JRA’s (Jack Rouse Associates) Assistant Project Manager Clara Rice attended the TEA Summit (and contributed great tweets throughout the weekend!). She contributed the following report, summarizing the day’s events.
Decepticons, sports cars, hockey players and wizards took over the Disneyland Hotel Convention Center last weekend as the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) hosted its annual Summit and Thea Awards. The Thea Awards, now in their 19th year, recognize outstanding themed entertainment and experience design projects worldwide, and this year’s slate of recipients certainly didn’t disappoint.
Friday’s case study session welcomed several hundred industry professionals, as well as students from eleven universities (and even one high school!), for a full day of presentations from the Thea Award recipients. 2013 Buzz Price Award recipient, Frank Stanek, began the proceedings by sharing the four C’s handed down from his mentor, Walt Disney: curiosity, confidence, courage and constancy. Stanek, an over 45-year veteran of the themed entertainment industry, including over 20 years at Disney and 17 at Universal, defined courage as “having a wish to see or know; eager to learn, especially that which does not concern one.” He said that we as an industry must become more aware of people who were once far off but are not anymore. We must be aware of subtle cultural differences and always ask, “what is of concern to the audience?” Confidence, he said, included the assurance from relying on one’s self, even in the face of mistakes: “If you’re not making mistakes,” Stanek said, “you’re really not doing much.”
Regarding confidence, Stanek said it sparked from “the heart as the seat of feeling.” He warned that courage is destructive without confidence, but that when used effectively, it can be a valuable tool for pushing back on a skeptical audience or standing on principle. Finally, constancy he defined as a “state of being, constant in mind: steadfastness, firmness and fortitude.” He offered his own experience as a case study: ten years passed between the kickoff meeting for Tokyo Disneyland and its opening, and it took 25 years to get Disney parks into mainland China. But as Mr. Disney always said, “nothing is impossible; it just costs more.” Stanek inspired the entire crowd, veterans and students alike, to challenge themselves to do more, just as he has always challenged his own employees. He tasked us all to be curious in a flattening world, believe in ourselves, act without fear and be constant in our convictions. Stanek lived these values himself, which is why the TEA bestowed him with this Lifetime Achievement honor.
After Frank Stanek’s inspirational presentation, the Day Two case studies shifted from projects to people, and kicked off with Chick Russell of NBC Universal presenting Transformers the Ride 3D, and its inherent challenge of getting “40-foot-tall robots in a ride.” Other main challenges included a 1) second floor, which necessitated an elevator able to lift a 10-ton ride vehicle, 2) 3D “squinching” to enable guests to see multiple perspectives in 3D, 3) disappearing screens and 4) character physicality. Russell and his team handled these challenges so adeptly that the project was honored with the Thea Award for Best Attraction. As Russell put it, “there’s nothing like having a giant robot chew your face off.”
Next came The Big-O show, one of the highlights of Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea. Big O-show project team director Bernie Jo and Jean-Christophe Canizares of ECA2 presented the circular water screen extravaganza, which welcomed over 29,000 guests per night during its summer run, many of whom arrived upwards of three hours early to get the best seat to the 20-minute water show. For a look at the Big-O Show’s construction, as well as its 3,000 high-powered water nozzles, check out ECA2’s video here.
Both ECA2 and the client realized that the Big-O show could be a lasting attraction and a legacy for Yeosu’s post-Expo plan. In order to achieve this goal, it needed to be iconic and produce a true “wow” effect. It also had to have good scaling, perennial construction and ease of operation and maintenance. Most of all, it needed to reflect the local flavors of Korea in general and Yeosu’s port location in particular. But the project was not without its challenges. Assessing the right audio levels was problematic, as guests viewed the show from a variety of angles and distances. The client and production teams came from opposite ends of the world and had to meander cultural differences. But despite the challenges, the Big-O show did indeed wow its audiences and will remain at Yeosu as a permanent attraction and landmark. Canizares said that it was collaboration and compromise among diverse stakeholders that most contributed to the show’s success.
The discussion shifted across continents and disciplines for the next presentation: Calgary’s Canada Sports Hall of Fame. The 40,000-square-foot, $30 million museum represented 60 sports in 11 galleries and employed over 200 team members. Exhibits within the hall of fame were loosely organized by season, featuring four for summer and four for winter. Each sports gallery features an “ask an athlete” interactive, and the athletes themselves were deeply involved in the making of these experiences. Guests can also feel like they are actually participating in a sport, whether it’s shadowboxing in the ring or racing in a Paralympic chair. Canada Sports Hall of Fame has been so successful in its first 18 months that it is opening seven days a week this summer to accommodate demand.
