

Prof. Mark Francis, MBA, MA
UCLA Anderson School of Management Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports (MEMES)
A life-long educator, sports enthusiast and high-performance coach, Mark is a specialist in the areas of Sports Management & Marketing with significant interests in Fan Experience & Engagement, Brand Management, Marketing, Business Development, Law and the exciting field of Social Media Marketing. In addition to his teaching role at UCLA he also serves as a Sports Marketing Consulant for BaAM Productions, a major player in sports experience design and project management.

Johnny Miller
Founder of
Bamboo is an audience engagement tool that helps teams drive both ticket and merchandise sales year round. Bamboo recruits, engages and rewards fans within a game environment for generating referrals. We leverage game mechanics combined with Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Google+ to keep people engaged- and when they refer their friends we reward them. Bamboo has developed successful marketing referral marketing programs for Nestle, FOX and Pepsi. Johnny produced for ABC Sports, NBC Sportsworld, ESPN, TBS Sports, BBC, Telemontecarlo and HBO, Olympics, America’s Cup, Monday Night Football, Superbowl, and MLB All-Star Games.

Matthew Chaka Bainbridge Esq.
President, Bainbridge Sports Management
In the sports industry for 10 years, mostly in contractual representation of Athletes; started in Cayman Islands, now based in Miami. Involved in all aspects of a client’s career: Financial Advisory, Real Estate, Social Media, Marketing, Brand Recognition, Legal work. Represented athletes in the X-games, Rugby, Lacrosse, Baseball, Ice Hockey, Cricket, Winter and Summer Olympic Games. Involved in negotiation of over $20 million in endorsements and appearances along with contracts, with such companies as Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Pizza Pizza, Porter Airlines. Director of BSM Charitable Organization with the mission of Changing Children’s Lives through sports and education. Director of BSM Conferences designed to assist graduates with job placements as well as current industry leaders to network and gain clients.

Bill Walsh
Senior Director of Business Development, Tampa Bay Rays
Bill has been with the Rays since 2007 and is involved in a number of strategic areas for the club, including capital project management, market analysis, revenue management, and technology investment. Key business development projects include leading the team’s digital and mobile strategy as well as deepening the club’s use of big data and analytics in decision making and modeling customer behavior. Prior to his work with the Rays, Bill served as Vice President of Real Estate Development for the New York City Economic Development Corporation during the Bloomberg administration, where he worked with developers and community groups on public private development projects totaling over $1 Billion in private investment.

Daren Dulac
Director Strategic Partnership Development – Sports & Entertainment Business
Extreme Networks
Extreme Networks is a leading manufacturer of High Density Wi-Fi products for Stadiums and Venues and developer of big data analytics software measuring WiFi usage patterns in public Venues. Daren’s focus is on developing strategies and partnerships around monetization of mobile digital assets through various platforms. His recent work has earned Extreme Networks the designation of Official WiFi Analytics Partner of the NFL. His other work includes key partnerships with the leading digital media rights owner in collegiate athletics and successful integration with a major carrier.

Larry Blocker
Sr. Director, Game Presentation & Events
Miami Marlins, L.P.
Larry Blocker has been working in sports marketing and more specifically in Game Presentation and Events for the past 20 years. Starting out at the University of Florida to the NBA’s Miami Heat, WNBA’s Miami Sol, American Airlines Arena to currently MLB’s Miami Marlins and the New Marlins Ballpark as well as many consulting jobs. Some of Larry’s career highlights are that he was in charge of all the game presentation for the 2006 Miami Heat’s championship run and producing all of the NBA Finals games, championship parade and championship banner raising and ring ceremony carried live on TNT. Larry was selected by the NBA numerous times to produce center court at Jam Session for NBA All Star weekend from running the East and West practice to live events on ESPN. As well as coordinating the game presentation for two FedEx Orange Bowl game and two FedEx Orange Bowl Basketball Classics. In addition, designing in every aspect the control room for New Marlins Park and was just awarded best Game Presentation at the SEAT conference in July 2014.

Tommy Bridges
Executive VP, All Things Integrated
Tommy Bridges is a 26-year veteran of the audio-visual and broadcast product industry who helped Alcorn McBride become a global powerhouse. Bridges has worked with Walt Disney Parks, Universal Studios, and many other theme parks, visitor attractions, and museums throughout the world. In 2012, he was elected to the International Board of the Themed Entertainment Association

Stephan Villet
Owner, Smart Monkeys Inc.
Stephan Villet is a leading expert in entertainment show control. His company, Smart Monkeys, is in the top tier due to his creativity and expertise in system design, and his extensive experience in major projects such as the Integrated Environmental Media System at the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX – recently open but already the recipient of multiple awards. In 2006, his work was the basis for the LDI symposium, “The Essence of Show Control.” He has presented at the SEGD conference, LDI master classes and DSE. In 2013, Villet produced and presented a seminar series, “Advanced show control concepts and designs,” in cities across the US and Europe.

Eric Cantrell
North America Sales Manager, Medialon 
Eric is a lighting, video, and show control designer/programmer with a background in theatre, specializing in interactive environmental controls for museums, themed attractions, and specialty venues. He has been with Medialon since 2008. Prior to that, he was projections operator for Wynn Las Vegas, and technical director for The Jordan Experience. He also freelances as a lighting designer on shows for various theaters in South Florida.

Martin Palicki
Editor-in-chief, InPark Magazine
Having worked in the theme park and entertainment industry throughout high school and college (Six Flags Great America, Walt Disney World, Adventureland, Rink Side Sports and Family Entertainment Center), Martin founded InPark Magazine in 2004. InPark grew to cover theme parks, waterparks, museums, world expos, specialty cinema, technology, design and more. InPark shares multiple perspectives: those of owners, operators, designers and vendors, as well as the guest experience.

Peter Weishar
Dean of College of Visual Arts, Theatre, and Dance
Florida State University
Peter Weishar comes to FSU from the Savannah College of Art and Design’s School of Film’s Digital Media and Performing Arts, where he served as Dean since 2004. Previously, he was a full-time professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts department of Film and Television and graduated from Union College with a B.A. with honors in Studio Art in 1983. On top of his career in academia, Weishar has published three books discussing computer art and animation. He is an innovator in video and media technology and has worked for creative firms and advertising agencies.

Shirley J. Saldamarco
Carnegie Mellon ETC
Shirley Saldamarco is an entrepreneur, a producer and an educator. She worked in theatre at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, produced national programming at WQED-TV and, as President of Interactive Media Productions, produced a variety of broadcast and non-broadcast programming. She provides consulting services and serves on several professional boards, including the Themed Entertainment Association International Board of Directors, TEA NextGen Committee, Steeltown Film Factory, LEGO First Competitions, National Civil War Museum and Robot Hall of Fame. Shirley has been a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon since 1990, teaching in Drama, the Heinz School and the Entertainment Technology Center.

James C. Oliverio
Executive Director, Digital Worlds InstituteUniversity of Florida
James Oliverio is internationally known as a creative artist, researcher, educator and producer, and is a frequent keynote speaker and consultant to digital media, industry and education programs. He has served as Executive Director of the Digital Worlds Institute at the University of Florida since January 2001, with full professorships in Digital Arts & Sciences and in Music.

Mk Haley
Walt Disney Imagineering,
and Entrepreneur in Residence with Florida State University
Mk Haley is currently a Creative Program Manager with Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), having enjoyed roles across creative, technical, and operational teams since 1994 with Disney. Primarily serving WDI, Mk has also worked with Disney Corporate on company-wide collaboration initiatives, as well as emerging technologies for Television experiences with the Digital Media Teams. Mk is also faculty and the Entrepreneur in Residence for the College of Visual Arts, Theater and Dance at Florida State University in a unique partnership to bridge industry and academia in Themed Entertainment.

