Looking Ahead to the Next Great Transformation in the Theme Park Industry

November 21, 2014, 9:05 AM · ORLANDO — If the annual IAAPA Legends panel looks back at the transformative moments in the industry's past, the Future Legends panel faces a much more difficult task — to look for emerging moments that will become transformative for the future.

As a result, while the Legends panel evokes laughter and thoughtful reflection, the Future Legends panel is much more provocative, challenging the audience with glimpses of emerging technology and techniques that might prove to be nothing more than passing fads... or might just become the next great disruption in the themed entertainment industry.

So, if after the Legends panel you'll want to queue to be awed by the big names in the attraction design business sitting on a dais above you as they sign a book or expo program, after the Future Legends panel you'll want to rush up to these panelists who'll be standing in the hallway with you to start arguing about and diving into everything they just said.

Future Legends panelists
Christian Lachel, Vice President and Senior Creative Director at BRC Imagination Arts; Clara Rice, Director, Digital Engagement & Media Relations at Jack Rouse Associates; John Paul Geurts, VP/Creative Director at Nickelodeon; Steve Trowbridge, Principal at Rhetroactive, Inc.

A few of the provocative questions raised during the panel yesterday:

Should, or can, parks develop their own IP [intellectual property]?

John Paul Geurts: "Before we got into the licensing business, there wasn't a lot of IP out there, so parks generated their own IP and created these wonderful lovable characters. So the question out there is: is that going to [come back], or is the shift toward IP going to continue? ...Can we exist without it and be generic -- Adventureland? -- or do we need to continue to bring the guests something that they are already familiar with?"

Steve Trowbridge: "If you're going to do it, an IP has to be used authentically. The attraction and the story that you create around it has to be authentic. When licensing and IP go wrong is when you slap SpongeBob on the front of some totally unrelated thing. If I can't tell a story around an IP, then we shouldn't be using it."

Christian Lachel: "I did an article in Attractions Management [PDF, skip to page 76] on this exact issue. I think it's at a crossroads right now. Everyone wants to run out and buy the latest thing, but I do worry about the sense of IP versus originality. I think there's space for both. There are certain IPs that have longevity and have the deep resonance with visitors -- there's an emotional connection. There are sort of those super IPs: the Potters and someone eventually will do Lord of the Rings. I think there's a deep, long, multi-generational affinity [for them]. I think the challenge is with just slapping the IP on, or something that doesn't have the legs or the longevity. ...I would like to see a bit more originality. Each place has a unique story."

John Paul Geurts: "The trend in our office is to take the characters and give them a reason to be there. We're always talking about story and why is this collection of characters with you? They don't always have to stay in their own world: Is SpongeBob really in Bikini Bottom, or is he there on that adventure with you? It's a creative conversation that happens on a daily basis for us. But we like to see our characters now really just come play in the environment. Whether they are at the beach, or playing pirate, or whatever, they do the same things that you or I would do. That allows us not just to create a fun piece of entertainment, but to layer the entertainment. It gives us a lot more freedom with the IP."

Clara Rice: "People think of 'being on mission' as a museum thing, but I think that for theme parks it's just as important to be on mission. We worked with a client where we helped them develop their own characters that go through their own land, that became character plush, that become part of their identity. So for your audience, that can be just as successful as having paid [IP] characters."

Steve Trowbridge: "That approach is ultimately, long-term, much more financially successful."

Clara Rice: "You don't have to pay licensing fees!"

"Have we reached Peak 4D?"

Steve Trowbridge: "Getting beyond 4D is about bringing back real dimension. The fifth dimension is actually the first two or three. ...I think the possibilities are down the road, in the next several years, when we can create physical sets that have image map projection over them. Now we can change entire rooms. So the 4D theater, even if you are in this singular space, can actually morph and push around you to create whole new environments. The one advantage of a 3D theater is that it is relatively compact, versus a dark ride, which needs many, many thousands more square feet of space. We can create entirely new sets and entirely new rooms [using projection mapping]. ...One thing I'd like to see us do better [in 4D] is, the same effects are being used over and over again. I'm taken completely out of the story when I can hear that set cannon fire up, or when I can hear a fan preparing to produce an effect on me. So when we talk about getting beyond 4D and bringing dimensionality back, when you think about your most beloved attractions, even the new ones that use digital media, it's because they have been well integrated. Effects are used to further a story, not just because I wanted to make bubbles come out of the ceiling."

Christian Lachel: "It's really about getting back to a sense of magic."

Steve Trowbridge: "Everyone has a giant screen in their house. Everyone can watch 3D at home. I think when we are working in our space, we need to do things that you cannot see [at home]. These are floating magical lanterns, or these are walls that move, or these are animatronics that speak to me. These are things I can't do at home. That's what is magical about them."

Clara Rice: "I think folks are catching on. When you look at Disney and their three patents for drones, they are catching on that, for their live shows, they need to break out their box."

John Paul Geurts: "What we see are people coming to us looking for ways to augment their 4D experience. Do you marry that with the virtual actor technology, similar to the Hershey experience? We are working on a similar project right now that will be that next version of the virtual actor combing the 4D experience. But, I agree... it's a challenging medium and how do you take it to the next level? Quite honestly, the new ride at Diagon Alley does a fantastic job of giving you a 4D experience on a ride track, which, obviously, is expensive, but at the same time, highly successful in terms of transforming the space using virtual and the real."

