In the first of a range of interviews with people in the know, Park World editor Becci Knowles, speaks to RWS Entertainment Group CEO and founder, Ryan Stana
How has themed entertainment evolved in the leisure sphere?
It’s apparent in today’s climate, people want to escape more than ever from the mundane chores of everyday life. Be that planned vacations, trips to the theatre or cinema, a day trip or weekend to a resort theme park or simply a visit to the local shopping mall or department store.
Our desire for complete immersion has dramatically changed the way the retail, hospitality and leisure industry position themselves. With this, the level of theming, theatricality and entertainment have evolved. It’s all about delivering the ultimate guests experience.
With a team of multitalented experts working across all sectors of the live entertainment and Leisure Industry, we play on each sectors strengths and essential qualities. We cross-pollinate to deliver an even more unique, bespoke experience to our clients, ensuring they, their employees and most importantly, their customers are getting an unforgettable return on their experience and investment.
What are the current trends in theming and the expectations of operators and guests?
In the current digital age, it’s easy to create digital content for a smart device and label it an interactive experience, however guests are becoming much savvier to this and crave so much more. Therefore, we believe there is an even stronger appeal for a ‘hands on’ analogue/realtime experience and coupled with this, a much larger focus on live entertainment and live entertainment doesn’t merely mean singers, dancers, and specialist performers, it’s the way the operating staff interact with guests and help enhance the theme or experience that’s key. Storytelling is crucial and if the working staff believe in the experience and help enhance the world or environment around them, this will only make it 100% authentic for the guest.
Can you offer some predictions on how this might change in the future?
While digital content and technology shouldn’t be the main focus of the themed concept there are definitely ways of incorporating it into an experience or as a lead up to both anticipate the guest’s expectation and create immersion. As technology develops and the popularity of self-expression through social platforms grows, this too will need to be incorporated into themed experiences.
Not only will guests be able to encounter these fantastic environments, they will also be able to interact, integrate, change and adapt within them, creating the ultimate immersive personalised experience. The digital age allows this with full integration of software and constantly evolving special FX coupled with human interaction and groundbreaking theatrical performance, the end results will be
This excites us immensely and we are proud to say we are currently working on some of these developments with significant players in the entertainment and leisure industry. In the future, we will ‘Raise the Experience’ and expectations of operators and guests throughout the world across multiple sectors of the retail, entertainment and leisure industry.
MK Themed Attractions
Lars Nielsen Themed Attractions Specialist at MK Themed Attractions had this to say:
We see immersive themed experiences are in demand. Visitors expect it more and more so it will become a necessity for attractions. The world has become so small due to digitalisation and cheap flights that people know for example, what a real Mexican Mayan Temple looks like, so the level expected level of theming has risen and needs to incorporate sound and smell etc. much more than before.
We also see it with theme parks extending their seasons to encompass Halloween, winter and Christmas. Halloween is not just cute pumpkins anymore, it is a full immersive experience with light and sound effects and changes from being sweet and “innocent” during the day to being truly scary at night.
In the light of the current situation I believe we will see the need for creating even more extraordinary theming as parks around the world need to re-establish their business and get their visitors back.
A project we are working on right now that reflects immersive theming is Paultons Park’s brand-new area Tornado Springs. Where there are a lot of amusing themed elements (Leisure Expert Group has designed the new area and we produce it).
The story behind the theming is that this city is well-known for its crazy amount of tornados and whirlwinds hitting it almost constantly, which is reflected all over the theming; actually the 1950s country side theming has been taken to such a high level, that it even has its own twitter account with optimistic local business owners talking about the rebuild of the city that is nearly complete.
What is different and interesting about this theming is that is uses unusual places to add theming like a sheep on the roof top of restrooms and a comfy armchair at the top of the restaurant, all used to simulate a tornado hit the city. We have used different light effects for some signs, for example a neon looking signs that flashes like it is broken by a tornado.
Something that not many amusement parks, or magazines for that matter know, is that we actually also produce animatronic figures. We have an in-house workshop where we have built animatronic Christmas figures for 50 years under a different brand, that has delivered animatronic figures to amusement parks like Adventure Island, Tivoli Friheden and Djurs Sommerland, and this skill is something we have chosen to utilise more in our amusement park projects. In the Paultons project, we have created several animatronic figures by transforming custom-built static fiberglass figures to moving animatronic experiences helping the design idea come even more to life. This not only broadens the platform we are working with; it also helps us create immersive themed experiences like the one at Paultons Park.
