Sunday, April 21, 2024

The power of audience agency: Ken Parks and Cedar Fair’s landmark experiences

Ghost Town Alive! is an immersive entertainment experience that opened in 2016 at Knott’s Berry Farm. Featuring themed events, shows, and interactive encounters, Ghost Town Alive! presents an “unfolding story of the wild west” – a cosplay setting where guests play a primary role in the outcome of the fictional town of Calico each day. This pioneering attraction was honored with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2018.

Ghost Town Alive! is also one of the advances in the industry my university students have heard most about from me, especially in discussions of themed entertainment and its future. Considering its inclusion in several of my academic publications as well, there is no doubt that I find Ghost Town Alive! significant to the industry. In 2019, Cedar Point – a Cedar Fair property, as is Knott’s – debuted a similar experience, Forbidden Frontier on Adventure Island. It focuses on two warring clans seeking riches; guests enter on Truce Day and participate in quests, games, and puzzles to unravel the story. Both Ghost Town Alive! and Forbidden Frontier are returning for the 2022 season, operating on select days during the summer months.     

This type of attraction is a developing, evolving genre: a form of large-scale, immersive theater in the theme park. As predecessors of Ghost Town Alive! consider Legends of Frontierland: Gold Rush! and the Adventure Trading Company (both 2014) which were both play tests at Disneyland for interactive games later seen in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and eventually the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. But unlike those smaller-scale, limited-run experiences, Ghost Town Alive! showed that an entire land can come alive and offer a unique experience with a substantial run.

Theater crossover

The concept of immersive theater has shown up in other venues as well. “Sleep No More” and other productions have gained attention. The more experimental theatrical forms, or the live-action role-playing games in vibrant fan communities, do not tend to be associated with the theme park, however they have earned the notice of the attractions sector which has a significant overlap with theater, and “Sleep No More” was in fact also recognized in 2018 by TEA with a Thea Award. Ghost Town Alive! is a valid part of the genre as a branching story with player agency. The experience is kinetic and has diverse tasks, feeling completely organic despite scripted scenes and set potential endings.

Ghost Town Alive! photo courtesy Knott’s Berry Farm

Scalability and setting

One of Ghost Town Alive’s most impressive qualities, something that in my estimation makes it more appealing to a wider audience than most immersive theater, is its scalability. Essentially, it is a continuum of participation levels based on what the guest wants. A casual guest can watch only some of the bigger events, say a bank robbery or the hoedown at the end of the day. Someone who wants to engage with several layers can participate in many ways such as completing a quest, interacting with interesting characters, swearing in as a citizen of Calico, voting in elections, or joining a posse. A fan of the event may visit several times, invent a character, cosplay, and co-create the storyline with the cast. Similarly, Forbidden Frontier participants can walk by and observe the story as spectators, or contribute through actions such as sending messages or carrying items between camps.

Ghost Town Alive! Calico Town Hall photo by Carissa Baker

One of the aspects that works so well for Ghost Town Alive! is its location. Truly location-based entertainment, Ghost Town Alive! uses as its backdrop the Ghost Town setting that has been a Knott’s Berry Farm staple for over 80 years. The land already forms the core identity of the park, and it has been enhanced through additional effects, sets, and characters.

Forbidden Frontier also extends another existing space, Frontier Town, an area that’s been part of Cedar Point for over 50 years. However, rather than overlaying that space, a purpose-built addition on Adventure Island was created to provide a more intimate story setting. Cedar Point’s recent narrative boat attraction, Snake River Expedition, now builds upon Forbidden Frontier and references it during the ride.     

Interview with Ken Parks of Cedar Fair

To get more insight into these transformative experiences, Dr. Baker interviewed one of the key minds behind Ghost Town Alive! and Forbidden Frontier – Ken Parks, Corporate Director of Creative Development for Cedar Fair Entertainment Company. In his current role, Parks helps the Experience Design and Creative STtudio (XDS) team to focus on “experiential design” – creating holistic experiences that engage audiences on an emotional level through the use of story, unique design, architecture, interactivity, media, technology, live entertainment and guest-focused operations.

Ken Parks – Corporate Director of Creative Development for Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and one of the key minds behind Ghost Town Alive! and Forbidden Frontier. Photo courtesy Cedar Fair

What gave you and your team the idea of creating Ghost Town Alive!?

Knott’s Ghost Town was celebrating its 75th anniversary and Vice President/General Manager Raffi Kaprelyan wanted to create a robust entertainment package around the celebration. I had worked for many years with the Knott’s Entertainment team as consultant, show writer, and director. Raffi called and asked what a “living” Ghost Town might look like and asked, what would we need to do to make it happen?

Did your previous experimental experiences at Disney contribute to the direction of Ghost Town Alive!?

I was very lucky to work with the Imagineering Research and Development group in the creation of several play tests – all to help inform the various Star Wars projects that were being developed. One of the play tests was a summer long experience called “Legends of Frontierland: Gold Rush.” The experience’s main focus was the development of an ongoing game mechanic.

