Maris Ensing and David Willrich are two of the leading audiovisual integrators working in museums today. They’re also good friends. Earlier this year, I was asked by Sound & Communications to write a piece about projects each of them had just finished. Among the photos Ensing sent me was this one of a visitor encountered during a research trip for his Airboat Adventure simulator at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale.
When I told Willrich about it, he sent me a couple of photos of a bear he encountered in Alberta while working on Northern Light at the Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park.
Ensing’s response: “He probably had it fabricated!”
The origins of a California-themed park would seem mired in the mists of time. Rumor holds that the ill-begotten idea was concocted by Michael Eisner, Paul Pressler, and Jody Foster at a tequila and mescaline infused party at Jack Nicholson’s house. I can assure you, dear reader, that this theory holds no credence, for Mr. Nicholson has had a long standing restraining order against the lovely Ms. Foster.
The California theme, though perhaps not oulined in marketing collateral, was tied in to the state’s sesquicentennial and it was an easy theme on which to design a park on a budget.
In early 2002, CalTIA, now known as the California Travel Association, held an event at Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX Theatre for travel industry professionals. They screened a rough cut of the IMAX film Adventures in Wild California, the official motion picture of the state’s 150th anniversary celebration. Wild California (its working title at the time) was underwritten by a number of California corporations, including The Walt Disney Company. In return for Disney’s investment, viewers could witness an IMAX-sized Walt on the giant screen introducing his Anaheim Park and ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with Roy E. Disney.
The Disneyland Resort sponsored the Sacramento screening and used it as one of the first official introductions of the new resort and its California Adventure park to the travel industry. Outside the theater, at a private reception under the stars, salads and chowder with Boudin sourdough bread, enchiladas made with Mission tortillas, and glasses of Robert Mondavi wine could be enjoyed, with each food station featuring a concept painting of that company’s respective California Adventure “attraction.”
Whether or not Disney intended to get sesquicentennial funding from the state for its new park is unknown on this end. What is known is that a broadly open theme such as “California” fell right into the micromanagers’ hands at a time when penny pinching theme park executives where pushing Primevil Whirl and Triceratops Spin as the next big things. A combination of off the shelf rides with minimal thematic coverings and corporate sponsored “attractions” likening to a grander version of Innovations would dramatically reduce construction costs. Unfortunately, they would also dramatically reduce attendance.
The theme of California itself appears to be the result of a single event a decade earlier – Disney’s 1989 purchase of the Wrather Corporation. Jack Wrather, a prolific television producer whose credits included The Lone Ranger and Lassie, began to invest in a number of hotel and resort properties around the country, in luxury markets such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and Newport Beach. He was asked by Walt Disney to build an “official” hotel adjacent to the Disneyland park in Anaheim and the upscale Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955. Over the years, Walt and his successors offered to purchase the hotel property, and over the years, Wrather refused them. It was not until after Wrather’s death that Disney CEO Michael Eisner was able to work out a deal to purchase the Wrather Corporation.
With the hotel came another property – the Wrather Corporation also managed the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose attractions in Long Beach, including the Queen Mary’s on-ship hotel. With the acquisition, management of the Queen Mary suddenly became the responsibility of Disneyland. Imagineers worked hard on devising new tours and attractions while Disneyland began offering a multi-day pass that also included admission to the Queen Mary.
Then in order to finance his grand plans for expansion, Eisner startedan unnecessary and farcical war between two municipalities. In 1991, he and Disney President Frank Wells had announced the “Disney Decade,” which would include new shows and attractions, huge parking garages, a new Tomorrowland, an entirely new land – Hollywoodland, a shopping and entertainment district, live concert amphitheater, and WESTCOT – a whole new West Coast version of EPCOT. In order to pay for the infrastructure, Eisner needed both the financial and governmental support of the City of Anaheim. And to get his way, he threatened to cancel the entire project by building another huge theme park in another city – Long Beach – built around the Queen Mary.
The Long Beach park, DisneySea, never happened, although a modified version did become a hit at Tokyo Disney Resort. And what about WESTCOT? Well, it seems very few guests were purchasing those multi-park tickets that included admission to the Queen Mary. Surveys were taken in the Entrance Plaza asking where they went when they left Disneyland. The answers started coming in – Hollywood. The beach. Knotts. Six Flags. Yosemite. Monterey. Napa. Fresno. Everywhere but the Queen Mary.
And thus California Adventure was conceived – a park that was a fascimile of a trip around California in an effort to retain guests at Disneyland, a mirror of Eisner’s idea for Disney’s America on the East Coast. Why visit when we can take you there in ways reality can’t?
Disneyland itself is a representation of the ideals that interested Walt Disney the man, as seen through the imaginative lens of 1950’s and 1960’s optimism. There are no leeches in Adventureland, no horse shit lining the streets of Frontierland, and no drunkards haggardly stumbling home down Main Street. Welcome to Walt’s sanitized utopian vision of the memories and fantasies of his brain.
Because the core blueprint of the park has remained the same for over fifty years, children of each “generation of Walt” have been able to experience practically the same narrative. For you see, there are four distinct “generations of Walt,” each based upon when our formative years took place and how we related to Walt Disney the man and to his company during those years.
First are those that grew up prior to the Second World War, at a time when the Disney Studio was exclusively an animation studio. These souls lived through the Depression and the Disney characters held a unique position in their continued survival. Second are the Baby Boomers, who experienced both the birth of television and the introduction of Disneyland, who considered the much more accessible Walt to be “Uncle Walt.” Third are those who grew up in the late ’60’s and the 1970’s, at a time when Walt the man was not part of their lives, but the company continued under the stunted philosophy of “What would Walt do?” Finally are those who grew up in the Eisner/Iger era, when the company went in radical new directions and Walt Disney the man progressed into the marketing and consumer products item of Walt Disney the legend. Separated by decades of time, the marketing juggernaut turned him into a fanciful character whose true identity was lost to time – the new Lincoln or Shakespeare, if you will.
The new California Adventure park was designed by a group of Imagineers who, for the most part, never met Walt the man. It is, again, a fanciful take on the themes that interest him disguised as a trip around the state through his “eyes.” Within one will find 1920’s and 1930’s Los Angeles and Hollywood, aviation (a huge interest, especially during and post-WWII), the mountains, nature, the automobile, and the amusement park where Walt sat on a bench while his daughters went on a ride without him, an idea that led to the creation of Disneyland as entertainment for the full family and of the new Dumbo at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where in the virtual queue parents can sit on a bench while their children play without them.
Most ironic, is that every account I have read of Disney arriving in California says he did so by train and, as part of the redevelopment of the park, the only train in California Adventure has been removed. But that’s ok, because the Route 66 in Cars Land can be used as a metaphor for Walt’s Journey – from Chicago to Missouri to Los Angeles.
There’s another place that traces the journey of Walt from Chicago to Missouri to the intersection of 66 and Los Angeles. But in this case, the 66 is 1966, the final year of Walt’s life. The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco uses actual documents and artifacts to trace the life of the man, not the character. Exhibits start with his birth in 1901 and end with is death in 1966. I can’t say the museum is unbiased. Although it does cover some negative aspects of his life, such as the studio strike and his testimony before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, it is designed to concentrate on his achievements, and incredible achievements they were.
So now there are two ways to experience the life of Walt Disney – through the fictional world created around the character based on the man, or through the collection of artifacts telling his true story.
Twenty-five years ago this year, I interned in the Aviculture department at SeaWorld San Diego. For those not in the know – it means I took care of birds. And that includes penguins. Now back in that day, the park was owned by book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It had just undergone a major expansion, doubling its size with a new entrance, the world’s largest captive orca tank, and a huge larger-than-life map of the United States. But for me, the best attraction was the Commerson’s dolpins, freshly arrived from the Strait of Magellan.
