Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi: Reinventing the movie park for the 21st Century

How do you top the world’s largest indoor theme park? By building an even bigger one, of course. That’s what destination developer Miral has done in Abu Dhabi. Blooloop profiles Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the latest showstopper at Yas Island. 

This article was originally published on blooloop.com.

The UAE’s (United Arab Emirates) newest theme park opened to the public on July 25, following an inauguration two days earlier. The 1.65 million square feet (153,000 square metres) facility represents an investment equivalent to US$1 billion.

Yas Island
They don’t do things by halves at Yas Island. Located on the northeast side of Abu Dhabi’s mainland, 10 minutes from its international airport, the leisure and entertainment hub first rose to prominence in 2009 with the opening of the Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The spirit of Formula 1 was celebrated again a year later with the launch of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. At the time it was billed as the world’s biggest indoor theme park. At 240km/h, its signature Formula Rossa ride remains the planet’s fastest roller coaster.

A passion for super heroes
Yas Waterworld, which opened in 2013, has been named as one of the best waterparks in the world. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious and expensive. Then there’s Yas Mall, which sits between Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World. It’s the largest mall in Abu Dhabi, and by definition very large indeed.

All three theme parks are operated by Farah Experiences. As a movie park, Yas Island’s third theme park clearly adds something fresh to the mix. Yet the local press has suggested that this particular kind of park wouldn’t have arrived in the Emirate were it not for a passion of the Miral chairman. You see, Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, who also chairs the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, is super into super heroes.

“He’s a visionary leader,” says Peter van Roden, senior vice-president of global themed entertainment for Warner Bros. Consumer Products. “He is also this huge comic book and IP fan; the perfect partner.”

Step through the shield into an immersive world
When guests make their way through the park’s iconic Warner Bros. shield, they will be able to explore six themed zones. All in air-conditioned comfort. Warner Bros. Plaza is there to welcome them. There’s also Gotham CityMetropolis (pictured below), Cartoon JunctionBedrock and Dynamite Gulch.

Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi
Spread across these immersive lands are 29 state-of-the-art rides and attractions, featuring characters from DC Comics, Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera. A particular favourite of Al Mubarak is Superman.

Thinkwell, the LA-based global design and production agency, acted as creative lead from start to finish, bringing in several subcontractors as required. Among these was Wyatt Design, which served as key design consultant on several areas. LifeFormations created over 100 animatronic figures used in six attractions. Aspen Creations, based in Dubai, did the fabrication and installation on a number of areas including Warner Bros Plaza, Cartoon Junction, Bedrock, The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure, Fast and Furry-ous, Bronto Burgers, Gotham City and The Riddler Revolution. Other suppliers included Animax Designs, Inc., Blur, Ears Up Sound DesignElectrosonicGDE, Louis Berger, Smart Monkeys, Pixomondo, Pure Imagination and Ted King Entertainment.

Everything, including the park’s two roller coasters and flume ride, is indoors. Unlike at Ferrari World, where four coasters escape outside. The vast building in which they are housed shimmers in a gold finish. In the UAE, you wouldn’t expect anything less.

Warner Bros. – back in the themed entertainment business

It’s 16 years since Warner Bros. last lent its name to a new theme park. Namely Parque Warner in Madrid. Whilst Warner Bros. Movie World (founded 1991) still operates on Australia’s Gold Coast, the German outlet of the same name was rebranded simply as Movie Park when it changed ownership in 2005. So why did the Hollywood studio decide now was the right time to return to the themed entertainment business? And why Abu Dhabi?
“The process started 10 or 12 years ago,” says van Roden. “Specifically, under our chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara, there has been a real focus on building franchises around our DC, animation, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings IP [intellectual property]. Kevin has brought us into this new world and allowed us to think big. That lead to discussions with Miral, which had this vision not only for Yas Island but also for Abu Dhabi in general. We were looking, and they were ready. It’s lead to a really great partnership.”
Fully realised worlds
“Warner Bros has an almost 100-year legacy of producing and distributing high-quality entertainment to global audiences,” says Tsujihara. “This world-class attraction continues that tradition in grand style. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi literally brings our characters to life and provides fans a truly unique immersive entertainment experience.”
One character conspicuous by his absence in Abu Dhabi is Harry Potter. “That was not a deliberate decision,” says van Roden. “Pretty soon after starting the masterplanning for the park, we settled on this mix of DC and animation. We didn’t want to overreach, you know? Not putting too many different IPs into this park is to its advantage because you can fully realise each of these worlds.”

