Friday, December 5, 2008

Mike's Theme Park Design Manifesto

Attention theme park design industry! I have taken your most precious human resource hostage and will kill him if the following demands are not met in the next 60 seconds or so. You heard me correctly. Comply with the following list or Michael Eisner goes head first into the chipper / shredder. Look at the picture - you can clearly see I have him in my clutches! I know how important he is to you and how much some of you miss his direct leadership so you better take me seriously or else! Behold my manifesto:

These are things I’ve been meaning to get off my chest for a long time regarding some things I feel are basic design flaws (unintentional and sometimes otherwise) in American theme parks (this isn't just about Disney). It’s nothing particularly trailblazing or industry revolutionizing but I figure that my readership here consists mostly of me and my Mom (and few would really stop me from mulching Mr. E anyway) so I can feel free to express my unsolicited opinions with impunity. As a disclaimer, I know all about guest flow, hourly ride capacities, synergy, merchandising product placement, and other miscellaneous practical evils. I worked at WDI long enough to have those necessities hammered into me. This is a list of things that drive me nuts as a guest. Things that I wish there was a way to either eliminate or soften the blow. Maybe one day I’ll get the opportunity to help solve these problems. Until then, I shall rant in no particular order as I fuel up the Binford.


This is such an evil scam to me. On some level, I suppose the idea is to discourage the parking lot from being used for purposes other than for visiting the parks but the reality is that this is the theme park equivalent of “shipping and handling”. It is just a cruel way of tricking unsuspecting guests into giving up more money last minute when they often don’t expect it and have no other choice. The attractions can certainly survive without the revenue or simply make it up with a SLIGHT increase in the ticket prices (since multiple tickets generally equate to a single vehicle). It just irks me that something so clearly hitting below the belt comes from companies claiming to put guest service first.


“Please fill in all available space”. No, dammit. Make the room bigger. There are a few places where this makes sense. A few. For example: the stretch room in Disney’s Haunted Mansion dictates this by necessity of what is happening not because actual space concerns. Outside of these rare situations, there are 2 reasons why this bothers me. Firstly, it should never happen in a queue line. The average American feels a sense of order and security from a place in line. By filling in all available space, this sense of order is disturbed and suddenly jockeying for position starts to take hold. Instead of enjoying the experience, the experience becomes a minor threat or challenge. The goal of these attractions should never be to create stress, no matter how small. And secondly (speaking of stress), filling in all available space in a static environment like a preshow or waiting area creates a cattle pen sensation that is naturally unpleasant and shouldn't require explanation. Regardless of your personal level of hygiene, everyone visiting a theme park stinks by lunch. We don’t want to squeeze together in tight spaces.


Synergy. I get it. Everything has a tie-in these days. Merchandising is king. Profits are good. Profits do keep the park open. However, not every new attraction has to exit into a store. It’s tacky and it really messes with traffic flow, especially on rainy days when nobody wants to go outside. Maybe a compromise? Can we exit into the side of a store with a semi-clear path out but have a view that may still entice us with shiny, pricy, candy-like, melamine-tainted goods? That way there is a choice to exit or stay instead of feeling like the lapbar goes up and we are ejected face-first into the nearest plush mountain fixture.


This is something I saw only once and it was at a park that is closed now but it was so offensive to me that it’s going on the list. NEVER split a land in half. Astroworld in Houston, TX had a land called Oriental Village. It literally had a wall built right down the middle of it that split it in half. The wall looked vaguely like the Great Wall of China and had a gate in it that remained closed most of the year (except peak days). On the guide maps, it looked like one continuous land and it was not uncommon to see bewildered and frustrated guests standing on either side of this gate yelling at park employees about it being closed. So what was the deal? By closing the gate, guests were forced to walk all the way around through another land called Nottingham Village. Aside from one small coaster, Nottingham was home to most of the park’s midway games... a huge profit center.


It amazes me that the same companies that are so good at creating state of the art queue line experiences for their attractions can’t seem to create even the simplest proper queues for fast food locations and shops. During peak meal times, lines in most food locations are closer to mob scenes even up to the registers. It’s not always clear how the line system is supposed to work. At major shops, especially at closing time, lines for the registers are equally confusing and almost like battle lines. It seems like both of these situations might be mitigated with some line distinction. Maybe some stanchions? Even temporary ones during peak times? Just saying...


This is typically not something done in the design process. It usually results from parks being modified over time... but it still causes suck. Dead ends. Nothing causes a clusterflock of tourists faster than a dead end. If you want to see an awesome example of how bad this can get, go to Splash and Thunder Mountains at Walt Disney World. Again, this wasn’t done intentionally and they’ve made attempts to relieve the stress but the traffic patterns are still pretty messed up.