Ghost Town Alive! photo by Carissa Baker

Why did you choose to have a branching narrative that is changeable through audience participation?

We want the guests to connect to the Ghost Town characters emotionally. We wanted the audience to see these characters as friends and to have the ability to help them and the town solve their problems. Giving the audience agency allowed for greater emotional connection.

Was it intended to be scalable based on the guest’s desires (minimal, medium, or maximum levels of participation)?

We didn’t want to impact the regular Knott’s guest experience. We knew a large section of the audience was used to seeing Ghost Town through the lens of an observer. Our intention was to create an experience that would be enjoyable whether you wanted to play or just watch. There is always an invite to join in on the fun and play a little deeper, but it is done subtlety and our performers are trained to let everyone play at their own comfort level.

How have guests responded?

Guests have embraced Ghost Town Alive! and it is now, like Knott’s Scary Farm, listed as one of the park’s major seasonal events.

Snake River Expedition photo by Carissa Baker

How are the actors trained for character development?

Since Ghost Town Alive! at its core is all about play – we do an extensive training with a heavy focus on play. These roles are less about strong acting technique and more about guest service. That can be a tough transition for traditionally trained performers. Improvisers tend to have an easier time with this style of performance.

What made you decide to design a whole area at Cedar Point for Forbidden Frontier?

Based on his success with the rebirth of Knott’s Berry Farm, Raffi Kaprelyan was promoted to Regional VP and Cedar Point was one the parks he oversaw. With the overwhelming success of Ghost Town Alive! and seeing that Cedar Point had a need to add more activities that families could participate in together, he contacted the group who created the Knott’s event and put us to work.

Forbidden Frontier photo by Carissa Baker

Were there any specific choices made to differentiate the two experiences (Knott’s v. Cedar Point)?

Cedar Point is a very different experience from Knott’s – it is a waterside resort that has been more about amusement than necessarily theme. It does have a few areas of the park that are heavily themed – one of them being the Frontier area of the park. It only made sense to connect the offering to that section of the park. 

Was the Snake River Expedition meant to tie into the Forbidden Frontier narrative?

Rebecca Lumianski, who worked on both Ghost Town Alive! and Forbidden Frontier, helped the team at Cedar Point create that attraction, as did Mark Schoelwer, the designer on Forbidden Frontier. The intention was to bring back a family attraction from the past but to bring it forward by connecting it to the land story.

With the popularity of more experimental forms in theater and things like Ghost Town Alive!, will we see more experiences like this in the theme park industry?

Without a doubt! I think you only need to look toward the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience to see where the industry is headed.

Forbidden Frontier public proclamation of Truce Day, the theme of the experience. Photo by Carissa Baker.

Tell us a bit about your background up to your current role.

I have been working in the themed entertainment industry for 27 years. I served as Vice President of Entertainment at Knott’s Berry Farm from 2016 – 2021. At Knott’s, I led the creative team on Ghost Town Alive! I also played a pivotal role in the development of the park’s Peanuts Celebration, Summer Nights program, and Knott’s Scary Farm’s “The Hanging.” My attraction development work for Knott’s includes The Calico River Rapids and Knott’s Bear-y Tales.

Before working with Cedar Fair, I created shows and experiences for several internationally-known entertainment companies. For Walt Disney Imagineering R&D and Walt Disney Creative, my projects included “Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular” and “Frozen Live at the Hyperion” (Disney’s Hyperion Theater), “Star Wars Launch Bay” (Disneyland), “Tai Chi with Donald” (Shanghai Disney), “The Muppets Present Great Moments in History” (Walt Disney World) and “A Bug’s Life Adventure” (Pixar). For Warner Brothers and Coca-Cola, I served as writer/director of “The Hogwarts’ Castle Adventure” and the “2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics Coke Live Experience.”

Will other Cedar Fair parks engage with these kinds of experiences?

Yes. The level of the experience will vary based upon the specific needs of our parks and our guests. We continue to add immersive theater experiences into our Halloween and Christmas products throughout our parks and are working on placing a strong emphasis on story as we create new lands, events, and attractions.

Ghost Town Alive! photo courtesy Knott’s Berry Farm

Related articles:

Theme Park Storytelling – (Carissa Baker)

Design highlights of Expo 2020 Dubai (Carissa Baker)

What’s new with interactive attraction design (Joe Kleiman)

Cedar Fair invests massively into multiple properties (IPM News)

Interview with Carrie Boldman, Cedar Point GM (Martin Palicki)

Carissa Baker
Carissa Baker
Carissa Baker received her Ph.D. in Texts and Technology from the University of Central Florida. Her primary research focuses on narratives in the theme park space. She presents at academic conferences or themed entertainment industry events and publishes interdisciplinary work on theme parks. Dr. Baker has taught and researched in China in addition to being a visiting scholar at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. She is an Assistant Professor of Theme Park and Attraction Management for the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida.

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