The unique demands of AV design in themed entertainment • by Scott Harkless
For those who have been to a theme park anytime in the last decade, it is impossible not to notice the significant role of audiovisual systems and media. Designers of theme parks and out-of-home attractions are continually pushing the envelope to create memorable experiences and provide options that differentiate an experience from what’s available in the home or elsewhere.
Take dark rides for example. This type of attraction has long been a popular standby of theme parks, but has evolved and grown in sophistication over the years.
If we rewind back to the early days of dark rides, we would see a chain of cars or boats on a track advancing at a
somewhat leisurely pace from scene to scene of elaborate props, animated figures, scenic lighting, music, and sound effects. A modern-day dark ride, on the other hand, is liable to be a 4D experience. It might have vehicles with complex motion systems designed to taunt riders with sudden changes in gravity and acceleration. The ride scenes might be combined with sophisticated video projection to enliven the scenery or animated figures. Audio still plays a huge role, but the audio systems might be located on-board the ride vehicle to improve sound quality and a more immersive guest experience. Even the vehicles themselves might be completely trackless and wireless.
In other words, the “wow factor” is high, and the technical challenges are varying and multifold.
Let’s take a deeper look at what a tech or AV designer is likely to encounter in the creation of a media-based attraction with sophisticated systems.
One of the biggest hurdles is ensuring that all of the audio and video effects are perfectly synchronous with other entertainment systems such as ride motion, animated figures, lighting, and special effects. Imagine how nauseating it would it be for the ride vehicle to lean sharply to the left two seconds before the ride video leans left. In a 4D Theater application, that water spritz to the face just isn’t as convincing if it doesn’t happen at the exact same moment the character on-screen sneezes. Synchronizing these systems to avoid lag is critical to a great guest experience and, in the case of rides, is also important to minimize the chance of motion sickness.
The way to guarantee this precise level of synchronization is to use AV, lighting, animation, and ride control systems that work together harmoniously. For AV gear, this means remote control capability, consistent triggering, and the ability to lock to external clocks like Genlock, audio sample clock (word clock), SMPTE timecode, etc. Show control is critical for managing all of the entertainment systems. When a show control device is combined with the ability to consistently trigger other devices, the result is a system with the power to provide a synchronous and repeatable experience.
With parks spending millions of dollars on building and marketing their star attractions, downtime is unacceptable. To add to the challenge, these attractions run repeatedly all day long, day after day, often for many years. When coasters and ride vehicles are involved, sometimes the AV equipment can be subjected to fluctuating power sources (i.e. super capacitors), high temperatures, humidity, vibration and G-forces. With this kind of use and abuse, top quality, purpose designed gear is, in our view, an imperative. Consumer-grade and even common professional-grade electronics and AV gear are not up to the challenge. Just try putting that rack-mount amplifier into a roller coaster and see how long it takes for it to rattle itself into pieces.
As a general rule, it’s best to use solid-state equipment whenever possible simply because moving parts will inevitably break with such high levels of use. Especially in the case of ride vehicle environments, gear should be used that was specifically designed for the purpose. It will be more expensive than that rack-mount amplifier, but it will still be in one piece when the ride pulls into the loading station. For media playback devices, solid-state memory (usually flash memory) is a must. Traditional disk drives are simply not reliable enough unless they are used with complex redundant RAID configurations. Simple, purpose-built, and solid-state equipment will ensure high up-time with little to no maintenance.
The Walibi Holland theme park in Biddinghuizen, Netherlands recently rebranded its steel roller coaster as “X-Press: Platform 13,” giving a new look and feel to the ride. The ride borrows elements from the theme park’s successful Halloween haunted house attractions and adds a mysterious backstory, which unfolds in the queue to extend the guest experience.
Guests entering the queue watch vintage-style news reports describing an infamous subway train crash and the many mysterious events that followed. As guests wind their way through the queue, they are immersed in the an eerie atmosphere of piercing train headlights, blaring horns, squealing brakes and PA announcements.
