Disability Access: In It for the Long Haul

In May 2021, Thinkwell and RUH Global began a series on Accessibility for all. Part one is available to read here.

2021 has hardly been a level pathway. Taking two steps forward with the rollout of vaccines and with them the resumption of many social activities, and one step backward with the arrival of the contagious Delta variant and continued vaccine hesitancy, the world has nevertheless been slowly stumbling forward into its new normal… even if it’s a normal marked by continual uncertainties.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve already witnessed just how adaptive people can be in the face of extreme uncertainty, creating all-new modalities of working and playing within months if not weeks. Many of the changes we saw during COVID were modifications and accommodations that had been previously dismissed as too hard, unwieldy, or expensive when asked for in the context of a disability, yet as soon as they became issues impacting the majority, they were implemented.

As more forms of work and leisure return to familiar in-person social settings, many people recognize that we’re currently presented with a generational opportunity to evolve those physical settings in order to address long-standing inequities. However, that requires a great deal of intentionality to avoid not only sliding back into a pre-COVID status quo of exclusion and inequity but also to push the envelope of disability access even further. As we noted previously, the ADA is a bare legal minimum, not a gold standard for equitable and just experiences. This will be especially pertinent as our understanding of both disability and public safety evolves in the wake of COVID-19.

There are many ways in which the game has changed. Working or learning from home via telecommuting—once oft dismissed by employers or educators as impractical, unproductive, or too expensive—suddenly became required of everyone. While digital access is a huge equity issue that the pandemic exacerbated, this shift to digital came with benefits for some. Many people got to experience a newfound sense of belonging among their peers, whether it removed the burden of having to navigate an old office or school environment; being able to hide a visible disability from those who might otherwise underestimate them; being able to use advances in live captioning technology in video meetings, or simply opening opportunities for them to socialize with others as equals around the new “virtual” forms of watercoolers or student lounges. Even within the public realm, touchless, voice-command, gesture-based, and automated technologies such as buttons and doors designed for hands-free contact opened new opportunities for people with many different kinds of disabilities beyond simply reducing the risk of contagion.

Leisure spaces present their own unique challenges for accessibility. While not as vital to people’s daily lives as the places where they live, learn, or work, making these spaces fully accessible and equitable can have profound impacts on mental health and one’s sense of belonging within society at large. Theme parks or cultural attractions are already places designed to inspire strong emotions in guests, so catering to different levels of emotional comfort should not be overlooked in addition to guests’ physical comfort. Attractions that segregate guests based on ability, even if an equivalent option is offered elsewhere, can still trigger a sense of exclusion and alienation. This is a big reason why attractions should always make the effort to integrate universal design from early in the design process.

Still, inclusivity of physical needs should always be considered the bare minimum when designing for location-based attractions. COVID laid bare the fact that we can’t always predict what will be required to make our leisure spaces safe and inclusive for everyone. Just as in schools and workplaces when they were permitted to reopen, attraction operators showed a tremendous ability to spontaneously transform their experiences to accommodate new protocols… an ability that should not go to waste when considering what safety and inclusivity look like for the future. Designing with intentionality for flexible accommodations, whether it’s in response to a hypothetical future health epidemic or a new understanding of best practices around existing disability rights, is always the goal in a world full of uncertainties.

Even the current pandemic is far from settled, nor are its effects going away anytime soon. While there have been challenges in developing and running rigorous research programs quickly and inclusively, early data and studies have shown the impacts of what’s known as “long-haul COVID,” where symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or mental fog persist for months or potentially even years after initially contracting the disease. The full scope of how many people are affected and just how long these conditions may last is still not fully known, but we know that the mental health impacts around the promise of enjoying life again, and the fear and anxiety of ‘not being able’ to go to the places and spaces we’ve loved, are profound.

It’s important that people struggling to return to a sense of normalcy, whether from long-haul COVID or another issue, know that their favorite museums or theme parks are able to accommodate their new and changing needs, such as providing ample seating, offering quiet spaces, or other means to quickly and easily step away from sensory overloads or distributing first aid throughout the attraction so they don’t have to walk far to a central location. It’s relatively easy to see how little accommodation and access has been designed into both leisure and workplace spaces and practices. As we look at the looming crisis of not just long-haul COVID but also long-term health impacts on those who have recovered, it’s clear that this could serve as an inflection point for radical change in how disability accommodation is considered, designed for, and operationalized. Whether it’s policy changes around sick time and job sharing, inclusive uniform or costume design, design standards for deaf inclusion in shows and spectaculars to remove the burden from the guest to ask for it weeks in advance, or a wholesale change to master planning standards to increase facilities, change is long overdue at every level. This isn’t just a themed experience problem: every industry should be taking a long, hard look at how they can improve. 

