What is it like to design a brand new theme park?

September 30, 2018, 9:31 PM · What is it like to design a brand new theme park, using one of the deepest entertainment libraries in the world? That's what Dave Cobb and his team at Thinkwell Group got to do.

I sat down with Dave to talk about about the design and development of Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, the world's largest indoor theme park. Let's hear how he and his team brought places such as Metropolis, Gotham City, and Bedrock to life.

"We built this giant thing," Cobb said. "It's a giant thing that exists in the universe now that didn't before." The story begins in 2007, when Warner Bros. approached their collaborators at Thinkwell Group with the idea of designing the park for its development partner, Miral, on the Yas Island resort in Abu Dhabi. Cobb joined the project shortly after its inception, as parkwide Creative Director.

"We knew going in, this was a mandate from Warner Bros. and part of the agreement with Miral was that it would not be the live action library," Cobb said. "It would be DC Comics... and what is called Warner Bros. Classic Animation, which is three different legacies: Looney Tunes, of course, Hanna-Barbera and Tom and Jerry."

"One of the great things is the head of Miral is a huge comic book nerd, as it turns out. He has a giant collection of comic books and has collected them his whole life, so he knew what he was taking about. And that's great."

"Abu Dhabi has a very audacious plan, in terms of expansion, for the region. They see millions of people coming here within the next five to 10 years. It's hard for westerners and North American folks to see why," Cobb said. "The real reason is, it's not for us. It's really built as warm weather resort and theme park travel for Eastern Europe, China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East."

"There's a lot of competition up and coming in the region," Cobb said. But Miral sees Yas Island as a multi-park resort, he said, "so it was up to us to look at what was across the street [Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld] and complement it." The result is a more family-oriented park, in the style of Disney and Universal theme parks, designed for immersive environments as well as engaging ride experiences.

With Warner Bros.' deep library of beloved animation franchises, Cobb and his team just had to look back to their childhoods for inspiration. But that alone wasn't enough to develop a world-class park for a diverse audience.

"Fan service is great," he said, "but it's also about seducing a new audience up that pyramid."

"We have an obligation to introduce these brands to this local audience, so how do we do that and not just make it a book report but also make it exciting for us as fans?"

Dave Cobb
Dave Cobb. Photo by Brian Niles

"Take Cartoon Junction as a place. We knew it was going to be a small town where all these toons come from. Well, it's not going to be about animation. It's not going to be about how cartoons are made. It's going to be a real place. How do you make an early century Americana town? You start with 'who's the first settler?' That's the biggest house it town. It usually ends up being the rail baron, or the oil baron, right? Well, that's the big, spooky mansion across the way and that ended up becoming our Museum of Mysteries, a.k.a. the Scooby-Doo attraction.

"It's not a story that we ever tell to the guests, but that's why that spooky mansion is there, because it's the oldest house in town. After that, a small town sprung up around that, and that's our small town or shops and cafes and a vaudeville theater. And that vaudeville theater is where Bugs and Daffy got their start [and their live show now plays]. So slowly the town starts to form once we give it a reason for being. Along the way, we said 'what was the big boom in this town?' Well, that's when it become a company town, and what company can it be that can hire thousands of people?

"Acme. So Acme starts as a giant factory and it can't keep up with production, which is why all their stuff is a little janky. That's the factory. That's the early 1930s-40s, brick, industrial plant. That's one side of the Acme factory, if you will."

"The factory is where we have our kids' active play[groud], a couple of little spinny rides and a cafe. It's all the energy. All right, we thought, once they got to success, and they started to make more products, because they just started with anvils and magnets and things, what did that business look like? So we built a building across the street from [the factory] that is more mid-century. When we talk about mid-century, what does that conjure in your head? For businesses, it conjures 'Mad Men,' so that's the theme of the queue for our AniMayhem ride. When you are going through Acme production development, it's like Mad Men meets Looney Tunes."

And thus, the land of Cartoon Junction is born — not simply from a blank page, but from a disciplined process of thinking through the evolution of a town, its residents and its commerce.

"We never would have gotten there without figuring out what is the reason for being for this town. If this is a real place, how did it develop? It is the story that we create as designers to help flesh out the realism and authenticity of a place."

Later in our interview, Cobb talks about how the team developed an all-new musical soundtrack for the park and its attractions, building upon the famous themes from the various cartoons. We also dive into some of the choices they made about depicting the DC superheroes, how The Jetsons and Marvin the Martian ended up in the desert of Dynamite Gulch, and why a theme park like this won't be getting built in the United States any time soon.

This interview is the first in our rebooted podcast, Building The World’s Best Theme Parks. I will update this post with links to subscribe in other platforms once they are available. I am arranging additional interviews with other themed entertainment design pros right now, so we will have fresh episodes coming soon.

Update: Here are the links:

Finally, some of you might have seen Dave Cobb on the site in the past, as he's been a longtime reader of Theme Park Insider. He's graciously agreed to answer additional questions from readers, so if you have something you'd like to ask about designing and developing Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the comments await!

Replies (3)

October 1, 2018 at 4:59 AM

Great interview, love this kind of content, thank you so much Robert.

October 1, 2018 at 10:46 PM

How did you get to your current position?

What kind of other jobs have you worked on?

I'm looking to get into theme parks as I am currently a senior in high school and was looking for majors or degrees that would be helpful to get into the creative theme park business.

Another question would be if you are accepting internships in the future?

October 2, 2018 at 4:03 PM

@disneyland999 -- first off, great handle! THERE'S ALWAYS ROOM FOR A THOUSAND, ANY VOLUNTEERS?!

The shortest answer is, work in a theme park if you can. I worked in a theme park right out of high school and it was what led me to this career. And the position doesn't really matter at first, although operations is usually the closest in terms of valuable experience -- but really, ANY experience in a theme park would be great.

If you don't have any theme parks near you, try working for some sort of entertainment venue -- a movie theater, a live theater, a museum -- anything where you're dealing with the public and their leisure time. It's invaluable experience no matter what venue.

Majors or degrees are a pretty broad spectrum -- you can go the science/engineering route, you can go the business/management route, or the theater/design route. I'd say you should first figure out what you think you are good at in terms of something you want to study *regardless* of if it pertains to actual theme park design, and then use that as a jumping-off point. I will say that *theatre* is one of the most versatile majors you can get for the industry -- production design, lighting, audio, stage management -- those are all used by us on a daily basis. But, don't be limited by that, as it is a VERY cross-disciplinary world and people in our industry come from EVERYWHERE.

As for internships, yes, we do them. Go to www.thinkwellgroup.com and there is a "Careers and Internships" form you can fill out to get into our database.

As for how I got to where I'm at, here are a few other past interviews and podcasts for your enjoyment:

Interview on Inside Universal: https://goo.gl/uXpm94
Interview about MiB on Theme Park Insider: https://goo.gl/r9NSq5
Podcast "Dan & Kat Talk": https://goo.gl/8xYhq2
Podcast "Dennis Anyone": https://goo.gl/vJ96gQ

Thanks for your questions!

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