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.