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Is it worth getting into this weird little clique? Would you be happier with the cash from the big airport job instead? The players in a themed entertainment


Feb 1, 2001 12:00 PM,

Is it worth getting into this weird little clique? Would you be happier with the cash from the big airport job instead?

The players in a themed entertainment project aren’t too difficult to figure out, but managing the relationships with each can be a little tricky.

In the end, honesty and a proactive nature tend to count for just as much as price. Build some good projects and some solid relationships, and the work will keep coming.

A NUMBER OF YEARS BACK, A friend of my mom gave me some advice as I contemplated proposing marriage. He said that if I had any doubts, if anyone could talk me out of it — let them do it. Marriage was only for those who were so crazy in love that they couldn’t imagine any other choice. While it was really good advice then (really good in retrospect), it’s still pretty good advice now with regard to getting into themed entertainment.

A lot of companies fail in the themed entertainment sector. A lot of big corporations dip a foot in the pool and lose a few toes before they can pull it out again. If you’re out to increase the bottom line, as defeating as it may sound in an article on themed entertainment, there are probably better ways to do it. Get yourself the contract to do the entire audio and video monitor swap-outs at your regional airport. Better yet — talk the guys at Foot Locker into letting you put a new videowall in every store. Or put hard-disk-recording-based security systems into all the Circle K™ stores in the Southeast Region. These contracts can make you rich. There is no guarantee that themed entertainment will do that for you, but if it’s an itch you just have to scratch, let me tell you a little about it.

As with a marriage, even if you’re crazy for your intended, you’re going to have to deal with all the in-laws. Part and parcel to each project is a typical cast of characters. The players in a themed entertainment project aren’t too difficult to figure out, but managing the relationships with each can be a little tricky.

The Cast of Characters


PROJECTS DON’T RUN ON GOOD INTENTIONS. THERE HAS GOT TO BE CASH BEHIND THE VENTURE. If the project is a museum or the like, the money often comes from a mix of public and donated funds. There may be lots of players, and most will have some say in how the money is spent. Fun centers, themed restaurants and semi-commercial ventures often have private money backing them. In a theme park environment, it’s the parent corporation that’s footing most of the bill, but there could be corporate sponsorship involved, too. If Mattel is the sponsor, that probably won’t have a huge impact on the technical vendors; but if Panasonic, SGI or JVC come to the table, you will need to accommodate their technical (and political) agendas.


THESE ARE THE POOR SOULS THAT ARE GOING TO LIVE WITH THIS INSTALLATION FOR YEARS TO come. They have to keep the guests flowing through, day in and day out. They have to keep the paint looking fresh and maintain the systems you intend to install. A lot of the team members on a themed entertainment project have been in these guys’ shoes at one time or another. If you haven’t been, you may have a hard time appreciating what they go through. Remember: The money that’s made on tickets and soft drinks doesn’t line these guys’ pockets, but if the numbers fall, it’s their jobs on the line.

It is important to know that if they hate what you’ve done with the systems, they will find a way to change it. They certainly won’t have as high a budget as you did, and in a lot of cases they may choose to “simplify” systems in the end. It may not be right, could look or sound awful, or could make the designers wish they had never been involved on the project once they’ve seen the outcome. Rest assured that if the operators want to change things, they will find a way no matter how limited their budget or their understanding of the system.

You need to match equipment to both their needs and abilities. There is no sense in putting a mixing console into a system when the operations department is going to hire one guy who works with a garden hose as his primary tool of choice. (Yes, a client has warned me of exactly this situation — I only wish I were joking.)

Furthermore, you may have an attraction at a theme park that is going to adapt over time. It may be updated and re-themed several times. The mix of technologies in a long-lived attraction like “Pirates of the Caribbean” can range from original components to prototypes that the park is evaluating for future use.

Therefore, it’s wise to allow for a little fiber to get routed through the slab in the beginning and to ensure that the audio system can both slave to and generate timecode on its own. The occasional spare channel or cardslot in a system may well come in handy in the future; and if it’s you that has to visit the site three days before grand opening because someone (probably the financier) has decided that Doc Brown’s voice should be playing in the exit hallway, you might just be the one to benefit from your own foresight.


