23 Apr 2012 Design Tools

Design Tools: What tools are used?

One subject that has not addressed yet is the question of design tools: That is, what tools are used by designers to create theme park attractions?

Sketchup is a great new tool for theme park designers. It allows a designer to quickly take a two dimensional AutoCad drawing and elevate it, quickly turning it into a three dimensional object. As a theme park consultants, we frequently create new attractions from scratch using their easy-to-use interface. The drawings are simple to both import and export to and from Autocad, making it a truly wonderful tool in a designers’ toolkit.

Sketchup will never completely replace the 3-D mass model as a tool for designing a space, but the ability to ‘fly-through a space as well as the easy of editing of buildings and other objects make this tool quite invaluable.

One particular theme park designer recently was able to elevate and create an existing theme park in 3-D. In a little less than a week, he had an entire theme park model. All of this was made possible with Sketchup, a single AutoCad site plan, and a set of elevations. More and more theme park attractions are being designed conceptually from an archictectural standpoint.

Says one theme park designer, “We were tasked with elevating an entire area of a theme park for a new show. So along with a set of elevations, we elevated an entire theme park in about a week. Sketchup is an easy program to learn, and a valuable tool for the future.”

One thing is clear: While SketchUp is a very new tool, The future is bright for this program. You can purchase sketchup online at Helpful online tutorials will allow you to learn quickly.

I want to contact an Imagineer at WDI. How do I do this?

Eddie –

I would like to contact Joe Lanzisero. Is there anyone who may have his mailing address? I have an idea for a concept/theme for Disney World that I would like to share with him. I don’t want any money. I don’t want to become an Imagineer. I just want him to listen to the idea. If he likes it, I would love no more than the joy of seeing it become a reality. Any suggestions?

Thanks, Edwin

Edwin –

Nothing stops you from calling WDI (818-544-6500) and looking him up. My experience with WDI legal policy is that guys like Joe and I aren’t allowed to listen to Attraction ideas from the outside (free or not.)

There have been issues with people telling us their ideas and later suing WDI as if we had stolen them. In many cases we were already working on something similar, so we out and out stopped hearing suggestions.

Eddie Sotto

CEO Sotto Inc. Former Senior Vice President Walt Disney Imagineering


Themed Attraction Design, Part Three The Sixth Sense, the Story, and the Cliche`

In part one we explained how an immersive themed environment creates an envelope around the viewer with the intent to convince him that what he is experiencing is real.  This is accomplished by designing an environment that influences all five sense. But how do we complete the task?  How do we take a passive viewer and pull him from a relaxed realm as an observer into a realm of fantasy that truly seems real?  Part of the answer is in what we like to call the sixth sense.   In themed entertainment, this sixth sense is the imagination or the suspension of disbelief. Tapping the sixth sense is accomplished through the use of theming, storyline, and the creative use of story-reinforcing iconography.   The first step in tapping into a guest’s sixth sense is to make sure that the themed attraction focuses on a story.  I have toured quite a few theme parks in the last few years, and one of the biggest mistakes that nearly all of them still make is that they attempt to make their attractions themed by simply adding scenery and props to it. I think part of the problem is that many ride manufacturers want to get in on the “theming thing” just like everyone else.  They make a cool looking ride that a gets management excited.  But unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense with the theme of the area, nor does it help tell an immersive story.

For example, if you were to ride a Ferris wheel named “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, where each car was shaped like a submarine, would you leave the ride feeling like you had actually experienced a Jules Verne novel? Probably not. In this case, a Ferris wheel painted bright yellow would give you an identical ride experience, because there is no emotion and no story attached to the attraction. This sort of attraction is what may be considered a poor themed experience, as simply adding expensive props to a set adds nothing of value to the guest experience. A Ferris wheel can hardly evoke too much emotion because there is no story involved.

Along the same lines let us take the Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera as an example.  Phantom of the Opera is an excellent Broadway show, combining beautiful imagery, striking special effects, and hauntingly exciting music. It is a compelling story of a brilliant, yet grotesquely deformed man and his love affair with a woman.  Now suppose we were to remove the story from Phantom. If all the special effects and pyrotechnics were set off, if a few nice props were on the set, and if once in a while someone would come out and sing a song or two; would we, the guest still have the same experience? It would be more of a talent show than a Broadway show, correct? Story is one of the keys to stirring the guests’ emotion.  So in creating a truly memorable theme park experience, every themed attraction should have a story just as every Broadway musical has a story.

Now let us imagine another theme park attraction.  The theme is still “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”* This time we will try to influence all five senses, and our aforementioned sixth sense.  Of course, the story comes first:  Imagine being inside the dimly lit control room of The Nautilus. Captain Nemo is there, calmly giving out orders to his highly trained crew.  All seems well as the crew carries their duties with a characteristic din.  The sonar pings rhythmically, and Nemo seems truly at ease, though astute in the command chair as his vessel slips silently through the water several fathoms below the surface.  The chamber smells of freshly oiled machinery with an occasional whiff of diesel. You are aboard a well-maintained machine. The chamber glows red with the interior submarine working lights.

Suddenly, the sonar begins to make not one, but two pings every few seconds.

“We have a contact, Captain!”  the young sonar operator reports.

“Can you tell what it is?”  Nemo asks.

“I’m not sure sir, but it is big, and it is approaching at 20 knots.  It is intercepting us!”

“Full left rudder!  Brace for impact,”  Nemo commands.

And just then the entire room shudders, and you are jolted by the impact.  One of the young ensigns is thrown from his chair.  The sound of collision is terribly loud – a cacophony of reverberating steel.

“Damage reports!  Battle Stations!” Nemo shouts as nozzles begin to burst in various places throughout the room.

As the salty spray hits your arms and face, you begin to feel like this will not be the serene voyage you thought it would be.

This is a short story that I made up based on the Jules Verne novel, but this is the sort of story one might expect for this sort of theme, and, given the proper ride system, this could be a truly memorable guest experience.  Don’t you agree?   What have I done differently than the Ferris wheel?  Answer: I have placed you not as an observer of the action, but as a crew member inside the submarine. There is something at stake for you just as much as there is for Nemo. You are in a closed environmental envelope. This story not only places you inside the fantasy environment, but it attempts to influence all five senses to convince you that what you are seeing is actually real (as mentioned in Part One).

1.  Sight….You see that you are sitting inside The Nautilus.  The characters necessary to advance the plot are present.

2.  Hearing…You hear the sonar, the engine, the crew, the impact and Captain Nemo talk.

3.  Touch… You not only feel the submarine, but you are very aware that something important has happened as you are nearly thrown from your seat.  At the end of this scene, you feel the ocean water hit your face.   The effect of spray on your face drives home the point that the submarine you are in is in grave danger.

4.  Smell…  You can smell both the grease from the engine and the diesel fumes.  It is evident that this is not just a dressed up room you are sitting in…

5.  Taste… Some of the salt water will reach your face, and with luck . . . your taste buds.  Ones’ naturally curious tongue will help this effect.

6.  I suppose you are wondering where the sixth sense comes in, aren’t you?

This attraction will influence a guest’s sixth sense for a couple reasons;  first because most people already know a whole lot about the novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  It is easier to imagine something that we have a pre-conceived notion about. So in this way, we have tapped into your sense of nostalgia. Second, and more importantly,  this particular attraction forces you, the guest, to imagine the unseen object outside the submarine.  To drive home the point, let me ask this question;  Do you know what attacked the Nautilus?  It should be obvious to most readers that it was a giant squid.  Without even mentioning what the creature actually was, most people knew that a classic undersea battle is about to take place. When a designer can get his audience to start imagining, his work is done. If a design is successful, it gets the ball rolling enough that the visitor’s imagination takes over where reality leaves off.  What the viewer actually sees no longer matters as much because his imagination naturally fills in the blanks for him.  Once this is done, Walla!  We have just created a memorable guest experience. And that’s your sixth sense at work.  You used it just by reading the story, without even riding this attraction!  In this way, a theme park designer plays on the sixth sense of the visitor.    As a further example of how your “sixth sense” may be influenced, take this example from Christian Mikunda, in his book, (translated) The Art of Business Entertainment.  This example describes a television commercial as opposed to a themed attraction, but the mental processes are identical in both mediums.

