Connecting Pixels and Theme Parks Part 2: Theme Park Design and The Witness (2016)

The first part of this series looked at the connection between video game design and dark ride attraction design through the lens of one particular game that offered an innovative perspective to both media. This week’s essay will look at a second innovative game, this time compared to the design of an entire themed environment.

That game is The Witness, released in 2016 by Thekla, Inc. The Witness is designed as a (very) philosophical successor of Myst, in which players must solve a series of puzzles scattered throughout an abandoned island to investigate the mysteries of the island. The answers turn out to be more existential than literal.

Just like when designing for a theme park, Thekla, Inc. employed both structural architects and landscape architects to ensure the buildings and environments across the island felt credible as physical spaces, even if the impressionistic art style and unusual purpose of the island contribute to an overall dreamlike experience. The game begins as the player wakes in a long corridor. At the end is a door locked by a simple puzzle. Absent any direction or instructions, players solve a series of such puzzles, each adding a slightly new layer of complexity, until they emerge outside on the island, staring up at a gigantic basalt column mountain crowned by a geometric sculpture in the far distance. In just these few minutes, players understand how the game functions and what their ultimate objective is. They now have the tools they’ll need to eventually solve puzzles of brain-melting complexity… all without a single word. 

I quickly came to regard The Witness as a masterwork of experience design, even though it takes place entirely within digital space. That introduction to the game, for example, uses many of the same techniques you may find at Disneyland, from the dark compression point of the arrival tunnel to the reveal of the large icon in the distance that urges you to continue moving forward.

In fact, the entire island is not too dissimilar from a theme park. The layout of the open world is labyrinthine, yet I was able to navigate it intuitively thanks to the careful way every pathway choice is designed with clear visual cues, rendering wayfinding signage unnecessary. The island is surprisingly small compared to other open world games, yet it contains a huge diversity of distinct environments that make it feel much larger than it really is. So it is too with theme park design, which uses zoning to create a distinctive sense of place and discovery within the most economical footprint possible. The island doesn’t have separately themed lands, but the different biomes seem to capture an entire world across all four seasons within a compact space. Looking at a bird’s eye view of The Witness’s island, the approach can look patchwork and obviously unnatural, much like a theme park in satellite view. But from ground level each area uses color and form to feel cohesive, like walking into an impressionist painting. Sightlines are carefully controlled to ensure each environment feels singularly immersive without any conspicuous barriers between zones.

Attention to detail is paramount to The Witness. While the beginning puzzles seem to be isolated experiences, players will soon realize that the solutions extend out into the environment around them, hiding in plain sight and requiring players to become careful observers of detail. Most theme park fans will agree that what sets a world-class theme park apart is its attention to detail, and it’s here that The Witness becomes an essential learning tool for how to craft meaningful experiential details that tease at the history of a place or its hidden meaning in some truly inventive ways. A window creates a framing device to see a familiar landscape in a new way. Shadows or the reflection of the sun reveal hidden secrets. A broken tree branch suggests a mini-mystery that can only be solved by exploring the nearby environment. A pile of boulders reveals a hidden form if you just tilt your head. Few details are absolutely necessary to understanding the story’s narrative, but they do help color the softer elements of the story, such as mood and themes.

The details reward the player’s engagement with the story, even if that story is so abstract that nearly everything is subject to interpretation. This is the same way that the best themed environments tell their stories: through details that reward observation and allow visitors to imagine their own experiential stories depending on how deeply they want to explore their environment. I can’t count the number of times I saw a cool visual detail in The Witness and made note of how something similar could be done for a theme park.

There are, of course, a few elements of The Witness that absolutely could not be translated to a theme park experience. Foremost among these is the game’s omnipresent theme of loneliness. The island is completely devoid of all human and even animal life, an uncommented-upon fact that begins to weigh heavy over time, and it forces the player to reckon with existential questions regarding their own perspective on this island. Ultimately, this sense of loneliness is perhaps itself a clue to unraveling the full story; there’s a reason the game is called “The Witness.”

Obviously in a theme park you could never be completely alone, which makes this dimension of The Witness’s story uniquely specific to its gameplay medium. Yet as a theme park designer, recognizing this fact invites a challenge: while there are certain stories that I can’t easily tell using my medium, are there other stories of an equivalent depth and complexity that could only be told within my medium?

