Published in September 2003

Theme Park Celebrates Nightly
By Dawn Allcot

AV brings Celebration City’s multimillion-dollar American history multimedia spectacular to life in Branson MO.

      Elvis Presley rises up from a 270,000-gallon pond, larger than life and dancing to “Jailhouse Rock” before an awe-struck audience. Is this some sort of paranormal experience, a group hallucination or does Elvis truly live?
      The answer is, none of the above. It’s just a typical night in Branson, Missouri, at the Celebration City theme park, where technology brings Elvis to life, sends John Travolta back to his Saturday Night Fever era, and takes the audience on a trip through the past 50 years in the USA.
The new theme park, which is open every day during the summer, from 3pm to 11pm, and on weekends in the spring and fall, from 3pm to 10pm, could be described as a sequel to a day at Branson’s Silver Dollar City theme park. Celebration City’s project manager, Joel Foster, calls it “a night time theme park for younger adults and younger families to enjoy.” He explained, “Branson basically has been catering to senior citizens and older families for some time now.” This new park employs multimedia, including today’s high-tech sound, laser lights and projection technology, to attract a younger audience.

Blockbuster Finale
      If Celebration City is the sequel to the Silver Dollar Park, then “Celebrate,” the multimedia laser spectacular that begins every night one hour before closing, is the blockbuster finale. The show takes the audience on a journey through five-and-a-half decades of life in the United States, covering significant historic and pop culture events from the 1950s through today, and ending in a tribute to our country’s “everyday heroes”—the firefighters, teachers, nurses—who often are overlooked.
      “We really wanted something that had never been seen in this area before,” Foster said. “There are 75,000 theater seats in Branson alone, and we wanted a show that nobody had ever seen in Branson, or anywhere else in the country.”
      To accomplish this, the park relied on the expertise of UK-based contractor, LCI. The original script, provided by Silver Dollar City, called for a show with actors and some special effects. LCI integrated audio, video and lighting in such a way as to present the familiar—a well-known series of events—in a surprising way. LCI’s creative director, Andrew Day, adapted the existing script for use as a multimedia show that would be comprised of various projection surfaces, laser lights and pyrotechnics.
      “‘Happy’ does not begin to describe how we feel about the results,” Foster stated. “‘Ecstatic’ is more like it. We’ve done about 80 shows now, and my crew is still not tired of doing the show.”

AV Makes it Happen
      To create a show like “Celebration,” creativity and technology must blend seamlessly. LCI’s technical director, Rob Paul, worked closely with creative director Day throughout the project. “It was a collaborative effort,” Paul offered. “The decisions on what effects were desirable to tell the story were discussed. Then Andy [Day] worked on the storyboarding of the show, while I worked on the design of the venue. We also worked closely with Brad Schroeder, Silver Dollar’s entertainment director, and Jim Moeskau, Silver Dollar’s entertainment manager, throughout the process.
      Keeping in mind the challenge to “present the familiar in a surprising way,” LCI began with the projection surfaces. A 50-foot-high by 200-foot-wide manmade rock wall behind a lake would form a natural amphitheater. Park attendees would gather in a special seating area and on the lawn surrounding the amphitheater. The rockscape forms a flat, solid projection service while maintaining a natural, outdoor look and feel. Three Sanyo XF40 projectors were used to cover the entire wall.
      The water screen, meanwhile, brings images of American icons to life. LCI’s technical director Rob Paul, explained: “The water screen appears to volumize the image, making the character appear more three-dimensional. The idea is to give the illusion that the performers are dancing on top of the water.” The footage projected onto a water screen should be high contrast and shot on a black background. The Sanyo XF45 video projector provided this output.
      Years ago, such a level of realism in a multimedia show could not be obtained. “It’s only recently that 10,000 lumen video projectors have become available, and more recently that LCD projectors at this level of brightness have become available,” stated Paul, adding that the Sanyo models were chosen for their depth of field and high light output.

