The Central School of Speech and Drama, London
by Lynsey Brown
My college experience as a scenic constructor within the theatre industry has encouraged me to find out more about the theme park industry within my profession.
I have always been excited and even amazed by theme parks and their attractions because they involve you in an environment that stimulates all your senses to achieve unbelievable experiences.
I chose this area for my enquiry for I believe if you have a passion you should pursue it. It was important to find how my role of a scenic constructor would fit in to the theme park industry at present and in the future.
During this IST term I spoke to and visited professionals within the industry, and through rigorous research into the subject revealed an overall sense of the variety of different methods and their approaches to working in this sector of the theme park industry.
I will be specifically looking at the designer’s input and the construction process and will be comparing these processes to theatre, would this be the same as or different to my experience within the theatre industry?
What is a themed attraction?
It is a common misconception that amusement parks and theme parks are the same, but that is not so. The words amusement and park mean quite literally: a place to be amused. The words theme and park, when used together very literally mean: a place for stories, the theme park uses story telling to move emotions.
A themed attraction can be any type of visitor attraction from small exhibitions within museums, to large budget special effect attractions within theme parks. Researching into themed attractions and designs I have heard the term dark rides used. The first dark rides were the tunnels of love at classic amusement parks. They are called dark rides because they are generally inside a building or within a themed attraction, e.g. Judgement Day in the London Dungeon and Pirates of the Caribbean in Disney. Dark rides are the basis of a theme park because they are story-orientated and have a single theme that runs throughout.
Created themed environments immerse an audience in the atmosphere of an attraction and although you will walk round some, others will have a ride within them to transport you in a sequential manner.
An example of this is Madame Tussauds. It began as and still is a waxwork museum with themed rooms like the Garden Party and Grand Hall. Now they have installed the ‘Spirit of London” ride and various other themed sets, it has become one of Britain’s most popular themed visitor attractions, totaling 2 million visitors a year.
Themes for attractions will range from natural disasters to historical facts like that of the London Dungeon. All of the Dungeons created in Britain have their themes, which are usually based on horror and facts surrounding the town or city in which they are placed.
Themes are chosen initially through market research and subsequently what the public demand through targeted survey groups. This process has resulted in staggering attendance figures of 750,000 visitors a year for the London Dungeon.
The attraction’s ‘theme’ will also depend on its location and when placed in a theme park with a movie style theme, e.g. Earthquake will be created within Universal Studios, Florida that re-enacts a scene from a famous movie.
Brief History and the future
Before theme parks were invented the roots of the industry go back to amusement parks in medieval Europe, featuring live entertainment, fireworks, dancing, games and even primitive rides. The world’s oldest operating amusement park, Bakken, north of Copenhagen opened in 1583 and is still operating today.
In the late 1800’s, the growth of the industry shifted to America; initially they were simple operations consisting of picnic facilities, dance halls, restaurants, games and a few amusement rides.
The amusement park entered its golden era in 1893 with the introduction of the Ferris Wheel and a wide array of rides. This was a huge success and dictated amusement park design for the next sixty years.
The amusement park industry grew tremendously over the next three decades and by 1919 over 1,500 amusement parks were in operation; new innovations provided greater and more intense thrills. Unfortunately this did not last as America entered the Depression and by 1935 only 400 amusements parks still remained.
With the end of the World War II, attendances and revenues grew to new records. A new concept, the Kiddieland, took advantage of the post-war baby boom, introducing a new generation to the joys of the amusement park.
The industry was again in distress in the 1950’s as the public turned to entertainment elsewhere like television. What the industry needed was a new concept and that new concept was Disneyland.
When Disneyland opened in 1955 many people were skeptical that an amusement park without the traditional attractions would succeed, but they offered five distinctive themed areas, providing guests with the fantasy of travel to different lands and times with different stories.
Disneyland was an immediate success, and as a result, the theme park era was born.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, theme parks were built in many major cities across America; many of the old traditional amusement parks could not keep up with competition and faced closure. In addition they also borrowed ideas from theme parks and introduced new rides and attractions to their existing parks.
Alton Towers became a theme park in 1980 with the Corkscrew ride. In 1990 the Park became part of The Tussauds Group who have opened many of London’s tourist attractions like Madame Tussauds and The Rock Circus. Although other parks have been around a lot longer than Alton Towers, Drayton Manor Family Theme Park is one of the oldest parks in the country. It began in 1949, as an ‘Inland Pleasure Resort’ and is still there to this day introducing themed areas.
