Sunday, June 23, 2024

PGAV Destinations: Story beats

A journey in creativity with PGAV Destinations

by Gene Jeffers

This InPark exclusive is a deep dive into the creative process at PGAV Destinations, one of the leading design studios in the global attractions industry. With headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, and Orlando, Florida, PGAV has built on decades of experience designing for themed entertainment.

At the core of PGAV’s creative process is a dynamic team committed to story-making – digging into the art, science, and strategy of storytelling to create experiences that resonate with guests. The story serves as the cornerstone of projects, providing a framework that guides the design. Each beat of the experience is carefully crafted to build and release tension, guiding guests through a spectrum of emotions while carefully considering the diverse interests and nature of the audience. This empathetic approach ensures that each individual engages with the story in a meaningful way.

“For us, story is everything,” said Dave Cooperstein, Senior Creative Designer at PGAV Destinations. “All the destinations we design originate from some kind of story, whether fictional, historical, fantastical or metaphorical.” With efforts ranging worldwide from small exhibits to entire museums and theme parks, PGAV Destinations projects engage visitors by immersing them in rich stories built through character development, atmosphere, sound, smell, and environmental clues. “Finding ways to personally connect a wide range of people – the young, the old, the curious, the adventurous, the tranquil – requires us to create experiences that immerse guests on multiple levels and provide variations that allow all members of a family and guests of all ages to connect with the client’s message.”

Working with clients to identify their objectives and develop an effective storyline can vary tremendously. “We understand our client’s brand, key messages, and other objectives and craft a story that will resonate with guests. It guides the space that guests walk through, the sounds, the music, the things they do and the way they feel. Story is a key driver of design,” said Carol Breeze, Lead Designer, Story Experience. The visioning process is her favorite part of a project. “At the start, there is a cloud of ideas, thoughts and strategies swirling around the room,” she explained. “Most exciting, there comes this moment when it all comes together. When everyone in the room sees the vision clearly. Before you know it, we are running hard to make that vision become real.”

Guest Journey Guides, story-maps and emotional diagrams are written or rendered scene by scene, providing breakdowns of what the guest does, what they see, what they walk through, how they feel, and what they hear throughout their visit. “We use these documents to craft all of the moments of an experience, from the big emotional flows to the smallest details that really resonate with guests,” she explained. Layouts, spacing, and opportunities to connect and explore are all designed to offer variable paths for each visitor. The documents help organize team members’ thoughts and allow anyone coming on to a project to quickly get up to speed.

Echoes of history: The 1904 World’s Fair exhibit

The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis decided to reimagine and bring a 21st-century perspective to its exhibit about the 1904 World’s Fair. “The challenge is always how to create the possibility for unrepeatable moments,” said A.D. Gladu, Creative Writer. “Moments that connect guests with a story in a unique and everchanging manner.” While the museum has a large collection of documents and artifacts relating to the Fair, they wanted to create greater emotional connections to the human stories of the event and its impact on history. The museum tackled part of this storytelling through a documentary video shown in the exhibit. PGAV Destinations wrote, directed, and produced the video. “The museum gave us four people with different perspectives to interview about how the fair affected their lives and their families,” she said. “It was a palette of humanity, a breathtaking array of individuals who are all passionate and have so much to share.” Before the cameras rolled, Gladu researched each person, learned about their interests and history, and brainstormed potential storylines to connect the four individuals to each other and to the Fair and museum. However, she walked into the interviews with an open mind, giving the participants time to breathe, room to express themselves, and space for the conversation to flow and enrich the content. Now part of the new exhibit, the resulting 20-minute video transports guests through the emotional echoes of events that happened so long ago.

One of those interviewed was the great-granddaughter of a young worker at the Fair who was part of the U.S. Pensionado Program (Act 854 of 1903), which brought 100 Filipino students to the U.S. in 1904, the first year the program was active. “Choices made by the Fair’s founders, in concert with the U.S. government, dramatically affected the next four generations of her family,” Gladu said. “Illuminating their 120-year journey to the present and how the 1904 World’s Fair continues to affect people’s lives offers museum visitors a real chance to connect with history at a human level.”

Rails and reefs: Connected narratives at St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

Journeys are often the story arc in many of the firm’s projects. Designed by PGAV Destinations, the St. Louis Aquarium is housed in the National Historic Landmark train shed at St. Louis Union Station, which originally opened in 1894 as the biggest and busiest train terminal in the nation. “How do you create a connection between the reality of being in a train station and the experience of being in an aquarium,” Justin Stichter, Vice President, asked. “Trains and fish don’t intuitively correlate, so this presented a unique design challenge for our team. The journey we crafted with our client allowed us to present the animals in an interesting way and leverage the rich history of the Aquarium’s setting.”