While it’s important for aspiring theme park designers to be fastidious students of the history and trends of theme park design, it’s just as important to look sideways into other artistic media, be it video games, theater, literature, cinema, installation art, or music. Theme parks utilize aspects of all of these forms, and creative inspiration is more likely to arrive laterally from places less expected. Be a student of all artforms, especially those that offer their own original take on their medium, such as these two games provide, and you might just be surprised at what you discover.


A Thinkwellian’s 3 City Trip Itinerary: Gabrielle Maryse Bucaya

As we enter week 20 of working from home, we’re continuing with our fictional travel series, where we’ve invited a few Thinkwellians to research places they would want to visit on a fictional, whirlwind business trip to three cities around the world. Last month, we heard from writer Jeremy Thompson as he explored Vancouver, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; and Vienna, Austria. This week, we’ve asked Gabrielle Maryse Bucaya, our Business Development Coordinator at Thinkwell Studio Montréal, to head off on her fictional business trip to Barcelona, Spain; New Orleans, Lousiana; and São Paulo, Brazil. Let’s see what she would experience in these cities…

Barcelona. New Orleans. São Paulo. Three magnificent cities I always dreamt of, but never had the opportunity to visit myself. Meetings after meetings on this fictional trip, I can’t help but have an itch for a sense of adventure that awaits me. 


I would start my day as almost anyone would, visiting the Sagrada Familia. This unique world heritage sight developed by Gaudi looked even more beautiful in person; as if I truly wasn’t catfished from the overwhelming Instagram posts, videos on YouTube or photographs on the internet. As I enter the Cathedral, I can’t help but consider the details of this homage to not only Christianity, but the art that inspired Gaudi to bring this to life. If Gaudi knew people hadn’t given up on the building and were still working on it – what would he have thought? Would he have been flattered? Would he have looked at the building now and thought, “What in the world did I create?”.

To continue on, I’d make my way to the Park Güell, another of Gaudi’s famous works. There is mysticism and so much detail in the architecture that surrounds everyone here. The colours stand before you, all bright and vivid, almost as if one could hear them sing in your mind. 

My final destination during the day is on the beach, where I’d feel comfortable enough to kick off my shoes and walk barefoot by the water. The sun’s warmth embrace by bare shoulders and jetlagged face.The only way to celebrate the remaining of the evening to come, is to get myself sangria and tapas to fully immerse myself in this enchanting city. Of course, dancing the night away is also on the cards.

New Orleans

Next comes New Orleans, Louisiana. As my hotel is in the French Quarter, I have the luxury of being in the heart of it all. Making my way through Royal Street to visit the antique shops and art galleries to kill time before the night festivities are always on the horizon. As the sun was goes down, the night heats up. I can feel my stomach grumble. Fortunately, I saw Johnny’s Po’boy sandwich shop nearby and felt no hesitation in going in. After a long day of brainstorming, somehow fried shrimp served in a baguette brings me comfort. After indulging in this traditional feast, it’s time to head towards Bourbon Street – notorious for its pleasantries and being the life of the city. My curiosity piqued, I noticed an old white saloon-style building that seemingly appeared like it belonged to a movie set.

A sign swung with the words “Jean Laffite’s OLD ABSINTHE HOUSE”. People coming in and out, falling over each other laughing, or hand-in-hand without a care in the world, I have to check this place out. As they say in Rome, “Do as the Romans do!”. A cramped little space with walls covered in photographs and old-fashioned bar stools fit in nicely with the ambience. Conversations nearly inaudible over the live jazz music, it’s easy to stick around for a few hours talking to locals about life in New Orleans.

São Paolo

Then there is São Paulo – the largest city in Brazil and seventh in the world. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the life of the people, its beautiful modern architecture and culture. Art is one of the pillars of this city, and that’s evident everywhere. Staying near Paulista Avenue, which is considered the pulse of the city, the skyscrapers dwarf anything on the ground floor. Where does all the energy come from? Could it be that their coffee beans were really one of the best? My final day of adventures would hold the answer.

Stopping by a local coffee shop nearby, grabbing a coffee myself and a Brigadeiro – that is, a bite-sized Brazilian dessert. It’s a reminder of a timbit in Canada, but somehow, more exciting. The moment coffee hit my system, I could feel the kick of the roast give me the energized kick I need to continue my exploration. To my luck, the Museo de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP) is open – a pioneering cultural center filled with over 8,000 paintings. In 2 hours, you can journey through a European 17th century into contemporary art pieces created by Latin American artists.

