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The TEA Summit – where reality becomes suspended and imagination runs free

2016 THEA Awards whitewater slideboarding

It’s often said that Disneyland is a place of wonder where reality becomes suspended and imagination runs free. This week, I didn’t even have to step past the park’s gates to get that very same experience at my very first TEA Summit.

Una deBoerBy Una deBoer, Director of Global Marketing and Strategy at WhiteWater West Industries Ltd

Hundreds of the thinkers, creators, and makers for our somewhat eccentric industry gathered together to share examples of the best projects, attractions, and technologies of 2016. The range was inspiring, from the epic creation process behind Pirates of the Caribbean in Shanghai Disney to how a $40,000 art exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art inspired a community with personal stories of transformation.

The TEA Summit, for thinkers, creators and makers

As I sit at the airport, homeward bound, and reflect over the last three days, I recognise some themes:

  • The emergence of immersive experiences that empowers guests to directly interact with the attraction to create a ride experience personalized to them
  • The expansion of engagement with the guest beyond the park gates
  • The importance of IP
  • The power of inspired storytelling that contains both emotional depth and meaning

meow wolf TEAWe are all artists in our own areas

This is the Themed Entertainment Association, so the focus of the creativity, guest, and story is no surprise, but what impressed me was how, as an industry, we are all artists in our own areas. Let me describe one example in more detail. If you are in Santa Fe, stop by the old bowling alley which has been transformed into the “House of Eternal Return’ by artist collective Meow Wolf. Guests enter a Victorian house and are able to choose their own path. They then discover the story of the family who lived there and what happened to them.

How do you grow, AND keep your brand’s truth?

Aspen-Eye-Forest-concept-art-by-Caity-KennedyAt the awards gala, they played a video that showed a space where the domestic turns into psychedelic art installation as you pass through a portal’the fridge’into some “other’ world. Visitors touch and explore as they watch, listen, and reconstruct the narrative. The story of the creation of the space was also quest-like, where our protagonists fought for funding, found a mentor in Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, and made their own path inventing new versions of effects they couldn’t afford to buy.

People paying is the validation

From wondering how they were going to manage payday to hearing how their $2.7m investment returned $5m in the first year from 400,000 guests, this journey leaves the audience considering a question we should all ask, “how do you grow and keep your brand’s truth?” Meow Wolf turned the traditional model of “narrative first’ upside down to bring the art to the forefront with the narrative orchestrating the journey in the background. Can this model survive the harsh realities of commercialised scale and millions of guest interactions across multiple locations?

Perhaps they need not be so concerned, as Bruce Vaughn, CEO of Dreamscape Immersive and ex-Chief Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, remarked about the future of Virtual Reality (VR) and that the rush to monetization need not stifle innovation'”people paying is the validation”.

As a side bar, according to Vaughn and Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s founder, there is a healthy future for VR, giving us incredible storytelling freedom not to mention that the application for it may well change what locations we perceive as entertainment destinations.

slideboarding whitewaterSlideboarding wins TEA Award for Technology

Primarily, I was at the TEA Summit for WhiteWater’s presentation on Slideboarding. This was recognised with the Thea Award for Technology. I think it fits several of the themes of whitewater-slideboardingthe summit because it rethinks the classic sliding experience by overlaying an interactive scoring game onto an otherwise passive ride. Each Slideboarding experience is personalised, recognising repeat riders and serving up their choice of music and game level.

The slide’s app encourages interaction before and after sliding by promoting the community and competitive element beyond the day in the park. Of course, the WhiteWater team was delighted to have their innovation recognised by TEA; as I described the gala to my family, “it’s like the academy awards for theme and waterparks”.

Creating something genuinely new is difficult and expensive. There are things you don’t anticipate you have to solve, and you need both vision and perseverance. But as I sat in my “posh frock’ at the gala, I was reminded that our day jobs may be to worry about operational details, but we shouldn’t lose sight of that together we change people’s realities, transporting them for a brief time to somewhere extraordinary. Our industry is anything but ordinary and the Theas and the TEA summit celebrate that.

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