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Theme Parks & Attractions: The Art of the Night Time Spectacular

When designing a new theme park or attraction the ‘night time’ show should be considered. Whether you transfix your guests with a fifty foot fire breathing dragon, transform the front of a building into an enormous digital billboard or astonish them with lasers, fountains and video the merging of new technologies with theatre is creating a whole new after-dark experience.

rob paul lci productionsBy Rob Paul, LCI limited

All attractions need to operate as businesses, while providing a great service to their guests. One of the best ways to maximise the time guests spend at your attraction, therefore increasing the F&B spend, and opportunities to sell merchandising is the night time show. Such an event is a great asset as it holds more visitors on the property, as anticipation builds for the end of the night show. 

By careful planning of the geography of the attraction the show can also be used to draw guests close to the exit of the park, which speeds up closing the property when the show has finished.

Leave them wanting more

The show design should allow for an audience of several thousand, and ensure excellent viewing for all. The most popular show designs are sound and light shows and water shows. The theme of the show can be something standalone, or as a ‘round up’ of other attractions at the property, providing it does not compromise the show quality to achieve this. 

The show needs to be a real spectacular but its design should also be mindful of practical issues such as return on investment. Depending upon the property the design can also cater for special events and corporate functions which allows for even greater use and return. The ocean park hong kong symbio lci productions

show control system should allow for sponsors or corporates to be readily promoted in imagery and audio, either top or tailing the main show.

The show design should provide the audience with an exciting experience that leaves them wanting more at the end of the show and a talking point for spreading the parks reputation.

The palette of effects that may be used for a spectacular show includes but is not limited to

•    Water Projection
•    Screen/Building Projection
•    Feature Lighting
•    Search Lights
•    Moving Lights
•    Lasers
•    Audio and audio effects
•    Video Display
•    Fireworks
•    Flames
•    Performance Actors
•    Performance Stunts
•    Performance Dancers
•    Performance Singers
•    Staging/ Set Build
•    Models/Puppets/Animatronics
•    Fountains/ Water Effects
•    Water Screens/Curtains
•    Fog
•    Smoke
•    Haze

 The show duration should ideally be 10 to 20 minutes, so that it is long enough to provide the audience with a true spectacle, but leaving them wanting more – wanting to return again to enjoy it, or work out how it was done. If live elements are incorporated the duration can be longer. 

When an attraction is being added to fit an existing venue, the show design will be influenced by the nature of the venue.  In a new build geographical features and other plans for the venue will influence the design.  

The management style and the operational costs will also be key design factors.  The operational costs will build up from consumables, operational and maintenance staff, spare parts and warranty, performers and costumes.  It may be necessary to design a show so that costly consumable elements or performance elements are non-essential.

Budget and concept

The design process is a very creative but difficult stage. Initial brain storming sessions will develop show ideas to enthuse and excite the client, from which a chosen concept can then be further developed. The budget in early stage has often not been determined, or often stated as ‘there is not budget limit’. Once estimates come through for the initial concepts, then budgets quickly appear, but this is very helpful in designing the final show, and balancing resource for the best result overall. As stated at the outset while working with a budget can be difficult a client who is looking for a ROI gives confidence that the project is realistic.

Once the budget and concept have been approved and contracts signed the full design and production process can begin.  Depending on the chosen concept this may involve some product development and testing.  Challenging the boundaries of what is possible, adds to the creativity of the project, even though this is likely to raise the blood pressure of those involved! Maintenance of the attraction must also be carefully considered.  This stage will often result in mock-ups and tests for clients.



The technical design process of site preparations will involve close coordination with the Design Master Planner, the General Contractor, and Mechanical and Electrical Contractor.  We are fortunate nowadays that the universal language of CAD predominates, as this ensures that everything can be understood. As with most areas of modern life, information is increasingly shared on line for comment and review.  In the overall production schedule due to the nature tang paradise china lci productions

of the build, the specialist show contractor is better able to hit deadlines prior to beginning installation compared to the general contractor and the electrical contractor who of course are affected by issues that affect the overall development, which may be weather, politics or contracts. This can lead to frustrating delays, as equipment sits in storage, and installation crew are delayed, waiting for site readiness.

Testing, testing

Once the installation has been completed, the equipment will be thoroughly tested, ready for programming the show, and coordinating with rehearsals.

On a parallel timeline the show design and media will be created. The show production may stem from ideas or a theme from the client, or originated by the specialist show contractor.  The full production is similar to a feature film in its elements, but with a few additions. This will first be developed as a written treatment for approval.  Following on from this storyboarding and character development will begin; this process can be collaborative with the client depending on their wishes. Once the character development and storyboard have been approved the full production process can begin. Unlike film storyboarding this will also explain when special effects and other aspects of the installation will be utilised, and which ‘screen’ area will be used to deliver the media. Depending on the style of production chosen this will involve animation, film shoots, photos shoots, image research, music origination/ selection, orchestration. night time spectacular theme parks branson


Moving into the postproduction or assembly phase, where the material is composited, effects added and converted into a suitable format for site.  The unusual media delivery means that it is expected for there to be image adjustments after the media has been viewed at site. This may involve composition change, recoloring or rethinking sequences that just work differently at the site in coordination with other elements of the show (fountains, flames, lasers, for example).

The media, both visual and audio will form the framework on which the other effects will be programmed. While modern software allows much programming to be done ‘off site’, it is still necessary to be ‘on site’ for many long nights whilst creating and finessing the show.  When a live element is included this of course will involve rehearsals. What should be avoided is programming a show which fits the performance, as changing timings (as the cast learn their lines for instance) is very time consuming. The show, once created will be offered to the client for review, and testing in front of initial audiences, and a soft opening. Then it hopefully rolls out to all of the ‘great and good’ to high praise. The process of course will tend to have many trials and tribulations, and generally pressure rises as site delays mean the carefully thought through project timeline is affected and you have to deliver elements faster. But the projects are all interesting technically, creatively and often culturally.

 water screen lci limited theme parks

Video Mapping

The latest trend in night time spectacular has been video mapping. (See : Museums and Theme Parks After Dark: Video Mapping – Transforming Architecture with Light.) This is stepping up a gear from Sound and Light shows, though as yet has predominantly been used on an event basis, projected onto existing architecture. We are now starting to see projects consider this from the outset.

Whatever the style of show is chosen it should create something magical for the guest at the end of the evening. It may be dominated by water effects, video displays, lighting or live performance, but it should always leave the brand of the attraction enhanced, guests wanting to come back for more, and of course also provide that vital return on investment.

projection video mapping onto museum

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