To get some fresh air and conclude my afternoon, I would take a  relaxing moment to walk along the Parque Ibirapuera, an enchanting park in the heart of the city. Here, you can watch lovers walk hand-in-hand, making me miss my own partner back home. The fresh flowers that are evidently cared for diligently, bringing life to the atmosphere overwhelm the area in their wonderful, floral aromas. With the ripples on the lake moving swiftly with the light breeze of the fresh air, this is how I want to finish my journey, and with that, it’s time to head back home. 

Diving deep into the detail of Warner Bros. World

Not since Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has a theme park provided such detailed fan service as Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi delivers through its six themed lands. The creative team that designed this park, led by Thinkwell’s Craig Hanna & Dave Cobb, has crafted immersive environments that effectively sell the illusion that you are standing in iconic locations such as Superman’s Metropolis and the Roadrunner’s American West… leaving you to forget that you’re actually walking around inside a giant box in the Abu Dhabi desert.

Warner Bros. World is able to sustain this illusion because Thinkwell’s design team has filled the park with detail that reflects and reinforces each land’s IP. While casual visitors will enjoy the beautiful views and impressive facades throughout park, dedicated fans of each franchise will geek out discovering all the thoughtful details and Easter eggs on display.

The press event to which I was invited allowed me less than six hours walking around inside Warner Bros. World — not enough time for a geek like me to appreciate the full extent of detail within park, which might take multiple full-day visits. Fortunately, I spent about 90 minutes of those six hours walking around the park with Dave, who pointed out many of the details that I missed on my first lap.

Let’s start with three examples of what I will call “ley lines” in the park’s lands. Next the entrance of the Acme Co. factory in Cartoon Junction, you will see an Acme rocket, crashed into a window.

Acme rocket

But if you look in a straight line the opposite direction, you will see the path that the rocket took through neighboring buildings, leading back to a bundle of Acme rockets, minus the one now sitting in the factory window.

Good designers uses this technique to help remind visitors subconsciously that they are standing within a space bound by the laws of physics. Therefore, even thought it appears fantastic, it is real. (There’s another great example in the exit gift shop of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which depicts the destructive flight of a cannonball.)

You’ll find another exampled in Warner Bros’ World’s Gotham, up in the second-floor windows of the abandoned subway station building that’s now the Hall of Doom. It’s the charred damage of an explosive blast that carries across the land. But my favorite detail from this scene is the decapitated gargoyle next to the charred window.

Charred damage

Want to know what happened to that gargoyle’s head? It’s “for sale” in the Pawn Shop gift store across the street.

Gargoyle's head

And, oh yeah, the batarang that knocked it off is on display in the shop, too. The entire store is filled with the detritus of superhero battles, depicted in DC Comics and the land. The pawn shop’s owner is making his bank by collecting the remains and selling them to fans. (The store IRL is selling T-shirts and other Batman-themed souvenirs. Again, not enough time to fully document!)

You don’t always need to look up to see these design lines. In The Flintstones’ Bedrock, you might notice a set of Mammoth tracks leading from the Warner Bros. Plaza entrance toward the Bedrock River Adventure flume ride. In the middle of the path, the tracks cross a planter. So what’s posted next to those tracks inside the planter?

Mammoth crossing

My favorite attraction in the park was the Animayhem shooter ride, which is set within the Acme Co. building in the factory town of Cartoon Junction. Above the street, you can see the factory gate, emblazoned with the Acme motto, “Caveat Emptor.”

Acme factory gate

Which is Latin for… “Buyer Beware.”

The queue for Animayhem is a tour of “Mad Men”-inspired, mid-century-styled Acme design studio, where you find fan service gems such as the motivational slogan, “Quality is our #1 Dream!”

Quality is our #1 Dream!

And look what form the company has run out of on its paperwork table.

Missing release forms

Deep in the extended queue of the ride you will find the Acme Co.’s awards cabinet.

Acme Co.'s awards cabinet

Um… not much there except cobwebs, right? Well, there is this:

Caveat Emptor Award

It’s the “Caveat Emptor Award” for “Achievements in Legalese”… and it is adorned with an asterisk. Brilliant.

Dave explained the unpublished history of Cartoon Junction. It’s an old railway town, which made it an attractive site for the Acme factory, which would ship its defective products all over the country from here. The mansion at the end of the town was owned by the railway baron, who filled it with collectibles from around the world. He’s long passed, and now the abandoned mansion is haunted museum, making it the perfect location for Scooby-Doo! The Museum of Mysteries.