Chairing the Experience segment of the SATE design conference, Oct 2-3 in Sarasota, FL, Adam Bezark of The Bezark Company announced speakers and session topics:
“Legends of Frontierland” features Cory Rouse of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI)
Joe Garlington, recently retired from WDI, will address “Interactive Experiences”
“Designing Cultural Attractions” is with James Anderson and Matt Dawson of Forrec Ltd.

Cory Rouse, Creative Director
Walt Disney Imagineering, Research and Development
Cory Rouse serves as Creative Director for performance driven projects at Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development. He most recently led the Legends of Frontierland: Gold Rush interactive game at the Disneyland Resort. Cory has been with WDI since 2007, and along with leading narrative experiences, has been integral to the Autonomatronics division developing new and exciting ways for Disney Parks guests to meet and interact with their favorite characters. Prior to joining WDI, Cory helped launch the G4TV television network. Cory is an accomplished improv performer, a Saturn Award winner and has contributed to Thea-awarded projects. He is a member of AGVA, the Screen Actor’s Guild and the American Federation of Musicians and performs bluegrass with The Dustbowl Cavaliers.

Joe Garlington
VP, Walt Disney Imagineering Interactive Studio (Retired)
At WDI, Joe Garlington was creative lead for interactive projects. He also led visioning for Epcot and partnered with WDI R&D. Projects include: Test Track 2.0 at Epcot; Kid’s Clubs, Interactive Dinner Theater, Disney cruise ships; Turtle Talk with Crush; The Sum of All Thrills; Enchanted Tales with Belle; Toy Story Midway Mania games; Monsters Inc, Laugh Floor; Stitch Encounter; and DisneyQuest. Garlington was a co-founder of Art & Technology, Inc., a pioneering effects company whose clients included the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, San Diego Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, Bush Gardens, Six Flags, Universal Studios and Harrah’s Automobile Museum. See Park World Magazine’s exclusive pre-SATE interview with Joe Garlington.

James Anderson
Lead Creative Director, Forrec Ltd.
James is Forrec’s ‘Story-Teller-in-Chief,’ responsible for developing the creative concepts and stories that bring client needs and directions to life in an imaginative and captivating manner. An architect by training, James is adept at ensuring that story lines encompass every aspect of a project, from the master plan down to the smallest graphic detail. Many international clients, including LEGO, Nickelodeon and Universal, have trusted him to translate their strong brands into successful projects. He has lived overseas for the construction review stage on two major developments, LEGOLAND Deutschland and the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

Matt Dawson
Director Museums and Science Centres, Forrec Ltd.
Since earning a Master of Architecture at Princeton University, Matt has worked in the museum field as a designer, as a consultant, and as a senior museum manager. An experienced creative director and team leader, Matt’s visionary design approach brings collections to life, so as to create compelling visitor experiences that are locally relevant and globally acclaimed. For five years prior to joining Forrec, Matt worked in senior museum positions in a succession of three major projects: the opening of the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the opening of the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona and the expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

Adam Bezark
Creative Director, The Bezark Company
Adam Bezark is an award-winning writer and director who combines a wide variety of media and technologies to produce startling new entertainment. His experience ranges from theme park rides and attractions, to film and video, museum exhibits, live shows and special events. He has worked with, and developed material for an impressive roster of celebrity talent, including Steven Spielberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron and John Lasseter.


So really, what do all these experts in Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, and Entertainment have in common with Barnum.  He understood the importance of making things fun, of creating a unique atmosphere, a “big show.”  Barnum studied everything he could and learned from others.  He spent over a year studying why the Aquarial Gardens was able to keep that beluga in 1861 alive for over so long when his other belugas passed away within a few months at his American Museum. He spent time with the experts, listening, asking questions.  And SATE presents that same opportunity for those in the themed design industry.  A chance to talk and listen to experts in a diverse array of fields.

Barnum understood that everything was important to consider, that he needed to understand both sides of the coin.  Which is why he’s been quoted as saying both “The public is wiser than many imagine” and “There’s a seat for every ass and an ass for every seat.”

In his books he wrote:

“The road to learning is a royal one; the road that enables the student to expand his intellect and add every day to his stock of knowledge, until, in the pleasant process of intellectual growth, he is able to solve the most profound problems, to count the stars, to analyze every atom of the globe, and to measure the firmament this is a regal highway, and it is the only road worth travelling.”


“But however mysterious is nature, however ignorant the doctor, however imperfect the present state of physical science, the patronage and the success of quacks and quackeries are infinitely more wonderful than those of honest and laborious men of science and their careful experiments.”

Barnum understood that science/technology and showmanship are of equal importance.  As do those attending SATE.


The majority of SeaWorld/Blackfish posts, along with a new series called SeaWorld Myths, are now available at The Mid-Cap Chronicles.

During an eleven day period, from April 8 through 18, a state legislative hearing and two Federal Court decisions would have serious implications on SeaWorld and its orca program.  In this first installment, I’ll give you an idea what it was like to be inside a California Assembly Committee hearing on the Orca Welfare & Safety Bill.  The second installment will examine what a Federal Appellate Court’s decision means for the the country’s parks housing orcas.  And the third will look at the latest developments as the Georgia Aquarium attempts in Federal Court to overturn NOAA’s denial of a permit to import belugas.  Some of those belugas are scheduled to be housed at SeaWorld’s three marine life parks.

Before I get into the grit, there are two things you need to be aware of: I’m not part of a movement. I’m neither for nor against the orcas being in captivity.  I’m not “anti-cap” and I’m not a staunch SeaWorld supporter.  You’ll find me talking to former SeaWorld San Antonio trainer John Hargrove, who many of the park’s supporters can’t stand, just as much as I talk to his former co-worker Bridgette Pirtle-Davis, who Blackfish fanatics consider the Joan of Arc of their movement.  Excuse me a moment, I’ve just been told that last statement is not true.  But that’s rule number two of my six rules: talk to everybody.  I don’t care what mud one side may sling at an individual on the other side in an effort to discredit them.  Not only is it juvenile, but it serves no purpose in resolving the question at hand: what to do with the orcas in this Kramer vs Kramer fiasco.

As far as AB-2140 is concerned, I am a supporter only of one part of the bill – that ending performances.  I can endorse SeaWorld’s pregnancy program if it is shown that it is being used for conservation purposes to keep the species alive in the wild or for research.  If it’s being done solely to maintain a stock of performing animals, then I suggest SeaWorld’s orcas be reclassified as domesticated livestock, and we’ll just drop the whole issue and treat them like show horses. (Shit, I just opened another Pandora’s box for Peta).  I do have concerns that should something happen to the Iceland population, this bill prevents the five orcas that are 100% genetically of the Icelandic ecotype in the San Diego park’s collection  from being used for breeding under a Species Protection Plan.

I’m also very much on the fence about sea pens.  In all my years of blogging, I have only once removed a post.  It was the one where I, based on what David Kirby had written, compared the transfer of SeaWorld’s orcas into sea pens to what happened to the Jews of World War II Austria.  There was a lot of anger, with activists saying I had gone to far (love you, Carol).  I stand by my statement that if activists can call orcas in tanks “slaves” and “prisoners,” then it’s fair game for me to equivocate placing animals in sea pens based on their genetic lineage to the NAZI placing of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Both are facsimiles of the real thing and separated from it by a fence and a gate.  I didn’t take it down because I felt I had gone too far in my analogy.  I took it down because I had the opportunity to sit down with Representative Richard Bloom, the author of AB-2140.  He’s a good legislator and a good man and I don’t agree with the vast majority of this bill, but the way I wrote that blog post proved a bit insensitive on my part to who Bloom really is.  I still embrace my NAZI ghetto analogy.  After all, moving orcas from tanks to sea pens is simply exchanging one kind of captivity for another.

