The Other Side of the News – March 2018

SeaWorld Gets the Deep Blues

Joel Manby’s out as SeaWorld’s CEO, replaced in the interim by long-term company executive John Reilly. The company’s Chief Creative Officer, Anthony Esparza, is also out. At the same time, Mike Denninger, another company veteran, has been promoted to Senior Vice President of Attractions. Is this a case of the old guard regaining control of the company and kicking out the new guard?

Yes and no.

Esparza is quite a talent – just look at his achivements for Herschend Family Entertainment. But his departure is indeed a byproduct of Manby’s resignation, as he was one of the highest profile Manby hires.

On the other hand, rather than replacing Esparza, Denninger’s promotion appears to be a consolidation of job duties within SeaWorld’s Deep Blue Creative design studio, picking up the slack created by the departure of Brian Morrow, who ran the US theme park design division in conjunction with Denninger.

Morrow’s departure to open his own design studio, b morrow productions, which had been months in the planning, had the unfortunate timing to coincide with the departures of Manby and Esparza, making it appear to some that the departures were all related – which they were not.

So, to summarize the current situation at SeaWorld’s Deep Blue Creative design studio:

  • Joel Manby out
  • Anthony Esparza out as a result of Manby’s departure
  • In a long-planned retirement, Brian Morrow leaves to establish own company
  • Mike Denninger promoted to consolidate his duties with Morrow’s.
  • To the best of my knowledge, John Linn, another veteran from the company’s Busch Entertainment Days, continues to run the Global Theme Park Development division.
  • Up in the air remains Steve Iandolo, Vice President of Resort Development, and another Manby hire from Herschend.
  • Nancy Hutson, Corporate Vice President of Events and Entertainment, left the company in December to become a Production Consultant for Norwegian Cruise Lines.
  • In October 2017, Crystal O’Hea, Senior Director of Expedition X, moved to SeaWorld’s marketing department, where as Senior Director, Brand Experiences & Innovation, she is responsible for, among other things, integrating the company’s Park to Planet marketing campaign. Expedition X was the part of Deep Blue Creative that sought to identify trends, innovative technology and unique partners who can boost SeaWorld’s creative firepower.

This leads to a few questions:

  • Has Deep Blue Creative been eliminated with its various divisions rerouted to other company departments?
  • Or has it been downsized to concentrating on attractions and resorts?
  • And with the departure of Esparza as CCO, who’s running the overall design studio?

Is the old guard taking control and the Manby folks parting ways a good thing? Depends on what you consider a good business plan. If you’re against captivity, then any business that holds animals has a bad business plan. If you’re a SeaWorld fan, then you can hope for the best and a return to what made you a fan to begin with. Ironically, one of the biggest questions I receive comes from both animal rights activists and SeaWorld fans: will the company resume the breeding of killer whales?

Stateside, that’s a bit of dilemma. Although breeding is now illegal in California, it is still permissible in Texas and Florida. The company would need to walk a fine line on the public relations front after having voluntarily committed itself to ending its killer whale breeding programs. However, resuming breeding would fill a gap caused by the 2017 transfer of six whales in its care to the Spanish zoo Loro Parque and the deaths of three whales stateside during the same year.

On the international front, if we are to believe, as I do, that SeaWorld’s library of killer whale genetic material was removed from California prior to the implementation of the state’s new law, the company would be able to artificially inseminate whales housed at Chinese facilities, with the offspring finding their way to Zhonghong’s SeaWorld branded parks in China without the whales having ever been on US soil. As I’ve mentioned before, the marine life park industry is booming in mainland China and killer whales are the next big thing (I expect between seven and ten killer whale show facilities in mainland China over the next decade). Since the majority of mainland Chinese who are familiar with the US SeaWorld parks associate the brand with killer whales, for Zhonghong to open its parks without killer whales means they lose a competitive edge in the market.

As profiled in the recent ThemedReality PowerPoint video (above), SeaWorld is undergoing an identity crisis and needs to determine the direction it wants to go – regional theme park company or operator of international destinations. Attendance is down year after year across the board due to a number of factors, including poor weather, increased media saturation by animal rights campaigns, new blockbuster attractions at higher profile competitors Disney and Universal, and increased competition from LEGOLAND and its associated Merlin brands.

