Blog Post by Clara Rice for BlooLoop. Original post found HERE.
While the Thea Award winning projects may have all been different, Clara Rice explores some common themes that run through this year’s honourees
“The end of something is always the beginning of something else”. The Themed Entertainment Association’s 2023 Catalyst Award recipient, Susana Tubert, quoted this phrase to describe her illustrious, non-linear career through New York theatre, cultural festivals to eventually Disney. But this adage about transition and change could have just as easily described the reinvigoration of the TEA’s INSPIRE Week. TEA INSPIRE 2023 took place at the Disneyland Hotel from 13 – 15 April.
The three-day affair included the TEA INSPIRE Leadership Forum, TEA INSPIRE Conference and Thea Awards Gala. It offered a new format, a new look and a new commitment to sharing knowledge, celebrating excellence and sparking creativity.
TEA INSPIRE Leadership Forum 2023
The week began with the inaugural TEA INSPIRE Leadership Forum. This new event, sponsored by Fivestone Studios, was included in the program as a direct result of TEA executive and C-suite member feedback. According to TEA executive director, Lindsey Nelson, it was a resounding success. It offered small group breakouts, open dialogue and deep dives into the current and future state of themed entertainment.
We really wanted to develop a place and space for executives to come together in an intimate forum (attendance was limited to 100) to engage in an open dialogue about business challenges in a space that transcended the competitive realm,” said Nelson.
“A highlight of the event was the participants’ ability to select from a list of discussion topics related to industry opportunities and challenges via an online polling tool. From those member-selected discussions, big ideas began to bubble to the surface, which became the mined ‘gold’ from this collective thinktank.”
According to Nelson, 70% of attendees reported that they made 5 to 10 new contacts by attending the Forum. 100% of post-event survey respondents indicated that they achieved their own personal participation goal. Plans are already underway to expand the Forum and create more avenues for dialogue in 2024.
TEA INSPIRE Conference 2023
Although Master of Ceremonies Brian Morrow quipped that the event: “Smell[ed] like the old one but feels like the new one”, TEA INSPIRE not only featured a new name (it was previously known as the TEA Summit) but also new voices, fresh perspectives and a reimagined peek behind the curtain of the Thea Award recipient projects.
“The Number One effort was listening to our audience and editing the program to better fit their current needs,” said Morrow, founder and owner of B Morrow Productions.
Those edits included networking icebreakers led by Bob Kodzis of Flight of Ideas, Inc. and moderated panel presentations themed around such topics as “Surprise”, “Spark”, “Perform” and even “Over, Under, Around and Through”. There were also breakout Q&A sessions in smaller rooms throughout the Disneyland Hotel’s Conference Center.
“We have new audiences we design for. To match this, we must have and need new types of talent to join the industry,” added Morrow. “INSPIRE will always tap into our legacy talents and giants in our industry but look for more emerging professionals to take the stage with new voices and experiences to share. This combination of talent that makes our industry so special is powerful.”
The combination of talent alluded to by Morrow included projects of varying sizes, scales and locales, one of the more diverse assemblages of moderators, presenters and recipients in the event’s history and a continuation of TEA’s INSPIRE Scholarship Program in partnership with Big Break Foundation.
Common themes at TEA INSPIRE 2023
The winning projects may have been different. However, several common themes emerged as both owners and operators graciously lifted the curtain on their processes. Andreas Veilstrup Andersen, group CEO of Liseberg, noted that this willingness to share both milestones and mistakes is somewhat unique to the themed entertainment world:
“There is an openness and willingness to share in this industry that is fantastic.”
1. Pandemic perseverance
TEA INSPIRE 2023 was only the second to take place since the onset of COVID-19. So, the majority of the recipient projects faced the daunting challenge of designing, fabricating, installing and/or opening in the chaos of a global pandemic. For some recipient projects, the pandemic offered unforeseen challenges, but for many, COVID created opportunities and strengthened team bonds.