But location-based entertainment prides itself on making incredible experiences, memories that last a lifetime. The flip side of that is that there’s the potential for memories that haunt and hurt – when friends get to go on the ride but the powerchair user can’t when the museum is just too exhausting but there’s nowhere to sit when needing to go to the bathroom means having to backtrack across two lands to find the one restroom that can accommodate. One bad experience is enough to turn a guest off of an experience forever. As an industry, the COVID recovery reflects a unique opportunity to live up to our promise for every one of our guests and employees.

Trend Report Deep Dive: Taming the Algorithm

The “Algorithm.”

As a colloquial term for the recommendation engines responsible for customizing many of our online search results and social media feeds, the ‘Algorithm’ has, perhaps surprisingly, emerged as one of the more controversial forms of artificial intelligence (A.I) technologies within public discourse.

Developed as a tool to help people find what they’re looking for faster and discover new things matched to their interests, the ‘Algorithm’ has also been criticized for the way it can lead to self-reinforcing consumption habits, particularly within social media, which could partially explain trends for political polarization and extremist ideologies. Despite these misgivings, most people still use (and even enjoy) at least some forms of the ‘Algorithm’ as part of their daily online experiences, and the technology is even becoming more integrated into many physical location-based experiences as well, a trend that is unlikely to reverse.

Thinkwell’s 6th Annual Guest Experience Trend Report was an opportunity to predict and envision new ways we expect to see A.I. technologies (such as recommendation algorithms) become incorporated into theme parks, museums, and resorts. Yet, more importantly, it was also a chance to reflect and listen to what our guests actually want from these technologies and experiences.

As part of the trend report survey of over 1,300 people, participants were given hypothetical concepts of A.I. technologies applied to theme parks, museums, and resorts, and were asked to rate their favorite and least favorite aspects of the experience. Among these concepts were several that incorporated recommendation algorithms as part of the guest experience: 

  • A theme park could eliminate queues with virtual queuing and A.I. recommended scheduling.
  • A museum could create a personalized digital tour based on the visitor’s interests.
  • A resort during a busy holiday could automatically schedule reservations and activities that guests might like when they become available.

Participants rated all these concepts positively overall, each with its own particular reasons for why they liked it. Yet when asked about potential concerns with these concepts, one consistent trend emerged across all the data:

Guests want control over their experiences.

For all of these three concepts, the most disliked aspect was the technology’s proposed ability to structure the guest experience and make plans for them, which was perceived to reduce guests’ sense of personal agency and spontaneity. These concerns were shared by between 41% to 51% of participants in each category.

Interestingly, this concern was separate from the participant’s confidence in a recommendation algorithm’s ability to accurately make good recommendations. For the resort concept, 50% of respondents said they wanted more control over their plans, while only 33% reported that they didn’t trust the algorithm to make good recommendations. This may suggest there’s a subset of people who expect to enjoy what the system recommends but will still dislike the fact that they weren’t given the freedom to choose it for themselves. A further 37% of participants specifically called out the ability to discover new activities as a top reason in favor of the concept.

Indeed, when separated from the mandatory planning aspects, participants responded quite positively to the technology’s ability to suggest recommendations based on their interests. While 48% of respondents to the museum concept were concerned about their ability to freely wander (the most common concern), 53% of participants still selected “I’ll see unique exhibits more related to my interests” as a positive reaction. This feature gained the single highest positive response rate out of any of the multiple museum concepts in the survey. While visitor attractions always strive to offer guests as much choice as possible, with increasing demand for quality guest experiences, it has become necessary for capacity management systems such as virtual queues and pre-planned booking to limit guests’ options.

Online tickets for museums often mean committing to a specific date; popular resort activities require advanced reservations; and virtual queues for attractions often assign limited return windows. Recommendation algorithms can help these systems offer guests better choices when faced with limited options, but it can also turn guests against the recommendations entirely if they come to associate it with the technology that is limiting their ability to engage the way they want.

Recommendation technologies applied to location-based experiences should always be used to empower guests. For the near-future, it’s important to give guests a reason to trust the ‘Algorithm’ as a way to discover better experiences that are already available to them. If restrictions are necessary, do so in a transparent way that allows guests to retain as much control over their experience as possible, without asking any more from guests than what is absolutely needed.

Looking further ahead, it’s possible that A.I. technology will become sufficiently advanced so these recommendations and restrictions can become effectively invisible to guests. Imagine, with detailed probabilistic forecasting, an A.I. system could figure out for each guest the most likely paths they’ll take and decisions they’ll make, and hold several ‘phantom’ reservations for their most likely desired options. These invisible digital reservations could be in a state of constant reassignment by the system as demand fluctuates and the algorithm updates its recommended forecast with new real-time data. A ‘phantom’ reservation would only become tangible and activated the moment the guest arrives at the restaurant, attraction, or special exhibit… just as if it had been the guest’s spontaneous choice all along.

Obviously, there are many logistical and technological challenges to overcome in order to make this vision a reality. But the development of A.I. technologies won’t be slowing down. As experience designers, it’s essential to do our own forecasting of future possibilities, and that includes understanding what our guests actually want. It’s clear that artificial intelligence can’t become a substitute for human decision-making. As humans, we all want to be treated with respect for the choices we make by our own free agency. Sometimes, that also means relying on a trusted recommendation.

