Theming the Thrills

Chapter 4: Theming the Industry

“Amusement parks of old most likely themed their rides to make things more exciting, more interesting. Walt Disney themed his attractions to allow one to escape into a blissful world of nostalgia and fantasy.”

(Nate Naversen, 27/02/01)

Theming the industry is greatly concerned with enhancing the visitor experience, thus altering the intensity of the leisure experience and encouraging further developments in other, alternate areas such as retailing and merchandising for souvenirs. Chapter four examines a number of theme park examples in an attempt to provide a greater justification for these theories.

The themed entertainment industry allows the development of theme parks and indeed these make-believe ‘worlds’ and offers a greater sense of escapism for the visitor. “Europe has entered an age of extreme theming. Theme restaurants and theme hotels, well established in the United States, are being introduced into Britain and several other European countries as fast as developers can find sites for them.” (Tourism Trendspotter, July 1998, p.3)

Thus, if theming were becoming more apparent in other sectors of the leisure industry, surely this would suggest that the public demands a more elaborate means of leisure provision for their enjoyment and escapism in general? Theme parks, however, are developing their attractions with theming and new design techniques to better their product portfolio of attractions and further develop the whole industry. As mentioned in chapter one, this is undoubtedly due to the issue of competition and a higher level of quality entertainment to entice the consumer. The industry of themed entertainment is continuing to diversify as the leisure industry grows in comparison. Nate Naversen states on the company website that: “Like storytelling, illustration or musical composition, the design of themed attractions is very much an art form. But it is much more complex because of the need to accommodate all five senses.”

(Nate Naversen, 2000,

The creation of the so-called ‘fantasy environments’ often means complete immersion for the visitor. This makes the experience much more enthralling and intensifies the experience. Modern ride designers, such as Nate Naversen at the; use technology to stimulate all five senses on many modern attractions. These methods have only just been introduced to Britain’s developing industry, as arguably, the industry here is somewhat lagging behind counterpart countries, namely the United States. The aforesaid five sense are visual imagery, sound, tactile stimulation, taste and smell. Implementing all of these factors into a theme park ride is often very difficult, especially with the common steel rides found in many parks. However, when considering the attractions found at American theme parks such as Universal Studios and the Disney parks, it is possible to relate these sensory effects. Universal Studios’ tag line is that the park is the place to ‘ride the movies’. The majority of their attractions are based on famous Universal films such as ‘Jaws’, ‘King Kong’, ‘Earthquake’ or ‘Back to the Future’, for example. All of these films have respective rides at the park where visitors can experience recreated environments through technological means. The Jaws ride for example, allows guests to be transported by boat through a recreation of the films Amity harbor. The tour then takes a turn and the giant shark attacks guests and a number of special effects take place to create a story. During the experience visitors feel the heat of fire, the motion of a capsizing boat, and splashes of water. They hear gunshots, explosions and screams, they smell the sea and taste salt water as they are splashed and the whole visual experience is integrated around the films brand name. Everything is recreated such as hearing stories, which may be related to the town’s ‘history’ as they queue, and even the boats ‘skipper’ plays his own role and animates the story to create a sense of realism. Arguably, it could be said the final effect became one of the greatest rides ever made because of the mixture of ‘live’ action and the anticipation and fear, which is created.

American theme parks have specialized in this form of entertainment for many years and it has been successful, thus parks in the UK have begun taking these methods in their attractions. Drayton Manor Park opened ‘Stormforce 10’ in 1998 (appendix 7), a ride that recreates a lifeboat rescue. The ride is basically a water ride but the theming is very much educational towards the RNLI, which sponsors the attraction. Similar effects are used on this ride with tactile effects and sights, sounds and smells of a recreated Cornish fishing village. Alton Towers built an attraction deep within the ruins of the historic towers themselves in 2000. ‘Hex: The Legend of the Towers’ is a walkthrough attraction, which puts an actual legend of the Staffordshire area regarding the then Earl of Alton into play, and recreates a mysterious dark ride within the ruins. The attraction uses holograms, tactile effects, orchestral collaborations and cinematography to bring the legend to life and subjects visitors to the wrath of the same curse said to be cast upon the Earl (, downloaded 12/04/00).

