Walt Disney Imagineering Bio: Yale Gracey – from Disney Legends

Yale Gracey (Animation & Imagineering)


Always interested in devising gadgets and building models, layout artist Yale Gracey’s office at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank was always cluttered with some of his lunch-hour experiments. One Saturday afternoon, as Walt Disney made his rounds through deserted offices to see what his staff was working on during the week, he came across one of Yale’s mock-ups, featuring the illusion of falling snow. Impressed, Walt later asked the gadgeteer to help research and develop attractions for Disneyland.

John Hench, senior vice president of creative development, recalled, “Whenever we needed a special effect, we went to Yale. Sometimes it took a while to get what we were asking for, however, along the way he’d develop other marvelous effects we could use. I remember one time we asked him to create a particular illusion and in the process of experimenting he developed a gopher bomb, which we all used in our yards. It worked very well!”

The son of an American Consul, Yale was born in Shanghai, China, in 1910. He attended an English boarding school and after graduation, moved to the United States, where he attended the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles.

In 1939, Yale joined The Walt Disney Studios as a layout artist working on the animated classic “Pinocchio,” followed by “Fantasia.” He also contributed to the layouts and backgrounds of animated shorts featuring Donald Duck and other characters.

In 1961, Yale began the second and most profound stage of his Disney career, as a special effects and lighting artist at Walt Disney Imagineering, then called WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises. With no special effects training other than his own hands-on experimentation, Yale worked as a research and development designer creating illusions, such as the “999 grim, grinning ghosts” featured in the Haunted Mansion and the flames of the burning city in Pirates of the Caribbean. He also contributed to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair attractions, including the Carousel of Progress, for which he developed a pixie dust projector that blocks out everything on stage (during scene changes) via the illusion of glimmering pixie dust, the only light source in a darkened theater. The technology is also used in Space Mountain to block out the surrounding roller coaster structure.

After 36 years with the company, Yale retired October 4, 1975. He continued to consult on special effects and lighting for attractions at Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center in Florida.

Yale died in Los Angeles on September 5, 1983, at the age of 73.

What is WDI looking for when you apply to be an Imagineer?


Just a few hours ago I met my first Imagineer at (believe it or not) an AIAA convention. He was discussing the F-22 and just happened to mention that he was hired by WDI as an engineer, and since then I have been looking at Imagineering sites and stumbled upon this one. I am in such awe of Imagineers because they create fantasy. Fantasy, to me, is something unbound and exaggerated, and an Imagineer’s main job is to bring it to life. How? I have often heard that a dreamer is no good unless he brings it into reality. How do you make that first step from dreaming about a flooded ghost town to actually realizing it? (If this makes no sense, just ignore it.) What is WDI looking for when you apply to be an Imagineer?

-David Howe

Well, now you meet your second imagineer! To answer your question about how to realize your ideas, it takes many things. Timing your idea to the needs of the client, the talent to execute it and initailly pitch its excitement and thrill long before it is realized, (Get the money…) and the team to carry the torch all the way to the finish line.

Second, Imagineering isn’t the only place to do this, I started at other parks and in other roles to get my stuff made. Disney isn’t always the best place to start. In my interview it outlines a different path. I came in with experience and at a higher level. Follow your passions and let them tell you where and when to start. Find out what you are best at and do that, the public will follow.

Eddie Sotto

CEO Sotto Inc.
Former Senior Vice President
Walt Disney Imagineering

Walt Disney Imagineering Bio: Ward Kimball

Ward Walrath Kimball (March 4, 1914 – July 8, 2002) was an Academy Award winning animator for the Walt Disney Studios. He was one of Walt Disney’s team of animators known as Disney’s Nine Old Men. While Kimball was a brilliant draftsman, he preferred to work on comical characters rather than complicated human designs. Animating came easily to him and he was constantly looking to do things differently. Because of this, Walt Disney called Ward a genius in the book, “The Story Of Walt Disney.” While there were many geniuses at Disney, Ward’s efforts stand out as unique, especially within the Disney universe.
Kimball created several classic Disney characters including The Crows in “Dumbo”, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, the Mice and Lucifer from Cinderella, and Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio and animated the famous “Three Caballeros” number. In the mid fifties, he became a director and was responsible for the Academy Award Winning, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” and three Disney television shows about outer space that put the United States into the space program.

He was also a jazz trombonist. He founded and led the seven piece Dixieland band Firehouse Five Plus Two, in which he played trombone. They made at least 13 LP records and toured clubs, college campuses and jazz festivals during the 1940s to early 1970’s. Kimball once said that Walt Disney didn’t mind the second career as long as it didn’t interfere with his animation work.

A view of the narrow gauge Grizzly Flats Railroad locomotive Emma Nevada, coach #5, and a caboose at the Kimball home in San Gabriel, California on June 16, 1946.Along with his employer and friend Walt Disney, Kimball also collected old railroad ephemera, was an avid train enthusiast and donated his 3′ gauge collection to the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California. A full-sized steam locomotive which Kimball actually ran on his private three acre backyard railroad, Grizzly Flats, in San Gabriel, California bears some of his original artwork on the headlamp and cab, and is on permanent display at the museum. He is credited with helping Walt Disney with the inspiration to install the Disneyland Railroad at Disneyland. Inspiration for the Disneyland Railroad also partly came from Walt’s own personal 7 1/4″ gauge, live steam backyard Carolwood Pacific Railroad – also partly built by Ward. Kimball’s Grizzly Flats train station was the model for the Disneyland Frontierland Train Station.

Kimball continued to work at Disney up until the early 70’s, working on the Disney TV program, Mary Poppins, Directing the animation for Bedknobs & Broomsticks and doing titles for some feature films like Million Dollar Duck (1971) and The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin (1967). His last staff work for Disney was Producing and Directing the Disney show, The Mouse Factory.

He continued to do various projects on his own, even returning to Disney to do some publicity tours. Kimball even worked on an attraction for EPCOT Center called The World Of Motion.

Imagineering Bio: Walt Disney

For the company founded by Disney, see The Walt Disney Company.

Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966), was an American film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, and animator. He was the son of parents Flora and Elias Disney, and had three brothers and one sister. As the co-founder (with his brother Roy O. Disney) of Walt Disney Productions, Walt became one of the most well-known motion picture producers in the world. The corporation he co-founded, now known as The Walt Disney Company, today has annual revenues of approximately US $30 billion.

Walt Disney is particularly noted for being a successful storyteller, a hands-on film producer, and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme park design. His brother Roy helped him tremendously with his work. He also had two daughters, Diane and Sharon. He and his staff created a number of the world’s most popular animated properties, including the one many consider Disney’s alter ego, Mickey Mouse. He is also well-known as the namesake of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in the United States.

Walt Disney died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966, a few years prior to the opening of his Walt Disney World dream project in Orlando, Florida.

Who originally comes up with the concept or idea behind a ride?


First of all, how does the designing process start? Who originally comes up with the concept or idea behind a ride? Is it a writer? Engineer? Group decision?

What’s next from there? Does a story writer script it, then pass it on to a engineer to see how viable the project is? Or is a ride conceptualized, then handed over to a writer to script just the dialogue?

Will –

At WDI, there was no one way an idea came about. Sometimes they were a quantified business request from the operator (E-ticket $70m budget, 2000THRC, opens EPCOT 2001, 18-24 age target, thrill ride.) Or an inspiration from a creative executive or Imagineer. Usually, budget is assigned to a need as in above and a group is formed to address it. When a hot solution is arrived at, it is pitched to creative management and if it is embraced, it is fleshed out in a variety of ways. Sketches, models, written treatments are all done to determine the feasibility of the idea. The engineers, estimators, marketers, operators, all look at this blue sky idea and come away with projections of attendance, budget projections of cost, operational feasibility and even technical risk assessment. A business plan determines all of these factors together as a feasibility stage.

All going well, the job gets further defined as it is potentially viable and becomes more designed and technically investigated. Estimates become tighter and the script gets more real as well. Design development lays the groundwork for the final funding of the job to go into production. It goes to corporate for approval and the big check to actually build with a firm deadline, opening, technical risk factor, etc…

Next is the actual production and implementation of the show. the script is now finalized, even listing in a descriptive form outlining the elements and creative action of every set piece is locked down in a scope document.

Nomenclature and graphics are also written into separate deliverables in the show. Graphic labels on bottles on a shelf, to big marquees and window signs are written by the show writer to be cleared by legal and incorporated into design packages.

– Eddie Sotto

CEO Sotto Inc.
Former Senior Vice President
Walt Disney Imagineering

The Sliced Onion Technique: How to Theme a Space

by Nate Naversen

This article discusses how to theme a space or an attraction building the way professional theme park designers do it. This is the technique that a host of experienced themed entertainment designers approach the design of a space from the perspective of theme. This technique, describe here is what we call, ‘the sliced onion’.

An onion is built with layers upon layers, and this is how themed spaces are created as well. There are no established guidelines as to how many layers one adds when defining a theme. But there is a hierarchy that many themed spaces generally follow. Each added layer serves to further enhance the space.

Here’s an example of a sliced onion that will help define a space:

1) Show building: Built by the general contractor, this is a basic architectural structure. In essence, it has no more detail than any other commercial building.

2) Foliage: For exterior spaces, the foliage gives a space curb appeal and shrouds less appealing space. Even with indoor spaces, foliage is just as important. For a theme that attempts to bring the outdoors inside, foliage is essential.

3) Signage: Signage includes the basics as required per code. It also includes signage for way-finding such that a visitor can navigate a space. But signage for a themed space is much more than that. Signage is essential in helping to establish the brand and the character of the space.

4) Special finishes: A theming contractor will add flair to a space above and beyond what the contractor supplies. Textures are added to surfaces and the scenic painting is applied. Scenic paint is the painting that requires special technique above and beyond a simple base coat as applied by the general contractor.