To see these beautiful four-foot long creatures, you would enter the old mermaid show building and watch a slideshow about the dolphins, their capture, and how all cetaceans descended from land-bound cows. Then the screen and would rise and you would watch them swim. Fast. In circles. Over and over again. Until you got bored. Or you could go in a different auditorium just to view them if you wanted to avoid the slide show altogether.
SeaWorld at that time followed traditional zoo and aquarium principles, with the central attraction being the animal exhibits with audio-visual presentations providing optional background information. Once SeaWorld was purchased by Busch Entertainment, things began to change.
First, there was a thematic integration with animals and thrill rides. At SeaWorld San Diego, Commerson’s dolphins were integrated into the Journey to Atlantis attraction and later into the Dolphin’s Plunge waterslide complex at the Aquatica waterpark in Orlando. Likewise, rays were integrated into the queue for the Manta coasters and the Stingray Falls attraction at Aquatica’s San Antonio location, opening this Summer.
At the same time, animal attractions began taking on the theme of a human expedition to remote regions. This includes such projects as Wild Arctic, with its helicopter flight motion simulator followed by a walkthrough of animal enclosures disguised as an Arctic research base, and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Rhino Rally, a cross-country rally/safari experience containing both encounters with live animals and thrill ride components.
Starting last year, the parks began taking a different approach with animal interpretation. Instead of human exploration to where the animals live, the new adventures places humans into the lives of animals themselves. It began with Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. A combination animal exhibit and ride, the rollercoaster portion of the attraction, designed by Intamin, takes its cue from the cheetah itself. Although it contains a number of traditional coaster elements, such as scaling a tower and an inversion, the ride features 3 LSM launches and tight curves that mimic the way a cheetah hunts in the wild. Sea World San Diego’s Manta, a Mack ride, will take a similar approach with multiple launches and twists, attempting to mimic the motion of the wild manta ray.
At Sea World Orlando, a pavilion dedicated to manatee rescue has been redesigned into TurtleTrek. Inside, a 360 degree dome will envelope audience members in the life story of a sea turtle in a wraparound 3D experience. 34 Christie 4K projectors will be combined to create a seamless image in this latest project from Kraftwerk, a followup to their Bubble Theatre at Macau’s City of Dreams (showing Dragon’s Treasure).
When I was young and interning at Sea World, guests would take a moving walkway past a recreated Antarctic environment and see penguins swimming and rooking and moving about. After, they could backtrack to a viewing platform and watch videos about the birds’ exciting lives. Occasionally, we keepers would come onto the ice and kids would be happy to see the birds run around us begging for food. There were always two rules – never look at the glass and make eye contact with the guests, and always wear a jacket to give the illusion of a freezing environment (even if it was actually 59 degrees inside).
SeaWorld Orlando is demolishing their Penguin Encounter. In its place will rise Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. It’s central feature will be a ride where guests will “experience the mystery and wonder of life on the ice through the eyes of a penguin, sensing the beauty and drama of their sometimes-dangerous habitat. Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin combines closer-then-ever animal connections with state-of-the-art interactive ride technologies for adventures that are different each time.”
A human in a jacket replaced by an animal spirit guide.
It’s very appropriate that Universal Orlando is reopening The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man this Thursday with a complete HD upgrade. After all, this marks the 50th anniversary of the famed web-slinger’s first appearance. But sadly, another anniversary is being overlooked. On Jan. 2 of this year, Jaws at Universal Studios Florida ceased operation in order to make way for something new. The attraction opened in 1990, but Jaws made its first Orlando appearance much earlier than that. Thirty years ago this Summer, filming began on the third Jaws film – in 3D – right down International Drive at SeaWorld.
So although we won’t have the Jaws ride at Universal Orlando to celebrate this milestone, we can celebrate it with another film about other carnivorous fish attacking an aquatic park – in this case, the waterslides of Wilmington, North Carolina’s Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park.
Which brings us to ThemedReality’s first Obscure Trivia Break, for as hard as it may seem, the Piranha franchise can just as easily link the SeaWorld and Universal theme park chains as Jaws can. Here’s how:
The original Piranha (1978) was director Joe Dante’s third film. In 2003, he directed a 4D film R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse for Busch Entertainment Corporation, which played at the two Busch Gardens parks and at SeaWorld parks in San Diego and San Antonio.
The sequel, Piranha Part II: The Spawning (1981) was James Cameron’s directorial debut. It was a far cry from the work he did on Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time (1996) for the Universal Studios theme parks.
In the reboot of the series, 2010’s Piranha 3D and this year’s Piranha 3DD, the character of Mr. Goodman is portrayed by none other than Christopher Lloyd, who starred in both SeaWorld’s Haunted Lighthouse, as Cap’n Jack, and as “Doc” Emmett Brown in Universal’s Back to the Future: The Ride (1991) and its replacement The Simpsons Ride (2008).
There are plenty of other theme park connections, ranging from film tie-ins to Cameron at News Corporation parks in Australia and Mexico, Everland in South Korea, and Disney parks worldwide, David Hasselhoff’s legendary work for Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and Elisabeth Shue’s performance in that Leonard Nimoy-directed thrill ride at EPCOT.
But I don’t really want to talk about all those. I guess when it comes down it, we can all learn something from Universal and SeaWorld. Don’t dismiss B-movies. After all, there might just be some good theme park talent in there. I mean, I recall a really horrible Korean-American film from 1985 called LA Streetfighters (later renamed Ninja Turf)…
…and one of the actors from that film went on to host the Thea Awards.
Imagine a world where huge equipment racks, incredible amounts of heat, miles and miles of cables, and soaring operational costs are a thing of the past. Brian Edwards of Edwards Technologies has envisioned such a world, and these days he’s making it a reality with the ETI Cloud-based Content Management System.
The cloud’s a confusing enough concept. I’ll just simplify it by stating something along the lines of a room full of AV racks can be replaced by just a few Mac minis. I like to think of it like replacing your the gas tank in your car with with five D-size batteries.
So just these few minis, with the assistance of the cloud, can do incredible things. But what if instead of minis, you were using something else, like, say, a supercomputer?
Recently, Brian’s been spending a lot of time with Steve Chen, the lead designer of the Cray supercomputer and one of the industry’s pioneers. What Brian told me is quite mindblowing and here’s an example, based on what he told me.
I’ll work with two attractions from Disney and George Lucas: Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Adventure.
The second generation of Star Tours is randomized, but it’s limited. Everything is limited by 1. the storage space for data and 2. the prerendered visuals. With supercomputer and cloud technology combined, every single variable would be entered in the system and the backgrounds, elemental conditions, and animations would all be rendered real time. The ride could go anywhere within the boundaries set within the system and no rides would be identical. Instead of around 50 possiblilities, there will be millions.
Now imagine that you’re going on the Indiana Jones ride. It’s raining outside, and as you enter the show building, it’s cold and you hear rain dripping. There might be water flowing down the wall as if there’s a leak in the roof. Or it’s hot and humid outside so you enter a steamy interior with fog effects turned up. The computer knows the elemental situation outside and matches it to the inside, seamlessly integrating the real world with the imagined.
As you board your vehicle, there are no sets. There are LED or OLED screens along the walls, projecting real time animation in autostereoscopic 3D. And because you answered a few questions about yourself at an interactive terminal before boarding, the ride is tailored to the tastes of you and your fellow riders. Hate snakes? We’ll add them by the hundreds.
That’s the future. And it’s already starting at ETI. Find out more about their Mac-based cloud at www.eticloud.com.
On the afternoon of August 24, 2020, I proposed to my now fiancé on a secluded beach along the rocky Northern California shore. Although I was successful, this was far from my original plans, which were altered at the last minute due to a natural disaster and a public health crisis.
