Thursday, September 21, 2023

Al Cross: “Our job is just to make people happy”

Al Cross of PGAV Destinations, Architecture segment chair of SATE ’14, was interviewed for InPark Magazine by Morgan Richardson. SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience) is the annual design conference of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA).
You are an architect by trade; what drew you to the themed entertainment industry rather than conventional architecture?

Necessity, good fortune and fate. I worked at a very good firm that sadly experienced a disagreement at the partnership level that caused a breakup. I could have stayed with them, but took the chance that PGAV might want me as they were entering the Midwest casino marketplace. Turns out they did want me, and I have been there since. Once there, my lifelong fascination with Walt Disney’s life experience, coupled with PGAV’s clientele, created the perfect fit for me. I intend to hang on for dear life for as long as they’ll let me.

I knew of PGAV’s involvement in themed entertainment and I wanted to be part of it. As I see it, architecture at its simplest is the creation of places for people. Themed entertainment adds a focus to making people happy that just … drives me. When one boils it down to the simplest form, our job is just to make people happy.

Al Cross, second from left, with fellow SATE chairs Stefan Lawrence, Aram Ebben, Mk Haley, Phil Hettema and Adam Bezark
Al Cross, second from left, with fellow SATE chairs Stefan Lawrence, Aram Ebben, Mk Haley, Phil Hettema and Adam Bezark
How important is it for architects to be involved in the creative process when designing a park or experience?

This is one of THE great questions in my humble opinion, and … I could go on for days on this. There are many industry creatives who understand architecture better than some architects. There are many architects that understand great, creative place-making better than some industry creatives. In our case, we believe our overall knowledge, which includes architecture (but isn’t limited to it) makes us uniquely capable of keeping a project close to the path it ought to take and therefore reach the goal in the most effective way. If other architects can deliver at the beginning, middle and end of a project with great creative (or creative support), project leadership, cost advice, and construction assistance, including art direction, then they should be involved in the creative process so they can add to the project value. If they can’t, well …

What should an aspiring architect focus on if they are interested in themed entertainment?

Architecture. Seriously though, architecture is the world’s first art, and perhaps (a bias) it’s most important. Walt Disney practiced architecture, in my opinion. The feelings guest feel when they pass through the new Diagon Alley are the result of architecture. The moment one passes under the hotel and enters the lake district in Tokyo Disney Sea is … architecture. We make places. The world wants us to be technologists and, of course, this is completely necessary and required for us, but the world is also full of well-built and properly constructed boring buildings and places. Architects need to understand what moves people, ESPECIALLY if they are to work in themed entertainment.

You have worked on projects all over the world; is there one universal design principle that can be applied to any project?

Yes. One must strive to understand what the guest desires. That may not be what you are actually asking … but to me, it is the only question there is. Designers make beautiful things. But in our industry the best designers must put the guest’s needs and desires first (no thinking that they know better). Of course, Steve Jobs has now famously and accidentally emboldened us all with his mantra, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Well, if you’re Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, then maybe … OK. But most aren’t that intuitively capable of doing it right (some are).

What are the most exciting technological changes you see happening in architecture for themed entertainment?

Virtual materials and the knowledge that in the near future we may be able to make environments PHYSICALLY change according to the needs of the story, the current guest profile or the designer’s place-making intent. I struggle to imagine how to keep my emotions in check when I think of how I might deploy such things.

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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