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.


Lessons From Lockdown

As designers and developers of location-based experiences, we have the privilege and opportunity to connect with our audiences in unique and unexpected ways. Whether we have crafted a museum exhibit, a Family Entertainment Center, or the most ambitious theme park ever created, our greatest reward is the memories our guests share, forging lifelong bonds and personal connections to our work and each other. Ironically, in normal times, we tirelessly toil through the days and sleepless nights, fussing and fretting over every design detail and budget hiccup, not stopping until the hammering is done and the ribbon is cut. And then it’s on to the next. We are kept so busy crafting the next big thing that we often fail to capture the smaller moments ourselves.


Obviously, these are far from normal times. 2020 has been the Black Swan of Black Swans. In the beforedays, our industry flourished in times of crisis as people sought a bit of escapism from the troubling world, but this global pandemic has been a gut-punch to all of our preconceived notions. A year ago, it was inconceivable to think that our homes would become our fortresses of solitude. That cinemas, museums, attractions, and theme parks (never mind bars and restaurants) would shut their doors for a single day, let alone months. We all had a rather vacant stare as it dawned on us that our gates would shutter, our offices would close, our projects would pause, our lives would go on hold. The whole world had suddenly and forever changed.

And yet, we’ve adapted and adopted new tools and ways of working. So much has already been written about the surprising productivity of working from home (with or without pants), the comparatively painless transition to online conferencing and collaboration, the explosion of streaming entertainment, social media platforms, and a creator economy in which anyone and everyone, anywhere in the world can find a voice, a following, and an audience all their own.  

We push forward and speculate, plot, and blogpost about how social-distancing and a contactless world will alter our approach to visitor engagements. We closely follow the theme parks that have begun to reopen to see how new safety guidelines affect attendance and guest satisfaction. We share the challenges and successes of museum exhibits and theatrical performances as they reinvent themselves in the digital realm, and debate what elements might outlast this pandemic to shape experiences to come.  We quietly delight in the renaissance of the drive-in, which has become the venue not only for movies, but for concerts, weddings, graduations, worship services, election rallies, and victory celebrations.  Our cars have become their own semi-autonomous, trackless ride vehicles that lead us through the nearest Halloween haunt or holiday lights spectacle.  We follow the trends of an audience whose entertainment options have been severely limited resulting in the soaring popularity of outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and even golf, and we consider how all of this will play out in our future projects.  

When we shift the topic of our lockdown experiences away from work-related things, however, the conversation takes a revealing turn. When asked what happy surprises our suddenly homebound existences have revealed after these many months, our answers are notably intimate and personal.  Many of us take great satisfaction in finally checking off items on our much ignored to do lists, ignored not so much because we’ve been busy, but because we had so many ready distractions to blame for our procrastination. My colleagues have fixed that leaky faucet, renovated a room, completed unfinished writing projects, honed new skills, created the artwork, crafted instruments, miniatures, sweaters, scarves, and quilts. Others have tended their gardens, harvested their crops, and prepared their meals… and spent time with each other. 

And that’s the heart of the matter. In spite of the challenges of this “lockdown lifestyle,” it has ironically drawn us closer to one another.  We’ve bonded with our pets, who seem deeply puzzled as to why we’re around so much these days. Through Zoom calls, we’ve reconnected with friends and family, separated by time and space. We’ve treasured walks and bike rides with our partners, siblings, children, and grandchildren. We’ve watched the drama of nature unfold outside our windows, gazing at the night sky, or rooting for birds as they battle for territory in the trees. This Halloween, my block arranged a special costume parade for the little ones on the street followed by a socially distanced outdoor movie on the driveway. Neighbors who opted into the festivities gathered on their lawns, and made it one of the most memorable community bonding events we’ve ever had, and a tradition we hope to repeat next year. 

The almost unbearable challenge of distance learning has given us a renewed appreciation for educators, but also the gift of precious time with our sons and daughters. My colleague Cynthia and I each have a teen-ager named Sean, both of whom are seniors in high school. Thankfully, they both remain active and engaged, but it crushes us to think they are missing social events, dances, live shows, sports, and, sigh… graduation ceremonies, all milestones in this grand finale to their schooldays. The silver lining is that we get to share this ever-dwindling time together as they prepare to fly, cooking meals together, playing foosball, ping-pong, board games, guiding them through homework, rehearsing the virtual musical in the next room, streaming Netflix on the same couch at the same time. My Sean cannot play organized ice hockey with his team, so he has to settle for beer league pick-up games with friends and, ugh, his dad.  I make sure I tell him over and over how much I treasure these moments, and I am confident that one day, he will too.

It seems that even the gee-wizards of location-based entertainment, the purveyors of pomp and pyrotechnics, the first adopters, first-in-liners, and fiercest critics of the latest and greatest immersive any-and-everything are living through a crash course in the power of moments. 

So as this crisis fades and our cultural ship begins to right itself and lists forward into the new sea of reality, as we begin to rev our engines once again to plan, plot, draw and design the next big, immersive, 5D, multimedia, autonomous, AR, VR, AI, gob-smacking glockenspiel of awesomeness, let’s not forget the power of the small moment. Let’s not forget that the greatest reward for all our efforts is connecting with our guests; creating personal moments of awe, wonder, joy, revelation, or familial intimacy. We are gifted with the opportunity to create memories that transcend the commonplace. These “emotional souvenirs” are treasures that our guests will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, as we emerge from this lunacy of lockdowns, we can also remember to savor those small moments in our own lives, too. 