In the example below at the Holy Land Experience, ITEC Productions hired a scenic vendor to add the complex striations over the original show building to create the caves at Q’umran.

5) Show Lighting: Especially in interior spaces, the show lighting is essential to bring a scene to life. Whether a show scene like the Small World below or a space meant to be accessed by people, the show lighting is an important slice of the onion.

6) Show Audio: Audio establishes mood: At Disney’s Boardwalk in Florida, the sounds of seagulls chirping and waves lapping can be heard while standing near the pier. The ambiance is pumped in through speakers overhead. Sometimes the audio is more overt, where a looping soundtrack is broadcast.

7) Set pieces: Show set pieces are applied to the space to enhance and define the theme. No building could ever be built in the shape of The Cat in the Hat. The set piece is fabricated by a scenic vendor and installed on the building.

8) Props: Props are used to provide some of the finishing touches to a space. They reinforce a space with objects that one would find in a typical space of that genre. Unlike props in theater, props in theme park design are generally not meant to be moved. They are fixed to a surface to be experienced by park guests day-in and day-out.

Props are generally classified in at least two ways: Static props and animated props. Static props are a typical prop that does not move. An animated prop is a prop that has some motion built into it. At Pizza Pedattoria at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, the two dinosaurs play “tug-of-war” over a piece of pizza. This is an example of an animated prop.

9) Dressing: There are a number of ways to dress a space. Generally this entails the use of soft goods, cloth, fabric, and any other light material used to finish a space. Many times, dressing serves to conceal areas and hide sight lines.

Below you can see an example of a great use of nearly all the elements discussed so far: Signage, props, dressing, foliage, and special finishes are all present in this picture. Imagine how a ordinary this space would be without those elements.

Conclusion: When creating a theme based on a sliced onion, the key is to continue beyond the finished building. Each layer upon layer defines the theme. Costuming for employees, furniture, outdoor equipment, lighting fixtures, the styling of the trash receptacles all play into the theme. Every object in a space should be addressed.

Why aren’t walk-through attractions more appealing?

Eddie –

In the interview you mentioned that walk-through attractions are very difficult to make successful. I was wondering why you think they are more difficult to make work than attractions with ride systems? What must happen to make a walk-through have that edgy appeal we all crave?

I can think of some examples of what I consider successful walk throughs are: 1) The Swiss Family Tree House 2) Haunted Houses…e.g. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal (especially when you have a lady friend clinging on you!) 3) The Sleeping Beauty Dioramma in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle 4) The Tom Sawyer Island caves 5) Arguably, even the Indiana Jones queue at Disneyland or the Dueling Dragons queue at Islands of Adventure could be considered a walk-through attraction before the actual ride.

However, it still seems like these attractions lack the draw that even a “C” ticket dark ride garners. Why is this? Do you think there are solutions or is that just the way it is?

I welcome your comments. – Nate

I happen to like walk-thrus, but they lack the predictible capacity and ability to pulse guests through. They’re great when you can do 150 an hour. At 1000 THRC they suck. If you need to have groups go through and tell a story in scenes, it is really difficult. You can end up with this choppy continuity of “walk a while, load, do a scene, then stop the action to walk some more.”

The pacing is kind of sluggish and the scenes end up having to be of equal or double length (with twice the guests) for the capacity to work.

In a single file linear, “Continous event” walk through (haunted maze) where it is important to just attack the guest in zones, then you need to create ways separate the guests as to not give away what is ahead. Do the gags intermittently.

The issue always is, if it is really entertaining, people will stop and watch and never move on. A good problem to have until you need more people to see it. So you end up with a “Nice B” Attractions that have a passive appeal like the Tree House. Cool, but the scenes quickly satisfy most guests, they move on.

The cool part of walk-thrus is the intimacy. The “one on one” aspect. The high capacity walk-thru that is my fave is the Haunted Mansion, as you never think of it that way. The ride sucks the guests out of the walk through.

My guess is that guests are more drawn to rides as they are physical experiences that are visceral as you move thru spaces. (no one like marketing walk-thrus) The Halloween walk thrus are perfect as they really violate your personal space and allow live talent to intrude on it. They deliver on your expectation and can be loaded with live talent for short run events.

You also have issues controlling point of view in WT’s. It can be hard to entertain the third person in the back row of a group and give them the big effects. You end up elevating the show to play above the guests just to make the sightlines work. Walk-thrus can be awesome, but there are more pitfalls. Let’s all “crack the code” and do the ultimate walk thru! At WDI I proposed a number of them related to either big theatrical finale scenes (monsters, dragons) that emptied the line. It can be done, it is more difficult.

Good Q Nate, thanks for the interest.

Eddie Sotto

CEO Sotto Inc.
Former Senior Vice President
Walt Disney Imagineering

Roller Coaster Wait Times – A Budgetary Necessity

by Nate Naversen

On a hot day in August, a family of 5 walks up to the hottest new “E-ticket” attraction and gets in line for a staggering 90 minute wait. At the end of the line is a new roller coaster, an experience that lasts just over 1 minute. Sometimes such long wait times are appropriate and can actually contribute to a positive guest experience. But more often, the need for a wait time is intentionally designed into attraction in order to preserve other elements of the ride or show experience.

Budget – A Balancing Act

If given a large enough capacity, any ride attraction will never have any wait time. A park guest will simply walk up to the front of the attraction, step on, and experience the attraction. But there are trade-offs involved when budgeting for theme park attraction capacity and several factors must be considered: Does one save money to create that extra show scene or mind-blowing special effect? Or does one add extra capacity? Often an owner-operator will choose to save budget by sacrificing ride capacity in favor of other factors like a longer ride experience, an extra show scene, more animation (audio-animatronics) or better special effects. Sacrificing ride capacity means one thing: Longer lines.

To use a typical example of how budget may limit the capacity of an attraction, let us use a roller coaster as an example: A two seat, side-by-side coaster may have a train composed of 8 cars. This means that given a dispatch interval of 1 minute (60 dispatches per hour): The ride has a THRC (theoretical hourly ride capacity) capacity of 2 x 8 x 60 = 960 riders per hour.

In order to increase this number, a park operator may decide to add 4 more trains from 8 to 12, increasing the THRC from 960 to 1,440, a 50% increase. But now the weight of the train is roughly 50% more than before, and to accommodate this, a larger number of columns will be required to support the track. But additionally, because the train is heavier, a stronger track system is also required. Now a stronger, triangular-truss tubular rail will be required instead of a double rail system. The additional weight from the heavier track means that even more steel support columns are now necessary. What’s more, because the train is now 50% longer, a larger ride platform and larger storage barn must be built both to accommodate the larger trains. Effectively, the cost for the coaster has doubled. Because budgets are fixed, the only answer is to cut back in other areas. In order to balance the budget and save on steel cost, the owner decides to reduce the coaster experience from 1:30 seconds to 45 seconds as well as cut many of the nice special effects that were also planned for the ride.

Of course, many owner-operators may opt for the opposite strategy: Control costs while simultaneously increasing the ride experience by reducing the ride capacity to an acceptable level. After all, rides will only operate at full capacity during certain times of the day and during peak times of the year anyway. For those days when the park is at capacity, the guests will have to deal with a longer wait time. But many times of the year, even with the smaller capacity, there are no lines. Thus, the wait time is designed into the attraction as part of the experience.

Arguably, a wait time will always be a design consideration when factoring in the cost of a new attraction, but there are changes happening: Will Weiss discusses alternatives to wait times in his article on this site.

Imagineering Bio: Ub Iwerks

Ub Iwerks (Ubbe Ert Iwwerks) (March 24, 1901–July 7, 1971), was a two-times Academy Award winner American animator, cartoonist and special effects technician, who was famous for his work for Walt Disney. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His name is explained by his East Frisian roots — his father, Eert Ubbe Iwwerks, emigrated to the USA in 1869 from the village Uttum in East Frisia (northwest Germany).

Iwerks was responsible for the distinctive style of the earliest Disney animated cartoons. The first few Mickey Mouse cartoons were animated almost entirely by Iwerks. He was considered by many to be Walt Disney’s oldest friend, and spent most of his career with Disney. Iwerks and Disney had a falling-out, and their friendship was severed when Iwerks accepted a contract with a competitor to leave Disney and start an animation studio under his own name.

The Iwerks Studio opened in 1930. Financial backers led by Pat Powers suspected that Iwerks was responsible for much of Disney’s early success. However, while animation for a time suffered at Disney from Iwerks’ departure, it soon rebounded as Disney brought in talented new young animators. The Iwerks Studio enjoyed no great success and failed to rival the top Disney and Fleischer Studios. The backers withdrew further financial support from Iwerks Studio in 1936, and it soon folded. After this, Ub Iwerks worked for a time for Columbia Pictures, before returning to work for Disney in 1940.

After his return to Disney Studios, Iwerks mainly worked on developing special visual effects, like his Academy Award nominated achievement for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. He is credited as developing the processes for combining live action and animation used in Song of the South. He also worked at WED Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering, helping to develop many Disney theme park attractions during the 1960s.

Iwerks’s most famous work outside animating Mickey Mouse was Flip the Frog for his own studio. Flip bears more than a small resemblance to the characters Iwerks drew earlier, Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Iwerks was known for his fast work at drawing and animation and his wacky sense of humor. Animator Chuck Jones, who worked for Iwerks’ studio in his youth, said “Iwerks is Screwy spelled backwards.” Ub Iwerks died in 1971 of a heart attack in Burbank, California, aged 70.

A documentary film, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story was released in 1999, followed by a book written by Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy in 2001.


