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Themed Entertainment: Theming, Presidential Libraries and Space Shuttles

I have had the privilege to be involved in the design and production of more than twenty themed experience projects. Once you look at themed entertainment through the eyes of a designer, there is no going back to being a normal visitor. Going to a theme park or museum with family and friends becomes a study in how sensitive, clever and aware other designers have been. The family and friends become lab rats, observed covertly so as not to sway the findings.  

by Chuck Roberts,  BRC Imagination Arts

At themed entertainment experiences and theme parks, I sometimes witness the emotional meltdowns that occur in visiting families. There comes a critical point where the desire to go on one more ride and the idea of waiting in one more line collide like a pair of freight trains. I’ve seen it happen almost anywhere in a park, but usually it occurs in the middle of a large crowded pathway, in the still hot, late afternoon sun. The spectacle slows the surrounding foot traffic like a fender bender on a Los Angeles freeway. People slow to gawk and see a child wailing and trembling, the parent trying to yell and whisper simultaneously, “We can just leave right now. Is that what you want?” I usually side with the kid.

And I usually feel somewhat responsible for the discomfort these guests are experiencing, whether or not I was somehow involved in the area’s design. What pushed these people over the edge? And how many other guests are about to snap? And how many others are experiencing a day of quiet confusion – instead of what the owners and operators and designers intended and promised? Is this just a case of the wonderful illusion breaking down under stress and the nasty reality bubbling up through the cracks?  Let’s face it, if you’re in a theme park filled beyond 100% capacity you’re just part of a big herd being moved from one holding pen to another. Unless the park’s theme is the discomfort of future overpopulation, you’re probably not getting much of the message. 

And yet sometimes, even under difficult circumstances, people still do get the message. What I find fascinating is when a majority of guests are able to endure crowding and other discomforts and still truly enjoy themselves, still feel they are taking away something valuable. A lot of the credit for this goes to the guests themselves, but this type of success also depends on the many choices that were made by the people who put the experience together. Success depends on how certain choices are made and how a story is told.

Temples in India of "Disney quality"

I have a friend who politely expressed the opinion that the industry I work in is twisting and distorting people’s experience of the real world and robbing future generations of the ability to think and decipher meaning from anything. If everything becomes the art of manipulating and spinning reality to suit your own needs, then nothing is real anymore and all you’ve got is people-robots paying to watch robot-people (“Nothing personal, ” he’d say. “Hey, no problem, ” I’d say back).  Conversely, I once had a friend and colleague tell me that temples he had visited in India were of “Disney quality.” In making this rather bizarre statement, he meant, I assume, that the exotic architecture and the attention to detail were so great that they reminded him of certain themed structures he had seen while visiting Disney parks. So, if I may put these two thoughts together: Here we have a case where the “real” is actually measuring up, in terms of quality, with the “false” that is going to harm our future generations. 

One could deduce from my friend’s “Disney quality” statement that the “real” world (aside from temples in India) is, for the most part, inferior to the created fantasy world of theme parks. And that, almost like a zoo, the real world is where we search for worthy specimens of reality to put in these parks. And that we use these specimens for our own selfish storytelling needs. Based on this type of thinking, a theme becomes a sort of super-expensive paint that you slap onto the necessary infrastructure to make your orange grove or landfill or brownfield or reclaimed waterfront or revitalized city center or whatever, into a place where the business of moving great herds of people from pen to pen can be done efficiently.

But that isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be how it works. A theme needs to have depth and weight that border on the spiritual. Period. If a theme has power and is supported well, it can overcome the crowds and heat.   A theme can open people to new experiences and sometimes even new emotional understanding. For instance, one of my favorite recently completed production design projects is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum , which opened in Springfield, Illinois in April of 2005. The team I worked with took the body of theme, story and concept design work that the Creative Development team had put together in 1998, and set about making those ideas real.  Because the themes had depth and weight they became good tools that we, the design/production team, could trust and measure our design ideas against. We used the themes to make informed choices as we moved forward in design.

