Theme Park Master Planning


Peter Alexander

Totally Fun Company

So you want to build a theme park?

What do you do? Where do you start? How about taking some cool rides, and putting them together with some good restaurants, fun stores and pretty landscaping? Well, you can do exactly that, and some people have, but if you want to make your theme park work you'd better do some master planning.

The Numbers Game

If you want to build a theme park, the safest place to start is by doing a feasibility study. This study will tell you what kind of market your park will draw upon, what kind of attendance you can expect, and therefore how big to make the park. Now, this is sort of a Catch 22, because unless you have some idea of the type and quality level of the attraction you plan to build, you can't really pin down how many people will visit it. But given that you have some general idea of what you want to do, a good feasibility study can narrow down the parameters about what you should plan.

There are a million formulas we use when we do these studies, but at the end of the day, they all boil down to one number: The Design Day. To calculate the Design Day, you have to figure out how many people will be coming to the park during a day in peak season, and how many of them will actually be in park at the peak time of day. That number basically tells you how big to make everything-from the size of the walkways to the size of the parking lot. It tells you how many "entertainment units" (i.e. ride, show and game capacity per hour) you need to plan, how many restaurants and stores you'll need, and just about everything else, except maybe how big to make Mickey Mouse's ears.

The money guys will use this feasibility study to help them figure out if you are going to make a buck on the park, or go broke. There are two key factors here: your total attendance per year, and the per capita income you can expect from each guest. A lot of this depends on what kind of attractions you have, and how long you can entertain the guests. At a big theme park, like the Magic Kingdom or Universal Studios, there's more to experience than you can do in one day, so you can charge more for a ticket, and people will spend more on food and merchandise because they stay longer. At a small park, it works the other way.

Even considering all the science and statistical formulas we use, a feasibility study can only provide an educated guess at how big to make your park. For example, at Universal Studios, Florida, despite the fact that the park had a "rough opening," it exceeded the highest feasibility study attendance projection in the first year, and just kept growing from there. That is to say, more people came than we projected in our wildest imagination! What that meant for the park guests is there were some long lines at first. These exceeded our wildest expectations as well. For example, I had designed the E.T. ride with a pleasant indoor queue themed like a pine forest, but the actual lines stretched well outside the building. Our quick response to that was to improve the queue line experiences with videos, bigger shade structures, and live entertainment, but from a master planning point of view, so long as you leave space for the queues, you are pretty well covered.

The Theme

A "Real Theme Park" needs a theme, which is a funny thing to say, but have you ever noticed that a lot of the places we call "theme parks" don't have much of a theme at all? That's because a lot of them are not really theme parks, they are just amusement or thrill ride parks with some pretty scenery stuck in between giant iron rides that look like Martian machines from The War of The Worlds. For this discussion, we are going to stick to "Real Theme Parks," a term which describes Disney, Universal, many of the Busch parks, and certain others such as De Efterling in Holland.

Sometimes you start with a theme, and sometimes you evolve one over time.

For example, at Universal Studios Florida, we started with the theme that we were a working movie studio. Thus, when you arrive at Universal, the first thing you do is walk through the "studio gate." Now it so happens that the original Universal Studios in Los Angeles never had a studio gate. To get on to the Universal lot, you just drove past a guard shack and waved at a guard named "Scotty." However, since Scotty passed away, we decided to "borrow" the Paramount Studio main gate for Universal, Florida, and a replica (somewhat improved) of that is what is there today.

The rest of Universal in Florida follows the layout of a standard studio. Once you enter, you are on the "front lot," which looks like a bunch of sound stages. Some of them are real, and some happen to be rides cloaked in "sound stage themed" (i.e. concrete box) buildings. But if you turn right on to Hollywood Boulevard, like most people do when they enter a theme park, you find yourself on the Back Lot, an area themed to look like the exterior shooting sets of a movie studio. If you walk behind a set, as you often do when you are standing in line for a ride, you'll see the structure that holds it up-unlike Disneyland-because that's what you see when you walk behind the façade of a shooting set in Hollywood. It's all Movie Magic at Universal, and everything in the park flows from that theme.

In other cases, you might end up "finding" your theme after you've been in the design stage for awhile. One example of this is Disney's EPCOT. Walt wanted to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, that is, a working city showcasing future technology. But by the time I arrived at Disney in 1979, that theme had morphed into what it is today: a permanent World's Fair.

It doesn't matter how you get to the theme. It might evolve, like EPCOT or be someone's brainchild, but however you get there the theme determines everything else that you do. And why? Because, as our Executive Art Director at Disney, John Hench, used to say, if you are a real theme park, you cannot have "visual contradictions." What Mr. Hench meant, basically, is that if you are standing on a 19th century Main Street, you can't have Space Ships landing in front of you, it ruins the experience, and your theme provides you with the guidance to make these kinds of design decisions.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but we will get to that in our next section, park layout.

Park Layout

When people think of Master Planning, a lot of them think of how the park is arranged, which is what we call "park layout."

There are as many ways to lay out a park as there are designers who do it, but a few have been used more often than not, so we'll touch on those first.

