Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Up North, Right Downtown

ABOVE: A suspension bridge brings whimsy to the realistic tree in the center of the facility. Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Adventure Center

Inside Detroit’s Outdoor Adventure Center

by Martin Palicki

[dropcap color=”#888″ type=”square”]S[/dropcap]et with the task of inspiring inner city families of Detroit to want to explore the great outdoors, The Michigan DNR (Department of Natural Resources) knew it had to think outside the box. “The development team had to figure out how to encourage people to come inside, only to inspire them to go back outside,” explains Linda Walker, Director of the Outdoor Adventure Center in downtown Detroit.

The team understood that the solution would have to be immersive, it would have to replicate the many wonders found around the state, and it would have to integrate technology to appeal to a modern audience. In practical terms, that meant highly themed environments, playful, imaginative spaces and a handful of specialty simulators replicating everything from snowmobiles to water-conserving toilets.

First, they needed a space. Through a public and private partnership, the DNR acquired a dilapidated building along the Detroit River, stabilized the structure and created an open space for exhibits. They then sought out experts at creating themed experience environments to help fill out the concept for the facility. Experiential design firm Weber Group led the creative process and helped assemble the rest of the team.

“This concept was really groundbreaking,” explained Weber’s Creative Director Adam McIntyre. “A typical DNR visitor center may include a diorama with a few animals and maybe a panel of local information. But trying to reach inner city kids who may otherwise never experience fishing, hunting, camping or the multitude of other activities available in the state’s rural parks demanded a new approach and new ways of thinking about how to capture the attention of that target group.”

With their fabrication services, Weber Group was also able to create nearly all of the themed elements in the building and contracted with other industry experts to bring the project together.

Weber chose Wärtsilä FUNA International (formerly FUNA) to be the technology integrator for the project. “We have worked with Wärtsilä FUNA before,” explained McIntyre. “Their technical expertise and ability to use technology to connect with the guest was a perfect match for this project.” They designed, installed and programmed the attraction’s audio, video, and control systems, and developed several custom interactive exhibits.

Building on History

The Outdoor Adventure Center was originally a factory for shipbuilding, constructed in 1892 adjacent to a dry dock. In the 1960s the building primarily became a machine shop, housing the largest crane in Detroit. Over time, the building fell into disrepair until the project was approved by the state in February 2013. It took a little over a year to solidify the building and fix the damage that had been done over decades of neglect.


The facility, once at a major industrial crossroads, now anchors multiple recreational corridors that include a riverwalk, a state park, and bicycle trails.

The facility includes several multi-function rooms that host birthday parties, receptions, classes and meetings. An archery range requires a separate fee and reservation, with plans to host classes and drop-in sessions on the horizon. But the core experience takes place in a modern and airy space, taking full advantage of the open warehouse structure.

The Experience

After learning a bit about the building and area history, guests find themselves in a giant space filled with icons of nature. A waterfall is at one end. A giant tree reaches up in the middle of the room. Embers glow in a campfire and animals seem to be hidden everywhere.

The visuals are impressive, and seem to combine authenticity with a playground’s whimsy. But there is also subtlety. Tracks embedded in the floor match those of animals found nearby and birds chirp in the distance.

“To complement the visual landscape we wanted to create a soundscape to really simulate the sense of being outdoors,” explained Scott Arnold, Vice President Design & Engineering for Wärtsilä FUNA. Some of the sounds come from specific experiences, while other ambient noises that fill the space. “The amount of detail and care invested in the project by the DNR is equal to many major theme park projects we have worked on.”

Indeed, the space feels inspired. Nestled amongst the various environments are a variety of experience-based exhibits, some of which are highlighted here:

Water sports / Fishing

A 3,000-gallon fresh water aquarium is stocked with native species of fish. Guests learn about the importance of water conservation and can hop in a kayak mounted on springs to recreate the feeling of floating down a river while a projection shows scenes from a variety of Michigan waterways. Nearby, guests can climb aboard a small fishing boat and try their hand against a motorized fishing simulator. A machine pulls on the line, simulating a fish, and guests try to reel in “the big one.”

State park lodging

Visitors learn that one doesn’t need expensive equipment to enjoy a night in a state park. As they walk through a yurt identical to many found on campgrounds, they hear comments read from the visitor logs kept in cabins and yurts across the state.

Underground Michigan

The state’s mining history comes to life in detailed rockwork crafted by Weber Group that replicates different kinds of rocks found throughout the state. Visitors also learn that Detroit sits atop a large salt mine and come face to face with creatures living in mines and caves.


Guests enter a life size duck blind to experience a recreated Michigan marsh land and its waterfowl inhabitants. As guests look out the window they have a panel in front of them with images and names of various birds. As guests place their hand over the images, the matching bird appears in the landscape and the sound of that bird can be heard. “Adam McIntyre wanted the interaction between the guests and nature to not be dominated by physical buttons,” says Arnold. “So we created a system that takes advantage of the capacitive nature of the human body to trigger events without the need for buttons.”  As people move their hand around on the board, sensors are triggered and the birds are projected into the environment. As more birds are touched, through video and audio processing, more birds are layered into the environment.


