“Imagineering” and building walk-through attractions
My First Introduction to Walk Through Attractions
My family took a summer vacation to Disneyland in the Summer of 1995. I was just returning home from my first semester of art school. All the joys of visiting “the happiest place on earth”, Disneyland, for the first time were exactly as I expected. But it was an unexpected surprise however, to discover the newly opened attraction Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Queue design and layout took upon a whole new meaning for me in terms of dimension of visual storytelling after this experience. Complete with an immersive queue and perilous booby-traps, Indiana Jones was my first introduction to the magic of walk-through attraction design.
The Indiana Jones attraction begins its story long before the guest boards a ride vehicle. One must first enter deep into the Indian jungle and make your way through the ruins of a forgotten and perilous temple. The adventure includes caves, spiked chambers, interesting murals, ancient graffiti and inscriptions. These act as a brilliant pre-show and prequel to the actual ride.
Walk-through History – A Trip To The Moon
What many consider to be the first ticketed dark ride, A Trip To The Moon opened in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition, in Buffalo, NY. Its designer, Frederic Thompson, not only flew guests to the Moon in a spaceship, but after landing, guests disembarked the ship and explored the Moon’s surface! The attraction’s finale involved entering an elaborate palace and culminated in a meet and greet with the Man in the Moon.
The attraction was both a dark ride and a walk-through attraction. Its popularity was so great, that some 400,000 guests experienced the ride/walk-through in just a matter of months! A Trip To The Moon became a permanent cornerstone attraction for Luna Park, New York.
The concept of half ride, half walk-through was groundbreaking. I reference this attraction because its influence on park designers is obvious and transmissible.
Walk through attractions like A Trip To The Moon, and The Temple of The Forbidden Eye are tangible adventures that place the guest on a scenic path, and in essence are dark rides without a ride vehicle. The guest becomes the vehicle, the path is the maze they venture through.
Designing My First Walk-Through
I received my MFA in Set Design at the University of California-Davis in 2010. Graduate school was arduous and some of the most difficult years of my life. But the knowledge and design skills I picked up studying under my professor, John Lacovelli was priceless. Almost immediately after receiving my Masters Degree, I began designing for television at ABC and working in art departments on shows like Lincoln Heights and the game show Wipeout.
Television taught me to work “fast and scrappy”. Designs were passed to the production designer and sets were built and filmed on the following day. Design happened overnight and without committee. The work was fast and furious.
During a break from my television work, I interviewed with Walt Disney Imagineering on a big portfolio project that was set to be built in Shanghai, China.
In December, of 2011 I received a call from a production manager (Michelle Malakoff) asking if I would be interested to join her and producer, Doris Woodward in designing a walk-through attraction. The attraction was for the largest Disney castle built to date. It was for the new Shanghai Disneyland Park.
They had been on the lookout for a designer with experience working in television specifically. The castle design package and its drawings were nearly finished, but it still needed an attraction for its third floor space. Time was of the essence and the concept had a short window of approval if it was to be built and installed. I excitedly agreed and said yes. Thus, I began my work on the Enchanted Storybook Castle Walk-through at Shanghai Disneyland for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Enchanted Storybook Castle Walk-through attraction
We kept creative meetings intimate until our concept was approved. After we developed a basic storyline I was then given five weeks to create a concept with a ground-plan that worked for the space as well as storyboards, point-of-view (POV) illustrations, and set breakdowns.
I created over three hundred rough storyboards that encapsulated some five different stories themed around the Disney Princesses. I worked intensively through Christmas 2012. At the five week mark, Doris pitched our final concept to Disney CEO Bob Iger and WDI head Bob Weis. We were approved to build a mock up and prove that we could actually fit my designs into the castle that was already greenlit to be built.
A Full (Human Sized) Scale Model
I know of very few companies that care as much as Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) enough to actually build giant replicas of the attraction concepts they pitch. For an artist or designer, the ability to build out ideas in order to confirm the concept is an incredible thing. Upon approval, my colleague in the Show Set Department (Angel Barron) and I taped out the ground plan on the floor in order to “massage” and perfect it.
I must express for the record that Disney projects take giant teams to finalize designs. Collaboration is how the magic is made and created, period. From television, to traditional theatre, to large budget theme park attractions for Walt Disney Imagineering: It is all based on collaboration. The concepts start with a handful of individuals. In our case, it was literally four of us for several months, to design and “plus” the concept.
Over the course of six months we built a full scale replica of what would be installed in The Enchanted Storybook Castle in Shanghai by 2016. With the help of Sean Noble, and Larry Funk of the Operations team, we determined the numbers of guests that would flow through the attraction on a daily basis.
Incredible lighting was chosen by Jen Goldstein and Ed Ziegler. FX were designed and adjusted by David Allen and the FX teams. R/D crews oversaw the recognition software and technology (Jon Snoddy, Sara Lazor). Also, I would like to recognize Jeff Moskowitz and Michelle Malakoff for all production management of the process. It was intense.
By the first of June, Disney CEO Bob Iger and other members of the Disney Executive Teams greenlit the Enchanted Storybook Walkthrough for official install in China. After some seven very busy months, I remember getting a great night of sleep in celebration. We had been working around the clock, literally.