Access for All

The wheelchair access queue line, the closed-captioning on a ride safety video, the legendarily long paragraphs of signage telling you ‘if you have any of these conditions don’t go on this ride’ – inclusion of all guests – regardless of disability –  in location-based experiences like theme parks, museums, amusement parks, immersive theater, and more often comes across as an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be: according to the World Health Organization there are over 1.3 billion people who have one or more disabilities1. They are a wellspring of humanity that our places, spaces, stories, and structures have historically excluded, ignored, or failed to serve. This community is far from a monolith, with varying wants, needs, and desires – just like any other group of potential employees, colleagues, collaborators, clients, or customers. And, like other historically marginalized groups, they have not only failed to see themselves meaningfully represented or welcomed into these places but also been subjected to laws, policies, and structural bias that have deprived them of agency and equal opportunity. 

Three Black and disabled folx cracking up while strolling down a sidewalk on a windy day. On the left, a non-binary person walks with a cane in one hand and a tangle stim toy in the other. In the middle, a non-binary person rolls along in their power wheelchair. On the right, a woman is walking with fabulously windswept hair. A street parking meter is in the background on the right.
Photo Credit: Disabled And Here

Historically, disability inclusion has focused on what’s necessary from a legal and safety standpoint. As with any global industry, location-based entertainment (LBE), and thus experience design, has to grapple with varying laws and regulations regarding inclusion of persons with disabilities. But it’s especially acute for experience design – the teams and clients we work with overseas are subject to different laws and regulations, and cultural sensibilities. The places we design and build must at the very least abide by local laws. It can feel overwhelming quickly.


But we can do so much better than the low bar of what’s legal. Philosophically we begin from two very simple suppositions.

  • First, we must partner with subject matter experts, just as with other areas which contribute to the overall success of the project, center the voices of expertise and lived experience, and be transparent in our discussions. 
  • Second, laws and regulations define minimums for compliance, not optimal or practical scenarios of diverse accessibility. Abiding by, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means we can design an exhibit or ride that we won’t get sued for, but that doesn’t mean the resulting experience is welcoming, inclusive, or even good.

In a tight economy concerned with making up lost ground from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact, it could be all too easy to do the minimum – that doesn’t just lead to an inferior product, it is also short-sighted, creates a poor user experience not only for the individual but also for the accompanying friends and family, and leaves significant money on the table. 

This is not a tiny demographic with a small financial impact: in 2018-19, more than 27 million travelers with disabilities took a total of 81 million trips, spending $58.7 billion on their own travel alone (up from $34.6 billion in 2015). Open Doors Organization (ODO) – a non-profit that strives to educate businesses on disability inclusion in the workplace – noted with speaker and ODO Executive Director Eric Lipp, that “the true economic impact is higher, potentially even double, since people with disabilities typically travel with one or more other adults.”2 In an effort to engage the disability community, it is not enough to simply have good intentions. “Nothing about us without us,” a mantra in disability activism that gained traction in the 1990s, isn’t just a snappy slogan: it is foundational to being successful. 

Even in the course of writing this article, Thinkwell and our friends at Ruh Global IMPACT – a leading consultant agency who amplify the impact of organizations’ disability inclusion strategies –  had a spirited discussion about person-first (“people with disabilities”) and identity-first (“disabled people”) language. It speaks to the importance of having a variety of empowered voices at the table from the very beginning – and in this case, of simply asking what language someone prefers, honoring that input, and realizing different people will have varying perspectives.3 Recently there’s been a movement in disability activism to use identity-first language, and Thinkwell tends to utilize a mix of identity-first and person-first as a result, depending on the context, situation, and the stated preference of those involved. Ruh Global’s inclusive team preferentially uses person-first. You’ll see in future articles, if we are quoting from or interviewing an individual, we will use their preferred terminology and we’ll be explicit about it – so there’s every possibility you’ll see multiple terminology choices in a single article, depending upon the people involved. Everyone has different wants and needs, and this isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Wheelchair access sign in theme park

Similarly, in our design processes, we cannot treat persons with disabilities as tokens or use a one-size-fits-all approach. A guest who is blind may have some accessibility needs and concerns that overlap with a wheelchair-user, but simply put, they fundamentally do not have all the same needs. Meeting the needs of one segment but shrugging and saying meeting the needs of other segments is too hard, expensive, or impinges on the work environment or designed experience is unacceptable.  In order to fully live up to “nothing about us without us”, companies must be willing to put in the work to examine their culture and policies for ways in which they are unwelcoming, exclusionary, and/or biased; redress those failings; re-evaluate and iterate. They must genuinely listen when team members with lived experiences or focus group participants from the persons with disabilities community give them negative feedback and incorporate that input into the work.  It’s not all negative – this is an opportunity for designers and teams to get creative and innovative. 