Warner-Bros.-Plaza at Warner-Bros-World-Abu-Dhabi
Making memories, not movies
Unlike a handful of earlier movie parks, or indeed Warner Bros. Studio Tour London (home of the Harry Potter backstage tour), you won’t find any film-making going on at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. Rather, this is an entertainment park that celebrates the silver screen and small screen intellectual properties within in. As families enjoy the richly-themed experiences and interact with the characters inside the park, they will surely make memories for many years to come. Yes, there will be selfies.

“This is not a ‘behind-the-scenes’ park, says Craig Hannachief creative officer at Thinkwell. “At Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi we treat the characters as living and working in the park. Where would they live? Where would they eat and where do they work? That was the basis for the stories, rides, shows and attractions in the park.”

Different moods
“There is such a mix of environments,” says van Roden. “You move from this classic Warner Bros. Plaza and into the animation side. I think all of us have wanted to walk through Bedrock and meet The Flintstones some point. Dynamite Gulch is this cartoony kind of wild west, home to Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. Then you’ve got Cartoon Junction with this really bright, stylized sky and a beautiful Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera carousel.

“On the other side of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is this really cool Metropolis. However it gets darker and darker as you move into Gotham where the DC Super-Villains have taken over. The different moods created inside each of these lands is incredible, and the lighting is absolutely stunning.”

The indoor advantage
The prime reason for the park being indoors is obviously the local climate. “It’s 109 degrees [Fahrenheit, 43°C] outside right now,” said van Roden, speaking to Blooloop the weekend before opening. “Being able to walk into an air-conditioned box is a wonderful thing.”

Yet in most movie parks, the majority of major attractions and pre-shows are already inside buildings. All Warner Bros. World has done is bring the other attractions and the themed environments that link them inside too. “That has been a huge advantage,” says van Roden. “It gives the park this intimacy. We can really control the lighting, the sound, the ceiling heights; the way you transition between these immersive environments.”

“Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is special,” says Hanna. “We took advantage of the fact that we were indoors to fully immerse guests in worlds and stories in ways that can’t be done outdoors. Like the perpetual night of Gotham, the continual ‘hero hour’ of Metropolis, or the always ‘sunny’ Cartoon Junction.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 18, 2018: Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi on July 18, 2018. Christopher Pike, www.cpike.com
Storytelling techniques, technology and rides systems
Today’s technology means Warner Bros. has been able to create an entirely different park to those that it put its name to in the latter part of the 20th Century.

“We determined the best mix for the broadest demographic and developed experiences with certain technologies and ride systems in mind,” says Hanna. “For example, the dark rides Scooby-Doo: Museum of Mysteries, Ani-Mayhem and Justice League: Warworld Attacks take advantage of being trackless in ways never before seen in theme parks.”

Dark rides – such as Ani-Mayhem – are a great way of telling stories. Another is Batman: Knight Flight, which marries a dark ride with a dynamic motion system and state-of-the-art special effects. Flying theatre fans will enjoy Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey, which transports audiences to distant galaxies. Featuring an i-Ride system by Brogent Technologies, it’s the first attraction of its kind to be supplied with 3D glasses.

There’s a more traditional ride system at the heart of The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure. Yet this family-friendly flume ride from Intamin is a lot of fun as it takes visitors on a voyage through prehistoric suburbia.

Even the park’s roller coasters immerse riders in an adventure. Tom & Jerry’s Swiss Cheese Spin is a spinning coaster that uses backlight effects to keep guests on the edge of their seat. Then there’s Fast & Furry-ous, a suspended family coaster from Intamin, which van Roden particularly enjoys.

Every attraction tells a story
“Like each of the rides, Fast & Furry-ous has its own soundtrack. It’s perfectly timed to the ride as Wile E Coyote chases Road Runner around the track. I’m laughing every time I get off it.”

Van Roden also singles out The Riddler Revolution – pictured above – perhaps one of the most elaborately-themed Zamperla Disk’O Coaster installations ever. “You feel like you are going to hit the edge of this building as its breaks through. It’s absolutely thrilling, and clearly one of the best rides in the park. The beauty of this park is it’s not like we spent all the money on a few e-ticket attractions and then bought some off-the-shelf rides to fill in the gaps. Every single attraction has a story.”

International audience and local considerations
In designing the park, Thinkwell considered the market and demographic makeup very carefully.

“We wanted to make sure the park appeals to an international audience,” says Hanna. “Plus we looked at the attractions next door at Ferrari World to ensure this park was distinctive and balanced. Whether you’re a local, an expat family, or a tourist there will be unique things to see, do and taste around every corner.”

“There was a discussion about language very early on,” says van Roden. “It was decided that English should be the base language, with Arabic supporting in certain areas such as signage and restaurants. That’s because Yas Island as a destination attracts people from from Europe as well as to the East, so the common language is English.”