Gone were the plans to propose at Diagon Alley. We were uncomfortable with flying to Florida at this point. A plan to propose on a cruise to Mexico was voided when the US cruise industry came to a standstill. And a proposal at Universal Studios Hollywood or Disneyland were also off the table – it was obvious they wouldn’t be open in time.
The final strategy involved a weekend getaway for her birthday at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay, about a half hour drive south of San Francisco. The proposal would have taken place on the cliffs behind the hotel, overlooking the ocean.
Two days before our trip, the San Mateo County Sheriff began evacuating the small town of Pescadero, only twenty minutes south of the Ritz Carlton, due to an approaching wildfire. We canceled our reservation and, at the the last minute, rescheduled our trip to Fort Bragg, two hundred miles to the north of Half Moon Bay.
During the summer, Fort Bragg’s economy is highly dependent on tourism. As such, and to protect its resident population, the town took strict precautions to prevent introduction of the coronavirus into the community. Dr. William Miller, the Chief of Staff at Mendocino Coast District Hospital wrote that it wasn’t until the first week of June that “Fort Bragg had its first local resident to be diagnosed with COVID-19. This person had traveled outside the community and became ill shortly after returning home.”
During our visit, unlike in our hometown, the safeguards were evident everywhere. Everyone wore face masks and all were conscientious about social distancing. Our hotel, the charming Beach House Inn, abided diligently to guidance established by the CDC, the state and county, and the California Hotel & Lodging Association. Everything in the room was sterilized prior to our arrival and no hotel staff, including housekeeping, entered the room once we had checked in. Continental breakfasts were discontinued, which was fine for us as grocery stores and coffee houses were a five minute drive away.
Fort Bragg is the second largest city in Mendocino County and the county’s largest tourist destination. More than 7,000 are employed in the county’s tourism industry, which brings in close to $500 million per year. Though the peak tourism season lasts through Labor Day weekend, it was obvious that this year it had ended months earlier. The town’s biggest tourism attraction – the Skunk Train – was operating on a limited schedule with capped attendance. To fill the gap, the scenic railroad operator began offering a new eco-tourism option – railbikes.
During our stay, two weeks before the Labor Day holiday, the hotels were packed. They weren’t packed with tourists, but rather those escaping the flames and smoke of huge wildfires that had erupted in Marin, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz Counties to the South and Lake County to the East. We decided during our stay to eat locally, but it became obvious that, even though local lodging was filled, the damage to the dining industry from state COVID guidance was already having a heavy negative impact.
A state mandate prohibiting indoor dining meant that if we wanted to eat at a restaurant, it would have to be outdoors or we’d have to pickup the food and eat it at our hotel or at a park. Most restaurants that would normally operate throughout the week had reduced the operating schedule to Thursday through Sunday. Because of the ban on indoor dining, restaurants had scrambled for available outdoor space, and in that space, tables had to be separated six feet from each other. As one manager told me, “I’m lucky we’re open and I can keep my current staff working. Even with our outdoor seating, we’re only about a quarter of our usual capacity. With payroll protection ending, I’m going to have to lay off just over half my staff.”
This is the story of one small town.
CONVENTIONS AND TRADE SHOWS
Imagine a much larger tourism city like Orlando, Anaheim, or Las Vegas – cities with limited interstate and international tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, where attractions are either opened with limited operations or closed completetly.
Now imagine that a major part of that city’s tourism comes from the convention business. The local economic impact from conventions at the Anaheim Convention Center was close to $2 billion last year. The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando has an annual impact on the local economy of $3 billion. Economic impact from the Las Vegas Convention Center is estimated at more than $2 bllion per year. When it comes to the entire Las Vegas area, where almost all casino resorts have their own convention facilities, the total economic impact from all convention venues is closer to $10.5 billion.
When large conventions cancel, a domino effect takes place. Hotel rooms aren’t filled, restaurants aren’t patronized, hourly employment is reduced, and residents dependent on convention business have less to spend within the local community.
Throughout the attractions sector, conventions and conferences started cancelling beginning in March 2020. Among them, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), World Waterpark Association (WWA). Comic-Con San Diego, and the country’s largest AV trade shows and conferences – including Infocomm and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
Some show cancellations were due to the inability to cater to international or interstate attendees as a result of transportation logistics or quarantine requirements. Many convention organizers also took into consideration a stipulation that most insurance companies added to convention policies during the SARS outbreak of 2003 – an exemption of coverage for anything related to communicable disease.
As compared to commercially operated conventions open to the public, nonprofit trade associations running their own shows have a primary responsibility to their membership – which for many includes not placing their members in risky situations.
One of the final standouts for cancellation was the IAAPA Expo, scheduled to take place in November 2020. Even as IAAPA cancelled its international Expos in Macau and London, it continued with plans to hold its primary show in Orlando. Unsubstantiated rumors state that in order to prevent its largest tenant from cancelling, which might send the wrong signal to other bookers, the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) was offering substantial discounts to IAAPA, one rumor going so far as to state that OCCC was willing to comp the entire show.
Then pressure started coming from within the membership. On August 6, four attractions industry vendors – Chance Rides, Great Coasters International, Larson International, and Premier Rides, published a well circulated joint open letter to their customers explaining that they had all backed out of participation and attendance at the 2020 IAAPA Expo.
Two days prior, Ancasvi and VDV e.V., trade organizations representing ride and attraction manufacturers in Italy and Germany, published a lesser known open letter to IAAPA management requesting the event be postponed to early 2021, in light of the then public health situation in Florida. Among the ninety members represented by the letter were major IAAPA exhibitors, including Zamperla, Gerstlauer, Huss, Wiegand, Mack Rides, and Maurer.
Most canceled conferences, conventions, and trade shows ended up being adapted into virtual events. Of the six that I’ve attended so far, each has had its own hosting platform and approach. While successful during a global pandemic, this practice is likely a one-off. Moving forward, we’re more likely to see hybrid events, with emphasis on in-person attendance and virtual casting of some, but not all, sessions for those not able to attend.
During the keynote presentation of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) virtual 2020 conference, keynoter Bob Cooney briefly interviewed Brent Bushnell, CEO and co-founder of interactive LBE Two Bit Circus. With their downtown Los Angeles location closed, Two Bit began broadcasting its live interactive game shows on the internet. Bushnell discovered something very important – “Elements of the live experience cannot be replicated on a video call.”
The same goes for any live event. I prefer to make personal eye contact with luminaries such as Lonnie Bunch III or Tom Mehrmann at a presentation, rather than watch their eyes skirt across a computer screen. I don’t want to chat via text. I want to have a face to face, where multiple inputs allow us to more robustly react off of each other.
As humans, we are sensorial creatures. An online event limits us to just two senses – vision and hearing. In a live situation, we are all impacted equally by the conditions of our shared room – temperature, air conditioning, decor. When we speak one-on-one, our conversations are impacted by body language – not just the part of the body we see within the computer or phone screen, but the entire body. We are impacted if someone physically touches us, and if we touch them. Our response changes if their breath smells of mint, or if it smells of something far worse.
A side effect of COVID-19 is the acceleration of automated and app-based solutions for a number of needs. In the attractions industry, this includes digital ticketing, virtual queueing, and cashless ordering. But, again, we are sensorial creatures. So it’s near impossible to have customer-service oriented automation without humans present in a supplemental role.
Back at the Beach House Inn in Fort Bragg, I took the dog out shortly after midnight to do his dog business. When we returned to our building, I realized that I had left my keycard inside the room, and I needed that card to enter the building. I couldn’t call up to my fiancé in the room since I had also left my phone. The office to our hotel was closed, but fortunately I had the car keys with me. So I put the dog in the car and we drove half a mile down the shore to our hotel’s sister property. After verifying I was indeed a guest, the desk clerk followed me back to our hotel and personally let me into our building.