One factor that has rarely been mentioned on earnings calls or reports is the negative impact that Manby’s decisions had on the company’s fan base, with SeaWorld finding itself offering substantially discounted tickets and season passes to offset losses caused by instituting the killer whale breeding ban, establishing its controversial partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, and the elimination of theatrical killer whale shows in California, all actions many of the park’s longest fans considered heretical and succumbing to the demands of animal rights activists.

When we look at the 2017 over 2016 revenue changes for the top seven publicly traded companies that operate theme parks in the United States, something is very obvious. All are up, except for one.

Merlin Entertainments up 11.6%

Universal Theme Parks up 10%

Disney Parks up 8%

Six Flags up 3%

Cedar Fair up 3%

Parques Reunidos’ fiscal year runs Oct 1 – Sept 30. Although fiscal year 2017 revenue was barely up 0.1% over 2016, the first quarter of the 2018 fiscal year, which ran from Oct 1 – Dec 31, 2017, was up 7.6% for the same quarter a year earlier.

On the other hand, 2017 revenue for SeaWorld was down 6% over the prior year.

Being the only major publicly traded operator with negative year over year results is a red flag. For the company to turn around, it will not only need to control costs and spending, but it will need to become enticing once again to the dedicated fan base it lost. At the same time, in order to pull in new clientele, it will need to become a value-based secondary park to Disney and Universal. Right now, the company’s competition isn’t the big two. It’s LEGOLAND.

Time will tell  if the old guard, in conjunction with the company’s new primary owners, can make that happen.

Now, there is one little gem hidden in SeaWorld’s annual report. In my 2015 article “SeaWorld’s Future Lies Not With FUR, But With FIR,” which appeared in English at InPark Magazine and in Italian on parksmania, I argued the need for SeaWorld to add hotels integrated with its parks in order to establish fully integrated resorts, a necessary step to successfully compete with other brands in its market, such as Disney, Universal, LEGOLAND, and Knott’s Berry Farm, which already have on-premises hotels and (with the exception of LEGOLAND) entertainment/dining/retail complexes. In January 2018, according to the annual report, SeaWorld Entertainment and Evans Hotels established a limited liability corporation in order to develop and build a hotel on the SeaWorld San Diego property (and contrary to media reports, the hotel location is on the far side of the property from the toxic dump, something I covered in an earlier piece on the now-canceled Blue World Project, and is unaffected by it – you can see the location for the hotel in the FIR article). If all goes according to plan, it could open within five years.

The Day Superman Become a Pedophile

On Sunday, January 6, 1991, CBS aired the television movie “Bump in the Night.” It starred Meredith Baxter-Birney as an alcoholic mother whose young son is abducted, as she reunites with her ex-husband, played by Wings Hauser, to locate him. The network advertised the film as “you’ll see Christopher Reeve as never before.” And they sure were right. Four years after his last foray as Superman, it was difficult for me to take in this role. Here was a childhood hero of mine, playing the abductor of Baxter-Birney’s eight year old son, an atrocious  man who was both a pedophile and a child pornographer.

I feel the same conflict with Gary Goddard, who spearheaded some of my favorite theme park projects from Monster Plantation to Star Trek: The Experience, and with John Lasseter, who helped turn Pixar into an animation powerhouse and later helped turn around Walt Disney Animation.  Plenty has been written about the accusations against both in the mainstream press, so I won’t discuss them here, other than to say that I refuse to take the Donald Trump route, where he considers those accused of sexual misconduct or physical abuse of a spouse to be innocent only because they say they’re innocent. Rather, I’ll simply state that I’ve heard enough stories from enough credible sources over the years to keep an open mind and accept that there just might be some credence to the current claims

Throughout the corporate world, there has been a continued practice of silence and shaming when it comes to workplace sexual harassment and sexual abuse. As the cases of Goddard and Lasseter show, the issue exists within the creative design community as much as anywhere else, and it’s much more extensive than just the allegations surrounding these two individuals. The problem is also very extensive on the operational end of attractions, theme parks, waterparks, and museums, where just within the past few months, a major waterpark executive was asked to resign over allegations, among other things, of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate.

Why the silence? Among many, there’s an idolization of the individual for his or her accomplishments. Some of us begin to doubt the accusations because they don’t coincide with how we envision the accused. Some of us don’t want to be “that guy” who speaks up and destroys a legendary career. Somewhere within, there is a fear that, by accepting the truth, we destroy the person’s legacy, and with it a major legacy within our industry. Many times for the victim, there is fear of retribution, of a smear on their reputation.

