How do theme park designers make magic real? The people behind the world's top attractions rarely share their secrets, so the Themed Entertainment Association's Thea Awards Digital Case studies provide a rare occasion to get inside stories direct from industry leaders.
Today's penultimate edition of this year's case studies focused on three Thea Award winning attractions, lead by one of my favorite theme park rides anywhere, Universal Orlando's Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
"It was probably one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had within my career, and I've opened a lot of attractions and a lot of shows and it was just wonderful," said Director and Executive Producer Elaine Hinds, who has spent more than 23 years with Universal Orlando, sandwiching a three-year stint with Dubai Parks and Resorts.
"We knew that we had a very, very tight window in which to produce this attraction, which meant everyone had to commit," Hines said, speaking of the two-year design and build for the attraction. "So, once we had determined with Warner Bros. and the Blair team what that final experience wanted to be, the entire team had to commit wholly to that, and there was no varying because there was no time."
"It's not just good enough to have great designs and creative intent. It's not good enough to just have a functional building. It's not just good enough to have a ride and show that just stands alone. It is all three of those pillars working together, and that blend of those teams melding together and figuring out what they had to do to get done and making it happen. That really powered through and showed in this final attraction," Universal Creative Engineering & Safety Director Bill McGehee said.
Hinds talked through the ride's three acts (so skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), starting with the Hagrid and Arthur Weasley collaborating on the motorbikes and side cars that will carry visitors through the experience. In the second act, riders come face to face with Hagrid and a Blast-Ended Skrewt. But the baby skrewts have gone missing, so Hagrid cancels class for the day. The enchanted bikes are supposed to take us back to the castle, but they instead launch us through the forest, carrying us past Fluffy the three-headed dog and Cornish Pixies that have enchanted Arthur's Ford Anglia. That's where the bikes finally lose power, falling backward into the ride's third act, where we glide deep into the Forbidden Forest, past centaurs and into Devil's Snare. A Lumos spell frees us, dropping us underneath the snare, where we discover Hagrid's lost skrewts. A blast of dragon fire from the bikes (the Wizarding World's version of NOS, I guess) propels us back to the castle, past the unicorn and colt that Hagrid had hoped to show us in class.
"Making that story blend with the overall technical pieces of a roller coaster, all of that came together so well because we were so highly focused on it," Hinds said. "We didn't work in silos. That creative team and the engineering team were married virtually in that we were constantly focused on delivering that experience. The moment that guest walked through that arch, they were a student at Hogwarts, and they were going to class, and the further you got into the attraction, the more real it all began to be."
"You know it's a combination — as is in with any attraction — you've got a combination of creative directors and designers, and you've got engineers from every engineering discipline under the sun, and together with your construction of facilities teams," Hinds said. "I believe that teams work off of chemistry, and that team just had... a very unique and very special camaraderie and collaboration and chemistry. It doesn't always happen, but on this project we got very, very lucky in that's exactly how it came together."
Also in the spotlight today was Popcorn Revenge from Walibi Belgium and Alterface. This interactive dark ride the themed to the bonkers concept of popcorn taking over a Bollywood theater. The popcorn are sick of being eaten and never seeing the end of the movie, so they've escape their boxes. Your job, as the rider, is to subdue them by shooting them — with a caramel coating. The ride delivered in a limited space and budget with an innovative ride design that utilized trackless vehicles dancing through a theater lobby and adjacent "theaters," where riders could target the itinerant popcorn on screen as they disrupted spoofs of classic film genres.
"It was really impressive on the creative port, but it was quite impressive on the technical part because he had to develop a lot of software to manage everything," Alterface Creative Director Laurence Beckers said. But managing ride vehicles and media displays are only part of the challenge. The concept of runaway popcorn had to work for guests, too.
"The popcorn characters were designed in a way that people will not feel guilty when shooting at them, because [they] look just plain stupid," Beckers said. "We had to... find the right balance between the funny characters, and the naughty characters — cute enough that you love them, but a little weird and damaging, so that you want to shoot at them."
The third winner featured today was Wonderbox at South Korea's Paradise City, a family entertainment center in an integrated resort that features an amazing multimedia overlay. It's "Burning Man meets a traveling fun fair," as described by creative director Alexandre Lupien from Moment Factory, which created the multimedia and interactive elements for the attraction.
The indoor space offers traditional rides such as a Ferris wheel and bumper cars, but Moment Factory enrobed the location in a virtual circus tent, comprised of screens upon which the "tent roof" peels away to expose a world of airborne sweets and chocolates, an orchestra of paper instruments crafted by children, or a fanciful world of imagined animals. Modern media effects also enhance a carnival's traditional interactive elements, such as a fortune teller, distortion mirrors, and painted photo op scenes.
"We wanted to create this transformative ambience using media, light, sound, and interactivity — to really allow the flexibility of the team and mood of the space. We also wanted to enhance the normal behavior of the guests, making their journey into Wonderbox just more wonderful and more exciting," Lupien said.
The TEA's Thea Awards Digital Case Studies conclude on November 5 with presentations on Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Tickets are available on the TEA's website.
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