A market within a four to five hour flight time
There were other considerations to make when it came to the local audience. “We have some wonderful prayer rooms, and have addressed all the appropriate things in terms of dress and diet. But overall there were very few adjustments to make. The UAE is quite forward-looking in terms of openness within the Middle East. This park is very much a statement of that.”

Van Roden says the park’s core market is expected to be those within a 100-200 mile (160-320km) radius, comfortably taking in all of the UAE. Yet European, Indian and South East Asian visitors are also in its sights. “The number of Chinese visitors who booked for opening day was remarkable. There is a strong market within that four to five hour flight time.”

The UAE’s increasingly diverse attraction mix
“I think increasingly the UAE is becoming a destination in itself,” says van Roden. “People are coming to visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai together. We have some visionary leaders intent on building enough travel hooks between all the beaches, hotels and shopping malls. It’s all about moving beyond being that weekend destination. Abu Dhabi is really adding to that with museums and culture. The Louvre, down the road from us, is absolutely mind-blowing.”

And how long might Warner Bros. World keep families entertained?

“You know, I think this is an all-day affair if you are going to wander through it all, see everything and ride everything,” declares van Roden. “It adds to the length of stay for Yas Island and the entire region.”

A record breaking indoor theme park
Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi snatches the title of world’s largest indoor theme park from IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai, and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi before it. All three feature licensed intellectual property of one kind or another. So too do the trio of properties at Dubai Parks and Resorts, which launched in late 2016.
IMG’s creator, the Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group subsequently announce

d plans to build an even bigger theme park. If it comes to fruition, the 2 million sq ft IMG World of Legends will be crammed with dozens of brands from multiple IP providers. Yet plans for a 20th Century Fox movie park in Dubai have been put on hold amid concerns about oversupply of parks in the region.

IP quality vs. quantity
Van Roden isn’t worried that the UAE has gone OTT on IP. “I don’t think it’s overload,” he says. “The way the UAE is developing as a destination, I think there is plenty of room to grow. We didn’t come in and try to blow everybody out of the water by putting 20 IPs in there. We thought we are going to build the best theme park in the region. And I really think we’ve done that; up there with our friends at Disneyland Paris in terms of quality for EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa].”

“The DC film franchise is a juggernaut and continues to grow,” he adds. “The great success of Wonder Woman, and we hope the future success of Aquaman and other films coming down the pipe, is really exciting for us.”

Giving classic brands a new lease of life
Van Roden concedes the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera brands might not be as powerful as they once were. But he believes they are a great fit for the park, and that their inclusion within Warner Bros. World can nurture a new generation of fans.
“These are iconic IPs that, even if they are not at the top of their media game, within the immersive environment of a theme park can help relaunch a brand in a lot of ways. That is actually part of our strategy.”

Above all, “we have built a park to grow into, with partners who have an interest in the future. We are already having discussions about what we can do next.”

That may include future attractions that are partially outdoors.

An Orlando model for the Middle East?
Peter van Roden joined Warner Bros. Consumer Products in March of 2016. He has more than two decades’ experience in creating location-based entertainment – from touring exhibits to theme parks – for media companies including Sesame Workshop and National Geographic. So whilst everyone is still finding their feet in the UAE theme park market, he’s certainly not green around the gills.

Craig Hanna, too, has a good pedigree in both themed entertainment and working with major film/TV brands. He works out of LA for goodness sake. So how does the Thinkwell executive rate the industry’s potential in this particular corner of the Middle East?

“The UAE is trying to transform its economy. Its offer to tourists with an ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality is a bit like what Orlando did. Already the UAE is seeing huge growth in tourism. This park will give Yas Island a strong and distinctive competitive advantage. I’m not an economic advisor, so I can’t look into my crystal ball and predict where the cap for these parks will be. However, I would ask you this: When will Orlando reach a critical mass of theme parks?”

About the construction of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, van Roden says: “Construction is always an interesting thing, a life of compromise and communication. I will say Miral has been an incredible partner. You go into these big projects looking for someone who brings value. It’s not just about coming along with a cheque book. And the value of Miral is that they are a world-class building and construction company. They have unbelievable people working for them; their resources and connections in the marketplace were second-to-none.”

Finding a creative force to bring the park to life
Thinkwell was appointed to lead the design effort in Abu Dhabi following several previous Warner Bros collaborations, including Warner Bros. Studio Tour London.

“Disney has Imagineering, Universal has Universal Creative,” says van Roden. “While we have the IP and storytelling expertise, we do not have that creative design house. So in partnering with an outside firm we looked for someone that could take on the roll of master designer and provide overall creative management. That’s hard to find. Thinkwell brought that capability, and they were able to scale themselves up to take on a project like this.”