The other thing that you need to know is that there is a huge disconnect between the HAVES and the HAVE NOTS.  In the case of the orcas, the HAVES are those that physically, legally, financially have possession of the animals.  The HAVE NOTS are those who preach, “Have not these whales the right to freedom, like their brethren in the wild?”  SeaWorld currently has around 86,000 animals (including Busch Gardens).  Each of those animals has a monetary value attached to it.  When you move away from keepers, and trainers, and veterinarians, and move up the corporate ladder to where those in power with adding machines crunch the numbers, you’ll hear animals refered to, as one zoo’s executive director recently used the term when I interviewed him, as “assets.”

On the other side of the argument are those who think of these animals, especially orcas, as “thinking, feeling beings” (that’s a direct quote from Dr. Naomi Rose).  Because of the social structure, wild roaming patterns, and high intelligence, they feel these animals are not suited for captivity and the best place for them is the wild.  To complicate matters even more, there’s a third party – the thousands of individuals working directly with zoo animals who also consider them ‘thinking, feeling beings,” but unsuitable for one reason or another for introduction to the wild or sanctuary environments.

For a week, I was on the phone back and forth with Bloom’s Chief of Staff and the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee office.  My question was simple.  I was headed to the hearing as a journalist, writing for a trade publication that covers the attractions industry.  Would I be able to get in the room?  There seemed to be a bit of confusion.  Some thought nobody would care about the bill and nobody would show up.  Others thought the room would be full of vocal Peta protestors, being escorted out by Highway Patrol.  I was told to just show up.

I arrived at the hall outside the room half an hour before the doors opened.  The hall was already packed and I was lucky enough to make it in line to be one of the last people allowed in for the 50 or so seats available to the public.  I estimated around 100 to 200 remained in the hall during the hearing.  I couldn’t really tell.  I was in the room and couldn’t see them.

The hearing started peacefully enough.   Bloom and the others in favor of the bill had their say (see video linked at end of post).  Each time one would finish, a roar of cheers could be heard in the hallway, where those who didn’t make it into the room, were watching on a monitor.  Supporters of the bill inside the hearing room started to cheer, only to be silenced by one of the Sergeants at Arms.   Decorum must stand inside such a meeting, after all.  Twice more, he hushed the room when individuals inside started to clap.  A Sergeant at Arms standing close to me stopped three young ladies sitting in front of me, apparently of the Peta variety, from applauding in American Sign Language.  “But we’re not cheering,” they told her. “Yes, you are,” the Sergeant sternly replied.  “And I don’t care what language you’re cheering or clapping in, I’ll escort you out if you do it again.”

The Committee Chair asked members of the public wanting to show their support to come up to the podium.  Due to the vast number, they were restricted to stating their name, a group they were associated with, and that they approved the bill.  Over ninety individuals came up, many from NGO’s, but the majority were  just individuals supporting the proposed legislation.  A number of them started into speeches and were cut off by the Chairman.  One woman went up and just started reciting poetry about orcas.  The Sergeant at Arms swung the microphone away from her.

Then it was time for SeaWorld to argue against the bill.  First up was San Diego Park President John Reilly, who had a very nice speech about what the park does for the community . . . until the very end when he spoke about animal rights and the bill being based on falsehoods of the film.  A large grumble could be heard from the public seats in the hearing room.  I’ve heard the term animal rights extremist used a lot lately.  It was mentioned on SeaWorld’s web page and in an interview I did after the hearing with Mary Healy, the President of the California Association of Zoos & Aquariums.  I’m not sure I would consider Naomi Rose, the co-author/sponsor of AB-2140 as an “extremist.”  As far as I know, she works within the law, be it through the courts or legislation – but it’s all within legal boundaries.  When she and other orca advocates go to SeaWorld to inspect the conditions of the orcas, I’ve been told they do so on season passes.

It’s a far cry from the extremist activists who will be cutting the nets on the sea pens to let the orcas swim free in the oceans.  And it’s a far cry from the extremist activist group known as Peta, who has undercover investigators in SeaWorld’s parks who have actually gotten themselves legitimate jobs on SeaWorld’s payroll, allowing them to carry forth their undercover work with full legal impunity (I’ll explain in a later blog post) .   But don’t worry, Peta.  Your secret’s safe with me.  After all, nobody at SeaWorld reads this blog.

The other thing that irritated me was bringing up Blackfish.  SeaWorld’s been going on offensive about the film in the past few weeks on social media.  I think that’s a bad idea.  I think they should let Blackfish go for the time being and concentrate solely on the bill and its provisions.  For three months, I looked into Blackfish, trying to tie the film in with some bigger conspiracy – with Peta, or OPS, or WDC, or EII.  What I found it to be is a well crafted, but simply made, work.

  • Step One: Film a few orca researchers who are against captivity.
  • Step Two: Film six disgruntled former trainers, two of whom were terminated.  The reasons for the terminations are irrelevant. SeaWorld has its explanations, Tim Zimmermann wrote about the trainers’ versions.  However, as someone who has hired and fired, I know darn well that if you terminate someone, and they believe it’s a wrongful termination, expect a fight sometime, in any kind of arena.
  • Step Three: Use footage from the former trainers’ reels, combined with FOIA-acquired footage, and video from YouTube.  Incidentally, the video of the orcas pushing the seal off the floating ice (the seal does go back on the ice at the end of the full video, as it appears to have been a training session for the youngsters), was also shot in high definition by Ingrid Visser, but her footage was either not used or had its resolution decreased to match that of the YouTube video.

SeaWorld can vilanize Gabriela Cownperthwaite, Tim Zimmermann, and the rest of the producers on Blackfish.  But the one person they should be marking as enemy number one is this guy.  He’s the one mastermind who brought it all together:


And when he was done, they had the fortune of having their film played and promoted over and over and over and over and over again on a 24-hour “news” network that took advantage of a social media savvy audience that would raise its numbers and increase its advertising revenue over months until a man decided to drop a different kind of whale into the ocean, giving the network something else to play over and over and over and over and over again.

After, Reilly, SeaWorld’s research and veterinary staff spoke.  Then, out of the blue, came Scott Wetch, SeaWorld’s lobbyist, playing a greatest hits medley of “This is crap, this is crap, this is crap.”  He came to town with guns a blazin’.  Those that had fallen asleep were certainly jostled awake as he did his best to discredit Hargrove and Rose, all while flinging reports around in the air.  Wetch’s tone, compared to the other testifying witnesses, was as inconsistent as Brian Clark Howard’s pieces of Peta-laden anti-SeaWorld propaganda are to the rest of the National Geographic website.

(As an aside, National Geographic, you’ve now surpassed both CNN and Pixar to gain top tier on my list of hypocritical companies and organizations decrying public display of cetaceans while doing the opposite with their business practices.  This has nothing to do with Howard’s pieces, but I’ll get on your case in a later blog post.)