Theme parks continued to develop into the 1990’s and on average visitors can stay up to 3-4 days. The average time spent in amusement parks was only 2 hours.
Designers and creators or imagineers as they call themselves in Disney are taking a more theatrical approach, requiring the audience to willingly enter the story, with more emphasis on light, sound, illusion, sets and artistry.
The industry has ever-increasing technology at our disposal to satisfy the ever-increasing sophisticated demands of the industry. There are high tech developments and technological advancements being created now, like the new ride at Islands of Adventure, Spider-Man, which integrates a whole range of new high technology.
Although I have been trained as a scenic constructor in the theatre industry, I do not feel daunted by all of the new technology, but excited that I will hopefully get the opportunity to be involved with it in my career.
Criteria for successful theme parks and attractions
Creating a successful themed attraction demands excellent design and the synchronised use of sound, motion, senses, illusion and a multiplicity of effects and skills coupled with imaginative story telling.
The first step is for the development and management company, like Merlin Attractions or Tussauds Group, to research an area in which they think an attraction would be successful. Through rigorous market research and public surveys an idea concept is established.
Once a yearly visitor figure is estimated this gives the company their budget amount required to spend on the particular attraction. They then approach various theming companies with the idea and state the visitor numbers they need per day and what the dwell-time will be. The theming companies then submit their project plan and the client decides, again through public surveys, whether or not it will be a success.
Return visitors are the key to successful attractions; a single memorable element is an essential ingredient. Success depends on drawing visitors in and recommending friends. If this doesn’t happen the managing company would monitor visitor satisfaction, which helps them to improve visitor attendance.
There has to be a real need to find new methods of enhancing attractions to entice visitors back, no returns means no attraction. This puts a lot of pressure on the theming companies.
There has been a recent 4% fall in visits to UK museums, which is attributable to lack of quality theming and imaginative flair. I believe this proves that theming has had a huge added advantage of being entertaining, inspiring and educational. An example of this is the animatronic dinosaur at the Natural History Museum, which may be the introduction of that imaginative flair that could salvage the recent fall in UK museum attendance.
How does the designer use that information and arrive at solutions when creating an attraction?
When creating an attraction, companies like Merlin Attractions first decide whether it is worthwhile becoming involved in a particular project. The result of their market research shows if the figures will bring in the return and if it does not they will only become involved if they are assisted with the investment.
The client will indicate some themed areas the designers will need to cover and how much space they have and of course the budget – the rest is down to the theming company and discussing requirements with the client.
In order to meet these requirements the designers need a good background knowledge of what entertains the general public, what is technically achievable, safe, and practically operational and have an imagination to deliver good ideas.
There are golden rules before designing an attraction in order to make them successful, aesthetically and technically. Designers need to consider how they want the attraction to succeed. Are they going to use ride systems, is the visitor going to watch sitting down or will they walk through? These are fundamental decisions that are discussed and solved between the client and the theming company.
When designers work with a concept they produce initial ideas about the kind of set, effects, layout and profile they want to create in the particular attraction or ride. These will primarily be a list of imaginative ideas that they will submit to the creative team who tackle the challenge of developing these ideas into a set of plans from which the attraction can be built.
They will need to make fundamental decisions on how they apportion the budget between scenic embellishment, landscaping, special effects and finishes etc.
The ideas are initially sketches for there is no point producing high rendered design if the client is not happy. Once discussions with the makers have occurred they can start to think about producing drafted drawings either from CAD or by hand that will state all measurements.
Progressing to a scaled model helps realise the designs. Final submission of concept will outline all aspects of the idea resolving technical issues, composed music, show programming, lighting, special effects everything from where the power should enter the facility to how the animatronic figures are going to operate, all defined in detail.
Compromises also continue throughout the making and fit up process. They usually occur when discussing materials for a prop or scene. Using different cheaper materials that result in a similar outcome, could free up money for something new without going over budget. This compromise should have a minimum impact on the final appearance.
Now health and safety laws govern us more, many solutions to the design are dependant on rules and regulations that may have to change the design slightly.
Building compromises on site occur for structural reasons; if something is not feasible compromises need to be found to keep the end product to the client’s satisfaction.
On site, during fit ups, especially when there are a collaboration of companies involved, frequent changes happen due to falling behind schedule or adhering to original plans, creating a knock on affect for finishing themed companies.
