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In depth

Theme park design & animal attractions for Busch Entertainment

During the school year, Alan Stein (below left) was assistant professor of Music at the University of Richmond. But he spent his summers engaged in various music projects at the theme park Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and in the 1970s, a sideline became a career.

by Judith Rubin

Stein ascended from music director for the theme park to seasonal supervisor and then to assistant manager of entertainment. In 1989, when Busch acquired the SeaWorld parks, he relocated from Williamsburg to St. Louis with the fledgling corporate entertainment division then headed by Joe Peczi. Following Peczi’s retirement in early 2000, Stein continued as director of entertainment for Busch Entertainment Corp. (BEC), working under David Smith as VP, entertainment to develop breakthrough shows, attractions and properties including “Believe, ” “Shamu Rocks, ” “Curse of DarKastle, ” Aquatica and the rollout of the entertainment portion of the Sesame themed areas at the parks.

When BEC moved to Orlando in 2007, Stein opted to remain in St. Louis and form his own  company, sky’s the limit international llc, offering creative consulting, show production and project management.

“Those last six years under Dave Smith were a great time in our lives, ” said Stein over a salad and latte at Crepes Etc., a restaurant in St Louis’s Central West End. He explained that the company shifted its approach and began to draw on external resources and wisdom and that this was a key factor in raising creative standards and the quality of the guest experience to new highs. “When we began to reach outside BEC for support and ideas, it ushered in a new era.” 

“Believe, ” project managed by Stein and opened simultaneously in three SeaWorld parks in 2006, not only raised the creative bar but also gave the SeaWorld brand new consistency and power. “It reinvigorated Shamu as our core equity, ” Stein explains, “resulting in an amazingly successful show. And it brought together so many remarkable, talented, passionate people  who had never really worked together before. That was the beauty of it all. It was a daunting task assembling the entertainment, animal training, and design and engineering teams from all three SeaWorld parks, but having them interface with over 50 outside contractors and partners to a successful end result was truly the most rewarding experience of my career. I spent 4-1/2 years of my life on that show. I was the day-to-day guy. Dave Smith was my rock and my guiding force. We came in on time and under budget. Linda Smith (VP, brand management) and her team got behind the simultaneous opening of the three  with a national push, and it was the first time we’d done that.”

(“Believe, ” as well as “DarKastle” have both received Thea Awards for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association, which also recently honored SeaWorld San Diego with its Thea Classic Award.)

Evoking the South Pacific

Although it’s been years since Stein personally composed and conducted music for the parks, he has remained a prolific composer/arranger, and several of his school band music pieces are top sellers for Alfred Music Publishing. Stein remained deeply involved with musical decisions for all Busch parks during his tenure, composing the soundtrack to Journey to Atlantis, and executive producing all 22 hours of background music for the Aquatica waterpark which opened in 2008 in Orlando. 

“Music plays the same role as the theme, ” he explains. “It’s not overt – it operates like a backstory and calls for precise choices. It needs to work with the color scheme, the architecture, the signage, and the subliminal idea of space, place or what Jumana Brodersen (former BEC corporate director of creative development) calls ‘realms.’”

For Aquatica, it was established that the music would evoke the South Pacific. Alan Silva of Audio by the Bay composed a four-minute theme song to express the region and the park’s funloving, crazy characters. It was scored seven different ways for each of the park’s zones and assembled into seven audioscapes by juxtaposing each score with authentic music of the South Pacific and ambient sounds of wildlife. “Audio by the Bay would compile the music and I would assess it, approving or rejecting pieces as to whether or not they fit the theme, ” said Stein.

Stein’s recipe for creating effective background music is to “look at the sense of place and ask how the music could enhance that. You try to create a cohesive texture underlying the theme, to unify the park sonically and immerse people in the sense of place, including the retail areas. To achieve that, it is critical to have someone at the helm who keeps their eye fixed on that North Star [Stein’s favorite metaphor for the core project vision] so nothing gets offbase.

Developing 52 new behaviors

One of the biggest mistakes is to have a piece of music that’s out of character with the place, or incongruous with the piece that preceded or followed it.” In the 1990s, as a member of the IAAPA music licensing committee, Stein lobbied successfully for more consistent treatment of theme parks from the major licensing agencies.

In the course of conversation, Stein named several other additional people and companies he’d found it gratifying to collaborate with. On “Shamu Rocks, ” In Motion Entertainment’s Scott Helmstedter and Elizabeth Hanson and their team, and videographer Jim Okumura (Helmstedter and team also produced “Blue Horizons” at SeaWorld Orlando.) On “DarKastle, ” Cecil Magpuri and his company Falcon’s Treehouse. On “Believe, ”  Mike Mairot and Laura Surovik of SeaWorld Orlando, Robbin Sheets and Rick Schuiteman of SeaWorld San Diego, Steve Aibel of SeaWorld San Antonio, producer Don Frantz of Town Square Productions, Dina Benadon and Brent Young of Super 78 Studios (also for “DarKastle”), Thad Lacinak, VP, corporate animal training, and, of course, the black-and-white clad stars of the show: the whales. “Believe” significantly raised the bar for what the the Shamu trainers and entertainment teams were capable of doing together. “We asked the trainers, ‘can you choreograph the show so that we can play the complete score without looping?’” recalls Stein. “They developed 52 new behaviors, not all of which were used in the show, along with coordinating exactly when each one was supposed to happen.”

One could say that Stein is a specialist in new behaviors, having worn so many different hats himself and guided creative teams to unique accomplishments. “The hardest thing, once the team has been assembled into a cohesive unit, is holding onto the creative torch, making sure you don’t stray from the original vision, ” says Stein. “But without that, the project is lost. “There are so many things tugging at you to take you away from genuineness. You’ve got to follow the North Star.”

See also:
Theme Park Design and Project Interruptus – David and Linda Smith of Smithink, former Busch Entertainment execs
Amusement Parks: Busch Corp.’s Themed Entertainment Legacy in St. Louis
Amusement Parks: Writing about Orlando’s Major Attractions
Themed Entertainment: A UK family with three children visits Orlando
Shamu’s World of Mystery and Beauty : SeaWorld

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