Show control for theme park rides: It’s all about the timing
“The key to great storytelling is not just in the content, but in the timing. . .”
— Tom Soranno
He’s a talented ride and show engineer who has played a major role in the show control design of many of the world’s newest and complex theme park rides. Here’s our exclusive interview with Tom Soranno, ride and show engineer with ITEC Entertainment Corporation in Orlando, Florida.
Nate Naversen: Thanks for agreeing to this interview Tom. Just to start off, can you tell us a little bit about your position?
Tom Soranno: Well, as a themed entertainment engineer, I am one of the lead members of a team that takes an entertainment project from the conceptual design and builds it into a working ride or show.
NN: Now just so our readers understand precisely what we are talking about, the creative team (guys like me) will develop a concept from a mere idea to the point where it’s ready to be turned into a real attraction. That’s where guys like you come in. We hand our concept over to the engineering team in order to make it work. The creative team develops the concept, and the technical team makes it all happen.
Tom: That’s exactly right.
NN: And it is quite and undertaking. Will you tell us what goes into creating a themed attraction from your point of view?
Tom: Surprisingly, quite a lot. Much time goes into developing the concept for a new ride or show. Like movies, many of the original ideas never make it into the final design.
NN: Tell me about it! Some of our best ideas end up on the cutting room floor.
Tom: But once a concept is developed, our technical team is assembled. This team tackles the challenge of developing these ideas into a set of plans from which the new attraction can be built. Everything from where the power should enter the facility to how the animatronic figures are going to operate is defined in detail. All of this can take several months.
NN: Will you explain your role on this team?
Tom: Typically, I develop the working plans and drawings needed for integrating the ride and show elements into the attraction, resolve technical issues, coordinate ride and show programming, and ultimately perform functional and safety tests on the show to ensure it meets with the client’s approval.
Tom Soranno designed and engineered the custom Harley Davidson motorcycle that Arnold Schwarznegger “rides” in the Terminator 2 3-D show at Universal Studios Florida.
Getting the motorcycle to explode off the screen and onto the theater’s stage takes the split-second timing of four show computers. Over three thousand hours of design, programming, and testing went into creating it. The result is a special effect that seamlessly blends the movie into the live action.
NN: You mentioned ride and show programming as part of the design process. Tell us more about that.
Tom: The key to great storytelling is not just in the content, but in the timing. When we tell stories theatrically, all of the elements must work together in harmony to do this successfully. We also want our guests to see a quality show each time they visit the attraction, so the attraction must be reliable. To make this possible, most of the major show elements such as lighting, sound, animation, and special effects are controlled by computers. These computers are specially programmed to control show timing down to one-thirtieth of a second.
NN: One-thirtieth of a second is awfully fast. Why is that sort of precision so necessary?
Tom: Well, the average person can notice a one-tenth of a second difference between video and audio events. Just like a movie, a scene in an attraction can be out of sync and the guests may notice our “bad show.” In order to make and keep the show magic, we must control and adjust the timing at a much faster pace in order to keep the show running at the proper speed.
NN: So how long does it typically take to get a ride or show ‘programmed’ for guests?
Tom: Depending on the complexity of the system, it can take a team of programmers several hundred hours to fully program a ride or show. Even more time is needed when safety issues are involved. Most thrill attractions use a number of special effects to give the guests a feeling of adventure and danger.
NN: And your show programming has to make sure the guests have that feeling of danger while remaining completely safe at all times.
Tom: Right, these show elements must be carefully programmed with many safety interlocks so equipment will not be damaged or, worse, a guest or staff member is injured.
NN: Give us an example of programming for a ride. Let’s say your task is to prepare a scene in a flume ride for operation. To help you out, I’ll give you a quick ride concept just off the top of my head. This scene is part of our new imaginary ride: “Miner Jake’s Wacky Adventures.”
The scene takes place in a canyon. As the guest boat floats into the scene, they see the river ends in a huge waterfall. To the left, a rockslide blocks an adjoining canyon where the river once branched. As the boatload of guests approaches the waterfall and certain doom, Miner Jake shouts from the hillside, “Don’t fret, I’ll save y’all. I got plenty o’ dynomite!” Suddenly, a fiery explosion splits the rockslide. Huge pieces of rock splash down just behind the boat drenching the guests. Caught by the current, the guest boat pitches wildly as it is swept through the crevice and down a natural waterslide into the next scene.
NN: What do you think for a quick, 30 second ride concept?
Tom: I couldn’t have done it better myself.
NN: Okay, now it’s your turn. As a ride and show engineer, tell me what it takes to make this scene work.