“In a commercial for Club Mediterranee`, someone strikes a golf ball out of a villa sadly dripping in the rain.  The ball flies over a whole hemisphere and comes to land on a South Sea Island, just a centimetre from the hole.  But:  the ball’s flight is not actually shown.  Instead, you see people following something in the sky with pointed fingers.  Never was a flying object so immediately present as this one you can not even see.  So, to tell a story successfully don’t say everything, don’t show everything.  The consumer should be encouraged to complete the picture.  To do it, he or she will of course need a script – the instructions – which help to easily fill the strategic gaps.  A motto for professional marketing stories could go like this:   A clear storyline with courage to breach detail.”

Mikunda refers to this process as “brain scripting,” which the same as our sixth sense. In this example, a commercial uses a viewer’s sixth sense to effectively fill in the gaps of a storyline.   Tapping the sixth sense also involves the creative use of cliche` icons in order to tap our sixth sense.  A while ago a successful attractions designer told me that in theme attraction design, we, “Never avoid the cliche`”   He explained,  “The reason cliche`s are called cliche`s is because they work. We often intentionally add cliche` icons to our attractions because they are just what the attraction needs to help the visitor make the connection with what’s happening.”   How does this work?   When a person enters an environment and looks at the scenic elements, he immediately asks himself or herself, “What is the relevance of what I am seeing?” Adding a cliche` icon helps relate to the guest their location, where they are, and what is about to happen. It helps set the scene and fire emotions.   A typical movie cliche`, for example (and one of my favorites) is from the horror movies.  It never fails in that scary moment when you know the villain is about to strike, a cat always jumps out at you.  Inevitably, the real killer is very nearby. That is what makes the cat a cliche` icon.  If we were designing a haunted attraction, what better way to set the mood of the scene than by having a cat jump out at the guests?   Combine this with other cliche` icons like ghostly fog effects, a full moon on a cyclorama (a sky-like backdrop), thunderclaps with strobe lightning, a classic weather-beaten Victorian haunted house on a hill, a graveyard, a howling dog; and every guest will know exactly what sort of environment he is in.  He will know exactly what sort of story to expect, because it is already in his mind.   As a further example:  If a viewer enters a show scene in a boat and sees the back end of the ship rising above him, it tells him nothing.  But if the letters “T   I   T   A   N   I   C”  are emblazoned on the back of the ship, the viewer might immediately say to himself,  “Oh yes, now I know where I am, and I have a good idea about what’s going to happen!  It is a very exciting moment when that connection is made.  The moment the light bulb goes on is the very moment we strive for when we design an attraction. That’s the sixth sense, when the imagination turns on and reality starts to matter less.  Once the guest’s sixth sense starts working, the storytelling (now enhanced by a viewer’s imagination) can truly begin.

In short. . . A Cliche` sometimes helps the architecture tell a better story

So in essence, it’s not enough just to add sights and sounds to an attraction. The attraction should be a creative blend of sights, sounds, and storytelling devices used to stir the emotion and imagination of a guest.  With the proper use of all of the elements we have talked about so far it is very possible to create a guest experience exciting enough to keep guests coming back time and again.

How can I share my ideas with Disney?

Eddie –

I would like to contact Joe Lanzisero. Is there anyone who may have his mailing address? I have an idea for a concept/theme for Disney World that I would like to share with him. I don’t want any money. I don’t want to become an Imagineer. I just want him to listen to the idea. If he likes it, I would love no more than the joy of seeing it become a reality. Any suggestions?

Thanks, Edwin

Edwin –

Nothing stops you from calling WDI (818-544-6500) and looking him up. My experience with WDI legal policy is that guys like Joe and I aren’t allowed to listen to Attraction ideas from the outside (free or not.)

There have been issues with people telling us their ideas and later suing WDI as if we had stolen them. In many cases we were already working on something similar, so we out and out stopped hearing suggestions.

Eddie Sotto

CEO Sotto Inc. Former Senior Vice President Walt Disney Imagineering

Themed Attraction Design, Part One. Immersive Environments

Environments Like storytelling, illustration, or musical composition, the design of immersive theme park attractions is very much an art form. An artist’s canvas is limited in that it can only be seen. A motion picture or at a stage production is limited to sight and sound. But an immersive theme park attraction utilizes all the senses in order to seemingly take a person on a journey to the ends of the earth, or beyond. This experience oriented architecture is much more complex than many forms of art or entertainment because it must be cater to all the senses.

Seeing is Believing

Visual imagery is the most obvious and most necessary tool for creating the themed environment. Each visitor will enter a themed attraction and then judge whether or not he believes what he sees. It is this critical judgment that the designer must try to reinforce.  In doing so, it is imperative that every detail be considered.

Here are several aspects that one must consider when creating the visual aspects of an immersive theme park attraction:

1. Architectural sets & scenic: The guest should be completely engulfed in a new world, and the architecture should be designed to accomplish this task. In an ideal world, no expense should be spared to painstakingly recreate exquisite environments. Elements should be placed in the environment that reinforces the fact that this is indeed a special world. The goal is to create a complete envelope around the guest. In the real world, budgets are always a factor, so one cannot construct an entire new world. This world has limits, but it extends as far as the guest is allowed to see.

Even when budgets and scenes are being cut it is wise to remember the words of Eddie Sotto, “Always keep the fire in the dragon’s breath.” Keep the important elements, and hide other exposed areas in the dark. One must always strive to avoid many common design pitfalls where some of the outside world leaks inside and ruins the immersive environment. A few examples of this include: exposed doors, broken sets, and exit signs and trash dtropped by previous guests.

2. Greenery and foliage: All too often in today’s theme parks, millions of dollars are spent on new attractions, leaving greenery and lanscape design as an afterthought. Greenery is to architecture what make-up is to a model. Good landscape design adds an aesthetic to the show sets that is necessary for completing an environment.

3. Lighting: When lighting is done well, people generally comment on how good the architecture looks.  However,  when the lighting is done poorly, people are usually very quick to criticize the lighting design.

Lighting is very important to the success of an immersive themed attraction. There are two primary types of lighting in themed entertainment design: architectural lighting, and show lighting. Each has different functions, but both are necessary.

Architectural lighting is the lighting that reveals common architectural interiors and exteriors, including the landscaping. Care should be taken to reveal the most important objects (called “tasks”) in the area. This lighting consists of ordinary light fixtures, and is used to guide the guests and make normal environments seem more pleasant or work easier.