Theming to enhance the overall immersive environment
As more attractions look to increase their footfall, we are seeing a greater movement towards the enhancement of immersive environments for visitors.
Environmental Street Furniture (ESF) is one company that has acquired a wealth of experience in that area. From global theme parks to recreational areas, the Northern Ireland based company offers a range of themed solutions to contribute to the immersive experience, transforming mundane products into products that become an integral part of the attraction.
Offering themed site furnishings, with an unrivalled selection of designs, ESF uses a diverse selection of materials to suit every need and environment, from cast iron and aluminium through to resin and recycled plastic.
ESF’s themed products can be uniquely created to suit the needs of the client, fitting perfectly into their attraction. Whether it’s the colour scheme, logos, branding or advertisements, the company’s innovative processes ensure there is no request that goes unanswered.
From trash cans and benches to seating, ESF’s comprehensive offering has the ability to incorporate cutting edge technology into the design to provide the complete customer experience.
Take the Stellar Solar Smart Bench, designed and manufactured by ESF. The award-winning bench has the ability to provide USB and wireless mobile device charging, WiFi and data gathering capabilities through the utilisation of solar energy. Offering visitors the opportunity to charge their mobile device, as well as WiFi, has previously shown an increase in linger time, meaning individuals are spending more time at the attraction.
Since its launch in November 2017, the Stellar Bench has been installed in many theme parks including Global Village in Dubai which took receipt of 15 bespoke themed benches, which are branded to match the ‘Circus Big Top’ brand within the park.
Global Village complemented the installation of the Stellar Benches with over 100 ‘Big Top’ themed litter bins. ESF also provided 350 themed litter bins to Legoland Windsor Resort in the UK, themed benches to Moana Land attraction in Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, as well as a themed lighting system for the Gotham City, Metropolis and Warner Plaza attractions at Warner Bros. World, Abu Dhabi.
Speaking about the evolution of theming in the industry, ESF’s Managing Director, Alan Lowry tells Park World, “We have seen more of a move towards immersive environments and there is also a drive towards incorporating innovative and sustainable technologies and data collection into our products. These technologically innovative products help keep people interested and engaged, and also benefits the owners; saving money on their energy bills, allowing them to promote a sustainable green agenda and using data collection to make choices regarding people counting, peak times, temperature and air quality monitoring. I believe these trends will continue in the themed attraction industry over the next few years.”
Technically (very) creative
Founded by managing director Marc Broadbent, Technically Creative a fully integrated technology contractor, supplying in house AV and lighting design and installation.
“The aim is to recreate a story, something that connects with guests on an emotional level, which is what makes theming so perfect,” says Marc. “Theming, when done correctly, adds on so many levels to an exhibit or attraction. Using different layers of materials, lighting, projections and effects to build up the whole scene creates the perfect canvas for any interactive experience. Without theming, a ride is just a ride, but with theming, a ride becomes an unforgettable adventure.”
Technically Creative uses theming to bring ideas to life. “It is the best asset for pulling together interactives, and to give the guest some context,” says Marc. The Dinosaur Area in ‘Adventureland’ at the Xplore family entertainment centre is the perfect example. “The dinosaur themed, sand projection table, accompanied by trussing on the projector covered in vines and leaves creates the feel of the Jurassic era. The projected content then tells the story that will connect with the visitors.”
“A current trend is the use of UV in dark rides,” says Marc, but it’s not right for every project. It can actually detract from the theming and the story you wish to tell, although it can look spectacular for younger guests. A traditional approach can often do more for an exhibit. Traditional theming finishes, and a strong selection of layers can bring attractions to life in a way some technology can’t. This can be really helpful for those with smaller budgets.
