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.


The Blue Pencil

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

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


23 Apr 2012 Design Tools

Design Tools: What tools are used?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adobe Photoshop

23 Apr 2012 Design Tools

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

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

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

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

Magic Markers for Theme Park Designers

20 Apr 2012 Design Tools

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

Magic Markers

There are three brands of markers that seem to work the best for rendering, and each have their advantages. Prismacolors are nice because they are a dry marker. The dry marker allows you to get more detailed with your color. The triple tips allow you to work in detail or on larger surfaces. There are scores of colors in a variety of different sets. They work well for most applications. Pantone brand markers are very similar to Prismacolors in function and performance, very dry and usable for many applications.

The difficulty in using these markers is keeping a ‘wet edge’. When filling a surface, if you let a surface dry and then try to add more color you’ll get a bleed line within the space. Bleed lines can ruin a drawing and must be avoided. Of course, if you scan the drawing, the lines can always be photoshopped out. But there is something to be said about a perfectly rendered marker drawing.

Chartpak is another brand of markers that are used quite often in themed attraction development circles. The difference is that unlike Prismacolors, they are extremely wet. The wetness is an advantage because you can quickly cover an area on a piece of paper with a nice wash of color. Care must be taken to stay away from edges, because this marker bleeds a lot. However, an astute illustrator will use the black lines on a drawing as a buffer zone within which the bleed will stop. The Chartpak markers bring a wonderful, water color-like feel to a drawing and unlike Prismacolors, can be blended together to some extent. A disadvantage of these markers is the high level of toxicity. Use only for short periods of time.

Photoshop is quickly replacing the need for markers. A paint bucket tool in Photoshop eliminates a lot of mistakes and allows for editing later. Still, there is a rich quality that can be obtained with a properly rendered marker drawing. It is an art that we should not soon forget.

Design Tools: What tools are used?

19 Apr 2012 Design Tools

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

AutoCad drafting

AutoCad is a tool that has almost completely replaced hand drafting for the development of plans, sections and elevations in most of the world of design and construction. AutoCad is a part of many attraction designers’ skill sets.

AutoCad designers are an essential part of the design team, and often translate concept sketches into objects with real dimensions. Cad drafting in the theme park design world is used in the creation of a ‘show set package’ that describes the required show elements necessary for the production of a theme park attraction.

We might mention that one of the few places that AutoCad has not completely replaced hand drafting is in the realm of theme park attraction design. Simply put, the straight, vector-oriented lines of cannot reproduce the layers of detail and texture required for theme park attractions. Old fashioned pencil-on-drafting table is still quite necessary and is not obsolete – yet.

As a word of caution to those starting out: There are a lot of immitation Cad programs out there, but the industry standard and the only one used industry wide is AutoCad. Anyone attempting to market their skills has a much stronger hand knowing AutoCad.

Autocad is made by AutoDesk, Inc, based in San Rafael, California. Student versions can be obtained through local colleges and universities for hundreds of dollars. The full version costs upwards of $5000 retail. Classes in AutoCad are widely available through local community colleges, although the best skills are acquired when accompanied by training in architecture.


Here’s a typical front elevation of theme park attraction. In the realm of themed attraction design, we would consider this a ‘show element’. In this case, the original TWA Rocketship ‘weenie’ for Tomorrowland. This drawing was not drawn by a professional, as you can see by the varying text height and the out-of-scale dimension style. But it does illustrate how AutoCad can be used as a tool when developing attraction elevations.

Design Toolchest: Using Theming Foliages

19 Apr 2012 Design Tools


by Brett Peterson of Commercial Silk Int’l

What is Themed Foliage?

Themed foliage is the process by which a designer selects a pallet of artificial foliages from hundreds of foliage varieties in order to be used in combination together to create a desired theme.

How should you evaluate and choose a themed foliage company?

There are three main disciplines to evaluate when selecting a foliage Company; design, manufacturing and installation. Many foliage Companies only supply the product and it is the responsibility of the client to hire a themed fabricator to use the product to create the theme design. This approach has it limitations in that a themed fabricator is skilled at building products from the ground up, but in order to create a theme using foliages you must have an expert in landscape design. You will not get the desired effect if you simply think putting a palm tree in the corner of a room will give you a tropical theme. You must select a Company that can take the themed fabricators vision and add foliages, plants and trees to create an immersive landscape design that invokes the theme.

