The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Summit took place from 21 – 23 April 2022, bringing together creatives from across the industry. Day one of the Summit looked at trends affecting the industry with speakers sharing best practice: see here for our full report on day one. Meanwhile, day two of the TEA Summit celebrated the 2022 Thea Award-winning projects.
Created in 1994 with the single Lifetime Achievement Award, the program has grown to recognise excellence across the themed entertainment business as well as recognising services to the TEA.
Celebrating talent on TEA Summit day two
During day two of the TEA Summit, winners were grouped into categories for in-depth case studies with master of ceremonies Brian Morrow, owner, BMorrow Productions. Thousands of craftspeople and creatives across the industry created these award-winning projects.
“I encourage you to shine a light on all the folks responsible for these fantastic projects,” said Morrow.
On Saturday night, the black-tie Thea Award Gala recognised the winners.
Stuntronics – Aerial Robotics Technology
You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t seen the video of Disney’s flying animatronic Spiderman at the newly opened Avengers Campus, California Adventure. In real life, the animatronic is even more impressive, freely swinging unaided metres above guests’ heads during the show.
In the session on day two of the TEA Summit, Morgan Pope, research scientist, and Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer, talked about the development of the animatronic.
“It started off asking could we throw a robot across a room,” said Dohi. “Then Morgan developed the Brick- a robot that would control how it moved in space using weights.”
Through months of work and development, the brick became hinged and was able to land the correct way. Not long after, it started becoming human-shaped, and the team were able to start programming twists and flips. Overall, the team has done over 1000 test throws refining the technology.
“The movements the robot does in the air are determined by real-world physics,” said Pope.
A special moment
It was a special moment when they put the spidey suit on the robot for the first time according to the team.
In addition to developing the robot, the team also had to develop a net system that could decelerate the animatronic at very quick speeds, sometimes with forces up to 15G.
The animatronic is in use several times a day in the show at the park. There are three Spiderman robots: Tom, Andrew and Toby.
Stuntronics was commissioned as part of Avengers Campus before the technology had been fully created. The team developed the tech in time, but is this hard when R&D is a critical part of the schedule? “When leadership has your back, you can do anything,” says Dohi.
Pope and Dohi are now back in the Disney R&D lab “cooking up more stuff.”
Super Nintendo World
Super Nintendo World opened last year in Universal Studios Japan, with two rides: Mario Kart: Koppa’s Challenge and Yoshi’s Adventure; a restaurant Kinopio’s Cafe; and two retail locations.
The immersive gamified land draws guests into the world of Nintendo video games, showing the industry how to do large-scale guest interaction and personalisation. Universal worked in close collaboration with Nintendo’s creative director (and Mario’s creator) Shigeru Miyamoto, right from the very beginning.
“The land has beloved characters and iconic places. It really is the best of Universal and the best of Nintendo’s games,” said Thierry Coup, chief creative officer and senior VP of Universal Creative Studio.
“We had to invent a lot of tech and patents for this land, all in service to the games to elevate this experience,” said Coup, speaking on day two of the TEA Summit.
A close partnership
The close partnership meant that Universal could use Nintendo’s characters in new ways. It even allowed Universal to create a new character, Chef Toad, for Kinopio’s Cafe.
Guests can interact with games throughout the land- the deeper into the land you go there more you’ll find to explore. Characters will know your name, due to the personalisation of your ‘power up’ band, if you complete certain challenges, others will open up similarly to the format of a video game.
“You can’t just jump into a boss battle in a video game,” said Devin Boyle, show design producer at Universal Creative.
It was important for the team to give guests visual and sound feedback, so they could learn the games with little/no instructions it was all intuition.
Music for the land uses the same iconic score as the games, reimagined with a full orchestra. On one side of the land, the strings might seem louder, as you move to another side the horns might change, as you move through the land and through the game the music changes.
The interactives expand from the land into the queue lines and even on the two rides- there is no edge to the game. For guests who don’t want to play the game or who might not have a smartphone, there is a second story for the land, that Bowser has stolen the golden egg and you must stop him!
Players can engage as much or as little as they want, but in a time of digitisation and competitive socialising, the park is seeing a lot of repeat visitors to beat their high scores.
Mario Kart: Koppa’s Challenge
The e-ticket ride at Super Nintendo World is the new Mario Kart: Kappa’s Challenge. This merges augmented reality (AR), LED screens, physical sets, projection mapping, interactives and a cutting edge ride system. The attraction is the winner of the Thea for technical innovation.
There were no headsets on the market that could do the job. So, the team went about creating their own. Similarly to Stuntronics, the operator signed off the ride before this tech was fully developed.
“We committed to a metaverse ride before we had the technology. But that is why Universal is cool believing in it,” said Coup.