Trolley Parks – America’s First Amusement Parks

The Trolley Park may have been America’s first amusement park. These parks started in the 19th century and rose in popularity when Charles J. Van Depoele created an electric trolley pole which could power a trolley car. This new invention replaced horse-drawn streetcars in the United States around the beginning of the 20th century. Trolley Parks naturally followed. They were both picnic and recreation areas, and an attempt by trolley companies to earn extra revenue by providing customers a destination at the end of the trolley lines. These parks enjoyed a lot of success and looked upon the success of Coney Island as the prototype. But trolley parks of the day were more conservative and less risque than the sometimes over-the-top nature of Coney Island. Many of these parks were closed on Sundays in deference to the church-going culture of the era.

Trolley parks were generally composed of picnic groves, parks, dance and concert halls, and areas for recreation and relaxation in the cities of the 1800’s. As their popularity grew, trolley parks also introduced swimming pools, ferris wheels, rides, roller coasters, penny arcades, balloon ascensions, merry-go-rounds and other early amusement attractions.

Sea Breeze Park, 1940’s

The great depression, prohibition, and railway strikes took its toll on the trolley parks. By the 1930’s and 1940’s with the growing growing popularity of the automobile, the trolley parks largely disappeared. Citizens no longer needed to stay in town. An exodus of people to the suburbs left the cities largely to the poor and downtrodden. As crime rates skyrocketed, the trolley parks were vandalized, abandoned, and most went bankrupt.


Sea Breeze Park – 1900’s

Still, some of these trolley parks survived and are of the most venerable and beloved parks in the country. Today, there are eleven remaining in the United States.

Sea Breeze Park , Rochester, NY (est 1879)
Dorney Park , Allentown, PA (est 1884)
Lakemont Park, Altoona, PA (est 1894)
Waldameer Park, Erie, PA (est 1896)
Kennywood, West Mifflin, PA (est est 1898)
Midway Park, Maple Springs, NY (est 1898)
Camden Park, Huntington, WV (est 1902)
Canobie Lake Park, Salem, NH (est 1902)
Bushkill Park, Easton, PA (est 1902)
Oaks Amusement Park, Portland, OR (est 1905)
Quassy Amusement Park, Middlebury, CT (est 1908)
At one time, every major American city had at least one Trolley Park.


Attention to Detail: How the Details Make the Difference


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

Enchanted Tiki Room Script

30 Apr 2012 Show Writing












Before the Enchanted Tiki Room show begins, guests wait in the Tiki garden where statues of tiki gods describe themselves.

Maui: My name is Maui, but teenagers call me Maui Wowie. My kids run late and that’s a crock, so I invented the first clock.

Koro: A low ha! Wahanana wikiwiki banana. I am Koro, disco dancer! Today I no feel much like dancing. Big hangover! But last night, all tiki friends have big time back at my pad. Big party! When drums beat out the funky jive, I dance and sing to “Staying Alive.”

Tangaroa-Ru: Kids call me Tangaroa-Ru, the blustery ooooooooone!

Kanga: And I am Kanga, mother of Ru.

Tangaroa-Ru: Me gentle fella get caught in rain, float around in turned-over umbrella.

Pele: I am Pele, goddess of hooligans and soccer. Some say I am no fun to play with, for when my thuggish temper rises, the game is called for massive violence!

Ngendi: Legends say I balancing my checkbook, but sad to say, I’m overdrawn.

Pele: I’m the one who’s set to hollar. Ngendi owes me twenty dollars!

Rongo: Me Rongo, god of global culture. The world so good to me, I got time to make sport of how people talk. Me tell grammar correctors, go fly kite!

Tangaroa: [Gong] I am Tangaroa, father of all the tiki gods. Here before you I appear as an unbending tree. Stand back! [Gong] Oh magic branches end your sport, and bring forth checks of child support! [Gong and chimes]

Enchanted Tiki Room

Over the years, there have been numerous small changes to the Enchanted Tiki Room show. Even so, it remains a timeless class. Here we present the original show script, as it was the first day Walt Disney presented this attraction to the world. We’re sure you will agree that it is as relevant today as it was those many years ago.

Female cast member: Welcome to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Room, paid for entirely by a generous donation from our friends at Dole Pineapple. I’d like to introduce you to the star of our show José. José , wake up!

José: Caw! Burritos dais, señiorita. My siestas was too short, but this is better than picking grapes. Oh, what a lot of people. Welcome, people, to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room presented by our friends at Dole Pineapple. Hey Michael, me gringo. Wake up, it’s show time.

Michael: Aye captain, and what dear lads and lassies these be sittin’ below me. Pierre you bonnie lad, let’s put on the show.

Pierre: Moaning me, I am always ready to, how do you say, “putting on the show.” [Whistles] Pardon me, madam, that whistle was not for the view down your blouse, but for my friend Fritz.

Fritz: Ach imleavin! I almost fell out of rank! Glad to see so many people all in nice orderly rows. Mine Führer, what are you staring at? We had better get this biergarten moving.

Michael: Aye lad, but first we must wake up the fair lassies in the glee club.

Sounds of other birds chirping and singing

José: Tormé! Tormé! It’s show time.

All birds: In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room. In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room.

José: All the birds sing songs.

Michael: Of our favorite fruit, in the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room.

José: Welcome to our succulent aviary, made of teak wood and birch. I’d come down there and give you a kiss, if I weren’t nailed to my perch. All together!

All birds: In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room. In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room.

José: All the birds sing songs

Michael: Of our favorite fruit, in the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room.

Fritz: I am so glorious, I should start a fourth reich.

José: Yes, so rank we can’t stand you.

Pierre: My singing may not be perfect, but my voice, it is a treat.

Michael: More like a retreat, I’d say. Isn’t that right Herr Fritz?

Fritz: Whoo, whoo! I think Pierre’s circuits have no resistance.

José: Me burritos, stop the chatter, you sound like Congress is in session. There are many more birds here who want a turn.

Michael: The boy’s in the back are called dodo birds.

José: ‘Cause they don’t know the words?

Michael: ‘Cause they’re dodos and birds! And the big crowd of birds is all passenger pigeons, in such a big bunch that they block your vision.

Bird chirping, gunfire

José: The elephant bird won’t take any bunk, but will get up and leave with a packed-up trunk. The birds you have as pets might fly away or die, but the Tiki Room birds are made to not even try.

All birds: In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room. In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room

José: All the birds sing songs

Michael: Of our favorite fruit

All birds: In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room.

José: Our pinapple-sponsored show is really very neat, and all of the birds have gears in them instead of meat. We know that once you’ve seen the show you’re sure to laude it, and run out to the store to buy the sponsor’s product!

All birds: In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room. In the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room. All the birds sing songs of our favorite fruit in the pina-, pina-, pinia-, pina-napple room.

José: Let’s give all the birdies a big batch of the clap.

Pierre: We, we — applaud! Applaud!

José: And now señiors and señiorettas please turn your taco tasters to the middle. Of the place, that is. We now present the Magically Delicious Dole Whip Fountain.

Fritz: Ach du witerzein! And the wonderbra tweet mobile. There are birds on it that march around in perfect rows and tweet. That’s why they call it the tweet mobile.

Michael: Aye, and a bonnie breeze of lassies there are.

Pierre: Mydamn and masseuse, I present to you the lovely ladies, just like La Cage but with plumper plumage. Barbara, Paula, Marta, Sherrie, Daisy, Bruce Lee.

José: Columbo, where is my little Rosita


Tweet mobile birds: Let’s all eat what the birdies eat. Dole, Dole, Dole, Dole, Dole. Let’s all eat what the birdies eat. It’s good for your soul. Let’s swallow a whole pineapple. Dig it like a mole. Take your time, eat some fruit, sing out loud, don’t be cute. Dole, Dole, Dole, Dole, Dole.

José [imitating Bing Crosby]: Let’s all eat what the birdies eat. Pineapple, p-pineapple, p-pineapple.

Michael [imitating Al Jolson]: Let’s all eat what the birdies eat. Oh Mammy, Mammy floating on the Swanie.

Pierre [imitating Joe Penner]: Let’s all gobble down pineapples. Hey, wanna buy a duck? Have a snack with the birds, please don’t choke on the words, sing that sponsored song.

José: Now we want all of you watching to start squawking. In the all together now.

José leads audience in singing the delicious Dole pineapple song.

José: Si, si! Applause! Cheer your mariachis.

Fritz: Wonderbra! Wonderbra! That was better than beer and pretzels.

Pierre: Ah, magnifeet!

José: Si, no one blew a fuse but me.

Michael: And now laddies and lassies we have a loch-sized treat for you.

Fritz: Yeah, the Führer commands that you enjoy it.

Pierre: Moaningme, do not speak if you can not speak correctly. Masseur and metamucil, now we present entertainment better than Jerry Lewis — le singing flowers

Flowers: Ta too ee de plane e plane e la e la
Ay you he a la we he she they a he la
Pu pu tray to me be see lay I la
Hand u hippo cheetah pubah leechee

Runa way
Ahhhh da kil la
Runa way
Ahhh da kil la.

I weigh ah lahahot
I weigh a lahahot

Blah, blah, you way a lot
Blah, blah, you way a lot.

Ta too e yo ma yo ma she ga na dis oh nya
An you pierce a la you pa pa ga na dis oh nya
Bu you fren to say you so so coo la
Hand lip teeth eye lashee
Hand lip teeth eye lashee

Runa way
Ahhhh da kil la
Runa way
Ahhh da kil la, da kil la, da kil la, daaaa killll laaaa

Totem poles chant invocation for Armageddon then reprise followed by darkness, thunder, and shrieking children.

Pierre: Croissant! I think a new king is raining.

José: Either that or you finally took a shower.

Fritz: Silence! The mighty Thor has been enraged by the bad jokes and horrible stereotypes. We should retreat to our bunker.