I would have been frustrated beyond compare if I had had to use an automated system to get back into my room, especially if that system were not working properly.
In April 2019, we flew on a whim to Las Vegas. We entered the long check-in line for Mandalay Bay, the hotel we were booked at. The line was moving at a decent pace.
Then it stopped.
And it did not move for forty minutes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a bank of automated check-in terminals. Fortunately, there were humans present to help people through the process – humans who, at that moment, told me that the key system had crashed.
So we checked in our luggage at the bell counter and went off to the casino. We found that most of the slot machines were down. As a representative at the rewards counter told us, the slots were all integrated, just like the key system, with parent company MGM Resorts’ membership program and the program’s software had crashed.
About five hours later, we were checked into our suite and we received a call from the bell captain. The wheels had fallen off of our suitcase. He apologized (even though it was just likely wear and tear) and offered us either a new suitcase or a $250 dining credit. It made a world of difference to go from a system breakdown by a computer server that had no interpersonal skills to receiving an apology and an offer from a live human. That night, we had steak and lobster.
We are sensorial creatures and no matter how much the automation industry argues that programs are adapting to human behavior, the reality is that we, as humans, are having to adapt our behavior to the technology. For many of us, that’s difficult. It’s why there’s a live person overseeing the automated checkout at our local grocery, why McDonald’s maintains manned counters even though a majority of locations have adopted touch screen and app ordering, it’s why on my visit to Six Flags, I went through three checkpoints before entering the park, each manned by one to two people. We need people to guide us through the technology. When the technology doesn’t work, we need people to troubleshoot. We need people to make sure nobody’s using the technology to cheat the system. We need people for human comfort.
Disney knew this in 1982, when restaurant reservations at Epcot’s WorldKey Information kiosks were handled by live customer service representatives over closed circuit video feed, rather than by the pressing of touch screen buttons.
But now in California, Disney doesn’t know when it can take reservations as it fights the state for the right to reopen its parks. It’s the great political game pitting the economy against public health, next time in Part II of “2022: The ThemedReality Report on COVID-19’s Impact on the Attractions Industry”
DISCLAIMER: This report centers around activities primarily in the United States. Conditions will vary in other nations due to differences in cultural behavior, government regulations, and government ownership of private and public entities. Additional disclaimers can be found by clicking on the menu tab in the top right of this page.
For more than twenty years, I worked in attractions and cultural institutions, often in positions with the title Manager or Director, and I’ve been writing professionally and blogging about a number of attractions-related topics for the past fifteen years. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and research, which is why I do not mind being cited or quoted in articles and social media, even if the person quoting me has a different outlook. In fact, I encourage it.
Ken Storey, writing in the Orlando Weekly, has gone beyond this by transmogrifying my writing, beliefs, and even my biography in order to support his theses. In all my years of writing, Mr. Storey is the only person I’ve encountered who has significantly botched both the story of my life and the content of my writing – and on a serial basis.
To understand how, here are a few examples of numerous such instances.
“After years of unsubstantiated rumors, it looks like Six Flags may finally be headed to Orlando” Orlando Weekly, November 12, 2018:
Storey wrote: “Through ThemedReality, Kleiman has fueled the pro-captivity side with massively detailed posts that regularly serve as talking points. On the site, Kleiman has been upfront in his outrage regarding the move by SeaWorld to phase out orca breeding and transition to more educational based animal interactions.”
If you click on them, you’ll notice that neither of the links in this paragraph lead directly to my writing. The first one (“pro-captivity side”) links to a Kings Island fan group chat board, where at the time you could link to an early blog post on ThemedReality. This ThemedReality post was about media and corporate duplicity, not aboutpromoting the “pro-captivity side”. Although not currently available on this blog, and I’ll explain why shortly, this post was ported in 2014 to my other blog, “The Mid-Cap Chronicles”, and it can be read here.
The second (“talking points”) links to the Facebook page “Stand With SeaWorld” and its link to an article on the website “Behind The Thrills”, an article that I had no involvement with. I wasn’t even mentioned in this particular Behind The Thrills article. Of the 80+ comments on the Stand With SeaWorld Facebook post, none of them are from me. Talking points are clearly coming from elsewhere.
It is odd that Mr. Storey would position me as “pro-captivity” at a time I had developed (and still maintain) longstanding relationships with animal activists working on welfare issues in Asia and Eastern Europe. At the time of Mr. Storey’s story, the ThemedReality blog was already nearing 70,000 views, most of them from the animal activist community.
As you can tell from the stats above, Mr. Storey’s stories only contributed to 71 hits for the entire year. Through this and reference monitoring on other Storey stories linked to the ThemedReality blog, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of his readers are not clicking on the links. Instead of reading what I wrote, they are perceiving my work as manipulated by Mr. Storey.
Regarding the statement: “Kleiman has been upfront in his outrage regarding the move by SeaWorld to phase out orca breeding and transition to more educational based animal interactions,” here is text from a 2014 blog post contradicting Mr. Storey’s inaccurate assertion. Although I respect the beliefs of many who disagree, I stand by what I wrote six years ago. I think it was the right decision, even though I don’t believe it was properly implemented.
So I prefer a strategy that would benefit SeaWorld, its visitors, and the animals’ welfare. Many former SeaWorld trainers that I’ve spoken to or listened to advocate this plan, at least in part.
End the captive breeding. The gene pool can only go so far before defects from inbreeding start to show. Eliminate wild capture or the importation of wild caught orcas from international parks or the importation of orca sperm from donors in other parks. Essentially, the current SeaWorld populations will die out within fifty years, but it won’t spell the end of SeaWorld. The chain existed before housing captive orcas, it will exist after.
Eliminate the choreographed shows. Keep the trainers, but instead of having them instruct the orcas to perform behaviors on cue, have them encourage the orcas to perform natural behaviors at their own whim.
In addition to predating Mr. Storey’s story by four years, this post’s appearance on the ThemedReality blog and its Mid-Cap Chronicles port, available to read by clicking here, both appeared online months before the hiring of Joel Manby as SeaWorld CEO, who implemented versions of both strategies.
“SeaWorld’s largest shareholder may be pushing the company into bankruptcy” Orlando Weekly, June 24, 2020
Mr. Storey’s most recent SeaWorld story, the third Storey story in a thirty day period to target the company’s Chairman of the Board, misrepresents one of my most recent blog posts. At one point he states: “Later on in the post, Kleiman explains, ‘I have a strong feeling the company is contemplating filing for bankruptcy.'”
I did indeed state this.
“The claim is especially surprising coming from a reporter who is known for his connections to SeaWorld, which date back to his own time at the company decades ago, along with personal connections to SeaWorld San Diego.”
I believe I understand why he’s stating this in such a fashion. If a person with close personal connections to the company states the company might be contemplating filing for bankruptcy, then it must be news!
That association ended 33 years ago and I have visited the company’s parks a total of three times – once as a tourist and twice as a journalist – in those 33 years. Most of my SeaWorld connections have moved on to other zoos and theme parks, which is why I mostly get my SeaWorld information the old fashioned way – I send questions and requests to the company through the appropriate media relations channels, which I base on extensive research involving court documents and government filings (the kind of research that’s both time consuming and a big financial investment out of my own pocket). That’s why it’s so irritating to put so much effort into seeking and reviewing primary source material only to have those efforts misrepresented in such a manner by someone I barely know.
This misrepresentation is no more apparent than in another of Mr. Storey’s statements: “Kleiman’s conclusion is built around what Scott Ross, chairman of the board and founder partner at Hill Path Capital – SeaWorld’s largest shareholder – is willing to do to finally move beyond SeaWorld.”
