Celebrating 10 Years Of Naturequest: A Retrospective Look Back With the Fernbank Team

In 2007, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History’s visionary CEO Susan Neugent and her team engaged Thinkwell to reimagine their much-loved (but well-worn) third-floor children’s exhibits. At the time, Thinkwell was still new to the museum world, and Susan’s leap of faith initiated a rich and rewarding collaborative partnership that would lead to Naturequest, a groundbreaking children’s exhibit that celebrates its tenth anniversary this week.  

NatureQuest Starfish

“From the moment we kicked off the design process in 2007,” notes Fernbank’s current CEO Jennifer Grant Warner, “we intentionally set out to create something fresh that had not been seen before at museums for young kids. Our team at Fernbank, alongside our colleagues from Thinkwell, were committed to developing this uniquely immersive space that was rooted in science and education curriculum from top to bottom, providing inclusive opportunities for all  learners to explore the natural world…in a safe, indoor environment.”

Naturequest was intended to shatter the conventions of typical children’s exhibits by creating a playful, highly explorable landscape that piques each visitor’s innate sense of curiosity without relying on didactic text or explanations. Anchored by a multilevel treehouse and a meandering virtual interactive river that winds from the mountains to the coastal reef, Naturequest provides a comprehensive, accurate, region-specific overview of Georgia’s complex biosystems. Since it’s opening, the exhibit has provided ten years of adventure to its guests, but getting to opening day was an adventure all its own.

To start with, the logistics of creating a bespoke, aspirational, indoor forest on the third floor of the building were daunting. Fernbank’s main loading dock was located four floors below, on the opposite side of the building, impractically far away from the space. Thinkwell proposed a radical solution, punching a new hole in the building three stories above an adjacent service area, and the Fernbank team unflinchingly approved the plan. It proved to be an invaluable decision, minimizing the impact of construction on the rest of the museum.

Another key objective was to include a floor-to-ceiling view to the natural forest just outside, which required the demolition and relocation of the office of the Museum’s CFO, Catherine Nowell. With typical Fernbank spirit, she unhesitatingly agreed to the plan. 

Due to the “haute couture” nature of the exhibit, every element had to be custom designed, tested and installed onsite. Once construction was underway, the Thinkwell team, led by Project Manager Courtney Kleinman, was embedded with Fernbank’s staff in Atlanta to oversee the placement of everything from the largest tree to the tiniest fossil in the rockwork strata. 

As scenic elements arrived, they became furniture for the project team; the treehouse an ad hoc conference room, fallen logs became workbenches, the under-construction ladies room served as the flooring vendor’s field office, and a faux dugout canoe was a welcoming spot for a quick power nap. The team spent all of their waking hours together. “For a while I thought I was married to (Technical Director) Gene Rogers. We drove together, worked together, ate every meal together,” Art Director Gwen Ballantyne said. 

Gwen sculpted and baked animal figures and rockwork samples in her apartment for Nassal’s scenic team, who used the models as guides for the full-sized rocks, caves, and strata they sculpted in place. They meticulously added fossils, geodes and other inclusions selected by Fernbank’s geologists to the appropriate layer of strata. They molded tree bark samples from the trees just outside to create accurate copies inside. “I was so impressed with the rockwork team from Nassal,” says Ballantyne, “They were brilliant and so patient with us and everything we were asking them to do, which was crazy hard. Everything they did was stellar.”

Elsewhere, Gwen worked with the flooring vendor Rubbertek to custom mix their primary colors to create the perfect color gradients for the riverbed, beach, and reef, an effort that they had never accomplished previously. While art directing a tree stump, Ballantyne became so captivated by the history conveyed in tree rings, that she joined the Tree Ring Society.

Meanwhile, Kate McConnell, who had already learned the Latin names for hundreds of indiginous species of plants and animals in concept development, installed animal paw prints throughout the space, each set representing a different creature and telling a unique story. Kids can follow those prints and see where the creature emerges from the grass, pauses for a drink, and finally darts away again. Kate got so caught up in the effort that Thinkwell CEO Joe Zenas unofficially dubbed her V.P. of Animal Tracks.