Tom: First, let’s look at the show elements in the scene. We have:
the miner’s voice (a sound effect), the fiery explosion (pyrotechnics and sound effects), a two-piece rock wall that separates when the explosion takes place, a third rock piece that falls into the water behind the boat, water cannons (to enhance the splash effect of the falling rock), and several water jets (to exaggerate the “sweeping” action of the water and rock the boat as it leaves the scene) NN: Got it. What’s next?
Tom: Now, we have to think about how we will trigger all of these effects. We’ll need a waterproof switch of some sort that will be activated by the passing boat to let the show computer know that the scene should be started. We should also have some way of knowing the position of the boat so we can properly time the water jets to rock the boat and push it down the slide.
NN: And of course there are safety issues you have to remember.
Tom: Exactly. That falling rock lands where the boat just was, so we need at least two ways, redundant ways, to determine if the boat is safely out of the ‘landing zone’ before we trigger the rock to fall. And what about water level? If the water level is too low, the boat may get stuck in the scene, and if it is too high, the boat may not be caught by the underwater guides and drift into the scenic waterfall.
NN: That wouldn’t be good!
Tom: And let’s not forget about the next scene. Since our boat leaves the scene in a free floating waterslide, we need to make sure we have a way to determine if it is safe to release the boat down the slide; after all, another boat may be at the other end. We don’t want our boats bumping into each other. And there is also the pyrotechnic explosion. It has to be impressive but safe.
As you can see, there are many things to consider in just this one scene. You can imagine what the list looks like for a whole ride or show. Much of the time leading up to integration is devoted to answering these questions.
NN: Will you explain more about integration?
Tom: That’s when the show elements are installed in the attraction and most of the on site testing begins.
NN: Explain the integration process.
Tom: Integration typically involves long hours and running on lots of adrenaline.
NN: And caffeine! Reminds me of the weeks of rehearsal before the opening night of a theater show.
Tom: Very much like that.
NN: Explain the programming and testing process for a new ride.
Tom: We start with partial show runs, testing out equipment as it is installed, until all of the major equipment is in place. Then it’s time for the art director to work with the show programmers to make adjustments in the show timing. Then we run shows, and we run shows, and we run shows.
NN: Then what do you do?
Together: We run shows! (laughs)
Tom: We run shows making adjustments as necessary to get the right look and feel to the performance. By this time, most of the project team can recite the entire show script in their sleep. In fact, the team practically lives in the attraction throughout integration and the soft opening of the attraction.
NN: Ahhh the soft opening. That’s the proper way to crack an egg, is it not?
Tom: Not exactly Nathan! The soft opening is when the attraction is opened to a limited public audience to gauge their enjoyment and to make technical and show timing adjustments.
NN: It is very much a dress rehearsal for the attraction, in a way.
Tom: Yes. In fact, some of our clients even refer to them as ‘dress rehearsals’.
NN: What rides and shows have you worked on personally?
Tom: Recently, I’ve worked on special effects for the Terminator 2 3D attractions at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Florida, Jurassic Park River Ride and The Cat in The Hat Ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Florida.
The above photo is an animatronic dinosaur at the Jurassic Park River Ride. Tom Soranno played a key role in programing the Jurassic Park animation at Islands of Adventure, including among others, the “raptors”, the “spitters” and the monstrous “T-Rex” at the climax of the ride.
NN: Can you tell me a little more about yourself and how you got started in themed entertainment?
Tom: I have been interested in themed entertainment since I was young. I remember sitting in front of the television mesmerized by The Wonderful World of Disney movies that aired on Sunday nights.
NN: It seems like we all got our start that way. Don’t you think?
Tom: I looked forward to specials that showed the parks and the animatronic figures. I sketched ideas for rides, and robots, and wrote stories. My talent with computers and stagecraft began to emerge in high school and I knew just what career I wanted to pursue – entertainment engineering.
NN: Sounds like you were really hooked!
Tom: I was. But wanting and getting are two different things, and even magic needs a little planning. So, I went to college at Penn State, and decided to study electrical engineering as my major so I could learn the electronic ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of what it takes to design the things I imagined as a child. On the side, I continued to stay involved in theater and took additional classes in stagecraft and theatrical lighting.
NN: Were you able to get right into ride and show engineering after college?
Tom: No. After college I spent eight years designing and programming automated control systems for manufacturing and traveling throughout the United States. Ultimately, I had the opportunity to work in the entertainment design field when I was offered a position with ITEC Entertainment Corporation in Orlando. The rest, as they say, is history.
NN: It seems like it takes everyone a few good failures before they actually break into the industry. I think I failed in interviews 13 straight times before finally succeeding to landing my first job in themed entertainment design. But in the end, it’s worth it!
Tom: Yes it is.
NN: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to give us a glimpse into the engineering side of imagineering.
Tom: You’re welcome.