Pierre: Mouser and milan, it’s time to bid you dudu,. We hope you will treasure the time we have spent together in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room sponsored by the princely people at Dole.

Birds: The birdies ate their fruit.

Birds chirp

Birds: You heard the flowers toot.

Flowers: No toot flow wa we do sing

Birds: Statues play on drums.

Tikis play drums

Birds: Evil totems chant.

Totems summon Chernabog

Birds: Goodbye and pineapple to you.

José: Oil, olay! Applause. Let’s give our glorious sponsor a standing ovation. Up, up I say. Everybody stand up and thank Dios for pineapple. Olay!

Michael: And now I canna hold it any longer, captain.

José: Si, we have a spectacular joke for you.

Fritz: Yeah, a wonderbra joke. Everybody put out your arms, pretend you have branches, now make like a tree and leave!

Online Theme Park Engineering Class Peeks Behind the Scenes

ORLANDO, FL — Have you ever gone to a theme park and wondered, “How did they do that?” Now you can find out, in Theme Park Engineering. This fun new online class surveys everything about the design of theme park attractions.

The course is taught by Steve Alcorn, president of Alcorn McBride Inc., a company that engineers equipment for theme parks all over the world. “For over twenty years I’ve been having great fun bringing hundreds – perhaps thousands – of attractions to life all over the world,” says Mr. Alcorn. “Now it’s my students’ turn to do the designing.”

The class is offered through 1400 colleges and universities worldwide, via online learning provider Education To Go. It’s a “survey” class, so no special knowledge of math, chemistry or computer programming is needed. It’s a class about engineering – not an engineering class.

As armchair theme park engineers, students learn about architecture, ride control, show control, audio, video, acoustics, lighting, mechanics, hydraulics, figure animation, art direction, set design and more. They use that knowledge to design their own park and its attractions, and to determine what it would take to build that park.

The resources that accompany each lesson point them towards companies that do Theme Park Engineering, industry trade organizations, plus interesting sites about roller coasters, haunted houses and other attractions.

Every step of the way students post their ideas in lesson discussion areas, where their fellow classmates and Mr. Alcorn comment on them and make suggestions. The classroom is always open, day or night. In fact, it’s a lot like real theme park engineering – with enough Twinkies and coffee they can work 24 hours a day.

“Fortunately it doesn’t take anything like that to get the most out of this course,” says Mr. Alcorn. “But they may find it’s so much fun they’ll want to stock up on Twinkies anyway.”

This except from Lesson 3 looks at the early stages of design, from Blue Sky through initial story creation, then the process of fitting the story to our intended audience.

Blue Sky

The design of every theme park attraction begins with a blue-sky phase. This is where the Creative Team sits around a large table and brainstorms new ideas for the attraction. It usually goes something like this:

“Wait, wait, I know! We can have these lily pads floating above the surface of the lake – there’ll be a railing around the edge of them of course. People will stand on the lily pads and aim lasers, trying to knock each other into the water.”

“Won’t that be dangerous?”

“No, the engineers will figure out a way to make the lasers safe.”

“How will the lily pads float?”

“Oh, the engineers will come up with something.”

You get the idea. Most attractions start out with a completely impossible idea, either because it can’t be done or can’t be done at a reasonable cost. So the design of attractions ends up being a negotiation process between the Creative Team, the Engineers, and the Estimators who are caught in the middle.

Eventually they will all agree on a design that is achievable at a price within the budget. At least, they think they have agreed. Then the engineers go off and design something that is nothing like the Creative Teams imagined. At the same time the Creative Team starts trying to slip back in all the impossible stuff that they previously agreed to take out. And the estimators keep telling both groups not to spend any more money.

It’s an iterative process.

Eventually time, money, patience or all three runs out and the attraction opens to the public. Then the Creative Team studies the public’s reaction to their creation and come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for improvements. The engineers now change to the graveyard shift, and try to figure out how to shoehorn in all this new stuff, without exceeding the original budget and without impacting the next day’s operation of the attraction.

As you can see, the blue-sky process never really stops.

Walt Disney once said that as long as there was imagination in the hearts of men, Disneyland would never be finished. I’m not sure whether the irony was intended.

Creating the Story

What was wrong with the attraction I invented in the last Lesson?

It had no story. If story is king, then even at the beginning of Blue Sky there must be story.

Let’s take an example. A roller coaster careens through a darkened room over a faintly illuminated cityscape. Enthralling? Not really, there’s no story.

Take two. A rock band is late for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. They invite you to hop in their limo and go careening through the Hollywood Hills and all around the L.A. freeway system to make it on time. That’s the story behind Disney MGM’s Rock ’n Roller coaster, and it works.

Here are two more real ones, one that doesn’t work, one that does:

A boat glides through a dark tunnel. It passes a volcano, people at a bazaar trying to sell things, Mayan ruins, dancing dolls with colorful costumes, and fiber-optic fireworks.

A boat glides through a dark tunnel. It passes a ship full of pirates and a fort. A battle is underway. Cannon balls whiz overhead, and explosions dot the water. Farther along the pirates have seized the village and are auctioning off the women, stealing treasures, and setting fire to the buildings. As we barely escape from the burning timbers we see prisoners still trapped in the jail, trying to lure a dog into bringing them the keys to their cell.

Which ride has a story, the Mexico pavilion at Epcot or Pirates of the Caribbean?

It’s not that hard from the outset to make sure that a ride has a story, which makes it surprising that so many rides don’t have one. But a lot of them don’t. I’m not talking about rides in amusement parks. I’m talking about rides in theme parks. In amusement parks when we see an iron roller coaster we expect to be tossed around a little; we don’t expect a story. That’s why it’s called an amusement park, not a theme park. But at a theme park our expectations are higher. Do the Batman or Superman roller coasters at Six Flags theme parks tell a story, or are there simply themed façades accompanying an unthemed ride?

Sometimes there might be a story there, but it isn’t intelligibly conveyed to the riders. At the Journey to Atlantis flume ride at SeaWorld Orlando, preshow monitors show news broadcasts and interviews related to the reappearance of the lost continent of Atlantis. A Greek fishermen is involved, and a statue of the sea horse. The audio is usually intelligible, but the set up doesn’t ever give us a mission. Once on the ride the audio becomes unintelligible, and animated figures and props – presumably there to convey a story – pass by so quickly that they can’t be perceived. There’s some kind of woman or witch in a very bad mood, and a reappearance of the sea horse. Then we go down a really nice drop, get soaking wet, creep back an upramp, and get one final surprise before unloading. It’s not a bad ride, but it’s incomprehensible.

Sometimes the story is just too complicated for the ride. The Lord of the Rings makes a great book and movie trilogy, but would it make a good ride? Of course not. Rides with more complicated storylines are often best implemented using simulators. Here it is customary to have a narrator – often the driver – who can summarize the adventure as it proceeds. And since simulator rides can be as long as ten minutes, there’s more opportunity to convey the story.

Conversely, short rides need simple plots. You step into a basket, are hauled to the top of a tower, and dropped. Or… you go to a creepy old hotel where guests mysteriously vanished in an elevator years before… as you enter the darkened elevator shaft you suddenly feel yourself falling. Knott’s Berry Farm’s Parachute Drop or Disney MGM’s Tower of Terror: which is the better ride? Tower of Terror. Of course, it cost 50 times more.

The year after Tower of Terror opened, it was updated and re-advertised as Tower of Terror 2. The new version dropped guests twice.

The next year they added even more drops, and then more. So now that Tower of Terror drops you four or five times for no particular reason, is it a better ride? That’s a tough call. It’s more exciting, however the story suffers. But it does allow the marketing folks to advertise the new ride profile each year.

A particularly effective mechanism for storytelling is the old-fashioned dark ride. Here a simple vehicle moves along a track – sometimes level sometimes with elevation changes – traveling from scene to scene and telling a linear story. The dark interior allows ultraviolet lighting to focus your guests’ attention on the elements most important to the story. Still, one needs to be careful not to try to tell too complex a story. We all know the story of Alice in Wonderland. Without that background the ride at Disneyland would be nearly incomprehensible. But because of that shared background, the audience can relive the book or Disney movie without confusion. This foreknowledge of your guests’ background is essential to a successful ride.

Fitting Story to Audience

My grandmother never rode a roller coaster. And punk rockers don’t hang out in butterfly conservatories.

It’s essential to know your audience when designing an attraction. This process of evaluating the audience begins almost from the first moment of blue-sky and doesn’t end until the concept moves from Art Direction to Engineering. Even then the mechanical or ergonomic design of the attraction may be influenced by its anticipated guests. For example, in Europe it’s okay to make guests climb stairs or jump off of slowly moving vehicles. In America it’s not. Let’s look at how the designers of some other attractions targeted their audiences in order to see how we should proceed.

When the Las Vegas Hilton decided to install the Star Trek Experience, they made a calculated decision to recreate the Starship Enterprise from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. They didn’t use starships from the classic series of the late ’60s or from more recent sequels, such as Star Trek Voyager. Why did they make this calculated decision?

It’s because they knew their audience. The majority of people likely to visit the Star Trek Experience (and then spend time at the slot machines in the adjacent casino) are from an age group that would’ve watched Next Generation on television, but perhaps not the classic television show (except maybe in reruns).

When Legoland built their theme park in Carlsbad California they wanted an attraction where kids would be able to drive cars. There are lots of motorized go-cart racing places around the country, but they appeal more to teenagers than to Lego’s target audience of preteens. Also, Lego didn’t want anything so environmentally unfriendly and noisy. They wanted something more in keeping with the theme of their park: the Lego brand. So they decided to use electric cars.

