Published in September 2008

Flight Of Imagination
By Martin Palicki
Analyzing AV market trends in themed entertainment.

Although seemingly compact, the Blue Planet multimedia presentation at Gwinnett includes a wide array of AV and mechanical effects, all controlled by PCs.

Where can you take a ride with the Simpsons, play virtual carnival games, escape a dragon’s lair, explore the inside of a dinosaur or rock out with Led Zeppelin? At the country’s assortment of theme parks, waterparks and museums, of course. And a scant five years ago, none of these experiences was available. Despite changes in the economy, themed entertainment has continued to evolve and produce new ideas and products.

Naturally, the AV systems required to produce these attractions have advanced and changed, as well. We sat down with some of the creative forces behind the themed entertainment market to find out what trends have reformed this industry, and what direction the technology is headed.

Control Is Everything

For a long time, operators and developers were hesitant to utilize PCs to control AV equipment. The perceived reliability issues of PCs have slowly eroded away to the point that they quickly are becoming the preferred method.

“More and more facilities, museums and corporate centers, especially, do not want specific AV control equipment anymore,” stated Mad Systems president Maris Ensing. “They would rather utilize a PC where they can hire an IT person to maintain the system.” Mad Systems is an AV integration firm that specializes in museum and cultural projects. Its recent renovation of the Griffith Observatory in California used more than 80 PCs that run everything from the power management systems to the AV components.

Mad’s installation of the Blue Planet Theater in the Gwinnett County Environmental and Heritage Center in Georgia uses a mix of audiovisuals and multimedia including hi-def video projected onto a waterscrim, water-based foggers, simulated rain and waterfalls, seat rumblers, specialty lighting and a nine-foot-diameter reflecting pool from which a topographical map emerges to become a projection surface—all of which is controlled by PCs.

“Backup systems are now quite simple, cost-effective and completely reliable,” explained MediaMation’s Dan Jamele, whose company also provides AV solutions for the themed entertainment market. That safety net has helped encourage institutions to move that route. Additionally, PC controls are networked easily and allow for remote monitoring. “We can run diagnostics and solve most problems from our offices in California,” said Ensing. “That saves the client money and inordinate amounts of time that normally would be eaten up by transportation.”

Interaction Equals Satisfaction

Every step forward in the evolution of the themed entertainment market has led toward more interaction for visitors. As Maris Ensing put it, “Interaction is not just a requirement; it is the standard.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the museum market where, according to ETI president Brian Edwards, museums have really started to compete directly with schools. “Of course, museums are still competing with theme parks for that leisure market, and still borrowing heavily from their design models,” said Edwards.

“But they will start to focus more on partnering with schools and helping to provide that which schools cannot, namely focused, interactive experiences for students to learn from.” Content is king, and museums are working harder to provide actual learning experiences, rather than just showcasing knowledge for students. That means an increasing amount of AV integration, a change in the technological and a shift in the methodology of application.

Sensing RFID

According to some industry experts, the greatest potential is to be found within RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. John Miceli, president of Orlando FL-based Technomedia, reported that, currently, there are projects in the works where RFID will adjust seats, lap bars and conditions that will make for a safer product tailored to the likes of the rider.

Technomedia is no stranger to AV integration. The company recently worked on a number of high-profile onboard audio systems for the new Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach SC and the Hollywood Dream: The Ride at Universal Studios Japan, where guests can choose one of five songs to listen to during their ride. RFID could allow songs to be chosen based on the visitor’s previous preferences, or even be integrated with several onboard camera systems, which will store on-ride video or photography for the guest to view and purchase. Systems that capture on-ride video such as CDRide are already available at many major theme parks, so integrating an RFID tracking component seems a logical next step to many.

“To the savvy developer, RFID tracking can be paired with a database, reporting what people do, where they go and how much time they spend there,” said Steven J. Thorburn, president of Thorburn Associates, Castro Valley CA, and president-elect of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). “Not only will the operator be able to provide proactive guest services, such as collecting on-ride photos and videos for the guest, but they will be able to more effectively analyze and plan future developments based on precise data from RFID tracking.”

However, rolling out full-scale RFID projects still has a few challenges to overcome. According to Ensing, “The systems have to be completely secure in whom/what they are sensing, and they must be able to recognize multiple tags with various signal strengths. The cost of sensors also has to come down before they are truly ubiquitous.”

Nevertheless, UK amusement park Alton Towers recently launched a YourDay DVD package: Guests wearing RFID wristbands activate 36 cameras scattered throughout the park that collect and store videos from throughout their day. Industry experts are anxiously watching this prototype system.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) utilized RFID sensors at its annual trade show in November, unobtrusively scanning guests as they entered and exited the trade show floor in a clear sign of support for the emerging technology. The trade show market stands to benefit from the technology, which replaces barcode scanners, requiring additional staff and slowing down traffic flow into and out of a show floor.