“We have worked on this project for more than 10 years in one form or another,” says the company’s Craig Hanna. “Hundreds of Thinkwellians and hundreds more talented, creative and passionate people all over the world were involved. We have seen it through from blue sky concept through to opening, producing more than 2,300 original art files. These range from the park’s map to can labels on props on shelves. We produced all shows, rides and attractions as creative and technical integration leaders. And we conceived, created and produced all media for the park. We are extremely proud of the work we’ve done on it. I think that passion shows everywhere you look.”

Abu Dhabi’s theme park future
The fate of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi now lies in the public’s hands. Unlike many new theme parks, there was no soft opening period. There was, however, about a week of trial runs as invited guests, travel agents and military got to sample its delights. This proved invaluable to general manager Mark Gzellman and his team to fine tune operations. The inauguration event on July 23 was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice-president and ruler of Dubai.

Van Roden says Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi can comfortably accommodate anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000 guests per day. The annual attendance target is between 1.5 and 2 million. Now in its eighth year, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi entertains over a million. Yas Waterworld welcomed 550,000 visitors last year. So Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi must work hard to achieve the visitor numbers expected of it. Its offer is arguably more inclusive though than Ferrari World.

The UAE’s theme park capital?
A fourth theme park has already been announced by Miral for Yas Island. SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is set to open in 2022 and will be the first SeaWorld outside the USA and the first without orcas. This Abu Dhabi entertainment hub certainly looks like giving any competing operations in Dubai a run for their money. Can Abu Dhabi become not just the sovereign state’s capital, but its theme park capital too?

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi – six immersive lands
Here are the themed zones that make up the world’s largest indoor theme park, and the key attractions within them.

1. Warner Bros. Plaza
Art-Deco inspired building facades feature in this entrance portal to the rest of the park. Streets are lined with restaurants, cafes and themed shopping outlets. Among these, the Warner Bros. Studio Store and Superstar Souvenirs offer an exclusive range of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi apparel, collectibles and stationery. In addition, guests can enjoy Warner Bros. Cinema Spectacular. This symphonic celebration uses projection mapping to bring the Warner Bros film library to life.

2. Gotham City
Home to Batman, the caped crusader has vowed to crush the sinister criminal underworld
that lurks deep beneath this urban landscape. Rides and attractions as follows:
Batman: Knight Flight. An exhilarating dark ride featuring robotically controlled flying Batwing vehicled capable of sudden manoeuvres including drops, climbs, spins and rolls. This ride combines a high-tech flight simulator with immersive scenery and state-of-the-art special effects.
Riddler Revolution. A custom-themed Zamperla Disk’O Coaster. Supervillain Edward Nigma lures guests into a run-down shipping warehouse for a thrilling nightmare.
Scarecrow Scare Raid. A rousing flight experience with dramatic aerobatics and whirlwind barrel rolls.
The Joker’s Funhouse. A villainous twist on the classic walk-through carnival attraction featuring Batman’s biggest foes.

3. Cartoon Junction
The land where Warner Bros.’ most iconic characters and animated worlds can be discovered. Highlights include:
Ani-Mayhem. An interactive dark ride where passengers use barcode scanners to deliver ACME packages and accumulate the most points to become ACME Employee of the Month!
Tom and Jerry Swiss Cheese Spin. A family‐friendly spinning Twister Coaster from Zamperla featuring added blacklight effects.
Scooby-Doo: The Museum of Mysteries. Dark ride that follows the comical cartoon dog through a spooky museum filled with fun and frights.
Cartoon Junction Carousel. A colourful twist on an amusement classic featuring Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters.
Daffy Jet-Propelled Pogo Stick. A ‘jump’ tower that bounces young riders up and down with Daffy Duck.
Tweety Wild Wockets. Here kids can spin “awound and awound” as they try to avoid Sylvester the cat on this mini jet ride by Zamperla.
Ricochet Racin’ with Taz. A giggle-inducing children’s car ride (Zamperla Speedway) that whips racers around the track.
Meet Bugs! (And Daffy). A participatory live character show experience featuring Bugs Bunny and friends.

4. Metropolis
The Manhattan-like skyscraper city mixes 1930s Streamline Modern styling with 21st Century state-of-the-art materials. Rides and attractions as follows:
Superman 360: Battle for Metropolis. A 360-degree action spectacular that pits the greatest comic book hero of all time against the Man of Steel.
Justice League: Warworld Attacks. Dark ride featuring immersive theatre experience and special effects.
Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey. 86-seat i-Ride flying theatre by Brogent Technologies that transports guests across to extraordinary worlds. Enriched with special and visual effects, including 3D.
Teen Titans Training Academy. A multi-level play area featuring a zipline and other physical activities.