Theatrical lighting is used to create moods through the use of color and the careful highlighting of important elements of the set. Show lights can be extremely powerful, often exceeding 1000 watts per fixture. They are an invaluable resource with almost limitless utility. Three such unique theatrical lighting elements are the gobo, black lighting and fiber optic lighting.:

Gobo (short for go-between) patterns are used to project intricate patterns of light onto the walls, which is just one of the many special effects available with theatrical lighting. Black lighting is used in various situations in themed environments to create striking visual effects. Black-lights are special light bulbs that emit only Ultra-violet light, radiation which is invisible to the human eye. Special fluorescent paints glow when bombarded with this ultra-violet light, which is how the effect is created. Black-light could be used to create the illusion of a far off city at night. In this example, the distant windows and streetlights are be painted on a scenic backdrop with fluorescent paints and the black-light would create a glowing effect.  Black-lighting is also very useful when lighting three dimensional animated characters, as they appear very life like and cartoon-ish. As well, a room becomes extremely striking in appearance when lit only with black-light, as people are not used to seeing fluorescence. Indeed, black-lighting is a very valuable tool in certain situations. Fiberoptic lighting has gone from a little used resource a few years ago to a widespread lighting technique with a tremendous number of applications today. A fiberoptic light is composed of an illuminator, which produces light to be directed into the fibers, and bundles of plastic tubes (the fibers themselves in various lengths and sizes). Fiber optic lighting looks exactly like neon lighting with two distinct advantages: first, it is flexible conduit so it can be moved while it is illuminated; and second, its color can be changed (sometimes every few seconds) through the use of a color wheel that is attached to the illuminator. A further advantage is that the end points of the fibers make realistic looking stars for settings where a night-time sky is needed, or it can be used to make ordinary signage sparkle. Fiber optics can be used for lighting while simultaneously shooting security camera footage as light travels both directions through the fibers.  The only drawbacks to fiber optics are that the bundles of fibers tend to cost about 20 dollars per linear foot (imagine covering an entire ceiling with “stars” at that cost), and that they generate a tremendous amount of heat. Sound: The Mood Setter

There is no more effective tool for shaping the mood in a space than sound. Consider the feelings you experienced when you last heard the following movie theme songs:

Title song, Chariots of Fire,

Baby Mine, Dumbo,

Title song; Raiders of the Lost Ark

Imperial Death March; Star Wars

Title song; The Twilight Zone

Title Song; Psycho

When You Wish Upon a Star; Pinocchio

Eye of the Tiger, Rocky 3

Just as television and movies continuously use background sounds to add mood and interest, so should it be with themed attractions and architectural showplaces.Just as no television show or movie would go without a musical score, the power of sound is all-important to an immersive enviroment whether it be a through theme song, a special effect or story enhancing dialog.

Tactile Tactics

Tactile stimulation is important in immersive attractions as well. Consider the effect a spray of mist on the face would have on a guest in a tropical themed adventure ride, or how the cold iron bars in a dungeon might feel to a visitor of that attraction. The heavy wooden and stone textures of a queue or attraction interior has a tremendous impact on the guest. The applications for texture planning are endless, and clearly contribute to an effective environmental design.

A Taste Sensation

Although smell and taste are usually thought of as two different senses, they are so closely linked that for our purposes they can be considered one in the same. Humans use these senses very little in comparison to those senses previously mentioned, but they should never be overlooked when planning an attraction. Indeed, a well-placed scent can provide that final touch of realism that will make the experience a memorable one. Consider how the smell of smoke could enhance a burning building set, or how that distinctive sea aroma would contribute to an ocean themed attraction. Imagine how the wafting smell of rain would make a visitor feel before entering a ride featuring a tornado or thunderstorm? There are many more uses of smell than are immediately obvious to most, but good designers get paid to focus on details like these.   The following piece is from EPCOT CENTER TODAY,  Vol 1, No. 2 1981.   (Outdated, or were they just ahead of their time?)

Disney Imagineers have added a fifth sense to the newest attractions at Epcot Center.  The sense of smell will be added to scores of other special effects in a new generation of Disney shows now being designed for Future World and the World Showcase pavilions.   Working with the Imagineers at WED Enterprises in California, Bob McCarthy has developed “a smellitzer machine”,  to add the aroma of everything from an erupting volcano in the Universe of Energy show to the tantalizing smell of a barbecue of the fragrance of orange blossoms.  Each will be keyed to a particular show scene to enhance the realism of experiences in the Future World and World Showcase.

WED designers are collecting scents from suppliers all over the world and blending them to produce the desired effect.  So far, more than 300 odors have been tried, but more than 3,000 will be tested before the final choices are made.  The smellitzer operates like an air cannon, aiming the scent up to 200 feet across a room toward an exhaust system.  Guests traveling on the moving vehicles will pass through the scene as the appropriate scent drifts across their path.   Regulated by computer, the scent can be triggered for a fresh aroma just prior to each vehicle’s arrival.   According to McCarthy, the use of smell has fascinated the entertainment industry for a long time.   “Back in the fifties, Mike Todd developed a process called ‘smell-a-vision’,”  McCarthy said.  “The idea was to release certain scents into the theatre as the visual counterpart was shown on the screen.”  McCarthy,  who worked with Todd on the project, claims there were many problems with “smell-a-vision.”  “The main problems was that odors tended to linger in the air, and after a while they all blended together,” he said.  “We couldn’t get the scents in and out of the theatre quickly enough.”   At Epcot Center,  the situation will be different because the audience will be moving through each of the many experiences in each pavilion.

Some of the most unusual scents will be in the Land pavilion at Epcot Center.  Here, the visitors will experience tropical vegetation, rain forests, deserts; some of the great terrain found on Earth.   Of course, Disney “Imagineers” plan to supply all the appropriate smells.  Guests traveling through a farming scene may detect a faint animal smell.  In another scene, an orange grove will smell like the real thing.  Still another effect calls for the smell of damp earth.

Some of the smells will hardly be noticeable to most people.  The aroma will be there, but the sensory perception may not be a conscious one.  The WED engineers have learned how to regulate the strength or intensity of the odors used.  A whole generation of unique techniques, special effects and transportation systems are being developed for Epcot Center.

Final thoughts

The best immersive themed park attractions can be said to be perfect mimics of the environment it attempts to re-create. When done well, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred, and a truly memorable guest experience is created. But to be effective, these attractions must effectively stimulate all the senses.

Show control: It’s all about the timing

“The key to great storytelling is not just in the content, but in the timing. . .”

— Tom Soranno

He’s a talented ride and show engineer who has played a major role in the design of many of the world’s newest and complex theme park rides.  Here’s our exclusive interview with Tom Soranno, ride and show engineer with ITEC Entertainment Corporation in Orlando, Florida.

Nate Naversen:  Thanks for agreeing to this interview Tom. Just to start off, can you tell us a little bit about your position?

Tom Soranno: Well, as a themed entertainment engineer, I am one of the lead members of a team that takes an entertainment project from the conceptual design and builds it into a working ride or show.

NN: Now just so our readers understand precisely what we are talking about, the creative team (guys like me) will develop a concept from a mere idea to the point where it’s ready to be turned into a real attraction. That’s where guys like you come in. We hand our concept over to the engineering team in order to make it work. The creative team develops the concept, and the technical team makes it all happen.

Tom: That’s exactly right.

NN: And it is quite and undertaking. Will you tell us what goes into creating a themed attraction from your point of view?

Tom: Surprisingly, quite a lot. Much time goes into developing the concept for a new ride or show. Like movies, many of the original ideas never make it into the final design.

NN: Tell me about it! Some of our best ideas end up on the cutting room floor.

Tom: But once a concept is developed, our technical team is assembled. This team tackles the challenge of developing these ideas into a set of plans from which the new attraction can be built. Everything from where the power should enter the facility to how the animatronic figures are going to operate is defined in detail. All of this can take several months.

NN: Will you explain your role on this team?

Tom: Typically, I develop the working plans and drawings needed for integrating the ride and show elements into the attraction, resolve technical issues, coordinate ride and show programming, and ultimately perform functional and safety tests on the show to ensure it meets with the client’s approval.



Tom Soranno designed and engineered the custom Harley Davidson motorcycle that Arnold Schwarznegger “rides” in the Terminator 2 3-D show at Universal Studios Florida.

Getting the motorcycle to explode off the screen and onto the theater’s stage takes the split-second timing of four show computers. Over three thousand hours of design, programming, and testing went into creating it. The result is a special effect that seamlessly blends the movie into the live action.


NN: You mentioned ride and show programming as part of the design process. Tell us more about that.