For Stichter, a compelling narrative or storyline is a subset of and driver for any designed experience. “A great guest experience is like composing or blocking choreography,” he said. “There should be slow and fast movements, small variations and dynamic changes, all to keep the guest interested and engaged. We think about moving guests through time and space by way of our narrative.” When approaching a design problem, identifying the end goals and the needed emotional arcs is essential to crafting the delivery. For an aquarium that would be located in a historic train station, it was important to touch on the historical significance of the station and its function in America’s westward expansion and opening horizons.

Essential to the entire process is the development of the Guest Journey Guide, which directs the project toward the desired end. In addition to specific theming directions, such a document can sketch critical moments, the wow moments if you will, and the essence of the experience. “For this aquarium, we developed a fantastical entry experience that transported guests from the Historic Union Station to the banks of the Mississippi and
Missouri Rivers,” he said. “Visitors plunge into the river, get face to gills with thousands of species, and explore the cavernous depths of the open ocean. Their journey follows our story from trains to fish, each exhibit along the way another chapter to be experienced.”

Crafting the perfect bite at Piccolo Buco

Promising a taste of Rome’s Best Pizza without the travel, Piccolo Buco restaurant in Oak Brook, Illinois, offers more than vicarious travel to Italy with its authentic cuisine and décor. “We tell stories through physical space,” said Interior Designer Tyson Baker. “We begin with understanding a brand’s history and story – then work toward creating authentic spaces and environments that will authentically connect the client’s passion and story to the guests.” In this case, Cooper’s Hawk restaurant founder Tim McEnery first met Chef Luca Issa and experienced his wonderful pizza in the tiny Piccolo Buco Roma restaurant steps from the Trevi Fountain. Simple ingredients atop an extraordinary, tall crust that was crisp on the outside yet cloud-like at the center convinced McEnery to work with Issa and bring this delight to America.

“Finding a way to create the sense of a small, hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Rome to a much larger facility in a location just outside Chicago was the challenge,” said Amanda Yates, Director of Brand Experience. “This story required a number of steps, of beats, to create the proper ambience, to give the sense of a small, intimate place.” Due to the significant size difference between the U.S. restaurant and its Italian counterpart, a recessed entryway provides guests a sense of comfort as they enter. Interior tile and furnishings are all evocative of Piccolo Buco Roma. Two-top tables populate the room, providing flexibility and, more importantly, a sense of intimacy. An open kitchen lets diners in on the action while classic Roman images with humorous American touches grace the walls. And don’t forget the crust – so delicate, so special, it is cut at the table with scissors, just as in the original Roman restaurant. “Each piece of the whole story contributes to the final impression,” Baker said. “The American restaurant uses the same ingredients, the same type of flour and tomatoes, offers the same two types of olive oil, one for dipping, the other for drizzling. Every detail is aimed at transporting diners, if only for a few hours, to an authentic taste of Italy.”

A new vision: Columbus Zoo and North America Trek

North America, the oldest region within Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, needed a refresh. Over the years, the region slowly became a pass-through as guests rushed past the black bear habitat or missed the river otters on their way to the zoo’s newer, more modern regions. PGAV and the Columbus Zoo envisioned a new story for the space that encourages guests to take their time and learn about the amazing native animals. “The zoo wants to build empathy and understanding for each species, encouraging guests to learn about the animals’ unique roles in this native habitat,” said Tom Marschner, PGAV Vice President. North America Trek emerged, an animal-filled road trip starting locally in Columbus and taking guests through the diverse continent. Phase I of the region introduces visitors to local river otters, followed by various North American songbird locations, then changing direction south to witness Mexican Wolves, and finally heading to the West Coast to connect with black bears.” Phase II will continue the journey, heading north for encounters with the elusive lynx and other creatures.

Replacing a passageway between old habitats and worn graphics at the Columbus Zoo, PGAV is creating the new, highly themed North America Trek experience. The animal-filled “road trip” starts with local species and then begins to work its way across the continent, offering nature-inspired encounters with the zoo’s collection. Credit: PGAV

“From the beginning of the project, PGAV worked closely with the zoo to determine their goals. We discussed what elements were must-haves for the habitats to ensure an enriching and diverse environment. For the guests, we agreed on what emotions to evoke, what we want them to feel, what we want them to experience, and what knowledge we want them to walk away learning. We also wanted to make sure that guests are well-informed about the many great conservation efforts in which the Columbus Zoo actively participates.” Deeper dives were made into creating a sense of adventure or introducing new surprises via physical views or fun information to keep the guests engaged. “We conceptualize how these different messages work their way into the overall experience,” said Marschner. “How do we lay the pieces out over a plan and blend animal environments with interpretive displays and hands-on activities? These are the required beats to achieve the full story.”

Each animal habitat is created to replicate the natural surroundings of the animal’s native habitat. It encourages natural behaviors from animals, contributing to their wellbeing, and has the added benefit of heavily supporting the overarching story. “River otters will swim and play in the local Ohio River’s familiar waters, rocks, foliage and colors. Mexican wolves live in a drier, Southwest environment with a much warmer palette, which is portrayed in the habitats,” Marschner explained. “Each habitat’s theming has to feel as natural as possible; each transition has to make sense for the visitors. Each habitat provides another chapter in the overarching story of nature’s amazing diversity and why these species need to be protected.”