The result was a unique headset, linked to the car. Guests could clip this to a Mario style plastic hat which was easy for cleaning. The amount of tech in the ride is huge: head tracking technology, cloud gaming communicating the scores to the guests’ mobile phones, software to support player interactions, an enlarged field of view and image resolution.
The tech also allowed for more of a direct connection to guests, unlike 3D films.
“With AR we know where you are looking in a game, so Mario can make eye contact with you. Characters can talk directly at you, and everyone in the car individually,” said Tom Geraghty, executive producer at Universal Creative.
The entire ride runs completely on a game engine, a first for Universal. This allows the team to tweak and adjust the content easily.
As a result, the high-throughput capacity ride has levels of personalisation not seen anywhere else in the industry – yet.
Night Safari Singapore
The Night Safari in Singapore won a Thea Classic Award. Created by Dr Ong Swee Law and the first of its kind, Night Safari allows guests to explore through walking trails, guided tours, shows and performances between 6:30 pm – 12 am. The attraction’s unique location makes it ideal for the night.
“Most animals in our region are nocturnal,” said Mike Barclay, group CEO at Mandai Wildlife Group. “They are most enjoyed at night, rather than a dark room in the day.
“We are on the equator and we don’t have seasonality. This means that we open at the same time nearly every day of the year. It is actually less humid at night, and even the mosquitos seem to play ball and are less active at night.”
The attraction has had over 25 million visitors since opening in 1994, with regular updates to exhibits and attractions. The Night Safari has 25 globally managed breeding programs. It also donates a chunk of revenue straight back into conservation projects across Asia. This is something Barclay was proud didn’t stop despite the pandemic.
“We use our zoos as a platform to educate people and protect diversity. We also have to walk the walk,” added Barclay.
Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth Zoo won a Thea Award for its new Elephant Springs expansion. Starting life as a travelling menagerie bought by the city of Fort Worth in 1909, the zoo has transformed over 112 years to become one of the leading institutions in the country. It is home to 7000 animals and over 500 species.
“We aim to strengthen the bond between humans and animals through conservation and education,” said Avery Alander, director of marketing at Fort Worth Zoo, speaking on day two of the TEA Summit.
This focus on conservation was the centre point of a multi-year development and expansion with Dunway Associates and Whitney Turner, including now open African Savanna and Elephant Springs and the upcoming areas Asian Predators – Hunters of Africa and Forests & Jungles.
“There are only 30,000-50,000 Asian elephants in the wild. Soon, zoos will be the only spaces left for these animals. This led to the creation of Elephant Springs,” said Alender.
The team looked for inspiration some 9000 miles away in India and Malaysia. Elephants use watering holes as their social hub, so they knew they wanted to use water as a central theme for the area. In consolation with the Zoo’s elephant team, the new area uses waterfalls, beaches, hidden barriers and rock work. This creates a thematic and enriching area for the elephants and other animals.
As a result, the zoo has since had its highest attendance to date. Plus, the animals seem to be happy: the zoo celebrated the recent arrival of Baby Brazos, the 4th elephant calf born in the zoo’s history. This is a major achievement for this endangered species.
Animakerspace – USA
Jenefer Brown, EVP & head of global live, interactive & location-based entertainment at Lionsgate Entertainment was the moderator for the inspire session on day two of the TEA Summit. This recognised the Thea award-winning Animakerspace – USA.
Created by Garner Holt and team, the new ‘Garner Holt Education Through Imagination’ is a lab and education space that provides real-world examples for K-12 children to learn the STEAM skills needed for the themed education workplace. They can learn to build and code animatronics from raw materials in just a few days.
Results have shown students previously at risk before enrollment have gone on to perform better in other subjects after the Animakerspace USA program. By using the arts and sciences of themed entertainment, it is hoped to skill up the next generation and talent pool something the wider industry can all benefit from.
There are 40 ‘Garner Holt Education Through Imagination’ labs planned across the US. A second location, donated to Give Kids the World in Orlando, will be opening soon.
Weta Workshop Unleashed
All the way from New Zealand, Richard Taylor, CEO/creative director and Richard (Rik) Athorne, LBE director from Weta Workshop spoke about their new interactive attraction in Auckland – Weta Workshop Unleashed.
Weta was originally created by Richard Taylor and his wife Tania and focused on sculpting before working with Peter Jackson on all his films, creating 48,000 props across five departments for Lord of the Rings alone. Since, they have worked across tv, film, public art and LBE with the creation of sister companies like Weta Digital doing VFX and WetaCave for Retail.
However, they wanted to create a space that was ‘for the New Zealand kiddies’.
“For too long the film industry kept the secrets secret- which doesn’t help kids who want to enter the industry. Our attraction in New Zealand, introduces them to it,” said Taylor.
