The TEA Summit shows how artists make the impossible happen

April 13, 2019, 4:59 PM · The Themed Entertainment Association's annual TEA Summit brings hundreds of the world's top theme park design professionals to Anaheim to celebrate and learn from the best new attractions and developments opened in the past couple of years.

So what were a bunch of people who run a motorcycle dealership in Topeka, Kansas doing there?

TEA Summit 2019
Photo courtesy Themed Entertainment Association

Amanda Beach, Bruce Zimmerman, and Michael Patterson (above) actually asked themselves that same question as they took the stage Friday to talk about their upcoming Thea Award for the Evel Knievel Museum during the TEA Summit's Case Studies day. How a team of people who restored and sold Harley-Davidson motorcycles for a living ended up building an award-winning themed attraction far off the tourist path provided what might have been the day's best illustration of the creative process that drives this industry.

Turning buckets of motorcycle parts into a $350,000 Mecum Auctions sale for rocker Jerry Lee Lewis attracted the attention of Lathan McKay, who has amassed a collection of Knievel motorcycles, leathers, and memorabilia. He'd just bought Knievel's old Mack Truck hauler and was looking to get it restored.

A lifelong Knievel fan, Patterson agreed to project, despite the dealership having no experience in restoring trucks. But they learned how to do it, and did. Impressed with their work, McKay agreed to display the truck at the dealership as the anchor of an Evel Knievel museum.

Except that the team didn't know how to develop a museum, either. But like with the truck restoration, they learned how to do it, and they did. Ultimately, the dealership partnered with Dimensional Innovations to develop three interactive exhibits for the new 16,000-square-foot facility, including "Bad to the Bones," an interactive anatomy display that illustrates all the broken bones that Knievel suffered in missed jumps over his career. Another display invites visitors to figure out the proper speed and launch angle to successfully land a motorcycle jump.

But the exhibit that caused all the polite skepticism in the room to melt into giddy "book my trip to Topeka NOW" enthusiasm was a custom 4D virtual reality experience that allows visitors to sit on a 1974 Harley decorated in Knievel's red-white-and-blue colors, strap on a VR headset and to see with your eyes and feel with your rear end what it's like to sit on a bike as it jumps 16 police cars. For a moment, you can be Evel Knievel. Here's the museum's hype video, which includes POV from the jump ride:

The same "what the hell, let's go for it" spirit helped build the Slidewheel, a rotating water slide that looks like what would have happened if M.C. Escher has designed a water park. This one actually sprung from the imagination of a Swiss boy, who described a "never ending water slide" to his father. Together, they filed a patent for the idea, then got German manufacturer wiegand.maelzer to try to build a prototype.

Managing Director Rainer Maelzer described how industry pros would come look at their model at trade shows, immediately dismiss it as "impossible," then return a couple of hours later to look more, saying, "well, maybe, if you do this..." Like any great idea, it just wouldn't get out of people's heads once it got in.

But who would buy it? Eventually, China's Chimelong Group stepped up. And now we have this.

And yes, the young man who dreamed of the slide got to ride it.

Want more seemingly crazy ideas? TEA Summit Case Study day is filled with 'em. How about putting drones into a stage show... inside a cruise ship? Princess Cruises did it, with its Fantastic Journey show aboard Majestic Princess, which also features six giant LED "doors" that move around the stage and projection mapping covering 270 degrees of the theater's walls. That would be impressive tech in any theater, much less on that one that moves with the ocean's waves and swells... and has a single stage load door only six feet by nine feet, located 30 feet above the water line. Everything on that stage has to pack down to fit through.

Or how about an art installation in a national park, where you're not legally allowed to install anything? Sarah Fuller, Tamara Ross, and Moment Factory's Simon Garant presented Illuminations: human/nature, a nighttime experience where small groups of visitors carried multimedia equipment disguised as camping tools to enable digital displays about wildlife and indigenous peoples as the visitors hiked through the park. That forced the visitors to have to work together throughout the experience, making it more impressive for all.

"The tools were the coolest thing to come out of this," Fuller said. "But those tools were there because of the constraints."

Or how about a 3,000-seat rotating theater in domed stadium with six stages, filled with 20-meter-tall sets, massive waterfalls, hundreds of performers, and even live animals to put on the story of Chinese travelers along the Silk Road? Bingo Tso talked through the mind-boggling sound design necessary to pull off Legend of Camel Bells.

The case studies also revealed additional detail about more familiar attractions. Owen Yoshino from Walt Disney Imagineering and Roger Gould from Pixar revealed that Disney has considered a StormRider sequel and a The Incredibles-on-vacation theme for the StormRider revamp that became Nemo & Friends SeaRider at Tokyo DisneySea. The motion theater show employs randomly selected chapters, like Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, but without the visual crutch of lightspeed jumps that allows them stitch together the selected scenes in that attraction. Not opting to use something similar, such as bubble wipes, required Imagineers to devise chapters that would all run for the exact number of frames with the same beginning and ending frames for seamless transitions.

Mike Davis from Universal Parks and Resorts presented Universal Studios Japan's Spectacle Night Parade: The Best of Hollywood, which includes units themed to the Minions, Transformers, Jurassic World, and Harry Potter. Davis explained how Universal stepped beyond the conventions established by Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade to create a new type of nighttime parade, one that used more theatrical lighting, supported by projection mapping on buildings surrounding the parade route. Universal also developed a virtual sound zone that allowed the appropriate music and soundscape to follow each float down the parade route, rather than employ the traditional sound design method of breaking up the route into distinct sound zones that sometimes don't match with the exact timing of floats.

Universal Creative's Dale Mason also talked attendees through Universal Orlando's Volcano Bay water theme park. (Which we discussed in our podcast last fall.) Another Theme Park Insider interviewee, Rich Hill, presented the Six Flags Magic Mountain installation of Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, which he and I talked about here on the site previously.

You can experience a Thea Award winner at home with Be Washington, a simulation game from Virginia's Mount Vernon, where visitors (in person or online) watch beautifully produced video reenactments of four crises in George Washington's military and political careers, then decide how they would have acted in the same situation. Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in Broadway's "Hamilton," hosts.

But the presentations had me ready to book a trip to Denmark to visit Billund's LEGO House, built to look like 21 giant stacked LEGO bricks and devoted to the ideal of learning through play.

And then on to China to visit the Fantawild Oriental Heritage theme park in Xiamen, which tells traditional stories of Chinese culture using the latest in high-tech theme park attractions, including a four-sided "holographic" stage, a 360-degree rotating and lifting theater under a dome screen, and a robot-arm dark ride.

Former SeaWorld creative director Brian Morrow moderated several of the presentations and summarized the day's lessons: "The impossible is plausible, if you work hard."

Update: For my thoughts about the teamLab "Borderless" case study, please see my post, Can we see the artistry in operational excellence?

Replies (1)

April 13, 2019 at 6:28 PM

Annual THEA Awards gala where everyone knows months in advance who won:) Makes me wish the TEA/AECOM Index would be released during TEA Summit instead of a month later.

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