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.

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.

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

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


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themed Attraction Design, Part One. Immersive Environments

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

Seeing is Believing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title song, Chariots of Fire,

Baby Mine, Dumbo,

Title song; Raiders of the Lost Ark

Imperial Death March; Star Wars

Title song; The Twilight Zone

Title Song; Psycho

When You Wish Upon a Star; Pinocchio

Eye of the Tiger, Rocky 3

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

Tactile Tactics

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

A Taste Sensation

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

Show control: It’s all about the timing

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

— Tom Soranno

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

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

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

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

Tom: That’s exactly right.

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

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

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

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

NN: Will you explain your role on this team?

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NN: That wouldn’t be good!

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

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

NN: Will you explain more about integration?

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

NN: Explain the integration process.

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

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

Tom: Very much like that.

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

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

NN: Then what do you do?

Together: We run shows! (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

NN: Sounds like you were really hooked!

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

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

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

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

Tom: Yes it is.

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

Tom:  You’re welcome.

Mickey’s 10 Commandments – Marty Sklar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Theme Park Master Planning – The Attraction Mix

The Attraction Mix – by Peter Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Theme Park Master Planning – Park Layout

by Peter Alexander

Park Layout

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Theme Park Master Planning – The Theme

The Theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Peter Alexander President;

Totally Fun Company.

So you want to build a theme park?

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

The Numbers Game

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

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

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

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

The Waiting Game By Will Wiess

“We spent a whole afternoon and only rode two rides. I’m sure you can understand our disappointment.”

“We paid close to $50 a person to wait in line for almost an hour…I plan to urge others to avoid it (the park) at all costs.”

“I’m tired of waiting hours in line for just a 2 sec. ride.”

If you’ve ever wondered how wait times are affecting the major theme parks, pay close attention to some of the complaints registered with With no existing research able to accurately monitor the impact, it is an issue long ignored by many park designers. In most cases, shortening those waits equate to increased costs for parks. It is argued, standing in line is an accepted by-product of any theme or amusement park.

But all that is starting to change.

At present, nine major U.S. park chains have, or will soon implement, various versions of the ride reservation system. Disney recently adopted their own, dubbed Fast Pass, for most of their theme parks. (Though some have credited them with pioneering the system, the idea isn’t a new one; time tickets have been used successfully at World Fairs for years.) The concept is fairly simple. Guests insert their “passport” into an electronic turnstile, after which a receipt prints out their reserved time in which to board a specific attraction with a minimal wait. By evening the demand, they hope to decrease hourly wait times.

They must be doing something right; after nearly two years of testing, Universal launched their own system, known as Universal Express. Paramount and Busch are both following suit.

But it doesn’t stop there. The future could very well be found in a few Six Flags owned properties, who recently introduced the Lo-Q System. While pagers issued to guests allow them to effectively plan their entire day of rides, they can also act as a locating device. (By the way, other Six Flags parks use a time ticket system called Fast Lane.)

So why the sudden change of heart? Exit surveys are becoming increasing filled with comments similar to those found on PlanetFeedback. The fact is, we live in a wired world where time has become a precious commodity. Guests are ever more irritated with paying exorbitant gate fees, only to stand in line for the average four-minute ride. In rare cases, outright violence is the end result. Not long ago, a Disneyland Cast Member was assaulted by an irate guest who had mistaken him for someone cutting in line.

But the benefits of line reduction programs go well beyond guest satisfaction. As customers waste somewhere around 25 per cent of their day in line, the parks are missing out on time (and money) spent in restaurants and shops. With an industry serving 316 million guests per year (according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions), the remuneration is potentially enormous.

There are countless ways at accomplishing this reduction, some more economically feasible than others. Let’s take a quick look at just a few:

Increase hourly capacity. This is the obvious first choice, though probably not the most cost efficient one. For a major “E-Ticket” attraction, Disney shoots for somewhere around 1600 riders per hour. Increasing the capacity could mean anything from extra vehicles to a quicker experience. You can count on one thing, though: it’s going to cost.

Effectively communicate attractions with shorter waits on a regular basis. Most of the major parks keep a time board, showing current waits for major attractions, near a central hub. Simply adding more of these around the park could result in a dramatic difference. Likewise, successfully advertising off-peak times to the general public could also prove beneficial.

Use a ride coupon system. A practice commonly used by fairs and carnivals, Disney also once utilized ride tickets. This is where the term “E-Ticket,” now only a name reserved for their most expensive attractions, first came about. Instead of today’s “passport,” guests purchased coupon books with ride tickets marked A through E. The latter was reserved for the most popular attractions, like the Matterhorn Bobsleds or the Submarine Voyage. Again, the goal was to even the demand and encourage guests to experience each attraction. (It should be noted, however, that most customers tend to favor the perceived value of a single-priced pass.)

Leave out the queue altogether and opt for a large pre-show. While this is an idea that could dramatically affect capacity, it may not be feasible for all types of attractions. Incorporate your park into a single, cohesive story. It seems feasible for future designers to create a park where guests are encouraged to experience each “chapter.”

In the end, it will probably never be economically practical to fully eliminate the lines. Hundreds of millions of visitors will hit the turnstiles of worldwide parks this year, resulting in thousands of waiting hours. Therefore, when it comes to guest satisfaction and return, it’s the details that become all the more important. Here are a few to keep in mind:

Create thematically related distractions. Numerous parks have incorporated show stories into their queuing areas, and many have added guest interaction. Good examples include Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Men In Black: Alien Attack.