Universal design, which in our context means to craft environments and experiences that can be used by the greatest number of people, is our holy grail. Wheelchair access queues on rides are useful, but oftentimes they mean guests who utilize them miss out on the pre-show experience. Offering sign language interpretation of shows is helpful, but when it needs to be booked two weeks in advance it’s inconvenient and exclusionary. Universal design is better for everyone, whether it’s seating and rest opportunities in a queue making it easier and more comfortable for a kid who’s flagging by 3 pm or someone with a balance disorder to wait in line for a ride, or provide clear and easy means to increase font size on a touch screen for guests with low vision or emergent readers or the aging.  Just like moms with strollers, tourists with rolling luggage, and food cart vendors use the curb cuts originally designed for people who use wheelchairs, universal design in location-based entertainment makes a better experience for everyone.

Photo Credit: Disabled And Here

The Return of Anticipation

Since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, we all have gone through a lot. Whether it was missing a family reunion, an anniversary cruise, a vacation with best friends, or simply a special dinner out. What all these things have in common is the one thing we didn’t know we were going to miss: anticipation. 

From the American Psychological Association: Anticipation is a state of expectation or excitement about an upcoming event or situation. It is a state of suspense and expectancy. For example, when you know an old friend is going to drop by you probably are in a state of anticipation while waiting for them–you are excited, maybe a little nervous, and filled with expectations about their visit. 

Before the pandemic, our lives were full of anticipation. Upcoming movie releases, lunch with a colleague, a trip to the museum, a dinner with a loved one, a pending concert. These things all slowly (and quickly!) ended. Restaurants closed so reservations were canceled. Concerts that were months away became unceremonious credit card refunds. Family vacations turned into airline vouchers and cancellation emails from hotels and rental car companies. 

But we need anticipation. The very nature of that feeling is all about future reward, and right now, almost more than many other things, we deserve a reward. From lunch to travel, anticipation is the bringer of excitement, the harbinger of adventure, or simply the feeling that we are going to be doing something unmapped, uncharted, and different. Anticipation often includes daydreaming, research, and planning. 

The Doblin Group, an innovation consultancy based in Chicago, codified compelling experiences. Their research showed that one of the key attributes to any compelling experience is the first of three phases, attraction. “Attraction” referred to the build-up to the experience itself, notably research, planning, and daydreaming. In other words, anticipation. 

Kelsey Borresen, a Senior Reporter with Huffpost wrote a piece last year called, “The Psychological Benefits of Having Something to Look Forward To.” In it, she wrote

Research suggests that living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness can increase happiness.

“However, during particularly stressful moments in time, like our current pandemic, it can be more beneficial to have something to look forward to,” said Atlanta therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford.


Anticipation, in many ways, is hope for the future. That state of suspense and expectancy is now its own ecstasy, an ecstasy we are can control. “It is the implicit knowing that positive emotion will happen in the future,” says Guy Kuchnick, a New York psychologist and founder of Techhealthiest. According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, planning your itinerary, booking tickets, and anticipating a vacation can boost your mood long before you step on a plane. 

We’ve been stressed. We need anticipation. 

Theme parks are open or are opening up. Vaccines are moving through their phases and the CDC’s guidelines for gathering are loosening as a result. Local jurisdictions are allowing, in many cities, for restaurants to open indoor dining again.

All these things bring hope because they are the impetus of anticipation. 

Airlines and cruise lines have better, more flexible cancellation policies now than in the past. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, we can journey again. Why not enter that “Attraction” phase of any compelling experience and start researching your next vacation, plan that cruise, start organizing the next family reunion, or simply consider where the first place will be when you go out to dinner again?

Let’s bring back anticipation.


Safety From All Angles, For Everyone

Safety is the top concern of the attractions industry. Not only is it the foremost legal, ethical, and moral responsibility to ensure that no guest is at risk of being harmed at an attraction, but the highest standard of safety facilitates every other aspect of the guest experience as well. Designers and operators strive to create not just physically safe, but emotionally safe environments for their guests. 

When COVID-19 struck, the industry applied its decades of experience in safety design to quickly implement new health and sanitation procedures for theme parks and visitor attractions, in many cases completely re-imagining their operations within a matter of months, if not weeks. So far, the data has indicated that primarily outdoor amusements that responsibly enforce these new guidelines have kept transmissions to a minimum, with no major reported outbreaks traced back to a theme park for the several months they’ve been open (as of this writing).

Yet if the focus has been on creating a physically safe environment, many operators are also having to contend with what it truly means to create an emotionally safe space for their guests. While these attractions have always emphasized that their guests have a shared responsibility for their own safety and the safety of those around them, the majority of guests returning during this pandemic are for the first time now keenly aware that a theme park is no longer an inherently safe space for them. While there are plenty of ideas for how to rebuild that previous sense of emotional reassurance under these new conditions, many guests and professionals are finding the most reassurance in the idea that, hopefully, sooner than later, everything will be completely “back to normal.”