A Ghost of a Host
themed entertainment peppers ghost design
Perhaps the best example within that museum of how a powerful theme can guide experience design is a show that focuses on library science, called Ghosts of the Library. Sounds thrilling, right?  Oh boy, library science! We knew the subject matter would not initially capture the imagination of the average guest. But we also knew that we had a very powerful story to tell and an amazing way to tell it. So, after luring the guests into the pre-show with a promising marquee and some flashy graphics, we trap them in a relatively empty, dimly lit room with an artifact case and some video monitors. The pre-show video is short and informative and really pretty good. There are many of the sorts of images you’d expect, such as gloved technicians carefully handling, photographing and restoring objects, and lots of books on shelves.  And while the presentation is not boring, it does nothing to assure you that the main theater experience won’t be more of the same, if not a total yawn. In other words we let the guests’ preconceived notions about library science set up their expectations of what was coming.

And then we gave them something pleasantly unexpected. Ghosts of the Library turns out to be a live stage presentation that uses some relatively high-tech special effects to create ghostly apparitions that our historian host interacts with (see right). The Ghosts show literally asks the question, “Why save all this old stuff? Who cares?” The answer had better be good. And the answer is found in the show’s theme:
The librarian/researcher is like a detective who finds the stories hidden within the objects in the library’s collection. 

The script claims, "In a mysterious way these objects connect us to the people and events of history. When we look at them and stand near them, they connect us to the past and make it real."

Now, guests do not know it at first but it becomes clear later in the show that our host is one of the ghosts of the library. Because he is a ghost, our host has the ability to affect any of the objects in the library, releasing apparitions of their secret inner stories. It is the host’s contact with these artifacts and his enthusiasm about the story within each artifact that conjure out the psychokinetic visions they hold inside. In short, the host is the lens that allows us a paranormal view of the library, and he is in complete control of our experience. 

At one point in the show the host holds before us a simple document.  A deed. Here, as the host tells the story behind this small piece of paper, he moves across the stage and the deed seems to leave behind a misty vapor. The host explains that this is the deed for the gravesite of the Lincolns’ first son, Eddie. The vapor becomes denser in spots, growing and swirling, forming a life-size scene of Abe and Mary standing at young Eddie’s grave. The host turns and seems to stand at the grave with them as he describes their pain. The host tells us that Mary lost three of her four sons, and we see Mary turn to lean into Abe for comfort. As the two figures embrace, Abe disappears in Mary’s arms, and the host reminds us that Mary watched her husband die too.  We see Mary alone as she starts to fade. She leans forward, sobbing into her hands, and is gone.

The host has shown us a story locked inside a simple object. And he shows us a number of these stories. By the time he is finished, it is clear that some of the library’s objects hold great pain and sorrow.  Some hold joy and some hold tremendous hope and courage. We can agree that it would truly be a tragedy if these objects were not kept and protected. But more than that, guests experience a true shift in their perception. All this “old stuff” has become something new and precious, historians have become heroes, and library science will never feel the same.

Floating around can get a little old hat

Finding the right theme to frame an experience can be tough, but sometimes the best themes are simply hidden in plain sight. I recently finished working on a show for the Kennedy Space Center, called Shuttle Launch Experience (see below left). NASA had wanted to create a visitor experience based on the Space Shuttle program. They knew they wanted a simulator and they knew they wanted guests to experience a launch. Now, the Space Shuttle is an amazing and complex spacecraft, and there are a lot of different aspects that you could focus on regarding launch alone. So in the beginning we considered a number of theme statements. Things like: “Building the new highway into space.” Okay, right, that was a little dry. We tried: “The shuttle is yesterday’s tomorrow.” This, if you think about it for a second, is probably true. But it is also a dumb idea to build an experience around.  Try another: “The Shuttle is adventure, the craft of modern day explorers.” Hmm. Yeah, I’m getting sleepy too.  