The designers of Hex and the marketers at Alton Towers promoted the ride very well by setting up a website which monitored a renovation project on the towers and tied this in with the story, explaining that mysterious artifacts relating to this myth were discovered during the work, thus shrouding the ride in mystery – not really being obvious to what was real and what was fantastical. The attraction itself is bizarrely mysterious in that it is set inside the towers amongst an array of scaffolding and renovation to work – as if work really is going on around the visitor. Thus, the customer actually believes that they are involved in this historic discovery and that it isn’t a ride at all, until of course things out of the ordinary start to happen.

Out of the five senses, visual imagery is the most apparent at theme parks as architecture and scenery is used to create themed lands. Parks such as the American Adventure, in Derbyshire and Camelot in Lancashire, concentrate on a specific theme – America and Medieval times respectively, whereas parks such as Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures in the UK and Port Aventura in Spain, vary their ‘lands’ to differentiate their attractions more. When looking at visual imagery, architecture, landscaping and lighting can all be examined as a means of recreating environments (Themed Attractions: An Unusual Medium, 2000,” 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 positively influence. In doing so it is imperative that every detail be thought out so that the created environment is perceived as real.”

(Nate Naversen, 2000,

Port Aventura, which opened in Spain in 1995, utilized the extent of visual imagery to a somewhat new level in the way that it recreated five ‘countries’ within the park.

Francisco Cerva (1997), a Spanish architectural designer, wrote much about Port Aventura in his book – “Theme & Amusement Parks”: “The architectural designs of the park’s themes were reproduced with great accuracy and detail. Many structures had to undergo a meticulous ageing process to achieve greater realism. Native species were imported, if possible, or other indigenous species were used.”

(Cerva, 1997, p.20)

The park consists of five themed lands: Mediterrania, Polynesia, China, Mexico and the Far West and using the above criterion, replicas were built with distinctive realism and the rides, most of which are steel rides and roller coasters, built into the landscapes and themes. Realism is impeccable from the types of trees in the ‘native’ lands to the music played and even the staff working in the areas are native to that recreated country.

Port Aventura appeals to many holidaymakers to the costal region of the Costa Dorada as it offers something for everyone, often through this meticulous theming. The park offers live entertainment such as imperial Chinese acrobatics in China, Western stunt shows in the Far West and Polynesian native dancing in Polynesia. Food and drink is typical of each area where the restaurants are situated, shops sell authentic crafts made from the countries in which they are sold and even each ride and attraction is named in the language of that country. The attention to detail creates more than just a theme park experience but a cultural and educational experience for all ages, because questionably it may be the nearest thing to actually visiting the countries themselves.

“The regions selected were those that Europeans considered to be exotic and difficult to reach. Furthermore, the areas chosen had some relationship to Spain, the park’s host nation.”
(Cerva, 1997, p.20)

This is indicative to mean that native Spaniards are able to learn more about the cultures and origins of their country as well as being culturally enticing to all tourists visiting the park.

Port Aventura has distinctive brand names linked with it including Anheuser Busch (American brewer of Budweiser and owner of Busch theme parks, USA) and more recently, Universal who now owns the largest share of the venue.

However, the park relates fantasy and history to its attractions. The Wild West town, known as ‘Penitence’ is recreated like a real western town with its sawmill, saloon, hotel and rail station – stereotypical traits utilized internationally at such venues, yet China has a replica of the Great Wall, Polynesia teaches visitors about the voyages of Captain Cook and the Tutuki Volcano and Mexico has a replica of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá (appendix 8).

The rides in the park tell many stories, mixing historic fact with fantasy tales. A good example is that of the Dragon Kahn roller coaster in the China area of the park. The station and queuing areas of the ride are heavily themed around a Chinese palace, replicated from the Forbidden City in Beijing (Secretos y Curiosidades, 1995). Promotion for the ride informs visitors: “When you finally get your feet back on the ground again, your knees will be shaking and you’ll have learnt the price mere mortals have to pay for daring to defy the deities of the Orient. Think yourself lucky you’re not the evil Prince Hu. He’s destined to remain trapped inside the Dragon Khan until the end of time, as punishment for having dared to make fun of the Gods.”

(Secretos y Curiosidades, 1995)

Such interpretation allows scope to blur the extremes of history and fantasy and creates a story which visitors may be able to relate with. This kind of interpretation links with the theories of Tilden (1957). Tilden was a specialist in interpretation of British culture and heritage; however, his theories of interpretation to visitors are widely used. He determined that interpretation, whether found in a souvenir guide book, an interpretation panel or simply a animated story should relate, reveal, teach, provoke, be holistic and not dilute information – whether it be fiction or fantasy, in order to be effective (Interpretation & Animation lecture notes, 2000).