It’s an understandable sentiment given how short supply we’ve been for reassurances recently. In fact, mitigating that anxiety and getting back to a sense of emotional safety and trust is a key part of soothing jittery would-be visitors. Nevertheless, it’s important to question that instinct for normalcy, and ask ourselves if this transformational moment in history hasn’t revealed certain fault lines in the pre-pandemic perspective of “physical and emotional safety” that… maybe… shouldn’t fully go back to the ways of the “once-normal”?

This conversation is not just limited to entertainment. As people everywhere find their sense of security and safety rocked in a way they’ve never encountered, many of them are questioning what it means to be physically and emotionally safe in public spaces of all kinds… and realizing that for many of their peers, these places have never felt for themselves completely safe to begin with.

It’s no coincidence that, during the pandemic, thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors took to the streets demanding racial justice. There is a known direct correlation between the lack of public health safety for BIPOC people and the current COVID-19 pandemic. (Over 1,000 health professionals signed a letter in support of the protests, arguing that systemic racism was an equally urgent risk to public health.) These systemic injustices, too often overlooked by society, were laid bare by the pandemic and its societal response for the entire world to witness. Protestors were demonstrating to demand safety for BIPOC folks in their everyday lives, and to take action to ensure a safer, more just world, even after the pandemic is over.

The themed entertainment industry is not isolated from this. As professionals who are privileged to create these experiences for our guests, we also need to ask: what isn’t being reflected in the standard safety data, either because it’s a less quantifiable form of emotional safety, or because marginalized groups are selected out of the data pool to begin with? 

To ensure that we are creating physically and emotionally safe experiences for everyone, we must expand the definition of safety such that it is anti-racist, anti-ablist, radically inclusive, and intersectionally focused. If an attraction notices that its visitor demographics are mismatched from its local community demographics, not only should it investigate potential systemic factors like pricing structures or transportation access that could limit certain groups’ participation, but it should also review softer aspects related to design and public messaging, which very often can unintentionally code a space as “intended for” or “centered around” a certain kind of audience. Or, if those previously marginalized groups are showing up to buy a ticket but the attraction is now struggling to safely accommodate an increase in disabled and neurodiverse guests, it may need to reevaluate some of its foundational design assumptions about ride vehicles, guest flow patterns, restrooms, and restaurants alongside reviewing operational procedures and employee training.

As designers who are often at the start of the process of figuring out how these attractions look and function, we must grapple with questions of safety from an intersectional approach, not only considering the checklists we’d apply to meet all physical safety requirements, but also to the emotional and psychological well-being of guests in experiences we create. We as experience designers have to think about the intersection of public health, physical safety, and the psycho-emotional wellbeing of all guests, whether at a theme park, museum, retail and dining district, or live event. COVID has reminded us that we’re all responsible for each other’s safety, and that means every single individual within our community.

Museum & Cultural Institution Transformation, Part 2

Over the past several months, we’ve shared our thoughts, observations, prognostications, and best practices on reopening in the wake of COVID. Now that many cultural attractions have been open for limited operations for a few weeks, we’re digging into how it’s going. Who’s surviving?  Is anyone thriving? What does re-opening tell us about the cultural attractions landscape long-term?

I spoke with Ray Giang, Vice President, Planning & Advisory Services of MR-ProFun to see if our observations – experiential and operational vs financial and operational – align. The situation is dire for museums: a June 2020 survey of 750 museum directors conducted by the American Alliance of Museums indicated that one-third of these institutions may close permanently as a result of COVID-related economic hardship. Ultimately, while Ray and I each view museums through different lenses, we’re both encouraging our museum clients to look at this in terms of long-term transformation – even as we’re both aware this will be a long, hard road back for those museums who do survive. 

Philbrook Museum

Given the overall economic situation in the US, trends in grants and philanthropy, and lessons gleaned from prior economic downturns, we see that surviving and ultimately thriving isn’t a matter of tiny cuts or wholesale departmental eliminations: it’s a matter of really taking a step back and reassessing everything down to the studs.

Both of us see the key as getting back to the mission, and deep digging into what those statements mean in the current climate. Many museums have ‘community’ in their mission – what does a given community need right now? Is it a means to address food insecurity, which the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa and Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Massachusetts took on? Is it hosting education pods for children schooling at home, like the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville and Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa are doing?  And it’s also about more than COVID-related disruption: the Philbrook, for instance, has publicly committed to a multi-point plan of action. Their efforts include a Diversity & Inclusion audit of its board and senior staff and, unlike many museums cutting upcoming exhibits, continuing to plan for From the Limitations of Now, a show featuring black artists reflecting on the Tulsa race massacre and systemic racism. 

Choices like these are rooted in an honest assessment of what community, a word so often bandied about, truly means – it has to go beyond the people who have previously felt comfortable, welcome, and represented in museums, and it must include the people inside the museum structure  – their staff and volunteers. Right now communities are in crisis, and those museums that really engage in this sometimes humbling work stand to build stronger relationships, affinity, meaning, and ability to fulfill their mission.