“There’s been a significant increase in the expectations of operators and guests in recent years, with bigger and better exhibits being designed constantly, and a real desire from consumers to experience new and exciting things. For operators, low or no maintenance is now a requirement. Smaller venues don’t have the internal technical support, and more often than not are run by centre managers. It’s important that support is there for the venues, and training is completed in regard to the operations and maintenance of the interactives. Guests want to see a fresh, fully operational establishment. As the size and quality of attractions is increasing, guests are having to pay higher prices than they once would, therefore more is expected, and rightly so.
“We’ve already seen larger format audio visual installations, alongside the traditional thematic experience. Current technology has not been fully utilised as of yet, due to the creative design catching up to the technological capabilities. It is, therefore, a good idea to work with designers from the concept stages onwards.”
Customised immersive experiences
For over 25 years Jora Vision in the Netherlands has been providing design and theming production services for theme parks, zoos, museums and tourist attractions.
Creative director, Simeon van Tellingen comments: “One of Jora Vision’s key strategies is creating customised immersive experiences, which can come in many forms, such as dark rides, walk throughs, shows or exhibitions, or even complete
theme park zones and complete parks. Almost in each of those projects, theming is used, not for the sake of decoration, but as a tool to transport the guests to another
time period, to another place or to a fantasy location. It is used in a way to let guests believe they actually escaped to another world. Sometimes theming is just a small part of the entire project. Animatronics, lighting, video and audio are as much as important. They all contribute to bring a story to life.”
This multi-disciplinary approach has resulted in different awards for Jora Vision such as a Park World Excellence award for Bazyliszek in Legendia Poland and Popcorn Revenge in Walibi Belgium. The Themed Entertainment Association in Los Angeles has selected a total of six Jora Vision projects as recipient of a TEA award, the Oscars of the themed entertainment industry.
The company believes that more and more (local) parks are able to afford a highly immersive experience due clever theming building methods and technology becoming more accessible and they believe this trend will not only continue for
theme parks but also for museums, FECs and tourist attractions. Currently Jora Vision is working on a completely new theme park in Russia based on the poems from Alexander Pushkin. “We are very proud to pave new ways for theme parks to
bring their local stories alive” explains Jan Maarten de Raad, CEO at Jora Vision. “We love unique and meaningful stories and are excited to harness our skills to bring these local stories to life to an audience which is not yet very familiar with the concept of theme parks and immersive attractions.”
Bringing exhibitions to life
Imagine Exhibitions is currently producing over 40 unique exhibitions globally in museums, science centres, zoos, integrated resorts, and non-traditional venues, with millions of people around the world visiting its exhibitions each year. In addition to developing successful travelling exhibitions, the company also designs, opens, and operates permanent installations and venues, and consults on building, expanding, and directing museums and attractions.
Tom Zaller, president and CEO says: “I am thrilled to have seen a trend in recent years towards more immersive theming in attractions. In the exhibition space, some of the recent popups and IP-driven titles are demonstrating the versatility of exhibitions to tell good stories in a three-dimensional way, something that I have been committed to doing for the last two decades. Story is always at the core of what we do at Imagine Exhibitions, as it is inherently engaging, and humans have been enthralled by stories since the dawn of time. With the rise of social media, visitors are now becoming their own storytellers—and so we find that visitors seek experiences where they are inside and a part of the story being told. Venues are looking for the same—more than 50% of venues who book travelling exhibitions are seeking interactivity.”
Looking towards the future, Tom concludes: “I believe that consumers will continue to seek out narrative-driven, shareable experiences. In an increasingly stressed-out world, people are hungry for an escape from the everyday and they overwhelmingly report that they would rather choose to spend money on an experience than buy a material item. Themed attractions provide the ideal platform to deliver on these consumer expectations. But, to attract attention in a distracted world, our industry must continue to innovate in order to offer experiences that place the guest at the centre of the story.”
New ways to amaze
Philipp van Stratum; CEO, founder and creative director of P&P Projects joins the debate.
Nowadays, it seems like everybody is keen on the word immersive. The trend was first introduced and set by the well-known theme parks. At this moment more and more family entertainment centers are willing to create immersive environments.
We believe that visitors and guests nowadays expect to be immersed into an entirely different world once they enter a theme park or family entertainment center. They literally want to step into the world they know so well from famous movies, tv series, cartoons and games. Adding to that, more and more restaurants and retail locations are evolving into themed environments to immerse their visitors and guests. The creation of a total experience is not limited to scenery anymore. Nowadays you must use every trick in the book and invent new ones to amaze people.
