“The days of of ‘Build it and they shall come’ are over – An Interview with Theme Park Veteran Barry Upson

For my article about movie tie-in theme park attractions, I interviewed Barry Upson in June 2009. Barry was the executive in charge of the concept, facility design, construction and operation of the original Univeral Studios Tour in Hollywood. For twenty years, from 1979 to 1999, he was executive vice president of Universal Creative. Among other things, he managed the Master Planning of Universal City Florida. He now works as a consultant in his own company. The interview was done via e-mail. It has been slightly edited.

Real Virtuality: Please describe your motivations and the steps you took back when you were creating Universal’s Studio Park. What did you consider back then?

Barry Upson: A little history. In 1914 Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, invited paid guests to view shooting of silent films from bleachers on the lot. The first movie studio “tour” was attended by 500 people per day. During the 1920’s through the 1960’s and beyond, several studios operated small, exclusive walking tours of their lots (Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM, etc.). As you know, Disney used their cartoon and animated film, characters widely in the creation of Disneyland. Universal permitted Grayline Tour Buses to drive through the studio (for a fee) in the late 1950’s. Passengers saw film clips, a make-up show and ate lunch in the Commissary.

The Grayline experience convinced Universal management that there was a business in a working studio tour for several reasons: There obviously was a huge pent-up demand to go “behind the scenes”, see how movies are made, maybe see “stars”. The tour allowed for the promotion of prime time TV shows, of which a majority were being filmed at Universal at the time and offered the possibility of creating new revenue from an existing plant. A tram tour could be routed hourly to either expose or avoid shooting companies as circumstances demanded.

At the outset, and for several ensuing years (1964 to 1980), the studio tram tour and the tour guides were the “stars” and the tram special effects and shows were the “bit players” at Universal. Early tram impacting attractions (Collapsing Bridge; Red Sea Parting; Ice Tunnel; Flash Flood; Runaway Train, etc.) were themed and presented as 4-D film-like special effects – not necessarily tied to specific movies or TV shows. Early very simple effects demonstrations in the tour center were more directly tied to a title: “Creatures From the Black Lagoon”; “Frankenstein”. Original stunt and animal shows (and screen test theater) were generic “behind the scenes” presentations.

By 1980, Universal Tour attendance levels made Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm direct competitors. Larger, bolder and more recognizable attractions were needed to compete and build attendance. This is when “rights” (IPR’s) started to become a major issue. During the 1980’s, major attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood were based on the storyline or adopted the theme and/or name of major Universal IP’s. Examples are the “Conan Show” (live actor-animation), the “A-Team” live action stunt show, the “King Kong” Tram attraction with major figure animation, the “Earthquake” drive-through with major special effects and the “Castle Dracula” live theater attraction.

Even gaining these exclusive rights internally was often difficult and costly because of cast deals, partnerships, etc.

How did you walk the line between creating things that were both “real”, i.e. credible, and entertaining at the same time?

The most boring aspect of movies and TV is the actual filming process and even that can be overcome with the on-set presence of “stars”. Since most, if not all of Universal’s attractions are based on a final film product or selected compelling components of the process (stunts, animals, screen tests, etc.) there was never really a line between “real” and “entertaining” – the attractions had to be both. The studio environment is also always “real” in its own way.

Have any of these motivations or proceedings changed, esp. later when the park in its current form developed?

The motivation is generally the same. Theme parks want to create a compelling guest experience, they want to adhere effectively to a theme or storyline. They have to build attendance, beat the competition, keep to a budget and schedule and make a profit.

Possible proceedings to achieve this are: work on a grander scale, improve the design dteails, use more complex content or infrastructure, achieve a higher capacity and use more sophisticated operations and maintenance.

Securing exclusive rights to strong film properties from any source is more critical now to creating an attraction that cannot be duplicated competitively. Universal Studios Florida would not exist except for Spielberg Film rights. The same is true for Universal’s Islands of Adventure with Spider-Man, Dr. Seuss, Dudly Doright, etc.

Is it different making movie attractions then and now? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

A realistic evaluation of potential market size and composition and effective response to it is more critical today. The days of of “Build it and they shall come” are over.