Beware of spatial layout. The trick is to develop queues that encourage the perception of progress. Narrow, winding queues, similar to Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure, is one way to pull it off. Rarely is there a point where guests can see how long the line is ahead of them, allowing for the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Curb unused resources. Guests want to know that all personnel and equipment are being used to their full extent. Idle operators and unfilled ride vehicles will very quickly add to their frustration.

It’s easy to see that there are a million things we can pay attention to when focusing on the reduction of lines. One thing is very clear: this is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. Despite an uncertain economy, theme park attendance is on the rise. You can be certain that those with the least amount of waiting will win in more ways than one.

Will Wiess is a freelance writer for the themed entertainment industry.

An Introduction to Themed Attraction Design: Defining Terms

An Introduction to Themed Attraction Design: Defining Terms

The following is a general overview of the terms and terminology you will encounter as a theme park designer. The terms are a combination of those you will see in theater, engineering, theme park operations, architecture and more. A theme park designer must know all of these terms to be able to communicate effectively with the various disciplines involved in the design of theme park attractions. This is not a comprehensive list, but it is useful nonetheless.

“Ride Vehicle” – The vehicle that guests board to experience an attraction.

“E-Ticket” – Back when the original Disneyland opened in 1955, your paid admission included a ticket book. Attractions were grouped from A to E depending on the popularity of the ride. Each book came with a certain amount of tickets for each type of attraction. The E Tickets were the most popular attractions, and thus, the term stuck. An E Ticket attraction has become synonymous with the highest budget, highest thrill attractions.

“OPS” – Theme Park Operations. This department is tasked with operating the theme park attraction, to safely load and unload guests from the ride, and to keep it running at maximum capacity.

“Theming” – Any prop, set, or otherwise extraneous material used in creating a themed environment. Example of use, 1) “We need some more theming here on this wall.” 2) “This piece of theming has fallen off the wall.”

“Iron ride” – A ride with little or no theming.

“Show Action Equipment” – Mechanical devices that control an element of a ride system, an animatronic figure, special effects, pyrotechnics or lighting. Often installed as a stand-alone piece of equipment meant to perform a specific function.

“Dark Ride” – Typically, these small rides were composed a ride vehicle of 2-6 riders, a track that winds through a series of theater flats and painted sets, separated by “bump” doors.  Most of the early Fantasyland rides at Disneyland are dark rides.   Examples of this are: Mr.Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. Newer dark rides include Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin (Disneyland) and Winnie the Pooh (Magic Kingdom, WDW). Dark rides are the staple of a theme park because they are story-oriented rides and generally focus on a storytelling experience.

“Motion simulator” –  The name “motion simulator” probably originated from the fact that Star Tours was originally developed from a Boeing 747 flight simulator in the mid-1980s. Examples of motion simulators are numerous, but two of the motion simulators are Star Tours at Disneyland and Back to the Future at Universal Studios. One characteristic of motion simulators is their high fatigue factors as few people feel comfortable in a motion simulator longer than about 4 minutes.

“Motion base” – The machinery that moves the motion simulator. A motion base sits between the ride vehicle and the ground.  Recently, designers have gone one further step in ride development by putting a motion base on a ride track.   Examples of this type of attraction are:  Earthquake at Universal Studios Florida, Cat-In-The-Hat at Islands of Adventure, Winnie the Pooh at the Magic Kingdom, Spiderman at Islands of Adventure, Journey into Imagination and Test Track at EPCOT, Indiana Jones at Disneyland and Countdown to Extinction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  These are some of the newest and most expensive rides because of all the extra technology that goes into them.

“Gobo” – A piece of metal or glass, which fits into the gate of a profile spot and projects a pattern onto the set. Gobos can be very complex. They are first fitted into a gobo holder. Holders vary in size (each type of lantern requires a different size), although the gobos themselves are of a standard size. Most basic gobos are made of metal but very complex patterns can be created on glass gobos. Also called Template.

“Muslin” – Material used in construction of soft flats. Also used to make mock-up costumes.

“Flume Ride” – A flume ride is any type of ride that utilizes a channel of water to carry the ride vehicle.  Examples of flume rides are numerous as they date back to the earliest American amusement parks in tunnels of love.  Log flume rides are common throughout the world today, as are roaring rapids river rides.  Good examples of these types of rides are Splash Mountain at Disneyland and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

“Proscenium” – The outlining frame of the stage opening that separates the house from the stage. Also called the Proscenium Arch.

“THRC” – Theoretical Hourly Ride Capacity. A simple calculation that multiplies the number of riders in each ride vehicle by the number of dispatches per hour.

“Dispatch” – A dispatch occurs each time a ride vehicle is launched from the load platform.

“Dispatch Interval” – The time between dispatches.

“Load Platform” – The area where guests are safely loaded onto an attraction ride vehicle.

“Steel Coaster” – A roller coaster that has structural components primarily made of steel. Steel coasters are faster, smoother and can be made to perform a varied number of inverted maneuvers including loops and cork-screws.  Some ride manufacturers specialize in steel coasters, some specialize in “woodies,” and some manufacture both.  The first steel tube coaster was invented by Arrow Dynamics for Disneyland in the 1950’s (The Matterhorn Bobsleds). Generally, wooden coasters are slower, bumpier, and do not loop.