Sexual harassment is a crime. Sexual assault is a crime. It does not matter the sex (I speak here of biological sex rather than gender, which has many more more options than just A or B), both can be committed by anyone on anyone – male on female, female on male, or same-sex. One of the biggest problems with claims is that, unless there is physical evidence, it becomes a case of the accuser saying one thing and the accused another.

And sometimes there is valid doubt as to when a claim has merit or when it’s true intent is retribution or grandstanding. When allegations arose about possible sexual assault perpetrated by the comedian Aziz Ansari upon a young photographer, a very staunch feminist friend of mine, a victim of sexual assault herself, shared her thoughts. “This young girl’s trying to take advantage of the #metoo bandwagon and get herself some press. She wasn’t sexually assaulted. She had a REALLY bad date.”

The issue of proof is compounded by outdated laws in the United States. Since the 1986 Supreme Court Decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, federal sexual harassment policy has primarily fallen under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Title VII limits federal complaints to companies with fifteen or more employers and it does not allow the victim to sue the alleged harasser, only the company. What this has resulted in is a corporate culture where sexual harassment policy is centered around the company’s liability, rather than the best interests of the staff. And worse yet, Title VII does not even address the criminal aspects of the act.

Workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault are part of a larger picture – they are tied in with religious rights, gender identification and preference rights, ethnic rights, skin tone rights, immigrant rights, you name it. Pretty much anything that’s not the traditional white male heterosexual (primarily Christian) stereotype of corporate America, where intimidation and subjugation are utilized to maintain the status quo. This is part of a bigger conversation on equality and inclusion in an America that’s becoming increasingly divisive and isolationist. The big picture includes issues ranging from wage disparity to hate killings.

The issue of workplace sexual harassment can be fixed, but it must be fixed in three distinct areas.

First, on the federal government level, Title VII must be strengthened. The fifteen or higher employee rule must be abolished, penalties must be strengthened, and additional penalties and jail time must be added in, especially to deal with those instances where sexual harassment develops into sexual assault.

Second, companies must redefine their policies not to protect themselves, but to support their employees’ needs.

Finally, there must be many discussions within the community between employers and employees on the issues surrounding workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault. Industry trade organizations need to take a leading role in fostering such discourse.

One such discussion will take place on April 5, when a session on gender inclusion takes place during the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual Summit at the Disneyland Hotel.

It’s a start. Eventually, we’ll get to the place where when someone’s accused of sexual misconduct, instead of the ones who know something staying silent to avoid being “that guy,” they’ll join others in raising their hands and say #metoo.

PHOTO FROM: “Arms and the Man: A Sampling from Among the 48 Hugs Administered by Pixar Chief John Lasseter During WSJ’s Daylong Adventure With Him.” Wall Street Journal. May 26, 2011.

A ThemedReality video!

A few months ago, I was asked to make a presentation on risks facing North America’s attractions industry. One topic I covered was new and proposed laws governing the holding of whales and dolphins. Because there’s a lot going on with the marine life park industry right now that will affect its future, I’ve expanded it to this video. It’s kind of long and might be boring to some, but a hot cup of Starbucks or Timmies should help get you through it.

From Miami to Malaysia, Disney’s Acquisition of Fox Will Change the Face of the Attractions Industry. Presented by Mr. Sparkle and The Secret Lab.

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I’m going to approach Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox through speculation – a speculation based on past business decisions by Disney involving other acquisitions and the company’s history of handling synergistic branding over the past three decades (something I first started studying in the mid-90’s when a Disney marketing executive pointed out during a presentation that a banner for Tarzan at the X-Games was strategically placed to appear in a brief shot in the IMAX film Ultimate X).

First thing to understand is that often Disney will purchase a company for certain, but not all, of its assets. This usually entails the entire company being dissolved and key assets, especially technology, being integrated into other Disney divisions. Dream Quest Images, renamed by Disney as The Secret Lab, is an example of an entire company that was dissolved. Lucasarts is an example of a dissolved division of an acquired company.

Ice Age themed hotel room at Alton Towers Resort

Within Fox, two particular divisions come to mind as candidates for dissolvement. First is Blue Sky Studios, the animation house behind the Ice Age and Rio franchises. Blue Sky is not as strongly marketed an animation studio as Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or even Universal’s Illumination. This is partially due to Fox having concentrated its marketing and distribution efforts on DreamWorks Animation pictures once it acquired distribution rights to that studio’s films. Ultimately, Blue Sky is more valuable for its intellectual properties than for the studio itself.

