Assignment for students to introduce themselves to the class in a fun, creative way
After enrolling in the Themed Entertainment Design Certificate Program at IUPUI, the very first class I took was called Intro to Themed Attraction Design. One of the very first assignments we were given was to introduce ourselves to the class in a creative way. The assignment was called “Show Us Your Story,” and the idea was to Each presentation was required to answer these questions:
Why you’re taking this class
Fun fact about you
As a newly minted Themed Attraction student, I knew I needed to come up with something that would be relevant to the industry, while also being fun, imaginative, and actually fulfilling the requirements of the assignment. As I was brainstorming ideas, I realized that a proper introduction in the themed entertainment world is delivered via a pre-show. After considering several different popular attraction pre-shows, I decided to do my own take on a pre-show video inspired by a Disney classic.
Class project to design a completely original theme park land
As a part of and Introduction to Themed Attraction Design class, our project for the semester was to create a theme park land. Our four-person team had to come up with an original concept for a land that would be part of a larger theme park. All ideas had to be our own. We were not able to rely upon existing intellectual property (IP) that is either owned by or currently in use by another theme park or company.
Throughout the semester, we went through the creative and story development process. We thought through the entire guest experience, including land layout, attraction and restaurant concepts, entertainment offerings, graphics, nomenclature and signage among other things. Other aspects of the project included: researching locations for feasibility, completing a budget and revenue analysis, creating a project timeline from concept to opening day, generating operations plans and analyzing sustainability options.
All of that work came together to create Dreamland:
Step into a world of dreams where you can feel lighter than air or venture into the darker corners of unconsciousness. DREAMLAND is just one land of a larger theme park concept that focuses on the themes and stories of timeless characters such as Mr. Sandman, Father Time, Mother Nature and Old Man Winter.
In addition to presenting our final project at the end of the class, we also had the opportunity to submit Dreamland to the Themed Attraction Student Showcase at themedattraction.com. This showcase was open to students in themed entertainment design programs from around the world and entries were judged by industry veterans according to eight categories:
Best in Class – Storytelling/Show Writing/Guest Experience Narrative
Best in Class – Ride & Show Systems (Engineering the Ride)
Best in Class – Master Planning / Area Development / Landscape Design
Best in Class – Appeal of Core Idea
Best in Class – Use of Technology
Best in Class – Costume / Character Design
Best in Class – Vehicle Design
Best in Show – Overall
While we did not win in any single category, Dreamland did receive honorable mentions in Master Planning / Area Development / Landscape Design and Storytelling/Show Writing/Guest Experience Narrative.
Class project to design a theme park attraction based on a given intellectual property (IP)
ACME Factory Frenzy is an attraction concept I developed for the Planning in Themed Attraction Design course at IUPUI. For the assignment, we were given a list of intellectual properties (IPs) that we could choose from the design an attraction around. I chose to design my attraction around the classic Looney Tunes characters. To make the project as realistic as possible, we were also required to choose a location for our attraction from a list of pre-selected locations.
Thinking through the Looney Tunes universe, I pretty quickly focused in on my favorite duo, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. As a child, I was always entertained by what creative contraption the Coyote would think up to trap the Roadrunner next. In the context of what would make an intriguing attraction, I started to wonder what it would be like if we could actually step into the famed ACME factory. I then summed up the experience with my high concept:
Tour the famed ACME Corporation and see where the best-selling products are made.
Here was my original concept submission:
The IP I have selected is the classic Looney Tunes characters from Warner Brothers. The attraction, tentatively titled “ACME Factory Frenzy,” will be a trackless dark ride themed as a tour of the ACME factory where you can see all the great products ACME offers and how they are developed and made. We may even catch a glimpse of Wile E. Coyote on the tour as he plots his next trap for the Roadrunner. Wile E. Coyote can’t resist remaining seated in his tour vehicle, as he wants to get his hands on some of the products showcased right away. So, of course, things get out of control quickly as he inadvertently creates a frenzy throughout the factory tour.
I selected this IP and story, as it would appeal to a wide audience. Older generations remember the classic Looney Tunes characters with fondness, while the younger generation is being re-introduced to these characters through newer movies, such as Space Jam: A New Legacy. The story of the ACME factory tour has a lot of possibilities, and using a trackless ride system adds to the fun as rides can be different each time and you may never know what is going to happen next.