Tom: The key to great storytelling is not just in the content, but in the timing. When we tell stories theatrically, all of the elements must work together in harmony to do this successfully. We also want our guests to see a quality show each time they visit the attraction, so the attraction must be reliable. To make this possible, most of the major show elements such as lighting, sound, animation, and special effects are controlled by computers. These computers are specially programmed to control show timing down to one-thirtieth of a second.

NN: One-thirtieth of a second is awfully fast. Why is that sort of precision so necessary?

Tom: Well, the average person can notice a one-tenth of a second difference between video and audio events. Just like a movie, a scene in an attraction can be out of sync and the guests may notice our “bad show.” In order to make and keep the show magic, we must control and adjust the timing at a much faster pace in order to keep the show running at the proper speed.

NN: So how long does it typically take to get a ride or show ‘programmed’ for guests?

Tom:  Depending on the complexity of the system, it can take a team of programmers several hundred hours to fully program a ride or show. Even more time is needed when safety issues are involved. Most thrill attractions use a number of special effects to give the guests a feeling of adventure and danger.

NN: And your show programming has to make sure the guests have that feeling of danger while remaining completely safe at all times.

Tom: Right, these show elements must be carefully programmed with many safety interlocks so equipment will not be damaged or, worse, a guest or staff member is injured.

NN: Give us an example of programming for a ride. Let’s say your task is to prepare a scene in a flume ride for operation. To help you out, I’ll give you a quick ride concept just off the top of my head. This scene is part of our new imaginary ride: “Miner Jake’s Wacky Adventures.”

The scene takes place in a canyon. As the guest boat floats into the scene, they see the river ends in a huge waterfall. To the left, a rockslide blocks an adjoining canyon where the river once branched. As the boatload of guests approaches the waterfall and certain doom, Miner Jake shouts from the hillside, “Don’t fret, I’ll save y’all.  I got plenty o’ dynomite!” Suddenly, a fiery explosion splits the rockslide. Huge pieces of rock splash down just behind the boat drenching the guests. Caught by the current, the guest boat pitches wildly as it is swept through the crevice and down a natural waterslide into the next scene.

NN: What do you think for a quick, 30 second ride concept?

Tom:  I couldn’t have done it better myself.

NN:  Okay, now it’s your turn. As a ride and show engineer, tell me what it takes to make this scene work.

Tom:  First, let’s look at the show elements in the scene. We have:

the miner’s voice (a sound effect), the fiery explosion (pyrotechnics and sound effects), a two-piece rock wall that separates when the explosion takes place, a third rock piece that falls into the water behind the boat, water cannons (to enhance the splash effect of the falling rock), and several water jets (to exaggerate the “sweeping” action of the water and rock the boat as it leaves the scene) NN: Got it. What’s next?

Tom:  Now, we have to think about how we will trigger all of these effects. We’ll need a waterproof switch of some sort that will be activated by the passing boat to let the show computer know that the scene should be started. We should also have some way of knowing the position of the boat so we can properly time the water jets to rock the boat and push it down the slide.

NN: And of course there are safety issues you have to remember.

Tom:  Exactly. That falling rock lands where the boat just was, so we need at least two ways, redundant ways, to determine if the boat is safely out of the ‘landing zone’ before we trigger the rock to fall. And what about water level? If the water level is too low, the boat may get stuck in the scene, and if it is too high, the boat may not be caught by the underwater guides and drift into the scenic waterfall.

NN: That wouldn’t be good!

Tom:  And let’s not forget about the next scene. Since our boat leaves the scene in a free floating waterslide, we need to make sure we have a way to determine if it is safe to release the boat down the slide; after all, another boat may be at the other end. We don’t want our boats bumping into each other. And there is also the pyrotechnic explosion. It has to be impressive but safe.

As you can see, there are many things to consider in just this one scene. You can imagine what the list looks like for a whole ride or show. Much of the time leading up to integration is devoted to answering these questions.

NN: Will you explain more about integration?

Tom:  That’s when the show elements are installed in the attraction and most of the on site testing begins.

NN: Explain the integration process.

Tom: Integration typically involves long hours and running on lots of adrenaline.

NN: And caffeine! Reminds me of the weeks of rehearsal before the opening night of a theater show.

Tom: Very much like that.

NN: Explain the programming and testing process for a new ride.

Tom:  We start with partial show runs, testing out equipment as it is installed, until all of the major equipment is in place. Then it’s time for the art director to work with the show programmers to make adjustments in the show timing. Then we run shows, and we run shows, and we run shows.

NN: Then what do you do?

Together: We run shows! (laughs)

Tom: We run shows making adjustments as necessary to get the right look and feel to the performance. By this time, most of the project team can recite the entire show script in their sleep. In fact, the team practically lives in the attraction throughout integration and the soft opening of the attraction.

NN: Ahhh the soft opening. That’s the proper way to crack an egg, is it not?

Tom: Not exactly Nathan! The soft opening is when the attraction is opened to a limited public audience to gauge their enjoyment and to make technical and show timing adjustments.

NN: It is very much a dress rehearsal for the attraction, in a way.

Tom: Yes. In fact, some of our clients even refer to them as ‘dress rehearsals’.

NN: What rides and shows have you worked on personally?

Tom: Recently, I’ve worked on special effects for the Terminator 2 3D attractions at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Florida, Jurassic Park River Ride and The Cat in The Hat Ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Florida.


The above photo is an animatronic dinosaur at the Jurassic Park River Ride. Tom Soranno played a key role in programing the Jurassic Park animation at Islands of Adventure, including among others, the “raptors”, the “spitters” and the monstrous “T-Rex” at the climax of the ride.


NN: Can you tell me a little more about yourself and how you got started in themed entertainment?

Tom:  I have been interested in themed entertainment since I was young. I remember sitting in front of the television mesmerized by The Wonderful World of Disney movies that aired on Sunday nights.

NN: It seems like we all got our start that way. Don’t you think?

Tom: I looked forward to specials that showed the parks and the animatronic figures. I sketched ideas for rides, and robots, and wrote stories. My talent with computers and stagecraft began to emerge in high school and I knew just what career I wanted to pursue – entertainment engineering.

NN: Sounds like you were really hooked!

Tom:  I was. But wanting and getting are two different things, and even magic needs a little planning. So, I went to college at Penn State, and decided to study electrical engineering as my major so I could learn the electronic ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of what it takes to design the things I imagined as a child. On the side, I continued to stay involved in theater and took additional classes in stagecraft and theatrical lighting.

NN: Were you able to get right into ride and show engineering after college?

Tom:  No. After college I spent eight years designing and programming automated control systems for manufacturing and traveling throughout the United States. Ultimately, I had the opportunity to work in the entertainment design field when I was offered a position with ITEC Entertainment Corporation in Orlando. The rest, as they say, is history.

NN: It seems like it takes everyone a few good failures before they actually break into the industry. I think I failed in interviews 13 straight times before finally succeeding to landing my first job in themed entertainment design.   But in the end, it’s worth it!

Tom: Yes it is.

NN:   Well, thank you very much for taking the time to give us a glimpse into the engineering side of imagineering.

Tom:  You’re welcome.

How to protect your intellectual property

Eddie –

Once you have an idea and a portfolio made up for it, how do you make sure that the people you present it to do not reject you and then steal your idea. How can you prove it is yours?

Steve Davis

Steve –

How do you keep them from stealing your attraction idea from your portfolio? You really can’t. If someone really wants it, they change it a bit and take it. In fact, when I was at WDI, I wasn’t even allowed to look at submitted ideas for projects without legal approval, which they almost never granted. Other companies are less restrictive and allow you to pitch things as long as you sign something. From their perspective, what if you show something they have already thought of? And are considering? Then they are trapped by you. Thus the no look idea.

Don’t make your portfolio about selling a particular idea, but rather selling you, your approach to design and thought process, talent, versatility and skill. Use examples of experience you have, hypothetical designs etc. perhaps something that is less treating to the client you are showing. If they hate the ride idea you are showing, and it’s all about that concept, then their distaste for the specific idea may overshadow your talent in general, and may sour the whole thing.

