Friday, March 1, 2024

JCO: Theming beyond the theme park

Jumana Brodersen and JCO – 10 years of creating immersive environments

Interview by Joe Kleiman

ABOVE: JCO’s designs for the NAVYSEUM Exploration Center

In 2008, Jumana Brodersen established her own, independent design firm, JCO, LLC, after a decade as a creative executive with Busch Entertainment Corporation (BEC, now SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment). JCO, based in St. Louis, MO, specializes in master planning and attraction design for zoos, community and commercial enterprises and theme parks, and over the course of 10 years in business has built a diverse, international portfolio. To celebrate JCO’s 10th anniversary, we asked Jumana a number of questions about experience, achievements and insights gained since launching her own firm.

How did you get started in themed entertainment design?

After a decade of designing conventional architecture, my experience in themed entertainment design started at PGAV in 1989. At PGAV, I mostly worked on Busch Entertainment Corporation projects, as well as on PortAventura (Spain). In 1998, I joined Busch Entertainment, which was based in St. Louis at the time.

You’re known for your work on zoos and theme parks, but you also have designed some leading waterparks. How did you enter this field?

When I was with BEC, I was part of the team that worked on Aquatica Orlando, which opened in 2008. This property was unique, much different from the SeaWorld parks, which are about animal experiences, and from Discovery Cove, which is an upscale, intimate park. My role was to determine the criteria and character for the park.

We worked with the operations teams from all the BEC parks. It was an amazing learning experience. Creating the core product of a successful waterpark was just part of the formula; understanding the mindset of waterparkgoers was key to creating Aquatica. Guest comfort was crucial; so was ensuring that there was ample water surface area. Aquatica has a great mix of lazy rivers, wave pools and children’s activity pools – plus, of course, the water slides provide the “sizzle.”

Another great project JCO worked on was Wild Wadi waterpark in Dubai. We were contracted by the client for a development plan. We assessed the park capacities and throughput. We conducted SWOT analysis and we developed future attraction concepts [SWOT = strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats]. The ideas included major attraction ideas and general park enhancements.

The SkyWheel at Panama City Beach
What other types of projects are you working on?

JCO is engaged on several projects in China for Wanda Group: a waterpark and two marine mammal parks. We also do work with real estate developers, including Koch Development, the group that owns the Skywheel in Myrtle Beach. For Koch we develop a number of master plans.

We’ve designed an observation wheel for them that opened this year in Panama City Beach, FL – the Pier Park SkyWheel. For clients in Myrtle Beach, SC, we have done master planning and design for a few buildings on Ocean Blvd, and Broadway at the Beach. These projects fit with our core strengths. Our style tends to be more based in reality, more naturalistic. We enjoy waterfront tourist type projects. They are nature-based, thematic environments that blend themed entertainment with beachside resorts and tourist destinations.

Tell us about working in the Midwest.

I live in St. Louis and my local clients include the St. Louis Zoo, where I have done some projects that I’m very proud of [see “Designing for bears, dogs, lemurs, humans and other living things,” InPark issue #54] and the Missouri Botanical Garden. We’re also currently working with a couple of clients in Branson, MO and with Holiday World in Indiana.

I love working in this region, where I’m easily accessible to the clients and the projects. But we also do other work throughout the US and internationally, such as our three large-scale projects in China, all now in design development phase.

Tell us some lessons you’ve learned from running your own firm.

I’ve learned that it’s not just listening to what clients are asking for but hearing what they need. That comes from learning about them, understanding the bigger picture behind their goals, getting a finger on the pulse of their  audience and really immersing ourselves in their market, so we can set the guest experience accordingly.

What have you observed over the years with regard to how the industry approaches design?

There is a perception that if people have cool machines and software, they’re suddenly cool designers. Part of this problem stems from there being an abundance of tools available, but design is much more than the tools of the trade, and it also goes beyond design skills per se. It involves understanding demographics, psychology, and the clients’ needs. We are in the service business. We create innovative ideas and sound design vs a tangible product. That’s the soul of the guest experience.