When I wrote this post, I was examining what was taking place at the time with companies big and small across multiple business sectors – not just attractions and theme parks. When companies started closing due to the COVID pandemic, vendors, especially smaller, family-owned ones started worrying if they’d survive if they weren’t paid. To ensure they got payment, they started placing liens on projects. SeaWorld was the recipient of a higher than normal number of liens.
Was SeaWorld considering bankruptcy? It certainly was an option and the post presents clues on how the company, along with its largest shareholder, was taking preemptive measures to offer early bonuses, protect assets, and sell some surplus animals to get some quick cash (a well trained dolphin can garner a quarter million dollars).
In the ThemedReality post Mr. Storey is referring to, I never wrote nor even thought while writing that the company’s lead owner and Chairman of the Board was attempting to drive the company into bankruptcy so he could “move beyond SeaWorld.” Bankruptcy was apparently contemplated by the company, as it has been by many companies during the COVID-related closures, but I did not find, and still can not find, any evidence that bankruptcy was advocated by the ownership. Instead, actions taken by Hill Path and SeaWorld throughout June, July, and into the present, indicate a desire to avoid any kind of insolvency whatsoever. In my next blog post (which was originally slated for this slot), I’ll present evidence, some of it well published, some of it not, but in the public record, of why the company will remain solvent for the next few years.
A few days after Storey’s bankruptcy story ran, the theme park website BehindTheThrills.com ran an article that, in it’s first half, highlighted inconsistencies in Mr. Storey’s story. The second half of the Behind The Thrills article was about PETA encouraging SeaWorld to replace its dolphins with robotic ones. It was included because Mr. Storey’s bankruptcy story was cited by PETA in an open letter to SeaWorld Chairman Scott Ross:
June 26, 2020
Founder and Managing Partner
Hill Path Capital LP
Dear Mr. Ross,
I’m writing on behalf of PETA following the Orlando Weekly‘s recent article suggesting that SeaWorld is considering filing for bankruptcy and may be looking to “offload” some or all of the animals in its parks in order to reduce animal care costs and make the park more appealing to potential buyers. If either or both of these points are true, SeaWorld must stop breeding more dolphins and whales. As you are the chair of the company’s board and the founder of its largest shareholder, Hill Path Capital LP, we look to you to take that step.
Instead of producing generations of animals to suffer in cramped tanks at its parks—something the public has shown it doesn’t support—SeaWorld could easily install cutting-edge forms of entertainment that allow ticket-holders to feel that they’re interacting with real animals when they’re not. This move would save you significant money, as there would be no animal care expenses, and it would win back visitors who now shun the parks. Animatronic dolphins look, feel, and act just like real dolphins, and interactive digital aquariums have been called the way of the future.
As COVID-19 continues to threaten SeaWorld, a marine park in Australia is proposing to move the dolphins it has to a seaside sanctuary. The National Aquarium has also chosen to send dolphins to a sanctuary, and The Whale Sanctuary Project plans to build the first refuge for whales in North America. PETA’s offer still stands to donate a significant sum toward building a seaside sanctuary if SeaWorld will agree to stop breeding dolphins and whales and release them into it.
May we hear from you?
Very truly yours,
Ingrid E. Newkirk
Perhaps Mr. Storey was unaware of this letter when he wrote in a tweetstorm:
In the same rant (his words), he also wrote:
Another thing Mr. Storey may not be aware of is that for the past few years, I’ve been an occasional contributor to Behind The Thrills. They were kind enough to contact me in advance of publication and asked me to check the accuracy of the portion of their article that pertained to my blog post and Mr. Storey’s representation of it. With a minor correction, it went online with my consent and full blessing.
To the contrary, Mr. Storey and the editors of Orlando Weekly have never bothered to contact me to vet Mr. Storey’s stories. Nor have they had the courtesy to notify me of their pending publication.
I found out about the November 2018 article via an email from a well known animal activist, who told me, “I don’t get it. I’ve known you for five years and this isn’t you.”
I found out about the June 2020 article when a SeaWorld contractor called me, yelling into the phone, “What do you mean they’re getting rid of all the animals?”
Remember folks, if it’s in a Ken Storey story and it’s not a direct quote, it’s not me talking.
The next step
These are just a few of many points where Mr. Storey misrepresents me through malice, negligence, or omission. Regardless of how much he writes about me, he continues to show an incomprehension about who I am, what I write, and why I write it. As he has himself expressed concern that he was maligned by the national media for his own writing, I would have expected otherwise.
That said, this is not the blog piece I intended on posting today, but the situation has gotten out of hand and I want to share what I’m doing about it.
It is my belief that Mr. Storey’s continued misrepresentation of my writing, my beliefs, and my biography have negatively impacted my professional reputation and affected my ability to gain new clients for my work as an independent contractor. As a result, a few days after Mr. Storey’s bankruptcy story went to print, my legal team advised me to remove and archive all posts from this blog in order to mitigate further malfeasance.
At the same time I removed the posts, my legal team began an extensive investigation into Mr. Storey’s articles, social media posts, comments on websites, and even the brief period he and I direct messaged each other. This investigation looked at content going back to 2011, the year I launched the ThemedReality blog.
Based on his prior behavior, I would not be surprised if Mr. Storey argues with my points to “prove” his accuracy, becomes combative, portrays himself as victim, or labels me any number of less than desirable terms.
This will be the last time I will offer public comment about Mr. Storey in any internet medium, as this has now become a legal matter. I advise Mr. Storey to reciprocate this action for the same reason.
The person who best understands a life lived is the person who lived it.
The person who best knows what’s written is the person who wrote it.
As a basis for this blog post, I will be using an article I wrote for InPark Magazine. The article took two weeks to develop, compose, and undergo editing. State officials and theme park management were interviewed and everything was vetted.
That’s reporting and them’s the facts. Now, on to opinion.
This is what I believe:
California’s theme parks will likely not open in 2020 as “theme parks” – in particular, no rides nor indoor attractions.
Parks will open under the guise of Stage 2 businesses that they can meet reopening guidance for.
While Six Flags Discovery Kingdom has reopened as a zoo, under the moniker “Marine World Experience,” I’m highly skeptical that SeaWorld San Diego will open this year. Unlike Discovery Kingdom and the SeaWorld parks in Texas and Florida, the San Diego park operates on land leased from the city. It is currently under a rent deferment due to the situation surrounding COVID-19, as are most businesses on city-leased land surrounding Mission Bay. However, under its lease agreement, SeaWorld is required to make an annual minimum payment to the city of just over $10 million. Once operations recommence, the city also gets a percentage of parking, admissions, food and beverage, and other revenue streams. With competition in the market from the San Diego Zoo, Birch Aquarium, and SEA LIFE Aquarium, and the Summer season pretty much a wash, it looks like the park might actually lose less money by remaining closed for the rest of the year than reopening to a low admission cap and just animal attractions.
While the Disneyland Resort could extend Downtown Disney by opening the Main Street and Buena Vista Street sections of its theme parks under the guise of a shopping mall, it might be better off by following the Knott’s strategy by opening select areas of its parks for ticketed events with capped attendance. Other parks, depending on location, will likely find opening select sections of their parks under the guise of shopping malls or for limited ticket events to be a profit risk.
Some parks with go kart tracks, laser tag, and miniature golf could try to open under FEC guidelines. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has many such participatory activities.
Having been to the Marine World Experience, and having talked with folks who have been to other Six Flags parks that have opened around the country, I’m comfortable that the theme park industry has their act together. In fact, I felt more comfortable and safe at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom than I do at my own local grocery stores.
