What makes a theme park attraction? A conversation with the creative team at Thinkwell Design

June 2, 2009, 9:39 PM · Tuesday Park Visit: A couple weeks ago, I drove over to Burbank to visit with the brain trust at Thinkwell, an attraction design firm run by several former Universal Creative designers. Thinkwell's the current home of Dave Cobb, who joined us on Theme Park Insider a few weeks back to talk about his work on Universal Orlando's Men in Black Alien Attack. Dave was there for my short trip to Thinkwell, and we were joined by CEO Cliff Warner and Chief Creative Office Craig Hanna.

Warner, Cobb and Hanna
Warner, Cobb and Hanna

For an hour, we sat around the table in the firm's charrette room, talking theme parks like a bunch of fans. Which, of course, we are.

"We all love this stuff," Cobb said. "We tell clients, at the end of the day, when we turn over the keys and finish an attraction for you, we're going to be the first ones in line buying a ticket.

"We are your audience."

While the guys at Thinkwell may be fanboys at heart, they remain design pros as well, with an insider's view of the industry. We talked about the process behind creating compelling attractions at theme parks, as well as at museums and some of the other locations that are commissioning work from the world of themed entertainment.

"You always start with 'what does the client want?'" Warner said. "It's a business."

"Any artist will tell you that a blank canvas is the most frightening thing," Cobb said. "It is nice to have some sort of boundary, and usually you have a location, or a budget or an IP [intellectual property, such as a movie or comic character], or hopefully all three. The more you get of that, the easiest it is to jump into blue sky."

In the blue sky phase, designers will draw upon their own inspiration, as well as consultation with the client, to develop a range of potential attraction concepts. In the themes entertainment world, that process demands a balance of storytelling with the appropriate application of technology.

"We don't say what kind of 4D theater should we put in here," Hanna said. "We start off with, okay, it's the new Terminator movie; what's going to be the best attraction we can create based on this intellectual property? If you have Finding Nemo, you don't want to do a stunt show, because those things don't fit. But if you have Men in Black, then you do want to do something where people are shooting aliens. These things have to feel right together."

Attraction design requires generalists who can blend traditional stagecraft skills with an appetite for emerging technology and appreciation for the power of storytelling, the three said.

"Our tech guys are very passionate creatively," Cobb said. "Our architects understand show. Our set designers understand architecture. It's a matter of finding people who are generalists and are fans of everything."

"We don't do R&D [pure tech research and development]; we don't do science projects," Hanna said. "But what we will do is take something that has been done over here and something that has been done from over there and combine them in a way that hasn't been done before."

"I think you can see the things out there that were driven by technology and not story," Warner said. "And I think that we people see them, they say, this doesn't make sense. As much as everyone like looking at a Kuka, the mechanical robot arm in a factory, you have to find a way to tell a story around it."

Hanna jumped back in: "Your interest wanes very quickly when your experience is based just on technology. It's gonna get old really, really fast. It's got to be based on a timeless experience."

Cobb clarified that they weren't looking to slam all iron parks.

"If we have a client come to us and wants to lay out an iron park and have good regional park rides, there is a way to do that," Cobb said. "Not everything has to have a $120 million budget and be based on a major movie IP. Look at the charm of some of the parks on the east coast, like Kennywood or Knoebels, or even here at Magic Mountain, when they laid out Tatsu. It's part of the mountaintop, part of the park experience. [It was] much better than the one they put in the parking lot five years earlier with no theming at all. Tatsu has no theming, but its still a beautiful coaster because of the thoughtfulness of the design."

Cobb said that he's seeing more regional parks look at theming as they try to recover audience following the Coaster Wars of the 1990s.

"I love coasters as much as the next person, but that constant one-upsmanship business plan did not help anyone," Cobb said. "It polarized the audience. I remember going to Magic Mountain when I was a kid in the 70s, and there were shows, there were headliners playing the theater, there was more to do than get on coasters.

"I say it's like candy. You like candy, yeah, but too much of it is not very good. It doesn't make a meal. The parks that are just focused on coasters, in the long run, are going to have a tough go of it."