The tech team hung and focused lights and mapped projections in the now open, naturally lit space. They also installed computers and software, rigged interactive elements, and mixed twenty-six separate audio zones together to create a seamless, accurately immersive soundscape in the compact space. Even the soundscape is Georgia-specific, with bird and insect noises selected specifically for their accuracy to each zone of the exhibit.

“There is no more destructive force in nature than a four-year-old-child” said Rogers, and all of the Naturequest team aggressively field-tested every touchpoint to make sure they could withstand the onslaught of the destructive forces to come.  they jumped, smashed, pulled, and pushed every new set piece and element trying to break it. “Is this good to go?” asked Chris Hawkes before grabbing a balance beam log with two hands and tearing it out of the floor. “Apparently not.” Thinkwellian Cynthia Sharpe would frequently pressure-test play elements, once putting her foot through a crab pot, then testing prototype acorns, seashells, and game pieces by smashing them to the floor or against a wall. When a transfer basket for a seed dispersal activity proved too fragile, Cynthia hand-knitted a pouch instead, a solution that remains to this day.

All of the tireless work and attention to detail was put to the test on opening day. The team held their breath as the first wave of kids entered the space. As expected, they jumped, smashed, pulled, and pushed every element. Grown ups explored as well, some laying across the virtual river, climbing up the central tree, or hanging out inside the narrow burrow. Kids beckoned to parents and caregivers to share discoveries and even sought out other kids to help with cooperative games. They had turned over stones, climbed trees, explored caves, and hopped across the river. Naturequest was now theirs.

As the activity wound down towards the end of the day, Gwen Ballantyne noticed an elderly docent gazing in wistfully through the circular windows at the entrance, “The children love it,” he whispered, “Looking at this, I just want to be a boy again.”  

“Naturequest was a game changer for Fernbank,” asserted Dr. Bobbi Hohmann, Fernbank’s VP of Programming and Collections, “Our younger visitors don’t realize that they are learning as they play and, of course, our adult visitors have just as much fun in the space!”

NatureQuest Floor InteractiveBrandi Berry, VP of Marketing agreed “I knew we had created something very special and innovative when Emory University included Naturequest in their field research of early childhood education. Ten years later, I still want to climb up the inside of the tree every time I visit the exhibit.”

“Naturequest has been pivotal for Fernbank in many ways,”  Jennifer Grant Warner adds, “ the exhibition has helped Fernbank grow as an organization, expanding our reach and being recognized for our commitment to science education. Best of all, to this day, we see kids light up when they enter Naturequest and realize this space is just for them – they speed through to get their bearings and then dive into their favorite area to explore, which is exactly as we had hoped.” 

Naturequest was the product of an unprecedented partnership and collaboration between Thinkwell and the Fernbank Museum that continues to this day. Since opening in 2011, the multiple award-winning Naturequest has exponentially increased memberships, opened the door for new exhibits like WildWoods and Nature Stories, and has made Fernbank one of the most treasured spots in Atlanta. Happy anniversary Naturequest, and congratulations to our dear friends at Fernbank. It is a privilege playing with you.

Thinkwell Group’s 6th Annual Guest Experience Trend Report: Artificial Intelligence

Thinkwell’s 6th Annual Guest Experience Trend Report, released today, explores artificial intelligence (A.I.) and its applications in experiences, breaking down key takeaways and predictions for how A.I. can affect, adapt, and improve the guest experience in museums, theme parks, and beyond. With the prevalence of virtual assistants, smart home devices, and smart digital features in everyday life, the A.I. revolution is already here for consumers. At the same time, A.I. is also becoming more involved in our experiences, and there’s no shortage of ideas for what A.I. can achieve and contribute to the guest experience. 

With input from a representative sample of more than 1,300 survey respondents, Thinkwell’s 6th Annual Guest Experience Trend Report breaks down three ideas around the guest experience and integration with A.I., while also exploring the rising demand for technology and personalization. 

Three Big Ideas for A.I.:

  • Physical queues are waiting for obsolescence. What does this mean for the entire experience?
  • Guests want to make discoveries. A smart guide can help.
  • A.I. is about getting personal. What happens when you’re able to combine human and artificial intelligence for personalized interactions and service? 

“The potential to use A.I. for guest, brand, and operator benefit is limitless,” says Craig Hanna, Thinkwell’s Chief Creative Officer. “Thinkwell is focused on providing innovative, practical, and inclusive solutions to enhance the guest experience in any setting, and A.I. can play a big role in guest experiences and technology decisions as we look to the future.”