More Than A Touchscreen

For years, most levels of interactivity terminated at the touchscreen. Museums, especially, have used touchscreens to provide visitors the opportunity to select which direction they want to pursue, but some are sensing a change in that trend, and see museums requiring more than a touchscreen can offer.

Mad Systems is banking on clients seeking out more mechanical interaction for their guests, moving to more of what theme parks are able to provide, although perhaps not on such a thrill-based scale.

“Pretty soon, nearly all home computers will have touchscreens, especially as multi-touch becomes available in about five years,” explained Ensing. “There will be a renewed interest in actual mechanical interactions, because the touchscreen video interaction will be available at home.”

The trend is already visible as places such as the Kidspace Museum in Pasadena CA, where visitors are encouraged to play, dig, climb and explore the many highly themed environments the museum offers. But a return to mechanical components won’t mean that AV experts are no longer needed.

The Simpsons ride’s four digital projectors cover the 90-foot-tall domed screen with crystal clear digital renderings of the characters.

Transparent Integration Is Key

Although AV components may become less apparent—less visible to the guest—in the world of themed entertainment, they actually are becoming more important, and more integral to the whole process. Instead of merely supporting or enhancing content, AV is expected to help contribute to the actual storyline of a project.

Many themed projects are creating storylines that begin even before the guest arrives, via the internet. A website allows visitors to become familiar with a storyline and follow it through the attraction or exhibit. Interactivity starts online with a game or contest, and continues at the museum or park, and can even extend beyond the visit in the form of video and photos available online.

The full integration of technology throughout a property is evident in a Mideast project on which ETI is currently working. Guests will literally log on with their cell phones as they enter and can interact with components of the development throughout their visit.

Walt Disney World experimented with such a system on a limited basis recently, with the Kim Possible World Showcase Playtest. Inside EPCOT park, select guests were given special cell phone transmitters themed after the Disney show Kim Possible (and called Kimmunicators) that guests would use at seemingly benign locations throughout the park. The phone activated audio, video and mechanical effects that helped the guests solve the mystery.

The AV was completely integrated into the existing architecture so guests not participating in the program were not aware of the special promotion, while still providing a magical experience for those involved. The project was so successful that it earned a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2007.

Nowhere has the total integration package been put into better use than at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana CA. Its Dino Quest adventure integrates mechanical effects, lifesize play structures, RFID-activated effects and a virtual challenge from the scientists at Dino Quest Headquarters. The center bills the exhibit as a fully “interactive, electronic exhibit where guests are…characters in a video game that has ‘come to life’.” (For more information, go to

The complete integration of such a highly interactive exhibit required the skills of AV experts and the project’s designer and fabricator, Lexington, of Los Angeles CA. The RFID application was provided by Creative Kingdoms, which has partnered with museums, theme parks and attractions to create a variety of RFID interactive adventures, many under the brand name MagiQuest.

An ordinary shopping window bookshelf reveals a hidden clue to a family participating in the Kim Possible World Showcase Playtest at EPCOT, thanks to the special RFID-enabled Kimmunicators.

Complete And Utter Immersion

“Being in the middle of a fully immersive environment that you cannot effect or control to make your experience be different each time is how most attractions have historically been,” said Technomedia’s Miceli. “It’s always fun to go through the Haunted Mansion or ET’s Adventure, but they never change. With the new possibilities on the horizon, the experience can change and be much more realistic and interactive, giving you a reason to come back over and over again for that different experience.”

But how is that total immersion best created? The answer depends on which market you are considering. Waterparks, for example, have only recently started to break into the realm of themed ride experiences. With a nod to their theme park counterparts, waterslides are now being infused with AV effects, and a themed storyline to match.

Tim Gantz, owner of Noah’s Ark Waterpark in Wisconsin Dells WI, agrees that waterpark theme immersion seems to be heading that way. “We just put a giant dinosaur head and sound effects in our Time Warp ride,” explained Gantz, “but we have been concerned about the corrosive elements affecting the hardware.”

There’s no need to worry, claims Thorburn Associates’ Thorburn. “Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, we are well aware of many corrosive-resistant products that easily can be used in a waterpark environment.”

This Summer, Schlitterbahn waterpark in New Braunfels TX retrofitted an existing slide to create Dragon’s Revenge, a highly themed waterslide experience that utilizes waterfall projections, lighting and sound effects, foggers and fire effects to create a slide experience that takes riders through an abandoned castle inhabited by a fierce dragon.

Splashtacular has produced designs for an Alien Invasion slide complex that includes a rotating elevator platform for rafts, fiberoptic, audio and projection effects. The designs were showcased at the World Waterpark Association’s 2007 expo, though an installation has yet to be announced.