“Inverted Coaster” – A coaster that hangs from the track.

“EPCOT” – Every Paycheck Comes on Thursday.

“Costume” – The uniform worn by a theme park employee. Especially while working in a themed environment.

“Set Dressing” – Items on a set which are not actually used by anyone but which make it look more realistic (e.g. curtains over a window, a bowl of flowers on a table, and so on).

“Ride envelope” – The area of space within a ride vehicle must remain within while passing through the show. The ride envelope often includes clearance so that a guest may not hurt himself by reaching out of the ride vehicle.

“Velours” – Curtains hung both to mask the backstage area and to shape the onstage area.”

“Cyc Lights” – Type of powerful lighting instruments used to light the cyc with a smooth wash.

“Cyclorama” – Also known as a cyc. 1) A very large piece of white fabric, tensioned on two or more sides, which covers the entire back wall of the stage. It can be lit in various colors or have slides or gobos projected onto it. 2) A curved drop or wall used as a background to partially enclose the set. Quite often used to depict the sky. May be painted or lit.

“Scrim” – A gossamer screen-like material that, depending upon which side it is lit may appear either transparent or opaque. May be painted or unpainted.

“Flat” – A theatrical set element composed of plywood. Usually approximately 2″ thick. Painted flats may be used in a variety of ways to enhance a set design.

“Entertainment” – Actors, singers, dancers, characters and other show-oriented performers.

“Barn Door” – An arrangement of four metal leaves placed in front of the lenses of certain kinds of spotlight to control the shape of the light beam.

“Merchandise” – The department responsible for the selling of goods at retail locations.

“Cycle Time” – The actual time it takes for a ride to dispatch, advance through the attraction, unload, advance, load, and then dispatch once again.

“Wait Time” – The time spent waiting in line for an attraction.

“Lap Bar” – Used to secure a guest into a ride vehicle.

“Bump Door” – In a dark ride, a bump door often separates one show scene from the next. A ride vehicle bumps the bump door in order to drive it open.

“Scenic package” – What theme park designers usually assemble in order to communicate the creative ideas for a ride. Also called a “Show Package” or a “Show Set Package”

“Line” – The People standing waiting for their turn to ride on an attraction.

“Queue” – The serpentine building or holding area where the people stand. For example,1) “The queue area was completely full.” 2)”Would you please go open up some more queue?”

“Queue Rail” – Railing used to define a queue.

“Queue Rope” – Rope used to define a queue.

“Stantion” – A post, approximately 36-42″ in height. Often used with rope to create a temporary or permanent queue.

“Blue Sky” – A brainstorming session where ideas and loose concepts are generated.

“Schematic Design” – Blue Sky concepts are translated into the first working plans, sections and elevations.

“Concept Design” – Similar to blue sky.

“Design Development” – Schematic Designs are refined and many changes are finalized or refined to a nearly permanent condition.

“Contract Documents” – The final drawing package where all the necessary elements of a theme park ride, show or attraction are included.

“WED” – WED Enterprises was the company that originally created Disneyland. WED stands for Walter Elias Disney. Later, WED was changed to Walt Disney Imagineering.

“MAPO” – Manufacturing And Production Organization is located in North Hollywood. It originally started as the division of WED responsible for Audio-Animatronics. The first Animatronic built by WED was the robin in the 1964 film, Mary Poppins. The success of the film and the robin lead to the name MAPO (MAry POppins). After the division moved to its larger site, the name became the acronym it is today.

“WDI” – Walt Disney Imagineering.

“Universal Creative” – Universal Studios’ version of WDI.

“Pulse” – Sometimes rides allow a large group of guests to enter an attraction or queue all at the same time. This is called a pulse system. Usually associated with a pre-show.

“Pre-show” – Builds the story prior to the actual attraction. Examples of a pre-show are numerous and go all the way back to the original audio-animatronic figure “Jose – the McCaw” at The Enchanted Tiki room at Disneyland.

“Foliage” – The trees and foliage that the horticulture department installs in a theme park overnight.

“Ride Operator” – The employee who operates an attraction.

“Static Prop” – A Prop in a show set that does not move.

“Animated Prop” – A Prop in a show set that has movement (animation).

“Show set” – Synonymous with “show scene.” A set or series of sets specifically designed to advance the storyline of a theme park experience.

“Animatronics” – Any robotic figure designed to resemble a human, animal or other character on an attraction. Animatronics may have a single movement, or several complex sequences of programmed moves and sound. In general, an animatronic has at least some animation by nature.

“Animation” – The plural form of Animatronics. Example, “All of the animation went down at Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“101” – The Disney code for an attraction that is experiencing technically difficulties to the point where guests are no longer being cycled through the attraction.

“102” – The status of a ride that has just reopened after a 101.

“Show Scene” -A show scene is a set design translated for use in a theme park attraction. A theme park attraction is usually broken up into a series of show scenes. Each one of these scenes is meant to tell a single story. Sometimes there may be a single show scene for each room. Sometimes a single room can have multiple show scenes. The scene includes the set design, props, animatronics, lighting, f/x, and architecture.

“On Stage” – Any area that a theme park guest can see.

“Back Stage” – Any area usually off limits to guests.