My experience has always been that I don’t care if they steal it as I’ll give them a free idea as the price of admission or as the means of showing what I can do. You don’t have to give it all away either. Give them the gist without all the detail. The “free idea” is really a means to show you and your ability to generate and execute many ideas, not a particular concept. Most people never execute their ideas anyway, so there is little actual threat. The industry is not used to buying ideas per say, and so don’t set yourself up for that expectation.

This is still a “chicken and egg” thing as how do you show how creative you are if they cannot look at it? That is difficult at best in some companies, but then show examples of how you create on a stage, or a product or a parallel industry. Just your art in many genres is helpful too. Maybe the park would accept a list of enhancements or improvement suggestions that you have seen in their park? That may be less of a new idea, just a way of showing your point of view.

I hope this wasn’t too confusing as every company has a different filter for ideas and pitches.

– Eddie Sotto

CEO Sotto Inc.

Adobe Photoshop

23 Apr 2012 Design Tools

Design Tools: What tools are used? One subject that has not addressed yet is the question of design tools: That is, what tools are used by designers to create theme park attractions?

Photoshop is an invaluable tool in the creation of theme park attractions. Every show set designer should have at least a rudimentary working knowledge of photoshop. The beauty of this program is that like any computer program, it allows you to correct mistakes. Many of us remember the ‘old days’ when we would draw and redraw on a single piece of paper. The paper was handld with care but was usually ripped or muddied in transit to a design presentation. After several weeks of using the drawing, it usually was lined with sweat droplets and ringed with coffee stains. Photoshop presents an invaluable solution because virtually any aspect of a drawing can be enhanced or retouched.

Recently, with the improvement of tablet devices, designers have been skipping paper altogether and painting completely on the screen. It is clear that paint and pencil are being phased out, especially as these online tools become more user friendly and intuitive.

Below you see a site plan created by ITEC Productions (theme park design) . The original site plan was probably drawn in pencil and then rendered in photoshop. Visitors to this site: Please go visit and give them some business. (Thanks for not suing us, Bill!)

Imagineering Bio: Ollie Johnson

Oliver Martin Johnston, Jr. (born on October 31, 1912 in Palo Alto, California) is a pioneer in the field of motion picture animation. He was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and the last living member. His work was recognized with the National Medal of Arts in 2005.He was a directing animator at Walt Disney Studios from 1935-1978. He contributed to many films including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio. His last full work for Disney came with The Rescuers, which was the last film of the second golden age of Disney animation that had begun in 1950 with Cinderella. In The Rescuers, he was caricatured as one of the film’s most important characters, the cat Rufus. Ollie Johnston on his garden railroad in 1993 Johnston co-authored, with Frank Thomas, the classic reference book The Illusion Of Life. This book helped preserve the knowledge of the techniques that were developed at the studio. The partnership of Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas is fondly presented in the documentary “Frank and Ollie”, produced by Theodore Thomas, Frank’s son.

Personal life:

Johnston attended Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Chouinard Art Institute.Ollie married a fellow Disney employee, Ink and Paint artist Marie Worthey, in 1943. Marie Johnston died May 20, 2005. Ollie’s lifelong hobby was live steam trains. Starting in 1949, he built a 1″ scale backyard railroad, with three 1/12th scale locomotives, now owned by his sons. This railroad was one of the inspirations for Walt Disney to build his own backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, which again inspired the building of the railroad in Disneyland.In the 1960s Ollie acquired and restored a full-size narrow-gauge Porter engine. This engine was sold to John Lasseter (of Pixar Studios fame). On November 10, 2005, Ollie Johnston was among the recipients of the prestigious National Medal of Arts, presented by President George W. Bush in an Oval Office ceremony.


Tales from the Disneyworld Jungle Cruise

Candid stories from a former Disneyworld Jungle Cruise skipper By R.C. Loveland

When I was being trained on the Jungle Cruise I learned about a trick the trainers liked to play on their trainees. I was taking a “dead” (empty) trip with my trainer to practice my spiel. He was sitting in the back of the boat and I was, of course, up front. We entered the temple so I sat down and watched the scenery. As I got to the end of the temple I stood up and turned around to get ready to spiel again. When I did I saw me trainer had disappeared from the boat. I assumed he jumped out at the exit point located inside the temple (Midway through, look in the water and you will see large stone blocks laying there. This is the walkway to the doorway just beyond). I shrugged and decided to keep spieling. I turned around to face the elephant pool and my trainer was hanging from the front of the roof of the boat. He scared me to death. Of course, I played this trick with one of my trainees a few years later.

One morning, I was the first boat with guests to leave the dock. As I rounded the corner and entered the “African Veldt” there was horticulture CM using the weed whacker on the Veldt. A new species of wildlife, I guess. At the end of the Veldt is the “Native Uprising” where the explorer and natives are on the pole trying to avoid the Rhino’s horn. One day, as I finished my spiel about that, a passenger next to me said, “With friends like that, who needs enemas?” (Implying about how close the Rhino’s horn is to the bottom man’s behind). And one trip I had a lady in the back of the boat start giggling at that point in the ride. And then for the rest of the trip she just kept laughing hysterically at everything. All I can say was that it made my day. I wish more crews were like that. And the interesting thing was how the guests would rather watch the ducks in the river mating, then watch the millions of dollars worth of animation we had. It is true, at the native ambush one of the natives yells “I Love Disco.” Listen closely right after the first ambush sounds are made.

And an acquaintance of mine was fired from Disney one day while working the Jungle Cruise. He was at the entrance/exit plaza in front of the attraction. Now, at the Magic Kingdom, the Swiss Family Tree House overlooks the J.C. plaza. “J.” was out front doing something when a guest walked up and asked: “Could you tell me what the Swiss Family Tree House is?” I guess J. had had it with guests that day and said: “Look lady,” pointing at it, “It’s a god-damn tree!” Needless to say, he no longer works at Disney.

The college program guys (I worked in MK when only males worked the J.C.) would throw the lead into the river on their last day. But if you went totally underwater you had to go to first aid to get your ears washed out. There was a possibility of getting something nasty from that water.

One of the most stupid acts I ever saw at J.C. was from some new hire. I was at the unload position and he was to bring a boat from the storage area and get ready to bring it onto the ride. Well, he forgot to switch the track switch from one side to the side he was bringing his boat from. He drove the boat through the track switch and the front guide wheel got caught in it. No big problem, just yell for someone on the dock to change the switch. But he didn’t, instead he threw the boat in reverse, climbed out, and turned the switch himself believing he could jump into the boat as it backed-up. Unfortunately, the transmission on the boat screwed up and the boat was actually still in full-throttle forward. As the track switch changed positions the boat shot forward right into the boat I had just finished unloading. Luckily all the guests had exited so no injuries. But the doofus had lunged for the boat and got dragged through the water as held onto the back railing. It was like watching some bad silent-era slap stick film.

There was another guy, “J.” who somehow “lost” his gun from his boat. Now when a gun is lost or stolen it’s a BIG deal. They are real .38 Specials but the barrels are altered so a real bullet can’t be fired. It would explode in your face if you tried (that didn’t stop skippers from sticking ammo in the end of it and shooting the spent shells as they fired them). Well, J. said he went to get his gun at the Hippo Pool and it was gone. He had a boatload of Brazilians at the time but can’t say if they were smart enough to take it. I think one of them did as a souvenir. Well, the ride was closed for the rest of the day as divers searched the river for it. It was never found. I always enjoyed the bunnies and Patagonian Cavy’s that would appear on the veldt or at the Pygmy Canoe beach. On the beach I’d tell them they were killer rabbits and to watch out.