Unlike in other industries, however, theme park designers have a tougher time making a business case for one option over others, given how closely parks guard their attendance, capital expense and marketing data.

"This isn't an industry with an assembly line making a million widgets," Cobb said. "We're making one widget and it's going in one place so it better be right."

That leaves themed entertainment designers to draw upon their own experience, both with previous clients and with the audience.

"Our job is to be experts in the guest experience," Warner said. "So we have to ask ourselves 'what is the mindset of the consumer?'"

"It's our responsibility to know what all the hubbub's about," Cobb said, "To go see Twilight on opening night with a line filled with screaming teenage girls."

"It's so tempting to be cynical about every form of popular entertainment, and you can't afford to be in this industry," Cobb continued. "You cannot afford to be cynical. You can be critical; critical thinking and discussion is important. But the moment that I look at some piece of huge popular culture that the kids love and I roll my eyes, then it's over; it's time to retire.

"You have to understand why the audience likes that stuff. Even if you don't like it yourself, you have to be open to why. All of that stuff boils down to human reaction and emotion and that's what we do - we try to elicit those emotions."

Replies (10)

June 2, 2009 at 11:21 PM · Great interview! This whole series has been. There is such incredible creative work going on at Thinkwell, Imagineering, BRC,... and it is fun to see them profiled and get their insights into the business.
June 3, 2009 at 3:06 AM · It all comes down to one quote: Your interest wanes very quickly when your experience is based just on technology. It's gonna get old really, really fast. It's got to be based on a timeless experience.

Good old Marty Sklar (the soon-to-be retired international ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering) couldn't have said it any better.

Kudos to Thinkwell Design. Those folks just get it. They really do.

June 3, 2009 at 10:56 AM · The last two paragraphs were especially intriguing, but PLEASE do not consider a Twilight attraction.
June 3, 2009 at 11:06 AM · Well, I guess I now can spill the beans on "'Twilight' Snack: Vampire Attack!" a new 4D interactive attraction that the crew is working on. It's like a "bite-'em-up" thrill ride where visitors where virtual reality helmets fitted with mouth guards, which they use to try to "bite" as many teenage girls before their curfew.

Trouble is, though, some do-gooder, turn-coat vampire is trying to keep you away from the girls, so you have to fight him off with your handheld IR beam gun.

This will be replacing Stitch's Great Escape at the Magic Kingdom for the 40th anniversary in 2011. You heard it here first.

(And, yes, I am totally kidding.)

June 3, 2009 at 12:39 PM · DC is rockin' the 'Barbarella' t-shirt.


June 3, 2009 at 2:04 PM · So does it mean that I'm a true theme park addict if I am reading this article while at a theme park?
June 3, 2009 at 8:24 PM · Incorrect, Rob. Twilight the Ride would involve adapting a terrible story into an even worse movie. You lose if you actually impress a non-tween general audience.
June 4, 2009 at 5:11 AM · Mr. Counsil wrote: Twilight the Ride would involve adapting a terrible story into an even worse movie.

I Respond: And baseball.

June 4, 2009 at 11:02 AM · Hey, *you* might not like "Twilight", but a very, very, VERY large part of the population LOVES it, and it just happens to be a demographic with plenty of disposable income that all sorts of industries would LOVE to connect with.

Don't discount "niche" or polarizing brands when it comes to theme park or "out-of-home" entertainment. The example I always point to is "Waterworld". One of the most critically lambasted films ever, parodied and ridiculed before, during, and after its theatrical release, considered a giant flop -- and yet it's one of the best stunt shows ever created.

One man's trash, as they say. Diamonds in the rough. :)

More importantly, we don't always have the choice in what brands or intellectual properties are used in themed entertainment -- often it's the brand holders who bring these ideas (and money) to be developed. If we *really* think that a brand doesn't have potential, we'll of course offer alternatives -- but this industry is also about keeping an open mind and seeing possibilities.

June 4, 2009 at 1:12 PM · You folks are great. Thanks for the wonderful comments and the great piece on us!

--Craig Hanna

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