For Thinkwell’s insights, data highlights, and predictions on the future of artificial intelligence and guest experience, read the full report here.

Experience Arcana: A Thinkwellian’s Instagram-Based, Top 10 Game of 2020

The Los Angeles Times recently named Arcana, a horror-based interactive social media narrative I co-created with my team, AOTW, as one of the top ten games of 2020, just behind the likes of Animal Crossing and Mario Kart Live. This came as a true shock. We feel extremely proud and also humbled beyond belief. How did our Instagram-based never-before-done month-long super-hard-to-explain project get on such a list? 

ReView asked me to talk about the process of getting Arcana up and running. But to do so I feel I first have to remind readers that Thinkwell is made up of incredible artists, many of whom are working on creative projects outside their job description. From Chris Durmick’s Three Stooges TikTok page to Sara Beil’s incredible live theatre events on Zoom, we are a bunch of strange, talented creatures who bring our know-how, creativity, and lived experiences to the work we do at Thinkwell. 

My outside experience is primarily as a theater maker. And in the last decade, my theater efforts have been focused in a subgenre called immersive theatre, which blurs the lines between reality and performativity, and challenges the relationship between performer and audience member. In 2019, I worked with a team of brilliant creatives on a four day long city-wide immersive theatrical game called “All of Them, Witches!” in New Orleans, in conjunction with the Overlook Horror Film Festival. We intended to adapt our project and turn it into an evening-long Los Angeles-based experience. But then: COVID. Suddenly, the idea of having audience members in close quarters with performers was off the table. We had created an immersive theater experience that was, in every way, not permissible during the global pandemic. For a while, we attempted to re-tool the script to make it a COVID-safe one, but eventually we started from scratch, determined to create something that was tailor-made for the at-home always-safe needs of the pandemic. (I liken this moment to our creative process at Thinkwell, when we assess project parameters, and figure out how we can flex our creative muscles within a box, no matter how rigid the walls may seem.)


Arcana developed quickly into a narrative focused on the isolation, loneliness, and heartbreak that COVID was causing. But Arcana was never explicitly about COVID. We wanted that element to be subtextual. To do so, our protagonist, Jade, was set up as a loner, recently abandoned by her dear Robin, living alone in a big house with a spooky attic. Weird stuff started happening to Jade: dreams, visions, and visitations from creepy fox creatures. We put everything on Instagram. And as spectators got more involved with Jade, they started playing the game of her life by solving riddles tucked inside artwork, or decoding a cypher that had to be assembled from numerous posts. Eventually our audience became friends with Jade. We had our audience hooked, and that was only week one! In the following three weeks, the narrative moved into other forms of social media, direct email messages, internet-based world religion research, and some serious puzzle solving. Our players dove head-first into user-created communities like Slack and Discord to collaborate, communicate, and squabble over how to solve mysteries inside the narrative. Some players remained spectators, happy to watch the story unfold, but not keen to spend hours solving complicated riddles. The entire time, we observed from “beyond the veil,” keeping tabs on player delight and frustration to ensure we could adapt and evolve alongside our audience. This was real-time adaptation and pivoting, which enhanced our ability to give the audience real agency. In the final week of the narrative, our audience decided upon the outcome of dear, sweet Jade (who, by then, wasn’t so dear nor so sweet.) You can re-live the entire experience at Arcana-Game.com. 

Our process, internally, had to adapt and evolve as we created the experience for audience members. My writing partner, Eva Anderson, and I would brainstorm and break episodes, which we would then pitch to the rest of the team. Then, our production team E3W (Natalie Jones, Austin Keeling, Aaron Keeling) would collaborate with puzzle mastermind Tommy Honton to figure out how to put the narrative/script into action, aided by a wonderful performance by Nerea Duhart, who played Jade. Keeping tabs on everything was our ever-watchful and brilliant producer, Mali Elfman. Just as we figured out how to produce week one, we were in “pre-production” for weeks two, three, and four! It was a whirlwind, and one that I’d gladly step into again. The LATimes enjoyed the whirlwind, too

The question of how to give audience members a flexible amount of agency to influence the outcome of a narrative experience, whether it be in a theme park setting or while roaming an illuminated garden, is one that we enjoy discussing at Thinkwell. My experience producing Arcana will surely influence how I think about experience design as a Creative Director for Thinkwell, and I can’t wait to apply that knowledge to future projects. 


