Themed Attraction Design, Part One
Creating Immersive Environments

Like storytelling, illustration, or musical composition, the design of immersive theme park attractions is very much an art form. An artist's canvas is limited in that it can only be seen. A motion picture or at a stage production is limited to sight and sound. But an immersive theme park attraction utilizes all the senses in order to seemingly take a person on a journey to the ends of the earth, or beyond. This experience oriented architecture is much more complex than many forms of art or entertainment because it must be cater to all the senses.

Seeing is Believing

Visual imagery is the most obvious and most necessary tool for creating the themed environment. Each visitor will enter a themed attraction and then judge whether or not he believes what he sees. It is this critical judgment that the designer must try to reinforce.  In doing so, it is imperative that every detail be considered.

Here are several aspects that one must consider when creating the visual aspects of an immersive theme park attraction:

1. Architectural sets & scenic: The guest should be completely engulfed in a new world, and the architecture should be designed to accomplish this task. In an ideal world, no expense should be spared to painstakingly recreate exquisite environments. Elements should be placed in the environment that reinforces the fact that this is indeed a special world. The goal is to create a complete envelope around the guest. In the real world, budgets are always a factor, so one cannot construct an entire new world. This world has limits, but it extends as far as the guest is allowed to see.  

Even when budgets and scenes are being cut it is wise to remember the words of Eddie Sotto, "Always keep the fire in the dragon's breath." Keep the important elements, and hide other exposed areas in the dark. One must always strive to avoid many common design pitfalls where some of the outside world leaks inside and ruins the immersive environment. A few examples of this include: exposed doors, broken sets, and exit signs and trash dtropped by previous guests.

2. Greenery and foliage: All too often in today’s theme parks, millions of dollars are spent on new attractions, leaving greenery and lanscape design as an afterthought. Greenery is to architecture what make-up is to a model. Good landscape design adds an aesthetic to the show sets that is necessary for completing an environment.

3. Lighting: When lighting is done well, people generally comment on how good the architecture looks.  However,  when the lighting is done poorly, people are usually very quick to criticize the lighting design.

Lighting is very important to the success of an immersive themed attraction. There are two primary types of lighting in themed entertainment design: architectural lighting, and show lighting. Each has different functions, but both are necessary.

Architectural lighting is the lighting that reveals common architectural interiors and exteriors, including the landscaping. Care should be taken to reveal the most important objects (called "tasks") in the area. This lighting consists of ordinary light fixtures, and is used to guide the guests and make normal environments seem more pleasant or work easier.

Theatrical lighting is used to create moods through the use of color and the careful highlighting of important elements of the set. Show lights can be extremely powerful, often exceeding 1000 watts per fixture. They are an invaluable resource with almost limitless utility. Three such unique theatrical lighting elements are the gobo, black lighting and fiber optic lighting.:

  • Gobo (short for go-between) patterns are used to project intricate patterns of light onto the walls, which is just one of the many special effects available with theatrical lighting.
  • Black lighting is used in various situations in themed environments to create striking visual effects. Black-lights are special light bulbs that emit only Ultra-violet light, radiation which is invisible to the human eye. Special fluorescent paints glow when bombarded with this ultra-violet light, which is how the effect is created. Black-light could be used to create the illusion of a far off city at night. In this example, the distant windows and streetlights are be painted on a scenic backdrop with fluorescent paints and the black-light would create a glowing effect.  Black-lighting is also very useful when lighting three dimensional animated characters, as they appear very life like and cartoon-ish. As well, a room becomes extremely striking in appearance when lit only with black-light, as people are not used to seeing fluorescence. Indeed, black-lighting is a very valuable tool in certain situations.
  • Fiberoptic lighting has gone from a little used resource a few years ago to a widespread lighting technique with a tremendous number of applications today. A fiberoptic light is composed of an illuminator, which produces light to be directed into the fibers, and bundles of plastic tubes (the fibers themselves in various lengths and sizes). Fiber optic lighting looks exactly like neon lighting with two distinct advantages: first, it is flexible conduit so it can be moved while it is illuminated; and second, its color can be changed (sometimes every few seconds) through the use of a color wheel that is attached to the illuminator. A further advantage is that the end points of the fibers make realistic looking stars for settings where a night-time sky is needed, or it can be used to make ordinary signage sparkle. Fiber optics can be used for lighting while simultaneously shooting security camera footage as light travels both directions through the fibers.  The only drawbacks to fiber optics are that the bundles of fibers tend to cost about 20 dollars per linear foot (imagine covering an entire ceiling with "stars" at that cost), and that they generate a tremendous amount of heat.