After the hearing, in a phone discussion, Naomi Rose explained to me that she was hoping the sea pens would be something SeaWorld would be involved in 100%.  That it would be built by them, managed and staffed by them, and visitors could be charged by them.  But after Wetch mentioned how the orcas would be removed from California before the law went into effect were it to pass, and after he warned the Committee, “You ban them, you buy them,’  she now sees the company as not wanting to accept and implement this idea.

Twenty-three people came to the podium to object to the bill.  Most of them were from organizations with a financial stake in tourism in Southern California.  Mary Healy represented the state’s zoos and aquariums that are members of her organization.  Veteran orca trainers from SeaWorld were there, each adding they had no injuries.  Trainers from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the other park that would be affected by this bill (it’s a bit complicated and I’ll get into it after I’ve completed my interview with Six Flags on the matter) were there.  Six Flags is neither an AZA or CAZA member, but is a member of ZAA, which is an industry organization predominately populated by privately-owned parks, and which has a number of stipulations different from AZA.

Most surprising was seeing Jim Maddy, the President and CEO of AZA, take the microphone in opposition to the bill.  Since Blackfish first aired in October, I have not heard a peep out of the organization, even writing them an email for a statement.  From what I saw, Maddy was not here to support SeaWorld, but rather was in the hearing room to represent the state’s and the nation’s AZA member zoos and aquariums.  Although the bill, as it now stands, is solely for orcas, wording can easily be modified to change “orcas” to “dolpins,” “cetaceans,” or even “marine mammals.”  And the bill sets a precedent, for now that it’s been introduced it paves the way for similar legislation for other captive zoo species to have breeding ability and habitation dictated by lawmakers.  Mary Nealy called it taking the “expertise and the experts in animal care out of the equation.”

I wasn’t surprised when San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez made known her concerns about SeaWorld.  She’s had a shark fin up her ass about the chain since she was CEO of a labor union in the county.  In fact, when she first mentioned her support of the bill on her Facebook page, it was along the lines of (paraphrasing here) “SeaWorld screws over its employees, I can believe it’s screwing over its orcas.”  The big surprise to me was Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen, who brought up being a surfer, who’s surfed all over the world, who loves the ocean.  I was fully expecting a “respect the animals in their natural habitats” speech.  Instead, he came out in support of the parks as inspiring people worldwide.  Allen’s district literally comes within three blocks of Disneyland.  His communities rely on tourism dollars.  I’ll let you make of that what you will.

It looked, from where I was sitting, that the bill could have passed this committee were it not for the question of sea pens and the fact that a plan for them is not yet in place.  “Blue sky” is the term I heard.  Had it passed, it would have gone on to the committee that oversees tourism and that would have been a hard fight for Bloom and his supporters.  It’s one thing to talk about the animals themselves.  It’s another to discuss the economic impact, and comparing the people who came up to the podium for or against the bill, the ones with an economic concern are all on SeaWorld’s side.

The press has been saying the bill is dead.  This is true.  The bill is dead for the current session as it has been moved to interim study.  It will be examined, expanded, and extrapolated.  And, possibly, it may find its way to committee again next year.

I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stables. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: “Where are you riding to, master?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “Only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.”

“And so you know your destination?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered, “didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.”

“You have no provisions with you,” he said.

“I need none,” I said, “The journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.”

— Franz Kafka




The Thea Award recipients are announced every year at the Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) booth at the IAAPA Attractions Expo.  Here’s how we covered the announcement at InPark Magazine from the floor of last year’s Expo on November 19 in Orlando:

TEA President Christine Kerr announces the 2014 Thea recipients.  Photo by InPark's Martin Palicki

TEA President Christine Kerr announces the 2014 Thea recipients. Photo by InPark’s Martin Palicki

Burbank, Calif. USA, Nov 19, 2013 – “The 20th annual Thea Awards, presented by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and sponsored by AECOM, honor creative excellence in theme parks, museums, heritage centers, botanical gardens, technological innovation, performance spectacle and more – showcasing the best of an industry that is now thoroughly international,” says TEA president Christine Kerr of BaAM Productions. “At 1,000 members strong, TEA and the industry it serves have expanded well beyond the Americas to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. We encourage the media, the industry and the public to learn more about the 13 honorees, and to make plans to join us at the Thea Awards Gala on April 5 in Anaheim. We’ll be having an extra-special celebration this year to mark two decades since the Theas were first presented in 1994.”

The prestigious Thea Award is considered one of the attraction industry’s greatest honors. The 20th Annual Thea Awards Gala, set for April 5, 2014, is a ticketed, black-tie dinner affair at the Disneyland Resort, Anaheim USA. Tickets are available to the general public as well as to the industry. Title sponsor of the 20th Thea Awards Gala is AECOM. The Gala producer is Patrick Roberge Productions. TEA events producer is Kathy Oliver. More information:

The Thea Awards Nominating Committee (listed at bottom) recommended the current slate of 13 Thea Award recipients, with final approval by the TEA International Board of Directors. 2014 THEA AWARDS RECIPIENTS (scroll down to see full descriptions)

Garner Holt

Garner Holt

The Buzz Price Thea Award – Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements:  Garner Holt of Garner Holt Productions “As a child, Garner Holt was so amazed by a Wonderful World of Disney episode of the Haunted Mansion, that he decided he would create animatronics for a living.”

Thea Classic: Enchanted Tiki Room Disneyland Park, Disneyland Resort, Anaheim, California USA “It launched a three-dimensional animation industry that influenced attractions created for practically every theme park in the world.”

Thea Awards for Outstanding Achievement (AOA): 

  • Revolution Tru-trackless Ride System(Oceaneering) – “the show designer’s ultimate flexibility dream come true”

Marine Worlds Carousel

  • Marine Worlds Carousel, Les Machines de I’lle, Nantes, France – “In this fascinating structure dedicated to the three levels of the sea, guests will discover delightful, animated mechanical sculptures in all forms of sea life.”
  • Mystic Manor, Hong Kong Disneyland – “Amid the technical breakthroughs, the ride creators never lost their rigorous focus on the beautifully told story.”
  • Enchanted Tales with Belle, Magic Kingdom Park, Walt Disney World Resort (USA) – “What might have been a basic character meet-and-greet has been elevated to a charming, imaginative and immersive experience”
  • Polynesian Cultural Center Revitalization, Oahu, Hawaii – “very successfully bringing the 50 year old facility and guest experience into the 21st century”
  • De Vuurproef, Het Spoorwegmuseum (The Railway Museum), Utrecht, Netherlands – “successfully engages the public in a way not usually seen in museum attractions”
  • The Mind Museum, Taguig City, Philippines – “the Philippines’ first world-class science museum”
  • Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland – “a major part of Europe’s largest urban regeneration project”

Gardens by the Bay


  • Gardens by the Bay, Singapore – “a compelling, iconic and regionally unique experience on an audacious scale
  • Michael Jackson: ONE, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas – “reaches beyond the proscenium to immerse audiences visually, sonically and emotionally”
  • The Song of An Angel, Universal Studios Japan – “exceptional in the way mapping technology is integrated into fully-staged performance and emotional storytelling”

The Song of an Angel

About TEA The TEA (Themed Entertainment Association) is an international nonprofit alliance founded in 1991 and based in Burbank, Calif. Some 1,000 TEA members represent roughly 8,000 creative specialists, from architects to designers, technical specialists to master planners, scenic fabricators to artists, and builders to feasibility analysts working in 30 US states and 40 different countries. TEA presents the annual Thea Awards and the TEA Summit and hosts the annual SATE Conference (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience). TEA also produces a variety of print and electronic publications, including the TEA/AECOM Theme Index, TEA Annual Directory and Thea Awards Program magazine.