A Look Ahead: Thinkwell’s D&I Plans For 2021

Like many, we here at Thinkwell had more than a smidge of gladness to turn the page on 2020 and welcome the new year. With the promise of widespread vaccination in the not-too-distant future, there’s cause for optimism. At the same time, we are keenly aware of how much work there is to do this year in inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, as we continue our intertwined efforts of Thinkwell 3.0 and the work of our Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council

These represent profound organizational change: they both touch every aspect of how Thinkwell operates, the work we do, and our role in our industry. Part of that work is fulfilling our pledge to be open and honest about our work, our progress, and our shortcomings.

As we look to the future, we’ve implemented several key changes and have additional work in development. These include:

  • Our D&I Council has overseen and analyzed our first Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging survey, using our LA Studio team as the prototype, and the team is now in the process of defining, staffing, and empowering specific efforts to address some of the issues and opportunities that came out of that survey.
  • We have launched our Studio Team program, again with the LA Studio as the prototype. Studio Teams bring together small groups of Thinkwellians across disciplines for professional development, career guidance, and workplace culture initiatives.
  • We have worked with our HR software provider to expand terminology in our forms and documentation, to be more inclusive and welcoming.
  • We have partnered with an external organization to provide all of our Los Angeles staff with unconscious bias training.

These and other efforts touch every facet of Thinkwell, including content on Thinkwell’s blog and social media channels. Working with our D&I Council, we’re planning a year of content that leverages our platform, as leaders in the industry, to support education and awareness around the role, impact, and responsibility of experience design in diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. Rather than confine these posts to affinity months, we’re planning on addressing these subjects year-round. It’s also important to have a wide range of voices at all times, elevating them for their expertise and unique viewpoints, and we hope you’ll enjoy what we have to share over the coming months.


Lessons From Lockdown

As designers and developers of location-based experiences, we have the privilege and opportunity to connect with our audiences in unique and unexpected ways. Whether we have crafted a museum exhibit, a Family Entertainment Center, or the most ambitious theme park ever created, our greatest reward is the memories our guests share, forging lifelong bonds and personal connections to our work and each other. Ironically, in normal times, we tirelessly toil through the days and sleepless nights, fussing and fretting over every design detail and budget hiccup, not stopping until the hammering is done and the ribbon is cut. And then it’s on to the next. We are kept so busy crafting the next big thing that we often fail to capture the smaller moments ourselves.


Obviously, these are far from normal times. 2020 has been the Black Swan of Black Swans. In the beforedays, our industry flourished in times of crisis as people sought a bit of escapism from the troubling world, but this global pandemic has been a gut-punch to all of our preconceived notions. A year ago, it was inconceivable to think that our homes would become our fortresses of solitude. That cinemas, museums, attractions, and theme parks (never mind bars and restaurants) would shut their doors for a single day, let alone months. We all had a rather vacant stare as it dawned on us that our gates would shutter, our offices would close, our projects would pause, our lives would go on hold. The whole world had suddenly and forever changed.

And yet, we’ve adapted and adopted new tools and ways of working. So much has already been written about the surprising productivity of working from home (with or without pants), the comparatively painless transition to online conferencing and collaboration, the explosion of streaming entertainment, social media platforms, and a creator economy in which anyone and everyone, anywhere in the world can find a voice, a following, and an audience all their own.  

We push forward and speculate, plot, and blogpost about how social-distancing and a contactless world will alter our approach to visitor engagements. We closely follow the theme parks that have begun to reopen to see how new safety guidelines affect attendance and guest satisfaction. We share the challenges and successes of museum exhibits and theatrical performances as they reinvent themselves in the digital realm, and debate what elements might outlast this pandemic to shape experiences to come.  We quietly delight in the renaissance of the drive-in, which has become the venue not only for movies, but for concerts, weddings, graduations, worship services, election rallies, and victory celebrations.  Our cars have become their own semi-autonomous, trackless ride vehicles that lead us through the nearest Halloween haunt or holiday lights spectacle.  We follow the trends of an audience whose entertainment options have been severely limited resulting in the soaring popularity of outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and even golf, and we consider how all of this will play out in our future projects.  