The importance of creativity
When asked about the importance of creativity, Taylor said:
“I think we run the risk of raising our children into a future of vanilla flavoured Ikea furniture. I urge our industry to inspire and tell kiddies they can give it a go and kick off into a career they might not have thought of.”
Weta Workshop Unleashed begins as a backstage tour that quickly goes awry. Guests are taken through various film departments, interacting with the sets and actors. They also learn about the creation of various parts of a set, props, effects and films. Where else can kids learn about facial capture, alien autopsies, jump scares in a horror house, robotics, and prosthetics?
“We wanted a story where the fourth wall was blended, stories and reality were merged. Is this real?” said Athorne.
Whilst some parts of the attractions are high-tech, it was just as important to Taylor to use low tech that could be repeated at home such as tin foil sculpting with a spoon.
“I take it as a mark of success that multiple supermarkets around the greater Auckland area have reported being sold out of tin foil,” said Taylor.
Indigenous Peoples Experience
In a session during the TEA Summit day two, moderated by Monai Rooney, executive director of the Big Break Foundation, Fort Edmonton Park discussed the award-winning new exhibition the Indigenous Peoples Experience.
“Canada has a history that we shouldn’t be very proud of,” said Darren Dalgleish, Chief Executive Officer, president at Fort Edmonton Park.
“It was important that Fort Edmonton Park represented the story of Edmonton not just the last 100 years but 1000 years ago,” said Renee Williams, senior VP at Fort Edmonton Park.
The 30,000 sq foot cultural centre is set on seven acres of walking trails, animal sculptures and gathering places. Developed in close consultation with local first nation communities, the new exhibition uses storytelling and technology to give an authentic voice to the local indigenous communities and their wisdom, traditions and history.
The experience has 10 full-time interpreters who can interact with guests and relate their own experiences to the exhibition. This was particularly pertinent with the recent revelations about the Canadian Residential Schools. So, the team is careful to support interpreters who may be re-engaging in the trauma of their childhood or their ancestors.
“Ultimately this is not our story. This is a local indigenous story,” said Dalgleish. “It’s about facilitating that story and getting the f*** out the way.”
Roads to Freedom
Emmanuel Dufoing, project manager, Luc Petit by Les Nocturnales spoke about the award-winning show ‘Roads to Freedom’.
Directed by Luc Petit, the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne, Belgium, hosted the nighttime spectacular to recognise the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Actors from all over Europe, and local citizens from Bastogne took part in the 360-degree show. By chance, it also suffered the same freak cold-like conditions that day (-10C) as the real battle (-20C!).
The next session at the TEA Summit day two focused on play and was moderated by Chris Lange, creative executive & owner, of Creative Studio Berlin. Level 99, a new attraction concept in Massachusetts, USA, gives the guests agency.
“You have to be the hero of your own story through challenges,” said Matthew DuPlessie, CEO, Level 99.
Throughout the 48,000 sq. ft. location (an old SEARS department store) guests play a series of individual games ranging from 1 to 3 minutes. They have an RFID bracelet that is recording their score. The games have wildly different themes and content, from physical to mental to mystery and communication style games. You never know what is behind each door.
“You can’t possibly do it all in one visit,” said DuPlessie. “We have over 30 hours of content, rooms are clustered into threes by theme.”
The attraction has done very well post-covid due to the small groups of guests. In addition, all rooms are unstaffed and reset automatically. Investors are happy and the next two locations are being planned at the moment. “Come see us, we are hiring!” joked DuPlessie.
Secret Life of Pets, Off the Leash
Next up during TEA Summit day two was Secret Life of Pets, Off the Leash which won the Thea for outstanding achievement for an attraction. The family dark ride at Universal Studios Hollywood positions guests as pets on the happiest day of their life – adoption day! Greeted as pets with no collar, guests make it through the walkthrough queue that weaves through NYC apartments with animatronic characters from the movies.
“We had over 64 animated figures. Each figure had to have a longer show as its a walkthrough there was no queue forcing guests through. They need to be able to run all day every day,” said Sandy Kent, project director at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The ride blends classic animatronics with the latest gesture and artificial intelligence technology. As the cart moves in front of a mirror, a puppy is projected onto the guests. The puppy’s moves and facial expressions then change as the guests interact.
“It reinforced the idea that we are pets. We had to develop the software so that even if guests did a rude gesture they’d still look like cute puppies,” said Jon Corfino, VP at Universal Creative.
Space for the project was a challenge. So, the entire ground floor is the ride system, with the queue going upwards above.
COVID delayed the opening of the attraction, but this was a blessing in disguise according to Corfino. “We had an extra 3-4 months of fine-tuning the timings and the show.”
What you wouldn’t imagine during the lockdown was that 64 animated figures needed ‘exercising’:
“We needed to keep running the animatronics and rides across the park during the lockdown. You can’t let rides stay still,” said Kent.