The climbing structures and ziplines play area at Busch Gardens Tampa’s Jungala were inspired by the Orangutans’ play habits and behavior © 2018 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.
Tell us more about the criteria you consider when designing a park or attraction.

Who are we designing for? Who will be the ultimate user of the space? What’s their background and what will they be looking for? What’s nearby; will it compete with, or augment the places we are designing? Once we answer these questions, we have the criteria established. That’s before pen hits paper. We then begin to create the big idea: a master plan and thematic setting.

What’s your relationship like with your clients?

Our goal is to make the client’s vision a reality. I’m not designing for myself. I always understand that I’m in the client’s sandbox, and we must respect the client’s time and vision and everything they bring to the project. It is crucial to understand the clients’ expectations, and their definition of success. This our aim for each project.

It’s key to dream big at the beginning, but just as important is understanding how to dial back without losing the original intent; how to maintain the essence of the design. Two primary things clients like about JCO are: 1) We listen to what they want; 2) Our design solutions include a designer’s as well as an operator’s point of view, as I and a number of my team members have experience from both sides. Having extensive experience on the owner/operator’s side as well as the creative side gives us perspective and understanding of marketing an attraction as well as creating a product that is achievable within the project budget and that can be maintained.

What staff do you have working on projects?

JCO draws on a pool of trusted, freelance consultants, all project based and most of whom I’ve been collaborating with for years. This works very well for me. I have a full portfolio of consultants. They include artists, graphic designers, industrial designers, planners and architects. I can put together a well-rounded mix of talent tailored to a particular contract. I also have people that help with detailed design drawings and CAD.

Tell us about some of your strategic partners.

I’ve learned from the owner’s side, especially Busch, the importance of marketing involvement, very early on in the project. One of JCO’s partners is Authentus Group, brand strategists that we work with during concept design phase of projects.

Another key group that we work with on zoological type projects are experts in animal behavior: Thad Lacinak and Angi Millwood of Precision Behavior bring experience from working with SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

Tell us about some accomplishments that you’re especially proud of.

All of our projects respect the theme and the brand of where they’re going. That’s especially important when you’re putting IP [intellectual property] in a park. I learned this with Busch when we put Sesame Street into SeaWorld. It had to highlight the Sesame brand without overpowering SeaWorld and Busch Gardens brands.

My first project after I left Busch was the Klump Island children’s area at Tivoli, which is based on a classic Danish comic strip. I made sure that it was true to the comic, but it also had to feel like it was organically part of Tivoli.

The Manta roller coaster conveys the feeling of flying with all hardware out of sight behind the guest © 2018 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved

Another one of the projects from SeaWorld days was the Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando. After riding Tatsu, the flying coaster at Magic Mountain, I felt a flying coaster for SeaWorld would be a better fit than a hyper coaster (which was also being considered as an option at that time). Riding a flying coaster felt unique to me because the hardware mechanism is all behind you while riding. It truly simulates a flying experience. Another major reason for this being a favorite was because we were able to build it out as a realm of its own with aquariums and other elements that provided a quality themed experience and reinforced the park brand.

We were working with the animal folks on the project and one of the curators suggested that the vehicle looked like a flying ray, and we had our name. This was a true collaboration among the design team, animal care and the park’s operations team.

Jungala at Busch Gardens Tampa was another project that I am proud of. Jungala was a mix of multiple attractions in one. It tied together the tigers and the orangutans with rides, a three-story play area, and food and retail. All in one cool immersive environment. It was not the blockbuster attraction that would pull people into Busch Gardens like a new coaster, but it raised the bar overall for  the entire park, and provides an engaging and fun guest experience.

Bonus question: What are some dream projects you hope to do over the next 10 years with JCO?

I hope that NAVYSEUM Exploration Center will gain enough momentum and financial backing to move forward. This all-family attraction based on the essence of the U.S. Navy was the brainchild of Founder’s Ron Lanz. JCO did all the planning, creative, scope definition and developed full content of the concept package including renderings. The project site is north of Chicago. I think that this project will be a great attraction and will provide a truly engaging and fun guest experience. • • •

For more information about JCO, or to set up a meeting with Jumana Brodersen during the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando, email [email protected].


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Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.
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