The problem with electric cars is that they don’t accelerate very quickly or go very fast. In a world where every third television show ends with a car chase, electric cars are about as exciting as watching fingerpaint dry. Lego had to figure out how to make electric cars interesting to kids. The solution is in the story. Lego created a kid-size grid of streets, laid out like the intersections in a real city, complete with stop signs and traffic lights. The idea was for kids to drive around the miniature city, following the same traffic laws that their parents have to follow. Clearly this was something that would appeal to the imagination of an 8-year-old if – and it’s a big if – you can get him to do it.

To accomplish this they had to figure out a way to complete the story. The solution was to start the experience off with an instructional video that would teach kids how to observe the rules of the road: obey the signs and lights, use hand signals when turning, and be courteous to other drivers.

Another problem was getting kids to leave the vehicles once their time was up. They found the perfect solution in the completion of the story. At the exit of the attraction the kids are awarded Lego driving licenses.

The result: a simple ride becomes a complete experience though the use of story. A story designed specifically to appeal to the target audience: preteens.

Lets try using this awareness of our audience. In this week’s assignment we’re each going to put on our creative hat (the one with the bells and the moose antlers on it) and begin the design of our own themed attraction. It’s a great way to really understand the blue sky-process.

Since an example is always worth a thousand words, I’ll go first.

The best attractions reflect their creator’s passion. I love history, so my attraction will be about history. There are so many regions and periods to choose from, it’s hard to decide which to pick. I’m going to choose the Middle Ages – sometimes called the Dark Ages – because I think they have a lot of potential for entertainment and many people don’t know much about them. The Middle Ages offer castles, knights, pageantry, eating with your fingers, the Black Plague and a total lack of sanitation. Some of these might not be the best ingredients for a themed attraction, but we can work around them.

My attraction needs a story. But where to start? The logical places to try to explain to my guests why they’re in the Middle Ages. Better yet, perhaps we can make their getting to the Middle Ages a part of the attractions experience. Time travel. I like it. It mixes high-tech sci-fi with the history. There’s potential here.

What if we created a way to convince guests that they were being transported into the past, and we made it so convincing that they couldn’t figure out how we did it? Then, once we get them to the past, we give them an environment to play and: food, drink, entertainment, and something more. Let’s make part of our story their quest to find a way back to the present.

Now let’s consider our audience:

Families? Definitely.

Retired couples? Possibly.

International vacationers? If we put it someplace they visit.

Businessmen? Nope. Even if we’re in a major convention city they’re probably going to find something more… um, stimulating to do with their time.

Teens on a date? Not likely.

OK, so we’ve got a tame crowd that may have trouble with physically demanding tasks or terrain, and that isn’t in a hurry. So I’m picturing a medieval village with shops selling wooden toys, silk pennants, kites, lutes and fake swords. There are tents on a lawn where you can buy a turkey leg or a meat pie. We’ll serve ale and soft drinks in pewter tankards. Street performers including jugglers or jesters will accost the guests, and generally try to liven things up.

You enter this land by some magical means that will transport you there instantly, and you’ll have to discover the way back yourself.

That’s enough to get started. The engineers will figure out the rest later. Let’s do lunch.

In this week’s discussion area you’ll begin the design of your own attraction. Keep in mind the topics we’ve discussed so far, and we’ll build upon them as we proceed further into the world of Theme Park Engineering.

A new session of Steve Alcorn’s Online Theme Park Engineering Class begins every month.

For more information and to enroll, visit www.themeparkengineering.com


Theme Design vs Architecture

By Peter Alexander
Totally Fun Company

So you want to design a theme entertainment project?

Okay, so where do you start?

You start by selecting an architect, right?

Well, not necessarily! Asking an architect to create a theme project is like asking a multiplex theater designer to direct a movie: you’re putting the cart before the horse.

In a theme resort, store, restaurant or any themed entertainment project you are creating a “show,” a three dimensional movie you can smell and feel. You are not creating a ‘place’ as architects do…you are creating sets, and populating them with actors, as in a film. In a theme entertainment project, the role of the actors is played by the visitors (called guests) and employees (called “the cast”). You enhance these actors’ performances with props, special effects, lighting and theme architecture…the sum total of the experience is called “the show.” The “show” is everything the guest sees, hears and experiences during his or her visit. The architecture can be seen as the “stage” upon which the “show” is performed.

Since theme design is about creating a “show,” one of your first acts should be to select a “show designer.” This “show designer” should be someone with proven experience in the theme design field. They will utilize design principles originally pioneered in the theme park industry to create your project. Whether the project is a resort hotel, restaurant, shopping center or theme park doesn’t really matter. Regardless of the land use, it will be the show designer’s job to create an environment that immerses the guest in an emotional experience. If they do their job well, your guests will be immersed inside a world that may intrigue, amuse, or even frighten them, but always entertains them; a world your guests will want to visit again and again.

So, what are the principles of theme design that your show designer will utilize
to create this world? Well, there are too many to enumerate in one short article, but I can discuss a few, starting with the first stage of theme design, concept development.

Square One: Concept Development

Architects start with a phase known as “schematics.” Theme design starts with a phase known as “concept development.”

In schematics, the architect works with the client to develop a “program” (i.e. determining the building’s functions and size) and then develops schematic drawings that show the layout and general appearance.

In theme design, we often start with no more than the thought that the project needs to be entertaining and should attract a certain number of people in a certain market. Sometimes the client will bring a basic “notion” to the show designer, other times we start with a blank page. The process of filling in the blank page is called concept development. We can fill that blank page with words, drawings, illustrations, plans, models or mock-ups or any combination of them, but when the concept is complete, the client will have an understanding of what the project is all about.

One of the major differences between theme design concept development and architectural schematics is the “invention factor.”

In schematics, architects don’t need to invent the building type, i.e. thousands of hospitals or office buildings already exist. However, in theme park concept development we sometimes need to invent some device or system just to make “the show” work.

For example, during the concept development for the Back To The Future Ride at Universal Studios, we needed to create a flying De Lorean, as featured in the movie. The idea to accomplish this was invented out of “blue sky:” I figured we would put a dozen or so De Loreans inside a large format, domed film theater, each De Lorean would ride on top of their own simulator motion base, and by cutting off the site-lines to the rest of the theater, guests inside each car would feel like they were flying. My boss (fearless Universal Executive Jay Stein) said, “That will never work. It’s such a good idea, if it could work, someone would have thought of it already.” Then Jay, who knew how to motivate his design team, bet me a thousand dollars it wouldn’t work.

In order to prove out the idea (and get my thousand dollars), during concept development we made a foam core mock-up of a De Lorean Ride Vehicle, and took it to the Omnimax Dome at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Even moments before the first test, my friend (and later, one of the producers of the ride) Craig Barr bet me an additional twenty dollars the “invention” wouldn’t work. However, as soon as the lights went down and the film rolled, Craig put a twenty dollar bill in my outstretched palm. What we saw from inside the foam core mock-up was amazing. Just by cutting off site-lines and isolating our vehicle from the stationary parts of the theater, we produced the sensation of flying. I’m still waiting for that thousand dollars from Jay, but for richer or poorer, we had invented a new ride system necessary to the development of that concept.

It was only after we were able to develop this “first of its kind” ride, and assure ourselves that it worked, that we were able to begin designing the actual BUILDING that housed the ride. Two things drove that process: the need to accommodate two eighty foot diameter Omnimax domes, and the need to break the guests up into groups of eight—the capacity of each De Lorean. What we ended up with was a futuristic building we called “The Doc Brown Institute” (after the crazy scientist in the film) that maximized efficiency in terms of loading the ride.

In summary, first we came up with the “show,” then we designed the building in which to stage the show. Also, it’s important to note that we developed a ride system necessary to the development of the concept, and not the other way around. In theme design, technology is created to help tell a story, while good stories are rarely, if ever, created by technology. Thus, the ride system invention flowed from the story, and not the other way around.

This raises an important question: what stories do we want tell in concept development? Are there any guidelines about what kinds of stories are best told in theme environments? Are there any lessons we have learned that might prevent your brainchild from turning into “Seed of Chuckie?”

Picking A Theme: The Tale of Too Many Smurfs

A few years ago, I was working with the Walibi Theme Park chain, which at that time owned a number of parks in Europe. We had helped improve the profits of a couple of their parks by applying our brand of theme park show design, so they asked me to come up with ideas to help the “dog” of the system, the one park that had never proven popular, the Smurf park near Metz, France.

The Smurfs, as you may recall, were little blue cartoon characters (Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Brainy Smurf, etc.) who were wildly popular back in the seventies. Unfortunately, the character’s success on television had not translated into theme park attendance: only 700,000 guests had attended during the park’s first year (1989) versus the projection of 1,800,000, and attendance had declined thereafter. By the time I got there, the park was virtually empty.

As I walked through the park with the General Manager I noticed something: everything was Smurf-themed. They even had a “Future Smurf” world, like Tomorrow Land, only filled with Futuristic Smurfs. When I first entered the park I kind of liked the Smurfs, but by the time I left, I was sick of them: they had too many Smurfs. “And if you don’t like Smurfs,” The General Manager said sadly, “You don’t come to the park.”

From that I learned a lesson: selecting a single theme for an entire park, resort, shopping complex or entertainment center can be risky. The best bet is to provide a variety of themes and thus appeal to the largest possible demographic. Disneyland is a good example. Walt could have themed the whole park to his cartoons, but instead he themed one land to Main Street USA, another to the future, another to the American frontier, etc. The bottom line: if your project is of large enough scale, follow Walt’s lead and try to include several themes.

Once you select your themes, you have created a roadmap which you use to explore the rides, shows, restaurants and shops that will make up a land, and from there, design both the buildings that house them and the “area development” or public spaces the guests will flow through to access them.