Other than dealing with the design/development and business practice differences of producing attractions or parks overseas as opposed to the United States, I think the fundamental creative process is the same. At both Universal and Disney, the basic concept is created in-house with design extension done by highly experienced outside firms and fabrication/construction done by the most qualified companies worldwide.

What are the important aspects one has to consider first and foremost when creating a new attraction based on movies?

The most important factors in building a good movie attraction are exclusive I.P.R. Rights, a “pre-sold” successful movie or TV theme, a simple, powerful storyline or concept and a compelling, cohesive guest experience. Moreover you need an adequate schedule and budget, high quality consultants and purveyors, an adequate capacity for minimal wait times, effective experience set-up in the queue line or pre-show. You will want to minimize cannibalization of attendance at other primary park attractions and finally you will need xcellent marketing.

Many Theme Parks simply adopt a movie/t.v. title as a name for a standard iron ride or Show. Universal, Disney and Warners built their attractions around the basic premise of the film. There is a world of difference in these two strategies.

How do you decide which movie to turn into a ride or other attraction?

How to “decide” is based on any number of different factors depending on circumstanc: It’s having an appropriate theme within the park’s attraction mix and a key scene/storyline that will drive a compelling attraction concept. Rights availability and a need for a distinct competitive edge in the park’s market almost always influence the decision. Often the basic idea is market tested with consumer groups and the outcome of those tests can be the final decision maker.

Does the technology inspire the art or vice versa?

Whether “art” or “technology” inspires attraction concepts can best be described by some examples. The “Back To The Future” ride was inspired by the DeLorean scenes in film. Its replacement, the “Simpsons” ride is character driven. The “E.T.” Ride follows E.T.’s film journey home. All the “Dr. Seuss” Attractions at Universal Islands of Adventure are based on original stories and the “T2-3D” Attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood is basically single character-driven. So you could say they were inspired by the “art”. However, “Earthquake”, as part of the Studio Tour, was made possible by very large-scale environmental animation. “Spider-Man” is a unique, complex marriage of 3-D film, animation and ride and has the vehicle at the heart of the attraction. With “Backdraft”, large scale, real fire effects are the show and the “Jurrasic Park Ride” was shaped by the only available hillside site at Universal Studios Hollywood..

How important is good Theming to a working theme park?

You will find many in our industry that think the term “theming” is really overused in almost every facet of our life and has become a cliché. However, true theming is still critical to successful park development and operations. Good park theming is seeing to it that everything in the park contributes positively to its central story line and to a compelling, cohesive guest experience: no jarring, non-thematic events, services or facilities are allowed. This is easier said than done, but it is vital to success. Disney understands and executes theming as well or better than anyone, yet I believe they would be the first to admit that the theme environment of California Adventure was mediocre at best and impacted attendance.

Effectively linking a film’s elements to its name-sake attraction through images, dialogue, sound effects, musical score, and special effects is always desirable because it grounds the guest more strongly in that specific entertainment experience. There are many good examples of these film/attractions linkages at Universal and Disney parks: “Spider-Man”, “Simpsons”, “T2-3D” among them. Universal has just installed a state-of-the-art A/V system in their Universal Hollywood trams that permits guests to view scenes from films while traveling through the sets where they were shot, as well as other visual materials.

Is the theme park business a struggle sometimes? Did you ever terminate a project because you had the feeling it didn’t connect well enough with the movie it emulated?

I actually have quite a few war stories about both winning and losing battles in the Park/Attraction development wars. They range from rocks bouncing into trams during the rockslide effect and a real earthquake at the “Earthquake” attraction that is part of the Studio Tour. At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the perfect animation of a Triceratops was not good enough for the guests and in one case, an entire park concept had to be scrapped due to competitive gamesmanship: about 1979, Universal planned to move the Hollywood park concept of backlot tram tour and entertainment center to Orlando, Florida, which is Disney territory. In seeking a partner for the project, Universal made presentations to Paramount and a few other studios at the time. Shortly thereafter, Disney announced plans to build an MGM-Disney Theme Park at Walt Disney World…fundamentally the same park concept that Universal was planning. Universal elected to proceed anyway, dropped the tram tour component and created the first, true Movie Theme Park concept: Universal Studios Florida.

How does a ride keep up its appeal? When does it get obsolete?