Underlandet is Liseberg’s first dark ride addition in 50 years. The team designed and fabricated it with P&P Projects and Quarry Fold Studios in the middle of the pandemic, with suppliers and the client team communicating solely through Zoom. Despite the obstacles of remote creation and the park’s subsequent 17-month COVID closure, the ride has since delighted both children and adults alike. It now anchors the park’s new Kaninlandet children’s area.
China’s strict prevention methods and long-term closures had a profound effect on the construction of Universal Beijing Resort, and consequently its award-recipient attractions Jurassic World Adventure and How to Train Your Dragon: Untrainable. As with Underlandet, reviews were often handled remotely. The creators joked during their session that attractions were “built via WeChat.”
Those onsite, however, faced 14-day quarantines upon entering the country and then another seven days upon arrival at the resort. Even after these quarantines, team members endured temperature checks six times per day. They also had to decipher contract tracing apps and health check info written entirely in Mandarin.
Rather than fostering isolation, however, these shared challenges brought the crew and creatives of Universal Beijing Resort closer together. The obstacles unified them around the goal of completing their portion of this monumental project. “Everyone lived and breathed this experience,” said Daniel Jenkins and Rebecca Team of the Jurassic World Adventure creative team. “And they all protected it.”
Exploring sound at TEA INSPIRE 2023
There were other glimmers of light and possibility among the darkness of COVID. The ongoing difficulties of travel in and out of China meant not only that the Shanghai Astronomy Museum also had to be designed and constructed via Zoom, but it meant that the museum’s representatives could not attend INSPIRE and the Thea Awards gala. Instead, attendees enjoyed a session about a seldom-discussed topic in themed entertainment – sound.
Composer Stephen Thomas Cavit took attendees on a musical journey through the museum’s galleries of Home, Cosmos and Odyssey. He explained how the nuances of each composition coincided with the exhibits’ subject matter. For instance, warm comforting notes for Mercury, and distant, colder tones for more distant planets. The presentation offered a rare glimpse at how auditory creations shape an experience.
According to Jennifer Tuft and Jo Cantrell, the creators of Particle Ink: Speed of Dark, COVID was the “best thing that could have happened” to their project. They were primed to workshop their “moving graphic novel” in New York City in Spring 2020 and had signed the lease on a five-story building. As with so many of these projects, the pandemic forced them to reassess, reprioritize and reimagine. So, they moved their production to a flexible space in Las Vegas.
They also “catapulted into the metaverse”, exploring the realm of Web2, Web3, NFTs and mobile gaming. This has now expanded their business model and revenue-generating potential while enveloping them in Las Vegas’ vibrant creative community.
2. Risk and (long-term) return
Although the attractions, rides, parks and museums that visitors enjoy every year often appear to have been conjured by magic, the process is rarely easy. Even in the absence of a pandemic, supply chain issues, a credit crisis and a labor shortage.
These projects often take several years, thousands of people, and (hundreds of) millions of dollars. They also take grit, wit and a steely capacity for risk. At times, you need to motivate and encourage. Other times, as Lifetime Achievement recipient Roland Mack of Europa-Park asserted, “You have to be hard, you have to believe and you have to go.”
Chasseurs de Tornades is the newest ride at France’s Futuroscope. It was the culmination of four years of work and the result of an even longer Vision 2025 master plan aimed to increase dwell time and in-resort spend. This 360-degree motion theater was the first of the park’s three new planned attractions. According to Futuroscope’s creative director, Olivier Heral, it is also a signal to the public that “things are changing.”
Other future additions include a waterpark and a second hotel. It’s these kinds of capital risks that have catapulted the park to the third largest in France, entertaining nearly 2 million visitors annually.
A leap of faith
James Jenson literally took a leap of faith when developing Thea Award recipient project JUMP by Limitless Flight as part of his mission to “create life-changing moments.” Despite the fits and starts of producing a free fall simulator, the fits and starts which he candidly and sometimes comically shared in a behind-the-scenes video, the leap eventually paid off. The project has plans to scale to multiple locations.
Addressing TEA INSPIRE 2023 attendees, he said that he believes the process of jumping off a mountain – either in reality or virtually – was a metaphor for life’s uncertainties. He said that sometimes we all need to just “step into the darkness and see what happens.”