When we shift the topic of our lockdown experiences away from work-related things, however, the conversation takes a revealing turn. When asked what happy surprises our suddenly homebound existences have revealed after these many months, our answers are notably intimate and personal.  Many of us take great satisfaction in finally checking off items on our much ignored to do lists, ignored not so much because we’ve been busy, but because we had so many ready distractions to blame for our procrastination. My colleagues have fixed that leaky faucet, renovated a room, completed unfinished writing projects, honed new skills, created the artwork, crafted instruments, miniatures, sweaters, scarves, and quilts. Others have tended their gardens, harvested their crops, and prepared their meals… and spent time with each other. 

And that’s the heart of the matter. In spite of the challenges of this “lockdown lifestyle,” it has ironically drawn us closer to one another.  We’ve bonded with our pets, who seem deeply puzzled as to why we’re around so much these days. Through Zoom calls, we’ve reconnected with friends and family, separated by time and space. We’ve treasured walks and bike rides with our partners, siblings, children, and grandchildren. We’ve watched the drama of nature unfold outside our windows, gazing at the night sky, or rooting for birds as they battle for territory in the trees. This Halloween, my block arranged a special costume parade for the little ones on the street followed by a socially distanced outdoor movie on the driveway. Neighbors who opted into the festivities gathered on their lawns, and made it one of the most memorable community bonding events we’ve ever had, and a tradition we hope to repeat next year. 

The almost unbearable challenge of distance learning has given us a renewed appreciation for educators, but also the gift of precious time with our sons and daughters. My colleague Cynthia and I each have a teen-ager named Sean, both of whom are seniors in high school. Thankfully, they both remain active and engaged, but it crushes us to think they are missing social events, dances, live shows, sports, and, sigh… graduation ceremonies, all milestones in this grand finale to their schooldays. The silver lining is that we get to share this ever-dwindling time together as they prepare to fly, cooking meals together, playing foosball, ping-pong, board games, guiding them through homework, rehearsing the virtual musical in the next room, streaming Netflix on the same couch at the same time. My Sean cannot play organized ice hockey with his team, so he has to settle for beer league pick-up games with friends and, ugh, his dad.  I make sure I tell him over and over how much I treasure these moments, and I am confident that one day, he will too.

It seems that even the gee-wizards of location-based entertainment, the purveyors of pomp and pyrotechnics, the first adopters, first-in-liners, and fiercest critics of the latest and greatest immersive any-and-everything are living through a crash course in the power of moments. 

So as this crisis fades and our cultural ship begins to right itself and lists forward into the new sea of reality, as we begin to rev our engines once again to plan, plot, draw and design the next big, immersive, 5D, multimedia, autonomous, AR, VR, AI, gob-smacking glockenspiel of awesomeness, let’s not forget the power of the small moment. Let’s not forget that the greatest reward for all our efforts is connecting with our guests; creating personal moments of awe, wonder, joy, revelation, or familial intimacy. We are gifted with the opportunity to create memories that transcend the commonplace. These “emotional souvenirs” are treasures that our guests will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, as we emerge from this lunacy of lockdowns, we can also remember to savor those small moments in our own lives, too. 


#WeMakeEvents – A Red Alert Initiative

Creatives in the event industry have a deep-seated need to entertain people. It’s what feeds the soul, making the world a better place one concert, play, and smile at a time. With a perfect storm of this year with a pandemic and economic crisis hitting all at once, this period of time has been compared to the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression. However, large gatherings were encouraged during the Spanish Flu to boost morale during World War I, and despite the Great Depression, people still had just enough money to still pay for the occasional evening of entertainment. 

Today, entertainment venues of all sizes are shuttered—and have been for months. For decades, the sheer magnitude of the impact of entertainment and events on our global economy hasn’t garnered the kind of public and governmental support it should have, and now the lack of significant economic aid to this sector threatens to ravage both it and the people who work in it long term. Gary White, a British producer, colleague, and good friend of Thinkwell, has dedicated himself to amplifying this issue and increasing visibility of how the pandemic is affecting so many in the live events industry.


