Monday, May 27, 2024

JRA: Sports of all sorts

Whether in a museum, theme park or factory tour, JRA brings out the fan in all

by Joe Kleiman

ABOVE: Part of the Louisville Slugger factory tour includes demonstations on how bats are carved. Photo courtesy of Bambino International.

Three new projects master-planned and designed by JRA showcase different aspects of the sports world. All opened in 2019; all are in the US; all touch regional history. The redesigned Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, in downtown Louisville, KY, held its official re-opening on June 11. Inside, guests are given an in-depth look of how a key component is created for America’s classic pastime. On July 13, the historic Kennywood theme park in Pittsburgh, PA opened its recordbreaking roller coaster Steel Curtain as phase one of the new themed land Steelers Country, where the park showcases its pride for the home football team. And on the banks of Lake Michigan, the town of Whiting, IN became the permanent home of the Mascot Hall of Fame – a combination of children’s museum and monument to the great sports mascots of North America – on April 4. All three are designed to be enjoyed by adults and children alike, regardless of team affiliation.

Batting 1,000 in Louisville

A few short blocks from the Ohio River in Kentucky, the Louisville Slugger factory has been in operation as a family-owned business since 1884. The wood bats that the company manufactures are the stuff of legend – attached to such baseball greats as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Derek Jeter. In 2015, the Louisville Slugger brand was sold to Wilson Sporting Goods, but Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the originators of the brand, continue to manufacture the Slugger bats in the Louisville factory, as well as operate the tour and museum.

An extra challenge of the project was keeping the facility open during its transformation. “Some places shut down completely when undergoing renovation. We did not want to do that,” said Anne Jewell, the Museum’s Executive Director. “JRA worked on a transitional strategy, utilizing temporary walls, and determining how to move our guests from one place to another safely during the tour on the working factory floor.” In June 2019, with construction complete, the factory officially opened the completed, redesigned tour that took guests through the history of the brand while giving an updated look at the manufacturing process.

The new tour begins in a theater simulating the outdoors. “We wanted to start off with the story of the bats before the factory, so we begin by telling the story of the wood. It comes from our own mills in Pennsylvania and New York,” said Jewell. “You start feeling like you’re in a forest setting, which leads to a full projection of production in our mills. We walk you through the steps of selecting and growing the wood, and we talk about the environment, about the importance of preserving and managing forests and natural resources. A door opens after the film, creating a big reveal. As guests walk through, they find themselves in the heart of production on the factory floor.”

“We determined the interactive elements by assessing the overall goals and objectives for the project, as well as the storyline and factory tour layout,” said Matthew Wheeler, Senior Project Director for JRA. “We then coordinated with the client and design teams regarding script and story to determine the best possible hands-on traditional interactives, in which the guest experience is actually enhanced by feeling and seeing the authentic processes taking place on the tour.”

Wheeler continued, “We realized pretty quickly that guest spaces and time durations at each stop were critical to maintain the tour’s overall throughput. The new stops were determined after equipment and production lines were relocated.” Activities that were traditionally found on the factory floor were relocated to the museum, which acts as both a pre- and post-show area for the tour where guests can interact with the craftspeople. This transition allows for streamlining tours through the factory, while allowing guests more time to enjoy these activities in a free-flow environment. Exhibit stops include the player billet bin, which features billets – cylinders of wood destined to be transformed into bats – that guests can pair up with bats designed for major league baseball players. At another exhibit, the nubs cut off the end of the billet during its transformation into a bat are delivered to a bin via conveyer belt. “It’s a family attraction, where children, parents, and grandparents all approach baseball and the Louisville Slugger bat from a different but unified perspective,” said Wheeler.

Steelers energy

An hour away from Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, sits one of America’s historic amusement parks, Kennywood, founded in 1898. In July 2019, the park opened the record-breaking Steel Curtain roller coaster as the first phase of a new themed land called Steelers Country. This is the latest sports IP themed project from parent company Parques Reunidos (operating in the USA as Palace Entertainment) following the opening of the sports motorcycle branded Ducati World at the company’s Mirabilandia theme park in Italy in April 2019, and the announcement in May 2018 to open five entertainment centers themed to the Barcelona Football Club.

The Steel Curtain roller coaster at Kennywood Park. Photo courtesy of Kennywood Park.

Named after the Steelers’ legendary defensive line from the 1970s, the roller coaster, provided by S&S Sansei, offers nine inversions and features cars themed by JRA (one of two coaster car designs by JRA to open in 2019, the other being the Runaway Tram at Morey’s Piers in New Jersey). “With Steelers Country, the Steel Curtain roller coaster is the crown jewel,” said Rick O’Connell, Senior Project Director for JRA. “Coaster fans from all over are going to come for this record-setting attraction. For the rest of the area, we focused more on the game itself, along with the game day experience, allowing fans of any/all teams to still enjoy the attractions and interactive experiences. Even Bengals or Ravens fans will enjoy throwing footballs through targets or racing against NFL caliber speed. With Kennywood being in Pittsburgh, however, an overwhelming majority of guests coming to Steelers Country will be fans of the local team.”