The Disney approach, seen in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, is what could be called the Icon Design Philosophy. The big Icon for Disney is the Castle at the end of Main Street, and that is also the one "visual contradiction" in that park-as there aren't a lot of fairytale castles at the end of most American Main Streets. That visual contradiction is designed to "pull" you down Main Street, and that's basically what the Icon Design Philosophy does-it provides you with big, visual landmarks that pull you through the park. Once you enter Tomorrowland, for example, you'll see Space Mountain, which is located at the back of that "land" and pulls you to that point. The other Icons, the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain work the same way, and they also help you figure out where you are in the park. If you see Big Thunder ahead of you, then Frontierland must be that way.

Probably the most popular park layout is the "loop" which was first developed by Randy Duell for Six Flags Over Texas, and can be found in more theme parks than any other kind of plan. The "loop" is exactly what it sounds like, a big promenade that circles the park. The good thing about it is that you never get lost, because you are always somewhere on the loop, so if you want to find the exit, just keep on walking. The bad part comes when you decide that the next ride you want to experience is on the other side of the park, and then you have a trek in store to reach it.

Beyond these layouts, there are dozens of others, notably the Universal Studios front lot/back lot plan, and then a whole lot of "I kept growing and growing so this is how I turned out" plans. Those are the places you get lost in, unless the directional graphics are really good.

But no matter what kind of plan you end up with, what really matters most to the guest is how much fun they are going to have, and that is determined by your "attraction mix."

The Attraction Mix

This is your big decision: what kind of attractions are you going to offer, and at what level of quality and professionalism?

Part of this depends on your competition, and just how good you need to make the park to be the best in its area. For example, today, Universal Studios and particularly in Florida, is known for it's high tech, story oriented rides. But, if the Disney company hadn't beaten Universal to the punch and opened their MGM Studio Tour before Universal's in Orlando, none of those rides would have ever been there.

Universal had planned an upgraded version of their California tour, with a front lot "walking tour" with shows for entertainment, and a super-duper version of the Tram Tour on the back lot. In fact, before we opened Universal, Florida in 1990, the company had never before built a ride, and didn't much want to be in that business. But Disney got to Orlando first with their own improved version of the Universal Hollywood tour. The competition, Disney, had stolen Universal's thunder, so the only way to compete was with high tech, state of the art rides like "King Kong," and "Back to the Future."

In the long run, it was good for both companies and good for the theme park business, because the state of the art of theme park attractions took a huge leap forward.

Now, everyone doesn't have a Disney park next door, so not everyone needs a "Back to the Future" Ride. But you are going to need something fresh and new, and you have to consider the big factor when you are picking your attraction mix: demographics.

Demographics, the age and income characteristics of the guests, follow attraction mix, and vice versa. If you want a lot of teenagers, you put in a lot of roller coasters. Keep in mind though: even though you're targeting coaster fans DOES NOT mean you sacrifice on theming and landscaping. Families like indoor shows, if for no other reason than they are air-conditioned and adults enjoy being able to sit for a while. Additionally sometimes, the theme park is the sole source of live shows/theater in the vicinity, so this draws those people that don't feel like going to a big city to find that type of entertainment . And "the whole family" likes high tech, story-telling dark rides and simulators. So your attraction mix determines your demographics, or vice versa.

But probably the biggest factor in determining your Master Plan is the personality of the management. If they are "ride guys" who like those "white nucklers," then at the end of the day you are going to end up with a park full of thrill rides. If they are from "show business" you'll probably be exploiting some sort of intellectual properties (books, movies, films, etc), like we did at Six Flags with the Batman Stunt Show. If they are risk takers, your park will feature custom, one of a kind rides, or if they are more conservative, they'll guide you in the direction of selecting proven, off the shelf equipment. In theme park design, as in most other fields, you follow the Golden Rule: He Who Has The Gold Rules. But it's essential that the theme park designer educate the management so they understand the downside of under cutting the theming, landscaping and ride variety---eventually it will catch up with you and guests will stop coming in DROVES thus the "gold" dwindles.

You will notice that I did not mention budget as a primary factor in determining the Master Plan of your park. That's because budget follows the risk profile of the management-the high rollers will go for the biggest budget they can justify, the more conservative managers will pinch the pennies. There's no one answer, as both well funded, and very lightly funded parks can achieve success. For example, at Six Flags when they were owned by Time Warner in the mid nineties, all the Batman, Loony Tunes, Dennis The Menace, Police Academy and other movie themes were added, increasing both attendance and per capita income, while the capital budget was actually CUT.

When you put all these factors together, and your park is sized properly for the market, your attraction mix is right, you have just the right amount of food and merchandise, and the parking lot is big enough to handle your largest predicted crowd: look out! It's probably going to be a big hit, and the owner will be asking you why you didn't make the darn thing a little bigger!

And that's the last element of a good Master Plan: room for expansion. Given the fact that you are going to have to add new attractions after you open, having space for them without making the place so darn big that you exhaust the guests trying to walk the park, is quite a trick. But a good Master Plan allows plenty of space for new rides, shows or even whole "lands." When you don't have enough potential for well-themed additions, you end up planting your new roller coaster over a parking lot, which can ruin the whole effect of adding a new ride.