Hand Illustrated Elevations, Color Models
I was able to bring my brother Luc, aboard the process to illustrate our design elevations. Luc created tight line elevations based on my storyboards and sketches. He also did all the research. His drawings communicated every nuance and stone needed to be able to create a detailed model for the build in the field.
After Luc’s elevations were finished, we crafted a typical white model. The white foam core model was at ¼” scale and mimicked the models I built for TV. I needed to see how well the white model could translate into a full color model. The eventual color model was necessary for me to provide a visual reference to our Chinese counterparts in Shanghai.
The talented team at the WDI model shop crafted dollhouse sized scale models (one inch to a foot) of each scene. Each wall of the models could be accessed by our scenic builders and fabricators.
To explain to a vendor or demonstrate the build of any set, nothing communicates like a tangible model. Doris and I felt the best way to communicate the true beauty of the scenery that guests were to experience, required a dollhouse (inch to one foot) sized color model. Also, because I don’t speak Mandarin, it only made sense to have a color model of the scenery we were constructing. The ability to just show a color model was useful, versus digital models that (at the time) most likely would not effectively communicate the design intent.
The Enchanted Storybook Walk-through Built and Installed.
In 2013, I relocated to China to oversee the construction of the walls and scenery surrounding the the animated effects (FX) and major story pieces. Doug Rogers (production designer for Disney animated features Tangled, and Princess and the Frog) came aboard to art direct the building that took place builds. It was fun working with Doug, whose background in animated film was so vital to the layered animated FX we incorporated into our walk-through attraction.
Once in China, I was able to art direct, show design, and production design all the surrounding walls that accompanied the remaining scenery coming from the United States. Also, I had the the incredible opportunity to work closely with the castle interiors team (the talented David Brickey and my good friend Kelly Harris) who perfected the details of wallpaper, hanging soft goods (princess flags) that married our walkthrough set pieces into the castle itself.
Designing a project from the beginning and creating something from ground up for a Disney park is incredibly fulfilling. By the time I wrapped my tenure at WDI, there were some sixty Disney Imagineers installing the attraction almost full time. It was an impressive feat with many talented designers and artisans working long hours to make deadlines and prep attractions and parks for opening.
In 2017, I returned to Shanghai on a business trip and toured the Enchanted Storybook. It was good to see how well it was being received by the local audience, and to see guests enjoying what we created. It was also a delight to learn that the attraction is consistently in the top four attractions visited in the park. Enchanted Storybook has some of the highest numbers in terms of hourly capacity in Shanghai Disneyland!
*Also special thanks to Olivier, Lisa Stein, Kathleen Duncan, Eric Goodman, Ali Rubenstein, Steve Fu, Nathan McWilliams, Anne Kelly, LeeAnn Popoff, Andrew Sanchez, to name a few. The list of Imagineers is extensive and the work contributed is enormous. I would need another article to keep describing all the work accomplished on this project.
Evermore: A Walk-through Park
In 2016, I toured a studio in Utah. They were pioneering new, virtual-reality (VR) walk-through attraction designs and technology. I met Founder Ken Bretschneider and he walked me through a demo of some of the projects the studio was working on at the moment. Our conversation shifted from VR technology to a real brick and mortar space he had been working on for years. It was then that Ken showed me a massive color model of his vision for Evermore Park.
The model was dotted with castles, Victorian villages, meandering streams, lakes and a fountain show. Ken asked if I’d be interested in helping him build his vision.
Two years later, after months of communication with Ken and CCO Josh Shipley, I joined the Evermore Team as Director of Show Design.
The park had broken ground and was in the process of building the design. Ken and Josh asked me to assemble a team of talented designers, specifically set designers and illustrators to accomplish the visual mission and get us to our opening date.
Between April 2018 and August of that year, we “propped” renaissance tents, carved pumpkins the size of RV’s (complete with a DJ booth). We also designed and installed a mausoleum catacomb and completed the interior design of an old world tavern. We created new attraction signage and park signage. In the props department, we designed and carved twenty-five hundred foam pumpkins, decorated seven acres of space with an additional sixty five hundred real pumpkins. We completed the space by building giant scarecrows, and defining the walk-through path that guests would follow.
Evermore Park has several paths of adventure and between 6-8 themed interiors (depending on season, installed as of 2019) along with supporting set pieces that help propel the story.
The interior sets were designed by Ken Bretschneider and the Show Design team. The designs were executed by members of Team Evermore. We hoped to create industry-competitive spaces that would fit Disney and Universal Studios standards of excellence.
Adventurous pathways lead park guests through the set pieces where they can meet Evermore characters, interact, quest, and continue the magical stories that only Evermore provides.
I must say for the record: I’ve never cared so much about a team and a project as much as I did with Evermore Park. I believe my opinion was shared across the board with my teammates at Evermore Studios. I feel fortunate enough to have had the experience and work alongside, Ken, Josh Shipley, and my fellow Evermore Artisans.
The Walk-through designs and adventures continue
I have now had the opportunity to design, art direct, and install up to nine different walk-through attractions. I am grateful for the projects that I have been a part of and the teammates I have been able to collaborate with. I have learned that nothing gets built and installed without a passionate group of artists and designers.
In summary, exciting walk-throughs are just awesome dark rides without a ride vehicle, that push the limits of design and allow a guest to navigate their own path through the adventure.