Of all these award recipients, perhaps the best example of long-term return was that of Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, recipient of the Thea Classic Award. This spectacle has delighted over 300 million guests since its debut at Disneyland on 17 June 1972. The creative team reminisced on some of the technical challenges of its fifty years. For instance, maintaining half a million colored lights and choreographing the show’s illuminated performers.
Despite the show’s iterations and changes over the years, the first bars of “Baroque Hoedown” still send audiences cheering and the Blue Fairy again lights the way. For The Main Street Electrical Parade’s original project director, Ron Miziker, “the excitement never stops.”
T he lines between categories of destinations are blurring as immersion grows as an art form and storytelling conveyance. Three of the more prevalent examples of this trend that were celebrated at TEA INSPIRE 2023 were the Irish Racehorse Experience, QUAKE – Lisbon Earthquake Center, Absurdities: Vol. 1 and, on a massive scale, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.
The Irish Racehorse Experience celebrates a legacy of Irish thoroughbred racing spanning over two thousand years by incorporating 21st Century personalization and interactivity. Throughout the experience, visitors learn what it’s like to own, train and race their racehorse. After buying a yearling, they choose their trainer and devise a program for their specific thoroughbred.
The training journey culminates in a five-furlong race. Here, visitors have the opportunity to actually ride a mechanical horse programmed to their training specifications. Their previous choices determine race’s outcome. By combining a time-honored tradition with modern gaming technology, the Irish Racehorse Experience allows the everyday visitor to get in the saddle of this unique sport.
Shaking up history-based attractions
The first rumblings of QUAKE – Lisbon Earthquake Center began in 2015 when Portugal’s capital decided to make a targeted investment in tourism and leisure. The challenge: create a 90-minute attraction at the intersection of science, history and entertainment that focused on the city’s devasting 1755 earthquake and subsequent fire and tsunami, with a goal of turning over 144 guests per hour.
The result, seven years later, was a 100-minute, story-driven walkthrough experience with 9 scenes, featuring state-of-the-art projection mapping, an original soundtrack, special effects like smoke and scents, immersive show lighting and richly thematic environments. The attraction reached its stated goal of 144 guests per hour and similar attractions are currently in development.
By literally shaking up the definition of what a history-based attraction could be, QUAKE blurs the lines between museum, show, ride and attraction. Creative director Marco Ruzza likened the challenges of creating the experience – and the tremors of life in general – to the safety protocol of a seismic event: “Drop! Cover! Hold On!”
Absurdities: Vol. 1 by ANDSOFORTH cooks up a feast of delights for the eye and the palette. It offers six perfectly timed and portioned courses of food with a side order of performance art and a garnish of the unexpected. Hidden doors reveal kaleidoscopic rooms. Zebra-suited comedians serve what look like burgers and fries but are in reality anything but.
The small groups whisked through this whimsical dining experience discover quickly that nothing is what it seems. But the disillusionment is all part of the fun in this experience that is part café, part escape room, part immersive theatre and all multisensory mastery.
Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser has quite simply redefined the immersive experience forever. This mind-blowing multi-day adventure combines live entertainment, interactive performance, food, beverage and accommodation into a never-before-seen spectacle.
According to the creators, who spoke at TEA INSPIRE 2023, the secrets to Galactic Starcruiser’s success include extensive playtesting. This began years before the first guests ever entered the space. The immense talents of the attraction’s cast members and crew are also key. The performers must transform into the characters of the Star Wars pantheon over a period of two straight days. They guide guests through the narrative, or perhaps consciously lead them astray.
By actively listening and engaging, these performers, led by a show director behind the scenes, ensure that the guests can contribute to this journey through a galaxy far, far away at a level that is comfortable for them. The personal interactions that result from this unprecedented blend of cutting-edge technology, complex storytelling and immersive theater are rarely predictable, often emotional and always out-of-this-world.