There are a million factors that you need to take into account when developing a good master plan. For instance, food concessions need to be plentiful and located in the busy sections of the park, so that guests are not waiting in long lines. There are too many of these factors to delve into in one short article, but there is one final design element that should be mentioned. Probably the most important factor in making sure your guests enjoy their day at the park is employee training, so don't forget to design a good "cast center" where your employees can learn what it takes to serve the guests. You can have the best attractions in the world, but if your staff is rude, indifferent, or incompetent, all the rest of your design goes right down the drain.

If you take all of these factors into account, however, you'll have one heck of a park.

So, you want to design a theme park? Well, now you know a few tricks of the trade, so have at it!

To learn more about theme park master planning, or to inquire about a possible project, contact Peter Alexander of the Totally Fun Company.


"Theme Park Master Planning" used by Permission. Copyright 2013 Peter Alexander, All Rights Reserved.


Why You Need A Feasibility Study


Peter N. Alexander


What’s a feasibility study?  Why do you need one?

Well, if you start your project by doing a GOOD feasibility study, you will go a long way toward making your dream a success.  That is why virtually every large, successful theme park, starting with the original Disneyland in 1955, and most successful hotels and resorts start the design process with a feasibility study.



A good feasibility study starts by assessing whether the intended location is suitable for the project.  You could have a great idea, but be building it in the wrong place.

Disney, designer of the most successful theme parks and resorts in the world, provides the best examples of good and bad location selection.

On the good side, Walt Disney chose Orlando, Florida for the location of Disney World.  Now today, most people would say, that Orlando is an obvious place to put a theme park.  After all, it is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world! 

But in 1965, when Disney bought the land, Orlando was a “one horse town” (as they used to say in the Wild West) and they didn’t even have a saddle for the horse.   There was nothing there.  It was just a place to get gasoline as you drove from Daytona Beach to Tampa.  Back in those days, all the tourists went to the beaches in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.  

Walt knew that no matter what kind of attraction he built, it would never be as attractive as the beach to some people.  So he put Disney World in the middle of the state, an hour and a half drive from the shore, so that, “People wouldn’t head for the beach every time it got sunny.”


The result was that Disney World diverted a substantial number of tourists away from Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach and then they spent the night in Orlando in the hotels that sprang up around Disney World, and a new tourist center was born. 

An example of a poor choice of location selection is Disney Paris.  Disney Paris is a great attraction, brilliantly designed by Disney’s best design team.  But it has been beset by financial problems since its founding, largely because it is located in Paris, France.

But you say Paris is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world!  How could it be a bad location?  There are several reasons, but one of the most important is weather.

Paris is located in Northern Europe where the weather is cloudy, damp and cold much of the year.  And when the weather is bright and sunny, in August, virtually the entire population of the city goes on vacation to the south of France. 

But what about the rest of the year?  Remember, for a theme park, we are talking about OUTDOOR recreation, and while it may be charming to sit inside a cozy little Paris bistro on a rainy day, it’s not fun to walk around in freezing rain.

Had Euro Disney been located in Spain along the Mediterranean Coast (another location they considered) where the weather is mild all year round, it would have been much more successful.


Even within a general location, there are good locations and bad.  For example, you could put two, virtually identical projects, near, let us say, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  One might be located in a pleasant valley, while the other might be located in a mosquito filled bog.  The weather would be the same for both projects, but the cost of clearing and draining the bog and abating the mosquitoes would make that location a poor one. The pleasant valley would be a better one, since there more of the project budget could be applied to improvements the guests would appreciate, and less to infrastructure that they couldn’t see.

A good feasibility study analyzes the good and bad points of a location, and makes sure that you are building your project in the right place.

Market and Demographics

In order for your project to be a success, it cannot be too big for the market, and it shouldn’t be too small, either.  It also has to appeal to the right demographics, the type of people who are most likely to patronize the project.

The effect of demographics can be seen in the incredible success of the hotel market in Dubai, and the poor performance of the condominium market it the same country.

Hotels in Dubai are almost always full, and the room rates are high.  Five start hotels typically maintain 90% year round occupancy rates, at average room rates over $300 per night, among the highest in the world.

Meanwhile, of the 100,000 condo units that were completed in 2007-8, at least 25% were still vacant by 2013 and those sold dropped 65% in value

Why?  Demographics.

A good feasibility study would have shown that a substantial percentage of the visitors to Dubai are business people or adult tourists.  These people prefer the amenities of a hotel—the room service, restaurants, bars and spas.  Further, their visits are short or infrequent, making the purchase of a condo not financially feasible.

Vacation Condos, like the ones in Dubai, are generally purchased by families and until such time the first theme park is completed (if ever) there is very little for families to do in Dubai other than go shopping or to the movies, and those are not enough of a reason to purchase a condo.  So, beautifully designed condo buildings stand empty, waiting for the theme parks to arrive and fill them up.

A project can also be designed to be too big or small for a market. 

A good example of a project that was initially too small for the market was Hong Kong Disney.  At one point in the opening year, during a Chinese holiday, the park was so packed with people that they had to cut off admissions at the gate, and in order to get in Chinese families were seen boosting their children over the fence.  There simply was not enough ride capacity to handle the crowds.  Word of mouth spread that the long lines for the few rides made kids unhappy, and as a result Hong Kong Disney first two years attendance was less than expected, while neighboring Ocean Park, an older amusement park big enough to handle the crowds, had record years. 

