On November 16, two prominent companies in the world of attractions came together to make a key announcement: RWS Entertainment Group (RWS), creator of award-winning custom entertainment, live events, and branded experiences, has acquired JRA, a leading experience designer known globally for creating visitor experiences and attractions.
Following this landmark deal, which is set to benefit the wider attractions industry, blooloop spoke to Ryan Stana, RWS founder and CEO and Keith James, President of JRA, to find out more.
A lifetime in attractions
JRA, part of RWS Entertainment Group, had not one but two reasons to celebrate last month. As well as the opening of a new chapter for the company, it also marked a key milestone for James: 50 years in the attractions industry.
Reflecting on the last five decades in themed entertainment, James says it’s been “quite the adventure,” adding that he initially got into the industry as a summertime employee to pay his university tuition.
Since then, he says, theme parks have changed and evolved considerably:
“Except for Disney and maybe one or two Six Flags parks, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Tivoli, true theme parks didn’t really exist back then. Kings Island was being built up the road from where I lived and Jack Rouse, my university professor and good friend to this day, was hired to produce the entertainment in the park that first season.”
That summer job at Kings Island jump-started what has been a successful career spanning five decades:
“From there, the industry grew up over the last 50 years,” added James. It’s one of those things where it never dawned on me that this career would occur. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve loved every minute.”
People are at the core
Having watched the industry evolve, James says that while much has changed, some essential factors will always remain the same.
“Technology has become more and more sophisticated, so how we do things has become more and more sophisticated. It’s given the designers and the operators a lot more things to play with, a lot more toys in the toy box to put everything together.”
“But, as everybody knows, we are still and always will be a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ business. It all comes down to whoever the person is putting you on the ride or selling you the gift or serving you the pizza or performing on the stage. That’s still our business. It’s human interaction. It’s fun, it’s smiles. I don’t believe that will ever change.
“Our employee handbook, when I started in the business, was called, ‘To Make a Person Smile’. And I think that’s still relevant now. It’s that part of the business that I love. We build for the heart, not the head.”
The beginning of RWS Entertainment Group
Ryan Stana also joined the attractions industry at an early age and founded RWS Entertainment Group in 2003. He explains how the journey began, from a passion for performance at school to a global, industry-leading business:
“In high school and university, I was a performer with a love for teaching. I loved the theme park industry, theme park shows, corporate events and the power of live experiences.
“After I graduated, I moved to New York City and started working for a production company. I loved the creativity of the company and my colleagues. However, I could not help constantly thinking of how things could be done better. One day, I called my dad and I said, ‘Hey, this is stressing me out’. And he said, ‘Why don’t you open your own business? You have a great blend of business knowledge and creative knowledge.’
“That same day, I quit my job. I went home and told my roommates, ‘I am opening a business.’ I made a deal with my roommates – I would make an office in the corner of the apartment, and hire them to answer the phone, so it seemed like we had employees. I started calling my professional and personal contacts and booked my first job, a corporate event for Clear Channel Worldwide.
“That is how RWS began. I always had the goal to make entertainment the main attraction, for corporate events, theme parks, resorts, and later cruise ships. From our early theme park clients like Holiday World and Cedar Fair to global services for Warner Bros., Disney, Virgin Voyages and Holland America Line, we have always focused on providing a memorable experience for our talent, our clients and their guests.”
An expanding company
Over nearly two decades, RWS has grown from a desk in the corner to a worldwide operation with headquarters in New York City, London, and now Cincinnati. Today, it continues to go from strength to strength, says Stana:
“RWS is in the process of its largest expansion to date. This includes hiring over 75 new full-time team members worldwide.
“In 2016, we acquired Binder Casting. That allowed RWS to add casting for Broadway, TV, film, and commercials to our portfolio. As such, we became the only company that provides these career paths for performers and technicians. Performers can work for us in theme parks, resorts, and cruise ships. And then go on to work on Broadway, in TV, film and commercials. It creates a great trajectory for talent and opens doors to endless career possibilities.”
“Since then, we’ve become a turnkey provider in developing some of the most immersive seasonal experiences across the globe, for Halloween and holidays in theme parks, cruise ships, municipalities and retail centres. And then also adding IPs to those portfolios, such as Hasbro and Peanuts.
In 2020, the company also launched the RWS Fun Crew: Staffing Reimagined.
“This is a programme that reimagined both operational staffing and the guest experience. We are fulfilling front-of-house operational needs while bringing a higher level of engagement to guest touchpoints.
“Now, with RWS Entertainment Group’s acquisition of JRA, we’ve become one of the leading attraction design companies in the world. We can dream it, design it, create it and operate it, providing that turnkey solution from design to installation and operation if that’s what the client desires.”
