by Clara Rice
Last week, the “mouse” wasn’t the only thing creating the magic at the Disneyland Resort! Over 200 industry professionals gathered over two days for the Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) Annual Summit. While Day One of the Summit consisted of a master class reserved for C-Suite executives, Summit Day Two greeted a much wider attendee pool, including over three-dozen of TEA’s NextGen members – students and recent graduates from all over the globe. As with Day One, Day Two’s co-chairs were Roberta Perry of Edwards Technologies and Pat MacKay of Ones&ZeroesMedia. Thea Award recipients presented their attractions in case study format, highlighting the challenges and victories that led their projects to completion, success and Thea Award recognition. The underlying thread of the case studies was “The Big Leap” – embracing risk to inspire innovation, and several of these projects have re-stitched the cultural and economic fabric of their surrounding communities.
Disney Legend and past Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Bob Gurr kicked off the day’s festivities by introducing this year’s recipient, Garner Holt. Teasing that he would be on the Thea Awards Committee “until he died,” Gurr was overjoyed to nominate Holt for the award, declaring, “I’ve never seen so much talent in my life.” Holt then took the stage to share his story of how Garner Holt Productions (GHP) grew from a one-person operation in his parents’ garage to a company employing hundreds of talented artists in a 60,000-square-foot facility and producing 5,000 figures in 36 countries.
Holt began his company at the age of 16 and created his first animatronic out of his father’s fence posts. With only $1,000 and a young man’s blind faith, he produced his first haunted mansion at the local mall (“I think I used the mall as my debut for everything,” said Holt). Turning down his parent’s offer of college tuition to pursue his dream, he was the only member of his company throughout the 1980s. Knowing he needed to stand out from the competition, Holt created the animatronic he is still most proud of: Wendell, the unicyclist with no visible means of support (note: that unicyclist still graces GHP’s IAAPA booth nearly three decades later). Holt felt that Wendell could lead to his big break, and he was right. That big break was a 500-mouse production order for Chuck E. Cheese. Apparently, Holt’s motivation for these mechanical mice was not merely innovation, but global domination: “someday, I will activate a chip that will unleash the Chuck E. Cheeses from the restaurants to take over the world!”
Eventually, Garner’s work caught the eye of Disney Imagineering, and soon after, GHP became the first outside contractor to build animated figures for a classic Disney attraction (Haunted Mansion Holiday). GHP now boasts 400 animatronics at Disney and another 100 for Universal. Even though he now has a staff of sculptors, figure finishers, show programmers, painters and project managers, Holt still “works” a 12-hour day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. He accompanies the word “works” with finger quotations, as he honestly feels as though he has never worked a day in his life, so deep is his love for his craft: “I feel bad for those people who still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up when I was 15.” By taking the road less traveled and believing in his passions, Garner Holt created the career of his dreams and has delighted park goers the world over in the process.
For the first project-based presentation, Perry and McKay transported audiences from the California coast to the Hawaiian island of Oahu and the Polynesian Cultural Center. President P. Alfred Grace and consultants Michael Lee and Pat Scanlon chronicled the risk and reward of renovating the grand buffet and theater of the 51-year-old facility, respecting cultural traditions while striving to increase repeat visitation and customer satisfaction. Together, they transformed a blasé 37,000-square-foot dining hall into a Hawaiian dining experience complete with an exquisite 20’x500’ mural, to which the locals tearfully exclaimed upon opening, “if the elders could see this, they would be pleased.” Likewise, Grace, Lee and Scanlon rehabilitated the Center’s aging giant-screen theater, adding a dramatic, lava-themed entryway, new projection screen and sound system, and seats with 4D effects. The technology upgrades support a 14-minute film depicting the lush landscapes and dramatic settings of Hawaii. Grace’s advice to the crowd? “Don’t fall into the trap of being comfortable with just being good.”
