Month: April 2021

4D Comes of Age

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.

dsc000872When 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.

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Ensing’s response: “He probably had it fabricated!”

Read about these two amazing projects in Sound & Communication.

ORIGINALLY POSTED 8/6/12 ON THEMEDREALITY.COM

Walt Disney, Theme Park Character

timthumbThe 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.

Plan a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum by visiting www.waltdisney.com.

ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/20/12 ON THEMEDREALITY.COM

SeaWorld Parks and its Animal Spirit Guides

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.

To learn more about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, visit www.seaworldparks.com

ORIGINALLY POSTED 2/28/12 AT THEMEDREALITY.COM

OBSCURE TRIVIA BREAK: B-movies and A-ttractions

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)…

la_streetfighters_poster_01…and one of the actors from that film went on to host the Thea Awards.

ORIGINALLY POSTED 3/5/12 ON THEMEDREALITY.COM

ETI and the Future of Ride Design

eti_logoImagine 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.

ORIGINALLY POSTED 2/9/12 AT THEMEDREALITY.COM