About the Thea Awards The Thea Awards, sponsored by Economics at AECOM, were created by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) to help realize a key mission of the association: bringing recognition to achievement, talent and personal excellence within the themed entertainment industry. From a modest beginning in 1994, the Thea Awards have become internationally recognized as a symbol of excellence. The public is welcome to attend the black-tie 20th Annual Thea Awards Gala, which will be held April 5, 2014 at the Disneyland Hotel, Disneyland Resort, Anaheim Calif. USA. Tickets may be ordered online at The name of the award is a play on three words: the first is “Thea,” the Greek goddess from whom all light emanates. Thea was the mother of Helios (the sun), Eos (the dawn), and Selene (the moon). The second key word is “Theater,” a word derived from the goddess Thea. The third word, of course, is TEA, for the Association.

About Economics at AECOM (Thea Awards Gala title sponsor) Economics at AECOM (formerly ERA/Economics Research Associates) is an international consulting firm focused on economic analysis for the entertainment and leisure industry, real estate development, public-policy analysis, tourism, and economic development. Since its founding in 1958, Economics at AECOM has completed over 15,000 assignments yielding unmatched experience in land use economics. In the process, the firm has made important contributions to some of the world’s most innovative and successful development projects. Their projects span the globe and range from repositioning single land uses to New Towns planned over 30 years. In broad terms, Economics at AECOM assists private developers and public agencies in assessing the future economics and outcomes of real estate projects and economic development plans. Economics at AECOM offers a diverse array of economic analysis and tools to answer complex problems. Website:

PatrickRobergePhotoAbout Patrick Roberge Productions (Thea Awards Gala producer) PRP is an award winning consulting and full turnkey production company that produces creative shows and events. Our experienced team of entertainment professionals specializes in event planning and show production. From vision to reality, we work with you to achieve your goal and make your event memorable. Through our four divisions (Creative Sports, Creative Events, Corporate Productions, Creative Entertainment) we specialize in achieving objectives through innovative and creative entertainment. Visit

DESCRIPTIONS: 2014 Thea Award recipients from TEA’s Thea Awards Nominating Committee


The Buzz Price Thea Award – Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements   Garner Holt, Garner Holt Productions

As a child, Garner Holt was so amazed by a Wonderful World of Disney episode of the Haunted Mansion, that he decided he would create animatronics for a living. To make a long story short, he now makes amazing animatronics, parade floats, and other fantastic scenery and theming elements. Do you like the new Little Mermaid attraction at Disney California Adventure? Haunted Mansion Holiday? Did you like the floats for Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams for the 50th Anniversary? Do you like everything that moves when you hit it on Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters? That’s Garner Holt.

Here’s the twist–Garner has never been an Imagineer. Nor has he ever been an official Disney Cast Member. He’s what you call an outside contractor. But as he so successful at producing work that meets Disney’s rigorous quality that he has become a key contractor for Disney, essentially part of the Disney team. And with that, he gets to do some of the most amazing and fun projects–not just for Disney but for many other parks, restaurants, and exhibits.

Of course that didn’t happen overnight. Let’s back up several decades to when Garner was 18. He applied to Disney’s MAPO division where all of the mechanical animation was then manufactured. His portfolio showed animated figures that he had been building since age 12, but was told “Disney has all the professional animation builders it needs.” Broken-hearted, Garner expanded his small operation over the years, building animations and shows for clients worldwide. Garner Holt Productions is now the world’s largest animation show manufacturing operation. And all this by a youngster who turned down his parents’ offer of free college tuition just so he could proceed with his own dream.

Whatever you want to do with your life, know that you can become so much better than the very best in your business that in time you become the very best in your business. Not easy, but it can be done. To that end, take Garner’s advice–put enough perseverance and focus on your dreams, and they will come true.

Thea Classic: Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Disneyland Park, Disneyland Resort 


Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room celebrated its 50th anniversary in June 2013. To our knowledge, there is no longer running theatre show in the industry (it pre-dated Disney’s Carousel of Progress, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Pirates of the Caribbean). A “theatre-in-the-round,” the Tiki Room stars 225 animated singing birds and flowers in an island-inspired musical revue. It has provided generations of guests with an immersive experience filled with entertaining characters, fun songs and innovative technology that brought the attraction’s story and characters to life in a whole new way. It was the world’s first Audio-Animatronics show – introducing a new technology that soon became one of the dominant tools used by designers and engineers in our industry.

The Orange County Register, in an article headlined “Disney’s Birds Stand the Test of Time,” put the show into clear perspective: “Although the attraction may seem quaint today, without it Abraham Lincoln may never have come to life, there’d be no sword-fighting swashbucklers on the Pirates of the Caribbean, and Lightning McQueen and Mater would just be a couple of old cars.” The Enchanted Tiki Room was the pioneer – the very first – show to introduce a brand-new creative and technical innovation called Audio-Animatronics. It also introduced the first original song created for a Disney park show: “In The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room,” written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman a year before they won an Academy Award for Mary Poppins. It was also the forerunner for many story-tunes they wrote for Disney Park shows: “it’s a small world,” Carousel of Progress (“There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”), Epcot/Journey Into Imagination (“One Little Spark,” “Makin’ Memories,” “Magic Journeys”). The technology for The Enchanted Tiki Room had a unique beginning; it was based on a just de-classified military system used to fire the missiles on board the Polaris submarines. “The basement was as big as the Tiki Room, and was filled with all kinds of control cabinets, air valves and more,” the Register reported. “Now you could probably put all the audio and programming data on a laptop!” Walt Disney’s drive to “blend creative imagination with technical know-how” had its first complete show example in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. It launched a three-dimensional animation industry that influenced attractions created for practically every theme park in the world.

Thea Awards for Outstanding Achievement (AOA) 

AOA – Breakthrough Technology: Revolution Tru-Trackless Ride System

IMG_9611 (1)

The 1966 Disneyland Voyage Thru Inner Space Omnimover was the first ride system that enabled show designers to direct guest viewing directly at scenes rather than be restricted by a fixed view of the preceding ride vehicle. This was enabled by a rotating and tilting seat arrangement supported on linear track guided vehicles. In 2012, Oceaneering Entertainment Systems developed what may be the ultimate show viewing ride system of all time – one that will provide show scene presentations completely unrestrained when compared to all previous ride systems.

Eliminating completely any fixed floor track installation, allowing an economical flat floor, and using free traveling, self-powered vehicles equipped with motion base passenger seating, the Revolution Tru-Trackless Ride System will give show designers unparalleled show design freedom. No longer will a show ride experience be confined to a linear path. Travel through a show environment can be complete variable as to travel path, speed, scene viewing, and load/unload configurations.

Ride vehicles can be dispatched as soon as guests are loaded, with no waiting for other vehicles to finish loading. Individual vehicles can take differing routes through an adventure – which can provide nearly unlimited guest experiences. Shows can take advantage of ride experience re-programming at any time so that guests will be able to enjoy entirely variable individual show experiences. The Tru-Trackless Ride System is the show designer’s ultimate flexibility dream come true.

The vehicles are battery powered, responding to central programming commands including vehicle-to-vehicle communication thru GPS positioning methods. Vehicles’ batteries are charged during load stops and do not need additional nightly charging requirements. Each vehicle is supported and propelled by fully-steered wheel assemblies. Seating sections can rotate and tilt in any direction independent of the vehicle motions.

As noted above, the developers of this system have created intelligent vehicles that can designate and navigate their own non-linear ridepaths, as well as interact with other vehicles in real time, creating ride scenarios that are different every time.