But it’s not up to the parks. It’s up to the individual states. And here in California, the state bases its regulations on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases , hospitalizations, and deaths reported in each county. As they increase, businesses are forced to re-close or modify operations for a prescribed number of weeks. And each time that happens, the reopening road map gets pushed back and the opening of theme parks gets farther and farther away.
I consider the Summer season to be over. Schools are about to start up again and most districts have elected to go virtual in the Fall. I don’t expect the state to permit theme parks to open earlier than September, which means they’ve missed out on most weekday family visitation at a time when interstate and international tourism is pretty much nonexistent.
They could open around Labor Day weekend, which would place them in the perfect position for Halloween events. However, I don’t see how Halloween Horror Nights, Haunts, and Scary Farms can take place under current guidance, unless there are no scare zones with fog machines and guests wander through mazes two or four at a time with monsters and ghouls living on the other side of plexiglass. I anticipate some major cancellation announcements of theme park Halloween events within the next few weeks.
They could reopen around Thanksgiving for the holidays. It would be a true Christmas miracle. That’s hoping, of course, that the predicted second wave of COVID-19 doesn’t hit around Sept – Nov, pushing state approval of theme park openings back even further.
My best guess is that, especially with the Rose Parade being cancelled – and that’s almost six months away! – parks won’t reopen until the beginning of 2021. This means that 3/4 of the 2020 fiscal year for California’s parks (1/2 for Disney, which starts its fiscal year in October), would be considered a wash.
In November 2018, I visited Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood exactly six days apart. Now, I didn’t experience everything as the Orlando visit was for a private party during which only 1/3 of the park was open. However, as this was my first visit to a stateside Universal park in quite some time, many of the attractions were new to me and I noticed a lot more screens than there used to be.
BEHIND THE SCREENS
In each of these film-based attractions (I’ll use a term introduced in the 1990s – “ridefilms”), it is the characters, the shape of the screen, and the shaky mechanism for the seats that defines its uniqueness.
And also the plot. Though the plots are so similar, there’s actually a key to defining them.
In the mid-1990’s, filmed attraction veterans Charlotte Huggins and Ray Spencer came up with the following formula, which is still followed to this day: The genre is split into six plot categories: 1) Roller coaster/Track, 2) Flying, 3) Underwater, 4) Racetrack/One Plane, 5) Object/Person point-of-view and 6) Dark Ride. Within those plots, the following devices are most common: A) Sister Ship, B) Molecular Shrink, C) Time Machine, D) Crisis Landing, E) Something’s Wrong With Our Ship, F) Save the Planet, G) Oops! Wrong direction, H) Time Clock, I) Encounter an Evil Creature, J) Camera point-and-shoot and K) On-camera “host.”* So…using the formula,the classic Universal attraction Back to the Future: the Ride comes across as 2ACDEFGHIK.
There are a few elements in each ride that, though most guests may not pick up on them, add to the uniqueness of the attraction. In The Simpsons Ride, the vehicle, disguised as a dark ride car, slightly edges forward as if about to go through a pair of doors, only to rise up into the theater. At the end of the experience, riders believe their on-ride photo is being taken. But it’s a trick. The actual photo comes a few seconds later.
The film in Kung Fu Panda Adventure is actually a clone of the one used on the Kung Fu Panda: Unstoppable Awesomeness 3D simulator attraction at MOTIONGATE Dubai. But instead of being a direct port, the 2D film in Hollywood expands around the interior architecture of the DreamWorks Theatre through the use of additional projectors and crisp image blending. The designers and animators took full advantage of this and guests will notice the architectural elements integrated into the film, such as faux windows that animated characters climb through.
PEOPLE CAN’T SEE THE DARKNESS
For almost all of its 3D attractions at both parks, Universal uses INFITEC technology, developed by Daimler Benz. INFITEC has its advantages – a single projector can be used and it can be projected onto a single white screen, rather than a silver painted screen to increase light gain.
INFITEC also has a major shortcoming – the filters drastically reduce light levels. One study I’ve read reported that light levels dropped by 94%. This means that for the setup in this study, researchers were only able to see 6% of the brightness of a 2D image when viewing in 3D. And that sucks.
The 3D images at Universal are noticeably dark. For a movie theater that’s running Dolby 3D (Dolby has the cinema license for INFITEC), it makes sense to pump up the light level if you’re only showing a film four or five times a day. But if you’re a theme park operating an attraction nonstop for twelve or more hours each day, that becomes costly. So the easy way out is to limit light output and hope nobody notices or cares. (If you’re a Universal pass holder, ride Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and then immediately go to The Simpsons Ride or Kung Fu Panda Adventure – you’ll see for yourself how dark the 3D image gets).
Now don’t get me wrong here – INFITEC is actually my favorite 3D technology. When done right, the images and the color are amazing. But to be done right, you really have to pump up the light levels. Hopefully, the next generation of RGB laser projectors will be able to fix this issue at Universal in the future.
There are two 3D attractions that stood out as being the exception to the norm – King Kong 360 and Fast & Furious: Supercharged, both on the Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour. As best I could tell, the glasses handed to us for the tour were not INFITEC, but rather polarized. The image that we had on both attractions was crisp, clear, and vibrant, making them my second and third favorite attractions at the Hollywood park. I wish I could say the same about the Orlando version of Fast & Furious, but that version of the attraction was not designed by humans.
THE RECAST AND THE EGREGIOUS
Ever since he was a young lad growing up near the port in San Pedro, Kevin had wanted to become an attraction designer for Universal Studios. As a teenager, he would cut class and take the bus to Hollywood, sneaking onto the upper lot, where he’d talk with KITT, dress like a Klingon, and take a tram tour through a spaceship full of Cylons.
After thirteen years of intensive schooling at the California Institute of the Arts and an internship at Medieval Times, Kevin’s dream finally came true (sort of) when he was hired to work the mail room at Universal Creative.
Over the years, Kevin worked his way up through the ranks until one day, he was called into the office of the big boss himself, Mark.
“People are loving Fast & Furious: Supercharged in Hollywood,” said Mark. “I want to bring it to Florida – faster and more furious than ever. And Kevin, I want you to lead the project.”
Kevin knew he could do no wrong and he pulled together a crack team of theme park design and technology experts.
Among the first things Kevin wanted to do was to push the film franchise’s message of family. “I think we should bring in a couple of characters from the films for a pair of preshows and have them interact with support staff,” he told his team. “They can have serious, concerned conversations and make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the family.”
“Brilliant,” said Bob, the attraction’s story writer. “But I have a big concern. If we have the actors from the film come in and exhibit emotion, interacting with trained Equity actors on stage, people might get too gushy about being in the family and never want to leave the preshow rooms.”
“I’m listening,” said Kevin. “Go on.”
“How about instead,” continued Bob, “we pay Ludacris and Jordana $10,000 and a cup of Starbucks each and just have them talk into the camera without any emotion? Then, instead of trained actors, we transfer some shirt folders from retail and have them interact on stage with the emotionless videos!”
“Brilliant!” said Kevin, “Let’s do that!”
Suddenly, Stuart, the attraction’s audio-visual integrator chimed in. “We can’t do this ride in 3D.”
“Why not?” Kevin asked.
“Because I only have one eye,” Stuart replied. “Besides, it will look better in 2D. The image will be 94% brighter!”
“Brilliant!” said Kevin. “Let’s make a blockbuster attraction.”
Kevin brought the final plans to Mark, who replied, “This is brilliant! We’ll start construction immediately.”
A few months later, the Themed Entertainment Association found out about the attraction. “Brilliant!” said all its members. And they bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon Mark.
THREE TRUTHS AND THE THREE BROOMSTICKS
Every park has that one attraction that ends up being sub-standard for any number of reasons (budget cuts, vendor and contractor issues, poor interdepartmental communication, The Jungle Book) – Journey Into YOUR Imagination, Rocket Rods, that General Electric ride at SeaWorld where you ride through the spin cycle of a washing machine with, for some reason, penguins.
