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.


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