In addition to fully immersive experiences, tools like Beaudry Interactive’s Diva Real-Time Control, a suite of hardware and software tools that enables performers to activate design elements through mere gestures or poses, are busting down the fourth wall of more traditional theatrical experiences to create next-level audience engagement. From Big Bird walk-around characters to TV game shows, Diva amplifies performer interactions with lighting, scenic, sound and the guests themselves. This creates richer and more integrated immersive storytelling possibilities.
Creating a stand-alone ride, food and beverage experience, retail outlet or live show is not enough. As these celebrated projects demonstrate, the beauty is in the blend.
4. Agency and urgency
The ramifications and aftermath of COVID-19 have shed a spotlight on a variety of societal issues. This includes racial inequity, economic disparity, sustainability and the growing impact of technology.
These critical issues are intrinsically important. And, they are also beginning to modify the behavior of consumers, who choose to spend their money with companies committed to systemic change. The TEA explored several of these topics at INSPIRE 2023 in its State of the Industry Roundtable, moderated by PGAV Destinations VP, Al Cross.
From a sustainability perspective, time is running out to address global warming. Several parks are pledging to mitigate the damage. According to Dan Memis of Universal Destinations & Experiences, Universal’s attractions have vowed to be carbon neutral by 2025 because “there is no other option.” Area 15 CEO Winston Fisher explained that sustainability efforts will be most successful if they are more than a box to check or a speech to give. Operators must integrate them into an attraction’s overall narrative.
AI and DEI
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another hot topic in themed entertainment. Creators are, in equal measures, lauding it as a game-changing design assistant and condemning it as a soulless, Big Brother overlord that seeks to displace workers and replace human interaction.
Darcy Troy Pollack of MGM Resorts International asserted that AI is “just another member of the team”. Pollack said that AI is “too valuable of a tool not to use” but it must be “embraced cautiously”. Meanwhile, Europa-Park’s Michael Mack reassured the crowd that “we are still in the people business”. He added that “we have a role to play in the future entertainment of tomorrow.”
The panel commented on the positive changes towards centering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the TEA INSPIRE conference, among the TEA’s initiatives and throughout the industry. However, they also acknowledged that the work was far from complete.
The panelists admitted that themed entertainment is not seen as an attractive employer. That is because creativity is often not considered synonymous with economic opportunity. And the adjectives “purpose-driven” and “entertaining” are often seen as mutually exclusive. The lack of representation in the industry, and the differing definitions of DEI across countries and continents, present additional challenges.
The panelists agreed that there is no quick fix. But they said that sustained and broad outreach to educate diverse groups on the career opportunities available and train them on the skill sets necessary offered the most realistic chances of success. The overwhelming sentiment expressed in the Roundtable was that change is coming. Companies, organizations, attractions and destinations can either move with it or be engulfed by it.
Making a difference
This was a sentiment shared by the TEA’s two Thea Catalyst Award recipients as they spoke at TEA INSPIRE 2023. Chevy Humphrey is president & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago and chair of the Board of the American Alliance of Museums. She cautioned that the future of America is here, it is diverse, and it is empowered.
Chevy Humphrey accepting her Thea Award. Image credit Annie Lesser“Audiences have agency and want to make a difference,” she said. “They want to be part of organizations that care about the world.” She pointed out that “Generation A will be the most culturally and racially diverse generation in history”. Humphrey also challenged INSPIRE attendees to examine how they will communicate with and learn from these future leaders.
She advised the group to avoid “one size fits all” approaches and develop programs tailored to their individual communities. Plus, she said they should be humble and embrace things they may not want to hear. They should center “modeling, mentoring and motivating” and seek partnerships as opportunities to scale their efforts.
Fellow Catalyst Award recipient Tubert has used her position as creative director with Disney Live Entertainment to scale her representation efforts and foster inclusive narratives. She has created productions like Disney Festival of Holidays, Plaza de la Familia, and the Lunar New Year Celebration.
Tubert encouraged attendees to “keep finding your voice” to drive positive change and embrace Walt’s mission that everyone is welcome. But like Humphrey, Tubert believes that change comes from the top:
“It’s all about finding the right leaders to do the work.”