The Oceaneering Tru-Trackless Ride System is more than deserving of the Themed Entertainment Association Technical Breakthrough Thea Award since it will provide the entire themed entertainment industry with the ability create a new level of compelling experiences nearly unconstrained by existing ride systems.

AOA – Unique Art Installation: Marine Worlds Carousel, Les Machines de I’île, Nantes, France

Located on an island of the Loire River in Nantes, in an abandoned shipyard warehouse, one is delighted to find ” Les Machines de l’ïle.” A true experimental laboratory created by two artists, François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice, it offers a fantasy world that mixes the imagination of Jules Verne with the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci. An incredible collection of mechanical wonders such as the Great Elephant, which is a 50-passenger, walking mechanical elephant and the magnificent flying Heron tree, the pair have now created a stunning new addition: The Marine Worlds Carousel.

This giant, three-tiered carousel, 25m high and 22m in diameter, is incredible machinery that reawakens fairground art. In this fascinating structure dedicated to the three levels of the sea, guests will discover delightful, animated mechanical sculptures in all forms of sea life. From the giant crab and reverse propulsion squid of the seabed, the lantern fish and manta ray of the ocean depth to the jellyfish, flying fish and sailing ships on the surface of the 24 mechanical waves.

Beautiful sculptures of metal and steel, these sea creatures stand on their own as pieces of art. But, they go one step further than that! Guests can board the carousel and, seated inside, operate them to move their appendages, such as fins, tails and tentacles. Characteristics:

  • Diameter 22m
  • Height 25m
  • Number of elements 35
  • Number of seats 85
  • Max capacity 300 guests

The unique quality of the design, the incredible and audacious nature and scale of what would otherwise be a simple carousel, its interactive elements, and most of all its sculptural sophistication and artistic vision continued to grab the attention and make a strong impression on the entire Thea Awards nominating committee.

AOA – Attraction: Mystic Manor, Hong Kong Disneyland


Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland Park is a highly-themed, ride-through attraction combining extensive and ingenious projection mapping, Audio-Animatronics technology and other, one-of-a-kind, special effects to tell a charming, original story with state-of-the-art excellence.

Lord Henry’s compatriot, a mischievous monkey named Albert, opens a newly arrived music box reputed to possess strange powers. A magical melody (created by award winning composer Danny Elfman) escapes the box as a ribbon of mystical energy (known as Music Dust). Whatever the Music Dust touches – the object springs to life. Albert tries to recapture the drifting musical vapor, chasing it from room-to-room, getting deeper and deeper into trouble – and the guests follow throughout the Manor’s rare collection of artifacts, sharing in his adventure.

Guests get a front-row seat experience of the 40 visual effects created by different technologies and 36 projectors, including four ultra-high-definition (4k) projectors.

A wire-guided, trackless ride system choreographs the guest’s vehicle to follow the action with variable speeds, stopping, starting and turning to follow the action from room to room. The vehicles can be positioned in any direction at any moment. As a result, guests never know in which direction the story will take them next. And with the different perspectives of the four vehicles, this highly immersive adventure full of surprises, special effects and theatrical wonders is highly repeatable.

Mystic Manor signals a new generation of possibilities in the integration of projection mapping with ride technology, audio-animatronics and other special effects. Ride creators everywhere will be studying and borrowing technical ideas from this project. But Mystic Manor doesn’t just exemplify the highest standards of technical excellence. Amid the technical breakthroughs, the ride creators never lost their rigorous focus on the beautifully told story. Mystic Manor exemplifies the seamless integration of the latest technology with true state-of-the-art storytelling.

AOA – Participatory Character Greeting:  Enchanted Tales with Belle Magic Kingdom Park, Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Florida USA


In this interactive story adventure in the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Fantasyland expansion, guests (especially children) are invited to act out the story of Beauty and the Beast, along with characters Belle, Madame de la Grande Bouche and Lumiere the candlestick.

Entering through the cottage home and workshop of Belle’s father Maurice, guests are transported though a magic mirror to the Beast’s Castle. Once there, guests participate in a role playing reenactment of the story that combines a deceptively simple, low-tech participatory theater format with sophisticated and technically impressive effects and animation. The Magic Mirror effect as well as the Audio-Animatronics figure of Lumiere, the candlestick, are in the highest tradition of groundbreaking Disney Imagineering.

At the conclusion of the story, each member of the “cast” as well as other audience members has the opportunity to pose for a personal photograph with Belle.

This is far more than the typical character greeting experience. Disney has reached back to its storytelling roots and created an experience that is intimate and personal in its connection to the guests ,while being slyly supported by truly state-of-the-art effects and animation wizardry. While it may have been tempting to focus on more contemporary theatrical media and technology to create this experience, the daring use of absolutely simple storytelling and playacting (with background of Imagineering wizardry) creates a much stronger and more personal connection than a more programmed experience.

The participatory nature of the retelling of the story is surprisingly impactful, allowing children (and even adults) to imagine themselves in the story. The interplay between incredibly simple costumes and props on the one hand, theatrical effects, animation and lighting, as well as a live interplay with “Belle” create a truly unique invitation to suspend disbelief which will create memories many kids will carry with them for a lifetime.

What might have been a basic meet-and-greet photo opportunity has been elevated to a charming, imaginative and immersive experience, both for the guest who plays a role in the story and the rest of the observing audience. It is a creative blend of excellent design, imaginative interactivity and technical wizardry.

AOA – 4D Simulator, Limited Budget: De Vuurproef, Het Spoorwegmuseum, Utrecht, Netherlands


Het Spoorwegmuseum (The Railway Museum) is a unique museum in the heart of Utrecht, Netherlands, that offers guests a multi-sensory experience through the history of the Dutch and European railway tradition. Fully themed exhibitions, stage shows and even rides are part of the museum’s inventive ways to engage and entertain guests during their stay. De Vuurproef (literal translation: “The Acid Test”) is a new 4D simulator attraction that offers guests a fully-themed, family-oriented experience.

Guests in the queue are divided into four groups that are linked to a number before entering a themed waiting room full of vintage railway artifacts. Each number corresponds to painted numbers on the floor in the pre-show. Based on these numbers each guest is assigned to a task that has to be fulfilled during the simulation. After seeing the instruction movie, guests continue into a dimly lit space, where they enter one of four richly themed Jules Verne-esque locomotives. In these motion-base locomotives, guests experience a high-speed journey through many different habitats and time periods. At certain moments during the simulation, participation by the guest, such as speeding up or slowing down the train, influences the simulation when a specific task is mentioned. The entire project was created on a limited budget.

This museum attraction demonstrates true excellence in design and execution. Highly detailed finishes and props, ambient lighting, special effects and media, make for a rich and visually very consistent experience. It successfully engages the public in a way not usually seen in museum attractions. The thrill and excitement experienced by fully engaging visitors is akin to a theme park experience, while also reinforcing the message of the railway museum at the same time. While entertained, visitors experience the responsibilities of being at the controls of a powerful locomotive.

AOA – Attraction Revitalization: Polynesian Cultural Center, Oahu, Hawaii 


The Polynesian Cultural Center opened on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in September of 1963. Since opening, the PCC has hosted over 37 million guests, including international dignitaries, presidents, kings and ambassadors from around the globe. Recently, the PCC engaged in a comprehensive planning and development effort to create new guest experiences. To this end, two major renovations were recently completed. The Gateway is a 37,000 square foot facility that provides evening buffet meal service and has been re-imagined as a grand Hawaiian hall. The second project, “Hawaiian Journey” is a repurposing of an aging giant-screen theater.

