Monday, January 31, 2011

THEME PARK DESIGN - Themed Attractions

In Chapter 2 of his book Theme Park Design, Steve Alcorn notes that "theme parks" are only one of the different types of themed attractions. He lists several others:

  • Museums

  • National Park Service Visitor Centers

  • Corporate Communications Centers

  • Broadcast Studio Visitor Tours

  • Themed Shopping Malls

  • Themed Restaurants

We've all probably been to museums and themed restaurants, and probably a Visitors' Center at a national park. I'm not as sure about the others. Would the "Jelly Belly Factory Tour" qualiify as a corporate communications center? It's certainly a type of themed attraction. What about something like the Empire State Building or the CN Tower in Toronto, or the Sears (Willis) Tower or the John Hancock Building in Chicago?

I was trying to come up with other examples of themed attractions in my own experience, because Alcorn mentions after his list that there are many more examples. Slightly later in the book he mentions arcades, and these could be themed, I suppose, though probably relatively few of them are. And casinos, especially those in Vegas, rely heavily on theming. I guess you could characterize them as "adult theme parks", but it's more than that. The fountains at Bellagio, the Volcano at Mirage, and the pirate ship at Treasure Island are all examples of themed entertainment that are designed to draw in people to the core businesses, that is, casinos, hotels and restaurants.

Some places, like Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, are really attractions in and of themselves. They are incredible examples of over-the-top luxury that become more than just a hotel, a spa, a casino or a restaurant. (I haven't been to Vegas in a few years now so I don't know what other examples of decadence abound there.)

Whole towns probably have become types of themed attractions. Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California are dedicated to wine tasting. Some of the wineries are quite impressive; they probably are more opulent than they need to be for just raising and selling wine. They are part of the whole themed experience. The entire town of Sedona is another example, I think. You've got your red rock, your crystals and vortices channeling spirit energy, your cliff dweller ruins, and your southwestern artist motif going. New Orleans' Bourbon Street is another sort of themed entertainment venue, this one for jazz, booze and partying into the wee hours.

Closer to home, the Wisconsin Dells is another town/area that has basically become one big themed attraction. Everywhere you look there's a waterpark. There are amusement parks, water shows, magic shows, miniature golf, arcades, boat rides, shopping and eateries. The theming is haphazard, but I would guess that the overriding idea is just family fun.

Near the end of the book, Alcorn lists several themed attractions that "worked". Among them are:

  • The Star Trek Experience, The Hilton Las Vegas (closed)

  • Caesar's Magical Empire, Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas (closed>

  • Buccaneer Bay, Treasure Island, Las Vegas (modified)

  • Ka, Cirque Du Soleil, MGM Grand Las Vegas

  • NASA's Space Center Houston, Texas

  • Nauticus, National Maritime Center, Norfolk VA

  • The Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, OH

  • COSI, Columbus, OH

  • Madame Tussaud's, Worldwide

I've mentioned a few others in the course of this article. Anyone want to suggest any others, feel free.

This book goes on my shelf of themed attraction books, right next to the Disney collection! I hope to find more like it.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Story is King: Steve Alcorn in THEME PARK DESIGN

This is an important idea to Steve Alcorn; important enough that he uses "Why Story Is King" as the first sub-topic in his Chapter 5, titled RIDES, and then as the title of Chapter 9.

With respect to rides, Alcorn talks about his favorite Disney rides: a toss-up beetween "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion". I've seen it echoed time and time again in blog posts and posts on the MiceAge discussion boards, these are the two rides that "real" Disney fans list as their favorites. Alcorn says that he now understands that what made these rides his favorites was their use of story as their "key ingredient".

Would everyone agree with that? I've seen it mentioned a few times that the reason these rides are timeless and so repeatable is the level of detail in the ride. So perhaps it isn't JUST story. Perhaps it's the combination of story and incredible attention to details. I know I'm still finding stuff in the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion that is new to me when I ride it. It's a great experience every time I ride it, and I'm not entirely sure that it's all because of the story.