These six principles are often used in the themed entertainment industry, immersing the visitor in storytelling whether for educational gain or to merely enhance the environment. Relating these theories and this aim to chapter one enables correlation between mental and physical stimulation and a recreated environment. If the visitor believes that they are involved in an unreal experience, the effects of the stimulation will be much more intense. Nate Naversen, when interviewed, claimed that theming “has a profound effect on the visitor. It shapes the entire atmosphere and the mood of the guest. When psychologists try to explain behavior they often debate whether they are caused by primarily genetic or environmental factors. In the case of the theme park, the environment is nearly completely controlled. In that respect, at least half of the bases are covered if the theme park employees do their jobs right.”

(Nate Naversen, 27/02/01)

This statement examines the impacts of the environment on the visitor, very much the main issue of this entire project, however it also introduces the importance of staff in their many roles as service providers, animatuers, general employees and storytellers. American theme parks, such as Disney and Universal Studios, often employ actors to work at their venues in many positions – often unexpected. Simple operational tasks such as ride controllers and queue workers are dressed to coordinate with the theme, act in an entertaining manner and often animate a story to the visitor: “At many theme parks the employees are treated as part of the show. They can take pride in the fact that they enhance the experience of the guest. This goes from the paid stunt man / actor all the way down to the guy sweeping the streets. The ‘cast’ adds the human element to the theme. Do you remember your first reaction in the Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom when the employee in the grim butler costume instructs you to “step into the dead center of the room”?”

(Nate Naversen, 27/02/01)

It would now appear that British parks have begun to realize the importance of using staff to enhance the environment – after all, surely an actual human being is far more superior to an animatronic model used to enhance the venue? Pleasure Beaches such as those at Blackpool and Great Yarmouth have opened up attractions whereby actual human beings are the attraction.

These attractions, known as ‘walkthrough’ attractions (‘Passaje del Terror’ as it is so called at Blackpool Pleasure Beach) are simple recreated environments of famous horror film sets. The combination of relating to the recognized sets and the anticipation of not knowing what may happen next helps to create a very unnerving experience for the participants, who are subsequently chased through the dark by staff dressed in horror costumes, brandishing weapons. The fear is easily created as visitors are actually put in the positions of the victims, which they may have seen, inevitably slain in the films. The idea in itself is very simple and effective, and undoubtedly much less costly technological animatronics and pyrotechnical effects? However, it has now become apparent that back in the states, these ideas have been further developed to create combination environments where people are actually used alongside technology in order to enthrall the visitor.

Such attractions as ‘The Great Movie Ride’ at Disney MGM studios and ‘Terminator 2: 3D’ at Universal Studios use live actors alongside ride machinery, cinematography and pyrotechnics to create realism (Personal experience, 1996).

Human resources are not only utilized in the rides but also in such obvious positions as retailing, catering and entertaining and not so obvious positions such as marketing. Alton Towers have used staff and arguably actors, when developing their major attractions. When their Nemesis ride was in the construction stages, they parked Ministry of Defense vehicles and army tanks at the site and had ‘soldiers’ guarding the site, turning inquisitive visitors away, to make it look like something unusual was going on and creating a live teaser campaign. The same practice was implemented four years later with the development of Oblivion as a large, high security and somewhat futuristic fence was erected around the huge 120 feet deep trench (into which the ride now falls) and having security guards patrolling the area, sworn to secrecy regarding the project (Modern Times, BBC2, 1998).

The guards, dressed in bright orange costumes, brandishing the Oblivion logo created a sense of excitement and elusiveness regarding the project as they taunted passers by. These kinds of plays on human emotion can be very successful in advertising terms, as Alton Towers surely discovered afterwards. The importance of staff in any position is paramount at theme parks; due to the strong reliance on the service product characteristic of customer care. Staff can enhance a visitor’s experience through making them happy and exceeding their expectations. A happy visitor is undoubtedly more inclined to partake in secondary spending and will also want to come back again. Theming and design is also obvious and apparent in more than just the rides at a theme park: “Theming restaurants and shops is a good idea because it helps complete the picture. Whether it increases spending. if you can equate it to stay time then it would certainly be of benefit.”

(Nate Naversen, 27/02/01)

British parks have begun theming their sales outlets and selling heavily branded merchandise inside them. Commercial managers at such attractions have recognized that.”Marketing works hand in hand with retailing and every single element of the park, from the experience of arrival to the quality of souvenirs, is appraised with the same ruthless criteria. That old cliché ‘retail is entertainment’ springs to mind.”