Mark Woodbury’s lifetime achievement award is very much deserved. He and his team have established remarkable new standards in the theme park and attractions industries.
Where Universal excels is attention to detail in creating three dimensional 360-degree immersive spaces. Orlando’s Fast & Furious attraction was a beautiful piece of architectural design. Unfortunately, that means the thing I remember as being most remarkable wasn’t the preshows or the ride itself, but rather the exit ramp from the second preshow room to the station for the ride vehicles. Every time it snakes around, the ramp becomes thinner, siphoning guests from a large crowd into a single person line without the majority being aware this was taking place, or how.
Check this out. This is the ceiling of a restaurant:
This is the Three Brooms Restaurant at Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not only was the food delicious, but the environment came alive simply through its scope and detail.
Such attention to detail could be found throughout the Wizarding World. A trip to Olivander’s Wand Shop began with a visit to a secret room where a young wizard (a child-like guest) is fitted with a wand. This is a short and quite enjoyable show (with long lines later in day) that uses lighting, music, and physical effects.
The audience is let out into the actual store itself, where they can purchase an interactive wand. Wandering around the land, they can then use the wand at various marked locations to execute spells. A small show leads to an impulse buy which leads to exploration, retention in the land and the high potential for increased purchase of retail and food & beverage. Genius.
And holy crap! A dead girl talks to you in the restroom!
Springfield at the Hollywood park is a glorified food court. But oh how glorious it is. Behind this facade is the highly detailed second story seating area for Krusty Burger. We sat around the corner in the second story of Cletus’ Chicken Shack, enjoying well seasoned chicken tenders and a chicken and waffle sandwich in a fully rendered Appalachianesque shack turned chicken joint, complete with childrens’ overalls hanging on a wash line. Above us an oversized TV showed video of animated characters vomiting. I would expect nothing less from The Simpsons.
RATING THE ATTRACTIONS FROM 1 (VERY BAD) TO 10 (RIDE AGAIN AND AGAIN)
Revenge of the Mummy (Florida)
Fantastic as hell and a great use of the cavernous space once occupied by Kongfrontation. The projection technology is obviously a bit outdated, but this ride is due for an overlay. Unfortunately, did not get to experience the Hollywood version, which I understand has a much different profile. Rating: 9
Fast & Furious: Supercharged (Florida)
Ummmm……no. My riding companion, an analyst well known in the industry, has never seen the films and was very confused with the attraction. Without the stereo images behind them, the smoke and spray effects appear static. I will always remember how little of the film I actually could experience as the ride kept spraying me in the face with what, at worst, was water, and, at best, Grey Goose vodka. Rating: 2
Dark INFITEC images and a lack of emotional connection as found in the similar Spider-man ride kind of ruined this for me. But it was fun and the hidden rise to the second floor was really cool. For some reason, I recall it being brighter in Singapore. Rating: 6
Rip Ride Rockit (Florida)
Another holy crap! First of all, going through the metal detector and getting wanded made me feel like I was at a concert. Then I made the mistake of riding while wearing my glasses. I didn’t think it would be a problem. I had ridden all three coasters at SeaWorld Orlando earlier in the week and didn’t have an issue. Coming out of the first drop and into the inverted loop, my glasses started to fall off. I grabbed them, holding so hard I popped out a lens. So now, holding my glasses and the separated lens tightly with my left hand, I reached out into the air with my right hand and zoomed through the rest of this fantastic ride, all to the perfectly synched music of Daft Punk. Rating: 9
Race Through New York (Florida)
I love this attraction. Let me say that again. I love this attraction. There’s a lot of inside humor revolving around Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show, but even you’ve never seen it, you’ll get most of the jokes. The first floor lobby shrine is classy. Only two problems – the INFITEC darkness again and, since the seats on the motion base are modeled after those in Fallon’s studio, the seat belt situation was a bit awkward. Rating: 9
Walking Dead (Hollywood)
This attraction is like a freebie from Halloween Horror Nights. The queue area features a fully 3-dimensional environment that includes hanging ceiling tiles and exposed wires. There was one part of the attraction – a loading dock – with a doorway leading to a backstage area. It was so realistically themed that the VIP tour guests in front us went through it thinking it led to to the next set and we ended up in front – just where you want to be in a haunt maze. Rating: 6
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (Hollywood)
The queue sucks. It’s a long, bland, boring switchback, and the video seems to repeat every 15 minutes. I would expect nothing less from Gru. The preshow rooms are cute. The Hannah Barbara/Jimmy Neutron theater from Florida seems to have been cloned here, taking over a spot once occupied by the beautiful Miles Dyson Memorial Auditorium. INFITEC darkness ruined what should have been a vividly bright ride. The dance area made no sense and even kids were ignoring it. The retail and food outlets were great. Greatest part of the area – Super Silly Funland. We discovered a new interactive game. Find your way through the splash zone to the cleanest, most enjoyable, least well known restrooms in the park – and find your way back – without getting soaked by a flipping bucket of water. Rating: 4 for the ride, 7 for Super Silly Funland
Studio Tour (Hollywood)
The tour has become even more of a hodgepodge than it ever was. It’s become too reliant on video, which turns out to be a Jimmy Fallon skit here and there and a lot of special feature materials from DVDs. Earthquake is always fun, but the train didn’t come out of the tunnel. The flash flood and Jaws remain as the other two physical effect showcases. Kong 360 and Fast & Furious were amazing. It felt (unlike Fast & Furious in Orlando) that we were actually moving at high speed and, for Kong, that we were twisting in circles. Rating: 5 without the 3D attractions, 10 with.
The Simpsons Ride (Hollywood)
The queue sucks. It’s a long, bland, boring switchback, and the video seems to repeat every 20 minutes. I would expect nothing less from Krusty the Clown. I love how the preshow video briefly honors the Back to the Future ride. The other original video clips poking fun at theme park conventions were great as well. Unfortunately, we became sick of them by the fifth go-around. The preshow rooms are fun, with some great Simpsons insider humor. Now, I loved the ride – thank you Mark for not turning this into another INFITEC travesty – but had one small little problem. It was a little weird to have the preshow all 2D animation and the ride animated in 3D (animated, not projected). Anyone who’s seen Treehouse of Horror VI (or IMAX’s Cyberworld 3D) knows that the Simpsons can only become computer animated characters by entering a dimensional gap hidden behind a bookcase and that it usually ends with Homer falling into a dumpster in our universe and entering an erotic cake store. This is true. Watch the episode on Hulu. But darn was that a fun ride. Rating: 7
DreamWorks Theatre (Hollywood)
The night before Universal, we went to the Two Bit Circus Micro-Amusement Park in downtown Los Angeles, where they have this updated version of the arcade game Battlezone. You sit in a D-BOX seat wearing a virtual reality headset, shooting everything. This was kind of like that. You sit in what, by all appearances, is a D-BOX seat while a wraparound screen shows what I’m guessing is an XBOX ONE Kung Fu Panda video game being played by a six year old, who wins the game in the end. Having only seen the first film, I had no idea what was going on or why, but it sure was fun. Thank you Mark Woodbury for keeping out the INFITEC darkness. Rating: 7
This show is as good as when I saw it opening week. It remains a worthy successor to the A-Team and Miami Vice stunt shows that preceded it in this location (I miss them both). Only one small problem, and it really is petty. The actress playing Helen had the brightest glowing bleached teeth I have ever seen in my life. Now, if I recall the international blockbuster film correctly, people in this distopian future urinate into a machine to get fresh water. So, if Helen’s brushing her teeth with that water, it makes me wonder what’s in the urine. Folks, this is ThemedReality, not Forbes. Rating: 9
Hogsmeade/Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Hollywood)
Thank you Mark Woodbury for removing INFITEC from this ride before I experienced it. I feel sorry for those that did.