If Disney opts to continue producing animated films under the Peanuts or Dr Seuss animated franchises as begun by Blue Sky, it will need to consider that other theme park companies hold the licenses for those brands.


The other unit that will likely be dissolved is FoxNext, a newly created division of Fox overseeing gaming, virtual and augmented reality, and location based entertainment, including theme park development and attraction licensing. The division will likely be discontinued as much of what FoxNext does is already handled internally by several existing units within the Walt Disney Company.

Porting Fox IP into the Disney parks, I expect the following:

Most Fox properties will show up within Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, Disney California Adventure, and Walt Disney Studios Paris, unless they can be thematically linked to an attraction or land at another park.

Make sure to take the escalator ride to Epcot’s newest attraction – a branded logo.

Blue Sky properties Ice Age and Rio will likely find homes within Animal Kingdom and Epcot. Those two parks will also see a National Geographic branding overlay as Fox holds majority control over National Geographic Partners and its branded attractions, including the new Ocean Odyssey that just opened in New York’s Times Square.

Existing Blue Sky licenses to third parties, such as Merlin Entertainments and SimEx-Iwerks, will need to be reevaluated.

This is not the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. It’s a typical night at Universal Studios.

Over the past few years, Fox has had a successful partnership with Universal on Halloween Horror Nights with such franchises as Rocky Horror Picture Show, Aliens v Predator, and American Horror Story. With the purchase of Fox, Disney now has enough horror franchises to hold two events at each of its American resorts each year – one a traditional family festival at one park and the other another park for more mature guests, allowing the Disney resorts to compete against leaders in the theme park haunt market within their regions, such as Universal, Cedar Fair, and Six Flags.

Artists’s conception of Miami Wilds theme park. Also planned were a waterpark, entertainment district, resort hotel, and I’m pretty sure I saw youth soccer fields in the blueprints.

Disney will likely announce that it is pulling out of Miami Wilds, a $930 million Fox themed resort located next to ZooMiami. The project has been delayed for some time due to concerns over endangered species on the property. The cancellation of the project will have an adverse effect on the Miami Seaquarium, which was purchased by Parques Reunidos at the same time that Fox won the rights to build its resort. Miami Wilds, designed by Hettema Group, was to be managed by Parques Reunidos, which would have brought the company $5 million on average in management fees once its theme park and waterpark were fully operational. With Miami Wilds no longer in the picture, Parques Reunidos will need to re-evaluate its plans for the Florida market.

There is the possibility that as the Miami Wilds waterpark was themed to the Ice Age franchise, elements of its design could see new life as an overlay of Disney’s existing Blizzard Beach waterpark.

Marvel is a given. Except in Florida.

Mr. Sparkle. No relation to my theater major sister’s cat.

The Simpsons is a different issue, with Universal having invested heavily in Simpson-themed lands in Florida and California. However, the lucrative franchise will likely find its way to Disney’s overseas parks, such as in Japan, home of Mr. Sparkle.

A recent photo of Fox World in Malaysia, located at Resorts World Sentosa. Sorry, that’s the home of this casino company’s other theme park – Universal Studios Singapore.

One of the biggest unknowns surrounds the Fox World theme park currently being built at Resorts World Genting in Malaysia. Construction is well underway, but would Disney allow a Fox-only theme park operated by a company that operates a Universal Studios-licensed park in nearby Singapore to exist? I expect that over the next six months, we’ll find out the fate of the Malaysia park – if it will continue as is under its current contract, or if Disney will sink its participation in the project faster than the Titanic attraction going into it, causing Genting to seek out another (or multiple other) studio(s) to partner with.

A Very Very Short Post-Thanksgiving Issue of “Other Side of the News”


Brought to you by Cobb Salads. For every Cobb Salad purchased, Dave Cobb of Thinkwell gets a new t-shirt.

Congratulations to the 2018 TEA Thea Award Winners

Especially the Universal Orlando Resort on its unprecedented twelve Thea Awards for “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” and Volcano Bay.

No. I didn’t make an error. I made a point.

Tapu Tapu indeed.

Oh Gary, Where Aren’t Thou?

Noticeably missing from the IAAPA Attractions Expo was Gary Goddard, following allegations of breaking zoo rules and touching a Goose.

