“Themed Entertainment” refers to the creation of an artificial environment where various elements bring to life a thematically driven story for immersing visitors in a strongly identified or branded setting. Visitors enjoy these experiences as a form of escapism and play.
This definition describes the core principals we use in creating themed experiences: artificial environments, a thematically driven story, the elements created to bring it to life, the immersion of visitors in this environment, the built environment represents the company’s brand and leveraging escapism and play as emotional connections to our guests.
As themed experience designers, we apply these principles in a HUGE industry that encompasses many markets and businesses. Let’s look at the core elements that make it up…
Let’s start with the obvious ones first: Theme Park. Since Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955 in Anaheim CA, Theme Park was born! This indicates an experience that is “choreographed” for guests from the moment they arrive until they leave. Not just a collection of rides but stories that have been stitched together and told through different mediums around a central theme. Guests connect emotionally with these experiences and this connection drives their desire to return.
Next, let’s look at Water Parks. These properties have grown exponentially in the last 10 years and have become full-day destinations themselves, featuring attractions, story-based themes, retail/dining, and are found in exotic locations. Some parks are completely enclosed and offer year-round experiences; some feature aquatic life that appears to swim beside you… Water parks can even be found on private island destinations that you can only access through a cruise line.
Finally, the last entry in the “obvious” category is Hotels. Many locations are full-on resort destinations featuring designs that are based on a story and intellectual property as well as integrating experiences to emphasize these elements. Animal Kingdom Lodge, Aulani in Hawaii, and of course, the Galactic Star Cruiser at WDW are several examples. These locations have created artificial environments and have used the theme to bring stories to life. There are other great examples throughout the world, I just used Disney because they provide such obvious illustrations of these principals!
Now, on to the categories you may not have expected to be included in “Themed Entertainment”, starting with Casinos. Locations like Las Vegas and Macau, China have created venues that offer many of the same experiences found in modern theme parks and they’ve implemented them with a high level of investment and quality. These “entertainment cities” that contain casinos at the heart of their business are infused with attractions, lodging, dining, retail, and entertainment to keep visitors on the property and drive business. Most of these venues feature-rich, thematic designed, and are story-driven.
Some of these properties are Hybrids since they combine multiple elements in one place. We’ve looked at a couple so far: Water Parks and Casinos, however, One of the most notable “hybrids” is the Retail, Dining, and Entertainment properties. Places like The Americana, Disney Springs, and Chelsea Market represent the creation of destination experiences featuring all three elements, typically aligned within a single story or theme. Many of these properties also combine a residential component as well so that a portion of the customer base is “built-in”. The retail and dining spaces are surrounded by entertainment venues, fountains and park-like settings to encourage a longer dwell time.
In the last 20+ years, cruise lines have increasingly added thematic features traditionally found in theme parks and have organized the ship-board experience to be more “choreographed”. These attractions, entertainment, specialty dining, and retail all align with the definition of themed entertainment and have propelled cruise lines into being a dominant competitor in the industry. Larger and more complex attractions have also found their way onto cruise ships to offer guests, even more, to do once onboard and they’ve innovated their technologies to create even more “frictionless travel” experiences.
Even animal parks differentiate themselves from traditional “zoos” by creating immersive habitats for both visitors and animals. Attractions, live entertainment, elevated dining, and retail are now featured in many of these properties all with a story and theme supporting the animals they showcase. Disney’s Animal Kingdom certainly is one of the best examples of this hybrid venue however, Sea World, Ocean Park, Atlantis, and Chime-long animal parks also exemplify this fusion of themed elements.
Next, let’s review the component fields… These are the industries that make up the world of themed entertainment. A great synergy develops when these industries come together and contribute to the creation of immersive, dimensional stories. I’m sure you will recognize these components from experiences you remember from your favorite themed experiences.
To dream up and build these dimensional stories, Walt Disney thought it was logical to use the film-makers in his studios. He knew these professionals had Animation and Live Action experience, and that they would use locations, action, and characters to tell a story. He created a medium of storytelling that was focused on “placemaking”. He believed the characters and stories told on film could be brought to life as dimensional, immersive experiences.
Think of all the themed experiences you’ve enjoyed that leverage the medium of film. This medium represents one of the greatest contributors to the heritage, culture, and structure of themed entertainment.
Explosive innovations in technology have made augmented and virtual reality applications in themed experiences more frequent and, in some breakthrough cases, the need for wearable devices has been eliminated! The digitally-generated media for these technologies has also improved to the point where it is nearly indistinguishable from reality- although this level of fidelity requires massive investment. New attractions like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in Shanghai Disneyland or ‘Flight of Passage’ at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are great examples of this advancement.
The “gamification” of themed experiences has existed for some time, becoming more mainstream with attractions like ‘Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin’ and ‘Midway Mania’ and even live performances such as ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ where audiences participated interactively with the show and help determine outcomes. Interactive gaming technologies have also been created for use on guest’s smartphones to add dimension, story, and dwell time within themed lands, attractions, and cruise ships. This allows guests to experience a deeper dive into the story and characters.
The museum and display industry has overlapped with the themed entertainment world for many years with both segments benefiting from the collaboration. Museums now create immersive, sometimes highly themed environments to deliver a more emotional connection for guests to an exhibit. Most notably, Epcot Center’s World Showcase houses rotating collections from multiple countries alongside thematic attractions, performances, and immersive films representing these cultures. Many technologies, such as projection mapping or immersive audio design, that have primarily been used in theme parks, are also featured in well-known museums world-wide.
Probably the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “simulation” is the mechanical systems that help create incredible experiences like ‘The Amazing Spiderman’, ‘Star Tour's, or ‘Indiana Jones: Temple of the Forbidden Eye’. Although this type of motion-based simulator has been used for years in attractions and has been steadily evolving, another type of simulation has been used ubiquitously in the industry. The ability to pre-visualize buildings, attractions, large dimensional elements, or even virtual ride-throughs has been assisting teams all over the world to develop these themed experiences more efficiently and affordably for the last 10-15 years. This is one component field that has applications both on stage and off!
As a stand-alone art form, live theatrical performances have existed since ancient Rome and Greece. These experiences have greatly evolved and have become much more immersive as well as integrated into themed environments. Thanks to the use of technology, many of these performances feel more like a living movie or an attraction themselves and no longer need to be housed in a theater! Theme parks, casinos, water parks, and even cruise lines feature live performances that take many forms all over their venues, creating unique experiences for guests that “link” attractions into a seamless and on-going story.
“It all starts with a story…”
Anything that is created as a “themed environment” or an experience requires a story. In these applications, the story needs to be more than just “what happens & who lives here”. It can be a powerful tool to create solutions, deliver on business objectives, and connect a brand to a consumer in a unique and meaningful way for life- if done right.
In this context, a story can be used to create any dimensional space where humans interact. It can be as simple as a guiding principle that “dimensionalizes the brand” or as complex as an attraction focused on a time and a place with characters and a theme.
It’s a small world, after all!
As a reminder, the themed entertainment industry is global. Most developed nations feature this form of entertainment from Asia, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Europe, and the Americas. That means there is enormous potential for you! One of the most important things to remember is that, as creators of these experiences, we need to consider many things before starting a project; culture being one of the largest influences on design & story-telling.
By exploring these fundamental elements to the world of themed entertainment, I hope you see that there are many opportunities for entry at points that align with your skill, experience, and passion. Stay curious, keep learning, and don’t ever give up!