Well, as the research and astronaut interviews got underway, we started to hear again and again that experiencing flight on the Space Shuttle changed these men and women, forever. These are Marines and Air Force test pilots, scientists and technicians, not a crowd that is known for emotional and poetic reflection. Our host for the Shuttle launch Experience, Brig. General, USMC and five-time shuttle astronaut Charlie Bolden Jr., told us that upon achieving orbit, seeing the Earth from space brought tears to his eyes. And that for reasons he didn’t fully understand, the experience profoundly changed his perception of our planet. I was dubious. Certainly looking out a window at our planet, which I’m sure is very nice, couldn’t really be better, more profoundly affecting than the accompanying experience of floating around in micro-gravity? I asked astronaut Rick Searfoss, who was one of our advisors on the simulator, about it. I am paraphrasing his words; “Actually, floating around is fun for the first few minutes, but then it gets kind of old and you simply forget about it. But looking at the Earth… I’d find myself at the window just staring and I’d wonder, ‘How long have I been at this window? I’ve got work to do.’  It’s our home and it’s unbelievably beautiful.”

So the semi-official theme for the Shuttle Launch Experience became “Experiencing launch on the Space Shuttle changed the people who flew on it forever.” Yes, it’s a bit clunky. But a theme statement can be a bit clunky. No one will ever need to see or read it directly. They just need to feel it in their gut and know the truth of it. And again, this theme statement became the cornerstone in the foundation of the show’s design and production. So, now we knew that we wanted people to feel that a space shuttle launch could change people forever.  How do we do that? Well, we put guests in a modified space station module in the cargo bay of the shuttle and launched them into space.  Before they embarked, we explained everything we could about what they were going to experience during their ascent. The pre-briefing covers launch preparation and some details about the shuttle itself, and then focuses on the firing of the main engines, the twang*, SRB (solid rocket booster) start and lift off, the roll maneuver, Max-Q, SRB separation  and MECO (main engine cut off). (We learned some great new acronyms on this project.) All these things happen so quickly, and the launch is so loud and full of vibration, that it is important that people have a clear picture of what is going to happen before they board. There is also a short safety briefing. All in all it’s a fairly intense download of a lot of technical information. And then you step onboard.

(*The twang is the flex that occurs in the solid rocket boosters when the shuttle’s main engines fire. The shuttle stack is bolted to the pad by the solid rocket boosters, and when the main engines fire, at T-minus 6 seconds, the shuttle tries to go up but it can’t because of the bolts. The force of the engines literally makes the whole stack structurally flex in one direction for about three seconds. Then the entire structure, fighting the force of the engines, springs back to vertical (another three seconds) and we are at T-minus 0: they light the SRBs, blow the explosive bolts, and you are off. So the shuttle quite literally “TWANGS”, almost springing off the pad – cool but sort of crazy when you think about it.)

 If you haven’t been on the Shuttle Launch Experience I urge you to try it. Personally I find the screaming and laughing of first-time riders very gratifying. I’ve probably launched around 50 times and I love to look around at people’s faces during MECO. The module that a moment ago was shaking and roaring goes completely silent and still.  Moments ago, you were being forced back into your seat, and now you feel like you might float out of it. The external fuel tank separates from the shuttle with a loud bang. And then the payload bay doors open and reveal our beautiful, slowly spinning Earth. Here is where I study the faces. Everyone looking, eyes bright, mouths generally wide open and smiling. Will they see the Earth differently from now on?  I think some will.

Flying like Peter Pan

On most projects, whether it is a theme park, a museum or a world’s fair, choices start to get complicated. The theme is in place and everybody is clear, and now the design is moving forward. And designers, project managers, writers, directors and executives all know precisely what things should look like and how things should work. But (surprise) we don’t all necessarily agree. And now the budget is cut, so there is less money to build these things we don’t agree on. And now the client is experiencing a change of ownership or staff, and the people we were making decisions with are gone and the new people would like to completely change direction. Even the theme statement isn’t smoothing out the rifts. The new people hate the theme statement.  They think it’s clunky.  This is the kind of stuff that could make little kids cry later if we don’t make careful choices.