Second, you must select a Company that can manufacture complete plants and trees to your exact specifications. This does not mean they are custom, it simply means that they built to order and that they are not selling you imported pre-built Asian plants. This is important, because with any theme design you must manufacture the products to appropriately fit into the design. For example, if the foliage supplier only has 6′ plants but the space is large and expansive and requires 10’+ trees, the supplier needs to be able to build these to the specifications required to create the correct design.

Finally, the last and perhaps the most important consideration would be if the foliage supplier has the ability to install the project. As mentioned previously, in order to create the entire effect, you must have a team capable of strategically planting all the material in the right areas in order to pull off the intended theme. This is a difficult thing to evaluate and the best way to determine if the Company is capable is to review their previous installed projects. It will be visually apparent what Company is truly capable and what Company is not.

What types of themes can be created with foliage?

The most typical theme is a tropical theme and is mostly seen at themed restaurants and entertainment venues. Additional themes include; northwoods, wilderness, southwest, asian and more.

How are the foliages used to create a theme?

The designer will be experienced in the art of both design and manufacturing in order to create the desired theme. The designer must know both how a single foliage branch can be used individually in the display as well as how the foliage branch can be used in the crafting of a bigger larger themed plant/tree. Often times the designer will need to know how to use a multitude of different materials including epoxies, urethanes, foam and paint to manufacture the finished plant/tree on-site. In addition, the designer will need to be aware of the many crossover applications of trees, plants and foliages. A Maple Tree for example, depending upon its color / shape / density, can be used in a residential boulevard setting, a forest diorama, a winter scene or a graveyard. Customization of products, either by the manufacturer or on site is critical in achieving the desired effect.

We at Commercial Silk Int’l have worked with architects and designers all over the World to create various themes using our foliages. To date, our product has been installed in over 50 countries. To learn more about how we have used trees, plants and foliages to create themes, visit our Case Study pages on our website. All of our Case Studies can be sorted by theme.

What are the requirements for themed foliage complying with building fire codes?

Most building inspectors require fire retardant materials throughout the theme displays. Even if they do not specify it initially they will sometimes retroactively require it to be applied after the display is installed.

What are the advantages of IFR** Foliage (Inherently Fire Retardant) foliage:

Foliage that is created through a process by which fire retardant chemicals are impregnated into the materials during the manufacturing process is called IFR, or Inherently Fire Retardant. These chemicals are blended with the fabric as well as the plastic or PVC parts at the time the materials are injected into the mold. Commercial Silk Int’l is a direct importer of the industry’s largest selection of IFR TM Foliages. We have developed the most extensive line of IFR TM Foliages in order to provide architects and designers the ability to create their entire theme using fire retardant foliages. This is an important distinction, because often times architects and designers become limited in their selections and are unable to fully create their themes with fire retardant material. Our large selection of IFR TM Foliages enables our clients to create entire themes that are completely fire retardant.

What are the alternatives to foliage that are not IFR** (Inherently Fire Retardant), and why are they not as desirable?

Non-IFR foliage may be treated by spraying or dipping it in topical fire retardant chemicals. This process of fire retarding is not done during the injection of the material into the mold. Rather, this is done as an after-market application. This method often leaves a spotty or discolored film that can degrade the foliage giving it a wilted look. The tacky surface film that is left on the foliage can attract dust and can wash or wear off easily, requiring expensive re-application of the chemical. The level of protection provided by this topical chemical is often very inconsistent and inadequate for meeting fire codes. This is why the process of impregnating chemicals directly into the materials during manufacturing presents a superior result that is often preferred over other methods, such as this topical application.

What are the Benefits of IFR** (Inherently Fire Retardant) Foliage ?