“E-Stop” – Rides have emergency stop buttons, designed to immediately halt a ride if a guest should fall onto the track, or the operator should have to stop the ride for any reason.

“Shotgun Gates” – The gates that regulate the loading of passengers into a ride vehicle. Usually a roller coaster. Shotgun gates open so that passengers may board the ride.

“Spiel” – The story or narrative told my an actor while performing on a theme park attraction. Usually over a microphone. Example: Jungle Cruise (Disneyland), The Land (EPCOT), Storybook Land (Disneyland), Jaws (Universal Studios Florida).

“Marathon” – An actor who decides to ride a ride while performing a spiel again and again without a break. A marathon can help reduce the wait time of an attraction by allowing an extra ride vehicle to remain on the attraction.

Remember these terms as they will be referred to frequently throughout’s numerous articles, message boards and interviews.

How to develop a theme from scratch using an image board

Blue Sky Theme Park Attraction Design

Developing the theme for a new theme park attraction may seem like a simple task. Begin with a ride, a restaurant, a retail location or space. Then select from a library of themes and apply it like a template to the space. This thinking may appear to work in some cases. A pirate theme, jungle theme or a space theme comes to mind. But what about when the answer is not so obvious? The question, “What should it really look like?” is a question that every themed attraction designer must be able to answer. That answer often comes from a design tool called an image board. Putting together an image board is a truly helpful exercise in theme development. This article will demonstrate how to put an image board together.

To begin, find a large blank wall. This is your canvas. Sometimes a white bed sheet or a foam core board can be used. Make the area large enough to hold as many images as you think necessary. Then begin pulling images. Look in magazines, the internet, books, and any other place you can find an image related to your theme. Place the images on the wall to form a very loose collage. Fill the wall. Sometimes the images will relate to people, sometimes to props, sometimes to the environment. Put them all on the board and then let the images speak.

Pull as many images as possible. Image after image, layer upon layer. Pin them to the board. What you will find is that while every image will not fit, some elements in the images will establish themselves as a trend. You will soon discover the elements you should include as part of your theme. Try it! The results are fantastic.

To give you an example, let us suppose that we are developing a water ride based on Chinese mythology. What might the boats in the attraction look like? I pulled 10 representative images from the web using “Chinese Junk” as a google keyword. Placing them on our sample image board below, these images begin to paint a picture. While all are not alike and some may not even be appropriate, each image tells a story about what elements should be present in your theme.

As you look at these images below, try to spot trends on the image board and then apply that thinking when you create the theme.

To finish the process, identify all the typical elements within these images. What does a junk sail look like? What does the rope look like? What do the decks look like? What does the rudder look like? What color palettes are typical? How are these boats armed? What kind of wood are these boats composed of? What do people wear on these boats?

The Coming Revolution in Themed Entertainment

A transcript of a speech by Bob Rogers at a forum on the future of themed entertainment From the IAAPA Tradeshow, Orlando, Florida 1997

Introduction Harrison “Buzz” Price

Bob Rogers is a Renaissance man, a technology buff, and a great storyteller.  After leaving CalArts, he was an in-and-out man at Walt Disney Imagineering, working on Florida Disney attractions and Pavilions at EPCOT.   In 1981, looking for steadier employment, he founded BRC Imagination Arts; and his productions there have won him many prizes: Kennedy and Houston Space Centers, Spirit Lodge, Rainbow War, and Vancouver Expo where he stole the show.  You all know his talent.  He will tell us about the coming revolution in themed entertainment.

The Coming Revolution In Themed Entertainment Bob Rogers

Buzz says that I was an in-and-out-man at Disney.  What he means by that is that I have been fired by the Disney organization three times now, and each time told I will never ever work there again. This morning I will demonstrate why. . .

In the early 1950’s Walt Disney ignored the conventional wisdom of his day and re-invented our business.  Walt died in 1966 but his revolution continued on without him, and it was codified by less original thinkers.  Today that revolution has become the establishment.  It’s well-developed rules select against new ideas while replicating old ones.  Derivative thinking regulates our industry’s economic models and it’s creative options.

Today it is time to once again re-invent our industry. To understand the coming revolution, look to the original revolution.  Its implications and insights are still ringing throughout our industry.    Now the public relations story says that it all started at a merry-go-round in Los Angeles, California where a father, Walt, had taken his two daughters in a failing attempt to find some family fun.  Well, that’s pretty and that’s cute, but I’m here to tell you that the real revolution began late one stormy November night in a hotel room in Chicago, and I’d like to take you there:    You have entered a classic smoke filled room.  There are Cuban cigars, caviar, an entire case of Chivas Regal and seven men.  It is 44 years ago tonight, during the annual meeting of the National Association of Parks Pools and beaches;  the organization which later became the AAPA,  which only recently became the IAAPA.   Walt Disney is not here; the three men representing Walt know relatively little about theme parks. They are Buzz Price, Dick Irvine and Nat Weinkoff. The other four men in the room are here to confidently tell the first three why Walt’s ideas will fail. They are the giants of our industry in 1953, the most experienced, successful and respected owners and operators of amusement parks. They are William Schmitt, owner of Riverview Park in Chicago, Harry Batt of Pontchartrain Beach Park in New Orleans,  Ed Schott of Coney Island, and George Whitney of Playland at the Beach in San Francisco.

The three from Disney unroll this bird’s eye master plan drawn by Herb Ryman and they stick it to the wall with masking tape, and they stand back and invite comments.