5. Dynamite Gulch
An animated storyland where guests will encounter Wile E Coyote and Road Runner. Experiences include:
Fast & Furry-ous. Suspended Family Coaster by Intamin. Passengers climb onto the ACME Road Rocket 9000 for an exciting journey through the desert cacti and chasms in pursuit of Road Runner. Beep! Beep!
Jetson’s Cosmic Orbiter. An Aero Top Jet by Zamperla where guests can pilot their own futuristic spaceship.
Marvin the Martian: Crater Crashers. Bumper cars, supplied by Zamperla.

6. Bedrock
Yabba-Dabba-Doo! This age-old land powered by birds and dinosaurs is home to The Flintstones. Here guests will find:
The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure. This Intamin flume ride invites passengers to embark on a scenic boat ride …with a big splash finale!
Bronto Burgers and Ribs. Here guests can dine in prehistoric cars, or just stop for a photo opportunity and eat inside the diner.
Bedrock Boutique. Selling everything the modern stone-age family could need!

The times they are a changin’

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen cultural touchstones undergo earthshaking change. From the announcement—quickly followed by the unveiling at Disneyland Paris — that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would no longer feature the “Bride Auction” scene to the undeniable diversity in the A Wrinkle in Time trailer to the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Dr Who, we’ve seen all manner of assumptions get toppled. And as is de rigueur these days for announcements of this type, we’ve seen an onslaught of reaction, both positive and negative, online. Much of the negative reaction, in all three cases, goes back to remarkably similar foundations: that it’s not how a given creative work was originally envisioned and that this is yet another example of political correctness taken too far.

At Thinkwell, we say: bring it on. We’re delighted to see more mindful and better representation in creative works. Storytelling, in our minds, is better when it’s not exclusionary or needlessly hurtful. Culture changes. Mindsets evolve. This isn’t a matter of being politically correct; it’s a matter of us, as a society, being more mindful, inclusive, and welcoming than we were when an intellectual property was initially developed decades prior. And thus, the things we have grown to love with the warm fuzzy halo of nostalgia may not look as fantastic in the clear light of day when we actually take a step back and think deeply about what these creative works tell people about our values and what’s acceptable.

It’s not how it was created to be, it’s not what Walt made. We get it. We love what we love, we cling to the good ol’ days, the touchstones of our youth. Some of us are still bitter about the removal of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from the Magic Kingdom in Florida, for instance. Pirates, however, is a great example of needing to change. It’s not a historical treatise on piracy in the Caribbean (if it were, it’s doing a really poor, whitewashed job of it), so the complaints that it’s somehow historically “accurate” to have a bride auction fall flat. It’s meant as escapism, as a created world, not a historical diorama. With the heightened unreality and stylization of the feature films—which prominently have female pirates in them—it’s a created world that Disney is inviting guests to be a part of. We see this beyond the ride and movies, too, from “Pirates in the Caribbean” on the cruise ships to the Pirates League makeover experience at Magic Kingdom to the Jake and the Never Land Pirates TV series. Disney wants guests to envision themselves as part of this world.

By that logic, of course the bride auction is overdue for reinvention. It’s emblematic of violence against women, a moment that many a parent has cringed at and distracted their children away from as, societally, we become more aware of just what this scene is telegraphing. There’s fat shaming, loss of agency, abuse, enslavement, all things that, again, we didn’t think twice about a couple of decades ago. Those things don’t belong in a creative world Disney is inviting everyone to be a part of. We know better now. And so, our experiences need to also be better.
We already see this push to “be better” in action in a variety of ways in other attractions and events at both Disney and Universal. Disney has increased diversity and representation in its IP, from the casting choices in A Wrinkle in Time to the mixed ethnicity in Miles From Tomorrowland, Doc McStuffins embracing of a middle class African American family to the Latina Elena of Avalor. While the Harry Potter movies featured a white lead trio, the “world” of Harry Potter itself is diverse by design; Universal upholds this sense of being welcoming to all, “you can be a part of this world” strategy in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both park empires have become more forward thinking in their marketing and events, too: Universal particularly excels at appealing to the large Latinx market in southern California (even incorporating a maze based on the La Llorona legend into its Hollywood Horror Nights) and Disney has gone from appeasing offended heterosexual men who happened to be in the park on the unofficial “Gay Days” and distancing themselves from the event to embracing it entirely (down to rainbow-themed merch in the stores, of course). These are all great things, which continually expand the worlds of Universal and Disney to let more and more people be right there in the heart of the story, not just on the fringes. And we’re eager to see how this continues to play out, from Universal’s Nintendoland to the potential for full-on immersion in the Star Wars universe at various Disney Parks (especially given the increasing prominence of women and people of color in the IP).
So we see the upgrades—and let us be clear, we see these as upgrades, not changes—to Pirates of the Caribbean as the next step in this march toward being better and doing better. In a world where Disney is encouraging little girls to dream of being a princess, like Elena, or a pediatrician, like Doc McStuffins, or even dress up as a pirate themselves at the Pirates League experience, it only stands to reason that they’d elevate the representation of women from victim to victor, from princess to general. Long live the Redheaded Pirate, long may she reign.
Image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr

