The Themed Entertainment Association‘s annual Thea Awards were held the weekend of April 20-22 at Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort. Award winners were chosen from over 250 submissions across the world with winners from some of the themed entertainment industry’s major parks and cultural attractions. 

By Clara J. RiceClara Rice, Director of Communications, JRA

While you may have heard of Shanghai Disneyland and Springfield, USA, other Thea Awards recipients included an eco-friendly resort in France, a transformative experience in Long Beach, California, and a one-of-a-kind traveling exhibit honoring one of the world’s most enigmatic artists.

What these projects may lack in international recognition, they more than make up for in complexity, audience engagement, attention to detail – and most importantly – in heart.

The 2017 Thea Awards, inspiring the industry

thea awards logo from tea themed entertainment associationFor 23 years, the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) has been saluting pioneering projects and innovative people through its Thea Awards program. It all began with a single Lifetime Achievement Award given to Disney Legend Harrison “Buzz” Price in 1994.  Within two years, Awards for Outstanding Achievement (AOA) were added to the program to honor the industry’s most groundbreaking projects.

As times have changed, technologies have advanced, and the reach of the TEA has spread across the world, so have the dynamics, composition and variety of the Thea Awards shifted.

In 1997, the category of “Excellence on a Limited Budget” was added to recognize the fact that small funds don’t mean small impact. And this year, TEA added the category of “Connected Immersion” for projects that “mix digitally-led interactivity with the real world to create rich, high-touch, high context experiences that seamlessly connect to the broader theme park space.”

Ghost Post, The Haunted Mansion, Disneyland Park

While news outlets the world over were covering the impending opening of Shanghai Disneyland, across the Pacific, the wizards of WDI were stealthily launching an interactive mystery game that would captivate its participants and create a social media fan frenzy.

Since it opened nearly 50 years ago, the ghosts of the Haunted Mansion have reveled in “following you home.” But the Great Unraveling has begun, and the ghosts now find themselves trapped on the mansion’s grounds by an ominous fog. They enlist the help of Disney’s Ghost Relations Department (GRD) to recruit mortals who may be able to help release them from their entrapment.

To aid their spectral friends, in Spring of 2016, the GRD sent out three separate boxes to the 999 participants who had signed up to help. Each box contributed its own chapter to the serial narrative. It also contained clues such as a reflective teacup, divination cards, letters with secret messages, and other ethereal objects.

haunted mansion character disney

Haunted Mansion @Disney

These “ghostly artifacts” worked in conjunction with the “Ghost Radio” mobile app. They featured appearances by the infamous Madame Leota, who would put participants through a series of challenges.

Becoming a ghost

The three subscription boxes could stand on their own. However, the experience was greatly enhanced when participants traveled to the park itself. The app enabled these special park guests to have interactions with Esmerelda. She is the fortuneteller at the Main Street Penny Arcade. She would instruct them on how to “free” ghosts throughout the park.

Once at the Haunted Mansion, subscribers were escorted to “Doom Buggies” with specialized audio tracks. Ghosts would communicate messages to the guests via these tracks based on where they were in the Ghost Post narrative.

haunted mansion characters at disney parade b

The Haunted Mansion ghosts on Main Street, U.S.A in Mickey’s Boo-to You Halloween Parade. @Disney (David Roark)

Once the participant completed the narrative and emancipated the ghosts, a bonus fourth package thanked the subscriber for finishing their quest with an 8”x10” photo of them transforming in to a Haunted Mansion-style ghost.

Small effects can have a great impact

WDI’s Ghost Post experiment was a sensation – not only were the 999 participant slots filled almost immediately, but news of the pilot project went viral, with bloggers posting meticulously detailed instructional guides for each box. While future subscription boxes are as yet unplanned (or at least unpublicized), Sara Thacher, Creative Director of WDI R&D, said that Ghost Post once again proved that “small effects can have a great impact.”

Decrocher la Lune

With the exception of its miraculously small $700,000 budget, there was nothing small about the sixth iteration of Franco Dragone and Luc Petit Creation’s Decrocher la Lune in La Louviere, Belgium, recipient of the AOA for Live Event Spectacular on a Limited Budget.

Created 15 years ago by world-renowned director Dragone, Decrocher le Lune was conceived as a thank you gift to the small, industrial city that housed his production facilities. The premise of the show was to beg the question of a down-on-its-luck town: “when you have nothing, what can you do?” The answer? “You take down the moon.”

luc petit creation decrocher la lune 2017 thea awards band leader copy (1)The Decrocher la Lune story follows the protagonist Pancho as he attempts to unhook the moon to reveal the sun. The story is revealed in a single night’s performance every three years. Version Six took two years to create and featured 650 volunteers and 200 professional artists and technicians. These included singers, aerialists, stiltwalkers, tightrope walkers, puppeteers and a 100-piece orchestra.