From a brand new attraction, we travel to a time-honored classic. Europa-Park, which opened in 1975 and welcomed 250,000 visitors in its first year, was honored by the TEA with the Thea Classic Award. Europa-Park is the largest theme park in Germany and the second most popular park in Europe, and the park now hosts over 4.5 million annual visitors. Ninety-percent of the rides are built by 233-year-old company Mack Rides, and Europa-Park is the only attraction in the world in which the rides are operated and produced all by one family. The park is divided into sixteen areas, mostly named after European countries or regions, the most recent being Iceland in 2009. Seeing an opportunity to increase per-cap spending, the Mack family recently added five hotels to the resort and created a new market around what Park President Michael Mack calls “confertainment.” The park recently added fairytale area dedicated to the Grimm Brothers and has announced a major new family ride for 2014. With an emphasis on family tradition coupled with a commitment to innovation, Europa-Park was a natural choice for the Thea Classic Award.
All of these great projects, and we’re only halfway through the day! Next we’ll cover the afternoon session of Day Two, journeying to Hawaii, London and Radiator Springs, before sharing all things Thea in an awards ceremony wrap up.
DAY TWO PART TWO
Welcome back to our recap of the Themed Entertainment Association’s Summit and Thea Awards weekend. While the morning brought robots, speed skaters and a Euromaus, the afternoon featured presentations on racecars, wizards and palm trees.
First up for the afternoon session was Aquanura at Efteling park in the Netherlands, the Thea Award recipient for Outstanding Event Spectacular. Bart de Boer, CEO of Efteling, was inspired to add a water show to the 60-year-old park when he went to Las Vegas and witnessed the frenzy surrounding the Bellagio’s dancing fountains. “What do they applaud for at Bellagio fountain,” questioned De Boer. “A guy who pushes a button?” The story of the Frog Prince, one of ten fairy tale themes included in the park, became the central story thread for the $22 million show: “Bellagio is larger, but we have color,” de Boer proudly exclaimed. Efteling has seen over 100,000 more visitors since the construction of the fountain show, as well as a rise in per capita spending, as guests remain at the park well into the evening. “We were afraid we would be the biggest duck pond in Europe,” de Boer said. Turns out that “duck pond” is now the largest fountain spectacular in Europe and the third largest in the world.
As the highest grossing film franchise of all time, the Harry Potter movies have captivated millions of viewers the world over. Warner Brothers and Thinkwell Group recently joined forces to give fans an inside look at the sets, props and people behind this blockbuster series. From the Great Hall to the Burrow to Diagon Alley, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter immerses guests in the actual scenery used in the films. Guests can even see how Harry’s “flight” scenes were created via a broom set against a green screen background and learn the technical secrets behind other special and visual effects.
One of the highlights of the 3.5-hour tour is a 1:24 scale, 50’ diameter model of Hogwarts Castle, with over 2,500 fiber optic lights representing the castle’s candles and torches. Built for the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philospher’s) Stone™, the model is the pride and joy of the films’ Art Department and illustrates the care taken by thousands of artisans throughout the course of the franchise’s ten years. Did you know that the films featured 5,000 pieces of furniture or 40,000 Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes products? Neither did I, and that’s only a handful of the “wow” facts guests learn throughout their journey. The end of the tour offers an homage to the thousands of costumers, scenic painters, lighting grips and cameramen involved in the 8 films. Each of their names is affixed to a wand drawer in Ollivander’s Wand Shop, and the docent knows the precise location of every moniker in case guests want to find a friend or relative that may have worked on the films.
In his presentation, Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer of Thinkwell, summed up his first meeting with the movie team: “I’m presenting the work of this amazing group of people back to this amazing group of people – OMG!” He said the process was “lots of meetings and walkthroughs, and then more meetings and more walkthroughs.” On opening day, “we spiked our butterbeer with rum,” recalled Hanna. “I highly recommend it.” But in only nine months of operation, The Making of Harry Potter has seen over one million visitors, a staggering number for a fixed-capacity attraction. Ninety-seven percent of the TripAdvisor ratings have been “Excellent” or “Very Good,” which Warner Bros. VP Sarah Roots calls an all-time world record for any attraction. With pre-sale only tickets and fixed entry times, these large crowds have surprisingly provided zero traffic headaches to the London suburb of Leavesden, and the attraction has had the side benefit of hiring 80% of its staff from the local community. It would seem that on all fronts, The Making of Harry Potter has been a truly magical success story.