The JRA story
JRA plans, designs, and delivers immersive experiences that create memories and engage audiences across the globe. The company was formed in 1987. Over the past 34 years, it has completed over 100 successful and well-received projects around the world. Past and current clients include Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, LEGOLAND Windsor and LEGOLAND California, Crayola, National Comedy Center, Space Center Houston, Hasbro, Lionsgate, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros.
“We started in theme parks and expanded into museums,” says James. “We’ve worked in sports; we’ve worked in zoos; we’ve worked with brands such as Ferrari, Coca-Cola and Jim Beam. From that foundation in theme parks and museums, we then expanded into other types of experiences, but they’re all related. This growth has allowed the folks that I work with to broaden their knowledge base.”
In recent years, the company has also worked on several children’s museums. For instance, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, the Mascot Hall of Fame Interactive Children’s Museum, KidsSTOP at Science Centre Singapore, and Imaginosity, Dublin Children’s Museum.
“Children’s experiences combine the entertainment world, the museum world and the playground world,” says James. “It’s another example of us taking our expertise in one market and applying it to another.
“I’ve worked together with many members of the JRA team for well over 20 years. I feel lucky that so many of us have been able to grow in the business together.”
Dedicated teams at both JRA and RWS
When asked about which of the projects he is proudest of, James gives a typically people-focused answer:
“I don’t do it for the projects. I’ve always done it for the people. So, I don’t have favourites. Of course, we’ve learned different things on some of the projects. But my memories all have to do with the people. The projects are there and I’m very proud of them, but I am far prouder of the people.”
Similarly, Stana says:
“What makes me the proudest, is seeing RWS team members grow to be the leaders they are today, on the projects that we produce.”
“We produce stage shows, live events, and elaborate holiday décor installations all over the world. But nothing touched our team more than our partnership with Give Kids the World in Orlando, Florida this year,” he adds.
“We were honoured and thrilled to have the opportunity to produce their Night of a Million Lights, making it bigger and better than before. We began in September to transform the Village into an immersive holiday area. Seeing the family faces light up as they walked into the village was one of the most touching experiences that I’ve had in my 18 years at RWS.”
A personal connection
The link between JRA and RWS began many years ago with a personal connection, as James’ wife, Patti James, taught Stana at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I’ve known Ryan for 20 years,” says James. “When Patti was teaching at the University of Cincinnati, we would be the ones who would throw the cast parties for the shows. And we would always have a Halloween party for all her students. They would all come in full costume and full character. We also had a big Christmas party, where everybody dressed up and they all sang.
“So, I’ve known Ryan for a long time and watched what he was doing. I’ve been prouder of the individual and happy to watch Patti follow the success of one of her students more than anything else.”
“Ryan produces terrific shows for Six Flags and other theme parks. He speaks at international conferences and has expanded his business into resorts and cruise ships. But I’m proudest of the person. The shows are exceptional. But I think the fact that he did it, from the ground up, is far more exceptional.”
A clear passion
On this early connection, Stana adds:
“I knew nothing of JRA at the time, but I knew Patti James was a wonderful woman who treated her students like family. On the weekends, we were invited to the James house. If you go into their home, firstly, their kitchen is themed as a 50s diner. And at Halloween, their Halloween décor is better than anywhere else.”
I left that evening saying, ‘I want to have that passion, I want to change the world like that.’
“I walked in saying ‘Wow, they have this great themed diner, great holiday décor – what does this guy do?’ And I remember him speaking to all of us students in that 50s themed diner, telling us what he did.
“I left that evening saying, ‘I want to have that passion, I want to change the world like that’. I also remember researching JRA and thinking, ‘wow this is incredible’. And that is before I even opened the business. As I opened RWS, I’ve always had an eye on what JRA is doing, because I wanted to have the passion that man has.”
RWS acquires JRA
In 2020, the RWS team decided it was interested in acquiring a master planning and design company.
“The reason for this is, like our performer trajectory where they start with us in a park and then they go through to Broadway, TV and film, we wanted to expand our client trajectory,” says Stana.
“Our client trajectory started with providing client shows, then experiences, and the RWS Décor Products catalogue, where we sell direct to consumer and direct to client our core products, and then finally the RWS Fun Crew, where we can operate attractions and leased experiences.”
“However, the foundation of that client trajectory was always missing, which was the master planning and design. We decided we were interested in acquiring a master planning and design company. Our acquisition lawyers met with many master planning and design firms in 2020.