Two hundred of the volunteers participated in a series of eight workshops. These covered such skills as dance, clowning and aerial dancing. The result was “one of the biggest urban operas in the world,” viewed by 35,000 spectators directly and thousands more via television.

A great thing at the Thea Awards

Decrocher la Lune has become a citywide celebration of a region’s culture and history. It has given La Louviere a reputation for artistry. Only days before the show, the performance was threatened by a worker’s strike. But rather than disappoint those eagerly awaiting the sixth chapter of Pancho’s adventure, the strikers set their differences aside, and the show went on.

Anne Roelandt is Luc Petit Creations Managing Partner. She said, “having a limited budget often leads you to make better decisions.”

luc petit creation decrocher la lune 2017 thea awards band leader copy (1)

In the case of Decrocher la Lune VI, those better decisions resulted in lifting a city’s spirits and inspiring participants and spectators to rise above their difficulties. “When a show can stop a strike and change the architecture of a city, that’s a great thing.”

Centre Parcs Le Domaine du Bois Aux Daims

While Decrocher la Lune dazzles with fireworks, projections, larger than life puppets and vibrant costumes, Center Parcs’ Le Domaine du Bois Au Daims makes nature the main attraction, earning it the AOA for Eco-Friendly Destination.

Group Pierre et Vacances Center Parcs aims to create child-friendly environments that are authentic in nature. Le Domaine du Bois Aux Daims is Ninety minutes from Paris. It has become a popular vacation destination along with theme parks Puy du Fou and Futuroscope. It is already seeing holiday bookings into 2018.

The 264-hectare resort opened in 2015. It offers seven pillars of experience and 25,000-square-meters of facilities to support a typical three- to four-day stay:

  • Nature encounters, including a canopy walk with views of animals, a forest with 120 free-roaming deer, an aviary, nature playground and animal interactions
  • Accommodation, offering 800 wooden cottages and 9 individually themed “treehouses”
  • Services, featuring a variety of themed bars and restaurants
  • Amenities, including a bowling and entertainment center and an indoor play world for children
  • Market Dome, an indoor greenhouse
  • Wellness via a deep nature tropical spa, and
  • Aqua Mundo, a 6,000-square-meter pool with slides and a children’s water area within a lush garden setting

Le Domaine du Bois Au Daims

These pillars equate to 77 different activities for guests of all ages in an authentically natural milieu. This allows families to unplug, unwind, and connect with each other and their picturesque surroundings. An important component of the resort is education. Young explorers ate taught about their world and what they can do to cherish and sustain it.

Senate Immersion Module

Le Domaine Aux Bois was one of several winners of theThea Awards conceived with a mission to educate and engage.

The Senate Immersion Module, located at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, offers students ages 13 through 18 the experience of serving as a United States Senator.

The simulation exercise takes place on in a full-scale reproduction of the US Senate Chamber. Over 2.5 hours, students engage in role-playing and debate on a piece of historic or contemporary legislation. To begin the day, students are sworn in and are assigned their senator role.

They then progress in small groups to the Nominee and Subcommittee Hearings. There they interview expert witnesses, add provisions to their legislation and consider presidential nominees. Amendment and Debate Preparation and Full Committee Hearings follow. Here, amendments are debated and added, and students prepare speeches on proposed amendments. The simulation concludes with the presentation of floor speeches and a roll call vote.

Students leave better informed about the legislative process and more engaged in historic and current events

Students are provided with personalized tablets loaded with content relevant to their assignment. However, the bulk of the experience rests on face-to-face interaction, negotiation, and debate. Students leave better informed about the legislative process and more engaged in historic and current events.

For its innovative use of technology and its capacity to educate in both individualized and team-based ways, the Senate Immersion Module received the Thea AOA for Connected Immersion in Education.

meet vincent van gogh experience (1)

Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience

How do you tell a new story about someone universally known? How do share a genius’ masterworks with the world without physically displaying them?

These were the challenges faced by the Van Gogh Museum as they crafted the Meet Visit Van Gogh Experience, a traveling exhibit that opened in 2016 in Beijing and is currently en route throughout 30 cities in China.