Reodor Felgen’s Hyperakselerator
Hunderfossen Adventure Park in Norway brings guests into Norway’s most famous IP – the works of Kjell Aukrust. Originally a panoramic cinema, the building was redeveloped into the new 4D ride to have an eco-conscious theme.
“Now for the burps and farts,” said Hogne Hostmaelingen, CEO of Hunderfossen Adventure Park.
The media-based attraction by Simworx tells the story of the inventor Reodor Felgen who has invented a new energy source from the burps and farts of farm animals.
“The ride recognises the humour of author Kjell Aukrust,” said Hostmaelingen.
“Simworx’s challenge was to design our vehicle (a kick sled-like vehicle) into something that could be approved in Europe,” said Hostmaelingen.
The entire animation was created in a game engine. This allowed the team to tweak and make changes to the unique content.
COVID meant the $3m project couldn’t be tested out on an audience beforehand, only the team at the park. In fact, Nick Farmer, Hunderfossen and Simworx all met for the first time in real life during the Summit, after working together for many months online.
Symphony: A Virtual Journey into the Heart of Music
A session moderated by Shawn McCoy, executive VP at JRA – Part of RWS Entertainment Group, focused on two winners in the ‘surprise’ theme, on TEA Summit day two.
Symphony: A Virtual Journey Into The Heart Of Music is an immersive audiovisual experience that focuses on classical music. “We are not made for music lovers,” said Ignasi Miro Borras, corporate director of culture and science at La Caixa Foundation. “We are for people new to it”.
The exhibition is a 45-minute experience with two rooms. In the first guests experience 2D films with musicians performing around the world.
The second room is a VR film, with guests seated as if in an orchestra arrangement. The VR film places the guest inside the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, led by world-renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel. They then travel inside the instruments, to experience the tones, sounds and textures of the various layers of a piece of music.
“What does a trumpet sound like on the inside? What is it like to be in a world-class orchestra?” said Igor Cortadellas Escayola, creative director.
The permeant installation is at the Caixa Forum in Barcelona and a travelling version will tour Spain too.
BOOM! Britannia Mine Museum
Where will you find cutting edge rollercoaster technology in a Mine Museum? BOOM! The latest experience at the Britannia Mine Museum wanted a way to emphasise the power and scale of the abandoned mill and tell the story of the 20-floor building on the rock side that was the leading copper mine during WWII.
Using modern technology and storytelling, the abandoned building is brought to life in a dramatic show with light and smoke, scent canons and pneumatic dust, to show the scale of the old machinery welding, crushing rocks and sifting for copper ore.
“We had a 100-year skip cart weighing 3 tonnes that hadn’t moved for decades, that we wanted to lift up the hill, with the audience right below it!” said Nancy Holme, project manager, BOOM! Britannia Mine Museum.
Working with Dynamic Technologies, the replica skip car is lifted up the hillside and dramatically falls using modern custom rail technology thrilling guests below, but keeping them safe.
The challenge was working in a heritage-protected building and knowing what could and couldn’t be changed and working around it. In the final result, guests can marvel at the original scale and size of the building, but the effects and story connect them to the authentic place, with some theatrical scares too!
Gideon’s Bakehouse creator Steven Lewis has perfected his cookie recipe with no cut corners. It still takes over 20 hours to prepare just 1/2 pound of cookie and has a cult-like following. After becoming hugely popular at the first location in Orlando, it caught the attention of Disney and in June 2021, Gideon’s Bakehouse opened a second location in Disney Springs.
The team has developed an elaborate gothic, mysterious atmosphere for the shops. A sense of storytelling and themed entertainment drives the decor, the lighting, and even the brand on social media. Each individual cookie has a story. The shop has record lines to get in, longer than many Disney rides on most days.
Gideon’s Bakehouse has won the Thea for outstanding achievement for themed retail on a limited budget.
Lifetime Service Award
The TEA Gala, held in the Ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel, recognised all the award winners.
Long-time TEA volunteer Lynn Allmandinger received the Peter Chernack Distinguished Service Award at the Gala too. For the last 27 years, Allmandinger has supported various TEA committees including the TEA International Board for 6 years and 2 years as President of the TEA Western North America Division from 2006 to 2014.
Allmandinger has worked year after year as house manager for the TEA Summit and Thea Awards Gala. She even had her headset on when accepting the award!
Disney’s California Adventure – a TEA Networking event on day two of the Summit
At the end of day two, TEA Summit attendees were able to enjoy a networking event at Disney’s California Adventure.
The event included a showing of the returning World of Color nighttime spectacular. Attendees also enjoyed private access to The Avengers Campus WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure & Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! after park closing.
The next TEA event will be TEA SATE Europe taking place in Liseberg, Gothenburg, Sweden 4-7th May 2022. Attendees can register here.
Header pic credit: Martin Palicki