These two pictures were taken at two different theme parks, owned by two different theme park companies. The train on the left is at a park on the West Coast, and the train on the right is in a park on the East Coast. Both trains look identical at first glance, don’t they? But upon further inspection, it is easy there is quite a lot of difference in the details that make one experience far greater than the other. When creating theme parks and themed attractions, attention to detail makes all the difference.

I took these two pictures with the intention of writing a compare/contrast essay, but I was even more shocked as I looked at the two pictures together. These pictures only further convinced me of the need to take care in every detail when creating themed environments. It is these details that subconsciously transforms an ordinary place into an immersive one.

Betrayed by Sound

As one approaches the right train, one can hear the huge boiler let off steam. There is a whiff of the steam and the grease. The steam powered whistle is loud and throaty. The train is a completely authentic train, painstakingly restored. The owners of the left train have a very nice replica of an authentic railroad train. In fact, one could even say that it is stunningly beautiful as trains go. But upon close approach to the left train, the terrible sound of a diesel engine truly detracts from the experience.

When it comes to theming, it is important to always take the idea to its furthest workable solution, or everything you strived for can be effectively ruined by a few betraying details, like the sound of the train. In this case the sound of the diesel engine effectively ruined the nostalgia produced by the left train’s good looks. Suppose your favorite alien from your favorite movie wore sneakers instead of alien feet? It wouldn’t effect the plot of the movie in any way, but you expect an alien to have a pair of alien feet. In the same way, a steam-themed train needs to have a water tower, even if it runs on diesel.

One could argue that budgetary necessity limited the owners from a full steam engine. But then why go through the trouble of purchasing a great looking steam train (and spending extra money on it) if the riders aren’t going to be convinced that it is a steam train anyway?  Furthermore, why make it look like a steam train it is a diesel train? There are many beautiful diesel trains of yesteryear, why not acquire a gorgeous diesel train that sounds like a diesel train?

More Pixie Dust Escapes

The landscape and environmental design of the right train is superb. From the grass, to the trees, to the tracks. Everything is immaculately groomed. The left train’s environment is a different story.  There are plenty of weeds and scrub brush on the left train’s tracks and on the hill opposite the station. It is probably not more than two weeks worth of growth, but it is another clue that the left theme park is not concerned with guest experience. Weeds don’t grow in the world of our dreams and imagination (unless dragons are involved, and then they are called briars.) In order to have an extraordinary themed environment, it is important that no details are left to chance.

The Road to Success?

Compare now the pavement on the right and the pavement on the left. The colored concrete on the right reinforces the notion that the right side is a fantasy environment. The enviroment is clean, fresh, and unlike something most people routinely experience. Further, the warm color reflections on a park guest’s face even help make guests look better in photographs. Truly, the colored concrete on the right was well thought out. The color balance to the entire scene was planned as well. The color palette reflects a whimsical and fun environment that is suited to the fantasy scene in which it sits.

In contrast, the dingy concrete loading platform on the left is little different than an ordinary sidewalk. There is a vast array of highly durable surfaces suitable for theme park applications. When choosing the material finish for a load platform, it is wise to explore every possible solution.As we can see from the pictures, the details make a difference.

What Else is Missing?
Note how the little extra additions in architectural structure really help to enhance the effectiveness of the right train as well. The two highly themed show buildings on the right side add just that little bit of extra detail to make the scene complete. One of the structures is a water tower for the train, and the other is a storage shed. Those extra themed buildings are not present in the left park. These are not noticed when they are omitted, but when they are present, they quietly add extra impact to an environment. Even something as simple as a storage shed and a water tower are painstakingly themed to the highest possible level to enhance the show and to drive home the point that is not the sort of place you see every day.  Normal is what well-themed parks should avoid.

Granted, one might argue that it is not fair to criticize the left train for or not having a water tower, because the left train is a diesel train. Diesel trains do not need water towers, do they? Possibly, except that the left train is supposed to be a steam train.  In a themed environment, an imitation steam train needs a water tower just as much as a real steam train does. Every detail possible must be reproduced for accuracy in a themed environment.


There are a lot of theme parks out there, but only a few really amazing theme parks. Designers, developers, owners: Avoid the mistake that left park made, go the extra mile for your paying guests to create the most memorable experience possible. The difference is in the details.

Written by: Nate Naversen

Attention to Detail: How the Details Make the Difference

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