The recent industry event hosted at Europa-Park explored the latest trends and challenges in attractions
Blog Post by Ella Bakerville for BlooLoop. Original post found HERE.
The Themed Entertainment Association‘s (TEA) SATE Europe conference 2023 took place last week in sunny Rust, Germany, at Europa-Park. Attendees enjoyed a packed schedule of learning and networking. There was also plenty of coaster riding, water sliding, and many courses of immersive dining.
Europa-Park was built nearly 50 years ago by the Mack Family and is now led by the 8th generation. It has grown to become the second-largest theme park resort in Europe. Following the success of Mack Rides, in 1975 Roland Mack and his father Franz Mack created Europa Park after a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim. They have since expanded the resort and the wider company to be a true force of innovation and drive for the attractions business.
Mack continues to create new ride concepts like VRCoaster. They also run Mack Animation, one of the leading animation studios in Europe, which creates attraction media as well as feature-length films like Happy Family. The group runs tech labs like MackNext, and more recently publishing – the Rulantica book series has sold nearly half a million copies to date.
Innovating at Mack speed
Throughout TEA SATE Europe 2023, Europa-Park and the Mack family were generous hosts, sharing their knowledge and time. They also gave attendees very special access to their parks and attractions.
Michael Mack, CEO of Europa-Park, spoke in conversation with Chris Lange, creative executive and owner of Creative Studio Berlin. In this session, he explored the unique position of being a family-run operator.
“The work and the company are your life, the rides are your uncles and aunties, so you do want to be a part of it,” said Mack. “The DNA of being a family business is thinking long-term and thinking about future generations. I look forward to seeing what my son comes up with!”
Mack is particularly passionate about integrating a digital layer into the parks. “Not that you need your phone in your hand all the time. But there needs to be a cleverer way of doing it. From robots to machine learning, to AR/RFID tech, there are exciting times ahead” said Mack.
“Our success is from doing the European way of doing things step-by-step, supporting and growing our brand.”
TEA SATE Europe 2023 attendees experience excellence in immersive dining
Early arriving attendees visited the Mack Factory before going to a meal at Eatrenalin, Mack’s new immersive fine-dining concept. Across an eight-course menu which combined stunning visual effects, an original score and audio effects with haptic elements, guests travelled on their own dark ride seat and table. This moved through the story and immersive rooms to heighten the senses.
Thomas Mack, executive partner at Europa-Park, spoke to attendees for a deep dive into the concept which is in talks to come to major cities around the world including Las Vegas, London and New York.
This high-end experience seats 160 people a night – at Europa-Park, it has been sold out since opening last November. The operations team know exactly how many seats are coming to dinner. So, they have no food waste and can run an incredibly efficient ship. Groups are staggered to go through the experience. The challenge was to figure out timings for serving all eight courses at once repeatedly throughout the night and to get the ‘dance’ and timings of the chairs correct.
Now the choreography is perfected, and the operation runs like clockwork. Themed entertainment professionals are notoriously hard to please, but the group were fully satisfied and full (of praise) for this new type of experience.
As its tradition, TEA SATE Europe had a fancy dress night on the first night and the theme for 2023 was ‘Vikings’. There were many dodgy beards, Viking helmets, John Snow look-alikes, and a record for the most pleather and faux fur we’ve ever seen at an industry event.
Roland Mack made a heartfelt speech to attendees at the Teatro in his Viking helmet. He thanked the event for coming to Europa-Park and reflected on the company’s history. He also thanked the TEA for his recent Buzz Price Award for his lifetime achievements. This was given just a few weeks ago at the Thea Gala at Disneyland. Mack is the first operator in the industry to ever win this prestigious award.
Attendees then saw a theatre show and dinner. They also had access to parts of the park and a behind-the-scenes preview of the new ‘Fly over Kazakhstan’ film on the flying theatre ride Voletarium.
On the second day of TEA SATE Europe 2023, attendees heard from a panel of speakers on the creation of Rulantica, the park’s second gate indoor waterpark created by ProSlide. Chip Cleary, senior consultant at Europa-Park; Lukas Metzger, head of park operations, Matthias Lange, head of design and development at MackSolutions, and Kevin Kruschwitz, operations manager at Rulantica spoke in the panel.
Plans for a waterpark went back 20 years or so.
“Europa Park set the standard so high. Guests expected the new park to be that high quality right out of the gate. So, we had to get it right” said Cleary.
The team went on a mega-benchmarking trip across 26 indoor and outdoor waterparks around the world. According to Cleary, they had a mantra: “No palm trees, no pirates and we need lots of floor elevations.”