I have never been a big fan of the Harry Potter franchise. I’ve long thought the books to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ripoffs and the overall story arc to be nothing more than Star Wars fan fiction.
After entering this gate, I am a convert. Rating: 10
In 1915, the Panama Canal opened, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through center of the Americas. To celebrate this momentous milestone, the city San Diego held a glorious world’s fair. Here, the exotic animals that would become the basis of the San Diego Zoo could be found in cages for visitors to see up close. As could aboriginal men, part of an analysis (true to scientific thought of the day) of what caused mankind to change from savagery to civilization. Yes, men were on display in cages as a scientific display one hundred years ago.
WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO MUSEUMS
Last month I attended the California Association of Museum’s annual conference in Sacramento, as a journalist intent on learning what the latest trends are in the museum community. I found common themes of inclusion, race, diversity – not ironically the same themes that will appear over and over again at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting next month in St. Louis.
During a session titled “The Work Inside: Case Studies in Developing Conversations about Race, Equity and Inclusion,” Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Public Engagement at the San Diego Museum of Man spoke about the radical transformation that the museum has undergone in the past few years – from being about what biologically makes us “human” to what entails “humanity.” Playing a major role in this revised mission is an exploration of race and racism, with a permanent installation of the American Anthropological Association’s exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” as its centerpiece.
Combined with the former traveling exhibit are artifacts showcasing the history of race and race perception in San Diego – among these, a photo of an anthropological exhibit of live men in cages during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
Humankind has always been beleaguered by beliefs of superiority of one group over others – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender, gender identification, height, weight, hairstyle, piercings….the list goes on.
This behavior is not unique to humans. In the natural world, prejudices exist within other species as well. There is ageism, discrimination against the disabled, against those that look different, against those who act different. One of the biggest differences between animals and humans is that we, as a species, take those prejudices and code them into law – be it religious, civil, or a combination of both.
It is not a coincidence therefore that both the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit on the Black Panther movement featured redline maps of their respective cities. Instituted in 1934 by the newly established Federal Housing Administration, the practice of redlining utilized “residential security maps,” where ethnic and minority communities were distinguished on the map as being ineligible for financial services, resulting in continued impoverished conditions while artificially inflating home and property values in white neighborhoods.
Museums are now looking at the past to create dialogue about our present and our future. One could say this is a response to the Trump presidency. Certainly, there have been plenty of cries of racism during Trump’s first few months in office. But racism did not begin with him. Ferguson and Black Lives Matter took place under a different president. Women’s equality did not begin with him. The SONY hacks showing unequal pay took place under a different president. Native American rights did not begin with him. The protests at Dakota Access happened under a different president. And countless incidents on the same topics happened before under numerous governments going back decades, if not centuries, within the United States and around the world.
As keynote speakers Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg of Lord Cultural Resources showed, museums are changing their missions and the design of their exhibits as they shift from a hard power to a soft power philosophy of operation. The difference is night and day and comes from the world of international affairs, where “hard power” refers to military action, while “soft power” refers to diplomacy. In the museum world, the “hard power” model has a collection made of animal and artifact trophies collected around the world, explores the traditional hierarchies of empires, and the “great men” of note in history. A “soft power” museum influences through persuasion, attraction, or agenda setting. It becomes the catalyst for activism and community change on one end and discussion within the community on the other. Most “soft power” museums fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.
Museums are not the only place “soft power” can have an effect. In just a few days, a “soft power” moment will be taking place with the world’s leading themed entertainment designers.
WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO THEMED ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN
As has been discussed previously on this blog, there can easily be confusion between museum exhibit design and themed entertainment design. Themed entertainment is often equated with the fun to be had at theme parks. But it’s much more, and museum exhibit design is actually a subset of themed entertainment design. A theme is a topic or a setting. Entertaining is another way of saying engaging – engaging the mind through sensory or intellectual stimulation.*
If there’s a theme to this blog post, it’s intolerance and how we examine it. On Thursday, themed entertainment producer Kile Ozier will be sitting down with Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis during the 2017 TEA Summit to discuss the fact that being HIV positive in many nations where TEA members do business is illegal, and could result in prison (thus the men in cages analogy) and career destruction. Kile goes into more detail of his own issues working within the UAE in this excellent blog post.
But the HIV restrictions in the UAE, a theological monarchy, are not just for health purposes. They are a way of circumventing a human rights issue.
As a teenager growing up during the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, I was taught there were three ways you could get the HIV virus – homosexual sex, needles, and sitting on a public toilet. Yes, we were actually taught in public school the importance of keeping our rear ends suspended at least an inch above the toilet seat.
By my twenties, it was well known that anyone could contract the virus. I recall seeing a fax to a government official staying at a hotel I was working at. Without disclosing the most confidential of details, the one line that caught my attention stated simply: “Magic Johnson is going to announce tomorrow that he’s HIV positive.”
Later that year, one of my co-workers was hospitalized and passed away. We didn’t know until afterwards that he had died of AIDS. We found out only because his wife sued the hospital. According to her, he had been afraid to disclose the HIV to his family, co-workers, or his congregation because in the Conservative, Bible-thumping South, he feared that they would associate it with the lowest rungs of their perceived moral ladder – homosexuality, drug abuse, adulterous sex. The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, showed that he had acquired it through tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident.
But saying that HIV doesn’t affect just the gay community poses the same risks as saying “All Lives Matter,” when such a statement evades four hundred years of civil rights oppression among the African-American community. HIV has had an altering effect both within the gay community as an epidemic and all too real threat and from without as an associated tool for bias.
As a straight man, I’ve had gay friends, gay co-workers and bosses, and gay relatives all my life, but I didn’t understand HIV’s effect on the community until about a decade ago. It took the collaborative efforts of a playwright, director, actors, production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, and dozens of craftspeople and crew – a collaboration of the creative and the technical arts – for me to understand.
When I was the Audience Services Director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, we suddenly changed our last production of the season to Steve Yockey’s play “Octopus.” The plot is simple – an older gay couple has a one night tryst with a younger couple. One of the older men acquires AIDS and dies. But the anguish of both the surviving partner and that of the dead one – floating forever in an undersea abyss fighting off the eight-tentacled monster of the disease encircling him – are forever etched in my mind.
The arts and themed entertainment design have an ability to bring people together, to let them discover others and themselves in new and inventive ways. From Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook’s “Foresta Lumina,” which uses universal concepts of folklore, to the moving 7/7 tribute and dance number during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (not seen in the USA as NBC opted to switch to paid advertising during this segment), there is an ability to transgress boundaries.
It would be great if theme parks could take on the great issues of our day. But outside of conservation and environmentalism, they’re prone to leave societal issues to museums. Even Epcot, founded as a showcase of the great power of humanity working together, years ago eliminated two attractions where questions of race and inclusion could be discussed – Electronic Forum and Wonders of Life.
What Kile is doing is a first step – and I applaud him on that. He’s creating a dialogue within the creative community. If it succeeds – if the industry can place pressure on governments or become a political force and encourage the US, Canada, and European governments to exert the pressure – the soft power moves towards advocacy. And it can lead to advocacy on many other things. Once the foot is in the door, it has two ways to go. It can back out. Or it can go further.
And maybe one hundred years from now, a man with HIV in a cage won’t be a reality, but a photo of antiquated practices of the past in a display about humanity in a UAE museum.
*One important differentiating factor of themed entertainment, which is why it is inclusive of museums, is the OOH! Factor (trademark pending). It takes place Out Of Home in an environment where strangers can congregate for a shared experience.