There is always a set time for projects and the opening date never changes, only the time in which the theming companies have to install the themed set and effects resulting in a compromise of their time.
Staging solutions, materials and effects to meet the designer’s needs
There is a whole range of materials and effects that solve many design challenges, artistically and technically to create spectacular effects within themed attractions.
Designers will solve staging arrangements within the particular attraction from the layout to the theme or transport system, ultimately it is what the creative teams produce that brings it to realisation.
To achieve these themed designs the creative team work with a wide variety of materials and effects that create designers’ initial ideas and turn them into themed environments.
Depending on budget, structural, aesthetic or health and safety reasons these materials will be chosen carefully for they all have different properties.
All companies have very large resource books to source a particular prop or effect, if they can find it they will buy it rather than build it, which invariably works out more expensive.
The effects are quite specialised and need experienced and trained crafters to use the materials and create the best quality finish. The crafters are mainly split into carpenters, sculptors, scenic artists and engineers and branch off from those disciplines to, eg animatronic engineers and structural reinforcing engineers.
Creators usually move between skills, so a sculptor may well be able to paint and vice versa. This is encouraged in the industry partly because it keeps ideas and projects alive and mainly because it keeps people employed.
There are not only making craft materials to choose from but also lighting and sound effects have a huge impact on a themed attraction. The collaboration of all three can create very successful attractions.
How creators enhance the design with the wide range of skills and how systems are used within different companies?
There are many ways in which you can enhance a design even in very early stages when rough ‘fag packet’ designs are created into architectural CAD drawings.
These rough sketches are translated into 3D models on CAD, which helps the sculptors and set-builders to produce their scenery. 3D models are a very useful system that can enhance the design and describe it in ways a 2D drawing could not. Not all companies in the themed industry use model boxes unless they feel it will help the sale of a project. Projects have been known to go terribly wrong as a result of not having a model box.
All the effects mentioned so far are used whilst referring to some kind of reference, whether it is a photo, model or drawing. This helps the creator keep in mind the design source whilst producing it, which in the long run will reflect in the finished piece. There have been cases where lack of reference and supervision has resulted in the end product not reflecting the original design.
In some cases creators have tried to enhance the design on an existing ride but actually found that lack of research and testing of an improvement can lead to more problems.
Depending on the company all these approaches vary and some companies prefer to work with model boxes. Likewise some companies do not design in-house and will contract out to freelance designers; others will take on a project and from the concept idea design and build right through to installation.
It doesn’t necessarily mean they are the better company; it’s the one that submits the most competitive proposal that will win the project. It’s very difficult to find a theming company that is good all round.
Concept to Realisation – How does it differ to theatre?
The development of a themed attraction is in many ways very similar to the approach theatre practitioners have, and I was not surprised when the majority of the professionals I spoke to or read about all came from a theatre background.
Usually the method theatre practitioners from concept to realisation is fairly structured as we already have a story line or script and it is how the designer and director realises that play with their concept.
This is very similar to themed attractions as they are derived from a storyline, not as intense as a play or script. Eg the idea concept for the London Dungeon was based on historical events such as the Great Fire of London, the Plague and many others.
The next step, again, is very similar to theatre in that you cannot have a show unless there is a budget and it is very unlikely that the designers will design any kind of set or effects unless they know how much they have to spend. This also applies in the theme park industry.
Budgets within themed attractions are usually dependant on market research around the area of the site and by working out how many visitors they estimate, timed by the amount they will charge for entry will give them a round figure on how much to spend.
Once the budget is finalised you can start to think about what you can achieve with the materials and tools available. You need to assess all the plans and elevations at which point team discussions commence.
At Scenic Route, a particular company in York, assign Head of Departments from each discipline and they liase with the craftsmen on construction techniques. This is very similar to the process at Central and I believe it is very effective because that appointed person will deal with all aspects of the project, including any problems which may arise.
If there are several companies tendering for the same project they will submit the design proposals to the client who will then refer again to market research to ascertain whether the ideas will attain the desired attendance figures.
Within theatre finalised ideas and concepts will culminate in a model box produced by the designer. In the themed industry the designer does not always produce model boxes because they can be too complex. If required by the client they will be contracted out to a specialist model making company.
Design meetings and brainstorming ideas that follow are very similar in both industries. From these designs detailed drafts of the space and the set are produced very similar to the ground plans and side elevations in theatre.
Production meetings take place with appointed HOD’s throughout the process and when it comes to materials, the build and queries HOD’s will work closely with all craft disciplines to choose materials effectively for the job.