A show and technical director, producer of large-scale events having worked on projects ranging from the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sochi, Russia to the Lumiere London and beyond, Gary’s knowledge of a great show knows no bounds. Once COVID hit the world and the events industry immediately was put on hold, Gary saw the need to bring people emotionally together. He spearheaded a campaign to pay it forward to National Healthcare Service employees by getting as many venues, icons, and locales to #LightItBlue every Thursday night at 8:00 pm. It represented the entertainment industry’s way of engaging the public and thanking the front-line employees for their work during the pandemic. After #LightItBlue and #MakeItBlue took off, Gary shepherded the event through the spring, joining forces with Thinkwell to expand the reach to the United States and beyond. This gave Gary time to step back and focus on what was about to come next…

In mid-July, Gary was approached by colleagues at the Professional Light and Sound Association (PLASA) to be the lead producer for the #WeMakeEvents campaign. A natural progression from his previous endeavors, where the events industry paid respect to the healthcare industry, this new campaign focuses on the needs of the hundreds of thousands of professionals and companies in events and entertainment themselves. #WeMakeEvents strives to bring awareness and understanding of the threats the COVID crisis poses to the industry by broadcasting an iconic ‘red alert’ cry for help. With thousands of people who make their living creating, organizing, and implementing events at a variety of scales out of work, the industry urgently needs aid and public support. Gary set out to raise awareness of the struggles his colleagues and the industry at large have faced since March. 

Gary once again leveraged his vast international network, utilizing his expertise to spearhead this new campaign. As an industry that was the first to close and will be one of the last to open leaving millions out of work, the livelihood of every stagehand, producer, and technician became the utmost importance in this awareness campaign. Gary’s focus on creating a megascale, streamed event that was highly visible, safe, and leveraged the skills and talents of events professionals was the natural way to fulfill PLASA’s intent and garner attention worldwide.

The inaugural event was on August 11, 2020: more than five thousand professionals gathered over 20 cities across the UK, such as Manchester, Edinburgh, and Cardiff, with the core of the event taking place on London’s South Bank. The fully live-streamed event featured an event crew dressed in red while holding up red lights into the sky, signifying a ‘red alert’ asking for financial support for the families impacted by the months-long shutdown of events and performances. 

#WeMakeEvents#WeMakeEvents has now gone global, reaching 28 countries, and is continuing its efforts to raise money and lobby governments to provide assistance for millions of event professionals out of work for the foreseeable future. Gary and his volunteers have successfully created a wide array of ongoing events both digitally and socially distanced – all completely pro-bono. Artists around the world have stepped up to host “Survival Sessions” – their take on live-streamed jam sessions. Additionally, the #WeMakeEvents website hosts a “Speakeasy” room featuring a variety of options including skills workshops, live stream open sessions, and quiz nights for event professionals to sharpen their skills and network with peers. 

On December 18-19, #WeMakeEvents’ final event of the year is one of silence. For one night only across the United Kingdom, thousands of people will ‘sleep out’ where they live or traditionally work (pending local restrictions) as an effort to raise awareness of the nearly three million people who have fallen through the cracks of government support during the pandemic. 

What 2021 will bring for everyone is still a guess. For Gary, his focus is simple: taking it a day at a time to help the industry. He noted: “This is about fundamentally being a good person and caring for everyone. It’s something I live and breathe for every day.” It’s a good standard to hold ourselves to as we do our part in enduring this pandemic, waiting for that red light to turn to green. We eagerly await the day when thousands of talented individuals finally able to return to doing what they do best: bringing people together and creating happiness through breathtaking events. 

Please join us at Thinkwell this year as we support #WeMakeEvents in this truly important initiative. You can donate directly or get involved at  www.wemakeevents.com


A Different View: The 2020 TEA Summit Digital Case Study


10 years in the making. A veritable army of people had been a part of creating it. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi has been a part of Thinkwell, in one form or another, for half of the company’s history. We were thrilled to celebrate its recognition with a Thea for Outstanding Achievement – Theme Park and eagerly honed our presentation to share at Case Study day at the TEA Summit 2020 with friends, peers, colleagues, and collaborators from around the world.