Sound: The Mood Setter

There is no more effective tool for shaping the mood in a space than sound. Consider the feelings you experienced when you last heard the following movie theme songs:

Title song, Chariots of Fire,

Baby Mine, Dumbo,

Title song; Raiders of the Lost Ark

Imperial Death March; Star Wars

Title song; The Twilight Zone

Title Song; Psycho

When You Wish Upon a Star; Pinocchio

Eye of the Tiger, Rocky 3

Just as television and movies continuously use background sounds to add mood and interest, so should it be with themed attractions and architectural showplaces.Just as no television show or movie would go without a musical score, the power of sound is all-important to an immersive enviroment whether it be a through theme song, a special effect or story enhancing dialog.

Tactile Tactics

Tactile stimulation is important in immersive attractions as well. Consider the effect a spray of mist on the face would have on a guest in a tropical themed adventure ride, or how the cold iron bars in a dungeon might feel to a visitor of that attraction. The heavy wooden and stone textures of a queue or attraction interior has a tremendous impact on the guest. The applications for texture planning are endless, and clearly contribute to an effective environmental design.

A Taste Sensation

Although smell and taste are usually thought of as two different senses, they are so closely linked that for our purposes they can be considered one in the same. Humans use these senses very little in comparison to those senses previously mentioned, but they should never be overlooked when planning an attraction. Indeed, a well-placed scent can provide that final touch of realism that will make the experience a memorable one. Consider how the smell of smoke could enhance a burning building set, or how that distinctive sea aroma would contribute to an ocean themed attraction. Imagine how the wafting smell of rain would make a visitor feel before entering a ride featuring a tornado or thunderstorm? There are many more uses of smell than are immediately obvious to most, but good designers get paid to focus on details like these.
The following piece is from EPCOT CENTER TODAY,  Vol 1, No. 2 1981.   (Outdated, or were they just ahead of their time?)

Disney Imagineers have added a fifth sense to the newest attractions at Epcot Center.  The sense of smell will be added to scores of other special effects in a new generation of Disney shows now being designed for Future World and the World Showcase pavilions.
Working with the Imagineers at WED Enterprises in California, Bob McCarthy has developed "a smellitzer machine",  to add the aroma of everything from an erupting volcano in the Universe of Energy show to the tantalizing smell of a barbecue of the fragrance of orange blossoms.  Each will be keyed to a particular show scene to enhance the realism of experiences in the Future World and World Showcase.

WED designers are collecting scents from suppliers all over the world and blending them to produce the desired effect.  So far, more than 300 odors have been tried, but more than 3,000 will be tested before the final choices are made.  The smellitzer operates like an air cannon, aiming the scent up to 200 feet across a room toward an exhaust system.  Guests traveling on the moving vehicles will pass through the scene as the appropriate scent drifts across their path.   Regulated by computer, the scent can be triggered for a fresh aroma just prior to each vehicle's arrival.
According to McCarthy, the use of smell has fascinated the entertainment industry for a long time.   "Back in the fifties, Mike Todd developed a process called 'smell-a-vision',"  McCarthy said.  "The idea was to release certain scents into the theatre as the visual counterpart was shown on the screen."  McCarthy,  who worked with Todd on the project, claims there were many problems with "smell-a-vision."  "The main problems was that odors tended to linger in the air, and after a while they all blended together," he said.  "We couldn't get the scents in and out of the theatre quickly enough."   At Epcot Center,  the situation will be different because the audience will be moving through each of the many experiences in each pavilion.

Some of the most unusual scents will be in the Land pavilion at Epcot Center.  Here, the visitors will experience tropical vegetation, rain forests, deserts; some of the great terrain found on Earth.   Of course, Disney "Imagineers" plan to supply all the appropriate smells.  Guests traveling through a farming scene may detect a faint animal smell.  In another scene, an orange grove will smell like the real thing.  Still another effect calls for the smell of damp earth.

Some of the smells will hardly be noticeable to most people.  The aroma will be there, but the sensory perception may not be a conscious one.  The WED engineers have learned how to regulate the strength or intensity of the odors used.  A whole generation of unique techniques, special effects and transportation systems are being developed for Epcot Center.

Final thoughts

The best immersive themed park attractions can be said to be perfect mimics of the environment it attempts to re-create. When done well, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred, and a truly memorable guest experience is created. But to be effective, these attractions must effectively stimulate all the senses.



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