(David Fraser, Leisure Manager October 1997, p.14)

As the importance of increasing secondary spending is becoming more apparent, every diminutive detail may be analyzed, from the layout of the shop in regards to ride exits, use of color and light, quality of the products and staff uniforms and attitudes. Catering outlets operate along similar lines, with heavy theming taking place at many destinations. Alton Towers operates themed versions of common fast food franchises such as Pizza Hut and McDonalds and also the infamous Alton Towers Hotel, ‘the UK’s first and only fully themed hotel and the only one located within a theme park’ (Alton Towers Student Pack, 2000). Such outlets in American theme parks sometimes use further enhancements, such as the ‘Richter’ restaurant at Universal Studios in Florida. Based on a San Francisco diner, the restaurant actually suffers the periodic seismic patterns of an earthquake, whereby the tables and chairs shake as if in the middle of a disaster. The restaurant has obvious ties to the Earthquake ride, nearby.


At this point it is worth repeating the aforementioned topic of Port Aventura and its culturally themed outlets, offering native cuisine from each ‘land’. This gives visitors the opportunity to participate in a cultural experience, often with themed entertainment nearby, which is equally as effective in terms of involvement and interest, yet carried out in a much more ‘sophisticated’ manner. As time continually progresses, the concepts of increased technology are becoming more apparent. Every year, as new attractions open, they are seemingly more adventurous than the last as designers continue to participate in the intense competitiveness of the industry. A worthy example of high technology is demonstrated at Universal Studios ‘Islands of Adventure’ theme park in Florida. The park, which is fairly new, opened with a mass of highly technological attractions, divided into a number of distinct areas, some branded and instantly recognizable, and others developed form historic themes, stories and cultures. The areas are Port of Entry, a Mediterranean themed village; The Lost Continent, an area devoted to the origins of myths, legends and pure fantasy; Marvel Superhero Island themed on the likes of The Incredible Hulk and Spiderman; Toon Lagoon with Popeye and Dudley Do-Right; Jurassic Park from the film; and Seuss Landing (appendix 9) where stories rom the works of Dr. Seuss are brought to life. To go into a great depth of detail on the park would be an enormous task however, it is possible to justify the genuine uniqueness of Islands of Adventure. The detail of theming and landscaping is impeccable, as can be seen in the appendices of this piece, and the park really has led the way in theming and technology advancement. Amongst the rides in the park, of which there are many, visitors participate in a number of both physical attractions and steel rides, themed to fit into their unique and innovative surroundings. The Jurassic Park area contains ‘lifelike’ animatronics of dinosaurs and thus, visitors can stroke a triceratops – indeed an experience unlike any other. Seuss Landing allows visitors to ride through the works of Dr. Seuss such as The Cat in The Hat and children are able to meet The Grinch, in person. Poseidon’s Fury (appendix 10), in The Lost Continent is a walkthrough show where the Gods battle each other for rule of the Earth. During this show, visitors experience numerous special effects including the unexplained phenomenon of watching the seas part, just as was written in the bible. Other technological advancements include Dudley-Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls, a log flume ride where the boats actually plunge under the water, the Dueling Dragons (appendix 11) combined inverted roller coasters where passengers come within inches of each other and Spiderman: The Ride, explained by Nate Naversen to be: The most technologically advanced ride to date. It is a great combination: outstanding show and outstanding engineering.”(Nate Naversen, 27/02/01)The Spiderman ride uses a combination of motion simulator seating on a dark ride track with special effects and 3D cinematography. In essence, the ride takes the next step to virtual reality, where riders see, feel and hear the comic book characters battle around them in ‘real-time’ (First Drop Magazine, May 1998). In actual fact, the ride won the 2000 Themed Entertainment Association award for best attraction, and Islands of Adventure, won best theme park (Attractions Management, October 2000, p.7).When looking at the themed attraction industry, it is obvious to see that technology makes it thrive. However, as chapter five, examines the concepts of technology, and especially virtual reality, in more detail, it is clear to see that technology alone is not effective, however when combined with marketing and management strategy, the concept becomes much stronger. “Disney no longer has a lock on the creative talent in the world. Everyone knows how to design the Disney way, so it will get harder and harder for them to stay ahead. With enough money anyone will be able to have a Disney-style theme park – the design talent is available.”

(Nate Naversen, 27/02/01)

Theming the Thrills; Chapter 4: Theming the Industry

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