Picking A Theme: Brand In The Right Format

In the early nineties, Time Warner acquired the Six Flags chain, which then consisted of seven theme parks. At that time, the parks had gone through several owners and had been decreasing in value and attendance for years. While the parks had originally been designed as family adventures, the addition of roller coaster after roller coaster had turned them into teenage amusement zones, and as the families left, the revenues and the profits of the chain declined.

The new Time Warner-appointed Six Flags CEO, Bob Pittman, wanted to turn that around. Time Warner had just released the first Batman film, which had been a huge hit, and there were sequels in the offing, so I suggested we use Batman as the theme of several family-oriented attractions. I “pitched” a simulator ride and a stunt show, but it was the stunt show that excited Bob Pittman. “So you can get the pyrotechnics and the heat of the flames right in the audience’s face, eh?” Bob asked excitedly.

I said yes, and about seven months later we opened the Batman Stunt Show in three theme parks. The impact on Six Flags was immediate and substantial. Attendance increased at all three parks, but more importantly, the stunt show format brought the families back to the parks, which increased the per capita spending, and turned the parks around. Bob Pittman told me later that the Batman Stunt Show had positively affected Six Flags success far more than the (more expensive) Batman (roller coaster) ride because the shows had changed the character of the parks and the demographics of the guests.

What we had done was pick the right intellectual property—Batman—for the right format—a stunt show. The lesson was this: if possible, “brand” your concept with a hot intellectual property (like Batman was in the 1990’s) and utilize the brand in a format that will appeal to your demographic target.

From a design process standpoint, we started with an intellectual property, and then determined that an outdoor, arena stunt show would be the best use of that property. It’s important to note that we did not say, “We need a stunt show,” and then try to come up with some sort of subject for it: theme design flows from intellectual properties, not the other way around. So, as you develop your theme park’s concept, and you want a stunt show in the mix, start by finding an intellectual property that would make a good one, then design your theater or arena around that idea.

Picking A Theme: The Entertaining Environment

When you are developing a theme concept, it’s important not to get too full of yourself in the pursuit of creating “great art,” but rather to remember you are creating entertainment that appeals to broad demographic groups. It’s easy to design a monument…that turns into a monumental failure.

For example, shortly after the opening of National Maritime Center in Norfolk, Virginia, I got a call from the General Manager. He told me the project had been designed as an “Edu-tainment” facility, a combination of education and theme environment, but despite a healthy budget, they were not achieving their attendance goals.

As I drove up to the facility, I saw a massive, modern structure—painted the same gray as US Navy ships. It kind of reminded me of a big, beached aircraft carrier. I have an architectural book which describes this place, saying, “It escapes Disney-style literalism and succeeds in imposing itself…as a landmark.”

Unfortunately, the imposing landmark wasn’t drawing flies in terms of attendance. There were about fifty cars in the parking lot, most of them, I guessed, belonged to employees.

Inside, I saw some cool exhibits, including a shark “touch” tank where you could touch the fish, but the environment was cold and sterile: concrete floors, exposed steel roofs, muted colors, etc. No matter how clever and entertaining the exhibits, the sterility of the physical space made the place feel like a tomb. The designers had succeeded in designing a landmark, but in theme design, we are not designing landmarks, or monuments to ourselves or the owner. We are attempting to evoke emotional responses, just as is done in film and television. Just as in a film, our environments can evoke a sense of adventure, of comedy, of fear or risk, but never sterility or coldness. People are not going to sit through a two hour movie that leaves them cold, so why would they make a four to eight hour visit to an entertainment facility that does the same thing?

In architectural text books I’ve seen theme design referred to as “Populist Architecture” but it should really be called “Humanistic Architecture” because it is designed to elicit human emotional responses, and if you remember that in your concept design, you can’t lose. Another way to put it: the architecture is part of the show, and needs to be as entertaining as the other creative elements.

Developing Your Theme: Show Design

Once you have your concept firmly in mind, it is time to move on into more detailed design. In architecture, following schematics, you enter design development, where you bring in the “disciplines” (structural, mechanical, electrical engineering, etc.), then move into construction documents where you draw the details. Theme design follows a similar pattern on the “facility” (i.e. building) side, but includes literally dozens of other “disciplines” necessary to create “the show,” including script writing, ride design, show set design, costume design, lighting, special effects and many more.

It is these “show” disciplines that must take the lead, and often must be developed before the environment that houses them takes shape. There are, again, too many techniques that we use to discuss in one article, but I can discuss a few examples, and share with you what made them work or not work as the case may be.

Developing Your Design: Forced Perspective

Forced perspective, originally developed by motion picture art directors, is commonly used to create theme environments. Probably it’s most famous example is Main Street at Disneyland. Walt Disney wanted Main Street to re-create the warm, comfortable feel of a small American town. His show designers accomplished this by reducing the scale of the buildings: full scale at street level, then three quarter to five eighths scale as you reach the second and third floors. The result: the guests feel “bigger” than normal, instinctively more in control and therefore more relaxed. Emotionally, Main Street serves as a safe and friendly transition between the often chaotic and imposing “outside world” and the fantasy adventures in the theme park beyond.

Forced perspective can also be used to make things that are small appear larger. An example would be the Eiffel Tower in the French Pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT. The real Eiffel Tower is a thousand feet tall, while Disney’s is about a hundred, but because it is placed at the end of a vista, with the view of its base blocked by building facades in the foreground, it appears to be more distant than it actually is, and therefore we accept what is actually a model as being the real thing. Emotionally, the “Eiffel tower in the distance” gives the French street the feel of the real Paris, where views of the landmark are common, without the expense of creating a full size replica.

Developing Your Design: The Fantasy Environment

Like motion picture sets, theme environments are designed to create the impression that the guests have traveled to a particular place and/or time. Movie sets are almost always in the background, with the actors, of course, in the foreground, so the sets must be somewhat extreme in their design, so that they instantly “read” as what they are, even though they are not the focus of the film. Similarly, theme facades and interiors are archetypes, and their ability to evoke the feeling of being somewhere or some time is more important than their architectural correctness.

For example, at one time we designed an “Ancient Rome” section of Universal Studios, Florida using these motion picture design principles. The lead designer, three-time Academy Award winning art director Henry Bumstead, called “Bummy” by his friends, designed one façade inspired by the ancient Roman Forum. However, rather than a literal recreation of the Forum, he used fluted columns and ornate, Corinthian capitals on top of the columns, as opposed to the simpler non-fluted Roman columns and less detailed capitals of the real Forum.

An architect friend of mine who was also working on the job looked at Bummy’s design in horror and tried to point out the obvious “mistake.” He suggested Bummy correct his “error” by using the simpler Roman columns. Bummy patiently explained the rationale for his design this way, “When the guests walk up to our Forum, we want him to feel like a Roman Senator. We want to take him back in time, and so we combine the most extreme elements from the classical period into one building. Most guests don’t know Corinthian from Roman, nor do they care. But if we combine the “most classical” elements—the beautiful, ornate Corinthian capitals and the bolder fluted columns—we make him feel like he’s in ancient Rome, as he would imagine it to be. It’s the feeling that counts, not the textbook architecture.”

That is the essence of theme design: we are creating fantasy architecture that produces emotional responses, not attempting to recreate architectural styles brick for brick.

Developing a Theme: Find the Essence of the Brand

Often times you will be developing concepts based upon one or several brands or intellectual properties. If so, you must find the essence of the brand and then exploit it in a manner that is true to the brand.

For example, during the development of Universal Studios Florida, Steven Spielberg asked us to develop a theme attraction based on “E.T: The Extraterrestrial” that would be true to his film.

As you may recall, “E.T.” was the story of a lonely boy who finds an alien literally in his back yard and helps to get the creature back to his home planet. It was a very personal story for director Steven Spielberg, and even the suburban, tract house setting near a redwood forest reminded me a lot of where Steven went to high school in Saratoga, California. Unfortunately, “relationship stories” like E.T. that rely on two-hour long films to create their emotional impact are not easily translated into six or eight minute theme park rides, so designing a ride or show that captured the essence of the film presented quite a challenge.

I started the design process by watching the “E.T.” film over and over again, trying to figure out what would work as a theme park attraction. One section of the film stood out: Near the end, there was a great chase sequence where the little boy and his friends rescue E.T. from government agents and take him on their dirt bikes on a wild chase. At one point during the chase, E.T. uses his powers to cause the boys to “fly” over a government road block….

I thought this sequence could be made into a very cool ride, but it begged the question: where would the boys take E.T. once they took off? In the film, they landed in the redwood forest and bade goodbye to E.T., who then got into his spaceship and flew back to his home “The Green Planet.” It seemed to me that we could “suspend disbelief” just a little more, and have the dirt bikes fly all the way to the Green Planet.

I presented this idea to Steven Spielberg verbally and he liked it, but gave me some great coaching. “Remember E.T. is a personal story,” Steven said, “So at the end, the guests need a personal moment with him. And by the way, the Green Planet is a friendly place, not the usual scary, alien place.”

I thought about how to achieve the “personal moment” and said, “What if he knows your name? What if E.T. knows everyone’s name, and thanks them by name for bringing him home?”

Steven thought that would be great, so we then proceeded with the monumental task of developing a computer system that would recognize 20,000 names and allow our audio-animatronic E.T. to say each guest’s name in the final scene.

All we then had to do was come up with a design for the Green Planet that was both alien, and friendly. To accomplish this, I looked at every science fiction film and book I could find. Not one of them provided an insight as to what a “friendly” alien planet might look like. Apparently, no one had ever attempted to design a “friendly” alien planet before. It struck me that maybe “friendly” alien planet” was an oxymoron—you couldn’t use those words together.