An attraction keeps its appeal by remaining relevant to its market and to the primary entertainment mission of the park. It becomes “obsolete” when the original Film or TV. base drops from sight (e.g. “E.T.”), when the technology becomes passé or when we find that the site or facility is better used for a new attraction.

What is in stock for the future of theme parks?

Ah, the future. Ten years ago, I gave a speech at IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) entitled: “The Future Just Passed By…Did We Miss It?” The premise was that the basic ideas that will drive the future of the themed entertainment industry are already out there in some form. We just have to recognize them. I still believe that.

Can you think of a current example that embodies your philosophy about movie theme park attractions best?

I think the recent conversion of the “Back to the Future” attraction to the “Simpsons” attraction was a brilliant concept and has proved highly successful. The original concept for “Back to the Future” offered the opportunity to create new software for the existing facility and ride system and it worked.

The new Harry Potter Land at Universal’s Islands of Adventure should be a smash hit because of deep involvement by the original film makers, particularly its art director, and a commitment of land, budget and creative team by Universal to fully exploit the strength and appeal of the theme subject.

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a feature article, a post on how the article came about, and an interview with Craig Hanna (Thinkwell Design).

How Theme Parks make Movies Inhabitable

If you want to experience interactive cinema, don’t go the cinema. It’s in theme parks, where you can experience the thrill of living inside your favourite movies. This article explains, how it is done.

Probably, the idea is as old as art itself. It existed already when the ancient Greeks painted perspective backdrops for their plays: aesthetic immersion, the attempt to draw the audience into the fiction of the artwork; to provide it not only with an intellectual but with a physical experience.

Today, in media society, immersion – from Latin immersio, to submerge – seems almost complete. The cinema of blockbuster attractions does everything it can with rapid camera moves, booming sound systems, brilliant colours and the newest 3D-effects to offer the spectator just that: forgetting the world around you, almost touching the fantastic, diving into the world of artifice.

Cinema’s predecessor, as well as its companion, were panoramas and similar fairground attractions, whose appeal didn’t lie primarily in the phenomenon of moving pictures as such, but rather in the perfect surround experience, supported by sounds, smoke effects and mechanical movement. Even back then, the most popular source material was provided be spectacular events, real or imagined: enormous battles or adventurous journeys, as in Frederic Thompsons „Trip to the Moon“ , an illusionistic spectacle full of moving canvasses and haunted house elements. The attraction premiered in 1901 and drew huge crowds to Coney Island’s „Luna Park“ just outside New York City for several years from 1903 onward.

Technology and artistic vision come face to face in these attractions, just like they do in film. Their creators shy away from nothing to establish the perfect experience. When he started to work on designs that would transfer the vortex-like cinematic effect of his animated movies, achieved through an insistance on all-singing, all-dancing hyperrealism, onto the overarching concept of an amusement park in 1951, Walt Disney became one of them.

Disneyland opened in 1955. The employees of its development company called themselves Imagineers – a portmanteau of „imagination“ and „engineers“. In its four park areas, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Fantasyland, every detail is „themed“ to match the respective area’s concept, from plant life and the costumes of the employees (called „cast members“) down to the garbage cans. Paths are constructed in such a way that you rarely spot the other lands if you are walking through one of them. so the impression is never jarred. The area is mined by tunnels, allowing the cast members to move about without disturbing the guests: work makes itself invisible. Only the centre of the park, the Sleeping Beauty Castle, now a brand in itself, is always visible.

Disneyland is „at the same time absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic“, wrote Umberto Eco in 1973. If the visitor brings the appropriate attitude, he can lose himself in Disneyland – not in a specific movie, but in the stuff that movies are made of. The escapist element of Hollywood’s dream factory: in theme parks it becomes a reality. The spectator becomes a user, a protagonist in his own film.

The parks owned by Universal Studios, in Hollywood, Florida and Japan, are – broadly speaking – not as playful as their Disney equivalents. Nevertheless, they allow the audience to intimately immerse itself in movies. Even in the silent era, Universal founder Carl Laemmle supplemented his studio’s income by letting visitors tour the backlot. In 1964, building on Lammle’s legacy, Universal opened its now-legendary Studio Tour in which guests are driven around parts of the property in a trolley car.