A GOOD feasibility study establishes how big the project needs to be to work in its market, and without one, you risk over-building or under-building.


What about the Competition?

A good feasibility study will help you carve out a niche in the market that you can “own” and help you make sure that you keep it that way.  Ideally, you need to plan your project so that someone else cannot come along and build the same thing right next to you, and put you out of business.

A few years back we had a client in the Canary Islands who wanted to expand his small themed attraction into a full scale theme park.  He wanted to add a “Birds of Prey” Show (hawks, eagles, falcons, etc.) and build some commercially available, off-the-shelf rides The project sounded like a good idea on the surface, but we knew there was another theme park not far away, and they might copy the idea, so we recommended that instead, he add some original live shows that would be harder to duplicate, and some rides that could be customized to appear to be unique to his property.

Instead, he hired another firm to do a feasibility study that told him what he wanted to hear, and recommended the “Birds of Prey” approach.  Unfortunately for the client, that bird never even got to take off, because before he could get his show up and running, the competing theme park opened a nearly identical show, and bought the same rides he planned on buying.  That was the end of his hope for expansion as he dropped all of his plans.

A GOOD feasibility study will help you figure out what kind of hotel or theme attraction will work in your market, and how to design it to survive any potential competition.

Show Me The Money!

The purpose of a financial feasibility study is to show how much you can invest, and how much profit you can make.  No one can guarantee what lies on the financial road ahead, but without a feasibility study you are literally driving blind and there is a strong possibility you are going to crash.

The study will predict the projected capital cost, the potential revenue and the operating costs before you proceed with design, so your designers can design for success.

These financial studies are essential if you are going to attract investors to fund your project.  Without one, a typical, professional investment firm will often “pass” on the opportunity to invest.  At TFC, we spend long hours on the phone and in meetings with financial analysts from investment houses, who go over every assumption we make in intense detail, so we can tell you for a fact if you want them to “Show You The Money” you had better show them a good feasibility study first.

Beyond simply determining the overall success of failure of the project, a good feasibility study will tell you which parts of your overall project will work the best.  For example, within a large project, where there are multiple elements such as a theme park, a water park, condo hotels, retail, condos and vacation homes, the study will show you where your profit centers are, and therefore how much of each element to build.  It can show you what happens if you under-build the entertainment elements like the theme park, and over-build the high profit centers like the condo hotels, and vice versa.  These financial results are always kept confidential by the project’s owners, because they are often the difference between success and failure. 

How Good Is Your Idea…Really?

Maybe the best reason to do a good feasibility study is that it provides an objective look at your project. 

A couple of years ago, I got a call from a fellow who wanted to build a theme park in Berlin, Germany whose theme was to be Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  Now it’s one thing to read this theory in a college text book, but it’s another thing to go on a ride based on a scientific theory that is less entertaining than watching paint dry.  I told the fellow that Darwin might make a pretty good museum (somewhere near the scientist’s place of birth), but not a theme park in Berlin.

He ended up getting a feasibility study from another firm that predicted he would get four million visitors per year and then he spent a lot of money on design.  But when he showed the feasibility study to potential investors, they all passed on the opportunity and the project was never built.

At TFC, we will not accept a commission to do a study if we can tell in advance that the project is totally infeasible, so we are generally starting with pretty good ideas.  Still, because we are not “parroting back” to the owner what they want to hear, often times we find that a client’s ideas have to be fine-tuned.  Sometimes, they are interested in building a theme park, but only a water park (which is smaller and less expensive) will work in their location.  Sometimes they want to build the project in a particular location, but we find that another one is better. 

Because the studies are based upon principles that have worked to establish many successful theme resorts, such as Disneyland in Anaheim, Disney World in Orlando, Universal Studios in Orlando and others, they are essential to the design process.  Indeed, they are the first solid step that all projects should take before they begin design.  They tell the designer how “big” to make everything—how many hotel rooms, how big of a theme park, how large of a parking lot—even how many restaurants and retail stores to build.

In short, feasibility studies are the first step to a successful project.  Whether it’s a resort, entertainment shopping center, hotel, theme park or family entertainment center, a good feasibility study is an essential starting point.

Theme Design vs. Architecture


Peter Alexander
Totally Fun Company

So you want to design a theme entertainment project?

Okay, so where do you start?

You start by selecting an architect, right?

Well, not necessarily! Asking an architect to create a theme project is like asking a multiplex theater designer to direct a movie: you're putting the cart before the horse.

In a theme resort, store, restaurant or any themed entertainment project you are creating a "show," a three dimensional movie you can smell and feel. You are not creating a 'place' as architects do…you are creating sets, and populating them with actors, as in a film. In a theme entertainment project, the role of the actors is played by the visitors (called guests) and employees (called "the cast"). You enhance these actors' performances with props, special effects, lighting and theme architecture…the sum total of the experience is called "the show." The "show" is everything the guest sees, hears and experiences during his or her visit. The architecture can be seen as the "stage" upon which the "show" is performed.