It’s a massacre!  Now I’m going to tell you what they told these guys that night, and as I do that, I’d like to think that this sounds like a meeting that you’ve been in while your work has been reviewed recently.   1. All the proven money makers are conspicuously missing: No roller coaster, no ferris wheel, no shoot the chute, no tunnel of love, no hot dog carts, no beer.  Worst of all, no carney games like the baseball throw. Without barkers along the midway to sell the sideshows, the marks won’t pay to go in.  Customers are likely to slip out of your park with money still left in their pockets.   2.  Custom rides will never work. They cost too much to buy, they will be constantly breaking down resulting in reduced total ride capacity and angry customers.  Only stock, off the shelf rides are cheap enough and reliable enough to do the job, and besides, the public doesn’t know the difference or care.   3.  Most of Disney’s proposed park produces no revenue but it’s going to be very expensive to build and maintain.  Things like the castle and the pirate ship are cute but they aren’t rides, so there isn’t any economic reason to build them is there?   4. Town square is loaded with things that don’t produce revenue, like town hall for the fire department,  and of course town square itself.   5: The horse cars, the horseless carriages, and the western wagon rides have such small capacity and cost so much to run that they will lose money even if they run full all the time.   6:  You can’t operate an amusement park year round,  120 days per year is the best you can do.   7.  Walt’s design only has one entrance. This is going to create a terrible bottleneck!  Traditional wisdom dictates entrances on all sides for closer parking and easier access.   8.  You’ll lose money providing all those design details and nice finishes.  The people are going to destroy the grounds and vandalize the ride vehicles no matter what you do, so you might as well go cheap.   9.  Walt’s screwy ideas about cleanliness and great landscape maintenance are economic suicide.  He’ll lose his shirt by overspending on these things which the customers never really notice.   10.  Modern mid-twentieth century amusement park management theory dictates:  Build it cheap and then control your costs.  Employment theory is similar.  Pay your employees the least you can and then ride them hard and get ready to fire them, because they will steal from you.

The bottom-line: The customers only spend about 1 dollar per capita when they go to an amusement park and they will never spend any more. Mr. Disney’s park idea is just too expensive to build and too expensive to operate.  Tell your boss to save his money they said, tell him to stick to cartoons. Tell him to stick to what he knows and leave the amusement business to the professionals .

The establishment of 1953 had spoken!


And then there was this revolution.  About six weeks ago, I had the rare privilege of to discuss this revolution with one of the men actually there that night. He’s here with us today. Mr. Harrison Price.

He said,  “Before Walt came along, the entire industry was getting one dollar per capita. The main thing that Walt did was to figure out how to get the per caps up to $4.50 in the very first year.  And by the second year they were up to 6 dollars. The rest of the industry was astonished.”

How did Disney do this?  Well it was very simple.  It comes down to stay time.  Before Disney, the stay time at an average amusement park was less than two hours.  But Disney created an environment with an ambiance that was so refreshing and pleasant that the stay time went up to an unheard of seven hours.  And because the stay time went up, the per capita’s on food, retail, and ride tickets went up.  And the place was an attraction in itself so he could charge people to get in, which wasn’t done elsewhere. The result of all this theming, landscaping, and entertainment balance was a revolutionary new and different income profile not seen here, very clearly.   There were two other things about the planning that also seems especially important, and each involves putting the guests’ experience first:

1.  Walt planned the circulation patterns first.  That’s the place where the people walk.  They planned that as a first priority.  Up to that point, designers usually focused on the positive space. That’s the thing being built; rather than the negative space, the place where people will be. And he planned every attraction from the perspective of the guest rather than the operator or the manager. Walt focused on the people.

2.  Second and very dear to my heart,  and perhaps more important. . . Disneyland was the first major attraction planned by storytellers rather than engineers, architects, operators or curators.   After Walt’s death, Walt’s audience friendly revolution hardened into the new establishment.  Many of the current rules are just as dogmatic as the rules that Walt defied in 1953.  And surprise! Many of them are the same rules. All of these hard, fast rules are just begging for a new revolution. So now it is time for you to re-invent the business.

The motto of your new revolution should be the same one that Walt used in the original one:  Follow the guests.   Walt’s revolution changed the design priorities.  Ride operators had focused on their own problems of operating rides: mainly keeping capital labor and maintenance costs down.  Walt’s original revolution focused instead on the guests’ experience. . . putting the guests’ priorities first: Cleanliness, service, adventure, music, magic, fun, happy feet.

Today attractions are once again being designed to solve the operators’ and owners’ problems instead of the guests’ problems. All you have to do is talk to the guests.  They’ll tell you what they don’t like!   Based on that, here are seven of many possible directions for the next revolutions in themed attractions.