In the alternate universe where this ride is being developed, I imagine that The London Resort has acquired the theme park rights for the classic Looney Tunes characters from Warner Brothers. The London Resort is currently under development in Kent, just a 17 minute train ride from central London, with a proposed opening date of 2024. The land in the map below that is currently designated as “The Studio” would become “Warner Brothers Studios” and the massive and imposing ACME factory would sit at the end of the main thoroughfare, acting as the weenie drawing guests further into the land.
According to a report released by the planners of The London Resort, they anticipate 6.5 million visitors annually during the first full year of operation in 2025. This means the park would expect approximately 33,000 guests per day on average, with a peak day of around 41,000 guests. The attraction will be designed with an hourly ride capacity of around 2,000 guests. With over 100 days of rain annually and temperatures that can range from lows around 3°C (37°F) to highs around 22°C (72°F), ACME Factory Frenzy is being designed as a fully indoor experience to enable year-round operation.
The experience would begin as guests enter the main entrance to the factory and pass by the reception area. Phones will literally be ringing off the hooks at a desk with no one there to answer. In the background, you will see and hear the ACME Automated Phone Messaging System playing recorded messages to incoming calls. The queue will continue through various offices and rooms of the administrative areas of ACME Corporation, all of which show various ACME products in use. This may include passing through the mail room, the receiving dock, a maze of seemingly endless cubicles, a break room, the product development office and the president’s office before making your way into the factory tour guide’s office. Here, guests will receive a briefing on some of ACME’s most successful past products as well as catch a glimpse of some of their newest products under development. Guests will then proceed to board their ACME 5000 Automated Tour Vehicles to begin their tour of the factory floor, joined by Wile E. Coyote (an ACME Corporation VIP customer) in his own, special VIP vehicle. Wile E. Coyote zips off ahead of everyone else while the very important safety instructions are given and final safety checks are made. During the course of the ride, Wile E. Coyote leaves his vehicle numerous times in an effort to get his hands on the latest and greatest new ACME products. In the process, he is subjected to numerous unsafe events that unleash chaos throughout the remainder of the factory tour. After an explosive finale, guests find themselves at the end of the tour and, of course, exit through the gift shop where they can purchase a variety of ACME gags and products.
As I continued to develop this attraction throughout the semester, I began the blue sky process with virtual sticky notes of all the ideas I could think of. From that, I refined the ideas and generated mood boards, story boards, a full script and even a ride layout:
After five weeks of class, our instructors threw us a curve ball. While each student had been developing their own individual ride concept, we were now being asked to pitch our concept to the entire class. Our professors were acting as the clients and would choose the concept they felt would be the most successful for the class to then work on together for the remainder of the semester. After all the pitches were made and the votes were in, ACME Factory Frenzy was selected to advance as the singular project that the entire class would now work on for the remainder of the semester!
Fun narrative played on the train rides to enhance an otherwise mostly backstage train ride
The White River Junction train ride opened at the “new” Indianapolis Zoo in 1988. As originally designed, the ride was to travel around the Plains biome, including views of African, Australian and American plains animals. Due to growing budgets, the American plains area was pushed out to a later phase, and some temporary support structures were built in the area.
Ultimately, the American plains never materialized, and the temporary support structures remained and grew. A relocation and expansion of the Afican elephant habitat in 2002 necessitated rerouting the train tracks. Original plans called for large trestle bridges to provide vista views of the new elephant exhibit and other plains animals. Unfortunately, the bridges were value engineered out of the plans and the tracks were run around behind the elephant exhibit with barely a look inside. As a result, approximately 2/3 of the views on the 10-minute White River Junction train ride are of the back side of maintenance buildings or large concrete animal housings – not a very exciting ride.
When I served as the Attractions Manager at the zoo, one part of my job was to create the audio recordings that would play on the trains as they made their grand circle tour around part of the plains and the maintenance buildings. The narration would change periodically depending on the messaging of the zoo being promoted at the time.
Over the years, I had countless ideas for how to improve the ride experience, however funding was never available to pay for such ideas. While I may not have had control over the physical scenery that could be viewed along the ride, I did have control of the audio. In 2005, I decided to take the ride in a new, more entertaining direction.