Since theme design is about creating a "show," one of your first acts should be to select a "show designer." This "show designer" should be someone with proven experience in the theme design field. They will utilize design principles originally pioneered in the theme park industry to create your project. Whether the project is a resort hotel, restaurant, shopping center or theme park doesn't really matter. Regardless of the land use, it will be the show designer's job to create an environment that immerses the guest in an emotional experience. If they do their job well, your guests will be immersed inside a world that may intrigue, amuse, or even frighten them, but always entertains them; a world your guests will want to visit again and again.

So, what are the principles of theme design that your show designer will utilize
to create this world? Well, there are too many to enumerate in one short article, but I can discuss a few, starting with the first stage of theme design, concept development.

Square One: Concept Development

Architects start with a phase known as "schematics." Theme design starts with a phase known as "concept development."

In schematics, the architect works with the client to develop a "program" (i.e. determining the building's functions and size) and then develops schematic drawings that show the layout and general appearance.

In theme design, we often start with no more than the thought that the project needs to be entertaining and should attract a certain number of people in a certain market. Sometimes the client will bring a basic "notion" to the show designer, other times we start with a blank page. The process of filling in the blank page is called concept development. We can fill that blank page with words, drawings, illustrations, plans, models or mock-ups or any combination of them, but when the concept is complete, the client will have an understanding of what the project is all about.

One of the major differences between theme design concept development and architectural schematics is the "invention factor."

In schematics, architects don't need to invent the building type, i.e. thousands of hospitals or office buildings already exist. However, in theme park concept development we sometimes need to invent some device or system just to make "the show" work.

For example, during the concept development for the Back To The Future Ride at Universal Studios, we needed to create a flying De Lorean, as featured in the movie. The idea to accomplish this was invented out of "blue sky:" I figured we would put a dozen or so De Loreans inside a large format, domed film theater, each De Lorean would ride on top of their own simulator motion base, and by cutting off the site-lines to the rest of the theater, guests inside each car would feel like they were flying. My boss (fearless Universal Executive Jay Stein) said, "That will never work. It's such a good idea, if it could work, someone would have thought of it already." Then Jay, who knew how to motivate his design team, bet me a thousand dollars it wouldn't work.

In order to prove out the idea (and get my thousand dollars), during concept development we made a foam core mock-up of a De Lorean Ride Vehicle, and took it to the Omnimax Dome at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Even moments before the first test, my friend (and later, one of the producers of the ride) Craig Barr bet me an additional twenty dollars the "invention" wouldn't work. However, as soon as the lights went down and the film rolled, Craig put a twenty dollar bill in my outstretched palm. What we saw from inside the foam core mock-up was amazing. Just by cutting off site-lines and isolating our vehicle from the stationary parts of the theater, we produced the sensation of flying. I'm still waiting for that thousand dollars from Jay, but for richer or poorer, we had invented a new ride system necessary to the development of that concept.

It was only after we were able to develop this "first of its kind" ride, and assure ourselves that it worked, that we were able to begin designing the actual BUILDING that housed the ride. Two things drove that process: the need to accommodate two eighty foot diameter Omnimax domes, and the need to break the guests up into groups of eight-the capacity of each De Lorean. What we ended up with was a futuristic building we called "The Doc Brown Institute" (after the crazy scientist in the film) that maximized efficiency in terms of loading the ride.

In summary, first we came up with the "show," then we designed the building in which to stage the show. Also, it's important to note that we developed a ride system necessary to the development of the concept, and not the other way around. In theme design, technology is created to help tell a story, while good stories are rarely, if ever, created by technology. Thus, the ride system invention flowed from the story, and not the other way around.

This raises an important question: what stories do we want tell in concept development? Are there any guidelines about what kinds of stories are best told in theme environments? Are there any lessons we have learned that might prevent your brainchild from turning into "Seed of Chuckie?"

Picking A Theme: The Tale of Too Many Smurfs

A few years ago, I was working with the Walibi Theme Park chain, which at that time owned a number of parks in Europe. We had helped improve the profits of a couple of their parks by applying our brand of theme park show design, so they asked me to come up with ideas to help the "dog" of the system, the one park that had never proven popular, the Smurf park near Metz, France.

The Smurfs, as you may recall, were little blue cartoon characters (Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Brainy Smurf, etc.) who were wildly popular back in the seventies. Unfortunately, the character's success on television had not translated into theme park attendance: only 700,000 guests had attended during the park's first year (1989) versus the projection of 1,800,000, and attendance had declined thereafter. By the time I got there, the park was virtually empty.

As I walked through the park with the General Manager I noticed something: everything was Smurf-themed. They even had a "Future Smurf" world, like Tomorrow Land, only filled with Futuristic Smurfs. When I first entered the park I kind of liked the Smurfs, but by the time I left, I was sick of them: they had too many Smurfs. "And if you don't like Smurfs," The General Manager said sadly, "You don't come to the park."

From that I learned a lesson: selecting a single theme for an entire park, resort, shopping complex or entertainment center can be risky. The best bet is to provide a variety of themes and thus appeal to the largest possible demographic. Disneyland is a good example. Walt could have themed the whole park to his cartoons, but instead he themed one land to Main Street USA, another to the future, another to the American frontier, etc. The bottom line: if your project is of large enough scale, follow Walt's lead and try to include several themes.

Once you select your themes, you have created a roadmap which you use to explore the rides, shows, restaurants and shops that will make up a land, and from there, design both the buildings that house them and the "area development" or public spaces the guests will flow through to access them.