EVERYBODY HATES A SMARTASS, and guess what this guy’s job is. If the job is to build a simulator ride in China or a 120-foot (36.6m) kinetic toy in a casino, odds are that the financier and the operator are treading on virgin ground. These guys are putting a lot of faith into the designers, the architects and you; but they didn’t get to where they are without stacking the deck a little just to make sure. Ideally, an owner’s rep will be the catalyst to bring all the teams together and give the owner confidence in the project. It’s the rep’s job to ride herd over the contractual parties and make sure the owner is getting the best value and form from the project as a whole.

It’s also their job to sit down with the clients from time to time and have them rethink some of their priorities, too. The rep’s goal is to make sure the clients are happy on opening day and for at least a few months thereafter. If the job goes well, the rep will receive ample credit. If the job goes poorly, it will all be the fault of the operations and marketing people — and probably you, too.


THE DESIGNER’S ROLE AND POSITION varies from situation to situation. Sometimes, this is a staff department that works for the owners, as in the case of some big theme park projects. Occasionally, it can actually be a vendor who supplies systems, as is often the case in large-format theaters or architectural firms. Or it can be a themed entertainment design firm like yours.

In all likelihood, it’s the designer that has cooked up the plan that you get to work on. They have worked out some of the technical issues involved with producing the project. Like the owner’s rep, these guys are also important long-term contacts, and you may well be hired through them.

Production and installation contracts are routinely awarded either directly by the owner with the oversight of the owner’s reps, or more often by the designers of the project. In some cases, you may have contracts and pass-throughs with both, particularly once you look at extended service agreements.

When you get to the production meeting, it is the owner’s rep that will be pounding you for schedule and change orders, but it is the designers that will be telling you to make it right — no matter what the cost. in the door, hoping to make it up on the next job, but next time the budget might be tighter. One-time deals usually work best between old friends, not new relationships.

In the end, honesty and a proactive nature tend to count for just as much as price. Build some good projects and some solid relationships, and the work will keep coming.

I’m not aware of a strong program in theme park design at any state university. No one in my graduating class ever said that it would be really cool to build dark rides or museums. Most of us in this business stumbled into it. We are former aspiring magicians and filmmakers, Architecture and Industrial Design students who strayed off their paths, and even a few A/V and theater tech nerds like me who lucked into their first project in this industry with little fanfare or recruitment. In general, we were all looking for a paycheck and just nabbed a weird little project to pass the time before our next big career move and got trapped by the magic of it.

If you’re going to try this yourself, you need to understand the process of a “typical” themed entertainment project. A word of warning: It is very likely that no project has actually followed the precise progression that follows. Some of them loop around the phases a few times and many projects never actually get built. I meant to come up with a textbook example of a project of mine that followed the format “to a T” and use it as an example, but it’s never been quite that simple. Nevertheless, your basic scenario goes something like this:


WHILE THE DESIGNERS PRODUCE blueprints, sketches and an endless stream of faxes, somebody has to make sure the street-level lines up with the loading docks and prove it to the satisfaction of the city, the state and a few hundred miscellaneous inspectors. Traditionally designers deal with functional and aesthetic issues, but they don’t get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of getting a fully developed building down on paper — and they aren’t supposed to. The architect serves as a liaison between the owner and the GC, as well as between the trades and the designers.

A good architect will make sure the lines and flow come together into a truly functional building that melds seamlessly with the themed elements in and around it. A great architect gets that done and makes sure everyone is talking the same language. He coordinates the conflicts out of the project before the concrete is poured. A vendor may have very little direct contact with the architect, but an understanding of how the architect gets his or her job done is critical to any job where you want to succeed.


THIS ONE IS easy. There may be a few union issues to work out, and maybe you have to strike a deal or two on the side. But if you do your job right, you’ll rarely have a lot to say to these guys, which is good for them because they are usually too busy to chat anyway. Just don’t borrow a ladder without asking.


THIS IS THE PART YOU ARE GOING for. To do so, you are going to need to figure out if you are a good fit for the project. If you think your team is perfect for every job, then you’re not really perfect for any of them. Given the diversity of project players, goals and personalities, no company can possibly be perfect for every project. It’s far better to be right for a specific one. A lot of successful vendors have been hurt badly by taking on projects too big for them or have lost good relationships because the project was too small.

If the project looks right for you, then I offer one tip: Turn in a fair bid. Don’t bid low and plan on making it up with change orders. In the worst case, you lose the job, and the guy who beats you out loses money or does a rotten job. Next time, you’re in a better position either way. You can always bid low to get your foot


The first spark of life in a project happens when the need and the ability to produce a project come together. Some ideas are thrown around, and it becomes clear that it’s time to figure out what the project needs to be. Consultants are hired and finally come together for the “Design Charette” (rhymes with quartet).