Enter Gene Giraffe and Ellie Elephant. Gene and Ellie were characters I invented who lived at the zoo and would broadcast a radio talkshow. Working with a fellow zoo employee with an artistic background, I secured funding to commission large, 2-dimensional cutout cartoon versions of Gene and Ellie who welcomed guests as they queued up for the ride at the station.
In addition to Gene and Ellie, another colleague and I scoured the zoo grounds as well as a local junkyard to find anything we could use for free as props along the back side of the ride. We devised several simple scenes along the tracks to add some visual interest.
Tying it all together was the audio recording that played during the ride. Guests would tune into “The Gene and Ellie Show” as they rode around the tracks. The narration cleverly gave facts about some of the animals that guests could see, and spent the back half taking calls from listeners, discussing conservation, and making jokes.
I wrote the script, found the voice actors among fellow zoo staffers, managed the recording sessions and edited everything together into the final product. I even make a brief cameo at the 5:42 mark as the voiceover in a commercial for the Polly Horton Hix Animal Care Complex – that happened to play at the exact time the train passed by the building of the same name.
Take a listen below:
In 2007, “The Gene and Ellie Show” was retired after just two years. In an attempt to improve the ride, we made the decision to run the trains in the opposite direction. This change was made in order to place the views of the few animals that could be seen from the ride at the end of the experience rather than the beginning.
With the trains running in the opposite direction, the recording of “The Gene and Ellie Show” no longer lined up with what guests would see. Though a temporary narration was put in place, I always intended to re-record a new version of the show. I left the Indianapolis Zoo later that year and with my departure, Gene and Ellie faded into history. Much like the “temporary” support buildings from 1988, the “temporary” narration below remained for another 5 years after my departure. Sadly, to my knowledge, Gene and Ellie have never returned.
An intentionally scary haunted train ride that includes a monster kidnapping the train full of passengers
For the 2004 Zoo Boo haunted train, I decided to experiment with how scary the ride could be while still being appropriate for a family audience. Inspired by the Disney attraction, The Great Movie Ride, I came up with a concept whereby the train would “unexpectedly” have to come to a stop due to an obstruction on the tracks. In reality, this was planned and the scene unfolded by having monsters ambush the train and drag the driver away while one of the monsters takes control of the ride. The show continued by passing through a couple more scary scenes before coming to a stop again where the driver miraculously “rescues” the passengers by defeating the monster.
In order to accomplish this, one of the “monsters” in the kidnapping scene was a trained ride operator dressed in a monster costume. When the driver was dragged offstage, a golf cart would be waiting to whisk them a couple scenes ahead where they would then rescue the passengers. This involved a costume change while riding on the golf cart to the rescue scene. The golf cart would park out of view and wait for the rescue to unfold. Once the train left the rescue scene, the defeated monster would run to the golf cart and be whisked back to the kidnapping scene just in time for the next train load full of unsuspecting passengers to arrive. This process would then repeat all night.
A child-friendly "haunted" train ride through the fictional WBOO Television Studios
For our 2006 season of Zoo Boo, I decided to take a more lighthearted approach to the annual “haunted” train ride. At the height of the reality television craze, I came up with the concept of turning the ride in to a backstage studio tour of the fictional “WBOO Television Studios.” The story is that this studio is the number one television network of the monster world, and for a limited time only, they are allowing humans to get a peek behind-the-scenes as they film some of their most popular programs.
Some highlights of the tour included:
Along the route of the tour, we also created billboards to advertise other fictional shows on the channel that were not featured on the tour itself:
The tour of WBOO Television Studios lasted approximately 10 minutes, and was a very popular attraction for the Zoo Boo event. In anticipation of the longer lines that would typically form for our annual haunted train attraction, we also created a 24-minute pre-show video that looped continuously and played commercials and gave previews of the programming that was available on the fictional channel. Click the links below to view the entire pre-show video loop and to hear the source audio from the ride itself, accompanied by selected images from the experience.
A child-friendly "haunted" train ride through the fictional Howlywood Pictures Studios
After the success of our 2006 “haunted” train ride themed as a tour through the fictional WBOO Television Studios, I decided to stick with a similar concept of touring the fictional low-budget film productions of Howlywood Pictures. I came up with the backstory that Howlywood Studios had recently acquired WBOO Television Studios in a landmark merger in the monster world. This allowed us to save time and money and re-use several props that we had produced for the 2006 ride. Still, we came up with some original movie concepts that guests on our “backlot tour” would get a chance to see in production.