Rediscovering Nixon: The New Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum reopened in October 2016, featuring a renovated 17,000-sq.-ft. museum and stand-alone theater that brings President Nixon’s life, career, achievements, and controversies to life in an interactive and comprehensive exhibition.
Thinkwell designed and produced the new museum exhibition and theater, working with partners Cortina Productions, Studio EIS, Kubik Maltbie and others on the creation of the immersive environments, educational interactives, and compelling media.  At the time the project was initiated, most of the exhibits and artifacts had not changed since the museum first opened, and the renovations invite guests to take a new look at Richard Nixon and the entirety of his political career.
Take a look behind the scenes with Thinkwell into the making of the New Nixon Library.

A Theme Park Designer Tries to Imagine Nintendo Land

Thinkwell’s Dave Cobb on Nintendo, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and next-gen theme park design –
originally published on Waypoint.
Since the announcement that Nintendo and Universal are teaming up for upcoming theme park attractions based on the Kyoto giant’s most famous properties, gamers and theme park enthusiasts alike have been speculating on what might actually happen. Famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto has promised to bring “the essence of games to the real world.” HBO’s Westworld has also lead to increased interest in theme park design and the possibilities of that imagined future. To get a sense of where theme parks are, and what we can expect to see, I turned to “dark ride” designer David C. Cobb.
Cobb started out as a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood. Impressed by his extreme enthusiasm for parks, Universal executives convinced him into a design role. Now he’s Principal of Creative Development at Thinkwell, a company that builds not only theme park rides but also experiences including children’s nature exhibits, Ski Dubai and even the Nixon Presidential library. Dave gave me a quick tour of Thinkwell’s Los Angeles warehouse, and we chatted about the parallels between game and theme park design in 2017.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Let’s talk about Nintendo’s partnership with Universal.
I have no history with Nintendo but I’ve heard that multiple theme park chains had gone to them in the past with no success… The story was that Nintendo didn’t license much and they were very tight with their licenses.
They’re known for their quality control. Back in the day Atari almost tanked the gaming industry with too many bad games and then Nintendo showed up with their Nintendo Seal of Quality.
I think the thing that made Nintendo say yes to Universal now was the way Universal handled the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Potter was a sea change in the industry. Universal really created something special in terms of its simulacrum… It’s close to Westworld.
And it’s been a slow build to that over the years. Up until the 70s or early 80s Disney’s attractions were mostly passive—book reports of existing movies that you observed from pirate boats or dune buggies. And that changed with (the Star Wars ride) Star Tours. Star Tours has you play the role of a space tourist, and it was the first attraction to really cast you in a world.
I went opening day in 1987 when I was 17. 30 years later I think a lot of the industry looks at that like a real vector point because it included you in the narrative. Potter took that even farther by selling you magic wands that allow you to interact with the environment and letting you buy school robes. It’s not just about the rides: it’s about the glue in between the attractions and how you engage people in the world they love. My gut says that was the tipping point for Nintendo. They saw Potter and said “that is a globally renowned brand that’s not easy to deal with and Universal handled it very thoughtfully.”
It’s true that what made Nintendo different early on was their awareness of story. Miyamoto wanted to be a manga artist before he was in game design—he had an interest in story and that translated to taking video games outside gameplay and into narratives.
The other reason that it’s really smart for Universal to do this right now is—look at the demo. Everybody that grew up with Nintendo has kids now and that’s a huge audience. Universal prides themselves on not being Disney. They have this other take on what a family vacation could be. The Nintendo generation is the next logical audience for them to embrace because Nintendo is as much a family thing as it is a gamer thing. Remember when you were a kid and moms called all game systems Nintendos?
Now you have a whole generation of digital natives, parents in their 30s and 40s who understand that world in a much more profound way. The hard part of that is it’s a very high standard. Nintendo has very high standards and so do their fans. What are your guest expectations when you hear the words “Nintendo World?”
Games. That the rides will be games! The second thing is that every person I’ve talked to wants to know how Mario Kart will manifest.
You and me both! That’s probably going to be one of their major attractions. If they don’t create that it’s a missed opportunity. Everyone knows Mario Kart best because it’s a game with ease of access that doesn’t take 60 hours of gameplay to understand.
From a technical standpoint what would be the mode of a Mario Kart ride?