Phase 2 of Steelers Country, opening in 2020, will encompass a range of family-friendly activities within the Steelers Experience. Rather than go the traditional route with an exhibition of historic photos and awards (which are kept at Heinz Field), it was decided to concentrate on the fun elements of the game for Steelers Country. According to Christopher Duarte, Senior Project Coordinator for Kennywood owner Palace Entertainment, “JRA, Palace, and the Steelers met to discuss what Steelers Country could and would be. It was decided that Steelers Country would focus on the game-day experience, bringing the energy of athletic competition, tailgating, and the stadium to Kennywood. The Steelers promoted the game-day atmosphere of the land, as well as identifying the best activities for each area. The team was also involved with any branding and imagery approvals. JRA developed the concepts for all the activities within the Steelers Experience, the outdoor skill games, End Zone Café interior, and tailgate area.”

According to O’Connell, 80% of the activities planned for Steelers Country are physical in nature. However, designers have taken the family dynamic into consideration. “For Steelers, most of the activities are just that, active,” he says, “When the Steelers Experience opens, younger fans will be able to enjoy climbing through a massive indoor playground, aptly named the ‘Terrible Tower,’ which includes a number of mechanical ‘Terrible Towels’ that spin as guests make their way to the top. However, with a full-service restaurant, a game day tailgate patio, a number of photo-ops, and plenty of seating, the older crowd has plenty to enjoy.”

From pierogis to mascots

Founded on the shore of Lake Michigan in the 1800s and supported by the railroads and refineries, the small town of Whiting hit the international stage in 1994 with the annual Pierogi Fest®, held in July. Each year, 350,000 people visit the small Indiana town of 5,000, located 30 miles south of Chicago, to celebrate the Slavic dumpling. In 2007, the town began to look for projects that would encourage non-residents to visit year-round. Conversations soon began with Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic, who had founded the Mascot Hall of Fame online, about building a permanent home in Whiting.

At the Mascot Hall of Fame, kids get to practice being mascots through interactive dancing challenges and trying on sample mascot heads. Photo courtesy of Charlie Simotaikis Photography

With Pierogi Fest® having not one, but six mascots, and officially licensed studio characters participating in its annual Fourth of July parade, Whiting could be seen as an ideal home for the Mascot Hall of Fame. Said Amy Frets, Director of Communications for the City of Whiting, “We were able to persuade Disney to bring Mickey and Minnie up from Disney World to be Grand Marshals in our parade. That’s unheard of. Usually, they’ll go up to a big city like Chicago, but that’ll be it. But they came to Whiting, and other licensed characters followed, including Looney Tunes and Marvel characters.” The decision for Whiting to host the Mascot Hall of Fame in many ways mirrored the establishment of another JRA-designed project, the National Comedy Center in Lucille Ball’s birthplace of Jamestown, NY. Much as the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival set the stage for the National Comedy Center, Whiting’s quirky festivals and charismatic mascots help set the tone for the Mascot Hall of Fame. [See “Exhibiting Signs of Laughter,” InPark issue #72, April 2018.]

“Mascots create fun and entertainment for the whole family,” said O’Connell. “Likewise, the Mascot Hall of Fame creates fun and entertainment for the whole family to enjoy together. The goal of the museum is to create shared memories for families, so while many of the exhibits focus on kid-friendly activities, older guests have plenty to enjoy. Some older guests may be more passive, so two theaters play highlight reels of the inducted mascots, while Hall of Fame databases allow guests to learn more about them.”

Rather than greet guests with a traditional array of busts or statues, JRA devised a whimsical alternative that plays with the nature of mascots. Inside the museum’s three-story atrium sits a mobile, with each of the inductees represented as a giant tethered inflatable. Currently, there are 21 inductees, with room for up to 40 on the mobile. To learn more about the mascots, guests can visit interactive kiosks on the second floor, where facts appear on-demand on virtual trading cards.

Al Spajer, founding Executive Director of the Mascot Hall of Fame, referred to the facility as “overt fun with subliminal education.” The underlying concept is that guests are traveling through Mascot University. The museum, a member of the Association of Children’s Museums, consulted with local schools and universities to ensure that the attraction met state standards for STEAM education, making it a destination for field trips. JRA’s O’Connell shares how, under the Mascot University umbrella, each exhibit represents a unique university department. “For example, in the Department of Phuzzical Education, guests learn about the physics involved in trying to shoot digital T-shirts from a T-shirt cannon. In the Department of Furry Arts, guests have the opportunity to design their own mascot, audition to become a mascot, and even transform themselves into a mascot. The Science of Silliness Lab features such scientific disciplines as nutrition and biology.”