Transporting through time and space: National Air and Space Museum

As the National Air and Space Museum undergoes renovations, PGAV Destinations is enhancing the visitor experience and creating immersive connections between exhibit halls. “At a museum filled with so many iconic artifacts, it is really about telling the human stories behind the objects,” said Cooperstein. “Exploring the stories that resonate with people and forge emotional connections to the displays is rewarding.”

The first phase of the project opened at the end of 2022 and includes media screens strategically positioned at the threshold to the major galleries to orient and attract visitors. “Our project’s scope is to infuse the spaces between the exhibit galleries with immersive content,” explained Cooperstein. “These stories in these spaces are interwoven and illustrate how aviation and spaceflight have changed the world and each of our lives.” Presented on media screens, graphic panels and exhibits in the hallways, the stories relate to a specific zone of the museum—Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight, Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets, and Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. The exhibits are distinct but thematically linked, knitting together the museum’s overarching narrative.

An epic tale of connection: SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

PGAV Destinations was tapped to create United Parks & Resorts and Miral’s indoor park in the Middle East, recently crowned the world’s largest indoor marine life theme park by Guinness World Records. “The theme for SeaWorld Abu Dhabi was that there is One Ocean. We are all connected to the ocean, and the ocean connects all of us,” Breeze said. “Abu Dhabi has a rich maritime history, so that is where we started to weave this story together.” The team created a story map that took the One Ocean theme and touched on a number of different, related narratives. From the smallest interpretive graphic to the 360o Hypersphere simulator, from the 15 rides and interactive experiences to the One Epic Ocean show, every element in the park’s eight realms touches on the theme, telling a global story of connection and interdependence.

Above: At the very heart of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, the One Epic Ocean show informs, connects and intrigues visitors with its 360o presentation and its portals to the other realms of the park and the Animal Care Center. The immensity of the world’s oceans is reflected within the giant theater space while emphasizing each visitor’s personal role in protecting this critical environment.

Below: MicroOcean creates an inviting space for kids and families to explore and play together. Photos Credit: PGAV

The park’s smallest realm, MicroOcean, an underwater playground where small is big, is Cooperstein’s favorite. “It’s incredibly enchanting. There is no other realm like it in the park,” he says. “You step through the Shrinkerator and get smaller and smaller, right down to the plankton level.” Everything around you is overscaled, and the games, adventures, experiments and rides all cleave to the core story of the realm: that small things in the ocean have just as much impact as big things.

The park’s five guest levels and over 2 million square feet are packed with exhibits and places to explore like Endless Ocean, the largest multi-species marine life aquarium in the region,

an Animal Care Center, fine dining, a tropical bird habitat, opportunities to feed sea lions, rays, and more. At SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, the One Ocean story unfolds on both intimate and grand scales, in giant theaters and through rides and interactive scenes. Guests can return again and again, exploring the park and enjoying its story in new ways and sequences each time.

Story beats and success

Collaborating with each client to fully understand their needs and story is foundational at PGAV Destinations. What emerges from these early efforts establishes the framework for the key storyline and, ultimately, the entire undertaking. “Every project has a lot of hands and hearts pulling it together,” said Breeze. “What is wonderful to me as a storyteller is developing a story map with the client at the beginning, then turning it over to our team of creative, imaginative people who take it, run with it and bring it to life.”

Ensuring that every attraction and park remains fresh and new for visit after visit, PGAV Destinations builds flexibility into every experience. “Each project has its story beats,” said Yates. “The emotional ups and downs, the sudden reveals and surprises. We map these beats to understand their impact, their relationship to and potential within the flow of the overarching storyline. We structure the beats to allow for adaptation and improvisation on the part of the guest, which makes each journey within the park new and exciting.”

All these moments, these story beats, contribute to an exceptional guest experience, but they serve a broader purpose. Stichter elaborates, “The story creates an experience that touches guests, potentially transforming them. This engagement empowers guests to actively participate in the story, effectively becoming characters within the narrative.” These transformations often lead to action—whether it’s guests returning to the attraction, sharing their experiences with others, or increasing per capita spending. These actions can even spark social change. “If a guest is sufficiently moved to adopt conservation practices at home, the story has transcended its initial purpose of creating a cohesive experience. Storytelling provides designers with a foundation, but it transcends the ‘once upon a time’ tales,” he said. “It serves to preserve culture, stimulate imagination, foster connections, promote understanding, and inspire change.” •

Gene Jeffers
Gene Jeffers
Gene Jeffers, former (2001-2013) TEA Executive Director, is currently serving as a Board member for the Greater San Gabriel Pomona Valleys American Red Cross and serves on the Board of the Historical Novel Society. He continues to write in a variety of genres. Based in Pasadena, Gene and his wife Carol (also a writer) are looking forward to traveling again and spending more post-COVID time with their two daughters, son-in-law and three grandchildren.

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