The backstory for the Scooby Doo building reminded me of the story of Harrison Hightower and Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror, BTW. But the Scooby-Doo ride is filled wit fan service, as it tracks the story beats and conventions of Scooby-Doo episodes, including a chase across a hallway, Shaggy looking for food, and finally pulling the mask of the perp while he complains about “you meddling kids.” If you’ve never seen an episode of Scooby-Doo, you can appreciate the amusing dark ride. But if you are a fan, you can appreciate that the ride’s designers have shown that they are fans who get what this franchise is all about, too.

One more detail in Cartoon Junction. Here’s a billboard for another Acme product posted next to the portal into Gotham.


Here are three of many moments of fan service within Batman’s hometown. A wanted poster for Joe Chill, who killed Batman’s parents:

Wanted poster

Graffiti from the Court of Owls, who are “always watching.”

Court of Owls

And the take a look at the domed roof on the abandoned subway station building that is now the Hall of Doom, the Legion of Doom’s headquarters. If you watched the Super Friends animated TV series in the 1970s, you might recognize the homage to the Hall of Doom from that show.

Hall of Doom

Next door in Metropolis, the inside of the Hall of Justice will leave you feeling like you are standing within the Pantheon of gods.

Hall of Justice

The queue of the Justice League ride lies on the far side of the Superman statue. Within it you will find boards that explain who all these superheroes are, for visitors not familiar with the IP. But longtime fans might recognize what is revealed later in the queue, that the “villain” the superheroes are fighting in this trackless dark ride is Black Mercy, which first appeared in the Superman comics in 1985.

Black Mercy

Outside the Hall of Justice, note the paper for sale inside the news box on the street. It apparently references a moment within the ride (which I did not get to experience).

News box

And the directory for the office building (facade) next to the Hall of Justice includes names pulled from DC Comics, including Emil Hamilton, Starrware Industries, and Cale-Anderson Pharmaceuticals.

DC building directory

I didn’t get a photo, but I also wanted to note Dave’s backstory for why the Marvin the Martian and The Jetsons rides are located within the Roadrunner’s Dynamite Gulch. The IRL reason is that these are carryovers from a sci-fi themed land that didn’t make the cut in the design process, but that the developers nevertheless wanted to save. So how to explain their presence in the American West. Well, that part of the land is its “Area 51 1/2,” the secret government facility to house the aliens and time travelers who crash landed here.

Nice. Even that loose end has been pulled tight.

In all, I couldn’t find anything haphazard in Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. There was no surface unfinished (though two rides did remain incomplete in that they were not sufficiently tested to be open for the preview event.) Warner Bros. World offers a thematic consistency in its placemaking that I have not seen on a park-wide level since Tokyo DisneySea.

Right now, based on what I saw in my brief visit, I would place Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi among the top five theme parks in the world for consistently convincing placemaking in its lands, joining Tokyo DisneySea, Disneyland in California, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

This article was originally published here.

SANAD Capital Names Zenas, Chutter and Jonsson to ‘Power’ ACTVENTURE Advisory Panel

Industry leaders to help lead ACTVENTURE into construction phase

SANAD Capital has today named three top global executives who will serve as expert advisors to the company, to bolster the success of its $450m theme park on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Joe Zenas, CEO of Thinkwell Group, Geoff Chutter, President and CEO of Whitewater, and Fredrik Jonsson, Founder and Managing Partner of Mereha will sit on the Advisory Panel for ACTVENTURE.
“We are very excited about these three outstanding individuals joining our advisory panel, who are exceptional leaders and experts in their respective fields,” said SANAD Capital CEO, Bradley P. Sutherland. “As we move into the construction phase of ACTVENTURE, Joe, Geoff and Fredrik’s expertise will add to the success of bringing a first-of-its-kind destination to the country.”
SANAD Capital also confirmed today that it has submitted its application for approval to start bulk earthworks, to the Sunshine Coast Council. Furthermore, the company has put together a short list of companies from within the Sunshine Coast to start a bidding process for the work.
“Naming our ‘Power’ Advisory Panel comes at a time when we are gearing up to begin the construction phase,” continued Sutherland. “We aim to start Bulk Earth Works as soon as we receive this approval from Sunshine Coast Council”.
The members were appointed by SANAD Capital’s Board of Directors and will serve a three-year, renewable term.

