This is the toughest time in the history of themed entertainment. I don’t need to itemize the damage. Still, creativity doesn’t stop; people are still imagining and making interactive guest experiences that set the stage for lifelong memories with family and friends. In its 27th year, the Themed Entertainment Association honors that creativity. Here are the worldwide winners, selected for creativity across a range of budgets from tiny to eye-watering. –Cynthia Wisehart
Entrance Experience, St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, St. Louis Missouri, USA
America’s newest aquarium is the centerpiece of a $187 million family entertainment attraction in downtown St. Louis. The Aquarium and other new attractions are housed in the National Historic Landmark train shed at St. Louis Union Station Hotel. The station originally opened in 1894 as the biggest and busiest train terminal in the nation.
The Entrance Experience was cited for crossing the threshold into entertainment design in new and unexpected ways. The Entrance Experience melds fantasy and reality by carefully blending the media art and technology of DE-ŹYN Studios. LED display technology, visual media, an original music score and a virtual train ride attraction transport guests into the immersive world of the aquarium.
DE-ŹYN Studios oversaw the vision and execution of the Entrance Experience working with owners LHM on the creative media work and aquarium designer PGAV Destinations on the undetectable integration of technology into their design.
The Entrance Experience is displayed on DE-ŹYN’s custom 2.7 mm LED display building blocks, which rise from a clock face-style fish tank window to cover the hall’s barrel vault ceiling with a direction change from side to side to forward/back. “We wanted to create a sort of ‘Fantasia’ ballet in the Grand Lobby, a series of three- to five-minute vignettes combining an original music score, sea life, water and natural elements in a very stylized way to immerse visitors in a world of enchantment from the moment they arrive,” says John Miceli, Chief Creative Officer and Founder of DE-ŹYN Studios. “The immersive visuals float around the fish tank wall and up and overhead and behind and over that massive palette created by the architecture,” he notes. An Undersea Station that appears to be 3D to the naked eye and an incredible journey through the galaxy all play a part in the Entrance Experience.”
Qu Yuan, Jingzhou Oriental Heritage Park, Hubei China
This latest of Fantawild’s Oriental Heritage Park brand focuses on the culture of Jingzhou and the ancient Chu state (present-day Hubei province). Using the best of 21st century immersive experience technology, this live event spectacular tells the 2000-year-old story of Qu Yuan, regarded as the father of Chinese poetry. It blends live performers in architectural space with a moving stage, real-time tracking technology, projection and augmented reality to set a new bar for experience design and make history and culture breathe for today’s audience.
Star Wars: Rise of The Resistance, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, FL and Disneyland Park, CA, USA
The mind-blowing Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is simply Disney’s most technologically advanced theme park attraction in existence today. This attraction combines 60 years’ worth of WDI attraction design magic into one seamless, story-driven experience. The level of complexity and engineering are unparalleled and the experience integrates several completely unique ride systems. Dozens of individually complex systems are choreographed seamlessly to produce high capacity and redefine what a major marquee attraction can be. Rise of the Resistance demonstrates how a detailed and legendary IP story can be told not just on a ride, but through a complete system of experiences that add up to much more than just the ride itself. The entire attraction, from front to back, is one massive magic trick that leaves riders gobsmacked.
The Bourne Stuntacular, Universal Studios Florida, Orlando, Florida, USA
This show exemplifies sophistication, imagination, technical achievement and creative application. The creative staging, and dynamic way in which elements are combined – live performers, digital backgrounds, special effects – results in one ‘wow’ moment after another. The synchronous movement of the show action set pieces, and particularly the physical vehicles, is impressive, with unprecedented speed and accuracy in this context. The Bourne Stuntacular raises the bar on the traditional stunt spectacular.
Amazing Pollinators Tour
This cleverly conceived exhibit sparks interest in the natural world and spurs at-home observation of plants and pollinators. Amazing Pollinators provides an astounding magnitude of science and nature education in a cohesive, fun exhibit that engages all ages to play the game, score points, and learn. The analog-style interactive technique is a welcome counterpoint to the media and digital technology that dominate our world.