Challenging yourself and your work to create great customer value was also the theme of the spirited, energetic and sometimes cheeky presentation by the Dutch Railway Museum, who received a Thea for their “Fire Test” interactive media experience. Explaining, “in Holland, no one is interested in technique, so you have to use storytelling,” CEO Paul van Vlijmen and his team created an experience in which guests enter through a waiting room filled with vintage railway artifacts, only to find that they’ve been chosen to participate in the Fire Test. They then board one of four richly-themed, motion-based locomotives and are cinematically propelled through 200 years of railway history in only three minutes. While navigating the serious challenges of a tight schedule and mere $2 million budget, van Vlijmen and his team never shied away from having a little fun. In one of the most comical moments of the entire conference, van Vlijmen shared the attractions posted safety warnings: “Don’t bring strollers. Don’t eat. Don’t drink. Don’t fart. After all, it’s a FIRE TEST!” In all seriousness, the attention to detail and willingness to think outside the caboose have been the museum’s recipes for success, resulting in 60% repeat visitation for the museum and a 8.5 of 10 approval rating.
After promising that “at no time during [his] presentation [would he] try to connect farts with fire”, Mike Davis explained how he and his team composed the “Song of an Angel” at Universal Japan, a 22.5-minute holiday evening show centered around a young couple’s love story. The show featured projection mapping, a Christmas tree with 350,000 LEDs (a Guinness record), a Metropolitan Opera soprano, 150 performers from all over the world and a custom soundtrack recorded by a symphony orchestra. Davis explained that the cultural risk of setting the show in New York and Paris wasn’t much of a risk at all: “there’s more fantasy about romance if you are in Paris or NYC. The Japanese don’t want to watch Japanese performers on stage. It’s too realistic.” He added that “Christmas is about romance” and that the audience wanted to be “transformed to another place.” The show regularly filled its 6,000-guest capacity during its November – January run.
How do you contain the energy, passion, and brilliance of a musical legend into one show? That was the question facing Welby Altidor, creative director of Cirque du Soleil’s exquisite new show, “Michael Jackson: ONE”. Altidor needed to balance Cirque’s reputation for big budget spectacle with the vulnerability and intimacy of Michael Jackson’s often troubled life. He did so by infusing magical properties into iconic Michael Jackson objects, including the King of Pop’s bejeweled glove and fedora hat. These objects and Jackson’s story transform the show’s characters and their lives – the timid become brave, the lonely find love. Altidor generously shared some of his key learnings from the experience: program failure into your project; ask one dumb question per day; ask for forgiveness, not permission; and break rules not principles. He closed by assuring the audience that “we have a genius in all of us.”
Following Oceaneering’s presentation of their groundbreaking Revolution Tru-Trackless ride system, as well as a brief update from TEA’s President, Christine Kerr, and COO, Jennie Nevin, the afternoon continued with its next case study – Les Machines de l’Ile’s breathtaking project, Marine Worlds Carousel. At 22 meters in diameter and towering 25 meters high, the eye-popping carousel features 35 mechanical sea creatures, capable of holding 300 people in total. The attraction, along with Machine de l’Iles 50-person, walking mechanical elephant, have helped transform Nantes, a formerly industrial French “city that everyone left” into a true tourist destination. Pierre Orefice and Francois Delaroziere’s fanciful, collaborative creation is yet another example of artistic risk paying off in financial reward, this time not just for a company, but for an entire city and region. To be believed, this carousel must truly be seen.
From Nantes, the audience (metaphorically) traveled northward to the “World’s Largest Titanic Visitor Experience” – the only one built at the same place as the legendary ship. Opening on March 31, 2012, exactly 100 years after the completion of the eponymous ocean liner, Titanic Belfast became the keystone of Europe’s largest urban regeneration project. The attraction, offering a dark ride, artifacts and an iconic exterior, has since become the “tourism success of Europe”, with one visitor lauding that “the identity of the city has shifted from guns and balaclavas to Titanic Belfast.” Along the way, Titanic Belfast has welcomed 1.5 million visitors from 142 countries, created over 1,000 new jobs, and become the first five-star attraction in Ireland. Faced with the recurring question of “why another Titanic Museum”, Husbands and his team knew they had to produce a one-of-a-kind experience accessible to everyone. By employing experienced consultants, creating authenticity, and daring to be daring, Husbands and his team developed an attraction that has honored the legacy of the doomed ship while generating growth and opportunity for Belfast, Northern Ireland and the entire Emerald Isle.