IFR** Foliage  Other Fire Retardant Applications   Chemicals impregnated into the materials during manufacturing  Treated by spraying or dipping it in topical fire retardant chemicals   Will not wash or wear off  May wash or wear off and requires periodic reapplication   Consistent fire protection

(NFPA 701; NFPA 705; ASTME 84-97a Class A; UL 723; California Title 19; US Gov SIN 722-06)  Inconsistent fire protection   Structurally sound; premium grade materials withstand commercial application.  May degrade materials, resulting in a wilted appearance   Smooth surface reduces dust build-up  Tacky surface film attracts dust   Visually identical compared to standard foliages  Appearance may have a spotty or discolored film

What are the design considerations for artificial foliages used in outdoor applications?

Outdoor foliages are manufactured the same way as the IFR foliages in that a UV inhibitor is impregnated into the foliage at the time of manufacturing. By injecting the UV into the plastic, PVC and fabric, as opposed to post treating the foliage with a spray-on UV, you lock the properties into the main materials of the foliage thereby creating a higher quality UV protection. In addition to the UV component, it is also important that the foliages are made from durable materials capable of withstanding the harsh outdoor environments. Most outdoor foliages are manufactured from plastic. Commercial Silk Int’l manufactures outdoor artificial trees, plants and foliages for a number of applications including boxwood hedges, topiaries, evergreen trees, and more.

What are the costs associated with themed using foliages, plants and trees?

It is dependent on the size, amount of customization, amount of detail, botanical correctness (ie; is it imperative for a Norway Spruce to be built on a Spruce trunk?) and the ability for the display builder to do on site modifications. Often times, museums are the only application where recreations must be totally authentic and botanically precise. For theme parks, water parks and other entertainment venues, the idea is to create the desired look by using existing foliage molds and altering them slightly to create the theme. By using existing foliage molds, the clients are able to save substantial costs that normally are associated with building custom molds.

Is plant customization available?

To a point. If you need two fall color Poison Ivy plants you may be better off modifying a readily available plant from a catalog. If you require 2 acres of an Autumn Prairie grass a supplier may be able to manufacture the product. As with all things, as soon as it becomes custom the costs increase dramatically. Commercial Silk Int’l has extensive experience building custom trees, plants and foliages for themed applications. Our catalogs are used as a starting point for architects and designers. From there, we custom manufacture to each client’s specific application. From half trees, to column wraps to foliage ceiling screens we can manufacture what you need.

What is the time frame for obtaining plants?

It depends upon the product, size and custom nature of the plant. Generally loose foliage can be shipped within a day or two. Built products usually have a lead time of 3 – 5 weeks. Large product quantities, manufactured specifically for a project can take 6 months to a year to produce. Check with the manufacturer to obtain a production schedule and availability.

How can we get design and budget assistance?

Most reputable manufacturers have staff designers and graphic designers that can assist in budgeting, plant selection, installation procedures and product photos. Make sure you select a supplier that can aid in design as well as can provide a turnkey solution by providing installation. Commercial Silk Int’l is a full service design / build Company specializing in the manufacturing, design and installation of trees, plants and foliages exclusively for commercial projects.

What foliage features should I be looking for in a Supplier and what are the Benefits?

Features  Benefits   Exclusive Foliage Designs  Botanically correct / More selection / Not cookie cutter   Custom Foliage Availability  Able to make any type of Foliage   Unitized Foliage or Pin Sealed  Lasts longer / looks better longer   Thicker Gauge Wire in Stem  Foliage will not spin / Holds shape longer

Easier to reshape / Lasts longer   Coating on Leaf Surface  Easier to clean / Lasts longer   Custom Painted Foliage  Can create seasons / more authentic / Can add shading or color   Inherently Fire Retardant  Meets current codes / Safer / User friendly/ Plastic and fabric are treated

What plant/treee features should I be looking for in a Supplier and what are the Benefits?

Features  Benefits   Use of Natural Material  More botanically correct / more authentic   Hard Wood Stems  Longevity – Ability to hold its shape   Add-A-Branch  Make a larger canopy / Can create a different shape, also get a larger tree through a smaller access area   Coned Tips  Better transition from branch to foliage   Cable System  Ability to hold its original shape – last longer and easier to install   Hand Painted  Blends imperfections into natural stem

Brett Peterson is a principal at Commecial Silk Int’l , a manufacturer and supplier of artificial trees and silk plants based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

** IFR™ Foliage (Inherently Fire Retardant) foliage is a trademark of Commercial Silk, International.



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