Beside the inquiries P&P Projects gets from major theme parks we also start receiving many enquiries for retail experiences, and tailormade shopping experiences for which we have to design and build special themed environments. This could for example be a machine that provides visitors with a unique shopping experience when they buy their souvenirs or any product for the matter. This is not a new trend, but in our business, we see it takes quite a while before it really takes off. When we work on our projects, we try to get all senses involved to create the ultimate experience.
Transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary
When we start talking with our clients we always talk about the word ‘immersive’ and what is means to the client. Here we see that the word ‘immersive’ regarding the level of theming can have a lot of different meanings. To some it means that the attractions are themed with their favorite IP’s, to others it means that we must create a complete world.
Creating an immersive experience and making use of theming, av lighting, FX, etc. comes at a cost. This means that we always approach it from the operator’s point of view to see when there is a return on investment, what the costs are for making use of a certain IP and which investment comes with the IP license. All these factors bring certain challenges.
Adding to that, it is important to consider that the customers wants and expects an experience he cannot already experience in is own home by means of gaming interactivity and or VR. This means you must be creative, and not cut corners.
In all our current projects we still try to push the envelope as much as possible. Adding to that, we see more and more guest interaction, until we reach a full theme park experience like Westworld, which was by all means was a great movie in the early 70’s.
Sally Dark Rides designer Bill Kivi and creative director, Rich Hill comment on what themed entertainment looks like now and what it might look like in the future.
“While theming is certainly not a new thing, there has been an upward shift over that last several years in the level of detail and scale applied to the theming of rides,
experiences, lands, hotels and restaurants,” says Bill, adding:
“Some theme parks such as Disney’s Hollywood Studios or Universal Studios have recently chosen to devote entire lands based around a single IP.
“Using IP’s to attract an already existing fan base is not new either”, he says. “However, giving those fans potential hours of inclusion in the worlds they could only dream of visiting before is not so much a change, but rather a deeper and more personal dive for guests to experience than what had been offered before. Other parks have also been producing highly themed dark rides and/or more elaborately themed roller coasters that have a story element to them whether they be based around an IP or not. I think this is in response to what guests expect to see and experience when and where they decide to spend their family time and hard-earned funds. Today’s guests are educated with an innate understanding of what is a good story and what looks authentic or not. They have seen scores of movies with beyond fantastic visual effects, they are well travelled (or they can find images/videos readily on the internet), and they desire to be somewhere other than home or work for a few days.
“In the future guests are going to continue to be hungry for opportunities to explore and play with family and friends in fantastical environments that take them out of the real world. As designers and operators, we have the challenge of offering them something new and exciting whether that be adding play time to queues, unexpected thrills, or gobsmacking wow moments. Theming alone cannot do this but is certainly an important step in getting a guest to suspend their disbelieve and go on this journey with us.”
Creative director, Rich Hill says: “In the past, scenic art was limited to the physicality of traditional practical materials. Today, we are pushing outside the norm by using projection, high resolution LED screens, augmented reality and a whole
host of other technologies to make sets and scenery come alive. As we look at the evolution of the craft, I think practical and digital sets will continue to be the framework of creative spaces, but the way they interact with guests will be pushed further and further as we have access to things like artificial intelligence, face recognition and biodynamic interactivity. Just look at what Disney has done with its Flaska Reclinata (the interactive plant inside Pandora – The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom) and you will get a glimpse of the amazing worlds scenic designers and fabricators intend to create in the future.”
Accomodating the theme
Portugal based theming company, Universal Rocks built the décor façade of two parts of the 4* Resort Hotel Kronasar at Europa Park’s new water park, Rulantica.
Together with Sto Germany the company developed a special technique to design and build approximately 4000 m² of themed façade. Dirk Engelhardt explains: “We combined Sto’s technical solution of modern façade technology using StoTherm Classic ,a cement-free external wall insulation system with maximum crack and impact resistance, with our handmade and sculptured spray mortar finish application.”
Universal Rocks built all onsite sculptor works and prefab elements according to Europa- Park’s design drawings. The construction period ran from September 2018-July 2019.