On the other hand, most of the "dark rides" in Fantasyland ARE almost entirely dependent on the story they tell. I don't see the same level of detail on Snow White or on Pooh that I see on Haunted Mansion and Pirates.

In Chapter 9, Alcorn talks about story as a component of Disney's thrill rides like Tower of Terror and Rock'n'Roller Coaster, He compares them to other thrill rides like Knotts Berry Farm's Parachute Drop, and concludes that the Disney rides are better, but almost always much more costly also. He mentions Universal's Earthquake ride, which I've never been on, and he feels that the reason it is less than "completely fulfilling" is because it does NOT have a satisfying story. The riders aren't given a reason for even being ON the subway train.

It was interesting to me that Alcorn feels that The Lord of the Rings would not make a good ride. He states that "rides with more complicated storylines are often best implemented using simulators". I take it that he feels LOTR is just too complicated to make a good attraction.

(I'm not sure he's completely right on that one. I think it would make an incredible "land" ala The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, what with the richness of detail and settings that the films offered to viewers. And I think that parts of the story would translate well to dark rides. The Mines of Moria, where Gandalf battles the Balrog and is lost to the Fellowship, for example, would make a really cool dark ride, if told with animatronics and with video on the level of Spiderman or The Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter. Other scenes would be probably make excellent dark rides or thrill rides. Just my opinion.)

I've seen it suggested in various places that Disney relies too much on the rule that everything has to have a backstory of some sort. They use it instead of making a higher quality ride, if I'm reading the criticisms correctly. But Alcorn seems to say you NEED both - high quality AND a good story, because "Story is King".


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Disney Books: THEME PARK DESIGN by Steve Alcorn

While it's not strictly about Disney, this title from engineer Steve Alcorn has a ton of Disney-related content - stories about development of a handful of attractions at Epcot, especially the American Adventure show. And while this is not strictly a review in the sense that I'm not looking to critically analyze this book and tell my readers (optimistic, I know...)whether it's good or bad and why, I am going to tell you that I really enjoyed it and flew through it.

Others' experience with the subject matter may vary, but what anyone buying or borrowing this title will get is a sometimes very technical look at the processes behind both theme park design and attraction design. Alcorn might lose some readers when he starts talking about digital signal processors (DSP's) and video formats and programmable logic controllers (PLC's) and scripted show controllers and such. The level of detail is perhaps a bit intimidating at times, but it did (for me, at least) reinforce the idea that Alcorn knows what he's talking about.

(I guess that's sort of a review, after all...)

Anyone who's read this blog for a while or read back entries of the blog knows that I'm interested in theme park design from my own angle - conceptualizing and designing an original theme park in my area, near a major northern midwestern city. I'm not a city planner or an architect, not an engineer, not an artist, and I don't have a theater background. In short, I have no reason to think I could ever actually do this, but it remains a dream, and I keep working on it. Knowing this about me, one can maybe understand why a book like this would attract me. I've never come across a whole BOOK on this subject.

I thought it was interesting that Alcorn points out that when he hires, he looks for certain things. Obviously, since his is an engineering firm, he hires engineers, not artists or business people. But he also looks for experience in themed entertainment. He lists some examples of something that might look good is someone who worked at a theme park during the summer, or worked as part of the stage or technical crew for a local theater group, or even playing in a rock band. (I'd qualify on the last one - I've played in a dozen different rock bands over the years.)

Alcorn also talks about "empty theming" in his last chapter. He mentions that he thinks it's crazy for a restaurant to just nail "junk" to the walls and consider this a theme. I thought immediately of TGI Fridays. They do exactly this. This could probably apply to so-called theme parks like Six Flags and many others. They're big amusement parks with very superficial theming at best. Naming a coaster "Batman" then putting up some Batman artifacts or pictures does not make it a "themed" ride.

I also thought it was interesting that he points to the CN Tower in Toronto as the first place for a motion simulator to be used outside of industry or commercial application. I was on that simulator, watching the movie and riding in the motion theater, riding a log down a river and through a sawmill among other experiences. I thought it was interesting, and I also thought that the Ripley's Believe It or Not motion theater in Niagara Falls was interesting, if not all that impressive. It points to the widespread use of these simulators as entertainment, no matter how thin the theming is.