This kind of collaboration is very similar to the experiences I have had as a HOD at Central.
The building process is strictly scheduled particularly for an on-site project when installation of the attraction is required. Site visits are essential in order to communicate with other companies on site installing heating or water supplies etc before theming companies arrive. This prevents possible conflict of structures.
Fortunately when working within a theatre space, whether it is a studio black box or proscenium theatre, we begin with an empty space with all essential supplies installed, so ground plans are unlikely to change.
The fit-up process follows and is very similar to theatre with an appointed project/production manager working on-site controlling all activities. This is a very difficult integration process for many things do go wrong as in theatre.
Once fit up is completed theatre would progress with dress and technical rehearsals. The themed industry has the integration process, which usually allows them to run the attraction and test equipment installed. The director will work with show programmers to make adjustments in show timings to achieve the desired effect, just like any theatre practitioner would when creating a piece of theatre.
The opening night in both cases cannot be compromised. With the themed industry it is not unusual for severe penalties to be imposed on companies in their contracts for late completion.
Comparing company structures, what are the similarities and differences between the themed and theatre industry?
Within the themed industry many companies are used to produce themed attractions. These are contracted by management companies who run a whole chain of attractions like the Tussauds Group that have Madame Tussauds, Rock Circus, Thorpe Park and Chessington etc or Merlin Attractions who have the Dungeons and Sea Life Centres.
Similarly in theatre you have the main theatre company e.g. The Royal Opera House who will contract out various jobs to staging companies like Scott Fleary or Kimpton Walker.
Each of those companies will then specialise in a variety of skills and trades. All theming companies are different and like Scott Fleary, who do not specialise in scenic painting, some theming companies will not specialise in construction.
Sarner International in Shepherds Bush are not actually involved practically in the build of their projects but will advertise that they can design and build. Their main department is design and sound design, any lighting and build would be freelanced out but they will always follow a project through to opening. Their administrative side is fairly structured and they have Managing, Marketing, Technical and Creative Directors and production services who deal with the running of a project.
Space Leisure in Colchester who do own their own workshops deal with all the construction and installation of an attraction, but the design stages are undertaken off-site with regular free lance designers. Their administrative side is not so structured and their Managing Director will deal with all pricing, running and control over a job.
Scenic Route has a very large workshop and involved in the construction and installation process; they do not design in-house but contract out to regular designers. The administrative side is very structured and is split into departments ie buying, sales, marketing, production and project development.
A client company like Merlin Attractions do not design but have their own architects who turn their ideas into drawings. Their main job is in market research and finding new ways and sites to build new attractions.
My perception of the role of a Director within the themed industry is that it is split into many different roles from Creative to Managing. This differs within individual companies and only the company seems to structure that.
The designer’s role within the themed industry from idea concept through to design is very much the same process we use within theatre. They work with an idea concept, creating initial design drawings on the layout of the set and its staging, progressing to final designs either on paper or through a model and working closely with the craftsmen.
Within the themed industry there are more creative roles like sculptors and polystyrene carvers, whereas at Central it would prop makers.
Initially I thought scenic constructors consisted mainly of carpenters and engineers. Through further research I found they have a multitude of skills including animatronics and structural engineers or cabinetmakers and joiners.
Project Managers within themed attractions are very similar to the Production Managers or Stage Managers in theatre and are usually employed from an outside source. They are relied on solely for the running of a project, arranging necessary meetings and schedules etc.
Whether you are working on different theatre shows or different themed attractions the fact that each day is different and a challenge in itself, seems that either industry is very exciting to be involved in.
Referring back to my question ‘How is a new themed attraction generated within the theme park industry’? To generate it does not only rely on the actual making of the attraction but a whole process of steps that I have covered in my paper, from initial marketing research and surveys to designing a concept and the collaboration of crafts and skills to installation and running the attraction and improvements.
Developments within the themed industry are continuously improving, theme park and the theming companies that produce these attractions have to keep abreast of developments to progress and maintain their success.
It is considered that super technology, like that of The Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure, is the new secret to entertaining visitors within theme parks and their attractions. My opinion is that super technology will provide us with fantastic effects but believe that the same strategies and creative processes that have been used within the industry for the last century will be the backbone for the next.
As a scenic constructor I look forward to working with both creative processes and new technology to improve my knowledge and continue to create themed attractions all over the world.
Written by Lynsey Brown