1.  Anyone? Hazard a guess?  What do people not like about theme parks? Lines! NO LINES!  Too much of a theme park visit is spent waiting in line.  Today, the establishment’s idea of correct park design deliberately causes lines. Master planners intentionally set ride capacity targets below the projected demand in order to minimize the owner’s capital cost. The prevailing wisdom is “Ahhh, they’ll wait, they really don’t have a choice anyway.”  So a line is a master planner’s method of rationing rides. Now that’s a dirty trick! We promise our guests a day of fun and rides at our park, and then after they’ve paid us to get in we use these lines to ration the rides.    Could lines and waiting time be eliminated or at least greatly reduced? Of course they could!  In the coming revolution, the long line is dead.    2.  A return to gates within gates.  At the original Disneyland in 1955, the main entrance ticket booth sold you a pass to get into the park and it came attached to a book of ride tickets,  A through E.  If you used all those tickets you could buy more.  Later Disneyland, and soon all the parks went to a one price admission.  Today, guests expect to go on everything within the park at no additional park at no additional cost.   But wait a minute! This system is being challenged. After paying almost forty dollars to get into EPCOT, you would have to pay an additional four dollars to drive the Daytona. This summer Knott’s Berry Farm successfully charged extra for rock climbing and laser tag and other specially ticketed attractions within the gates of their park.   Surprise!  The public seems to be going along with this!   Will the 1955 Disneyland style of ticketing come back?   3.  Faster obsolescence.   Today, new becomes old faster than ever before.  Yet state of the art attractions, like Jurassic Park the Ride, Superman the Ride, and Indiana Jones the Ride are becoming more expensive and less adaptive. Now if the traveling version of Cirque du Soliel can completely remake itself every couple of years, why can’t a themed attraction remake itself every couple of years?  Home grown haunted houses . . . the kind done on residential streets by amateurs are often new and completely different each year. So if the amateurs can do it, why can’t our industry?  We are the ones with all the tricks.   Reinventing a park every two years would reverse the current trend toward ever more expensive attractions amortized over twenty years. Your likely revolutionary strategies to achieve this will include new forms, new formats, and new ideas built to recover their costs in a single season showing large profits in two seasons.  More reliance on theatrical techniques that engage the audiences imagination instead of using money as an imagination substitute.

Flexible attractions with adaptability designed in.  For example:  Take a more theatrical approach.  Require the audience to willingly enter the story.  Put more emphasis on light, sound, illusion, artistry, and the power of suggestion. . .  And above all, more emphasis on great storytelling to fire the guests interests and imagination.

4.  More refreshing.   Back in the early 1950’s, Walt noticed that the atmosphere at most parks was not relaxing. The colors and graphics were  garish, the barkers were irritating, and the employees looked dangerous, and the place was noisy and dirty.

Stay times were around two hours partly because in that environment, people got tired faster.  Walt got those seven hour stay times by using lush landscaping, a relaxing ambiance, and a balanced blend of big thrills and little discoveries to keep the guests constantly relaxed and refreshed.

But today, the once refreshing visit to a Disney, Universal or other theme park has become a frantic experience that many guests do not find relaxing.  Because of the high cost of admission many guests feel pressured to get their money’s worth.  But there is too much to see, and not enough day to do it in.   They are fighting crowds and the logistics of getting around; and instead of refreshment, the result is an amount of stress that no amount of happy elevator music can hide.

What is happening here?  What are we doing to ourselves?  Are we actually overproducing our parks? By adding only E tickets, and not enough A’s and B’s  (and actually, after a park opens, you never add an A or a B).  Are we making our parks too stimulating?  Could we actually do better for our owners and our guests generating higher profits and greater satisfaction by spending less and charging less? The coming revolution will certainly continue to create pockets of high excitement, but between those pockets it will bring back the refreshing soft touch.   5.  Better food.  With very few exceptions theme park food is awful.  McDonald’s serves better!  When will we fix our food?   6.   Offering first class seats.  Why do we insist on selling only coach class experiences in our theme parks?  A coach class ticket from Los Angeles to Paris can be bought for about $800.  A first class ticket on the exactly same plane costs just under $10,000, but both seats go to the same place.  Now the difference in experience is worth the difference in price to a few.  Why don’t we apply that kind of thinking to our business? Already in our shop in some of our designs, there will be coach class and first class experiences. **

7.   Meaningful and intelligent fun.  We possess. . . you possess the most powerful communications storytelling tools of all time. Why don’t we apply those tools to subjects that really matter to our guests?  Things that our guests think about or worry about all the time?  Things like family, community, sex, life, death, faith, the future, and of course, who Kathy Lee is dating now.


Creating deeply meaningful, intelligent fun that is also highly entertaining and highly repeatable. . .  that would be a real revolution. This is just a short list of strategies it’s only a beginning.  It’s easy to add ideas to it.  Just follow the guest.  Improve the guest experience and you will be rewarded.  If that means that you have to re-invent some of the rules, then let’s do that.   Today’s conventional wisdom is still filled with wisdom.  But in some areas, especially around the edges, it often reminds me of a middle ages map of the world with its frontiers full of devouring dragons and giant waterfalls where you can fall right off the flat edge of the earth.  The message of those symbols is avoid danger, stick to the known.   Well today we are at the dawn of a new millennium, and a new age in themed entertainment.  But our technology and our audience is changing far faster than we change the rules we use to organize them.  There is treasure all around us.   In 1953, as now, the future belongs to those who dare to create it.


In-Pavement Fiber Optic Lighting

I am very interested in learning about the fiber-optic lighted pavement features at Epcot Center. Where can I get information about this type of light feature?