We now can quantify people's emotional reactions using facial recognition software. But should we? And to what end?

Check this out:

Christian Lachel: "We've always talked about that hero's journey, or that arc of emotion -- now you can see it. You can track it. ...Obviously the issue that we have is privacy, opting it, but there are some interesting ways to apply this."

Steve Trowbridge: "Well, it kind of freaks me out." [Laughter]

John Paul Geurts: "Where I struggle with the technology is that it is great from a research stand-point. But I don't see how that comes forward and enhances our storytelling or enhances the theatricality of our projects."

Steve Trowbridge: "I think this has more [potential] in a museum or educational experience, where you have a one-on-one and you can tailor or change content. But how do take an entire group of people [as in a theme park attraction]? Maybe if we go the Hershey example, and crowdsource it -- to get a group feeling of the room, maybe that would select a branch [to follow]. ...If you're in a bad mood, and I'm in a great mood, and we're sitting next to each other, we're still watching the same screen, right? I think the more one-on-one, museum-type experiences, have more potential."

Clara Rice: "It's a question of giving people rewards for what they are willing to divulge."

What do you think about these issues? What do you think will be the next great transformational technology or technique in the themed entertainment industry? Let's continue the conversation in the comments.


Replies (4)

November 21, 2014 at 10:21 AM · Interesting discussions on IP and 4D. I believe IP can be used creatively without going to movies and animated characters first, which are the most expensive and most difficult to convert to a ride. They should consider going to popular books as sources. The backstories are well known and the characters are already developed. The only remaining step is creating visual characters and backdrops. A theme park operator can offer such an adaption to the public as a known, yet completely new entity.

The problem with 4D was inadvertently revealed from the discussion. Things like "cannon fire" cannot contribute to a realistic environment if the public was never familiar with such things in real life. In this technology age, everyone deals with a projected virtual world. 4D may not add much more without coming up with a new approach. People need to see something real as opposed to a mere projection.

The next step is taking what we love so much with Disney's attractions and combine it with the best of Universal's. Don't do away with animatronics. The Six Flags newest animatronics is a good step in 4D attractions. It's the best of both worlds. Use the latest in advanced ride vehicles. The trackless ones are all installed in foreign locations. Not one exists in the USA.

Steve Trowbridge mentioned one-on-one or crowdsourcing to tailor the attraction. I find this an issue of not one particular ride, but of having repeat visitation. Even Disney did not address this despite the fact that it advertises a variety of experiences with Star Tours II or Indiana Jones Adventure. How do you ensure the guest gets a new experience when they want it? You certainly cannot achieve that with a large vehicle like in Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure, but why can't it be achieved in individual vehicles that offers some isolation like Haunted Mansion, or well spaced vehicles like Peter Pan. The guest should influence what they see either before the rides starts or individual scenes as requested.

November 21, 2014 at 11:06 AM · I think digital projection, dark ride technology and interactivity should be the next big thing, it would make re-rideability much better.
Imagine a Spiderman ride (IOA) with a Lord of the Rings theme. You go on a quest with Gandalf. When on the ride every scene (movie) will have different versions and at points the ride can go left or right. Gandalf asks the group to point the desired direction and you are off that way (trough camera recognition software) making the story and ride different each time you ride it.

On the point off original ip, I wish they would try harder but I guess the souvenirs doesn't sell as good as for known ip.
I wish Disney would go the Universal way in that the story is not the exact same story you have seen on dvd 100's of times but give it a more original twist and expend the world. Also the themed area's could be more in line of the movies they use. The city in Ratatouille is Paris, not Paris like with rat references all over the place. And what about the beast castle? Disney came in and made it a restaurant! How idiotic is that (I know just as stupid as the back story for Disney Springs)?

November 21, 2014 at 2:29 PM · It does seem like 4D has been pushed as far as it will go, with Escape from Gringotts representing another leap forward. I enjoy 3D/4D, but I also feel that technology can be used to enhance old school, throwback attractions, which Disney most recently accomplished with 7DMT, and RSR a couple years ago. They have done remarkable things with the realism and range of movement of AAs, and complex rides which incorporate a variety of effects and sets.

I don't feel that themed attractions need to set aside some of the traditional qualities that Walt pioneered. The latest tech can improve on those qualities rather than replace them.

November 24, 2014 at 2:36 PM · I do agree that projection technologies have been overused owing to their low cost and rides that rely too much on them are sorely lacking in the immersion and escape created by something like Pirates of the Caribbean. There are immersive modern technologies but I don't think simple projection screens or even 3D are it.

I'd like to see what can be done with trackless technologies like Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland and simulators that move through a layout like Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. It would be delightful to see Epcot return to a high tech showcase with some of these new ride technologies.

As for rides (or other robots) gauging my emotional reaction by face scanning me, well it seems unnecessarily creepy. (And I think Magic Band is great!) If you want to know if folks like your ride, ask them, or just watch their reactions when they exit.

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