A brief affair, this phase usually lasts a few days at the most. Designers, consultants and the client all come together for a brainstorming session. The goals of the project are set, and the crucial question is answered: How do we want to affect the audience? The brainstorm then moves on to the possible ways of achieving that primary goal. The initial efforts take a “blue sky” approach, where no idea is deemed too impractical or outlandish; what’s important is to catalog all the possibilities.

During the second phase of a Charette, reality creeps in a bit and the ideas are viewed in terms of their practical limits and evaluated against WAG pricing (this stands for “wild-assed guess”) that may be thrown about to see who flinches. Eventually, after some fiddling, a preferred possibility is developed.

At this point, the designers get free reign to sketch floor plans, diagrams and quick renderings depicting the apparent decision, which is then re-evaluated and updated. This is a rapid process filled with deli sandwiches and bad coffee — but at the end, everyone has combined their expertise and come to a consensus, which is often published as a Charette Report for the client to mull over for a while and perhaps show around.

The Play


Once the client is convinced that the project has a direction, the concept development phase begins. During concept development, rough story lines are developed, more advanced artwork is produced, and the technical designers get to give a few minutes of input on facility impacts and Rough Order of Magnitude budgeting. Against a course of progressive client reviews, the concept gets fleshed out until it resembles a presentable idea.

Here lies the final resting place of many projects. Only a small percentage of the final budget has been spent to this point, and perhaps as little as a few weeks has passed since the very beginning. The concept package is typically used to convince the rest of the financiers or the board of directors/patrons of the project that funding is going to go for something worthwhile. The commitment to move on to Design Development is a big one, and it sometimes takes months or years. This is a good time to look for another project, or maybe get an Icee down at the Circle K™ and check out their surveillance cameras.


Holy Swiss! The project has passed GO, and there is a cool $200 (or a bit more in some cases) on the table to move forward with the project. This is the point that the architect, who may have attended the Charette, starts paying attention. Now is when the designers get paid to work it all out for real. Sometimes preferred vendors (your name here?) get a consulting fee to review concepts and help prepare budgets.

This phase can take as long as the upcoming production phase. It ends with a set of detailed drawings that contain all the information needed to start the construction document phase getting turned over to the architect. All designs, scripts and scopes are worked out. And the client gets the first really good look at the budget realities when the designer turns over production budgets. In some cases, these will be the basis for a production contract, or sometimes it’s a progress report to upper management and just means the designers get to keep their jobs on staff.


Despite best efforts to cross every T, there are now a lot of questions coming back from the architect, and there may just be a shortage of people to answer them. The preferred vendors are off working on jobs with billable hours, and the designers are vying to have their next Charette proposal accepted — yet they all have to answer questions.

The electrical engineer wants to make sure that all equipment will actually be running at the same time. The architect is confirming that there really is a good reason to be using carpet tile. Finally, the client calls to ask if maybe there is a way to work dolphins into the show because a new sponsor is willing to throw some big money into the project to make themselves look globally benevolent.

Midway through this phase, the architect will drop a bomb and point out that the idea of using that cool aluminum ceiling system they insisted on is going to drive the budget through the roof. Then (choose one) a big-shot themed entertainment CEO, the Governor, Hitachi Corporate Affairs or the family that invented Chiclets is giving an extra $5 million to fund a covered reception area for nursing mothers to wait under so they don’t have to stand in line. So with a few changes and quick consultations, the architect pulls together a package to send out to bid with the various GCs.


Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, a project manager and a few consultants or designers gaze wearily upon a stack of Requests for Proposal ready to go out to the vendors. They argue that they promised themselves that they would just modify the RFP formats they used last year on the Tampa project, but somehow a different design always calls for more tweaking than anybody wanted. Invariably, the conversation turns to who is on the bid lists: “We have to include the vendors who helped us with the budgeting and plan checks,” or “How about so-and-so who’s in Orlando now working for those guys who screwed up the Six Flags install?”

This is where you — the show systems vendor — finally come into play. Do you have a good reputation? Are your guys in the field good at troubleshooting? Will they work for a fixed bid, or do you prefer to work on T&M? If you have done your homework, you’ll be more likely to get onto the list.