Supposedly there was the shape of Mickey’s head on the backside of Inspiration Falls (at the beginning where the butterflies are) but not on the guests side. You had to walk through the jungle to the backside to see it. I never did get a chance.

At the Elephant Squeeze Play, where it seems like you are going to get soaked by the elephant, I had a lady lunge at the controls to stop the boat because she through we were going to run into the elephant ahead shooting water in front of us. I also had a lady lunge at the wheel when she thought we were leaving the dock. She thought the boat was going to go straight ahead and run into the shore. She was sure embarrassed as the crew and I stared at her when the boat turned itself (yes, it is on a track).

During heavy rain periods (they happen often in Florida) we are told to drive slow around corners because it is possible to drive the boat out of the guide-trough because of high water level. It never happened while I was there, though I always hoped it would.

It was really cool, too, when maintenance put the dye into the water system. There were a few colors they used: several greens and a Tidy-Bowl blue color. The entry point is Schweitzer Falls. Do you know how attractive the falls are when it looks like the blue water from somebody’s toilet is pouring over it? Then you could actually watch the stuff slowly spread through the ride as you went around. They used some industrial strength dye. Everyone told me never to get the dye directly on your clothes because it would never come out. I believed them.

One trick skippers in dead boats like to do is pretend they are dead as they go under the falls and a loaded boat comes the other way headed for the Hippo Pool. Usually we just slumped over the wheel and lay motionless. But I heard one skipper like to take the lanyard from the gun, attach it to the roof beam and put the noose-like end around his neck. He then kneeled on the stool and made it look like he hung himself. Pretty cool.

An old friend of mine worked the J.C. one year. He was spieling when a huge black snake dropped from a tree and landed on the front of the boat. Totally disposing of his manly demeanor, he ran screaming to the back of the boat like a girl. There were always snakes around. It’s Florida and snakes are a fact of life. You especially saw them around the Temple where the rodents like to live. I saw some really huge rat snakes around that area.

One day at unload this skipper was helping guests out of the boat by taking by the arm as he was supposed to do. Some snotty little kid yanked his arm away and said he could get out himself. He promptly tripped and fell on his face. There is a God.

This lead who most CM’s didn’t like decided to jump on the front of a boat and reload the gun for a skipper. Don’t know exactly why he didn’t let the skipper do this himself. Well, as he was doing this, the boat behind them, full of passengers, rammed into the boat with the lead. The lead promptly lost his balance and fell into the river. I also remember the same guy trying to jump a rope in the Haunted Mansion queue for the heck of it and catching his foot so he ate the pavement. If you just wait long enough, the ones you don’t like get it. Chalk another one up for our side.

And one final memory for now of the J.C.: The worst day I worked there (besides when I was sick or allergies prevented me from spieling) was the time it literally rained for 3 days solid. That was the most miserable time there because there is no way to stay completely dry.

-R.C. Loveland, July 29th, 1997


Walt Disney Imagineering Bio: Milt Kahl

Milton Erwin Kahl (born March 22, 1909, in San Francisco, California, USA; died April 19, 1987, in Mill Valley, California, USA, of pneumonia) was an animator for the Disney studio. Kahl is often considered the finest draughtsman of the Disney animators. For many years the final look for the characters in the Disney films were designed by Kahl, in his angular style inspired by Ronald Searle and Picasso. He is revered by contemporary masters of the form, such as Andreas Deja, and Brad Bird. In the book The Animator’s Survival Kit the author Richard Williams makes repeated reference and anecdotes relating to Kahl.

Imagineering Bio: Ollie Johnson

Oliver Martin Johnston, Jr. (born on October 31, 1912 in Palo Alto, California) is a pioneer in the field of motion picture animation. He was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and the last living member. His work was recognized with the National Medal of Arts in 2005.He was a directing animator at Walt Disney Studios from 1935-1978. He contributed to many films including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio. His last full work for Disney came with The Rescuers, which was the last film of the second golden age of Disney animation that had begun in 1950 with Cinderella. In The Rescuers, he was caricatured as one of the film’s most important characters, the cat Rufus. Ollie Johnston on his garden railroad in 1993 Johnston co-authored, with Frank Thomas, the classic reference book The Illusion Of Life. This book helped preserve the knowledge of the techniques that were developed at the studio. The partnership of Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas is fondly presented in the documentary “Frank and Ollie”, produced by Theodore Thomas, Frank’s son.

Personal life:

Johnston attended Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Chouinard Art Institute.Ollie married a fellow Disney employee, Ink and Paint artist Marie Worthey, in 1943. Marie Johnston died May 20, 2005. Ollie’s lifelong hobby was live steam trains. Starting in 1949, he built a 1″ scale backyard railroad, with three 1/12th scale locomotives, now owned by his sons. This railroad was one of the inspirations for Walt Disney to build his own backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, which again inspired the building of the railroad in Disneyland.In the 1960s Ollie acquired and restored a full-size narrow-gauge Porter engine. This engine was sold to John Lasseter (of Pixar Studios fame). On November 10, 2005, Ollie Johnston was among the recipients of the prestigious National Medal of Arts, presented by President George W. Bush in an Oval Office ceremony.

Mickey’s 10 Commandments – Marty Sklar

Every theme park designer should know what’s been done in the past.  Benchmarks and precedents are extremely important.   With that in mind, you should learn the ten guidelines to theme park design developed by Walt Disney Imagineering President Marty Sklar. Mickey’s 10 Commandments

1. Know your audience – Don’t bore people, talk down to them or lose them by assuming that they know what you know.

2. Wear your guest’s shoes – Insist that designers, staff and your board members experience your facility as visitors as often as possible.

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas – Use good story telling techniques, tell good stories not lectures, lay out your exhibit with a clear logic.

4. Create a weenie – Lead visitors from one area to another by creating visual magnets and giving visitors rewards for making the journey

5. Communicate with visual literacy – Make good use of all the non-verbal ways of communication – color, shape, form, texture.

6. Avoid overload – Resist the temptation to tell too much, to have too many objects, don’t force people to swallow more than they can digest, try to stimulate and provide guidance to those who want more.

7. Tell one story at a time – If you have a lot of information divide it into distinct, logical, organized stories, people can absorb and retain information more clearly if the path to the next concept is clear and logical.

8. Avoid contradiction – Clear institutional identity helps give you the competitive edge. Public needs to know who you are and what differentiates you from other institutions they may have seen.

9. For every ounce of treatment , provide a ton of fun – How do you woo people from all other temptations? Give people plenty of opportunity to enjoy themselves by emphasizing ways that let people participate in the experience and by making your environment rich and appealing to all senses.

10. Keep it up – Never underestimate the importance of cleanliness and routine maintenance, people expect to get a good show every time, people will comment more on broken and dirty stuff.

Martin Sklar, Walt Disney Imagineering, Education vs. Entertainment: Competing for audiences, AAM Annual meeting, 1987

4. Theme Park Master Planning – The Attraction Mix

The Attraction Mix – by Peter Alexander

This is your big decision: what kind of attractions are you going to offer, and at what level of quality and professionalism?

Part of this depends on your competition, and just how good you need to make the park to be the best in its area. For example, today, Universal Studios and particularly in Florida, is known for it’s high tech, story oriented rides. But, if the Disney company hadn’t beaten Universal to the punch and opened their MGM Studio Tour before Universal’s in Orlando, none of those rides would have ever been there.

Universal had planned an upgraded version of their California tour, with a front lot “walking tour” with shows for entertainment, and a super-duper version of the Tram Tour on the back lot. In fact, before we opened Universal, Florida in 1990, the company had never before built a ride, and didn’t much want to be in that business. But Disney got to Orlando first with their own improved version of the Universal Hollywood tour. The competition, Disney, had stolen Universal’s thunder, so the only way to compete was with high tech, state of the art rides like “King Kong,” and “Back to the Future.”