Then I remembered that I had seen something that was both friendly an alien.
When I was a kid I had surfed in California, and when the waves were flat my my friends and I had done a bit of diving. I always remembered thinking how the plants and coral rock formations on the ocean floor seemed like an alien landscape. I immediately collected some research on underwater plants, and gave them to our art directors as models for the “alien landscape” and with that simple inspiration, they went crazy designing the “friendly” “alien” Green Planet.

After we developed the ride’s show, we were able to determine that it would be best housed in a “sound stage” facility, so the exterior architecture was very simple, but consistent with our Universal Studios “working movie studio theme” and appropriate for our park.

When Steven Spielberg first rode the E.T. Adventure Ride, as we called it, he told me that we had successfully combined the fun of “flying” on dirt bikes with a “personal moment” with an alien on his friendly home planet: capturing the essence of the “E.T.” brand.

In summary, we started with the ride’s “show” design, and then developed the facility to house it. Had we attempted the opposite and focused on developing a facility that communicated the “E.T.” brand through it’s exterior architecture, we would have used up all of the budget for the experience without providing the guests any entertainment.

Developing Your Concept: The Play’s The Thing

When you are developing a theme area, remember that it is the entertainment
or show elements that will make or break the attraction, and the environment
should be designed to present them as strongly as possible, never leaving the “show” as an afterthought to the architecture.

As a recent example, we were asked to develop a design brief for architects to guide them in the development of a resort hotel themed after the home of the British Royal Family, Buckingham Palace.

When most people think of Buckingham Palace, they think of the Queen of England and the famous Changing of the Guard ceremony. Most people can’t tell you what Buckingham Palace looks like, so the architecture—while still important—is less important than these “show” elements. Therefore, we asked the designers to develop the resort hotel based upon British Royalty and the Guards, and to recreate the grandeur of what the average person might believe to be “royal” rather than to recreate the exact look of the palace.

For example, we suggested that guests might enjoy having “high tea” with the Queen, so a “tea room” to accommodate a large number of guests would be a “must.” Since the “Changing of the Guard” ceremony was so important, we suggested that the courtyard in front of the hotel be graded to allow guests to get a good view. Finally, since the current Queen is just one of a long line of British Monarchs, we suggested that design elements within the hotel be devoted to other famous British Kings and Queens, everyone from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I to “Mad King George” to Queen Victoria, and so the interiors of different wings of the hotel were designed in schools of architecture reflecting those eras. We felt that the result would be a resort that people would want to return to again and again, partly for the fun of experiencing a different room themed to a different Monarch each time. As William Shakespeare once said, “The play’s the thing,” and theme design is best when that is kept in mind.

Developing Your Concept: The Budget: Beauty or Beast?

As a designer, you sometimes might think that a tight budget is your worst enemy, but sometimes it can be your best friend.

One example that comes to mind is the Land Pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT. While it was in an early stage of design, the “facility” designer, a brilliant architect, told me, “I’m an artist. I cannot be bound by budgets, and I intend to put every kind of compound curve and difficult to build structure into this building.” He succeeded in doing so, and we did not attempt to control him or limit his budget. Yet, when most guests visit EPCOT, “The Land” does not stand out as a great piece of “show” architecture, particularly not in comparison to the Imagination Pavilion next door, or to any of the World Showcase Pavilions. So, in this instance, having an unlimited budget did not enhance the “show value” of the project.

On the other hand, when we designed “King Kong: Kongfrontation” for Universal Studios Hollywood, we had a very tight budget, less than seven million dollars for the whole attraction, which by Disney standards was just about enough to design the front door and a bathroom. A lot of the budget went into the Kong figure, the special effects, and the “sliding bridge” which created the illusion that the big monkey was rocking the 88,000 pound Universal Super Tram back and forth. This left very little budget for the show sets, which were crucial if we were going to create the illusion that the guests on the tram were actually in New York City.

Given this situation, I told our two brilliant art directors, Henry Bumstead and Bill Tuntke, that they would have to use all their tricks to make this paltry budget stretch. They rose to the challenge, rolled up their sleeves and went to work designing a set using full scale buildings in the foreground, forced perspective miniatures in the mid-ground, and “cut out” flats in the background.

The result was pretty spectacular, but despite their best efforts, we just didn’t have enough money to cover every square foot with sets. The glaring hole: right opposite the King Kong figure…there was absolutely nothing, just a black wall. If the guests happened to look away from Kong as he “attacked” the tram, they looked at a blank, black wall and the illusion of being in New York City was broken.

Just before opening, I got nervous, because as both show designer and producer, the buck stopped with me. I asked my boss, Jay Stein, if he thought we could free up some more funds to build a set opposite from King Kong. Jay shook his head no, “If they are looking away from Kong, you have real problems.”

On opening day, I took a position near the King Kong figure to watch the guest reaction and sure enough, once Kong started to roar and the tram started to slide back and forth, no one—and I mean no one—looked at that blank wall. Jay had been right, the set across from Kong was not necessary.

I realized then that having a tight budget had probably helped our design, not hindered it. It caused us to design the show to focus guest attention on our strength—King Kong and the New York set behind him—and thus the guests never looked at our weaknesses.


In theme design we are designing a “show,” not a place as in architecture. It doesn’t matter whether our “show” takes place in a theme park, a hotel, a restaurant or a store, it’s still a “show,” not a building or complex of buildings. We generally start the design process by selecting an intellectual property as the basis of our theme, and then develop those stories to build a brand. We try to present the brand in formats (i.e. ride, show, hotel, shop, etc) that capture the brand’s essence and appeal to the demographics of the guests we want to attract. We focus our budget on what the guest will primarily perceive and those elements that will present the strongest “show.” Architecture can be an important part of this success, provided it is viewed as a part of the overall show, and not an end in itself. If we are successful in integrating all the design disciplines—everything from script writing to engineering to architecture—to “tell the story,” our design will create positive emotional responses in the guests and a successful project for the owner.

“Theme Design vs Architecture ” used by Permission. Copyright Peter Alexander, All Rights Reserved


Theme Park Space Planning: The Mass Model

30 Apr 2012 Design Tools

“The answers are in the model shop” – Michael Eisner

Model building is an essential part of the development process for theme park and theme park attraction design. This article will discuss the first and most basic model used in the development of a theme park or theme park attraction: The mass model.

As we frequently mention on this site, theme park design is a hybrid of architectural design, show set design, storytelling, site planning, and more. This aspect of theme park design focuses on the architectural aspect of theme park development, of which model building is a large part.

The Mass Model

The mass model is used very early on in the development of a theme park. Generally, a site has been selected and a preliminary site plan has been developed. The mass model helps put depth on an otherwise two dimensional space. The mass model is the first look at the space in three dimensions. Blocks of foam are cut into simple shapes and basic masses to compose this model.

The important thing to realize about a mass model is that it is a fluid object. Like in a dance, nothing stays the same for long. Everything is changing at this point in the process. Masses get moved, pushed, pulled, mirrored, squeezed and extended. The best models must be able to modified quickly. As so, little detail is put into these models. It can be truly said that sometimes an empty can of soda will serve as an architectural mass, if appropriately sized.

As a young designer, I often made the mistake of gluing things together in a solid fashion. But after three or four changes and needing to rip the model apart again and again; I learned that mass models need be attached with minimal gluing. Literally, two parts should be held together with a single drop of glue. Many times we simply use toothpicks to skewer the foam core together, not unlike a club sandwich. The key is to get a sense of the space with very little effort.

The materials needed to construct a mass model are typically: Sheets of foam core, Elmer’s Glue, tooth picks, exacto blades, an architectural scale, and a straight edge for cutting. Many times a plotted site plan will be spray mounted to the foam core to provide a base for the model.


Learn From Your Mistakes – A Life Lesson. Nathan Naversen

This story is reasonably accurate, although most definitely hearsay and quite possibly exaggerated. But it is worth repeating because there is a good life lesson in this story:

Many years ago there was a college student who wanted to become a Disney Imagineer and work at WED Enterprises, as it was called then. His goal was to design a theme park ride, a particular idea that he had imagined. Not just design it, but make it reality at a Disney theme park. So he spent days and weeks, and even months conceiving of an idea that he imagined. He created a detailed scale model that somehow he would use to sell his idea to Disney.

Of course, this student didn’t know that The Walt Disney Company doesn’t buy ideas, nor do they ever solicit ideas from outside sources. To do so would open themselves up to many various types of lawsuits. So as a policy, they strictly will not look at ideas presented by outside sources.

And so as the story goes, the student, not knowing any better and not having anything to lose, tried anyway. By a stroke of luck or an act of God, he was able to get his model in front of a Disney Imagineer. What happened must have been disappointing. The Imagineer said: “Your idea is terrible. It is a tremendously flawed design and there is no way that it will ever become a theme park attraction.”

Then he added, “But you do make pretty good models. Why don’t you come work for us in our model shop?”

And just like that, the young man was hired as a model maker for Walt Disney. He began working on other peoples’ ideas, helping to build models of future Disney attractions in the model shop. But he never gave up on his idea. In fact, he brought it in to work with him and set it on his desk.

Inevitably, many of those old venerable Disney Imagineers, Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men” and others would walk by his office and ask about the model on his desk. He would simply reply that it was his own idea and ask him what they thought of it.

When an engineer happened by he would receive a reply, “It’s awful! Your track gauge is all wrong! This needs to be pushed, and that needs to be pulled. This needs to be lengthened and that needs to be narrowed. It’s awful!” And so later, the young man made modifications.

Then a show set designer might happen by. He would say, “This design is terrible! Your proportion is all out of scale, and it needs to be like this! And the color and texture of this is all wrong! Make it like this. It’s terrible!” And at night, the young man would rework his design taking into account the critique.