5. Stewardship, opportunity and hope
During TEA INSPIRE 2023, several of the projects talked about being stewards or protectors of a ride, show or exhibit. However, Roland Mack’s stewardship transcends a single attraction, encompassing a resort, a 243-year-old company and seven generations (and counting) of family legacy.
Creating the second-largest park in Europe was not something that the Mack family ever aspired to do in the remote town of Rust, Germany. But Roland Mack’s father Franz Mack was “a believer.” Even in the face of countless naysayers, the Mack Family believed that by starting a small park that served as a showroom for their rides, they could grow it into something special.
Now those naysayers work for Europa-Park. The expansive resort offers a theme park, an indoor water park, six hotels, a campground and world-class food and beverage options. The resort’s creation has been a family affair since the beginning. Roland’s wife worked in the office and supported its success. Now, his children are working in various aspects of its operations.
“We try to be very close together and close to the business,” says Roland. He now watches the 9th generation of Macks, his grandchildren, as they gleefully test out new rides: “The key is to make them curious to do nothing else.”
The journey has not been without its hardships. A 2018 fire engulfed two areas of the park, destroying the Pirates of Batavia Boat Ride. But despite the damage, the park opened to guests the next day. And a reimagined ride of the same name opened a mere two years later. Last year, 250 displaced Ukranians sought refuge at the resort. They were welcomed with shelter, food, language instruction and in many cases employment.
Mack likes to think that along the way: “We did more right things than wrong. We try to do faults only one time.” The key to success is to: “Keep going all the time, never stopping.” It’s also critical that you have a deep conviction in what you are offering the public. Even in the face of unprecedented challenges. “You have to believe in the future. Believe that the business model is doing well.”
Mack’s optimism and belief in the business model appear to be well-founded. Pre-COVID “consumers” have become post-COVID “revenge travelers.” Thea Award-recipient parks like Europa-Park, Liseberg, Futuroscope and the Disney and Universal resorts are experiencing their best attendance since 2019.
“Everyone is so hungry for memories and content, said Fisher. “There’s never been more excitement for experiences. Memis added: “We’ve gotten through the pandemic. As a result, people now are not about buying. They are about creating memories. It is a moment of relief and opportunity.”
The Thea Awards gala at TEA INSPIRE 2023: a night of surprises
Capitalising on this moment of opportunity, and bolstered by a refreshed TEA INSPIRE conference, this year’s Thea Awards Gala offered some debuts and surprises of its own. This included an animatronic baby velociraptor from Jurassic World at the pre-Gala reception and red carpet pre-show news coverage by TETV. There was also a surprise closing number, with Tinkerbell leading glow-stick-waving guests in a mini-Main Street Electrical Parade.
But the biggest surprise of the night was the announcement by Nelson and TEA International Board President, Melissa Ruminot that the 2024 Thea Awards Gala would be moving to the Loews Hollywood. It will take place on 16 March 2024.
A world-renowned marker of excellence
“We are thrilled to be able to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Theas in the epicenter of the entertainment world – Hollywood!” said Nelson. “The Loews Hollywood offers the ideal venue to help us meet our goals of creating space for business networking and entertainment while delivering strong attendee value for the price point. After seeing the success of this year’s events, our volunteers, staff and production teams are highly motivated to continue to enhance the program to deliver greater value to members.
“We have long known the Theas are integral to the member value proposition. We are all excited to continue to help them realize their full potential as a world-renowned marker of excellence.”
To ensure that the Thea Awards continue to celebrate excellence in the field, TEA encourages creators, doers and dreamers to submit their projects for the 2024 Thea Awards. Nominations are now open and will be accepted through 7 July.
For more information on the 2024 Thea Awards recipients, check out the digital Thea Awards program. TEA would like to thank its TEA INSPIRE 2023 sponsors THG, Zeitgeist, FrankNDesign, Fivestone Studios, and its scholarship partners, AREA 15, Big Break Foundation and Warner Brothers. Sponsors for the Thea Awards Gala included Production Partner RWS Entertainment Group and Premier Patron Sponsor Chimelong.
Top image credit Annie Lesser