The Secrets Behind Theme Park and Amusement Park Thrills

May 23, 2011

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Theme park design

After paying for admission and stepping through the turnstiles, visitors to theme parks and amusement parks are whisked into a magical world that promises thrills, surprises, and heart-warming moments of family fun.

But behind every larger-than-life costumed character, hair-raising roller coaster, and quaintly nostalgic storefront, a team of designers and engineers has labored over the details and mechanics to bestow an emotional connection on every guest.

Entertainment designers and industrial designers often play a big role in creating the look and feel of theme parks and amusement parks, says Greg Butler, academic chair of the Entertainment Design and Industrial Design programs at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

“Developing a theme park or amusement park pulls from different talents,” Butler says, adding that a strong mechanical aptitude is as important as design-based talents, such as sketching ability and digital skills.

The Entertainment Design program at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh focuses on physical design and fabrication, including character development and environmental development, Butler says.

Environmental development may include façades, such as the fronts of rides, or parts of the setting, like fake trees, landscaping, and walls. For these projects, designers flex their faux skills, which involve creating substitutes to stand in for the real thing.

“We design in the 3-D world or the real world, not the virtual world,” Butler says. “Everything we design has to become real, so we have to understand how those materials respond to fabrication processes.”

Character development is essential to designing a memorable theme park experience. For these projects, the most important principle is making the character anatomically correct or feasible, Butler says.

While adherence to character-based motifs is mandatory for a theme park, traditional amusement parks often veer away from a set theme, and dress themselves in an aesthetic of nostalgia.

“The nostalgia works because it’s time tested and crosses generations,” Butler says, adding that theme parks sometimes cater to niche markets rather than attempting to attract a wide audience. “The simplicity of nostalgia can connect with most, if not all, of those groups.”

Other factors, including location, size, and demographics, also contribute to a park’s success or failure, Butler says. And at both theme parks and amusement parks, functionality is essential to making attractions work safely and seamlessly, Butler says.

Regardless of aesthetics, every park is built upon structural design and mechanical principles, Butler says, and both entertainment and industrial designers must rely on mechanical engineers to turn their dreams into reality.

“We have a fascination with functionality but a heavier fascination with the aesthetic design,” Butler says. “We want it to work, but ultimately we want to hide how it works and make it a fun, enjoyable experience, an aesthetic experience.”

Toy inventor Peter Wachtel worked for about three years at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, where he designed landscaping, shows, signage, and attractions such as Batman the Ride and The Viper. During his time there, he also designed logos and architecture for Six Flags Wild Safari.

As a theme park designer, Wachtel says he and his coworkers would review the main shows and attractions to see what created the most excitement and thrills for guests.

“Guests come to get away from it all, in a one-of-a-kind environment,” says Wachtel, who is a former academic director and instructor of Graphic Design and Industrial Design at The Art Institute of California — Hollywood. “You’re making the experience a vacation away from home, but it’s only a few miles away from home.”

The emotional response that guests encounter at a theme park is critical, Wachtel says. Taking that adventure and making it memorable, so that guests will share their glowing reviews with friends and family back home, seals the deal for successful theme parks.

Theme parks like Disney World, Universal Studios, and Six Flags have survived for so long, Wachtel says, because they offer people a fun escape from their daily lives.

“You don’t want anyone to go to your theme park and start yawning,” Wachtel says. “It’s almost like being in a TV show, but in 3D, with huge rides, shows, and attractions.”

Many of the world’s fastest, most thrilling roller coasters are made in Germany, Japan, and Holland, Wachtel says, adding that Six Flags’ president would visit the manufacturers to determine whether the new coasters on the market were exciting enough to bring to the park.

During his own theme park career, Wachtel says he visited between 10 and 30 parks around the world to try new rides to see if they would be a good fit at Six Flags. But even before his stint in New Jersey, he says he’d already been to 100 different theme parks.

“I loved theme parks ever since I was a little kid,” Wachtel says. “When I started designing for them, it was like a dream come true.”

Author: Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.

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