TEA Summit Day Two | Thea award winners & Gala


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.

Themed Entertainment Association TEA Logo

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. 

Disney Stuntronics

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. 

Mr Miyamoto shows viewers around Super Nintendo World

“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. 

super nintendo world interative game
An interactive game in the Super Nintendo World themed land.

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. 

super nintendo world japan mario kart AR headset

“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. 

Mario Kart Super Nintendo World Universal Japan TEA Summit day two
Mario Kart: Kappa’s Challenge uses interactive AR technology

“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.”

Night Safari wildlife reserves singapore - Tram with Malayan Tapir
Trams on the Night Safari

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.

Elephant Springs Fort Worth Zoo TEA Summit day two

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. 

An intro to Weta Workshop Unleashed

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.”