They had a design competition within the team. A black forest beach-themed design with an oom-pah band and pretzels didn’t make the cut. But the unique Scandinavian theme complete with ice caverns, forests and pools was the winner and Rulantica was born.
Snorri and friends
They created Snorri the octopus, who was the mascot for the new waterpark (a friend for Ed Euromouse and Edda Euromouse of the main park). The team then tied in various installations and marketing across the main park including Snorri Touren, the character’s own dark ride in the Scandinavian part of the theme park to educate guests.
Working closely with suppliers ProSlide, PGAV, P&P and many more, the design was complex with the tight indoor space and highly thematic design. However, the result is arguably one of the most immersive water parks in the world.
Rulantica was the largest private construction project in Germany for over 50 years and opened in November 2019. It has since expanded to build the Nordiskturn area and Vikingløp racing ride. This has increased the capacity of the park significantly. It also has longer opening hours so guests can experience the park at night.
After the session, attendees had a tour of the park and dinner at the Bubba Svens restaurant at the adjoining Museum Hotel ‘Krønasår’. Then, they could don their swimmers and explore the waterpark themselves.
Exploring the AI revolution at TEA SATE Europe 2023
SATE’s conference theme this year was ‘Revolution’. No more so is this felt than in the use of AI in themed entertainment. Geoff Thatcher, founder and chief creative officer, and Zoe Thatcher, designer both at Creative Principals and Yael Coifman, senior partner/owner at LDP led an interactive session showing how to use AI tools like ChatGPT for text or Midjourney for creating mood boards in initially brainstorming sessions with a client.
Geoff Thatcher pointed out the benefits of using these AI tools to help increase speed. “Disneyland was sketched out in a weekend, we need to do less talking and more doing.”
These tools pull from content and images online and can narrow down an initial discussion to then go away and do the ‘real’ concept art when a design direction is confirmed.
When using the tools the panel emphasised that they were just that – a tool. When using AI for artwork, it is best practice to be upfront with the client that you are using AI and to refer to it not as your design, but as the editor or creative director of this work.
It is also important to remember that AI doesn’t know everything (yet!) and does get things wrong. Zoe Thatcher said to always use it with caution too:
“The images look great at first, but the more closely you look the weirder they get”.
We were shown this beer advert generated by AI recently to demonstrate the weirdness…
The group did a working example with a hypothetical IP-backed park. The audience voted for the concept and the team used AI to generate a storyline and mood board in just 20 mins, while Coifman looked at the feasibility of the proposed new park using market analysis.
In another session, Fabian Manuel, creative development manager at Compagnie des Alps, framed the use of AI as an opportunity. He asked: “Is it a super danger or a super opportunity?
“It is a tool just like Photoshop or PowerPoint. It’s the industrial revolution of our times, we can adapt to it”.
Gameshows – and the winner is!
There were several sessions of audience participation at TEA SATE Europe 2023. Whilst the AI tools were working live, Geoff Thatcher played a gameshow of guessing the attraction and brand from AI concept art. Highlights included Godfather: The Ride and Fast and Furious Churros.
In another competitive session, Michael Blau, president of Adirondack Studios, and Bunyarit Hoff, intern at P&P Projects, gave a series of challenges that would happen during a project.
Tables had to choose answers (it might be a delay in approvals or a wrong date announced) and how you as a creative company working on the project would react. The winner would have the best quality attraction and have the least costs. The game got quite heated. But it showed these are all real problems many suppliers in the room face and encouraged dialogue on how to respond.
Immersion vs immersivity
Wim Strijbosch, researcher and lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences, looked at the science of immersion at TEA SATE Europe 2023. “There are as many definitions of immersion as there are authors that write about it,” said Strijbosch.
He presented a graph that tracked the word immersive on blooloop over the last decade, showing (with the exception of the pandemic when we had more pressing matters to write about!) that the word immersive was used more and more year on year across the site. So is it a buzzword?
Strijbosch compared Immersion vs Immersivity. The latter is a feature of experience design, and the former is a physical phenomenon. He chose to look into immersion only which is a form of play.
Strijbosch said: “Play is evolution’s gift to learn new things and make it fun for its own sake.”
He added: “Play is for everyone. Play can be broken down into:
According to Lattner, 80% of escape rooms are simple puzzle rooms. Only 5% are high-end, highly themed experiences. So, there is a real opportunity in the market for authentic theming.
“We use real materials when it can be touched with no fabrication as it has to be believable. They can even lick it if they want to!” said Lattner. “Every single item in the room needs a backstory to support the characters.”