Sound System hidden
      Besides providing a projection surface, the rock wall also hid the sound system; the audio and video effects blended seamlessly so as to make the production look and sound like magic.
Early in the project, Silver Dollar voiced a preference for a line-array system. Coverage was required to span an area that measures the width of two football fields, and half that depth, so cabinets with a wide horizontal but narrow vertical, spread were required. First, speaker angles were determined using CAD modeling. Site information was forwarded to Martin Audio, which recommended the new line-array system. “Given the nature of the venue,” Paul said, “the system was perfect for the job.”
      Twelve W8L top cabinets were installed within the rock wall, along with 12 W8L-SX bass cabinets. “Each cabinet has a number of hanging points to determine the angle,” Paul said. The angle of the overall stack was optimized through audio monitoring and additional tweaking by the audio engineers. Little alteration was necessary after the system was equalized.
      According to Foster, the system covers the entire area—and then some. “On a clear night, they can hear the show up to 10 miles away.” Due to the placement of the park and the stage, however, this doesn’t affect any local noise ordinances.

Can’t Control the Weather
      In spite of the smooth collaborative efforts between Silver Dollar and LCI, several factors came into play that neither company could control. Production on “Celebrate” began in November 2002 as Missouri proceeded to experience its third worst winter on record, putting the project nearly a month behind schedule. Foster admitted that work never got completely back on schedule, in spite of some astounding efforts on the part of both teams. “LCI cut three weeks down to 12 days doing the install,” Foster said. “There were a lot of days we were in at nine in the morning and at six o’clock the next morning we were walking off the project to get a couple of hours of sleep.”
Paul agreed: “The show must go on. A lot of additional hours were put in by our staff and the local operatives to get the show out on time.”
      Although most of the delays took place early on in the project, when heavy snowfall put construction work behind, LCI worked hard on the AV installation side to compensate for lost time. “We kept our schedule flexible,” Paul said, “pouring resources into areas where we could work when the civil works had been completed.”
      Once the installation was underway, Paul’s team ran into obstacles, although not insurmountable, in grounding the electrical equipment. “The whole town seems to be floating,” he said. A combination of isolated grounds and transformers grounded the systems so they would operate properly. Then, unfortunately, the weather stepped in to create more complications.       Several Extron GLI 350 ground loop isolators were struck by lightning and destroyed, before the team had installed the lightning protection. “The units were replaced,” Paul said, “and carefully unplugged every night until the lighting protection had been installed.”

Blending of Technology
Not all of the equipment used to bring “Celebrate” to life relies on the most modern audiovisual technology. An inflatable sky dancer showcases the disco era, while two air cannons shoot red, white and blue streamers during the patriotic finale. A few thousand dollars worth of pyrotechnics designed by Paul, along with Matt Sutcliffe at Premier Pyrotechnics, create a fireworks show worthy of a celebration.
      How do all these elements come together to create the non-stop excitement Celebration City visitors experience each night? Many, many controllers. A Dataton Trax control system was installed to control two SmartPax units that, in turn, each control four devices. Paul explained: “The video server was controlled by RS232. When the video was running, a time-code track was generated by one of the video server’s audio outputs. The time code was then used to drive the laser controller, pyro controller and the DMX playback unit. The water screen, water cannons, inflatable and air cannons were controlled via relays using the Dataton Smart Pax. “
      Protection was also built into the system, via a series of Emergency Stop buttons placed at key positions around the show site. “The show can be stopped instantly if something untoward were to occur,” Paul offered. Barring emergencies, however, the software is all programmed to ensure that the show will go on, as it has for three months and counting.
      “I can’t say enough about LCI and the job they did,” Foster said. In operation since spring 2003, the show is playing to triple the expected crowds. “We’re drawing more than 80% of our park’s attendants for the day to the show at night. We were hoping to get 20 to 40%, but it’s been a consistent average of 80%. Last night, we had more than 7700 at the park, and more than 6000 at the laser show.”
      The project stands as a proud achievement for LCI, as well. “It’s great to see an audience of thousands get so much pleasure from something you have worked hard on to make a reality,” Paul said.

Freelance journalist Dawn Allcot covers the AV and music industries.

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