I’d appreciate any help. Thanks

– Joseph

For any fiber optic application, there are basically three components: 1) The illuminator… this is the light source 2) The color wheel. This is a machine that rotates a colored gel in between the illuminator and the bundle of tubing. The color wheel is generally arranged so that two or possibly even three colors are lit at once. 3) The bundle of fiber optic tubing. The tubes are packed together at the source so that light is shot into several hundred tubes at once. From the source, the tubes in the bundle and then split and run to their final location apart from each other. When it comes to setting them in concrete, you essentially get the entire design set up before you pour the concrete. The fiber optic tubing is set in the proper place, but they are left with several extra inches of “slack.” After the concrete is poured the tubes are clipped to their proper length (flush with the concrete). The result? A cool design integrated into the pavement at EPCOT Future World, or wherever you desire… – Nate Naversen

Contagious Business Philosophy the “Disney” Way!

Once every other decade a company comes around that dares to defy the odds and do things differently.  We saw this with Henry Ford in the 1900’s-1920’s, with Walt Disney in the 1930-1960’s, and with Saturn and Netscape in the 1990’s.

Here’s a friendly Q & A about how to defy conventional wisdom and transform your company into a contagiously successful business. It was developed from letters written between founder Nate Naversen and Donna Brewster of the Weyerhaeuser Company in Oregon.

Dear Nate,

I am employed by Weyerhaeuser Company. Disney is one of our corporate heroes in developing pride and customer service. Many of our employees have benchmarked the Disney maintenance department in Orlando, along with classes at the Disney University and visits to the Disney theme parks.

My thoughts are, correct me if I’m wrong, that the design group would be an excellent study for our Committee. Previous trips to Disney have taught us the importance they place on safety… I came across your name on the net… and so I contacted you for any information or help you can give.

Thank you for your time.

Donna Brewster Weyerhaeuser Company Cottage Grove, Oregon

Hi Donna,

To begin, I believe Weyerhaeuser can be far superior to Disney in terms of pride and customer service. I know they may seem like an untouchable corporate hero, but take it from a person who has seen it from the inside: It can easily be improved upon.  The key is to capture the spirit of a contagiously successful business.

The following is a list of some of the key philosophies that made the Walt Disney Company and other companies a success, in Q & A form. If you can apply them to your situation you will certainly have a contagiously successful company.

Q> Do you know what the Disney product is?

A> “We create happiness.”   Who wouldn’t want to work for a company whose product is happiness?

A question to ask yourself:  What is Weyerhaeuser’s product? Is it wood product?  Maybe, but I think not.  If you became a contagiously successful business, maybe your product would become home sweet home?

Apply positive, innovative thinking to your situation, and you will begin to transform your company.

Q> What are the three keys to Disney quality?

A> Courtesy, Efficiency & Show

It is well known that no expense was spared to make Disney films and Disney theme parks the absolute best. But what made Disney so successful was the attitude they took while doing it.   In fact, Walt Disney spent so much of his capital on his projects that the bankers and all of his competitors thought he was crazy.

Did you know that Walt Disney once completely re-did an almost complete black and white cartoon because new color technology came out? His company was nearly bankrupt at that point, but he felt it was worth the risk. The movie was called Flowers & Trees, and it won an Oscar!  Why was he so successful? He far surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Now, just for your information, if you start to surpass people’s expectations, you will probably end up spending much more on things that financial minded people find frivolous. But in the end, it will make all the difference in the world.

Caring about product over the bottom line and people before sales to surpass expectations is a good step to transforming your company into a contagiously successful one!

A fourth Disney key was added after Walt’s death: Safety.

Did you know that the built-in structural safety factors on Disney’s roller coasters are generally three times what the competition uses and is required by structural code? *

It costs more initially to design and construct the attraction, but people rarely die on Disney attractions due to mechanical failure. No wonder Disney has such a good reputation when it comes to safety.  People feel safe at Disney parks, and the extra business generated from such a positive guest outlook more than pays for the extra cost of the coaster.

* Source: Interview with Disneyland ride & safety engineer, 1994

Positive guest service:

Here is a list of some of the activities a Disney cast member (employee) cannot do while “on stage” at a Disney theme park.

1.Eat 2.Drink 3.Smoke 4.Sleep 5.Sit down 6.Chew gum 7.Lean against a wall or a railing, 8.Fold his or her arms.

Does this seem extreme? Of course it does. But when it comes to customer service, it makes perfect sense. Imagine how a potential guest would feel when walking up to a cast member doing one of the above no-nos.

Making sure the cast-member is courteous and efficient is key while “onstage” at a Disney theme park. It helps create a positive guest experience whenever a guest interacts with an employee.

“The first year (of Disneyland) I leased out the parking concession, brought in the usual security guards — things like that — but soon realized my mistake. I couldn’t have outside help and still get over my idea of hospitality.   So now we recruit and train every one of our employees. I tell the security police, for instance, that they are never to consider themselves cops. They are there to help people. The visitors are our guests. It’s like running a fine restaurant. Once you get the policy going, it grows.”  — Walt Disney

The cast members who follow these rules develop a sense of pride about their work.  When these rules were first put in place, they quickly began to believe in the need to sacrifice their personal convenience in order to be part of something special.  Guess what?  It works!

Q> Are there any V.I.P.s at Disneyland?

Answer: Yes. Everyone is a V.I.P.

Fact: Too many places of employment make a customer feel like it is an inconvenience to be given service. Personally, I feel this way every time I walk into an automobile repair shop or an auto parts store. At those establishments customers are forced to wait at the customer service counter for minutes at a time while the service man works in front of them, ignoring their presence.