To many, Vincent was merely the artist that cut off his ear. But in reality, he was a prolific artist, creating 850 paintings and 1,200 drawings in one decade. To tell the story of this tragic painter in a new way, the Van Gogh Museum came up with a multisensory experience. It allows visitors to touch, see, hear about and even smell scenes from his works. Using panoramic projection and effects, the story begins with Vincent’s suicide at age 37. It then flashes back through his earlier years to chronicle his professional rise and psychological fall.

The exhibit authentically immerses visitors in Van Gogh’s life – projected scenes were filmed at the places he painted and are accented with period props.

man and girl at meet van gogh experience

© Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience. Credit: Carolien Sikkenk

Throughout the narrative, Vincent’s words are the only ones visitors hear. They are culled from the 800 letters he wrote during his brief lifetime. This traveling exhibition simulates the world as Van Gogh saw it. It offers a never-before-seen look at Van Gogh’s life, death and art.

Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience, the 2017 Thea AOA recipient for Connected Immersion, not only educates visitors about art, but retells a familiar story in a surprising, impactful and emotional way.

TRANSFORMATIONS – Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach

But powerful stories are not reserved for history. Compelling narratives of strength, perseverance and heroism are created everyday from sources we may not expect. TRANSFORMATIONS is a recent temporary exhibit at The Museum of Latin American Art Long Beach (MOLAA). It recounts the life altering events of five individuals – tales of heartache and recovery, illness and hope.

Transformations at 2017 thea awards

Ortega (center) with TRANSFORMATIONS participants and MOLAA staff and artists at the 2017 Thea Awards

Carlos Ortega is MOLAA Curator of Collections. He tasked the selected individuals with choosing ten items from the permanent collection. These had to reflect their emotions both before and after the transformative event. This Thea AOA recipient for Museum Exhibit on a Limited Budget was produced with a mere $42,000. However, the impact of the exhibition on both the participants and the community was richly profound.molaa museum oflatin american art logo

TRANSFORMATIONS introduces us to twenty-four-year-old Felicia. Raised by a single mother, she moved frequently before finding herself homeless at age 14. A year later she was taken in by her aunt, and her transformation began. She became the first person in her family to go to college, and had dedicated the rest of her life to paying her lessons forward.

Another way to dance

We also meet Willie. He joined the Navy to escape his “tyrannical father” and a lack of opportunity in his barrio. In addition, he wanted to “see something else.” His transformation came in boot camp, when he became exposed to people of different cultures for the first time. He ended up traveling the world and winning multiple honor awards for his service.

Rocio’s life changed at age eight, when she was shot by gang members wanting to steal the family car. The resulting spinal cord injury destroyed her dreams of being a dancer, but as she was receiving long-term treatment at a hospital, her life transformed through painting. As she recounted, “I think I discovered another way to dance – I dance with my brushes.”

Juan grew up with an alcoholic father and was raised in poverty. Gang activity landed him in federal prison for 10 years. This meant he would see his own children grow up from behind bars. While incarcerated, he developed a passion and skill for leather art, which upon release became a career. “You’re gonna be good at something… you’ve just gotta be guided in the right direction to use that energy up.”

An emergence from darkness

Lorena’s transformation occurred the day that she was told the lump on her breast was cancer. Through the support of her family, she fought through chemotherapy, reconstruction and losing her hair. And she came through it all with a new appreciation for life: “I just think of cancer as a memory.”

We created a platform for people to help each other

Each of these stories represented an emergence from darkness, infused with a desire to help members of the MOLAA community transform their own lives. The exhibition space included a living room-themed gathering area, where visitors could gather and share their own stories of transformation. They could also participate in the exhibition by choosing a necklace featuring a reproduction from the permanent collection that best represented their own story.

girls on van goghs bed take selfie

© Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience. Credit: Carolien Sikkenk

As Ortega explained in the project’s acceptance speech, “we all try to create experiences that transform our guests. With the project, we created a platform for people to help each other.”

Take down the moon

The 2017 Thea Award winners represented the very best of the themed entertainment industry – creatively, artistically, culturally and technologically. These projects undoubtedly entertained and educated those they directly touched. However, they also inspire all of us to challenge our perceptions, transform our circumstances, and have the audacity to “take down the moon.”

Clara J. Rice is Director of Communications at JRA (Jack Rouse Associates) and a member of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) International Board of Directors. For more information on the TEA and the Thea Awards, please visit www.teaconnect.org.

Images: TRANSFORMATIONS image courtesy Carlos Ortega, Curator, Museum of Latin American Art – Long Beach. Decrocher la Lune images courtesy Luc Petit CREATION.