 More about the ‘Power’ Advisory Panel members:

JOE ZENAS: As Thinkwell Group’s Chief Executive Officer, Joe Zenas is responsible for leading the direction of the company as well as new growth opportunities, corporate strategies, strategic alliances and intellectual property partnerships. From the magical world of Harry Potter to the historical Smithsonian Institution, his leadership has been instrumental in building Thinkwell’s reputation for masterfully dealing with some of the world’s most cherished brands and intellectual properties. Prior to Thinkwell, Mr. Zenas worked as the Producer & Director of Universal Studios Creative Studio, a Producer for Walt Disney Entertainment & Disneyland, and an Events Producer for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games Ceremonies, Hong Kong 1997 Reunification Spectacular, and 10 Super Bowl Halftime/Pregame shows.
GEOFF CHUTTER: As President & CEO of WhiteWater, Geoff leads 11 operating business units, 650+ full time employees and 20 international offices worldwide. WhiteWater is the largest designer of waterparks globally, and the largest supplier of waterpark products in the world, with over 125 patents and over 100 awards including the B.C. and Canada Export Awards and the Best Managed Canadian Companies Award. Clients include key players in the entertainment industry such as Disney, Universal Studios, Legoland, Atlantis, Sun International, Lotte, Samsung, Paramount, Cedarfair, Six Flags, Carnival Cruise, OCT, Center Parcs and many more. Geoff has been active politically on the federal scene for over 20 years and sits on the boards of Covenant House and the Small Medium Enterprise in Ottawa Board under Minister Freeland. Geoff’s lengthy International experience in the waterpark industry adds exceptional vision to SANAD Capital for the waterpark in Stage 1 of ACTVENTURE.
FREDRIK JONSSON: As the Founder and Managing Partner of Mereha Fredrik provides strategic advice throughout the full hospitality lifecycle. Fredrik has dedicated his career with leading development and real estate companies, international hotel operators and independent hotels. As Senior Vice President of Investment Corporation of Dubai (ICD) and Head of Asset Management Hospitality he established and lead the hospitality asset management division, including among others the prestigious Atlantis the Palm Dubai, Mandarin Oriental New York and had oversight of the strategic implementation and development of 10 pipeline hotels of approximately 2.500 keys. As Director of Operations – Asset Management of Qatari Diar he was responsible for the portfolio wide asset management function across all asset classes. He is an experienced board member of property and operating companies, including Fairmont Raffles Hotels International (FRHI) and an Advisory Board Member of the HAMA (Hotel Asset Management Association) MEA chapter and a Director of Beaufort Global Partners.
For original article, click here.

TripAdvisor Reveals the World's Most Popular Tours and Attractions for 2017

With the arrival of summer, TripAdvisor recently looked at the top trending tours and attractions around the world, and Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter continues to be one of the top attractions in the UK!   

When it comes to keeping the kids occupied during the school summer break, TripAdvisor’s top trending tours and attractions might just be the ticket.
Jetting off to Italy? Don’t miss out on a Skip the Line tour of the Vatican, which has taken the title of 2017’s most booked on the travel site.

And if you’re in England, why not take in a bit of history with an ever-popular day trip to Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Bath?

TripAdvisor’s latest findings are based on bookings made since January 2016 to date, measuring the most popular attractions with the greatest increase in traveller interest. In their world top 10, it was the Skip the Line tour of the Vatican Museums, St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel that took top honors.

During this much-loved three-hour tour, visitors have the opportunity to explore the Vatican as part of a small group led by a knowledgeable guide – and, of course, to jump to the front of the site’s notoriously long queues. In the UK, it was an 11-hour guided tour of Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Bath that proved to be most popular.
In fact, five of the UK’s top booked tours are located in London, while four of the world’s top 10 booked tours are found in Rome.
And no matter where you visit, Skip the Line and Hop-On-Hop-Off Tours continue to be crowd pleasers.  These tours often feature other added benefits not available to general admission ticket holders, as well as flexibility to choose your own itinerary and pace.

Though it’s the Stonehenge tour that’s the UK’s most booked, it’s Harry Potter who is dominating the UK’s top 10. In at #5 is a Making of Harry Potter tour at the Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden in Hertfordshire, complete with luxury transportation from London. Two London-based Harry Potter studio tours, meanwhile, rank eighth and ninth.  Despite the fact that it’s been 20 years since the release of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, Britain’s favorite wizard shows no signs of losing his magic.

See the full list of the most booked tours in the world and in the UK below:

Click here for full article.