To mark the 10th anniversary of The Goddard Group in 2012, we bring you this exclusive interview with Gary Goddard.
Gary Goddard entered the parks and attractions business in the early ‘70s when he directed the Hoop Dee Doo dinner show at Walt Disney World before becoming one the company’s youngest ever Imagineers. In 1980 he left Disney to form his own company, Gary Goddard Productions, followed by the Landmark Entertainment Group (with Tony Christopher) and later The Goddard Group. Goddard’s credits include such notable projects as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Terminator 2 3-D for Universal Orlando, The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace and Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas, The Georgia Aquarium, Glow in the Park and Monster Mansion for Six Flags and most recently the two billion dollar Galaxy Resort & Casino in Macau. Now 57 years of age, Goddard’s entertainment career has also included producer roles on several Broadway shows, director of the 1987 movie Masters of the Universe and several television shows. The California-based attraction designer revels in overcoming his critics, and always has something to say.
The Goddard-designed Galaxy in Macau, recently voted “World’s Best Casino/Integrated Resort”
What did you learn from your days at Disney?
Being that I was 24 when I started at Disney as an Imagineer, every day you learned something new. But no one “taught” you anything – you simply had to jump in and soak up as much as you could. I was fortunate to have some great people all rooting and looking out for me; and I worked hard too. Here are a few lessons I learned:
•From Marc Davis – How to stage a ride (or AA show) for maximum effect. Always look for a design that will read immediately with people, because in our business we don’t have the time that film and theatre do to make an impression. You cannot tell a story in a ride, but there has to be a thread that works its way through and you still need to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
•From Herb Ryman – In designing for theme parks “theme” is not enough, in fact it is barely acceptable. A design must be “lived in” and have something different. To simply copy existing designs and re-create them elsewhere doesn’t work; out of the context of their original location they will be sterile and have no meaning.
•From John Hench – The “gestalt” (form) is important for any design – not just the front layer – but the background, the setting, and the particular environment and context within which the design will exist.
•From Marty Sklar – Be on time to meetings. Don’t miss deadlines.
•From John DeCuir Snr – Don’t be afraid of being epic in your thinking. Think big. Think not just out of the box, but assume there is no box.
•From Rolly Crump – A sense of humour should be evident in the design, or in the attraction. Humour makes everything better.
•From Claude Coates – The importance of colour in design and how colour affects the mood of a scene, and how it can be used to create emotional reactions in the audience.
•From Collin Cambell – “Always add a sixth finger to every presentation.” Since the executives have to have something to point to and criticise, this makes it easier and faster. As in “wow, you’re right, she has six fingers – I’ll fix that.”
•From Al Bertino – Timing is everything. Always look for gags – for ideas that make a show or ride funny, surprising or inspiring. “And kid, do you realise how lucky we are to get paid to have fun and to work on these shows and rides? We have the best job in the world.”
I have not been at Walt Disney Imagineering for over 25 years, but back then it wasn’t run by the corporate suits. Or if it was (behind the scenes) they did not interfere with the creative flow. I remember when Marc Davis told me, “Walt used to say, if the pencil pushers are ever put in charge of this place, it will all fall apart Marc.” With massive misfires like California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios in Paris, it’s pretty clear that the pencil pushers have indeed taken over. That being said, I am very hopeful that with John Lasseter now actively involved, the creative designers will be allowed more control, and that we will soon see a new generation of great creative innovation. Equally cool is that James Cameron will be leading the Imagineers on an entirely new journey with Avatar.
How can small parks create “wow’ experiences?
It’s not as much about the budget as it is about being creative. I have seen a number of “smaller” attractions or elements over the years that were not terribly expensive, and yet had a major impact on audiences. It’s about being clever with what you have. And contrary to what many people believe, we have done smaller projects at The Goddard Group. We approach every project as a unique puzzle that needs to be solved within the challenges of the budget, schedule and other limitations. And I can tell you this – playing “safe” is the way to lose. I think people like to have a sense of wonder when coming to theme parks, resorts, or other destinations. To give them a sense of wonder again has become increasingly difficult when the internet and other media tend to bombard people with information, images, user reviews and observations of everything.
How do you ensure the finished project is faithful to your original design?