Needless to say, 2020 had other plans. We are eternally grateful to the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) for figuring out a way to bring the case studies online, but as we prepared, it was natural to worry that it would feel more remote, that it would lose the collegiality that being in the room brings. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi creative director and former Thinkwellian Dave Cobb and Miral’s Glenn Davidson led a candid discussion about the park, highlighted by videos narrated by Craig Hanna, Thinkwell co-founder and Chief Creative Officer. The online platform made the Q&A more vibrant and participatory – strangely akin to a Netflix watch party with distant friends. Separate, in our homes and offices, we all got to eavesdrop as Glenn and Dave nattered with the four WDI presenters for Galaxy’s Edge and Smuggler’s Run, a masterclass in what goes into these megascale projects.TEA Summit 2020 Dave Cobb

This banter reinforced that no matter the disparate nature of our projects, we all do ridiculous, incredible things in the service of making amazing experiences for people. Typically, when presenting at case studies, you cannot see the audience reaction – here, we were all hanging out in a virtual family room, reveling in the oohs and ahhs of peers and colleagues, watching them geek out, have their minds blown, talk about what they loved about this massive undertaking we’d labored on for so long. It was an unexpected bright spot for so many of us who’d been involved in this amazing project.

We don’t know what Summit will look like next year, if the promising vaccines in development will make it possible for us to be together in Anaheim in the spring, or if the case studies will be virtual again. Whatever form it takes, we’re excited to share our latest project to be honored with a 2020 Thea Award: Midnight Ride at Lionsgate Entertainment World.

A Midnight Ride To A Thea Award

On July 31st, 2019, The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride made its grand debut at Lionsgate Entertainment World in Zhuhai, China. This innovative attraction was the world’s first to combine a fully interactive virtual reality experience with a high-capacity, individually-reactive motorbike motion simulator ride. 

Thinkwell partnered with Lionsgate and the Hong Kong-based Lai Sun Group to bring Midnight Ride from an initial blue-sky idea in 2015, through a multiyear process of design and development, to installation, testing, and ultimately welcoming the attraction’s first midnight riders. This unique achievement was only made possible through the close collaboration with the attraction engineers at CAVU Designwerks and DreamCraft Attractions and the computer animation specialists at Framestore. Yet the journey is never complete on opening day.

As Midnight Ride took guests on a journey through perilous winding forest trails, the attraction’s debut year saw plenty of its own unexpected twists and turns… including a temporary closure due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a grand re-opening in June 2020 with enhanced health and safety guidelines.

The long journey proved worth it, however, as later that November The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride was honored by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Attraction category. The Thea Awards have been awarded by the TEA since 1994 with the stated goal of bringing recognition to achievement, talent, and personal excellence within the themed entertainment industry.

Among the unique factors recognized by the judging committee, Midnight Ride is one of only a few major theme park attractions to give guests meaningful story agency during their experience. Within virtual reality, guests have the ability to choose their own moonlit path as they’re sent on an interactive motorcycle adventure alongside fan-favorite Twilight character Jacob Black and the rest of the wolfpack. This includes the ability to see and react to their friends within the motion-enhanced VR world, such as when they split off from the trail, speed ahead or fall behind, or are even attacked by the vampire Newborns, leaving each rider seemingly the last remaining of their group.

Other projects with Thinkwell’s involvement in past years that have been recognized by the Thea Awards include: Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi (2020 awards, theme park), Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter near London (2013 awards, studio tour), Fernbank NatureQuest in Atlanta (2012 awards, museum exhibit), The Jurassic Park Institute Tour in Japan (2005 awards, traveling exhibit), and The Imagination Workshop in Temecula (2005 awards, limited budget).

The Thea Award recipients for the 2021 ceremony were officially announced on November 19th, 2020. Thinkwell, with all of our partners who helped make this attraction a reality, are thrilled and humbled to see Midnight Ride recognized by our industry peers who placed it among the ranks of many of the world’s most influential and impactful themed experiences.

USA Pavilion: Creating What’s Next

Since 1851, the World’s Fair has brought people together from every corner of the globe to innovate, collaborate, and showcase the future. With a focus on both educating and entertaining, the Fair has used its global stage to showcase the cultural innovations of countries near and far and it has given us everything from the Eiffel Tower to ice cream. 