The company, however, maintains a strong relationship with its clients, has a new and well talented President, Taylor Jeffs, and may soon undergo a rebranding. We look forward to seeing what the talented artisans at Goddard Group bring us in Mexico and China.

Abu Dhabu Du

Numbers this year have been far less than projected for the new theme parks in Dubai – IMG, Motiongate, and Bollywood, resulting in FOX cancelling its plans for a Dubai park.  Two things came to light through the ThemedReality InfoSpies (trademark pending, and yes, Dave Cobb will get an InfoSpies t-shirt if enough Cobb salads are purchased) embedded at this year’s IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando.

First, Dubai Parks and Resorts may turn its theme parks into seasonal operations. Second, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi could be mothballed if the Warner Brothers theme park opening next year on Yas Island underperforms.


Speaking of SeaWorld, just a little worried about riding Intamin rafts following the 2016 and 2017 deaths at DreamWorld and Drayton Manor. But this is SeaWorld, and nobody ever died on a ride at SeaWorld – except of boredom on the revised mermaid-less version of Journey to Atlantis.

The Other Side of the News OCT 2017


Lots to share, so let’s dive in….


My heart goes out to the victims of the tragic Las Vegas shooting. Someone I personally know, a member of my congregation, was among those shot and has gone through multiple surgeries. It’s the third such case where I’ve known someone to be shot in a mass shooting incident – the others being the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Luby’s cafeteria in Texas. I’ll be writing another post comparing banning guns versus gun control and why physical incidents like this strike more fear into the populace than perceived threats, like our current one for nuclear war.

Law enforcement was fortunate with this incident in that the gunman decided to shoot from that particular hotel at that particular target. If reports are accurate that he attempted to check into the Ogden in downtown Las Vegas during an 18-block wide music and culture festival a few weeks ago, or that he rented a room in Chicago overlooking the Lalapalooza festival (above photo, which personally bothers me as my good friend Lauren was attending with her husband and teenage daughters), the results could have been more catastrophic. As it is, with both the Mandalay Bay resort and the Las Vegas Village festival grounds being owned by the same company – MGM Resorts International, law enforcement’s access to facilities, surveillance, and assistance has been streamlined in a way that’s accelerated the pace of the investigation, a benefit that would have been lacking had he either shot from a non-MGM hotel (such as the Tropicana) or in one of the other festival locations.


Matt Ouimett is taking control of the board and Richard Zimmerman will be the company’s new CEO. I wish them the best. This change looks primed for continued Cedar Fair expansion, but I can’t help but remember that the last time something like this happened at a major theme park chain (Six Flags), it didn’t necessarily work out.


While monitoring more than 20 zoos, aquariums, animal attractions, and sanctuaries in Central and South Florida during Hurricane Irma, there was one I couldn’t access on either its website or social media – the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation. Entering the web address rerouted me to the Feld Entertainment homepage, where all mention of the elephant center has been removed.

I have since confirmed through multiple sources that Feld is now officially out of the elephant game and has sold its collection to White Oak Conservation near Jacksonville. Once the elephants have all been relocated, the Center for Elephant Conservation will close shop.

What does this mean? There have been well-founded rumors for quite some time that Feld has been in talks to be bought out by a larger company – Disney is the name that is most often mentioned – and that the elephants had been a sticking point in negotiations. If this is the case, I anticipate a buyout announcement within the next six months.


Speculation has been running rampant throughout the media and investor sites that Merlin Entertainments has submitted a bid to purchase SeaWorld Entertainment.

As reported previously on this blog, Merlin is not interested in the entire company, but rather the two Busch Gardens properties and their waterparks. Although the land for SeaWorld-branded properties in San Antonio and Orlando is quite valuable – the recent settlement with the tax assessor shows the property value of the Orlando parks is around $170 million – a purchase of the SeaWorld-branded parks would place Merlin in a difficult spot as the company’s anti-cetacean captivity policy would conflict with owning the world’s largest collection of captive cetaceans.

The easy answer is always “stick them in a sanctuary.” But is that practical for Merlin, a company that has been working for eight years with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to establish a sanctuary for its four dolphins from Heide Park and Gardaland? Meanwhile, those four dolphins continue to perform at the Nuremberg Zoo and the Genoa Aquarium.

HOLD ON A MINUTE….some late breaking info….one of Merlin’s Heide Park dolphins was shipped last year to ZooMarine in Portugal for breeding and swim with dolphin programs.