Once you are there, you really shine, of course. (You’re going to have to lay off three of your shop guys in April if you don’t get this contract.) So you read through the package the first day that you get it. You submit a list of thoughtful questions (Requests for Information) and some options to run by the project manager. You get permission to turn in two bids — one for Plan A and one for a cheaper Plan B — both in the format prescribed in the RFP. You even get to Kinkos three hours before FedEx® so the responses can be spiral-bound. Just before sealing the envelope, you decide to drop in that certificate of insurance — just to show the PM that you already meet the coverage requirements for the project. And then it’s off.


It’s a month later and the contracts are signed. You probably had to get a lawyer to look at some of the verbiage because there was a lot of generic stuff that didn’t really apply in the attachments — but you’re on your way.

You build the racks. You visit the site and look at where the walls are really going up. Finally, you cycle test and burn in the systems — get everything working together flawlessly — then take it all apart and put it back in the boxes. There is no way you’re going to ship with everything installed in the racks, so you bundle up boxes, maybe even fill a few crates, and meet the Consolidated Freightways truck at the back dock at 2 p.m.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team has been busy at work. The designers are taking final measurements before ordering the graphic panels. The lighting designer has been on-site working with the electrician on the locations of the ceiling fans. A couple of guys from San Francisco call you every couple of days as they finish up the media because they need to confirm the sampling rates for the servers. You can feel it. All hell is about to break loose.


The concept behind dust free is that the GC has all the walls sealed up and painted. The carpet is laid and all the panels are energized. The J-boxes are all labeled, and a guy named Hank is balancing the HVAC systems and swapping out the construction filters. Nobody expects the place to be finished, there may be whole areas of the building that are still under construction. There may not even be much pavement or concrete around the building, but dust free should mean clean and ready with no major disruptions. Sometimes it even actually works out this way.


With lots of ladders and wires hanging from J-boxes everywhere, everybody just wants to get their stuff in and get out. For a show systems vendor, that’s not always easy. There will be lots of programming, a few last minute changes and a late FedEx® or two from those guys in San Francisco.

The big trick here, of course, is coordination. Odds are pretty good that the install is not only far enough away from your home base that your crew is staying in hotels, but it’s also just as likely that they are time zones away. Your crew needs to find the most efficient path through the maze of site closures, coordination with other trades and emergency runs to Home Depot or RadioShack. At the same time, they must work hand-in-hand with the home office to keep the shipments, documentation and personnel coming to and from the site in a way that’s going to keep the whole operation moving — and in the black.

Every installation has its unseen hardships: customs delays, weather, union snarls, impossible deadlines and frustrated spouses back home. If you are not willing to take your team on the road, this should send up a red flag. You can’t expect to find a lot of themed entertainment work in your own backyard, even if your backyard is Orlando or Las Vegas. The companies that have made a name for themselves work globally.


Don’t expect the job to be done when your stuff works. The nature of themed entertainment is integrated components. Blending technology with scenics and media, and often performance, is all part of the job. As all the individual pieces come online, there is a great and horrible moment when an attraction begins to take on a life of its own.

Just because everything looks good on paper doesn’t mean it’s really going to integrate properly. Some problems remain hidden for weeks, months or longer. Like it or not, nearly every component you install has aesthetic impact as well as technical. In many cases, there is also the issue of Life Safety. During the Cycle Testing phase, all the components end up getting tweaked to operate together as a whole system. Everything has to be consistent, predictable and maintainable — and it needs to be a good show.

This is the time to tweak the systems, document everything for the client. Train their staff to carry on with the ongoing maintenance and care of this attraction.

The adjustments, improvements and tweaks made during this phase make the difference between a good job and a great one. It reflects not just on you but on everyone on the job (which is the greatest marketing boost you could ever get). If the scenic company, the designer, the liquid nitrogen guy and the lighting designer all come off looking good, they’ll be your best allies in getting the next job.


What’s more fun than a barrel full of monkeys? Opening the doors and letting guys with dark socks and bermuda shorts in the front door. Until now, whatever you have been building has been a source of income for some, frustration for others. It wasn’t built for you, though. This is themed entertainment.

With any luck, the first few thousand people who get through the half open doors are going to show you why this is a fun business. At the very least, they will show you how unpredictable it can be.