Today, the World’s Fair still exists as a bastion of innovation and cross-country collaboration, but now under a different name: The World Expo. And it’s bigger than ever before. This year’s World Expo will be hosted in Dubai and it is expected to get higher foot traffic than the 2018 Olympics. Its location also marks a pivotal moment in history, as the first Expo to be held in the Middle East. Expo 2020 Dubai’s theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, will provide a platform to foster creativity, innovation, and collaboration within the Middle East and beyond, as 192 countries the largest number of participant nations ever gather in Dubai to showcase what the future holds. 

Amongst this array of nation pavilions, Thinkwell was proudly appointed by the U.S. Department of State as the turnkey designer and producer of the USA Pavilion“As an American/Lebanese dual citizen working in the U.A.E., it is incredibly exciting to be a part of the United States’ participation that is made possible thanks to Thinkwell’s local presence and global footprint,” says Amin Rashmani, Managing Director of Thinkwell, EMEA, who is leading the project collaboration between Thinkwell’s Abu Dhabi Office and its Los Angeles Headquarters & Studio. “Our teams look forward to sharing the innovation and vision of the United States through the design and development of the USA Pavilion at this global event.”

Told through eight immersive exhibits, the USA Pavilion at World Expo 2020 Dubai will celebrate and explore the unique American spirit that harnesses creativity, rewards risk, and creates a brighter future for all. Aligning on a moving walkway, guests will be transported through these immersive environments on a journey to explore how America’s inherent freedoms allow for greater innovation — by discovering America’s history, how it has shaped the world, and what comes next. Thinkwell was tasked with creating an experience that allows visitors to explore a vision of the future, one made possible by American innovation and enterprise.

Each exhibit will feature an original, custom-made dynamic media display, designed and produced by Thinkwell Media, Thinkwell’s award-winning in-house media division. Over the past year, Thinkwell Media has been hard at work creating a variety of custom content for each of the exhibits. This work encompasses a range of creative disciplines, including conducting COVID-safe, remote documentary video interviews with innovators around the globe, orchestrating an original musical score, and designing and producing original hi-resolution animation to be projection mapped on a striking array of unique canvases and surfaces — from the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty to NASA’s new Artemis space suit to a towering replica of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. In the evening hours, the rocket will become the canvas for a nighttime spectacular about U.S. space exploration — all brought to life by projection mapped imagery and a stirring musical score. 

Cory Watson, Vice President, Executive Producer at Thinkwell Media is especially excited to see the team’s work brought to life: “Creating media for the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 has been the project of a lifetime. We get to tell the stories of bold and daring innovations by creating exciting visual experiences that complement and energize each physical space in the pavilion.” 

In addition to the impressive array of exhibits to see on the inside, the outside of the pavilion also boasts an eye-catching display. The exterior of the U.S. pavilion will feature a facade made up of interlocking metal stars in front of fabric wall panels, designed by legendary architecture firm Woods Bagot. The space between the facade and wall system will allow for the use of connected and dynamic lighting effects that will change throughout the evening, to give the effect that the pavilion is in constant motion. 

“The mockup samples for the star facade became a real source of inspiration,” commented Chuck Roberts, Thinkwell Senior Art Director for the project. “We brought this particular star structure into the pavilion as a graphic language and even used the motif as a shaped 12-meter wide projection screen. From there, the stars seemed to take over other areas organically.” 

With only 10 months until opening day, Thinkwell’s team of writers, producers, project managers, animators, art directors, graphic designers, and more are currently hard at work putting the pavilion into place, and getting it ready for its debut on October 1, 2021. On site, the team completed the installation of the Falcon 9, Block 5 rocket replica, which stands at an astounding 137 feet high (42 meters). This highly detailed replica promises to be one of the big visual icons of this Expo. 

“There is a lot of fantastic architecture on the Expo site, but nothing quite like this,” Thinkwell Creative Director Pete Ford remarked as the final pieces of the landing gear were being assembled last November. “This rocket is beautiful, and it makes a huge statement about American innovation. It’s unlike anything else at Expo. The view of the Falcon 9 alone will draw guests from all over the site, and this will be a ‘must-see’ pavilion.”

Thinkwell will also be working closely with Global Ties U.S., which will recruit youth ambassadors to serve as guides in the pavilion and program cultural performances that reflect the geographic and cultural richness of America.

Expo 2020 Dubai will run from October 1, 2021 – March 31, 2022. Come visit the USA Pavilion and discover for yourself what the future holds.