"What is your happiest memory growing up?" asked Taylor Jeffs, director of design at the Goddard Group, a North Hollywood-based entertainment design firm.
Riding a hot tub carousel might make it to the top of that list. For some, it might even be wandering around the world's most disappointing theme park.
Jeffs is part of a team dedicated to crafting these sorts of memorable experiences through a practice known as entertainment design. "Our medium is the only medium that can engage all five senses," he explained. With advancements in technology to propel the industry, theme parks especially are becoming as enthralling as they are interesting.
Theme Park Design
"Our philosophy is that great entertainment works anywhere," said Jeffs. "If you can just surprise people in a good way, that's what leaves them with something powerful. That's what leaves them with a positive, happy memory. And also, we try to over-deliver and create something that you can't see entirely the first time."
Entertainment design is responsible for such widely loved, family-friendly attractions as theme parks, aquariums, casinos and museums. "Anything where basic architecture or interior design become something beyond that," Jeffs added.
"We aim to hit all four quadrants in all of our attractions," he said. "What I mean by that is: male, female, young and old. We want to get everyone." Jeffs likened theme park design to the clever nature of most animated films. "The movies are actually made for the adults, but the kids will enjoy them because there's little things for them," he explained. "[We] design attractions essentially for ourselves, but make sure that everybody, no matter who they are, will enjoy them."
"[We] design attractions, essentially, for ourselves but make sure that everybody, no matter who they are, will enjoy them"
In order to do this, they must consider cultural norms, values and practices in order to properly cater to a target audience. In adhering to Chinese superstitions toward ghosts, for instance, Hong Kong Disneyland reinvented the Haunted Mansion attraction as Mystic Manor in 2013, replacing ghosts with enchanted objects.
Bathing in Amusement
Such cultural distinctions may also initiate the development of seemingly quirky park concepts like the Spamusement Park Project to be set in Beppu City, Japan, a location known for its hot springs. In the United States, the thought of going to the spa appeals to those looking for an intimate, relaxing and private experience. In places like Beppu, Jeffs noted that there are whole market enterprises funding an industry around communal baths and the like. "That's very much a cultural difference," he explained.
The project was announced via a video starring Mayor Yasuhiro Nagano, who marketed the concept as an "amusement onsen city initiative." The term "onsen" refers to hot springs or establishments centered around hot springs. He pledged to build the park if the video reached one million views. The clip ends with the statement: "Striving to become the world's best hot spring city, Beppu."
An international online source recently published a piece confirming that the Spamusement concept received enough hype to begin construction of the project.
"The issue is, now a lot of parks get announced for ulterior motives," noted Jeffs. He warned that while some projects are announced with the hopes of raising funds for those actual projects, others are announced to accrue funding for other ventures. "A lot of developers don't make their money with the theme parks," Jeffs said. "They'll make their money with ancillary projects like residential malls."
An Affinity For Impermanence
Some parks are not meant to last or even explicitly entertain. In fact, parkgoers tend to be drawn toward the ephemeral nature of certain attractions. Banksy's bemusement park Dismaland, which opened for five weeks in the summer of 2015, wove artwork curation into entertainment design. The park boasted works from at least 58 artists and set a peculiar mood of contemplative dismay throughout its grounds.
"What was really neat about that was that it was temporary," said Jeffs. "You want to go and be part of it, capture it and share it."
"What was really neat about that was that it was temporary," said Jeffs. "You want to go and be part of it, capture it and share it." And many did.
A piece published in The Guardian noted a less favorable encounter with the park, referring to it as "somewhere to come to say you went." This sort of reaction seems to exemplify the ways in which the park succeeded in harboring an unfulfilling experience for patrons. The article argued that the park fit the definition of an art exhibit more than it did that of an amusement park, and it certainly appears as though the theme park came across as bemusing as its marketing had promised.
Jeffs further noted that if such an attraction were made permanent, it would likely be shut down or perceived by patrons as a gimmick. Fourth year Mechanical Engineering student and co-founder of the RIT Theme Park Enthusiasts Club Robert Cybulski added, "Dismaland was not so much trying to make people laugh, but trying to make people think."
Having completed its life cycle, the dialogue prompted by each piece in Dismaland will live on through photographs and archived memories.
An Immersive Industry
"There's no end in sight right now for this kind of extreme immersion that's happening," said Jeffs.
"It's a mix of art and science," he explained. Fittingly, the RIT Theme Park Enthusiasts Club is comprised of majors ranging from engineering to design. They meet every Thursday night from 8–10 p.m. in Gleason 2139 and make various trips during the semester to explore theme parks together.
In 2015, the club attended and placed first at the Ryerson Invitational Thrill Design Competition in Orlando, Florida presented by Universal Creative.
"We were presented with many different challenges to design rides, to design themed rides as well as come up with engineering solutions," said Cybulski. The team excelled in the themed challenge, pushing the envelope conceptually. "When people go to amusement parks they don't want to experience something they can experience in real life, they want to experience something new, different," he continued.
"When people go to amusement parks they don't want to experience something they can experience in real life, they want to experience something new, different," said Cybulski.
He and Jeffs both stressed that a love of theme parks and willingness to immerse one’s self in the work are what make for successful designs. "Our job is to know the world, know what's out there and know what's happening in theatre, film and every medium," explained Jeffs. "Pull all the best things, bring them to our world and pick and choose the things that we've gotten value from."
Jeffs recalled, "Steve Wynn, the developer from Vegas, had a great quote. 'You can't intellectualize a swimming pool. You have to get in the pool and swim.'"