In the long run, it was good for both companies and good for the theme park business, because the state of the art of theme park attractions took a huge leap forward.

Now, everyone doesn’t have a Disney park next door, so not everyone needs a “Back to the Future” Ride. But you are going to need something fresh and new, and you have to consider the big factor when you are picking your attraction mix: demographics.

Demographics, the age and income characteristics of the guests, follow attraction mix, and vice versa. If you want a lot of teenagers, you put in a lot of roller coasters. Keep in mind though: even though you’re targeting coaster fans DOES NOT mean you sacrifice on theming and landscaping. Families like indoor shows, if for no other reason than they are air-conditioned and adults enjoy being able to sit for a while. Additionally sometimes, the theme park is the sole source of live shows/theatre in the vicinity, so this draws those people that don’t feel like going to a big city to find that type of entertainment . And “the whole family” likes high tech, story-telling dark rides and simulators. So your attraction mix determines your demographics, or vice versa.

But probably the biggest factor in determining your Master Plan is the personality of the management. If they are “ride guys” who like those “white knucklers,” then at the end of the day you are going to end up with a park full of thrill rides. If they are from “show business” you’ll probably be exploiting some sort of intellectual properties (books, movies, films, etc), like we did at Six Flags with the Batman Stunt Show. If they are risk takers, your park will feature custom, one of a kind rides, or if they are more conservative, they’ll guide you in the direction of selecting proven, off the shelf equipment. In theme park design, as in most other fields, you follow the Golden Rule: He Who Has The Gold Rules. But it’s essential that the theme park designer educate the management so they understand the downside of under cutting the theming, landscaping and ride variety—eventually it will catch up with you and guests will stop coming in DROVES.thus the “gold” dwindles.

You will notice that I did not mention budget as a primary factor in determining the Master Plan of your park. That’s because budget follows the risk profile of the management-the high rollers will go for the biggest budget they can justify, the more conservative managers will pinch the pennies. There’s no one answer, as both well funded, and very lightly funded parks can achieve success. For example, at Six Flags when they were owned by Time Warner in the mid nineties, all the Batman, Looney Tunes, Dennis The Menace, Police Academy and other movie themes were added, increasing both attendance and per capita income, while the capital budget was actually CUT.

When you put all these factors together, and your park is sized properly for the market, your attraction mix is right, you have just the right amount of food and merchandise, and the parking lot is big enough to handle your largest predicted crowd: look out! It’s probably going to be a big hit, and the owner will be asking you why you didn’t make the darn thing a little bigger!

And that’s the last element of a good Master Plan: room for expansion. Given the fact that you are going to have to add new attractions after you open, having space for them without making the place so darn big that you exhaust the guests trying to walk the park, is quite a trick. But a good Master Plan allows plenty of space for new rides, shows or even whole “lands.” When you don’t have enough potential for well-themed additions, you end up planting your new roller coaster over a parking lot, which can ruin the whole effect of adding a new ride.

There are a million factors that you need to take into account when developing a good master plan. For instance, food concessions need to be plentiful and located in the busy sections of the park, so that guests are not waiting in long lines. There are too many of these factors to delve into in one short article, but there is one final design element that should be mentioned. Probably the most important factor in making sure your guests enjoy their day at the park is employee training, so don’t forget to design a good “cast center” where your employees can learn what it takes to serve the guests. You can have the best attractions in the world, but if your staff is rude, indifferent, or incompetent, all the rest of your design goes right down the drain.

If you take all of these factors into account, however, you’ll have one heck of a park.

So, you want to design a theme park? Well, now you know a few tricks of the trade, so have at it!

To learn more about theme park master planning, or to inquire about a possible project, contact Peter Alexander of the Totally Fun Company.

3. Theme Park Master Planning – Park Layout

by Peter Alexander

Park Layout

When people think of Master Planning, a lot of them think of how the park is arranged, which is what we call “park layout.”

There are as many ways to lay out a park as there are designers who do it, but a few have been used more often than not, so we’ll touch on those first.

The Disney approach, seen in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, is what could be called the Icon Design Philosophy. The big Icon for Disney is the Castle at the end of Main Street, and that is also the one “visual contradiction” in that park-as there aren’t a lot of fairytale castles at the end of most American Main Streets. That visual contradiction is designed to “pull” you down Main Street, and that’s basically what the Icon Design Philosophy does-it provides you with big, visual landmarks that pull you through the park. Once you enter Tomorrowland, for example, you’ll see Space Mountain, which is located at the back of that “land” and pulls you to that point. The other Icons, the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain work the same way, and they also help you figure out where you are in the park. If you see Big Thunder ahead of you, then Frontierland must be that way.

Probably the most popular park layout is the “loop” which was first developed by Randy Duell for Six Flags Over Texas, and can be found in more theme parks than any other kind of plan. The “loop” is exactly what it sounds like, a big promenade that circles the park. The good thing about it is that you never get lost, because you are always somewhere on the loop, so if you want to find the exit, just keep on walking. The bad part comes when you decide that the next ride you want to experience is on the other side of the park, and then you have a trek in store to reach it.

Beyond these layouts, there are dozens of others, notably the Universal Studios front lot/back lot plan, and then a whole lot of “I kept growing and growing so this is how I turned out” plans. Those are the places you get lost in, unless the directional graphics are really good.

But no matter what kind of plan you end up with, what really matters most to the guest is how much fun they are going to have, and that is determined by your “attraction mix.”

2. Theme Park Master Planning – The Theme

The Theme

A “Real Theme Park” needs a theme, which is a funny thing to say, but have you ever noticed that a lot of the places we call “theme parks” don’t have much of a theme at all? That’s because a lot of them are not really theme parks, they are just amusement or thrill ride parks with some pretty scenery stuck in between giant iron rides that look like Martian machines from The War of The Worlds. For this discussion, we are going to stick to “Real Theme Parks,” a term which describes Disney, Universal, many of the Busch parks, and certain others such as De Efterling in Holland.

Sometimes you start with a theme, and sometimes you evolve one over time.

For example, at Universal Studios Florida, we started with the theme that we were a working movie studio. Thus, when you arrive at Universal, the first thing you do is walk through the “studio gate.” Now it so happens that the original Universal Studios in Los Angeles never had a studio gate. To get on to the Universal lot, you just drove past a guard shack and waved at a guard named “Scotty.” However, since Scotty passed away, we decided to “borrow” the Paramount Studio main gate for Universal, Florida, and a replica (somewhat improved) of that is what is there today.

The rest of Universal in Florida follows the layout of a standard studio. Once you enter, you are on the “front lot,” which looks like a bunch of sound stages. Some of them are real, and some happen to be rides cloaked in “sound stage themed” (i.e. concrete box) buildings. But if you turn right on to Hollywood Boulevard, like most people do when they enter a theme park, you find yourself on the Back Lot, an area themed to look like the exterior shooting sets of a movie studio. If you walk behind a set, as you often do when you are standing in line for a ride, you’ll see the structure that holds it up-unlike Disneyland-because that’s what you see when you walk behind the façade of a shooting set in Hollywood. It’s all Movie Magic at Universal, and everything in the park flows from that theme.

In other cases, you might end up “finding” your theme after you’ve been in the design stage for awhile. One example of this is Disney’s EPCOT. Walt wanted to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, that is, a working city showcasing future technology. But by the time I arrived at Disney in 1979, that theme had morphed into what it is today: a permanent World’s Fair.

It doesn’t matter how you get to the theme. It might evolve, like EPCOT or be someone’s brainchild, but however you get there the theme determines everything else that you do. And why? Because, as our Executive Art Director at Disney, John Hench, used to say, if you are a real theme park, you cannot have “visual contradictions.” What Mr. Hench meant, basically, is that if you are standing on a 19th century Main Street, you can’t have Space Ships landing in front of you, it ruins the experience, and your theme provides you with the guidance to make these kinds of design decisions.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but we will get to that in our next section, park layout.