Orestes Hernandez, the museum’s current Executive Director, says that what was originally designed as a temporary filler exhibit, Feel the Fur, has had an unexpected impact. “Some of the exhibits were put in not knowing what the reaction would be. Feel the Fur has panels lined with the different textures and materials of mascot costumes. This interactive was strictly designed as filler. It turned out to be extremely popular with kids on the autism spectrum.”

Waders, swimmers and divers

Senior Project Directors Matthew Wheeler (Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory) and Rick O’Connell (Steelers Country, Mascot Hall of Fame) acted as the respective faces of JRA from the initial design charrette until the projects were handed over for installation, interfacing with the client and setting the creative direction for the JRA design team in keeping with the client’s vision. Clara Rice, JRA Director of Communications said, “They also work with the project manager to set the project schedule and budget, as well as to source any subs (AV integration, media, lighting, etc.) Once the project is in installation, they work with the art director to ensure that the design intent is manifested in the final exhibit or attraction. With Steelers Country, Kennywood provided their own installation team, so our scope ended at final design. For the other two projects, we were with the client from initial charrette through planning, design, implementation, opening and punchlist.”

Shawn McCoy, Vice President of JRA, said, “Part of JRA’s company culture is that we really listen to each of our clients and understand their overall visions before we start imposing any type of creative solution. Once we have a solid understanding of what the client is trying to achieve, we then begin determining major messages or takeaways, which evolve into major experience areas, and ultimately, specific exhibits and attractions.”

O’Connell added that the company “prides itself on coming up with a good mix of attractions/exhibits for every project. We like to think that most guests fit into one of three categories: waders, swimmers, or divers. Waders are guests who are more passive; they like to experience from afar but are not very hands-on. Swimmers are guests who like to experience a little of everything.

They’re hands-on; they read; they can be active. Divers are guests who can spend hours reading every detail or trying a certain interactive over and over again until they feel they have had a sufficient experience. At JRA, we like to create exhibits that can accommodate all three types. It needs to work as a passive experience as well as something more in-depth.” • • •

Project Credits, courtesy of JRA


JRA – Master planning, exhibit design, graphic design, executive media production, art direction, project management

Matthew Wheeler, Senior Project Director

Anita Daugherty, Executive Producer, Media

Sam Colvin, Designer (Environmental and Graphic Design)

Rebecca Parnell, Senior Project Manager

Jason Hedges, Senior Project Manager

Shawn McCoy, Vice President (Executive-in-Charge)

General Contractor – Schaefer Construction

Architect of Record – Forza Architecture

Media Story Writer – kre8-360 (John Zaller)

Cinematographer/Editor – Dave Morrison

Factory Video Cinematographer – Mike Theobald

Factory Video Editor – Scott Neumann

Media Producer – Husky Boy Creative and Production

Lighting Design – Abernathy Lighting Design

AV Design – 767 (Graham Wickman)

Exhibit Fabricators – Geograph Industries

Graphic Production/Installation – USA Images

Hardware Systems Integration – Trinity Dynamics


JRA – Master planning and design

Rick O’Connell, Senior Project Director

Scot Ross, Senior Project Designer (Graphic Design)

Jason Hedges, Senior Project Manager

Shawn McCoy, Vice President (Executive-in-Charge)

Lighting Design – Abernathy Lighting Design

AV Integration – Electrosonic

Coaster – S&S Sansei Technologies

Fabrication – Largely in-house


JRA – Master planning, writing and content development, exhibit design, graphic design, executive media production, art direction, project management

Rick O’Connell, Senior Project Director

Scot Ross, Senior Project Designer (Environmental and Graphic Design)

Ron Bunt, Vice President (Project Manager/Executive-in-Charge)

David Ferguson, Art Director

Lighting Design – Abernathy Lighting Design

AV Integration – Electrosonic

Media Developer – Trivium Interactive & Northern Lights

Production Fabrication – Chicago Scenic Studios

JRA’s rendering of the Steely’s Trailer Final experience, scheduled to open in 2020

The Breakdown

We asked JRA’s Senior Project Directors to break down each project between AV elements, traditional interpretive signage and displays, and physical interaction elements.


New elements at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory are:

• New AV includes repeater monitors at the hands-on activities within the factory tour (hand turning and burn branding and all stops within the factory)

• New media at pre-show, new signage, environmental tree elements and display

• New introductory theater film

• New media at five factory tour stop locations, each related to a different part of the manufacturing process

• New super-graphics on existing walls to convey history and process

• New hanging environmental graphics, identifying each tour stop location

• Exit room experience graphic and visitor mini-bat distribution experience


O’Connell breaks down the elements on his two new projects this way:

Steelers Country: 80% physical interactive, 10% AV/media, 10% signage

Mascot Hall of Fame: 60% physical interaction, 35% AV/media, 5% traditional signage

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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