Arriving at Platform 13, an out of control train races past, its brakes squealing. Then their own train approaches. Once onboard, guests are launched, accelerating to 94.3 km/h in just 2.9 seconds. Entering the final tunnel, passengers see the safety light blinking red, but their train is not stopping. The train seems to slide on the track, and a final pyro effect concludes this heart-stopping ride.
Alcorn McBride equipment provides the elaborate video, audio and lighting synchronization throughout the attraction. Alcorn McBride’s V4 Pro frame-accurate controller manages the entire show. The status of projectors and other show elements can be monitored using Alcorn McBride’s ShowTouch interface running on an Apple iPad. A DMX Machine and a LightCue create synchronous lighting effects, and control 30 LED fixtures for the phantom subway train approach. An A/V Binloop HD drives projectors for spooky visual displays and creates the out of control train. An AM4 Digital Audio Machine provides audio effects for the finale. A ProTraXX is the main audio source for the queue
Sometimes an attraction remains popular for many years and continues to run with little or no alteration to the guest experience. The original gear might still be in use after many years of service. Even the most reliable electronics can wear out after years or even decades, however. When this happens, the ability to replace this gear without having to redesign the entire attraction is of tremendous value. This is why the initial choices of AV equipment and manufacturer are key.
Sometimes designers advocate using more mainstream gear that is cheaper due to the larger production volumes, but such a choice may come at a high price in the long term. As awesome as the themed entertainment industry is, it’s simply not a big enough market to justify large production volumes. What this means is that the manufacturer of that mainstream gear has other markets in mind when they make decisions on their product offering. If they decide it’s in their best interests to discontinue or redesign their product, the attraction and the attraction operator suffer the consequences.
Themed entertainment is a niche market and the safest bet is to work with companies that focus on that industry. These companies will understand the need for a long-term supply chain to keep attractions up and running. This means they generally keep stock of old equipment or at least design new equipment that can easily replace the old equipment. In short, if an attraction goes down it can be repaired quickly for the price of a piece of gear rather than a complete redesign effort to navigate around obsolete and irreplaceable gear.
The niche status of the industry also plays into maintenance and service once an attraction is up and running, just as it affects long-term product availability. As popular as themed attractions are, this market is just a drop in the bucket when compared to other more mainstream AV markets such as digital signage, teleconferencing, broadcast, education, etc. It’s a simple truth that must be accepted and understood by AV and tech providers and kept in mind by their clients.
AV manufacturers that focus on the broader markets are less inclined to provide the fullest range of service to themed entertainment clients simply because for them, the numbers don’t add up. For them, the attractions market is low priority. This can be a huge problem for personnel in charge of building or maintaining a high-profile system. Nobody wants to be in a situation where an attraction is down due to an equipment failure and the manufacturer cannot provide urgent assistance. Nobody likes to hear an automated response when calling for tech support, nor do they like to waste time speaking to agents who have no information on the product or the issue at hand.
This is why themed entertainment is one of those industries that still demands high-level personal service in all aspects of the business. Cutting-edge attraction designs push the limits of what technology can do. Identify and work with the part of the AV community that places high priority on the attractions business, and you will reap the rewards of getting what you need to optimize your chances of success: technical assistance and demonstrations during the design phase of a project, and phenomenal support for the entire life of the attraction.
Despite how comparably small the market for AV products is in themed entertainment, well-conceived and well-built modern attractions manage to successfully push the limits. As an AV enthusiast, it is truly the best industry to experience the latest trends in AV technology and the entertainment value it brings to visitors.
Get to know this industry and you’ll see that long-term reliability is not so elusive, because the people who work in themed entertainment are hooked. We love what we do and tend to stay in this niche for our entire careers. For us, the opportunity to work every day in places where people go to have fun is an amazing perk. • • •