To visit our next Thea Award recipient, we hop across the pond and cruise down Route 66 through Ornament Valley to the town of Radiator Springs. Walt Disney Imagineering Executive Producer, Kathy Mangum, presented Disney California Adventure’s 12-acre Cars Land, along with its signature attraction, Radiator Springs Racers. Markham described the meticulous process that the WDI team took to pay homage to Route 66, from taking a two-week road trip down the iconic highway to recruiting the best artisans from around the world construct and paint the rockwork. As someone who had just traveled to the Grand Canyon the weekend before, I can tell you that the scenery was breathtakingly accurate and made me feel as if I was walking down the streets of an Arizona desert town all over again.
Markham also shared some of the quirkier processes involved in constructing the themed area and rides. To prototype Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, the WDI team went out into their Burbank parking lot and looped figure eights in a tractor to get a sense of what the guest would experience. The final result was a ride that Markham said “is far exceeding expectations.” Some of the ideas for maintaining authenticity, however, perhaps stretched a little too far: “we talked about using giant oil pans for toilets,” said Markham (luckily that plan was scrapped). But for Cars Land to be authentic, “it had to be authentic to Route 66.”
Although the entire land has been a source of wonder for guests (not to mention a source of large crowds for the park), by far the main attraction has been Radiator Springs Racers, the Thea Award recipient for Outstanding Attraction. After guests are immersed in the world of the Cars films, where they meet such comic characters as this blogger’s favorites, Luigi and Guido, their sports cars are pitted against each other in a race to the finish. You can check out WDWInfo’s full ride POV of Radiator Springs Racers here. Despite some Summit attendees’ concerns over the ride’s hourly capacity in the face of long queues, Markham remarked, “you don’t build a church for Easter Sunday” and insists that demand (and the park’s queues) will level out over time. According to Markham, the best review of the attraction thus far came from a small boy, who asked his father, “is this where the movies were filmed?”
Right across the park from Cars Land lies Carthay Circle Restaurant, Thea Award recipient for Outstanding Restaurant. In 1923, Walt Disney arrived in Los Angeles to pursue his goal of being an animator. According to WDI Creative Director, Ray Spencer, all Disney had was a “cardboard suitcase, forty dollars and a head full of dreams.” Fourteen years later, Disney’s first full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre. The restaurant of the same name, located on Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure, was built on the second floor of an iconic reproduction of the Theatre “to celebrate the dreamers and doers of the time,” as Spencer noted. While the restaurant offers modern cuisine, its art deco finishes bespeaks the Golden Age of Hollywood and features classic photos from Walt Disney’s life and movie legacy. As with Cars Land’s imagineers, Spencer’s team valued authenticity above all: “once you break credibility in a story,” said Spencer, “you have broken all credibility in that story.”
The final presentation of the afternoon was Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, brought to vivid life by WDI veteran and past Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Joe Rohde. Again, authenticity took center stage. Aulani is not your typical Hawaiian resort, featuring grass-skirt clad maidens and ukulele-playing Don Hos. First off, the resort wasn’t even named by Disney. Just like the Hawaiians themselves, Aulani was named by a Hawaiian naming priest, and the name means “one who speaks on behalf of a higher power.” For Rohde, that higher power was, collectively, the Hawaiian people. “Hawaiians get to say what Hawai’i is,” said Rohde, and that meant designing the resort not as an amalgamation of Hawaiian clichés, but as a contemporary expression of the culture, a culture that Rohde says is alive and full of a sense of purpose. It involved such unconventional design choices as separating the architecture and landscaping into “male” and “female” sides, and requiring the Hawaiians employed at the resort to actually speak Hawaiian. It meant creating a scavenger hunt game throughout the resort where kids can learn about Hawaiian life, and incorporating artwork and textiles from local artists. It even meant de-emphasizing the “Disneyness” of the resort (costumed characters are seldom seen), in order to celebrate that which is uniquely, and authentically, Hawaiian.
Rohde concluded by saying, “the physical mission is nothing. What gives the physical mission its power is the thought you put behind it.” When Disney first started constructing Aulani, the local residents begged Rohde to “get it right,” to accurately and authentically depict the Hawaiian life and people as no other resort had. “It’s Disney,” they said. “Everyone will be watching.” On the opening day of the resort, the same group approached Rohde. “You got it right,” they said. “You got it right.”
The story of Aulani was a fitting end to an inspiring day of presentations. All ten projects incorporated Frank Stanek’s four C’s of curiosity, courage, confidence and constancy. They also introduced a fifth, and I would argue, equally important ‘C’ – collaboration: across disciplines, across industries, across cultures and across countries. I think I speak for all attendees, when I say that if the industry continues to produce such groundbreaking, thoughtful projects as the ones we witnessed last Friday, then the future of themed entertainment looks very bright.