The easiest way would be a driving simulator in a box with a screen. But Nintendo already has done so much with motion sensors and video that you sort of already have that. Seems too easy for them to do. I think what people want is to feel Mario Kart in actual space. Those guests would be better served to do something as a physical ride with actual movement. Maybe on a track, but there are already trackless rides like Pooh’s Honey Hunt at Tokyo Disney.
That ride is incredible…. Being dragged across a carpet in a giant honey pot…
That ride has more character and surprise because you can’t see the track and you don’t know where you’re gonna go. And the honeypots don’t all do the same thing. It feels like it’s taking you somewhere with a purpose. Maybe Nintendo will go trackless for Mario Kart.
Miyamoto himself said that the Nintendo parks will be about bringing the essence of games to the real world. He didn’t say games, he said the essence of games.
The other thing that Nintendo games offer is customization. Games like Animal Crossing where you get to be a mayor or Kirby where you eat monsters that let you choose to breathe ice or be a fireball. A whole new level of user activity is expected.
Yeah, personal agency is a huge part of Nintendo; creating your mii for example. If you look at Potter—the online identities of Pottermore (where you get sorted into houses and find out your patronus) ripples offline into the Wizarding World park. So parks are already almost there. And this whole idea of user created content in a physical space is at the center of how you address a gaming audience because gamers have an expectation of agency and customization.
There’s also this speculation that you could go to the park with your Switch or 3Ds and impact the experience…
I bet they’re looking into things like that. Other experiments with technology overlays have happened. Probably the best one was at Epcot, now themed to Phineas and Ferb that you play on a phone. You go through spy missions and it unlocks effects throughout Epcot. That started back in 2008.
So it’s been done but never on an attraction scale. Maybe your Pokémon Go sign in is recognized on rides? I’m betting Universal goes in hard with mobile for Nintendo because Nintendo’s the right brand for it. Mobile phones don’t fit in Harry Potter. You don’t want to be holding a cell phone in a wizarding world. But digital technology fits fine in a gaming world.
What’s the first theme park ride you remember that–
Haunted Mansion! Haunted Mansion… Full Stop.
OK! What was the first theme park ride you remember that incorporated a gaming element?
Oh! Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin which was a shooting gallery combined with a dark ride. You also got a score. Seeing that was what lead to one of my first big jobs in the industry, which was Men In Black: Alien Attack for Universal Orlando.
Is there a person who has the high score on Men In Black: Alien Attack?
I’m sure it’s some 12 year old with a season pass to the park. I used to be pretty good at that game, I could get 5 or 6 hundred thousand points. But now there are generations of kids with season passes who max it out all the time. There isn’t really a high score because there’s a limit—999999.
The problem is I can’t make an attraction that’s only for gamers because the audience would be too small. I can’t make a game that’s too complicated that people can’t learn in the first 15 seconds of a ride. Rides are 4 minutes max. If a ride was an arcade game we’d need you to learn it in one quarter.
Conveyance is a term that’s used a lot in games.
It’s an engagement pyramid, and you’re trying to seduce people up the pyramid. We use a swimming analogy for theme parks. A theme park audience is made up of waders, swimmers, and divers. The widest audience is waders—they want to dip their toe in and have a really good experience for the $120 they just spent to get in.
Next is swimmers (analogous to gamers) and divers (analogous to hardcore gamers.) You have to have something for all three of those audiences. Then there are merpeople who’ve drowned in theme parks and grown gills! You’re gonna piss the merpeople off no matter what you do but they’re still gonna buy a ticket.
Miyamoto himself said that the Nintendo parks will be about bringing the essence of games to the real world. He didn’t say games, he said the essence of games. To me, that’s a clue that the ride experiences will have gaming elements but won’t be fully complex games because of the waders. And demographic problems are just the tip of the iceberg. You also have to think about capacity. A good theme park attraction has to move 2000 people an hour. Pushing that many people through a building get’s really complicated.
What would be an example of an experience you include for more serious fans?
In the Men In Black ride there are a number of hidden targets. Winks from the film. There’s one set off to the side that’s hard to see with Frank the pug. If you know the movie you know Frank’s an alien. He’s a target and he’s worth a lot of points. The Men In Black ride, unlike the Buzz Lightyear ride, has multiple endings. You get different messages from Will Smith. The highest rank you can get is Galaxy Defender, where you hear angels sing and you get your MiB suit.
I hadn’t really noticed how all the rides of today incorporate the guest into a narrative.