Alien Encounter at the Magic Kingdom park was a personal favorite of mine. For the record, I like it’s replacement too but that isn’t where I’m going with this. Alien (and it’s predecessors for that matter) represented something fairly rare with some of the bigger name players like Disney and Universal (and to a lesser degree Six Flags). Original material or content created specifically for that attraction. I love all the attractions these companies have created based on movies and existing characters but I’d like to see more original work being created. There have been some wonderful gems when they do it. Islands of Adventure, Tokyo Disney Seas, and Disney’s California Adventure all contain great examples. However, these great attractions tend to arrive with new parks. It would be nice to see the old parks get a couple of original pieces once in a while (and I mean other than Epcot).


This is pretty simple. People don’t want to go into a theater, even a short preshow theater, only to discover that they can’t sit down. It is cruel to say, “thanks for standing in line all this time in order to keep standing”. And you can’t sit on the floor? Are you making fun of us? The safety thing does make sense. There is the issue of tripping and being stepped on. Benches! A token gesture really. Oh, and “leaning rails”. This torture device is a fixture of the Circle-vision theater. It looks like you can sit on it, but you better not. Just endure. Again, I realize the idea is to be able to look all around you but my torso and neck are relatively flexible. Again, I say... benches. Help a brother with beat feet out.


Once upon a time, I was a collector of a wonderful space eating monstrosity known as the theme park wall map. Both Disney and Six Flags (and others) produced huge cartoon “Where’s Waldo”-like incarnations of their park maps. Each year, they’d release a new version and often they would even include little hidden scenes and vignettes among the depictions of the rides. They were like time capsules. And did I mention they were huge! I have a bunch of these and I love them all. Alas, I can’t find them anymore. This is a lost art and I wish they’d bring it back.


Every major food location should have restrooms. All input produces output. This is simple biology or am I the only one that took that class? Anyway, it really bothers me when the answer to the question, “where is the restroom?” starts with, “exit the restaurant and go...”. No, wrong! This is a violation that happens in casinos (which I see as an extension of the theme park industry) a lot but I’ve seen it happen in the parks to a lesser degree as well. Don’t make me put down a newspaper and scare the other patrons. You know I will.

OK, I’m done now. Please feel free to tell me how I’m wrong. I’m ready to be debated. Just know that you are too late and the blood of your leader is making my roses grow right now...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The City of Sin and Family Fun

I saw a lady puking in the Mirage parking garage last night and it got me thinking. I really miss the old Vegas. No, I’m not speaking of the typical Rat Pack and “holes in the desert” Vegas. I’m talking about Disneyland for grown-ups AND their kids.

I moved here the first time at the end of 1993 to open the MGM Grand Adventures theme park. At that time, all the hotels were trying to be theme parks. It was great for me. There were rollercoasters everywhere, a giant pyramid filled with simulators and detailed theming, an entire hotel that was like Pirates of the Caribbean 2.0 (with a freakin’ ship that sank!), the very first and only Cirque permanent show, a Roman mall replete with animatronic laser shows and magic caverns, and a chance to beam aboard the Starship Enterprise. It was theme park nerd heaven.

Despite the fact that Vegas is a relatively small and historically young city, I think it has had more facelifts than just about any other. You are hard pressed to find any original parts. Name any other city that the average person has heard of and you can find it still contains elements from it’s past. In Vegas, that is predominantly relegated to archival photos. I’ve now experienced it firsthand.

I spent 4 years here, gained a wealth of experience in my industry, and found the love of my life. Then I ran off to Florida to chase my dreams for a bit (bit = decade). So here I am, back in the city 10 years later and the atmosphere is different. It doesn’t even look the same. It’s not bad but I do miss the old version. Now the rollercoasters are falling apart, the pyramid is filled with Criss Angel, the pirate ship still sinks (but it is caused by bad lip-syncing instead of cannons), there will soon be 7 Cirque shows here (not a complaint), the Roman mall has gone “high end”, and the Enterprise was recently decommissioned.

The current vibe of the city is nightclubs. Guys in carefully untucked “going out” shirts with girls wearing minimized dresses and maximized heels rule the strip right now. Loud music, lots of booze, and pretty clones in various VIP lines with velvet rope. The main side effect is the aforementioned puking in the parking garage. The secondary effect is the homogenization of the city. Everything is going high end club culture and anything remotely unique in appearance is being flattened into the same marble floor and wood panel with tangerine accents “look”. Seriously, when did the ugly furniture that your parents finally threw out in 1979 become hot again?

OK, I’ll stop now since this sounds more ranty than I actually want it to be. I’m just feeling nostalgic again. I know I’m in the minority and I clearly don’t know what is best for making money in this city but I swear there is a market for people like me. We don’t want to puke in the garage – we want to experience warp speed, dammit!