At a different display guests can touch sculpted toads and frogs to hear the sometimes surprising sound that each specific amphibian makes. The installation, sculpted by Weber and including technology from Wärtsilä FUNA, makes use of the same capacitive technology used with the waterfowl.

Nearby, lily pads sculpted and painted into the floor produce different sounds of the wetlands as guests walk on each one.  For this effect, Wärtsilä FUNA utilized a camera mounted above the lily pads. The camera analyzes movement within fields defined around the lily pads. As motion is detected it triggers the corresponding audio effects.

The tree

A giant tree fills up the center of the exhibit space. Weber fabricated the roots and base of the tree, which include tunnels and the entrance to a climbing structure that takes guests up to the second floor of the facility. NatureMaker created the trunk, branches and leaves, which are home to an eagle’s nest.

On the third floor, as guests peer into the eagle’s nest, they can pose for a photo of themselves inside a giant nest, with a nearby kiosk available for instant emailing of the photo.  Wärtsilä FUNA provided the technology and software for the kiosk, which has proven very popular with visitors.

A set of human-scale wings allows guests to see how large an eagle’s wings are compared to the rest of its body. If guests flap their arms, a small sensor activates flapping motion on a model eagle suspended nearby.

Sustainable living

On the second floor, visitors learn how to apply conservation habits to their daily life through a recreated home environment.  A water-conserving toilet serves as a highlight for many guests. The tank section houses audio and amplifier equipment, which plays a flushing sound when the appropriate lever is pressed.

State trails

The most technologically advanced part of the Center includes three different types of simulators. MediaMation created motion bases for a snowmobile and an ATV simulator that move in concert with video of real vehicles on Michigan trails.

Wärtsilä FUNA created the technology for a set of bicycle simulators. As guests pedal, a video of a bike trail speeds up or slows down to match the pace of the cyclist. Guests can also race one another along a trail.

Although there are other museum exhibits that use bicycles in a similar manner, Wärtsilä FUNA could not find an off the shelf solution that met the DNR’s requirements and budget, so they decided to write their own software and provide a custom solution. Wärtsilä FUNA developed sensors on the bikes that determine the pedaling speed and the software then translates and applies it to the video playback.


The DNR seeks to encourage safe and ethical hunting. This standard off-the-shelf hunting simulation game is designed to teach people how to hunt safely.

In a nearby deer blind guests can point a spotting scope across the room at animals perched atop a three story tall rocky landscape with a waterfall. As animals come into the scope field, information about that animal appears on a nearby monitor.  Wärtsilä FUNA designed the technology behind this unique interactive. It utilizes sensors similar to that in your cell phone to capture positioning data of the scope. It compares that data to the position of the animals, and then pulls up the appropriate image and data file for the screen.


A small aircraft, originally used in animal counting and forest fire responses, sits high atop the ground and is accessible for guests to sit in. Inside, archived radio transmissions play over speakers mounted to the plane. A subwoofer provides rumbling noises similar to a plane’s engine.


The Outdoor Adventure Center has only been open for a few months, but the response from the community has been extremely positive. “Detroit is truly on the upswing,” says McIntyre. “The Center has been a catalyst for change in the community and is representative of the revitalization the entire city is experiencing.” • • •

One-on-one with Linda Walter, Director of the Outdoor Adventure Center

What was the inspiration for the Outdoor Adventure
Center (OAC)?

Ron Olson, Director of Parks & Recreation of Michigan’s DNR was committed to establishing service to the metro Detroit area. Prior to the Center, there was no DNR space in the city except for Milliken State Park [a small park along the river that is now adjacent to the OAC]. The Governor believed that a strong Detroit was necessary for a strong Michigan, so there was support for the project. Everyone felt it was necessary for the whole state to feel more connected.

Really, the issue is a matter of legacy. If you didn’t get to hunt or fish or camp when you were growing up, how would you pass that on? We wanted to reach a population that may have not had those opportunities, which informed the location selection process.

What are the goals of the OAC?

We want to inspire, educate and connect people. First we hope to inspire people to learn about something they don’t even know they like. Then we educate them on how to take that interest to the next level. Finally, we connect them to the rest of the state and the resources the DNR provides. We also have a secondary goal of inspiring careers in natural resources.

How do you see the facility changing/growing?

We have lot of room to grow our programming lineup, such as storytime with Santa in the forest, etc.

We are also looking at ways to enhance our messaging throughout the facility. We plan to close two weeks per year for maintenance and upkeep and will look at making adjustments and updates during that time.

How do you describe the facility to people who have never been there?

We are a unique destination, and to my knowledge we are the only organization to create such a space. We do not consider the OAC a museum. It’s a hands-on experience for all things natural resource-based in Michigan. I tell people we are a big old park shoved inside a little building.

AD (click for link):

Goddard full-page-001

BaAM 2015 Qtr Page

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleimanhttp://wwww.themedreality.com
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, ThemedReality.com takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

Related Articles

Latest Articles