The transformation of the buffet hall (the size of a football field) into Gateway included adding new entry canopies and doors, a new color scheme and dimensional Hawaiian symbols and graphics. The exterior lighting and landscaping were also redone and are more reflective of authentic Hawaii. The interior was completely renovated and includes the addition of stately Koa wood (GFRP) columns and flame effect sconces sculpted as giant clam shells. Beneath the woven, thatch-looking ceiling, a 20 foot high by 500 foot long mural encircles the entire space and depicts a Hawaiian King welcoming his royal Polynesian brothers and sisters to join in feast and fellowship. Renovations also included a new and more robust sound system and all-new interior lighting.

The second project, “Hawaiian Journey,” represents the repurposing of PCC’s giant-screen theater. The exterior, out-of-theme facility shell, was covered and recast with the look, feel, sounds and sensibilities of an ancient volcano. By incorporating extensive rock work, waterfalls, faux painting, “breathing” steam vents and lush landscaping, the facility was completely transformed. The entry into the theater is a lava tube, with flame-effect lighting and deep, rumbling sounds that lead guests into the interior volcanic chamber (theater). From a technical perspective, a state-of-the-art, high-definition, digital 4K projection system was installed, as well as a new sound system and a new 40′ x 74′ projection screen and a full-length, motorized screen curtain for added drama. A new show lighting package was also incorporated and includes black lights to highlight painted wall graphics. The 14-minute movie is an original production about Hawaiian culture that highlights spectacular natural settings throughout the Hawaiian islands. Additionally, the theater’s 252 seats have 4D effects incorporated that enhance the movie experience.

The renovation and resulting transformation of the dining hall and giant-screen theater represent PCC’s full embrace of the arts and sciences associated with Themed Entertainment. Relative to the theater, the entire facility started as a large building that had absolutely no thematic connection to the cultural center. The complete renovation of the facility has resulted in a significant and impactful improvement to the guest experience both visually and experientially. The transformation of the theater entry, seating and staging into a dramatic and immersive setting (with comfortable 4D seats!) fully engages guests. The original film production is true to the mission of the PCC in that it is a compelling story about Hawaiian culture and ancestry and illustrates how Hawaiian traditions live on through each generation. The Gateway also utilizes the best in Themed Entertainment technologies in ways that artfully represent the Hawaiian culture and traditions, thus furthering the guest’s connection with the mission of the PCC.

The PCC fully embraces the arts and sciences associated with Themed Entertainment in its renovation of key facility elements. They are very successfully bringing the 50 year old facility into the 21st century and the guest experience is vastly improved.

AOA – Science Museum: The Mind Museum, Taguig City, Philippines 

Human Brain

The Mind Museum is the Philippines’ first world-class science museum. The museum features 4,900 square meters of interactive science and technology exhibitions within five major galleries and outdoor spaces. With over 250 interactive “minds-on” and hands-on exhibits, the museum presents science in a creatively unique, entertaining, and engaging way.

Visitors are welcomed by thematic sculptural gardens and wide-open spaces prior to entering five expansive galleries. The Lobby, the Introductory Hall, the Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, and the Hall of Philippine Science all serve to initiate the visitors’ museum experience.

The five galleries are organized around five stories about the collective wondering and understanding of nature through art, technology and science. The galleries are connected by crucial links dubbed as Nature’s Webways. The beautiful rendered passageways feature a variety of specialty lighting, audio-visuals and artistic exhibits to help visitors make the transitions from one to another of the intricately woven stories of the galleries.

This museum demonstrates true excellence in design and execution. Working with a US firm to master plan the museum, well over 90% of the exhibits were designed and fabricated by Filipino designers, scientists and fabricators, making it uniquely theirs. Each gallery setting is creatively themed and masterfully represented. The thematic thread and artistic treatments throughout the museum is what makes this project extraordinary by any standards.

In bringing their stories to life, the Filipino designers and artists went the extra step in expanding science into a fully experiential world, creating unusual scale, playful details and interactivity throughout. This world-class design combined with sensory-rich experiences make The Mind Museum a truly outstanding achievement in the museum category.

AOA – Visitor Center: Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland


Titanic Belfast, the World’s Largest Titanic Visitor Experience, opened its doors to the world on 31 March 2012, marking 100 years since the completion of the world’s most famous ocean liner.

The unique and iconic structure was almost 10 years in the planning, and following its three-year construction period became Belfast’s most famous landmark. Standing at the height of the ship’s superstructure, Titanic Belfast represents a turning point in Northern Ireland’s history, and a reason to visit for people from all over the world. Titanic Belfast is a major part of Europe’s largest urban regeneration project.

Having welcomed over 500,000 visitors in just over 5 months from opening, 75,000 over the anticipated annual target, Titanic Belfast now stands at the heart of destination marketing for brand Belfast, brand Northern Ireland and brand Ireland. It is also a symbol of confidence, acting as a popular backdrop for both national and international product launches, events and conferences.

Titanic Belfast was designed as a multi-streamed business incorporating the following elements:

  • A nine gallery interpretative visitor experience
  • The Titanic Suites, dedicated conference and banqueting facilities
  • The Andrews Gallery, a dedicated Exhibition gallery Education facilities comprising an education/community room and the Ocean Exploration Centre
  • Bistro 401 and The Galley: themed, dedicated eateries

At the heart of Titanic Belfast is a fully immersive exhibition that explores Edwardian Belfast, the city that produced the famous ship, and charts the growth of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the story of the Titanic, the people who crafted her, the passengers who sailed on her and the scientists who found her. Titanic Belfast not only tells the story of the Titanic, giving visitors the opportunity to look behind the scenes and marvel at the scale of Belfast’s innovation and industry, but seeks to dispel some of the myths and legends about the tragedy. It is a must-see for anyone with an interest in this fascinating story – and a development that the city can be truly proud of.

The experience team undertook extensive research and consultation to ensure that the exhibition’s content is rooted firmly in fact, and has appeal for all audiences. Titanic Belfast uses a range of interpretative techniques to bring events to life, with oral testament, film, photographs, archival material and a range of media combined to create an engaging and thought provoking experience. Working with the architects, the Team ensured that the gallery spaces take advantage of the building’s scale and proportion. Throughout the exhibition visitors encounter individuals with stories to tell, many of them Belfast people.

The exhibition and experience combines nine galleries across five floors and includes a unique dark ride tour through the shipyard, a 3D ‘cave’ that allows visitors to walk through the ship, and unique HD footage of the Titanic taken by explorer Robert Ballard after he found the wreck in 1985.

If numbers could talk, they would surely say that Titanic Belfast has firmly established itself as an attraction and destination worthy of the phrases ‘successful’ and ‘sought after.’ Annual targets, as set out in the pre-opening plan have been exceeded in all key areas including

  • Retail annual revenue, met 123 days after opening
  • Visitor numbers, met 164 days after opening Conference and Banqueting delegate numbers, met 96 days after opening

“Not another Titanic attraction,” and “Hasn’t this story been done already?” seem to be common reactions to the project name. The response to the first comment is “No, this is not just another Titanic attraction, this is something quite different.” The answer to the latter question is “No, this story has not been told.”

This project starts at the very beginning of the Titanic’s journey and takes place in the shipyards where the ship was built. It is a story of the people who built her and the pride within the community her construction built. It is a beautiful project architecturally, thematically and experientially. It uses theatrical techniques when and where they are needed to immerse the visitor deeper into this part of the story and respects the larger story that unfolds after the ship sets sail and eventually sinks.