The Nest, Los Angeles, CA, USA
The future of themed entertainment is intimately linked to the demand for a more immersive, entertaining and authentic dialogue between storyteller and guest, and The Nest delivers. This unique, one-or two-person experience is a theatrical takeover of a large warehouse storage unit, scenically propped and dressed into an exploratory narrative of increasingly mysterious and dream-like hidden rooms, where guests rummage through the personal belongings of the protagonist as they unlock her beautiful, wistful, and powerful story. The Nest combines tenets of a puzzle/escape room with the immersion of an attraction, the emotion of an intimate theatrical performance and the personal agency of an alternate-reality game.
“Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall,” National Geographic Museum, Washington DC, USA
“Becoming Jane” is an emotionally moving exhibit, an insight into the extraordinary life and accomplishments of Dr. Jane Goodall, visionary primatologist and anthropologist. The real strength of the design is in the sense of immediacy and emotional engagement engendered by the experience. It is not only a story about how Jane became Jane-it calls upon each guest to be involved and to care – and in that sense, each person is ‘becoming Jane.’ It is altogether a very rewarding and inspirational experience, delivered with taste and restraint.
Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Orlando, Florida, USA
This new, 21st century attraction is both surprising and mindblowing; it keeps one engaged and delighted throughout the ride, making all guests feel as if they have literally stepped into an animated world in ways never imagined before. With a combination of physical sets, Audio-Animatronics figures, animated media and projection-mapping techniques, all syncing in time with trackless vehicles and a catchy original song and musical score, it turns a two-dimensional cartoon world into an immersive, eye-popping experience.
Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore
Jewel Changi Airport has brought a new travel and leisure experience to passengers of Singapore Changi Airport and to local Singaporeans. The Jewel demonstrates excellence, creativity and innovation in the application of a themed natural environment as part of an airport experience. It actively engages the visitor to become a participant. The multi-sensory experiential arrival, the quality of the integration of the natural and nature-themed environments, and the family-entertainment aspects create a unique, new destination where the guest wants to stay to explore, relax and connect.
D.R.E.A.M. Centre, Chailey Heritage Foundation, Lewes, UK
This high-touch, virtual interactive experience is specifically designed to cater to children of very limited abilities. This includes people with profound mental and physical conditions who cannot move on their own, nor be left on their own – an audience often underserved in more standard environments. Here, through this relatively simple application of adaptable screen technology and projection, they are given specific, careful, loving attention as they are taken through virtual experiences, which they clearly find profound, entertaining, and moving. And that is the highest standard we have.
The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride, Lionsgate Entertainment World, Zhuhai, China
One of the anchor attractions at the new Lionsgate Entertainment World, The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride is a fantastic adventure that is also a multi-rider, multisensory, interactive virtual reality experience – and a major theme park attraction. Guests climb aboard their own motorbikes, each with its own multi-axis motion platform and lightweight, sanitary VR headset. Riders are greeted by Jacob, who introduces them to their mission: to ride out with the wolf pack to combat the vampire newborns prowling the forest. They race off, with each rider in control of their speed and direction, and able to see other riders. All the elements come together in a truly cohesive, compelling and exceptional experience.
Les Quais de Lutèce Hotel, Perc Asterix, France
To stay at Les Quais de Lutèce hotel is to travel 2,000 years back in history. It is a way to walk, shop, dine, and sleep in a detailed replica of a Gaulish village, an immersive experience in the world of Asterix and Obelix. All the architecture is characterized by a high level of concern for detail. On top of the quality and detail of the design, the management of Asterix has given careful attention to the sustainability aspect of the project.
Snorri Touren, Europa-Park, Rust, Germany
The Snorri character, developed for the new water park Rulantica, connects the youngest of guests with ancient Nordic stories in a beautifully lighthearted way, and this new dark ride is a wonderful update and evolution to the classic character-driven family dark ride. The immersive quality of the ride’s highly stylized scenery, combined with its intimate sense of scale, make this an extremely charming and engaging experience. The timeframe to deliver this high-quality attraction is also worthy of recognition; design, fabrication and installation in just over a year’s time is a staggering accomplishment.
Sesame Street: Street Mission, Portaventura World, Tarragona, Spain
With a combination of amazing, lifelike characters; a simple, fun, and engaging storyline; a highly approachable gaming system; and an age-appropriate ride experience; Sesame Street: Street Mission creates a unique family attraction worthy of recognition. It powerfully illustrates how major IP-based attractions can be executed with excellence at theme parks anywhere in the world. After years of wondering exactly ‘how to get to Sesame Street,’ we now know it’s at PortAventura.