The thing about making a great project of any kind, in any medium is this: nothing is set in stone until it finally opens to the public. If you truly freeze the “approved concept” and execute solely upon the initial design, without allowing each new team member to add his or her strengths to it, then you kill the baby in the process and wind up with a sterile and bland end result. But any great production needs to have a single voice at the top who is committed to bring that vision to life, and who understands that certain twists and turns will take place along the way. My greatest successes have been those that had detractors along the way.
The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta
Other than some of the more obvious projects, what are some of your career highlights?
The Georgia Aquarium is something I am very proud of, in particular the way we conceptualised a more theatrical approach to the presentations there, getting rid of the typical linear progression of other aquariums and creating a new “hub and spoke” layout.
Hershey’s Really Big 3D Show was ground-breaking at the time, and has proven to be a hit at Hershey’s Chocolate World for over a decade. The Conan Sword & Sorcery Spectacular we produced for Universal in 1983 is something I am highly proud of to this very day, together with the Saniro Puroland and Harmonyland parks in Japan. And I loved the Ghostbusters Spooktacular at Universal Studios Florida where we created the world’s biggest Pepper’s Ghost illusion with live actors. In recent years, the Glow in the Park parades for Six Flags were really dynamic.
Choose two non-park projects that were important to you and tell us why
First, The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time no one thought a mall would work in Las Vegas. Back then, the only mall in Vegas was the Fashion Show and it was an unmitigated disaster. Giving up Caesar’s last prime property on the strip for a shopping mall? Caesar’s then chairman/CEO Henry Gluck said no and sent the developer to me. We created an experience that had, at its core, shopping as the star. It opened and immediately became the most successful mall in America based upon sales per square foot.
Then there is The Galaxy Resort & Casino in Macau. We deliberately created a concept that was Asian inspired, rather than Vegas as prior casino operators had done. We wanted something that would become an iconic destination resort and the new symbol of Macau’s Cotai Strip, replacing The Venetian, which was – let’s be honest – simply a rehash of The Venetian in Las Vegas, and not necessarily the right concept for Macau. Management was split, with one group pushing for something more European. I am happy to say chairman Francis Lui stuck with the original vision and the results have been spectacular. In less than a year, the Galaxy has become one of the three most profitable casinos in this Special Administrative Region of China, and winner of “World’s Best Casino/Integrated Resort” at the International Gaming Awards in London.
The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas
Are there many projects that didn’t go according to plan?
At Landmark we did all of the concept and design through to schematic work for Jurassic Park: The Ride at Islands of Adventure, however Universal hired away several key people and decided to produce it on their own. While I think a lot of that ride came out well, I have always felt that they never fully succeeded in getting the completely immersive atmosphere that we had envisioned.
Then there was SS Admiral. Six Flags disagreed with our concept to transform a former ship into a floating showpiece in St Louis, Missouri. We envisioned a place that would reignite memories for locals that rode that vessel went up and down the river, with added live entertainment, restaurants, clubs and bars. The company actually wanted to create a kind of “theme park without rides” – ball crawls for the kids, animatronic shows; the kind you would see in the nearby Six Flags park. There are times when you simply have to say no to the client, even if it means walking away, and this was one of them.
You are working on some very exciting resort projects in Asia and Eastern Europe, but is there also a danger of some projects being simply too ambitious to be built or survive once open?
Well of course that is always a possibility. We are working on four mega theme parks in China right now – all destination resorts with hotels, waterparks and all the other offerings a destination resort requires. I am not sure all of them will be built, but two of them have already started construction.
Everyone wants a Disney or Universal scale park, but they don’t understand the complexities of running and operating these kind of large enterprises. We have a great understanding and appreciation for the operations side of things and do our best to work up concepts and plans that have all the basics – back of house, tech support as required and notes on operation requirements. And we always try to bring in teams to show the kind of operating personnel and planning required.
What new technology or story-telling technique most excites you right now?
I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of 4D attractions yet. After Terminator 2 3-D and Spider-Man at Universal, we had something with the X-Men which would have been yet another leap forward. For a while, Universal’s corporate culture shifted away from 3D/4D and back to more traditional approaches to things; coasters, a shooting gallery ride, and so on. It was good to see that with Harry Potter, they shifted back into a more adventurous role – and of course it helped that the IP owner was able to force a level of quality and detail that I think would have been lacking had it been a straight ahead licence. Having the motion picture art director on as the final say in terms of quality and design added such a great degree of integrity and detail to that project.