Looking at universal design at TEA SATE Europe 2023
Arielle Spencer, a graduate researcher in planning, design, and the built environment at Clemson University; Christian Lachel, chief creative officer at BRC Imagination, and a virtual Paul Ralph, access and inclusion director at Euan’s Guide, spoke about the benefits of universal design.
“Often, the design comes first and then you need to accommodate for individual abilities. This quickly becomes expensive and timely and you can’t possibly add on everyone’s needs” said Spencer. “With universal design, it is designing without the need for adaptations. It is not just accommodating but improving the experience for everyone”.
A dropped curb is an example of this which helps many people walking on a pavement. But a separate disabled queue line entrance would be an accommodation and separate experience, not a universal design.
Spencer states some easy wins the industry can do. For instance, changing language used internally, varying characters’ abilities for more representation, making sure your website can be read on screen readers and using alt tags. The biggest is updating the content on the site. “If a guest doesn’t know what they can do at your attraction, that is a lost guest”.
Jones is a wheelchair user and consults with companies on how to accommodate disabled guests. “Accessibility is the practical stuff, like the ramps and audio description etc. Inclusion is how I feel when visiting somewhere. If staff aren’t trained on how to accommodate disabled visitors, then inclusion fails (even if you have all the tangible stuff),” said Ralph.
There is a vastly underrepresented audience in disabled visitors and there is a real opportunity for the industry.
“There are 1.85 billion disabled people in the world. That is 1 in 4 people, a market larger than China” said Lachel.
“Research has shown disabled visitors spend more money. Their dwell time is longer, and they bring more people with them,” said Jones. “The collective spending power of the UK disabled market is £274 billion.”
The well-being revolution
Dawn Foote, co-founder of Katapult, spoke with Jamie Quince-Starkey, founder of Down to Earth Derby, about the importance of natural spaces to well-being, and how we can incorporate this into designing attractions that re-wild. Both worked with the Eden Project on the city-wide project in Derby, UK. The first phase, ‘Electric Daisy’, is opening soon.
Attendees at TEA SATE Europe 2023 also heard from Emma Newell, from Magnetic Moon Coaching, and non-executive director at 7thSense on the impact of burnout in the workplace. This included practices to calm your nervous system. Attendees also learned how to look out for symptoms in colleagues and teams in the workplace.
Trent Oliver, founder, principal and managing director at Blue Telescope, looked at design and how best to tell an authentic story. Using a case study from their work with the Sloan Museum, the team had a deeper blue sky meeting with the museum’s staff, asking the improv questions ‘yes and what if…’ to distinguish that what they wanted wasn’t just a beautiful gallery, but an honest reflection of Flint Michigan where the museum was based.
The staffing crisis was a topic of conversation throughout the sessions. Michael Mack spoke about the new Talent Academy to provide opportunities and a pipeline of talent for the resort’s hires. In fact, in the queue for a slide at Rulantica on our visit, we saw large posters asking the captive audience if they wanted to know more about employment opportunities at the park. They could scan their interactive RFID band to get an email with more information.
Margareet Papamichael, director, CLEAR Associates, spoke about the economic landscape for many operators. Ageing populations and fewer young adults have led to a squeeze on the median workforce. More degrees and education means more student loans. With the cost of living crisis, many employers are struggling to raise wages as their own costs are skyrocketing.
Papamichael called on designers to ‘get rid of the lap bar’ and as an industry design structural solutions to help operations in the parks minimise staffing needs or improve efficiencies.
Gardaland for TEA SATE 2024
The event was MC’d by Suzy Griffiths, VP at IMG and George Lawton, lighting designer, George Lawton Lighting Design, with help from Chris Willrich, director at D J Willrich, and the TEA EMEA President.
Melissa Ruminot, TEA international president and VP of marketing and client development at Nassal, was in conversation with Kevin Murphy, senior VP at Kraftwerk Living Technologies. The session focused on Murphy’s career in the industry and his recent Peter Chernack Distinguished Service Award. There was also a session with David Willrich, the DJ Willrich founder, as a newly awarded TEA Master, moderated by Lawton.
Paul Kent, VP of global business development at Mad Systems handed out the ‘Coggie’ awards.
On the final day, attendees could see the results of the NextGen Showcase – a new educational and mentorship programme for young professionals. Throughout the last 10 months, participants have worked on a hypothetical brief on a new theme park project with support from senior mentors in the industry and practical, educational sessions, to train the next generation of theme park professionals.
The 23/24 programme is now open until 9 June 2023 for entrants. The programme is also seeking mentors who would like to support the project.
TEA SATE 2024 will be going to Gardaland, in Italy. The next EMEA event is a TEA Explores trip to Parc Asterix in France from Thursday 22 June 2023 to Saturday 24 June 2023.