“This industry is all about family and relationships. So, when JRA was presented, it kept drawing me back to being at university and meeting Keith James, and what I thought of him as an individual. That is how it came about. Truly, it brought me back to my roots, a full circle moment in my life.”
Working in harmony
The acquisition brings together two complementary businesses, says James:
“We don’t have any competitive issues. We have some common clients, but we do different parts of things. RWS is more on the operating side and JRA is more on the design and development side.
“It means we have the opportunity to offer more services to our clients. Together we have the ability to provide a one-stop-shop for master planning, design, implementation and operations. Or a custom combination of any of these services.”
“It’s also a tremendous opportunity for a lot of the people that I work with to get exposed to other markets, to learn new things and to apply what we know to the areas that RWS is heavily involved with, such as cruise lines and live entertainment.
“Our values are the same. Our visions are the same. We’re here to make people smile. So, I’m very excited and enthused. I believe there are tremendous opportunities for the people that I work with every day. The office in Cincinnati is not going anywhere; I’m not going anywhere, and the JRA team members aren’t going anywhere.
“It’s more about building upon the values, culture, and reputation we’ve cultivated over the last 34 years and that our clients have come to expect. Ensuring our staff have these tremendous growth opportunities for the next 50 years was a big motivation for making this significant change.”
With the acquisition of JRA, RWS Entertainment Group is now one company with endless possibilities, says Stana:
“We can now be the global leader in attraction design, offering turnkey solutions for full-service leisure experiences. With JRA, the client can dream it and design it, then create it. Then RWS can take over on the build and operations. It allows us to have a seamless client story. And it allows our clients to know that everything will be taken care of for them, from beginning to end.”
“I believe the hospitality and leisure industry is too segmented. We need to come together as an industry. We should be focused on the full guest journey, ensuring every guest leaves with an emotional souvenir. And I believe RWS Entertainment Group is changing that with the acquisition of JRA. Now, we can make sure the full guest journey is taken care of from A to Z.”
On the subject of the announcement being made during the IAAPA Expo in Orlando, James adds:
“The feeling I got from the JRA team, as well as from our colleagues and friends on the show floor, was pure enthusiasm. Since 99% of the people I know are in the business, to have such a positive reception is really rewarding. I’m thrilled with their response because now we are energized to live up to those great expectations. I’m very excited about what the next 50 years will bring for the industry.”
As they embark on this new chapter, both JRA and RWS have several exciting projects in the pipeline.
For instance, JRA is opening over a dozen projects in 2022, spanning multiple geographic regions and verticals. It will continue to roll out The FRIENDS Experience, as well as other IP-based activations with Superfly X. JRA will also continue working with repeat clients such as Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, National Comedy Center, and Singapore Science Centre.
Furthermore, JRA will be opening several IP-based FECs and indoor theme parks around the world, including in the Middle East and Latin America.
In addition, the company is designing several international large-scale theme parks; transforming the historic Ozark Mill into a new cultural and F&B attraction; refreshing a brand visitor centre to tell the story of one of America’s favourite foods; and working on numerous children’s experiences, such as the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire and TheZone, an interactive sports attraction.
An exciting future for JRA and RWS
Meanwhile, RWS has launched many new experiences on land and at sea and is continuing to expand.
“We started a new relationship for entertainment programming for MSC Cruises, a major European cruise line,” says Stana. “We provided over 50 hours of continuous entertainment that immerses guests into a Living Art Museum onboard their MSC Seashore ship, which just launched in Miami.”
“Also, in the UK, we recently provided installation support for Paultons Park’s new Tornado Springs area. This included Halloween and holiday décor. From design to installation, we were able to provide a bespoke décor package that enhances their newly themed area.
“I believe that installation speaks to the breadth of RWS. We’re able to provide guests with all of the five senses. Plus we’re providing a sixth sense, which we call the human engagement sense.
“The RWS team is also excited to launch a worldwide experience programme for Iberostar Hotels and Resorts. We’re reimagining their entertainment experience for guests across 14 properties, starting in early 2022.”
For James, the acquisition of JRA by RWS is the natural evolution of the company he has guided for decades. It is also a game-changer for the attractions industry as a whole. “The opportunities are well beyond ‘RWS does this, and JRA does this.’ It’s not 1+1=2. In this case, 1+1 will total far more than 3.”
“To have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Keith, expanding his team’s creative vision to theatre and cruise ships, and bringing live experiences to even more venues throughout the world, is truly the realization of a dream. More importantly, together, we are expanding horizons for our talented teams of dreamers and doers; inspiring future generations of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ professionals,” adds Stana.
Top image: Sochi Park, Sochi, Russia – master-planned and designed by JRA