Looking at the situation from a more economic perspective, this is also an opportunity to truly assess those legacy projects. No matter how beloved a program is, if the grant funding ran out years ago, it’s time to evaluate where the biggest bang for the buck truly is. Many museums deploy the same events or programming year over year, with few changes – this, too, is a moment in which to really evaluate those programs for efficacy, impact, and experience. On a grander scale, we’re seeing a larger industry conversation take place, questioning the traditional funding models for museums that leave them operating on a razor’s edge, dependent on a dated model of philanthropy, and vulnerable to shifting political winds affecting local, state, and federal budgets.

Museums have to get through this moment – but they have to get through it with their soul and bank accounts intact. Overwhelming though the process of visioning may be for institutions right now, Ray and I both see tremendous opportunity to re-invent museums into places and spaces which are fundamentally in service to their communities, places of transformation, equitable in their work and their experiences, and financially sound for the future.

Designing a Physically Distanced Theme Park


…we designed a theme park with physical distancing and health-safety as guiding principles?


Disney Shanghai has opened its doors at reduced capacity to allow visitors space to learn the “new norms”, such as spacing out within a queue and frequent hand sanitizing and facility wipe downs. A “mega theme park” like the Disney or Universal parks typically means an annual attendance of over 10 million people, and over 60,000 people within approximately 110 acres of guest area on a normal day.

In these mega theme parks, visitors make their way down crowded streets, pack in to get a glimpse of a passing parade, and stand together in long queues to enjoy the amazing attractions together. A general rule of thumb for theme park density is between 500 and 650 people per acre (per 0.4 Hectares).

What if we want to design a park that meets this level of capacity, and also allows for the current recommendations on physical distancing? There are many new and innovative technologies and operating methods that will be able to assist in this effort moving forward, but what would it take using the existing tools and methodologies commonly practiced today and designed a park around those needs and parameters?


Personal Space

Space is the major commodity when talking about physical distancing. During a typical summer weekend day at a theme park, visitors often find themselves walking in a crowd, frequently having to stop momentarily or making frequent course corrections to avoid bumping others. This indicates a density of 10-15 square feet, sf (1-1.4 square meters, sm) per person within the circulation space, and if there’s a parade or a sudden character appearance, that density may go down to 5 sf (0.46 sm) per person, meaning that people will be brushing into each other and their movement will be severely restricted until the gathering disperses. These factors are what drive many theme parks to create “travel lanes” around parades or performance areas to allow the movement of people to still flow, albeit still at a reduced rate. The graphic above highlights:

  • Pre-COVID Personal Space   = 10-15 sf (1-1.4 sm) per person
  • Post-COVID Personal Space = 140 sf (13 sm), 6 feet (1.8 meters) between individuals
  • Post-COVID Group of Three = 200 sf (18.6 sm) for group and 67 sf (6.2 sm) individually

The arrival sequence at a park usually starts with a personal family vehicle, a coach-bus, or a form of public transportation such as a bus or a train. The impact of current COVID distancing recommendations will have an impact on how quickly people can arrive at the park, as well as the spatial requirements to receive them at the front gate. The expanded requirements for these spaces and arrival systems are not directly considered in this study, but because those are specific location-based factors.

Assuming people will be arriving and traveling through the park in small groups the individual space recommendations will overlap to reduce the spatial distance requirements. The space between people would include the paved areas, as well as the landscaped areas, which will further help with space planning. This does not take into account that parks are typically designed with crossing routes and plazas, which will now have to be more formally organized to create linear flows of traffic and avoid congestion. An easy way to think of this is a downtown urban grid of one-way streets, or maybe more relatable, an IKEA store which is filled with travel lanes.



Retail is a key component in the theme park program and an important asset to the visitor. Many of the modern theme park retail designs already lead visitors through a system of thematic spaces, departments, and purchasing opportunities that gently guide them through the stores. This would have to change to a more strict one-way aisle system, where displays can also act as a germ barrier between aisles. There would also need to be a greater allowance for staff positions throughout the store, as visitors would have restricted availability to touch items. Referring again to the rule of thumb, it can be assumed that 15% of the park population at any given moment is shopping, and the average allocation of space per person is 14 sf (1.3 sm), but with the COVID requirements a group of 3 will need approximately 80 sf (7.4 sm), less than walking down the street, requiring a 180% increase in parkwide retail facilities


Food and Beverage

Dining opportunities within the theme park will present the challenge of allowing people to sit in groups and dwell for an extended period of time while they eat. Typically, food facilities require about twice as much space as retail shops for approximately the same amount of people including dining patios, indoor seating, and kitchen areas. With the new factors, a table for four may need around 100 sf (9.2 sm) instead of just 40 sf (3.7 sm). In addition, there will need to be space accommodations for food preparation and service. These factors would require the food facilities in this new park to become approximately 150% larger than current theme parks. 