Nowadays, the Tour’s real behind-the-scenes part, which destroys rather than creates illusions, is kept to a minimum. Instead, the cars pass a collapsing bridge, the passengers witness an earthquake and a flash flood and may watch the Jaws shark gobble up a diver. In the eighties, when Universal felt capable of competing with Disney in the theme park market, the studio also began to build parks with attractions based on the films it had produced, first in Hollywood than elsewhere. Disney has, in turn, adapted the backlot concept and opened parks like „Walt Disney Studios“ in Paris.

„The most boring aspect of movies and TV. is the actual filming process“, says Barry Upson, one of the creators of the original tour, who became executive vice president of Universal’s recreational division in 1979 and remained there until 1999. The newer attractions were built on highlighting a film’s gripping aspects. They were also fully themed.

This can mean several things. In many cases, the main attraction is preceded by a pre-show that works like a title sequence, explaining connections to the ur-film and introducing characters and setting. The building housing the attraction is often designed after one of the sites in the film’s universe: Thus, the „Simpsons“-Ride is set in a fairground in Springfield, „Star Tours“ plays out in a space station in a galaxy far far away, „Shrek 4D“ drops the audience into Lord Farquaads dungeon.

Just as often, hovever, it seems enough to evoke a well-known film’s visual vocabulary while you are waiting in line. Signs use symbols and fonts employed in the film. Announcements like „Keep your hands inside the vehicle during the ride“ are acted out by the film’s characters on monitors or via audio broadcasts. Because the waiting can take an hour or longer, the observant visitor has had more than enough time to remember the scenes he loved when he finally takes a seat. By that time, he is in the centre of the universe he will subsequently be propelled through via rollercoaster, motion simulator or „4D-cinema“ – the 4th dimension usually consists of shaking seats and a few jets of water.

To optimise their immersive effects, Universal rides as well as newer attractions in parks by Disney and Warner Bros. Worldwide, usually start with the basic idea of the film and build the ride around it. This doesn’t mean that rides cannot later be „re-themed“. The „Simpsons“ ride at Universal Studios Hollywood used to be a trip Back to the Future in the DeLorean. And rides without specific cinematic source material can become movies in their own right, as Gore Verbinskis Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy has proven.

When a new attraction is created, the first step consists of thinking about whether the trouble is worth it. „’Serious’ films without action or dramatic stories with lots of dialog don’t work very well“, says Craig Hanna, chief creative officer of Thinkwell Design in Burbank, who have built rides for pretty much every major player in the industry. „Animated films, action films, big sci-fi films and films with great chase, stunt or fight sequences obviously work great“ It’s also important that the film was succesful and has established itself as a brand.

At the core of the design process should be the film or intellectual property’s essence: „We serve as an intermediary between the owner or operator and the IP holder“, says Hanna. „We have to create an experience that meets the business, financial, scheduling and operational goals, while ensuring the creative idea and production on the project remains true to the original IP“

Hanna and Upson agree that harmonic thematic design is essential for an exceptional amusement park. When the Theming is right, says Upson, „everything in the park contributes positively to its central story line.“ Hanna agrees: „When we develop theme parks we look at theming as part of the storytelling of the park, what we call Environmental Storytelling“. Just as an architect will develop a land-use plan, the company designing the attractions creates the masterplan for the content of the narrative architecture: „Every element, visual and audio cue the guest experiences, sees, hears, touches or even tastes, must reinforce the park’s story“

The process is expensive, the designer admits. With attractions based on Film-IPs, it would be ideal if the company could only employ original elements from the film. Often, however, the rights for theme park attractions are not part of the license agreements that studios sign with actors or producers. Because they would have to be negotiated anew in these cases, the Theme Parks sometimes find ways around them.

Hanna names the work on „Ice Age Adventure“ as an example, a ride built by Thinkwell at „Movie Park“, formerly „Warner Bros. Movie World“, in Bottrop, Germany. The attraction is a so-called „dark ride“: the passengers pass by illuminated dioramas populated with animatronic puppets telling a story. In this case, they are telling a „1.5 sequel“ as Hanna calls it, to the first Ice Age movie.

„The ride is not really a sequel, we leave that to the screenwriters“, says Hanna. „But it is based on what you know and love from the original movie“. The idea of the „semi-sequel“ is popular: a similar concept is at the heart of the „Shrek 4D“-film, also at Bottrop, or its more spectacular cousin: a combination of 3D-film and stage show in an expansion of Terminator 2’s universe at Universal Studios Hollywood.

