TEA president discusses theming
During his career in the amusement industry, Nick Farmer (left) has been a designer of attractions for amusement parks, aquariums, museums and science centres. Based in Leicester, England, for many years he headed up Farmer Studios but more recently began working almost on a freelance basis as Farmer Attraction Development. This has allowed him to combine roles such as a director of Wicksteed Park (UK) along with his ongoing design and consultancy work. Nick is now half way through his year as president of the TEA (Themed Entertainment Association), the first European to take the position. Here talks to Owen Ralph about the association and theming in general.How has the TEA developed since you joined?
As an association we are all very different. If you took a writer’s association, for example, then they are all writers. Our association has architects, film-makers, designers, scenic workshops, suppliers of technical equipment and also feasibility and financial consultants. Then we have some operators too, which we didn’t used to have at the beginning. We have a very wired range of skills and talents.
When I joined, which was 10 years ago I suppose, the association had some years under its belt but hadn’t spread much beyond, well California really. It hadn’t developed the East Coast side, the Orlando grouping which is now very strong, and it had hardly any European members at all. It was an informal network of people, there was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of keen and committed members but we were still struggling to establish our place. Our mission now is quite clearly established, we have strong growth ahead of us, we have a clear set of member benefits and we have some very high quality permanent staff.
How do your members benefit the industry?
Somebody came up to the TEA booth at IAAPA and pointed out that there weren’t enough people in the hall to do all the projects that are being designed in the world, if you take into account what’s happening in India, the Middle East and China.
As an association we have a rapid programme of expansion to bring in people who are on the periphery that could well help with this tremendous demand that would otherwise go unsatisfied. Major clients like Disney and Universal are now funding the TEA to expand its membership and bring to their attention a bigger range of vendors. People have joined the association traditionally for the networking, but this is quite a dramatic thing and it’s nice that we are being recognised as a resource for operators.
Some of the bigger operators have also used the TEA as a soft landing when they are shedding people. Some of the bigger operators go through cycles of intense activity when they are opening new projects and then there are a lot of people back on the market when they are finished. If they can be swept back into the TEA they are not lost to the industry.
A wider range of industries are now embracing the work of theming professionals. What areas are TEA members now working in?
It used to be mainly theme parks because many of the original members had been working with Disney, and that’s why a lot of companies set up in California, among them Technifex and Monty Lund who started the TEA. Then the museums started getting the idea that by using our members they could tell stories in a more compelling way. Now science centres, zoos, aquariums and retail destinations all use presentation techniques that have come from theme parks.
Then there’s some of the stranger things. I believe a funeral home has used some of our members, certainly one company was employed by a hospital to make it a nicer environment for children. An area that is developing is building training facilities for the military or fire service. If you need someone to create effects with smoke, light and sound, shaking floors and falling stuff; it’s our industry, we can do all that. I’m not quite sure where, but somewhere in the States the rescue services are using rapids rides for rescue training purposes. It’s very close to the real thing, but controllable and safe. And the crossover between military simulation and theme park simulation is getting stronger all the time.
A lot of places have got over that attitude of “We don’t want it Disney-fying” and now they ask “What was his real skill?” They want to learn from the techniques, that total attention to detail of how you look after a visitor and understand and engage with them.
Your own way of working has changed in recent years. Do you think the collaborative approach employed between companies within the creative industries is now being mirrored among the ride manufactures too?
I equate it to the film business, where you used to get the huge movie studios, where even the actors, musicians and writers were on the staff. That doesn’t happen anymore. If they want to make a movie they form a virtual company and everyone comes together and then everyone goes away again. That’s the way my area of the business has gone, and it works surprisingly well, particularly financially.
In terms of the ride manufacturers, it seems that more and more they are becoming design houses, they are not so much factories or production facilities. There are exceptions to that rule, but on two coasters I’ve worked on recently, even the installation was done by an external company. I guess it gives the ride manufacturer flexibility and ability to survive the financial turmoil and seasonality that is so much a part of this business.
Much of the growth in the industry right now is in the Middle and Far East. Do you feel enough authenticity is being given to new attractions and do they respect the local culture?
I personally don’t work in China, India or any of those areas, but that is probably where some of the worst pastiches happen. In Europe it is really important to have an appreciation of the culture of each country and work within it. You are more successful as a supplier and an operator if you stick with what is appropriate to your culture.
Is there one theme you never want to see repeated?
Probably. The danger is mentioning it in case I am suddenly asked to work on it and then they see this article! Even on the projects that are not happy projects, and inevitably there are a few, it’s not the theme’s fault, it’s they way you tell it.
I suppose a good example of a theme that has been worked over and over would be dinosaurs. There have been several moulds floating around so the figures are all the same and there’s not much you can do with them except put them together in sets, have roaring soundtracks etc. I think if I was asked to do a dinosaur attraction I would need to think of a different angle to make it engaging enough. But of course, we get bored of it and all the time there is a new set of children coming along who love dinosaurs!
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve recently been working on a number of rollercoaster stations for parks in Scandinavia, developing a name, identity and overall theme for the ride. You don’t just want to call it the Terminator, it needs to be something that works with the language, the legends and mythology of the country.
The next one to open is a spinning coaster from Maurer Söhne for Linnanmäki in Finland. We’ve called it Falama, which means lightning in Finnish. There is an epic Finnish story that features a part in which an eagle fights with a sea monster, and this works so well because they are building the coaster over the top of their rapids ride.
I am also very busy with the Dungeons, I do quite a lot of work with Merlin and I am taking on new shows for the London, Edinburgh and York Dungeons in the UK. They are quite fun to do, but there is a certain mindset involved – they are museums of horror and torture but there is that sort of Monty Python overlay where you have to teach it with a very tongue-in-cheek black humour. You have to be careful to maintain the brand that people expect of the Dungeons.
The TEA will hold its second European members meeting at Disneyland Resort Paris on June 5 and 6. For further information contact: EuroEvents@TEAConnect.org. Nick Farmer’s website appears at