From the minute they see the building (that is the height of the superstructure of the actual Titanic), the visitor will subconsciously begin to feel the enormity of the undertaking of building a ship of this scale in the early 1900s.

The designs are thoughtful and do not rely on only one or two interpretive techniques, but rather a range of techniques from oral testaments, film, photographs, archival material and a range of media to engage the guests. Each space blends the technology, architecture and theming in a way that keeps the story and guest experience as a priority in the foreground.

This project embodies beautiful execution, attention to detail, sense of place and time (both in the present and in the past), visual impact, story-telling techniques and community significance.

AOA – Botanical Garden: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore 

Opened in 2012 in Singapore, Gardens by the Bay is an immense, 54-hectare, botanical experience on reclaimed land adjacent to the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel. Hosting 1.7 million visitors in the first five months of operation, the two iconic conservatories—Cloud Forest and Flower Dome—can be seen from all around central Singapore. The attraction includes didactic exhibits, a uniquely configured projection gallery (featuring a screen that wraps from ceiling to wall and across the floor, encouraging people to sit on the projections) and more. Visitors can take the sky path over 130 feet in the air on a suspended/cantilevered “catwalk” through the Cloud Forest – giving visitors a unique perspective on the garden – visit regionally unique biomes, and see exotic and unusual floral specimens in the arid Flower Dome, take in the lush landscape outdoors by walking the elevated skyway across the eighteen spectacular 160 foot tall Supertrees (each a garden experience in itself), or relax in the tranquil café.

More than a mere botanical display, Gardens by the Bay is a compelling and iconic experience that brings education, entertainment, other worldly environments, regionally unique biomes and extraordinary perspectives to Singapore. Created as a gift to the people of Singapore, the project boasts audacious scale, a unique site plan, a focus on quality of the educational and interpretation experience, and, especially, excellence of design.

AOA – Event Spectacular: Michael Jackson: ONE, Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas 


This live entertainment spectacle represents an electrifying achievement for Cirque du Soleil, who have found a new creative recipe for today’s electic, media-centered audiences. In ONE they’ve fused Cirque’s traditional energy with the iconic power of the King of Pop. The two make a perfect marriage; Michael was a longtime fan of Cirque’s magic, and many of his musical themes lend themselves to eclectic spectacle.

Michael Jackson: ONE dazzles at every turn, alternating between multisensory overload and lingering poetry. The show’s creators have deconstructed Michael Jackson into his essential components, both physical and emotional. A single white glove… a fedora hat… a pair of sparkle-spatted shoes… each becomes a springboard to a segment of the show that grows from that single artifact into a mind-blowing series of images. Jackson’s eternal themes find physical expression as well: the healing of Love… the power of Belief… the glory of Unity… these grand ideas combine with Michael’s iconic visuals to remind us of his essential goodness and eternal optimism, even in the face of unspoken sorrows and a life lived in the camera’s glare.

Innovative? Yes. The show introduces a number of first-time performance technologies, including a crazy acrobatic performed on neon green elastic straps, and a manic number in which performers hurl themselves belly-first to the stage floor, then to spring high into the air like crickets. Mapped projection certainly isn’t new, but ONE kicks it into warp drive, wrapping the entire stage, proscenium and theater walls in a dizzying barrage of images that adroitly capture the essence of each song. And while Michael himself is present throughout the show via multiscreen projection and clever costume references, when the moment finally comes (as it must) for The Gloved One to appear in a holographic-style Pepper’s Ghost illusion, it’s done with such lyrical elegance and musical precision that Michael becomes a golden sparkling spirit, blessing the show’s dancers with his magic.

Michael Jackson: ONE qualifies as themed entertainment because despite the somewhat traditional stage format, it reaches beyond the proscenium to immerse audiences visually, sonically and emotionally. [Cirque has been honored with Thea Awards in the past – in 1998 for the “O” show, and again in 2005 for the stage technology of “Ka”.]

AOA – Live Show, Limited Budget: The Song of An Angel, Universal Studios Japan, Osaka 

In Universal Studios Japan’s recreation of Gramercy Park/New York City, a nightly, seasonal overlay blends local-cultural relevance with the magic of Christmas in the big city. Playing to an audience where Western holiday pageantry and religious significance are not inbred, “The Song of an Angel” works its magic by overlaying the Japanese reverence for young love and emotional aspects of marriage, onto the familiar western music, and themes of the Christmas holiday.

Projection mapping is deployed onto the Gramercy Park facades to produce an ever-changing romantic backdrop to frame the 25-minute spectacular. It begins with a Christmas Eve marriage proposal set in the snowy hustle and bustle of New York City. Then, the wintry setting is transformed into saturated stained glass, with color and Gothic motifs creating a massive formal environment for the wedding ceremony. In the final act, the newlyweds celebrate their union and the joy of the season in a riot of iconic Christmas symbols, enhanced by guest participation (electric candles), fireworks, an enormous Christmas tree (holding the Guinness record for the greatest number of lights), and above it all, masses of angels.

The story is enacted by a large cast of nearly 50 performers, appearing first as family and city dwellers, then as cathedral choirs, and finally as angels on high trumpeting the joy of the season and love for the start of a new family.

Many productions around the globe have made great use of projected mapping on architectural facades, but what makes The Song of an Angel exceptional is the way in which mapping technology is integrated into fully-staged performance and emotional storytelling. Adding to the projection on existing facades, temporary stages and projection surfaces have been built for the show to allow the large cast to perform at all levels and areas of the massive environment. This culminates in a finale where practical roof structures add to the multi-leveled performance stages, allowing angelic performers to preside over the festivities from far above.

The depth and height of the various stages conceals dimensional sets and theatrical lifts which add to the visuals at dramatic points in the program. For example, during the “stained glass wedding ceremony”, an overarching angel performs an operatic solo, while rising up from behind the bride and groom exchanging their vows.

Music, live performance, projections, sets, costumes and pyrotechnics work together to build an emotional arc that reaches out to a culturally unique audience. This spectacular display of western traditions and customs, frames a warm story of Japanese domestic relevance. With this show Universal has defined the term “Event Spectacular” and bridged a cultural divide. This is a live performance that is stunning and emotionally engaging for all.

20th Annual THEA Awards Nominating Committee 

Phil Hettema, Chair

Patti Drum, Vice-Chair

Rick Rothschild, Board Liaison

Karen McGee, Coordinator

Buzz Price Thea Award Recipients 

Marty Sklar (Buzz Price Thea Nomination Subcommittee Chair)

Monty Lunde (Technical Subcommittee Co-Chair)

Don Iwerks*

Bob Gurr (Technical Subcommittee Co-Chair)

Tony Baxter

Jon Jerde*

Barry Upson

Yves Pepin

Bob Rogers

Jack Rouse*

Bob Ward

Mark Fuller*

Kim Irvine

Joe Rohde

Frank Stanek

* Non-participating

Committee Members 

Patricia MacKay

Michel den Dulk

Craig Hanna

Brad Merriman

Lisa Passamonte-Green

Adam Bezark

John Robinett

KathyOliverWant to know what goes into the biggest evening in themed entertainment design?  Click here to hear PatrickRobergePhotoKathy Oliver (Sr. Producer of the 19th Annual Thea Awards) and Patrick Roberge (President & Creative Director of Patrick Roberge Productions) join Doug Barnes and Robert Coker to discuss their history in the themed entertainment industry as well as producing last year’s Thea Awards Ceremony.  Oliver and Roberge will be resuming their roles this year for the 20th Annual Thea Awards, April 5 at the Disneyland Resort.

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