But waterparks are at a point now where theme parks were 20 years ago. How can theme parks (or museums, for that matter) create fully immersive environments today? The answer is nearly unanimous: projection!

Projection Is Key

“Imax Corp. started the business of full immersion in the 1970s by creating giant screens that fill guests’ field of vision and surround them with a completely new environment,” explained Thorburn, who has provided quality certification for large-format theaters and worked on projects for the likes of Lucas, Dolby and Disney. For some time, attractions moved away from large-screen projection but, with the arrival of increasingly cost-effective digital systems, the trend is to incorporate more projection into the totally immersive experience.

Both of the world’s top theme park chains, Disney and Universal, opened up sister attractions at their California and Florida coasts this Summer that rely heavily on projection to create the immersive environment. Disney’s Toy Story Mania! combines a typical dark ride vehicle path where cars stop briefly in front of screens depicting carnival game booths from the Toy Story franchise. Guests interact with the game by firing cannons mounted on their car, while their glasses allow them to see in 3D their real-time score and progress.

The completely digital projection system allows Disney to upgrade or seasonally theme the attraction relatively quickly, a benefit, according to Thorburn, many parks might not have realized initially. “Changing out an older attraction or show meant a venue would have to be shut down for at least a year,” said Thorburn, “but with a digital system, changes to the software or content are relatively quick, easy and cheap.”

Universal Studios unveiled The Simpsons Ride at both of its US parks. Using the building and concept from the Back to the Future ride, Simpsons makes use of a giant domed screen and four Sony digital projectors to create a cartoon environment that motion-base simulators react to. The use of multiple projectors provides a resolution and luminosity superior to Back to the Future’s film version.

Also, though no announcement has been made, the ride’s creators did see a potential synergy between the Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror franchise and the park’s extremely popular Halloween Horror Nights event—a seasonal overlay that would have been cost-prohibitive in a film environment.

Smaller Players

What about the smaller players? “3D and 4D continue to be popular in a wide variety of markets,” explained MediaMation’s Dan Jamele. “It is still a passive experience, but it is incredibly popular, and venues have learned that they can show multiple titles at one time and increase attendance.” Museums have been quick to convert to 3D and 4D, such as Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, which recently traded in a small presentation theater for a 4D model and began showing SpongeBob Square Pants: 4D. Interestingly, Noah’s Ark Waterpark also shows that same movie in what it calls a Dive-In theater, where the special effects are no less dramatic, only a lot wetter.

“There are certain experiences that just seem to be natural draws for audiences,” said Jamele, “and when you get a product [such as SpongeBob] that has a wide appeal, there are plenty of opportunities to utilize AV systems to differentiate and develop that product.” Even with the benefits of projection and 3D or 4D, there still seem to be limitations on merging both immersive environments with interactive ones, though that barrier is being eroded.

People are looking for that group interactive experience and to have it be fully immersive. Unfortunately, the average park or museum hasn’t had the budget to pull it off, but another group has, and it’s a group that is expected to grow in its use of immersive and interactive environments: the US military.

Donning 3D glasses and manning “spring-action shooters,” Walt Disney World guests enjoy the new Toy Story Mania! attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista FL. The ride-through attraction combines the fun of a video game, 4D technology and interaction with favorite Disney-Pixar stars.

Interactive Training

The Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois worked with a host of themed entertainment producers, among them ETI, to create the most lifelike and reliable interactive training simulations, known as Battle Stations 21. The simulated ship experience puts trainees on a vessel in the middle of the ocean for 12 hours and throws a wide range of simulated disasters at them, all within the safety of the simulator environment.

“Just as in real life, each person is responsible for a certain task or position, and their individual actions affect the entire situation and change the results for themselves and everyone else,” explained ETI’s Edwards. “The military wanted people to have their natural reactions under stress to be played out in a controlled environment.” The result is not an entertainment masterpiece but, rather, a sophisticated training simulation masterpiece, complete with just about “every effect and gag we’ve ever worked with.”

Edwards sees more growth in this area for all branches of the military and government, as the process goes full circle. “The theme park sector took simulation technology that the government had devised and we made it cost-effective, enhancing it with effects,” said Edwards. “Now, the government is going back to those simulators and working with the theme park people to take it to the next level and push the technology forward.”

Although every client may not be as big as the US military, the effect of such big projects does work its way down throughout the market, and the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible. Particularly as more and more developers are looking to themed

Freelance writer Martin Palicki covers the amusement and themed entertainment industry. He edits and publishes IPM: Inside Parks & Museums (formerly InPark Magazine), and sits on the Themed Entertainment Associationís international board (

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