Turn it around, and make them feel like a V.I.P. and you have the beginnings of excellent customer service.

Q> True or False: Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was built on the ground.

A> False. Disney World was built on the second floor of a structure.

Let me ask:  What sort of fool puts an entire theme park on the second floor of a building? It seems crazy, does it not? At first maybe, but by building it that way Disney solved many operational dilemmas and contributed to a contagious guest environment!

Now Disney can quickly whisk supplies in and out of the park from below without having to bring a truck through the front gates. In medical emergencies, heart attack victims may be quickly taken off stage to a medical facility without disturbing most guests. Also, at Disney World, the guests never see a dumpster. Trash may be placed in an underground vacuum network at dozens of locations around the park, where it may be quickly vacuumed to a central receiving area, saving time and energy for custodial people. Lastly, cast members in costume can walk straight into their themed land without having to walk through another land. How out of place would it be to have a Tomorrowland costumed cast member walking through Frontierland?

Truly, there are many positive benefits to their innovative, seemingly crazy plan. It is counter-intuitive, yet it works!

Q> What is the job of the custodial sweeper at Disneyland?

Incorrect answer: Pick up trash

Correct answer: To be a human signpost.

Says former Disney executive Keith Kolbo, “There is something very therapeutic going into the park to simply help people find their way, even if it’s just to point out a bathroom.  I used to go out after a rough day, just to walk around in the park to give directions. It did wonders for my psyche.”

Along the same lines, Walt Disney used custodial people to guide and provide friendly service to guests. As a secondary job, they also swept up popcorn… but primarily they were there to help people. Imagine what that does to the attitude of someone who is told his job is to pick up trash!

Apply positive, innovative thinking like this to your situation and you will begin to transform your company.

Q> Maintenance: When does Disneyland shut down?

A>: Never. Disneyland never sleeps…

When the Disneyland closes, the maintenance starts. At the beginning of every day the park is to look like it looked on opening day July 17th, 1955. Not only does this make the guest experience better, but it also creates a better atmosphere for the cast members. At night, everything is repaired to look like new. Instead of having one or two people maintaining the park, Disney hires hundreds. Do those workers pay for themselves? I guarantee they do.

“Disneyland is a work of love.  We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money. . . even trying to keep that Park clean is a tremendous expense. And those sharp pencil guys tells you, ‘Walt, if we cut down on maintenance, we’d save a lot of money.’  But I don’t believe in that — it’s like any other show on the road.  It must be kept fresh and clean.” — Walt Disney

Imagine what a maintenance philosophy like this could do for the morale of your employees. What if your employees got to use seemingly brand new machines every day?

Weyerhaeuser should always keep the mill updated with the best equipment, and it should always be replaced well before old machinery wears out. It may mean hiring a staff of five or six guys to go through and make the mill “new” each night.  I am not an expert in the logging industry (even though I grew up around it), but I’m sure you can apply this sort of thinking to your situation.

An Example from United Parcel Service:

A few years ago, UPS had a commercial on TV talking about the maintenance and cleanliness of their aircraft fleet. They got it exactly right. The announcer narrated the commercial something like this:


Each night we wash every single one of our 300 aircraft fleet.

Of course, our competitors think we are crazy.

But having clean planes helps keep mechanical problems down, ensuring quick delivery of your package.

And the lack of dirt on our planes saves thousands of dollars in jet fuel each year.

Plus…. we happen to like our planes clean

That’s exactly the right attitude. The extra cleanliness contributes to a good work environment, higher employee morale, a sharper corporate image, improved maintenance, and it even saves jet fuel!  Their philosophy is innovative, counter-intuitive, and it helps contribute to a positive, contagiously successful business.


If you are going to be successful in your endeavor, remember: Newer rules and procedures are never the answer, nor is a cleverly worded corporate mission statement. Mission statements come off as very hollow sounding when the management is not sincere.  On the other hand, transforming your company with contagious business techniques will empower your employees to make a difference.

Always surpass your employees and your clients’ expectations. If your employees expect a $100 Christmas bonus, give them $300. If a client expects a shipment in 3 weeks… get in there in three days. It WILL cost more.  You make your company special by doing the things that other companies will not do because it seems ‘above and beyond’. After time you will begin to reap a snow-ball-effect of positive benefits.

“Well, I think by this time my staff, my group of young executives, and everything else, are convinced that Walt is right.  The quality will out. And so I think they’re going to stay with that policy because it’s proved that it’s a good business policy. Give people everything you can give them. Keep the place as clean as you can keep it. Keep it friendly, you know. Make it a real fun place to be..” — Walt Disney

No idea is too outlandish.

When we are brainstorming a new attraction during the bluesky phase, the one thing we are never allowed to do is say “No, that will never work,” when someone is presenting an idea. As soon as one person says, “‘No, I don’t like it,” the creative process stops.

On the contrary, when a working environment is set up so that no idea is bad; eventually someone blurts out a crazy idea that leads to a radically wonderful new concept. Nearly every great idea starts from someone’s crazy blurt. But you have to get the ball rolling by setting up an environment where ‘no’ is not allowed.   If you can get your employees in this mindset, you will have a company made up of positive, contagious “Yes-men” before long.  That is a very good thing.

Congratulations. You are now an un-official Disney University graduate.  I wish you all the success in the world in transforming your business into a contagiously successful business.

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