Harry Potter broke all the rules and won, in a major way. That’s a lesson for the industry – break out of the normal yardsticks that the executives hold up as margins for failure, don’t be afraid to be bold, to create things the world has never experienced before, and perhaps you will be wildly rewarded.
We are at work now on a spectacular new project in Macau which, when it opens, I am confident will become the number one destination there (with The Galaxy becoming a strong number two of course). Or perhaps they will vie for market supremacy which would be fine with me as well!
We are also putting a big new 4D attraction into production. This standalone venue will be like nothing else in the world and it will be located in the heart of Times Square in New York.
Whatever we do, whether it’s a ride, a resort, a Broadway show or a movie, I am always trying to give people that sense of wonder. It’s like a great magic trick really – How did they do that? Did you see that? That was so amazing! You have to go and see this!
For news of some of Gary Goddard’s other upcoming projects, click here.
‘My amazing Spider-Man adventure’
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure remains one of Gary Goddard’s biggest calling cards. Here he explains how this iconic 3D/4D dark ride, due to be relaunched by Universal later this year, came into being.
Jay Stein, who was overseeing the development of Islands of Adventure as chairman and CEO of Universal Recreation, felt that Spider-Man, along with the Hulk, were the best known Marvel superheroes at that time. He said, “Give us a concept for the superhero land, with ideas for attractions, but we know we have to have a Spider-Man ride.” That was about it. Now, I had grown up on Marvel (and DC) comics, and I knew them inside and out; I was ready for this.
We started development, I think, back in 1993. My first thoughts – as always – were story and creative, not technology-based. However, we were also in the midst of creating Terminator 2 3-D, so had pushed Universal into the 3D world. I set out to figure out what this big dark ride based on Spider-Man, would be. The world of super heroes is dynamic, colourful and bigger than life. Most of all, if you really imagine the experience of reading a comic, it is in your face. What kind of ride system would be to deliver this kind of action?
The technologies available at the time were all unacceptable. Animatronics were too tame, 2D projection with show action animation would allow for some film footage, but it could not penetrate the rider’s space. Then I started thinking about effects like fire, wind, rain, smoke, fog, steam and so on, but remember, in a typical ride, nothing can come within about four to six feet (1.2 to 2-metres) of the vehicle. Then, in the midst of a T2 3-D meeting, I realised why not have 3D on a ride? This way we could bring the action into the ride vehicle and literally have “in your face” action; the 3D combined with 4D effects would form the next step in “total immersive storytelling.”
I met with Jay and told him I thought the world’s first 3D/4D ride way the only successful way to create a superhero story. I took him through some initial beats, like Doc OC bursting through the walls with flaming torches on his tentacles and us feeling the heat. I already had the Green Goblin gag in mind, with the flaming pumpkin that he throws in 3D, resulting in a real time explosion of fire. Jay said he loved it, but would it work? I said yes it would, but from that moment on the internal management at Universal would do everything they could to try and convince Jay, Barry Upson and others to kill the project (“3D in a ride will never work”). Later Scott Trowbridge was brought on board and thankfully he ‘got it’, championed the project and carried the torch forward into production.
When it opened, the LA Times described the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man as, “The best theme park ride in the world, melding story and technology in a way that surpasses Disney’s top efforts.”
Since then we’ve had projects like Curse of Darkastle at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and others. Darkastle is clearly a rip off of the Spider-Man technology and concept, and for what it is, it’s pretty darn good. But they certainly did not take the concept of a 4D ride to the next level, rather they created a classic “spook house” version. It certainly demonstrated to the industry that you could do a 3D/4D attraction at a cost far less than what it took to achieve Spider-Man.
I definitely want to see the Transformers ride at Universal Studios Singapore and plan to on my next trip to Asia. Transformers has the best chance of being at least equal to Spider-Man, at least on the surface, because you have a compelling mythology that can work well within the 4D medium. From what I hear so far, it seems to be effective. The key to this kind of attraction is to elevate it above being just another 3D/4D in the story and set up, with a unique journey that has unexpected moments along the way.