Later, a technical manager might remark, “This will never work! Your capacity is much too low for a ride like this. You need to add a larger load platform, an extended queue, and areas for handicap accessibility…” and on and on it went. In every case, this astute young man humbly accepted the criticism of his design. Each time he would refine, improve and rework the design.

As the years went by, the boy became a man. He got promoted from the model shop. And then he was promoted again. And again. He worked on a lot of different projects for the Disney Company, but he never forgot his idea. And he never forgot how to listen to others’ criticism, each time refining his idea into a very workable and now very buildable theme park attraction.

Today, his idea is now known as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It opened at Disneyland in 1979 and at the Magic Kingdom in Florida the following year. That young student was Tony Baxter. Tony Baxter currently holds the title of Senior Vice President for Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California.

Sometimes, there is great value in listening to the criticism of others.

Once an attraction is opened, who is responsible for the upkeep when problems arise?

Eddie –

Once an attraction is opened, who is responsible for the upkeep when problems arise? I would imagine (pardon the pun) that the Imagineers are not responsible for this and that there is a group of maintenance personnel on site for such occurrences as ride malfunctions or routine maintenance. What qualifications might these cast members have? I’m curious if maintenance of the attractions would require similar qualifications to those of an Imagineer. I’m sure there is a need for plumbers, electricians, mechanics. But what about programmers and engineers?

– Russell


This is a big issue for the folks who operate a park maintain it. The key is to recognize this and design with the ultimate maintenance in mind. Create things that can withstand the normal maintenance. Don’t force things into your show that are so intensive, you will be disappointed when they become exasperated and shut the effect that made your show cool…..off. The maintenance crews have to know how to maintain lights, effects, mechanical, animation, etc… It is a tough but rewarding job.

There are needs for all the disciplines you mentioned at most parks, they not Imagineers but you want them to take ownership in your vision, so their understanding of the vision is crucial.

– Eddie Sotto


The Blue Pencil

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

Blue Pencil

Especially when in the blue-sky phase, one medium relied upon heavily is the blue pencil. Theme park attraction designers rely upon blue pencil in order to quickly flesh out ideas on paper.

Rich West is an experienced professional theme park attraction designer and illustrator. He explains why there is such a heavy reliance on blue pencils for early concept sketches. He explains, “Blue pencil is a great way to express ideas because it is fast and easy to lay down values. And because the scene is completely rendered in blue, your mind tends not to try to assign a color to it that isn’t there. Therefore, your mind tends to believe the character of the rendering itself.”

This is a beautiful rendering by theme park consultant Charles Wissig.

You can find non-photo blue or other blue pencils available for purchase at your local art store. Generally, along with some tracing paper or some 11″x17″ bond, the blue pencil is a great tool in the arsenal of the theme park attraction designer.

Pencil is being replaced by Photoshop and tools like the Wacom Tablet, but for many, the blue pencil is still an essential part of any designer’s tool chest

Stages in Attraction Show Writing

23 Apr 2012 Show Writing

The stages in the process of writing an attraction tend to vary from project to project depending on the specific requirements, but you are correct in assuming there is a general pattern to the process. However, the “Guest Experience” is not necessarily the first of the stages leading up to the script draft. There are, in fact, several documents that are generally produced before we reach that point, although those preliminary stages may not necessarily be submitted to the client.

The usual pattern is similar to the process you’d take if you were composing a feature film screenplay, though the nomenclature occasionally deviates. The basic idea is that you start out very brief and general in your descriptions, investing as little time as possible in the process. You present it to the powers that be and if they say “no,” then you go back to the drawing board, knowing that you haven’t wasted a lot of time, energy, and money on a rejected approach. When you finally get a go-ahead, you go on to the next stage, which is more elaborate and time consuming. And so it goes, step by step, progressively moving from the simplest expression of the idea (a “high concept”) to the fullest, most complete version (a finished script). Each step has to be approved, and if you follow the procedure, you shouldn’t have to backtrack very often.

Here are the usual steps in the process (at least the way we do it at ITEC):

1.) High Concept – This is the basic idea, the show premise, boiled down to the fewest number of words possible. A “1-liner,” if you will. If you can get the basic thrust of the story/attraction across in one short line, then chances are you have a strong concept. For example, here’s the high concept I came up with for The Saint Michael Mystery, an attraction ITEC created in Prague, Czech Republic: “An unsettling walking tour through the tortured imagination of the Czech writer Franz Kafka.”

2.) Conceptual Overview – A slightly longer description of the attraction, boiled down to a single paragraph. Expanding slightly on the high concept, you try to get across some idea of what the attraction is ABOUT in fairly general terms (but not necessarily WHAT HAPPENS). It can contain some reference to methodology, but few, if any, specifics. Again, an example from The St. Michael Mystery: “Guests embark on an impressive walking tour that takes them through a series of atmospheric set pieces inspired by the life and stories of Franz Kafka. Such ‘Kafkaesque’ themes as alienation, bureaucratic neglect, and existential angst are brought to life in a sequence of environments enhanced by disconcerting special effects, eerie lighting, and evocative music and sound effects.”

3.) Guest Experience Outline – Just like the outlines you used to compose for school term papers. Basically, a list of everything that the audience will see, hear, touch, taste, smell, whatever, from beginning to end. The big emphasis here is the major story points and how you will get them across. But it’s just a framework, very skeletal, with few if any details. The goal here is to establish and verify the STRUCTURE of the guest experience in a manner that allows everyone involved to see the big picture before you move on to the next stage.

4.) Guest Experience – Once you have an approved outline, you can start fleshing it out as a complete Guest Experience, “connecting the dots” of the major points. This is a lot like a motion picture “treatment.” In essence, it’s a description of the attraction from the point of view of the guest, describing everything he or she experiences. Written in present tense to give it a sense of immediacy. (From the outline, you can write a sketchier version of the guest experience before you tackle the full guest experience, if that helps.)

5.) Script Outline – Not every attraction requires an actual script. Some attractions have no dialogue. In others, say a roller coaster for instance, the only script might be for the load spiel, or maybe a short pre-show video. A few attractions, on the other hand, are ALL spiel (a few years ago I wrote about half an hour’s worth of new recorded narration for the scenic railway that circles Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta, Georgia; it was an existing ride, so my narration script essentially became the entire show.) If there are several key points to be made in the script, you might as well compose a script outline to help you get it all straight and assure that you don’t miss any important items.

6.) Show Script – Okay, NOW it’s time to write the actual script. How much goes into that script beyond narration, dialogue, music cues, audio effects cues, and special effects cues will depend on the project. Yes, sometimes you will be asked to include text (“display copy”) to go onto specific props, signage, and scenic elements (I was once hired to compose fake “headlines” for dozens of newspapers as part of a newsstand set). Other times, such tasks will fall to the art director or some other member of the design team. So it really depends on the client and the project.

Again, different projects have different requirements, so the above sequence doesn’t always apply. There may be additional steps or fewer. But the general direction is always the same: start with the simplest expression of the experience and then, as you move through the approval stages, progressively flesh it out until you have your finished script or guest experience.

I hope this clarifies the issue for you, Will. Good luck!

Adam Berger

Writer /  ITEC Entertainment Corporation

Tales from the Jungle Cruise

The Day O.J. Simpson Visited the Jungle Cruise

The following is a true story that happened at Disney’s Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom in 1998 to Skipper Andrew.

To set the story up, there are a few things you must know. First of all, it is forbidden for any Disney cast member to approach a celebrity, ask for an autograph, or treat them in any way other than any other park guest. ‘Everyone is a VIP at Disney,’ as the mantra goes. So for a Cast Member to accidentally recognize or acknowledge a celebrity is a potential point of embarrassment and possible dismissal. Every cast member knows not to do it.

The second thing you must know is that the Jungle Cruise has a sixteen page script that each Jungle Cruise Skipper must memorize. The ride is composed of 10-11 show scenes, and for each show scene there are two or three variations of script that a skipper may choose from. Quite often a skipper invents his own material on purpose, or sometimes by mistake.

Day after day, week after week, the Jungle Cruise spiel becomes second nature to a Jungle Cruise Skipper. As each scene happens, visual cues trigger a particular part of the script. At a certain point the spiel and jokes just flow off the tongue without even thinking. So comfortable did Skipper Andrew become with his spiel that the thought never even crossed his mind about the potential disaster that awaited him the day O.J. Simpson got on his boat.

The official script calls for the following spiel when departing from the dock, “Say goodbye to those nice people on the dock, because you may never see them again!” Other variations say, “We’re off on a cruise that will last for six exotic days and five romantic nights.”

Inevitably, as the monotony of the working on the Jungle Cruise wears on day after day, some Skippers vary the joke for their own entertainments’ sake. “We’re off on a cruise that will last for six exotic days and five romantic nights” became, “We’re off like a thundering herd of jelly donuts on the run from the law!” Or sometimes, a tired skipper might simply say, “We’re off!” and hit the throttle.

If Skipper Andrew had used any of those variations of the spiel he would have been fine. But Skipper Andrew picked the other one… the version of the spiel that applied very much to the Jungle theme, and to headhunting, which was another theme prevalent in the Disney Jungle Cruise. It was a joke that caught on like wildfire with the other Jungle Cruise Skippers for sheer boredom and the need to say something different while departing from the dock. But it was a joke that spelled disaster for Skipper Andrew.

That day when Skipper Andrew departed the dock, with O.J. Simpson in the front seat with his kids and 30 other park guests on board, he said the same words he had no doubt said hundreds of times before to other cruises. Those innocent words would have been fine had any other person on the planet been on board. But in this case, it was O.J. Simpson. Those words would go down in the history of the Jungle Cruise as one of the funniest jokes ever spieled by accident: That day, as they departed the dock, Skipper Andrew said very innocently, “We’re off, like a severed head!!”



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