Attractions and Shows

Attractions are the big draw of theme parks; coasters, dark rides, theatrical shows, and walk-through experiences will all be impacted by increased personal space requirements. While the impact of increased personal space will vary based on the type of attraction, a show venue is one of the most densely populated attractions in a theme park. A typical show venue that seats 200 people can be 8,000 sf (740 sm) or more. A person seated in the theater takes up about 5 square feet (0.46 sm), with an additional 35 sf (3.2 sm) going toward the overall facility. Now that personal space requirement will be 67sf (6.2 sm), bringing the overall facility size to over 20,000sf (1,860 sm)—more than double the current standard for a show.



From a simple space planning perspective focusing on the physical distancing recommendations, the theme park circulation will have to increase 100%, the retail by 180%, food service by 150%, and attraction areas from 150-200%. These factors, applied to the entire theme park property, result in a 110 acre (44.5 Ha) theme park growing to over 200 acres (89 Ha) to accommodate the same daily attendance. 

Discussing this thought exercise with Entertainment + Culture Advisors, ECA, it is important to note not only the space implications, but also the cost and revenue considerations:

“Revenue for a mega park is a product of attendance and guest spend. New constraints on capacity could shift the business model to identify new premiums in guest spend. The focus will be on pricing as significant increases in retail or dining spend are unlikely if length of stay is the same or less. Pricing in the industry was already moving toward peak admission pricing tiers and express passes and this trend will accelerate if capacities are further constrained. Depending on the premiums required for the business model, the response from the market may be reduced demand that rebalances the sizing needs of new mega parks to lower attendance thresholds that serve more expensive and exclusive experiences.”

Also noted by ECA, the cost and revenue impacts for a mega theme park will not only be limited to the theme park and increased spatial requirements, but also the context of hotels, retail, and mixed-use development.  A mega theme park by definition is part of a larger development with many integrated program uses and functions.


This thought exercise purposefully does not take into consideration all of the creative thinking and innovative approaches being used by operators and designers around the world to quickly help reduce the impact of this pandemic on our opportunities for safe and enjoyable experiences but simply focuses on the potential implications of physical distancing. As the world continues to learn from this experience, a mixture of spatial planning, smart design, and new technologies will help to create a more realistic interpretation of theme park design which fits within achievable parameters while still keeping visitors safe during their time at the park.

Keep the Preshow; Ditch the Queue

As theme parks start to reopen, post-COVID-19 operations efforts will have many new protocols like advanced reservations, limited attendance, required face masks, increased cleaning of ride vehicles & queue rails, and putting social-distancing ground markers in queues.

Ah, the dreaded queue. Most people cite queues as the least favorite part of visiting a theme park. This is why “virtual queues” like Disney’s FastPass have been so innovative, in lowering the perceived waiting time for attractions simply because you’re not in an actual line for part of that wait, free to enjoy the rest of the park’s offerings.

After Disney’s FastPass debuted in 1999, a major paradigm shift of theme park design in the last twenty years was creating overall circulation to accommodate more people in the pathways than usual — the logical effect of having less people in lines is that there are more people out and about in the park (which makes the merchandise and food & beverage people very happy — less time in lines means more spending money). In fact, the future of a “queueless park” has always been a bit of a theme park design holy grail — more theory than an actual possibility, as the truth of the matter, is that queues themselves are a very beneficial part of a good theme park experience.

First, they are extremely efficient; in the worst case of an unthemed rectangular switchback queue, you can still fit a ton of people in a small footprint. Even highly thematic, story-driven environments like the incredibly long and very detailed queue of Disney’s Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom uses clever and efficient architectural and structural design to hold tens of thousands of people off the park’s main walking paths — because most of that queue is designed to sit on top of the neighboring Na’vi River Journey show building.

Second, there’s the biggest benefit: through carefully crafted preshows, queues are great at establishing tone, mood and story for an attraction far in advance of actually riding it. Attractions benefit from the captive audience a queue can create, allowing guests to settle into an attraction’s story and gradually learn more about their role in it.

Ani-mayhem QueueAt Thinkwell’s Animayhem attraction at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the highly detailed queue was a rare opportunity to dig deep into the history of the ACME corporation — with much of that story created specifically for the park, and now considered Looney Tunes canon — to prepare riders for their role as delivery drivers.

Like many other immersive queues, that attraction leverages the actual linear progression of being in a queue to slowly, deliberately deliver story moments through media, scenery, effects and cast member interactions to set the stage for the ride. Just look at Disney’s incredible Rise of the Resistance attraction for proof that a queue isn’t just an unwanted speed-bump before the main attraction — it’s designed to be a key part of the attraction itself, a part that no one wants to miss.

So what happens in a post-COVID world, when theme park designers start eliminating (or at least wholly shortening) the use of densely-packed queue lines? While it’s unlikely that this will lead to a 100% “queueless” park anytime soon, perhaps we can start imagining a different kind of future — one that acknowledges that guests want a “less densely populated queue” to feel comfortable, while combining mobile technology and line-reservation systems into a new form of storytelling that fills the role of an attraction queue.

