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Looking back can break your heart: Theme Park Design with Robin Hall


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chad emersonRobin Hall has a wealth of experience in Master Planning and Attraction Design, built up over the last four decades, including 16 years at Knott’s Berry Farm as VP Design and Architecture.  Robin looks back over his career with Chad Emerson (right).

Chad Emerson:  Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry and some of the more interesting projects that you’ve worked on.

Robin Hall (below left)I’d planned on being a book illustrator and had attended Chouinard for two years and then transferred to Cal Arts to finish up my BFA. I wasn’t too sure what I was going to do after I graduated and a friend talked me into getting a summer job at Magic Mountain. I painted sets for the theater, cut silhouettes, ran dancing waters before settling in as a spotlight operator making $2.10 per hour. The theater went into winter operation; only open on the weekends, and so I started to do a weekrobin hall theme park designerly cartoon ‘The Entertainment News’ to get my forty hours. I was noticed by their Planning and Development division and was transferred over to be assistant art coordinator to someone who was on vacation for a month. I started off doing signs, then colors, interiors, ride vehicles, and then building exteriors. My mentor was Tom Sutton who gave me lots of room to make mistakes and inspired me to grow into the job.

The second half of your question is more difficult for me, as being a designer; I love the problem solving the jobs entail. Doing two hundred color schemes a year to make Magic Mountain look new and different was a challenge, working on the layout for the first vertical loop coaster, The Revolution, Wizard’s Village, an early kid’s play area, and Spillikin Corners, an area that show cased crafts and craft demonstrators were highlights of my Magic Mountain years.

My Knott’s Berry Farm years started with the design of Camp Snoopy which was a real turning point for me. We took a parking lot and turned it into a forest with streams and waterfalls, stone bridges, log buildings, rides and play structures just for children. Nine years later we opened Knott’s Camp Snoopy at Mall of America a seven acre family playground inside a shopping mall.

In my seventeen years at Knott’s I had the opportunity to work on hundreds of jobs from master planning to jam labels and some that really changed the park were; Ghost Town Alive when we brought the crafts people back to Ghost Town, Kingdom of the Dinosaurs my first dark ride that caught the wave of dinosaur excitement, Mystery Lodge a great uplifting family story with Bob Rogers Holavision, The Dolphin Pavilion, The redo of Fiesta Village, The redo of the Twenties area into ‘Boardwalk’, red roller coaster supreme screamWind Jammer two racing roller coasters, Jaguar!, a family coasting coaster with Mayan theming, Hammerhead a stock ride make over that included a fountain with King Neptune and mermaids, Supreme Scream a turbo drop tower (right), Ghost Rider a large wooden roller coaster my last project at Knott’s Berry Farm.

Emerson:  As you reflect on your career, what have been some of the most interesting innovations that you’ve seen in the amusement industry?

Hall: Computer engineering has made roller coasters king. The heights, drops and g-forces which are now everyday were not even dreamed of when I began my career. There has also been tremendous growth in film effects in attractions. I kept trying to get simulators into Knott’s but only managed to get to get one in Knott’s Camp Snoopy Mall of America by selling the idea that we could have a new attraction with the change of a film.

Emerson:  Along those lines, what has been one of your proudest moments?

Hall: Well, you have to look at context. The first modular exit sign with Helvetica lettering was a very big deal to me starting out. The stream inside Mall of America that you would swear was ‘real’ if you didn’t look up and see the skylights. A Batman simulator ride I storyboarded and art directed for Warner Bros. Movie World, Madrid was great to be a part of. The small cities I work on now that have a theme park or tourist town as a small part are rewarding too.

I’m trying to answer this from a project perspective but when you’re standing in seven acres of rides, attractions, food, retail, and entertainment enclosed in a glass box that your drawings gave birth to, the high comes from hearing the kids laugh and seeing the parents smile. The ‘pride’ for me was never at the opening of the attractions I’ve worked on, but rather a couple of years down the road when you come to terms with all the budget constraints, the compromises, and the deadlines you had to deliver the project within; seeing the visitor smiling then feels pretty good.

Emerson:  What has been one of the most challenging projects you worked on and what made it so challenging?

Hall: Again it is context but Knott’s Camp Snoopy Mall of America had a lot riding on its successful outcome.  My career and that of my boss, Terry Van Gorder, who came up with the idea, and the reputation of Knott’s as a company with a future all were dependent on this model of project working. The two similar projects Edmonton, Canada and Lotte World, Korea appeared to be making money but no one could be sure. It was a huge financial risk for the mall developer and without Terry it would have never happened. The Knott family was divided over it but hard work of a great many people made it a tremendous success. A project of this size and scale had never been attempted in the United States and the City of Bloomington was very rightly worried about how this monster was going to work and whether the visitor would be safe.

Bruce Green of Hope Architects was charged with getting this project thought the code process along with making my sketches buildable and it was months before they all came up with the idea of looking at our space as a skyscraper on its side. After that all these number projections and capacity studies were done and wide paths were cut through my plans to get exits down and out underground.

I thought that I was pretty seasoned at this point but the endless details and questions were pretty humbling. Lighting studies to shown the lines of permanent shade, fifty percent cloud cover in a typical year and trying to grow plants, humidity level concerns, all the mall air conditioning (and the related lint) exiting through our space, how to circulate the air coaster jaguarwithout having the ducts going everywhere, wood structures in a 1 hour environment, how do you reduce the noise from rides and coasters to make it an enjoyable space, how do you make a walking surface comfortable after someone has already walked around the largest mall in America? All questions that needed to be answered along with thousands of others. Oh, and by the way still develop the capital projects for Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park.

Emerson:  Of the projects you worked on earlier in your career, which ones have best stood the test of time and why do you think that is?

Hall:  I been in this line of work over thirty years and very little of what I’ve done is around or unchanged. That’s the nature of the business. The land of a theme park is generally constrained and the parks need new products to market to draw in new visitors. People that visit a park might have their favorite thing like a stagecoach ride at Knott’s they remember but most of society wants or expects the latest thing. I try to keep looking forward because sometimes looking back can break your heart.

Emerson:  Last question.  It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon.  Share with us your perfect theme park experience on that day.

Hall: Sometime after the summer season and we are doing a punch list on Jaguar roller coaster (left). My friends; Denis Kurutz the landscape architect, Tracy Caviola my art director, a Jerry Braude who designed the interactive fountain are all busy trying to solve some problem while I’m standing off to the side. I look up to the top of the Mayan Temple queue building at this sculpture of a Mayan god I did who is holding a gold leafed disc and it just catches the sun with a bright flash as two kids run up yelling "Jaguar! Jaguar!".

It was perfect. Then you smile and go back to work.


Images of Knott's Berry Farm:  Kind courtesy Knott's Berry Farm. 

Snoopy images: PEANUTS © UFS, INC.

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