Highlights of the 2007 ride included:
Much like we did for the 2006 tour of WBOO Television Studios, we created a 24-minute pre-show video that looped continuously with previews of movies currently “in production” at Howlywood Studios. We also used the opportunity to expand the backstory of Howlywood Studios to the other “haunted” rides at the zoo by incorporating them into the Howlywood Studios Theme Park. If you watch carefully in the pre-show video, you’ll even spot a commercial for the park! Additionally, in partnership with our partners at Simex-Iwerks, we were given permission to use footage from the ride film that was playing in our 3D ride at the time to directly promote that experience to guests in the train ride queue.
Concepts to update the train ride to provide a more engaging and entertaining experience for guests
In 2002, I was asked to assume leadership of the Attractions Department at the Indianapolis Zoo. One of my priorities at that time was to find a way to make improvements to the train ride, which basically gave a behind-the-scenes view of facilities buildings and backstage areas.
The initial proposal was to build up themed walls around the tracks to shut out the outside world and allow for a fully-themed experience to surround the riders. But this renovation encompassed more than just the train ride itself. The concept was to take the entire area of the zoo that contained the train, carousel, family roller coaster, simulator ride, a photo adventure booth and some food stands and convert them into an African-themed village that served as the “base camp” for a nearby wildlife preserve. The wildlife preserve was the walking path through the African Plains area of the zoo.
While this version of the ride was never approved, my plight to improve the train ride never ceased. Deemed too costly, future revisions abandoned the highly themed environments and African village backstory and instead focused on enhancing the “behind-the-scenes” story.
Although this version of the ride also didn’t get fully realized, elements of the concept did make their way into the revamped ride the debuted in 2005. You can view more information about that ride in the separate portfolio entry below.
A kiosk themed as a safari jeep designed to sit outside the main gate and assist in membership sales
In 2002, I was promoted to the Guest Relations Manager at the Indianapolis Zoo. In this role, I was responsible for creating a comprehensive guest recovery and communication plan for those unfortunate situations where we may have fallen short of our guests’ expectations. Additionally, I was asked to oversee all membership functions at the main entrance, to include selling, upgrading, and checking in members through an exclusive member entrance.
I worked closely with the Membership Department to promote membership sales and meet goals. One way we wanted to generate more interest in membership sales was to have a mobile membership kiosk outside of the main entrance gate to serve as a place where guests approaching for a visit could learn more about membership offerings and have the seed planted of how much value an annual membership would provide.
In designing this kiosk, my mind immediately went to a safari jeep to fit in with the theme of the zoo. I hand sketched my concept onto a piece of paper and started researching different companies that build custom kiosks and the associated costs. We contacted a few companies and had some renderings made of my concept. From the concept, we tweaked some of the design and coloring, but ultimately moved forward with production of the design. In the images below, you can see the initial concept sketch, the resulting renderings and the final, finished product.
Homemade costumes created for my role as a greeter at the annual Haunted House
Although I left my role as Visitor Services Manager at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in 2012, I returned in October 2013 and 2014 to help out with the annual Haunted House. My role was to greet and entertain guests waiting in line to access the Haunted House. The theme of the Haunted House would change every year, and I designed a new character each time that would correspond to the theme.
50 Years of Fear Host
In 2013, the theme for the Haunted House was 50 Years of Fear, celebrating the fiftieth year of the annual event. My character was a decrepit host of the 50th Haunted House, complete with a top hat. But the costume had a surprising, secret twist that often caught unsuspecting guests off guard. A clever illusion was built into the costume that allowed me to appear to detach my head from my shoulders and bring it down in front of my stomach.
In 2014, the Haunted House was themed as a “Creepy Carnival,” and I created a Creepy Carney costume to interact with and entertain guests in line. While not as complex as the previous year, I built another illusion into this costume whereby I would carry around a dismembered arm and ask guests to touch the hand. In reality, through the hand was my real hand, and as guests would touch it, I would wiggle my fingers or sometimes grab their hand to startle them! Below are a few pictures of the distressed jacket and hat created for the character, as well as my dismembered hand terrorizing a fellow colleague.