For the „Ice Age Adventure“, the film’s original score and German voice talents were too expensive and had to be imitated for the ride. However, Hanna explains, Thinkwell was able to use the original wireframe models of US animation studio Blue Sky as a base for their puppets.

One of the few film-based rides where both intellectual property and ride design hail from Germany is the 4-D-Film „Lissi und die wilde Kaiserfahrt“ („Lissi and the wild Kaiser’s ride“) at Bavaria Filmstadt in Munich. Here, the partners could build on close cooperation. Nico Rössler, the Filmstadt’s director, Thomas Zauner, CEO of visual effects company Scanline and writer/director/actor Michael „Bully“ Herbig had worked together several times before.

Realized within the limits of theme park financing in Germany – the project cost a „six-digit amount“, says Rössler – the „Wilde Kaiserfahrt“ also is a sort of 1.5-sequel to Herbig’s animated feature Lissi und der wilde Kaiser („Lissi and the wild Kaiser“, a parody of the classic German film trilogy about princess Elisabeth „Sissi“ of Austria starring Romy Schneider). The ride draws about 400.000 to 500.000 visitors per year, since it opened in October 2007. It is based on a scene from the film in which the caricature of the classic „Sissi“-character is chased down a snowy slope in a life raft by two poachers. The 3D-film adds a few locations to the original scene and makes the spectator part of the chase. A vintage hydraulic gimble gives the seats a good shake and an IOSONO sound system courtesy of the Fraunhofer institute, which is able to place sound effects anywhere in the room with the help of several hundred speakers, allows for a unique sonic adventure.

The centre of attention here is definitely the general experience, not the immersion in an alien world. There is also not much Theming to speak of: While the antechamber to the cinema is decorated in a mock baroque style reminiscent of the film, the screening room itself is naked, not least because the sound system doesn’t allow otherwise, as Rössler explains. However, this does fit in with the concept of the whole park, says the Filmstadt’s director. It’s not primarily content that’s on display here, but well-known film personalities and brands combined with a look behind the scenes of filmmaking in Germany.

On the other end of the spectrum, the „Wizarding World of Harry Potter“, which just opened its gates in Orlando, Florida, clearly aims at pushing the envelope when it comes to engulfing its visitors in fantasy. The park allows guests to explore the world of the famous sorcerer’s apprentice close up. The hub of the compound is a reconstructed Hogwarts, flanked by the wizarding village Hogsmeade and several rides. The park’s website also features immersive techniques: by means of „augmented reality“, the user can project holographic images onto his own hand with his webcam.

A visit to Ollivanders wand shop, where a wand chooses the visitor and not vice versa, mirroring the books, promises to be one of the highlights of the „Wizarding World“. In Theme Parks, if everything works as it should, it is only when you exit through the obligatory gift shop that waits at the end of every attraction, that you notice it is time to leave the waters of the film world you were swimming in.

A German version of this article appeared in epd film 7/10

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a post on how this article came about, and interviews with <a href="Barry Upson (formerly Universal Studios) and Craig Hanna (Thinkwell Design).

Theme Park Package

In May 2009, I visited California for the first time. As is the custom, I also visited the Universal Studios park. I always liked theme parks, but what I experienced there really blew my mind. I loved the attention the rides paid to every detail and the way how the creators managed to make the films on which the rides were based come alive again: An Idea for an article was born.

I pitched the article to my editors at epd film and they agreed to let me work on it. I looked for interview partners in the states and I travelled to Munich’s Bavaria Filmpark to investigate how the Germans do it. Thomas Zauner and Nico Rössler from Scanline and Bavaria Filmstadt were very generous with their time, as were Barry Upson, formerly of Universal Studios Recreation Group, and Craig Hanna, CCO of Thinkwell.

The article came together while I visited Disneyland Paris for the first time in October. However, by that time, the season for theme parks in Europe had already passed and the editors decided to postpone the article until this summer. Now, it has finally appeared in print.

For my American interviewees, I translated the article into English. I will post this article, as well as the unabridged versions of the interviews I did with Craig and Barry, in this blog. Please enjoy.

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a feature article, and interviews with Barry Upson (formerly Universal Studios) and Craig Hanna (Thinkwell Design).