Picking A Theme: Brand In The Right Format

In the early nineties, Time Warner acquired the Six Flags chain, which then consisted of seven theme parks. At that time, the parks had gone through several owners and had been decreasing in value and attendance for years. While the parks had originally been designed as family adventures, the addition of roller coaster after roller coaster had turned them into teenage amusement zones, and as the families left, the revenues and the profits of the chain declined.

The new Time Warner-appointed Six Flags CEO, Bob Pittman, wanted to turn that around. Time Warner had just released the first Batman film, which had been a huge hit, and there were sequels in the offing, so I suggested we use Batman as the theme of several family-oriented attractions. I "pitched" a simulator ride and a stunt show, but it was the stunt show that excited Bob Pittman. "So you can get the pyrotechnics and the heat of the flames right in the audience's face, eh?" Bob asked excitedly.

I said yes, and about seven months later we opened the Batman Stunt Show in three theme parks. The impact on Six Flags was immediate and substantial. Attendance increased at all three parks, but more importantly, the stunt show format brought the families back to the parks, which increased the per capita spending, and turned the parks around. Bob Pittman told me later that the Batman Stunt Show had positively affected Six Flags success far more than the (more expensive) Batman (roller coaster) ride because the shows had changed the character of the parks and the demographics of the guests.

What we had done was pick the right intellectual property-Batman-for the right format-a stunt show. The lesson was this: if possible, "brand" your concept with a hot intellectual property (like Batman was in the 1990's) and utilize the brand in a format that will appeal to your demographic target.

From a design process standpoint, we started with an intellectual property, and then determined that an outdoor, arena stunt show would be the best use of that property. It's important to note that we did not say, "We need a stunt show," and then try to come up with some sort of subject for it: theme design flows from intellectual properties, not the other way around. So, as you develop your theme park's concept, and you want a stunt show in the mix, start by finding an intellectual property that would make a good one, then design your theater or arena around that idea.


Picking A Theme: The Entertaining Environment

When you are developing a theme concept, it's important not to get too full of yourself in the pursuit of creating "great art," but rather to remember you are creating entertainment that appeals to broad demographic groups. It's easy to design a monument…that turns into a monumental failure.

For example, shortly after the opening of National Maritime Center in Norfolk, Virginia, I got a call from the General Manager. He told me the project had been designed as an "Edu-tainment" facility, a combination of education and theme environment, but despite a healthy budget, they were not achieving their attendance goals.

As I drove up to the facility, I saw a massive, modern structure-painted the same gray as US Navy ships. It kind of reminded me of a big, beached aircraft carrier. I have an architectural book which describes this place, saying, "It escapes Disney-style literalism and succeeds in imposing itself…as a landmark."

Unfortunately, the imposing landmark wasn't drawing flies in terms of attendance. There were about fifty cars in the parking lot, most of them, I guessed, belonged to employees.

Inside, I saw some cool exhibits, including a shark "touch" tank where you could touch the fish, but the environment was cold and sterile: concrete floors, exposed steel roofs, muted colors, etc. No matter how clever and entertaining the exhibits, the sterility of the physical space made the place feel like a tomb. The designers had succeeded in designing a landmark, but in theme design, we are not designing landmarks, or monuments to ourselves or the owner. We are attempting to evoke emotional responses, just as is done in film and television. Just as in a film, our environments can evoke a sense of adventure, of comedy, of fear or risk, but never sterility or coldness. People are not going to sit through a two hour movie that leaves them cold, so why would they make a four to eight hour visit to an entertainment facility that does the same thing?

In architectural text books I've seen theme design referred to as "Populist Architecture" but it should really be called "Humanistic Architecture" because it is designed to elicit human emotional responses, and if you remember that in your concept design, you can't lose. Another way to put it: the architecture is part of the show, and needs to be as entertaining as the other creative elements.

Developing Your Theme: Show Design

Once you have your concept firmly in mind, it is time to move on into more detailed design. In architecture, following schematics, you enter design development, where you bring in the "disciplines" (structural, mechanical, electrical engineering, etc.), then move into construction documents where you draw the details. Theme design follows a similar pattern on the "facility" (i.e. building) side, but includes literally dozens of other "disciplines" necessary to create "the show," including script writing, ride design, show set design, costume design, lighting, special effects and many more.

It is these "show" disciplines that must take the lead, and often must be developed before the environment that houses them takes shape. There are, again, too many techniques that we use to discuss in one article, but I can discuss a few examples, and share with you what made them work or not work as the case may be.

Developing Your Design: Forced Perspective

Forced perspective, originally developed by motion picture art directors, is commonly used to create theme environments. Probably it's most famous example is Main Street at Disneyland. Walt Disney wanted Main Street to re-create the warm, comfortable feel of a small American town. His show designers accomplished this by reducing the scale of the buildings: full scale at street level, then three quarter to five eighths scale as you reach the second and third floors. The result: the guests feel "bigger" than normal, instinctively more in control and therefore more relaxed. Emotionally, Main Street serves as a safe and friendly transition between the often chaotic and imposing "outside world" and the fantasy adventures in the theme park beyond.