I don’t know what to say….I’m at a loss of words…I mean, doesn’t this go against everything Merlin says it believes about dolphins in captivity?

And that’s why Merlin shouldn’t buy SeaWorld as a whole and won’t. Those parks are going to the Chinese anyway.

See you real soon!

Falcon’s Creative: Real and Virtual Adventures Under the Sea


While researching an unrelated piece, I began realizing that for a number of years, Falcon’s Creative Group has been at the forefront of redesigning the aquarium and marine life park experience – through virtual worlds, real animals, or a combination of the two – ranging from an interpretive coral reef experience at the Florida Aquarium (above) to a concept for an innovative live killer whale exhibit (below).


Following are a gallery of photos, videos, and conceptual artwork for some of the biggest marine life projects to come from this Orlando-based creative design and media production company.

TurtleTrek, SeaWorld Orlando

Following a journey through two aquariums, one with rescued manatees, the other with rescued sea turtles, guests experience a 360 degree dome presentation in 3D showcasing the life of a turtle, encouraging them to become everyday heroes in protecting the environment.

Manta, SeaWorld San Diego

After visiting a gallery with real rays, guests board a roller coaster car and are launched from a media tunnel where they experience life under the sea with a school of animated mantas. The launch tunnel was overseen by Falcon’s.

Media Canopy, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

Five distinct storylines appear on the 300 foot long, 100 foot wide media screen that covers the entrance to this Chinese marine life park.

Deep Sea Odyssey, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

The ride attraction integrated into Chimelong’s world record-breaking aquarium tank, Deep Sea Odyssey combines animatronics, animation, projection mapping, and real whale sharks into a single experience.

Ocean Odyssey, National Geographic Encounter

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENCOUNTER is a first-of-its kind immersive entertainment experience that harnesses ground-breaking technology in new ways to transport guests on an incredible underwater journey. Visitors walk through the experience with friends and family, journeying across the Pacific Ocean to interact with and encounter the ocean’s greatest wonders and mightiest creatures. Guests will come face-to-face with humpback whales and great white sharks, Humboldt squid and sea lions, and animals you’ve never dreamed of…in ways they’ve never seen. Opening October.

Atlantis Sanya Resort

A joint project of Chinese company FUSON (owner of Club Med and Cirque du Soleil – Blue Man Group) and Kerzner International (Atlantis The Palms Dubai), this is one of three marine life parks currently under construction in the Sanya resort area of China’s Hainan Island. In addition to the traditional Atlantis animal attractions of a swim with dolphins program and a waterslide descent through an aquarium tank, Sanya will feature a number of firsts for the brand – including belugas, whale sharks, and a dolphin performance arena. Opening 2018.

Helping the attractions community after Harvey


ABOVE: Rescue efforts at The Texas Zoo. Source – San Antonio Zoo

There are a number of ways to help attractions, museums, zoos and aquariums, and their staff who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, along with ways to help others effected in Texas and Louisiana.

If you’re looking for ways to contribute to the people in Texas and Louisiana directly impacted by Harvey, Charity Navigator has a list of reputable charities providing support in the aftermath, for both humans and animals:

IAAPA encourages donations to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and to the Macau Red Cross for relief efforts in Hong Kong, Macau, and Zhuhai, which received a direct hit from Typhoon Hato on August 23.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is encouraging support of efforts by both the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).

AASLH has set up a cultural relief fund and is seeking those trained or experienced in dealing with disasters to volunteer in assisting museums and heritage sites in the region. Additionally, attendees to the AASLH annual conference Sept 6-9 in Austin are encouraged to sign up for volunteer trips to help in the storm damaged areas.

ACM has set up a fund to assist local children’s museum staff who may have been personally impacted by the storm. This includes staff from Galveston Children’s Museum, The Woodlands Children’s Museum, Children’s Discovery Museum of the Golden Crescent, Children’s Museum of Houston, Beaumont Children’s Museum, and The Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley.

The San Antonio Zoo has been spearheading efforts with other Texas zoos and aquariums to save animals at the Downtown Aquarium Houston and The Texas Zoo in Victoria, both of which were isolated by storm water and suffered facility damage. My interview with the Zoo’s Executive Director Tim Morrow, which includes a link where you can donate to the effort, is below:

The AZA has also set up a fund to assist those Texas zoo and aquarium staff and their families personally impacted by the storm.

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.

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

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.