Another cultural attraction transforming its community is The Mind Museum, the first science museum in the Philippines. Curator Maribel Garcia explained that while an American design firm master planned the facility, she worked closely with Filipino designers, scientists and fabricators to create a “permanent place of wonder” by Filipinos, for Filipinos. In just three years, Garcia and her team raised $27 million to fund the museum’s construction. Perhaps more importantly, during that time, Garcia hosted numerous science lectures for her local crew, so they knew the logic and importance behind what they were constructing. By trusting her team, not trusting the experts, advocating for science exhibits that were “correct, clear and beautiful” (in that order) and never forgetting the museum’s story, Garcia and her collaborators developed a groundbreaking center for science education. The feedback they have received from the museum’s tens of thousands of visitors? “It’s about time.”
Nearly 1,500 miles east across the South China Sea, the team behind Gardens by the Bay was also striving to create a groundbreaking natural science attraction for their country. Situated on 2.2 acres of reclaimed land adjacent to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Gardens by the Bay has transformed Singapore from a “boring little computer chip on an island” to a “city in a garden.” According to its CEO, Dr. Kiat W. Tan, who jokingly remarked that he usually “prefers talking to plants than people,” Gardens by the Bay was built on the premise of environmental stewardship and cultural tolerance, particularly important given that Singapore is a nation-city of many cultures. Distinguished as the first botanical garden ever to receive a Thea Award, Gardens by the Bay features two iconic conservatories, 18 stunning Supertreees, sky-high walkways, a 10,000-20,000-person concert venue and a variety of dining outlets. “How do you seduce youth away from their iPads?” Tan asked. By making botany beautiful, Tan succeeded in seducing young and old alike: the Gardens welcomed 1.7 million visitors in its first five months and shows no signs of slowing down. Another risk. Another reward.
Disney wrapped up the case study portion of the program with its two Thea-recognized projects, Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, and Enchanted Tales With Belle at the Magic Kingdom. Mystic Manor offers the perfect marriage of storytelling and technology: Lord Henry Mystic has brought home a magical music box from one of his recent travels. Despite telling his monkey companion, Albert, not to open the box, Albert can’t help himself. Music dust pours out of the box, leading Albert, and visitors, in adventures and perils throughout the manor’s many themed rooms. The chaos and whimsy of the ride is reinforced through a trackless ride system, projection mapping, animatronics, and a custom musical score composed by Danny Elfman.
In Enchanted Tales With Belle, guests enter Maurice’s cottage, with furnishes and fixtures practically plucked from the film. Through the magic of Disney, guests are transported through an enchanted mirror to Beast’s Castle, where they help to create this classic fairytale with a live Belle and an animatronic Lumiere. The high-tech wonder of the mirror is juxtaposed with the 2D simplicity of the props and costumes – moving figures are supplanted with cutouts on sticks. Despite this simplicity, the opportunity to be part of the story, instead of just watching, has turned Enchanted Tales With Belle from a simple character meet-and-greet to a multi-dimensional, interactive experience that excites and delights both child and adult audiences alike.
Summit Day Two concluded in compelling fashion with Disney Legend, TEA Buzz Price Thea Award recipient, and master storyteller, Joe Rohde, who brought all the day’s themes together through a keynote about his recent journey through Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. Vowing “you can create adventure by setting out to go sideways,” Rohde embarked on a “Leopard in the Land” painting expedition with the Snow Leopard Conservatory. There he discovered, and encapsulated through his art, the complex beauty of a country gradually untethering itself from its former Communist regime and struggling to preserve its indigenous wildlife and culture. Through his tales of riding camels (“a true trackless ride system”), living in yurts, foraging for food and surviving blisteringly cold temperatures, all while creating beautiful works of landscape art, Rohde bore the message that “we are not creatures of data…we are creatures of emotion. The job in front of us is to be creative, poetic, artistic voices.” The only obstacle in our path, Rohde observed, is apathy: “if you don’t do anything, you become a passive conduit for other people’s decisions.”
According to Rohde, our work, in design and in life, must be driven by “a sense of urgency and purpose”; otherwise, “we are as endangered as the snow leopard.” And so, in his final words, Rohde took those common threads of the day’s presentations – be brave, take risks, transform your community, transcend “good” – and wove them into a central belief:
If there will be great change, it will come from storytellers.
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