Two things come to mind:

First, Disney’s interactive game attractions already have guests circulating throughout a park — Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdom, Adventureland’s Trading Company and Pirate’s Adventure, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge Datapad, etc. — all of these are, in essence, digital “crowd controllers” within the small throughput of their own game mechanics, moving groups around from story point to story point, with the back-end system managing crowd flow and dispersion.

Second, immersive theater techniques at shows like Sleep No More manage to keep hundreds of people moving through a large, non-linear physical space, along paths of invisible, self-guided linearity that allow guests to experience their own story. Knott’s Berry Farm has found huge success with these techniques as an attraction in and of itself, with their Ghost Town Alive activation.

What if you combined the best of both of these things — using the entire park as your “queue”, and nodes of experience & interaction as your timed pulse points? That way you still get a  preshow to an attraction, but it’s not confined within a queue.

Guests could reserve an attraction time, but rather than show up at the entrance for the attraction, their mobile device would send them on a point-to-point story adventure throughout the park, each node engaging them in a story point through embedded media, effects, or even cast member interactions. This could be a 30-60 minute experience that, in essence, becomes an attraction queue, ending up at the attraction in a carefully managed flow of people with less need to queue up in droves.

The efficiencies of queues are hard to ignore, and the overall capacities of a large-scale roaming interactive experience like this probably wouldn’t compete with that efficiency — but in a post-COVID world, there will be plenty of opportunities to innovate the part of a theme park visit that people enjoy the least — waiting in line.

Virtual Reality & The New Compromise

A Vision, Compromised

For years, the promise of digital immersion and alternate realities permeated its way into the zeitgeist of popular futurism. Yet it wasn’t until American entrepreneur Palmer Luckey revived the VR industry with the release of the Oculus Rift in 2012, paving the way for a new standard in enterprise, education, and entertainment. Virtual reality promised a bold experience, an inclusive platform, and a seamless bridge connecting our world to the virtual one. Companies from around the world sprung up overnight, chasing trends and financial forecasts, hoping to take home a piece of the prize. Fast-forward to 2020, and while virtual reality continues to spark interest in enthusiasts and hard-core gamers, it remains stifled by a range of detractors such as cost, comfort, locomotion, and hygiene.

If ever there was a concern about the hygienic nature of virtual reality, COVID-19 has shattered consumer confidence and left owners and operators reticent in the face of future development. However, virtual reality will not end with COVID, but instead will find new opportunities in a post-pandemic world, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the technology as it evolves into its next chapter.


Lessons Learned

In 2019, Thinkwell Group opened the first of its kind, indoor, vertical theme park, Lionsgate Entertainment World, in Zhuhai, China. With three, purpose-built, virtual reality attractions, we learned a great deal from our in-field observations and guest reviews about the benefits and challenges of virtual reality.

Immersion is king. Yet, transportive environments are only a piece of the puzzle. True immersion stems from guest embodiment and real-world physics. Whether wielding a flashlight, steering a motorbike, or solving puzzles, every interaction must carry the burden of the real world or risk breaking the illusion. In addition, real-time media proved far more engaging than pre-rendered content, allowing guests the opportunity to take agency of their world and create a personalized and repeatable experience.

Conversely, we learned about some of the limitations and challenges from our creative partners and guests. Accessibility remains a constant goal for designers, ensuring that all guests can experience safe and comfortable moments together. However, due to the size, weight and form factor of many early generation headsets, guests with limited visual acuity or physical mobility found it challenging to maintain an optimal posture or retain a clear, focused, and immersive visual environment throughout the experience. Thankfully, there continues to be a wave of emerging technology that caters to guest accessibility. While many are still in their infancy, we know that these challenges are not insurmountable, but rather, they are stepping stones along the path to an optimal guest experience.


Looking Ahead

As we look ahead to a post-COVID world, there will undoubtedly be a shift in education, enterprise and entertainment. From visualization in the form of remote collaboration, to annotation in the form of real-time, remote instructions, to storytelling, and a new wave of haptic immersion; students, educators, and professionals are at the precipice of a new era in experiential engagement thanks to advances in emerging technologies.

When it’s time to untether and venture outside, additional emerging technologies can transform public spaces without the use or necessity of limiting hardware. Technologies such as mapped projection, mixed reality glasses, and digital characters or environments can enhance our physical surroundings without the use of single-serving, cumbersome devices. However, there remain three key takeaways for any activation or attraction to remain successful: friendly competition, inclusivity and immersion.

In the days, months and years to follow, social etiquette will shift, industries will evolve and technology will advance. We will remove our masks, we will interact, and together, we will smile. People are inherently social creatures and we at Thinkwell will continue to explore safe, effective, and memorable experiences to bring people together, wherever in the world life takes us.