About two years ago, I opened a show in Florida. Much to everyone’s amazement, the audience passed right through the first little theater, through the rest of the building and out the exit. We realized that in an environment with Imax theaters and huge attractions, the guests were looking for something big, not quirky and fun; so they just kept running for that good seat somewhere up ahead.

Like busy little elves, we went in that night and put up a small sign telling the audience to be seated on the benches and wait for the program to begin. The next day, three out of four groups sat down and watched the show; but many still missed the little sign.

The next night, we installed and programmed a light to shine directly on the sign. We guessed that no one would miss it now, and we were correct. The audiences filed in, read the sign on the back wall and sat down on the benches to wait for the show to begin. Of course, when the show began they were all facing the sign at the rear of the theater, so it still wasn’t really what we had in mind.

The point is this: There is no way to predict, no matter how many years you’ve been in the business, exactly what will happen next. As you make the final changes, you finally get some perspective as to what this business is about: affecting people in some way. If you’ve done it right, it’s the effect everyone was hoping for that first day of the Design Charette.


No one expects that they will actually get stuck on-site constantly during soft opening, but between the watching and the work, the time really sneaks up on you. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself in Reno the morning of the grand opening with nothing in your hotel room but jeans and boots.

That’s why these events always find me sipping champagne in front of the attraction at the designated hour, wearing a jacket or suit that was hanging in the local men’s store window two hours before. (I’m convinced that if I could get the whole team to show up at that fine Reno haberdasher en masse, we could command a healthy group discount.)

The evenings take on the tone of a high school graduation as you watch the project you’ve toiled over for the past months or years move off and away on its own. The maintenance team in their pressed, blue uniform shirts have her now — you can only hope that you’ve done your job well.


Here’s a little point of contention we may as well put on the table now. The industry is going to expect a 1-year warranty on your work and the hardware that you provide, but there are a few caveats here, too. First of all, that year is probably going to start from the night of the grand opening. In some cases, the equipment will have been in use for months, or longer, before that takes place. Delays in opening and use of the equipment during mock-ups or testing can add a substantial period of liability to the project — but that’s part of the larger cost of doing business. The good news is that troubles will likely work themselves out in the first month or two anyway, and most of them will be related to operator error, right?

You will likely be required to maintain records and certain levels of insurance for the warranty period as well. Maybe I should have mentioned this back in the contracts and RFI info above, but hopefully you have been reading ahead rather than following along as your project develops. Good documentation can save you a boatload of trouble during the warranty period, and good support can actually more than pay for itself — if you know the last good trick.


Once the warranty period has ended, your direct obligation is over — but the opportunities aren’t.

In many of the corporate environments that govern themed attractions, there are wonderful loopholes that benefit the vendor even after the job seems done. Budgets are set aside for both the operations staff and external vendors to come in from time to time as well. I’ve been able to provide ongoing support with a number of former clients just because it’s sometimes cheaper for me to come in and do periodic maintenance or updates for them than it would be for their own staff to do it on overtime. You’ve had over a year to get to know the clients and the other production teams on the project. That time and the relationships you build are the greatest profit anyone takes away from any of these jobs. The ongoing maintenance agreements with the operations group, the alliances you have built with the designers and the good word-of-mouth the other vendors on the project can spread for you are the real key to, and one of the truest tests of, success in the close-knit themed entertainment market.


So, there are the players and a look at the program. If it seems strange to you, keep in mind that this market thrives on those very aspects that differentiate it from others. If my overview seems a little oddly put, please understand that I’m a product of the industry that I love. Is it worth getting into this weird little clique? Would you be happier with the cash from the big airport job instead?

Themed entertainment at its best is about putting people into one end of a box and having them come out the other end a little happier, a little smarter or a little more excited than they were when they went in. It’s about the rush of a roller coaster. It’s about that moment when you find yourself responding emotionally to an experience. It’s about building wonder in a schoolchild who never knew that Abe Lincoln was actually a neat and quirky guy. It’s called “Good Show.”

Once you’ve stood around the exit door of something you’ve built and experienced the smiles, laughter, and a kid and his dad in bermuda shorts wildly postulating about what just happened in that dark room, you know there’s no going back.

Tom Tait is a project manager/show systems manager with BRC Imaginations Arts in Burbank, California, a company specializing in design and production of themed entertainment and immersive experiences. The only thing he loves more than his job is the woman he did eventually marry and the entertaining little bundle they produced together.

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