Forced perspective can also be used to make things that are small appear larger. An example would be the Eiffel Tower in the French Pavilion at Disney's EPCOT. The real Eiffel Tower is a thousand feet tall, while Disney's is about a hundred, but because it is placed at the end of a vista, with the view of its base blocked by building facades in the foreground, it appears to be more distant than it actually is, and therefore we accept what is actually a model as being the real thing. Emotionally, the "Eiffel tower in the distance" gives the French street the feel of the real Paris, where views of the landmark are common, without the expense of creating a full size replica.

Developing Your Design: The Fantasy Environment

Like motion picture sets, theme environments are designed to create the impression that the guests have traveled to a particular place and/or time. Movie sets are almost always in the background, with the actors, of course, in the foreground, so the sets must be somewhat extreme in their design, so that they instantly "read" as what they are, even though they are not the focus of the film. Similarly, theme facades and interiors are archetypes, and their ability to evoke the feeling of being somewhere or some time is more important than their architectural correctness.

For example, at one time we designed an "Ancient Rome" section of Universal Studios, Florida using these motion picture design principles. The lead designer, three-time Academy Award winning art director Henry Bumstead, called "Bummy" by his friends, designed one façade inspired by the ancient Roman Forum. However, rather than a literal recreation of the Forum, he used fluted columns and ornate, Corinthian capitals on top of the columns, as opposed to the simpler non-fluted Roman columns and less detailed capitals of the real Forum.

An architect friend of mine who was also working on the job looked at Bummy's design in horror and tried to point out the obvious "mistake." He suggested Bummy correct his "error" by using the simpler Roman columns. Bummy patiently explained the rationale for his design this way, "When the guests walk up to our Forum, we want him to feel like a Roman Senator. We want to take him back in time, and so we combine the most extreme elements from the classical period into one building. Most guests don't know Corinthian from Roman, nor do they care. But if we combine the "most classical" elements-the beautiful, ornate Corinthian capitals and the bolder fluted columns-we make him feel like he's in ancient Rome, as he would imagine it to be. It's the feeling that counts, not the textbook architecture."

That is the essence of theme design: we are creating fantasy architecture that produces emotional responses, not attempting to recreate architectural styles brick for brick.

Developing a Theme: Find the Essence of the Brand

Often times you will be developing concepts based upon one or several brands or intellectual properties. If so, you must find the essence of the brand and then exploit it in a manner that is true to the brand.

For example, during the development of Universal Studios Florida, Steven Spielberg asked us to develop a theme attraction based on "E.T: The Extraterrestrial" that would be true to his film.

As you may recall, "E.T." was the story of a lonely boy who finds an alien literally in his back yard and helps to get the creature back to his home planet. It was a very personal story for director Steven Spielberg, and even the suburban, tract house setting near a redwood forest reminded me a lot of where Steven went to high school in Saratoga, California. Unfortunately, "relationship stories" like E.T. that rely on two-hour long films to create their emotional impact are not easily translated into six or eight minute theme park rides, so designing a ride or show that captured the essence of the film presented quite a challenge.

I started the design process by watching the "E.T." film over and over again, trying to figure out what would work as a theme park attraction. One section of the film stood out: Near the end, there was a great chase sequence where the little boy and his friends rescue E.T. from government agents and take him on their dirt bikes on a wild chase. At one point during the chase, E.T. uses his powers to cause the boys to "fly" over a government road block….

I thought this sequence could be made into a very cool ride, but it begged the question: where would the boys take E.T. once they took off? In the film, they landed in the redwood forest and bade goodbye to E.T., who then got into his spaceship and flew back to his home "The Green Planet." It seemed to me that we could "suspend disbelief" just a little more, and have the dirt bikes fly all the way to the Green Planet.

I presented this idea to Steven Spielberg verbally and he liked it, but gave me some great coaching. "Remember E.T. is a personal story," Steven said, "So at the end, the guests need a personal moment with him. And by the way, the Green Planet is a friendly place, not the usual scary, alien place."

I thought about how to achieve the "personal moment" and said, "What if he knows your name? What if E.T. knows everyone's name, and thanks them by name for bringing him home?"

Steven thought that would be great, so we then proceeded with the monumental task of developing a computer system that would recognize 20,000 names and allow our audio-animatronic E.T. to say each guest's name in the final scene.

All we then had to do was come up with a design for the Green Planet that was both alien, and friendly. To accomplish this, I looked at every science fiction film and book I could find. Not one of them provided an insight as to what a "friendly" alien planet might look like. Apparently, no one had ever attempted to design a "friendly" alien planet before. It struck me that maybe "friendly" alien planet" was an oxymoron-you couldn't use those words together.

Then I remembered that I had seen something that was both friendly an alien.
When I was a kid I had surfed in California, and when the waves were flat my friends and I had done a bit of diving. I always remembered thinking how the plants and coral rock formations on the ocean floor seemed like an alien landscape. I immediately collected some research on underwater plants, and gave them to our art directors as models for the "alien landscape" and with that simple inspiration, they went crazy designing the "friendly" "alien" Green Planet.

After we developed the ride's show, we were able to determine that it would be best housed in a "sound stage" facility, so the exterior architecture was very simple, but consistent with our Universal Studios "working movie studio theme" and appropriate for our park.