All in all, this was, for me, a very rapid read that inspired and informed me about some of the things I might actually need to consider if my blue sky dreaming was to ever get any closer to reality. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the technical side of developing and running a theme park, and to anyone with aspirations to work in the field of themed entertainment.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good Morning America tours the Disney Dream...

I've never been on a Disney cruise, and I may never go. But this ship looks pretty incredible!

If you want to watch this video from Sam Champion on Good Morning America, click here and it will bring you to GMA's site with the video from this moring's show. (I didn't like how Champion kept cutting off the chef from their gourmet on-board restaurant, Remy, but the food still looked great!)

Makes me want to go sailing...


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Waiting impatiently....

I saw a review of a book by Steve Alcorn titled Theme Park Design over on the Progress City blog, and I had to rush right over to Amazon to buy it. In the process I also ordered Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind The Scenes Look at Making More Magic Real and The Vault Of Walt.

So I'm waiting for them to arrive. I've read so many good things about all of these books that I hope I'm not anticipating delving into their content more than I should be.

Maybe they'll be here today...


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Midwest Attractions: Chicago's Field Museum

Does she (or he) look familiar? This is Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at the Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. It isn't her real skull attached to the body; that is displayed separately. This is a cast of Sue's skull. Perhaps she looks familiar because there is a T-rex skeleton in front of the Dinosaur ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom, which was created from casts of bones from Sue.

I didn't make it to New York City's Museum of Natural History, but we like Chicago's version. Named after the founder of Marshall Field's, the iconic department store that was absorbed into and renamed Macy's a few years back, it is a massive building that has tons of interesting displays. Of note is the Plains Indians' massive shelter built in the middle of their Native Americans displays. Also they have a really interesting permanent exhibit of Egyptian mummies and artifacts.

We didn't make it to see Sue's skull or the rest of the dinosaur bones exhibits, but we spent a bit of time in their temporary exhibit featuring GOLD, that beautiful, valuable metal. And we spent a bit of time looking at the gemstones and at the geology exhibits. They also have a permanent exhibit called UNDERGROUND, which "shrinks" visitors to the size of a bug and walks you through the world located 12 inches below our feet, complete with animatronic bugs. It's a cool if a bit creepy exhibit.

We have underutilized this attraction in our own backyard, and we hope to get to it and the other museums of Chicago's museum campus (the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium) more often in the next year.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Disney Film: TANGLED

It was raining in Chicago on New Year's Eve, so we thought that it would be fun to see a movie instead of walking around on Michigan Avenue. Checking the listings for the two theaters in our vicinity, we noticed that there wasn't much playing that was appropriate for families. Not much besides Tangled, in Disney 3D, which I had been wanting to see but had sort of resigned myself to waiting till BluRay release.

(Disney 3D is expensive to go see, by the way, especially at a near north side theater in Chicago. I wanna say we paid something like $58.00 for all four of us, and that was before concessions!)

I had no preconceived notions about Tangled; I had not stumbled across any reviews and only had a general sense that some were saying it was one of Disney Animation's stronger releases. That assessment was correct. While The Princess and the Frog was close to capturing some of that glory of the Katzenberg/Eisner golden years of animation, Tangled gets there, in my opinion. It is right up there with the best animated features from the Mouse.

There's something for everyone in this film. It's got romance, adventure, humor and story, and enough of all of them, and in the right balance, to make a really good film. I've heard some say that the name change to Tangled was ill advised, but I can speak from experience: My own sons were not at all put off by seeing this film, as they were by TPATF's title, however mildly. So maybe it was a good idea to use this title. It seemed to fit the tale, in my opinion.

This was a beautifully animated film, right up there with Pixar's films and the best of Dreamworks' films. The characters were classic Disney characters, and the backgrounds were spectacular at times. Of particular note was the hidden valley where Rapunzel's tower is located. It was like a beautiful painting.

It appears to me that Disney Animation is back with this triumphant film.