Thursday, May 23, 2024

The United States at Korea’s Ocean-Themed World’s Fair

World Expo chronicler and enthusiast Urso Chappell previews the USA Pavilion at Yeosu Expo 2012 for IPM, below. 

Expo facts:
  • Dates: May 12 – August 12, 2012
  • Expected attendance: 8 million to 10 million, mostly from within Korea
  • Venue: New Port area in Yeosu, Korea
  •  Theme: The Living Oceans and Coast
  • Site: Area: 1.74 million ㎡ (Includes exhibition area of 250,000 ㎡ and auxiliary facilities) The site overlooks Hallyeosudo Marine National Park and Odong Island, and is surrounded by 317 islets.
  • Expo website:
  • USA Pavilion website:


Philippe Cousteau, Chief Spokesperson

In the world of contemporary world’s fairs, there are two “sizes” of expos: the larger, “sanctioned” events like Shanghai’s Expo 2010 and the smaller, “recognized” ones like this year’s Expo 2012 in Yeosu, South Korea – a relationship somewhat analogous to that between the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. The classification system was developed by the organizing body, the Bureau International des Expositions, so that smaller cities in developed nations and larger cities in developing nations could participate.

The United States is an official participant in Yeosu’s ocean-themed world’s fair this year, under the administration of the US Department of State. The USA Pavilion (USAP) is a public-private partnership.

Andrew Snowhite, CEO

Unlike larger world’s fairs, in which most countries create their own buildings to house exhibits, these smaller expositions create large, shared spaces for foreign countries; in Korea, the International Pavilion of some 800,000 square feet will house the exhibits of 100+ nations. The result of this arrangement has a happy side-effect for those interested in telling stories: the focus of a pavilion is on its content and a nation’s participation is almost solely based on the interior presentation.

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For a producer and designer, that challenge can be both daunting and exhilarating. Tasked by USA Pavilion 2012, LLC as the design contractors of the United States Pavilion (USAP) is Phil Hettema’s company, The Hettema Group (THG). THG has considerable credentials in masterplanning, design and production for large theme park operators such as Universal Studios and high-profile museum guest experiences, such as “Beyond All Boundaries” at the National World War II Museum in New

Robert Ward, Executive Producer

Orleans. The larger USAP team includes COO Mark Germyn, who was general manager of the USAP at Shanghai’s Expo 2010 (a significantly larger event), Thea Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient and Executive Producer Bob Ward, Chief Spokesperson Philippe Cousteau and CEO Andrew Snowhite.

The USAP message

The pavilion of the US is always one of the most visited at a world expo. The USAP guest experience will distinguish itself by directly addressing relevant environment issues giving and by telling a personal story that expresses the expo’s theme, “Our Living Oceans and Coast.” According to Hettema, “We made a presentation that speaks directly from our people to an international community. We looked at different scenarios, but we chose a personal message.”

Phil Hettema of design firm The Hettema Group
To put a personal face on the American perspective, renowned explorer, and environmental advocate, and social entrepreneur Philippe Cousteau, Jr., grandson of legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau, will be the face and voice of the pavilion as the chief spokesperson, playing host to the pavilion’s guests in the context of the guest experience. Cousteau’s organization was chosen by the U.S. State Department to design, build and operate the USA Pavilion 2012.
While maintaining the American flavor and identity there was still a need to speak to the local audience – the attendees of a world’s fair are by and large from the host country and this is especially true for a smaller, regional expo such as Yeosu’s. Thought was given to such details as fonts and other visual styles and how a Korean audience perceives them.

The environmental issues specifically addressed in the USA pavilion are summed up in the phrase, “This is My Ocean. This is Our Ocean.” On screen, Americans from different parts of coastal areas will declare, “This is MY ocean.” By the end of the presentation, it will come together with this message “This is OUR ocean.”

Those few words, “This is My Ocean. This is Our Ocean,” comprise a large portion of the spoken words of the entire guest experience; the design strives for a universal format that minimizes language barriers.

The USAP design

The pavilion experience begins with a pre-show where a water curtain with projected images divides in two, allowing the audience to pass through to the main theater.

That main theater will show spectacular film footage on an 70-foot by 15-foot screen. Images from around the United States, some of it crowd-sourced from lay contributors, and some of it photographed on location, will all emphasize a personal connection to the oceans. Says Phil Hettema, “the subtext talks about the diversity of coasts and the extent of America’s coastlines. Entertainment and education are blended: “‘A major storm sequence will ‘shake the roof off the theater,'” Hettema adds.

Hettema continues, “We show that there are solutions out there. We show things the US is doing… marine protected areas, technology… something we all have to work together to do. We challenge the audience. The message is not ‘will we make a difference,’ but ‘what difference will I make?’”

The pavilion will also feature video greetings from Clinton and Obama as well as Chief Spokesperson Philippe Cousteau. Also included in the design are a VIP lounge and an area highlighting messages from the pavilion’s corporate sponsors.

From concept to fundraising to design development and construction, the USAP has taken shape in record time, a testament to the professionalism and experience of the USA Pavilion team. Says Hettema, “I believe that the USAP – and the expo as a whole – have the potential to be pretty spectacular.” 

Urso Chappell is the founder of and co-host of the World’s Fair Podcast. Expo 2012 will be his ninth world’s fair so far. He has designed for Nagoya’s Expo 2005, written for Shanghai’s Expo 2010 and Yeosu’s Expo 2012, and his photographs of expo mascots been featured in Shanghai’s Urban Planning Museum.

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She reports on design and technical design, production and project management, industry trends and company culture. From 2005-2020 she ran communications and publications for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA and publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association, and has contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a BFA from Pratt Institute. She has lived in Detroit, New York, Oakland, and now Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts community.

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