When Steven Spielberg first rode the E.T. Adventure Ride, as we called it, he told me that we had successfully combined the fun of "flying" on dirt bikes with a "personal moment" with an alien on his friendly home planet: capturing the essence of the "E.T." brand.

In summary, we started with the ride's "show" design, and then developed the facility to house it. Had we attempted the opposite and focused on developing a facility that communicated the "E.T." brand through its exterior architecture, we would have used up all of the budget for the experience without providing the guests any entertainment.

Developing Your Concept: The Play's the Thing

When you are developing a theme area, remember that it is the entertainment or show elements that will make or break the attraction, and the environment
should be designed to present them as strongly as possible, never leaving the "show" as an afterthought to the architecture.

As a recent example, we were asked to develop a design brief for architects to guide them in the development of a resort hotel themed after the home of the British Royal Family, Buckingham Palace.

When most people think of Buckingham Palace, they think of the Queen of England and the famous Changing of the Guard ceremony. Most people can't tell you what Buckingham Palace looks like, so the architecture-while still important-is less important than these "show" elements. Therefore, we asked the designers to develop the resort hotel based upon British Royalty and the Guards, and to recreate the grandeur of what the average person might believe to be "royal" rather than to recreate the exact look of the palace.

For example, we suggested that guests might enjoy having "high tea" with the Queen, so a "tea room" to accommodate a large number of guests would be a "must." Since the "Changing of the Guard" ceremony was so important, we suggested that the courtyard in front of the hotel be graded to allow guests to get a good view. Finally, since the current Queen is just one of a long line of British Monarchs, we suggested that design elements within the hotel be devoted to other famous British Kings and Queens, everyone from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I to "Mad King George" to Queen Victoria, and so the interiors of different wings of the hotel were designed in schools of architecture reflecting those eras. We felt that the result would be a resort that people would want to return to again and again, partly for the fun of experiencing a different room themed to a different Monarch each time. As William Shakespeare once said, "The play's the thing," and theme design is best when that is kept in mind.

Developing Your Concept: The Budget: Beauty or Beast?

As a designer, you sometimes might think that a tight budget is your worst enemy, but sometimes it can be your best friend.

One example that comes to mind is the Land Pavilion at Disney's EPCOT. While it was in an early stage of design, the "facility" designer, a brilliant architect, told me, "I'm an artist. I cannot be bound by budgets, and I intend to put every kind of compound curve and difficult to build structure into this building." He succeeded in doing so, and we did not attempt to control him or limit his budget. Yet, when most guests visit EPCOT, "The Land" does not stand out as a great piece of "show" architecture, particularly not in comparison to the Imagination Pavilion next door, or to any of the World Showcase Pavilions. So, in this instance, having an unlimited budget did not enhance the "show value" of the project.

On the other hand, when we designed "King Kong: Kongfrontation" for Universal Studios Hollywood, we had a very tight budget, less than seven million dollars for the whole attraction, which by Disney standards was just about enough to design the front door and a bathroom. A lot of the budget went into the Kong figure, the special effects, and the "sliding bridge" which created the illusion that the big monkey was rocking the 88,000 pound Universal Super Tram back and forth. This left very little budget for the show sets, which were crucial if we were going to create the illusion that the guests on the tram were actually in New York City.

Given this situation, I told our two brilliant art directors, Henry Bumstead and Bill Tuntke, that they would have to use all their tricks to make this paltry budget stretch. They rose to the challenge, rolled up their sleeves and went to work designing a set using full scale buildings in the foreground, forced perspective miniatures in the mid-ground, and "cut out" flats in the background.

The result was pretty spectacular, but despite their best efforts, we just didn't have enough money to cover every square foot with sets. The glaring hole: right opposite the King Kong figure…there was absolutely nothing, just a black wall. If the guests happened to look away from Kong as he "attacked" the tram, they looked at a blank, black wall and the illusion of being in New York City was broken.

Just before opening, I got nervous, because as both show designer and producer, the buck stopped with me. I asked my boss, Jay Stein, if he thought we could free up some more funds to build a set opposite from King Kong. Jay shook his head no, "If they are looking away from Kong, you have real problems."

On opening day, I took a position near the King Kong figure to watch the guest reaction and sure enough, once Kong started to roar and the tram started to slide back and forth, no one-and I mean no one-looked at that blank wall. Jay had been right, the set across from Kong was not necessary.

I realized then that having a tight budget had probably helped our design, not hindered it. It caused us to design the show to focus guest attention on our strength-King Kong and the New York set behind him-and thus the guests never looked at our weaknesses.


In theme design we are designing a "show," not a place as in architecture. It doesn't matter whether our "show" takes place in a theme park, a hotel, a restaurant or a store, it's still a "show," not a building or complex of buildings. We generally start the design process by selecting an intellectual property as the basis of our theme, and then develop those stories to build a brand. We try to present the brand in formats (i.e. ride, show, hotel, shop, etc) that capture the brand's essence and appeal to the demographics of the guests we want to attract. We focus our budget on what the guest will primarily perceive and those elements that will present the strongest "show." Architecture can be an important part of this success, provided it is viewed as a part of the overall show, and not an end in itself. If we are successful in integrating all the design disciplines-everything from script writing to engineering to architecture-to "tell the story," our design will create positive emotional responses in the guests and a successful project for the owner.