Homogenizing big ideas. Beware of “The Blander.”

As the theme park wars heat up again internationally with budgets soaring higher and higher and attractions becoming ever more elaborate, a question comes to mind. How is it that some of these Elizabethan attractions, given heathy spends, are still somehow lacklustre? For theme design, where is the big idea?

By Eddie Sotto, President of SottoStudios/LA.eddie sotto sottostudios/la art

No longer can the excuse be that, “we had no budget” to make a compelling experience. Why is that? Could it be that somehow when there are fewer financial restrictions, the creativity and innovation somehow lose steam? Maybe.

Could it be that money alone is not really the key to a great attraction anyway? Does detail alone make for a compelling experience? I’m sure you already know the answers to these questions, and it is in many cases a simple “no”.

Theme design and the big idea?

In my experience, when a “big idea” comes out of a meeting. It captures the imagination of everyone in the room and stands out. It feels fresh and original. The big idea has a thrill and excitement about it. Everyone that hears about it knows the public will get on airplanes and fly for countless hours just to come and see it. It’s what happens after that moment that really determines where success lies.

Like films, theme design is a collaborative effort, and each hand that passes the idea along has to improve or at least sustain it. Many different steps of the process will be coming to play to filter that idea, molding and changing it almost like a child developing from birth to adolescence to adulthood. Each step along the way though, the idea has to be checked and rechecked to see if what we loved about it in the beginning is still intact.

gulliver on the floor mountain in the background theme design

Bad attractions seldom fade away, they often just lie there.

Therein lies the need for the visionary, or champion who will defend the core of the idea. Someone to see that it never loses its edge. It’s a job that is not for the faint of heart, or for someone afraid to lose their job. (Been there, not fun during, but worth it if you and the idea were worth fighting for).

A carrot by any other name

It’s good for a big idea to evolve and change. However, at the same time we see that corporations, focus groups, and a litany of risk management and strategic planning decisions can effectively take a great organic piece of flavorful “creative produce” and place it into what I jokingly have come to call, “The Blander.”

This is a corporate appliance with many settings and filtering attachments. It pulverizes, homogenizes, and literally grinds down the edges and texture of any great organic idea. It then turns the idea into something beige and paste like. All things to all audiences. While you can technically call the idea a, “Carrot”, it lacks that vibrant color of orange and the signature “snap” sound when you break it in two. The audience expects a “Carrot,” yet instead of savoring the rich flavor and crunch, it leaves dismayed, murmuring “What’s up Doc?”

No amount of money and slavish detail in service of some intellectual property focused inthe art of war sun tzu book cover dragon the wrong direction can save what is essentially a weak idea. Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO, once said in relation to movies that, “a great idea simply executed can still succeed, but a bad idea lavishly executed won’t.” At the end of the day, it will still be a bad idea. I think he was right about that.

The edits you make

Great Producers and Directors often fight for a key scene as that seminal moment would make or break the entire film. Rides are the same. Accountants and project managers can seldom sense those key elements to keep or lose. It’s not their job to know that, so the, “no budget” excuse from creatives seldom works. It’s the Design Director’s job to deliver or raise the flag.

We all face cuts, so it’s which edits you make that count, as we all end up making them. So my job as creative lead was to ensure that what the guest wanted to experience most was not cut, or sanded down.

I’m not sure if it’s, “The Art of War” or “The War of Art,” but it’s worth it.