Okay, okay, who knows why the kids cry? Maybe they just need a nap.  Probably they were up all night thinking about the promise of fun they were going to have. And now they’re just toxic with fatigue. Even if you could make them fly, they probably wouldn’t be happy. Flight was in fact the experience that I felt I had been personally promised by Walt Disney when I was about seven years old. I’m not sure where I got the idea but when my parents (finally) took me to Disneyland I was ready for my experience with personal unassisted non-mechanical flight (Peter Pan style). We went all over the park and it was fun and I knew that the very next ride would be the one where I got to fly. And then it turned out not to be that ride, or the next one. By late afternoon I still hadn’t flown. I still remember my mom, silhouetted in the hot sun, leaning over me, saying, “We can just leave right now! Is that what you want?”

Inside Chuck Roberts’ Head

This article-writing thing has turned out to be more challenging than I imagined. Originally the idea was to share some fun and hopefully humorous tales about working in the world of themed experience design. I sent some fun article ideas to Bob Rogers, our CEO, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, and he passed my fun article ideas to Scott Ault, our COO. Scott let me know that he liked one of my ideas. There had been four ideas to choose from. The one that Scott liked was the one that coincidentally, had everything I knew or could honestly say about the subject in the paragraph that it took to describe it. So if the article needed to be more than a paragraph, I was already in trouble.  That was when I started to see that writing an article was going to be a lot like working on one of our projects. There were going to be a lot of people involved. And the idea that I could finally create and control something by myself was just another fantasy waiting to be shattered. 

Eventually, there was a meeting with Bob the Founder/CEO/CCO, Carmel Lewis VP, Educational Experiences and Scott the COO – plus Christian the VP, Brand Experiences. I am, of course, there too, though I’m really beginning to wish I weren’t. The whole thing feels a bit like an intervention (which is often what needs to happen when you have a fun idea or the next thing you know somebody has lost an eye or you’re going end-over-end in your car). Some of my original story ideas are discussed, followed by some long, quiet moments. Lists! People like lists. Ten-best lists, or the seven worst things about something, that kind of thing. Actually many things are discussed. I let the ideas wash over me like cold ocean waves. The idea that we all finally sort of agreed on was a piece about queue lines for shows and themed experiences. I am really trying to see the possibilities for fun with queue lines, but the idea isn’t mine, so I already silently loathe it. 

 I am not a writer. Normally at work I am a designer. For years on my business card it said Art Director/Show Designer. And then my cards said Senior Art Director and Show Designer. ‘Senior’ just showed up one day. Well, actually it showed up after about 17 years. Now on the company website, I am listed as the Director of Design. Directing design has less to do with designing or directing, and more to do with helping lots of different design projects either roll forward or keeping them from flying off the rails.

Now, if you were, say, in the mental health profession, you could probably tell by reading even these few paragraphs that I am somewhat neurotic. I am also a bit superstitious, though I try not to be.  Sometimes I can be a little cynical and negative. And often I am driven by a secret fear that I am actually a useless individual who has managed to trick people into thinking I have value. No doubt eventually I will be exposed by someone who is actually paying attention, but, so far so good. 

On the more positive side, I am generally an excellent listener. And, I seem to have a knack for designing and arranging elements within an architectural space so that they support a story. I also have the ability to see fairly complex three-dimensional relationships in my mind.  Lots of people that I work with can do this too. Honestly, I had thought most everyone could do it. But I have recently started noticing that this ability is fairly unusual, even rare, in the world in general. In fact I’ve recently been waking up to just how unusual, diverse and remarkable the talents of my BRC teammates have been over the years, and are today. 

Chuck Roberts is Director of Design for BRC Imagination Arts and has been with the company since 1985. He was creative director/production designer on Shuttle Launch Experience, created by BRC for Kennedy Space Center, and concept designer/production designer on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, created by BRC for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

See also: 
Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Launch Experience Continues to Thrill Space Enthusiasts
Nexxus Lighting the Shuttle Launch Experience.

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