Not just the rides. My first trip to Wizarding World Orlando, I walk behind the 3 Broomsticks restaurant and I see a table full of kids in school robes with their heads in books. Who reads books at a theme park? I walked up and asked what they were reading. They were doing their homework. Wait what? They explained they went to the junior high right behind the park and have season passes. Their parents let them come to the park and do their homework. They’re doing their real homework in a fake school in cosplay. Universal didn’t design that into the park but it’s happening.
Disney doesn’t allow adults to go into parks in costume. Do you think that’s gonna change?
That got a lot of press a couple years back when this girl in Florida got kicked out of the park for looking too much like a “real” Tinkerbell. Disney didn’t want her confused with the park sanctioned Tinkerbell. Disney doesn’t want you taking pictures with a skeezy knock off Peter Pan.
On a strange but very related note; When I was at Tokyo Disney a little boy came up to me, took my hand and started talking to me in Japanese. I didn’t know what he was saying at first but it turned out he thought I was Peter Pan. I was wearing a green shirt and (as you may know) Tokyo Disney flies in white actors to play their white characters. So perhaps for that kid, green shirt plus white boy equaled Peter Pan. It was disconcerting.
*Laughs* Wow.
But back to Tinkerbell girl; She got on the news crying saying her dreams were ruined. You can laugh if you want but she’s our audience now. Our audience has accepted cosplay and agency. Now you have things like Disneybounding which is an intersection of street fashion and Disney fandom. It’s a way to cosplay without it being a costume so you can go in the park.
Disney has not co-opted Disneybounding probably because they know if they do the kids will drop it. But their entire marketing campaign a year after I first saw Disneybounding take off was #showusyourdisneyside, where adults could pose in Disney-ish ways using an app. It wasn’t Disney bounding but it was winking at that audience.
Then there are Disney social clubs—Disney fans who are not into cosplay, but who have an affinity for Disney and California car culture or Latino culture. They make club names like “Mickey’s Heartless” or “The Tomorrowlanders” and they make patches on biker outfits and denim vests that they wear for meetups.
At first, a lot of people thought Disney was letting gangs in the park and totally over-reacted. But all of this stuff is in service of user created content in which users change on their terms. And Universal and Disney are allowing it.
Westworld was a very adult roleplaying theme park. Has there been anything even remotely like that? Not in terms of robotics but just the adult nature?
You know, the closest thing I can think of is Sleep No More. It’s an immersive telling of Macbeth across six floors of a building. It’s not for kids—there’s blood, murder, and nudity. It’s a piece of theater but it’s a very different type of theater that’s about the experience of moving around. The narrative is secondary. It’s mostly a choreography piece with the audience.
Video games have been slowly moving away from being marketed as just escapist entertainment. Even older games are being recognized for commenting on “real” issues. Final Fantasy VII is now viewed as analogous to our current political climate. Hyper Light Drifter was an expression of the designer’s experience with congenital heart disease. Has there ever been theme park elements that address social issues?
I’ll tell you this much, from a dramaturgical standpoint we do think about social issues in park design. Like, hey, does the pilot of your shuttlecraft in this simulator ride really have to be a white guy? A lot of people have not understood why they’re doing Avatar at Animal Kingdom. Love or hate the movie there is a reason that they’re doing it there.
From the beginning Animal Kingdom was supposed to have an ecological conservation standpoint. Avatar is about the destruction of natural habitat in an alien ecosystem. So it fits Animal Kingdom. The analogy I use for haters is Cars Land at California Adventure. Cars is not my favorite Pixar film but it’s a beautifully done environment.
Last question. What’s your biggest hope for the future of theme parks?
My hope is that we get to a point where there is room for a lower capacity higher personalization attraction or world. It’s easy to say Westworld. It’s not that I want to be a cowboy and have sex with robots! But I want something that allows me that level of roleplay.
I want to lean forward a little more and be a character in a story even as I walk around. There have been experiments in that here and there. Knott’s Berry Farm did a LARP called Ghosttown Alive. It was essentially living theater that ran for the day and involved the audience as townsfolk. The problem is these experiences are a very high cost with very low through point.
Unless they charge people a million dollars like on Westworld .
Right. But there’s going to be a tipping point where technology is cheap enough and the audience is big enough and the location is right where we can foster something that’s more Westworldy. I’m not talking robots as much as the quality of the thematic immersion that involves you in the story. There are generations of gamers, LARPers, and cosplayers who don’t just like that stuff… They’re starting to require it.
My white whale would be the Shire. I want to be a hobbit! I want to live that story in every look, feel, taste, smell and ride experience. Hopefully, it might happen! Who knows.
Header Mario Kart 8 Deluxe screen courtesy of Nintendo, sourced from Waypoint original article.
Click here for the full-length original article.