1. Theme Park Master Planning: So you want to build a theme park?

by Peter Alexander President;

Totally Fun Company.

So you want to build a theme park?

What do you do? Where do you start? How about taking some cool rides, and putting them together with some good restaurants, fun stores and pretty landscaping? Well, you can do exactly that, and some people have, but if you want to make your theme park work you’d better do some master planning.

The Numbers Game

If you want to build a theme park, the safest place to start is by doing a feasibility study. This study will tell you what kind of market your park will draw upon, what kind of attendance you can expect, and therefore how big to make the park. Now, this is sort of a Catch 22, because unless you have some idea of the type and quality level of the attraction you plan to build, you can’t really pin down how many people will visit it. But given that you have some general idea of what you want to do, a good feasibility study can narrow down the parameters about what you should plan.

There are a million formulas we use when we do these studies, but at the end of the day, they all boil down to one number: The Design Day. To calculate the Design Day, you have to figure out how many people will be coming to the park during a day in peak season, and how many of them will actually be in park at the peak time of day. That number basically tells you how big to make everything-from the size of the walkways to the size of the parking lot. It tells you how many “entertainment units” (i.e. ride, show and game capacity per hour) you need to plan, how many restaurants and stores you’ll need, and just about everything else, except maybe how big to make Mickey Mouse’s ears.

The money guys will use this feasibility study to help them figure out if you are going to make a buck on the park, or go broke. There are two key factors here: your total attendance per year, and the per capita income you can expect from each guest. A lot of this depends on what kind of attractions you have, and how long you can entertain the guests. At a big theme park, like the Magic Kingdom or Universal Studios, there’s more to experience than you can do in one day, so you can charge more for a ticket, and people will spend more on food and merchandise because they stay longer. At a small park, it works the other way.

Even considering all the science and statistical formulas we use, a feasibility study can only provide an educated guess at how big to make your park. For example, at Universal Studios, Florida, despite the fact that the park had a “rough opening,” it exceeded the highest feasibility study attendance projection in the first year, and just kept growing from there. That is to say, more people came than we projected in our wildest imagination! What that meant for the park guests is there were some long lines at first. These exceeded our wildest expectations as well. For example, I had designed the E.T. ride with a pleasant indoor queue themed like a pine forest, but the actual lines stretched well outside the building. Our quick response to that was to improve the queue line experiences with videos, bigger shade structures, and live entertainment, but from a master planning point of view, so long as you leave space for the queues, you are pretty well covered.

Walt Disney Imagineering Bio: Mary Blair

Mary Blair (October 21, 1911–July 26, 1978), born Mary Robinson, was an American artist best remembered today for work done for The Walt Disney Company. Blair produced striking conceptual art for such films as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Her style also lives on through the character designs for the Disney attraction “it’s a small world”, as well as an enormous mosaic inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Blair was honored as a Disney Legend in 1991.

Born October 21, 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma, Mary Browne Robinson moved to Texas while still a small child, and later to California when she was about 7. Having graduated from San Jose State College, Mary won a scholarship to the renowned Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, where teachers included Pruett Carter, Morgan Russell and Lawrence Murphy. In 1934, she married another artist, Lee Everett Blair (October 1, 1911–April 19, 1995).

Both Blairs soon began to work in the animation industry, joining the Ub Iwerks studio. Lee went on to work at the Harman-Ising studios before ultimately joining the Walt Disney studio where he was joined by his wife in 1940.

After leaving the studio for a brief time in 1941, Mary traveled to various South American countries with Walt and Lillian Disney and other artists on a research tour as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. During those trips, Mary and Lee worked on concept art for the animated feature films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros with Mary credited as art supervisor on those films.

She also worked on Make Mine Music, credited as art supervisor, Song of the South, credited for background & color, Melody Time, credited for color & styling, So Dear to My Heart and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studio, with an animated feature released nearly every year. Mary Blair was credited with color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951 and Peter Pan (1953) and the artistic influence of her concept art is strongly felt in those films as well as several animated shorts she designed during that period.

After the completion of Peter Pan, Mary resigned from Disney and worked as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, creating advertising campaigns for companies such as Nabisco, Pepsodent, Maxwell House, Beatrice Foods and others. She also illustrated several Golden Books for publisher Simon & Schuster and designed Christmas and Easter sets for Radio City Music Hall.

At the request of Walt Disney, who highly regarded her innate sense of color styling, Mary began work on the attraction “it’s a small world”, originally a Pepsi-Cola sponsored pavilion benefiting UNICEF at the 1964 New York World’s Fair which moved to Disneyland after the Fair closed and was later replicated at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World as well as Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. (The attraction will also be part of the scheduled expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland).

In 1967, Mary created mural art for Tomorrowland’s Adventure thru Inner Space that was covered over during subsequent renovations of that Disneyland area in 1987 and 1998. That year, she also was credited as color designer on the film version of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

Her design of a ninety-foot high mural remains a focal point of the Disney’s Contemporary Resort hotel at Walt Disney World, which was completed for the resort’s opening in 1971.

Mary Blair died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26, 1978.

While the fine art she created outside of her association with Disney and her work as an illustrator is not widely known or appreciated, her bold and groundbreaking color design still serves as an inspiration to contemporary designers and animators.

Ask an Imagineer!

Do you have a question about themed entertainment design?   Feel free to ask it here.  We’ll answer back as soon as we can.

As well, if you are an experienced professional in themed entertainment design and would like to help answer questions, we’d love to consider you as a moderator.

Imagineering Bio: Marty Sklar

Martin A. “Marty” Sklar is The Walt Disney Company’s international ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering, the subisdary of the company which designs and constructs the Disney theme parks and resorts across the world. Sklar was formerly vice president of concepts and planning for the company, before being promoted to president, and then eventually taking the position of vice chairman and principal creative executive of the company before his current role.

Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Sklar was a student at UCLA and editor of its Daily Bruin newspaper in 1955 when he was recruited to create an 1890s-themed newspaper, The Disneyland News, a month before the theme park opened. After graduating, he joined Disneyland full-time in 1956, where he held responsibility for most of the park’s publicity and marketing materials.

In 1961, he moved to WED Enterprises, renamed in 1986 to Walt Disney Imagineering, where he worked on attractions for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. For nearly 10 years, he wrote personal materials for Walt Disney for use in publications, television and special films. In 1974 he became vice president of concepts/planning, and guided the creative development of EPCOT Center (now known as Epcot) at Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort.

As vice president of creative development, executive vice president and then president of Imagineering for nine years, Sklar supervised the design and construction of Tokyo Disneyland, the Disney-MGM Studios, Disneyland Paris, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea, the Walt Disney Studios Park and most recently Hong Kong Disneyland.

On February 16, 2006, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, the unit of the Walt Disney Company which serves as the umbrella for Walt Disney Imagineering, Jay Rasulo, announced that Sklar would resign from his current position and take up the new position of international ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering. The occupation entails travelling around art and design and architecture colleges, universities and other institutions around the world, offering seminars attracting new talent to the company, as well as being a presence at future attraction and park openings, representing the company. Sklar said in a joint statement, “I knew that as my 72nd birthday and my 50th Disney anniversary approached, I would look for new challenges, so when Jay Rasulo asked me to talk about the future, I was ‘all ears’ to a challenging proposal Jay made. It not only seems to be one of those ideas that is overdue, but it was clear to me that I am the perfect casting (perhaps the only candidate) capable of originating and organizing this assignment.” [1]

In 2001, Sklar was recognized as a Disney Legend and was the second recipient of the Themed Entertainment Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Sklar serves as president of Ryman Arts, whose Ryman Program for Young Artists honors the late Herb Ryman, an artist, designer and fellow Disney Legend.

1 2 3 4


Skip to toolbar