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.

A Preview of Theme Parks Tomorrow, Today

How Orlando’s reopening attractions can give us a view into designing guest experiences for the future.


As most of us in the attractions industry have discovered, it is very difficult to predict how the effects of COVID-19 will affect attractions in the future. What will guests both expect and feel comfortable with as we navigate the years ahead, and how will attractions respond to the evolving needs of their audience? These are valid questions that will have profound results within many different experiential and guest-focused attractions.

As the Orlando attractions market begins to carefully reopen amid a vast array of both uncertainty and cautious optimism, I had the opportunity to visit some of these attractions to see these responses first-hand. In many ways the experience met or exceeded my expectations of what could be done by operators in terms of safety and assurance. 

What surprised me, however, was just how much I would learn concerning the evolutions of guest interaction, and how a global pandemic might be the catalyst for challenging ideas we have long seen as principles and standards of both attraction design and operation. The experience, as a whole, left me encouraged by the level of guest participation in an evolving environment, while inspiring some ideas as to how we can rise to the challenge of delivering new and engaging experiences built for a post-COVID world.

First, the expected: It is a given, considering the reality of the situation, that many levels of sanitary practices and sanitization would be adopted. At all three major attractions, Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, both guest-facing elements like hand-sanitizer and hand-washing stations, and backstage elements such as ride vehicle sanitization, were standard and obvious. While all of these were currently temporary additions within the theme park, one can expect that thematically appropriate versions of each of these will soon become a permanent fixture in any key spaces in parks and attractions where contact is unavoidable.

There were some more subtle changes as well. At the Disney parks, for instance, each of the trash cans had their lids secured open with zip ties, a move to protect guests from touching a potentially contaminated surface. I wonder if this will be a temporary change, or if we will eventually see a change to the decades-old and ubiquitous “theme park-style” trash can. 

Where I expected some friction was with social distancing. “Surely, this is going to be the sticking point,” I thought. I was floored to find that not only were guests fully participating in the social distancing six feet of separation or more rules posted, but guests were turning it into a game. I saw countless guests who were entertaining themselves by standing on each distance indicator as if it were a position on an oversized board game. Even where there were not clearly identified markers, guests self-determined the need for distance between groups in both pre-shows and queues. Throughout my experience, I had many conversations with other guests who felt that the social spacing, and NOT the overall level of crowds, was the main contributing factor to what they considered a pleasant experience. It is a fair hypothesis, however it is hard to tell if this would still be true on the busiest of operating days.

A change in cast member distribution was also evident throughout every type of experience. From food & beverage through load stations and queues, cast member positioning was adapted to assist guests with separation and sanitation. Though, as an unintended benefit, the changed positioning actually seemed to help guide guest movement better and felt closer to the regular cadence of helpful personnel one might expect to encounter in a hotel or hospitality setting. It may not have been the most operationally efficient, but the impact on guest experience was exponential.

Another interesting development was the level to which guests were adopting mobile services as their main interface for payment, ticketing, and more. There seemed to be little to no friction with digital park maps, and the recent shift to mobile-only ordering for food & beverage at the Disney and Universal parks did much in the ways of reducing the need for queue lines or large waiting areas in front of locations. In several instances, I saw guests utilizing mobile features in queue lines as a game to pass the time and enhance their experience. Queue lines in general just seemed to function better and were more engaging once guests understood that they wouldn’t stand in one spot for more than a minute or so. At the Disney parks, no attractions were currently offering FastPass+ (Disney’s virtual queue reservation system) and I didn’t hear a single complaint. Not one.

What I saw on my recent visit was just a snapshot in time of an evolving situation. Certainly there are some extraordinary elements that need to be considered. However, what I did  see was an evolving image of guest preferences and behaviors in relation to an adapting theme park environment, and the results were not just promising in terms of participation, but revealing in how we can design spaces within attractions that actually give guests the things that matter to them. Should we rethink the amount of space we give groups for pre-shows and theaters? Break single queues up into multiple pathways that encourage constant flow and movement? Design newly integrated elements for rest, hygiene, and hospitality? All of these are interesting considerations we can take as we design both safe and satisfying experiences for tomorrow’s attractions.

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.

It looks like a dance chart for our post-COVID world. It’s called the SIX FOOT DANCE.

Public venues of all kinds are re-opening to a radically different reality, as people venture out into the public space. Old ways and patterns of doing things are now different, ranging from shopping at the grocery store, to going to a theme park. The world has changed. It matters where you put your feet. How are wayfinding and operational signage adapting to a post-COVID world of public venues?

Thinkwell Group Design Example of Wayfinding Signs

Traditional wayfinding helps people make choices for where to go and what to do. Signs are placed at key decision points, like at intersecting paths or entry points, and reduce stress by making it clear to visitors what decisions to make and where to go. 

But for public spaces like parks, museums, food & beverage and retail locations to reopen, new sign types are required. Signage for social distancing markers on the ground, wearing masks in public, directing one-way traffic flow on narrow pedestrian paths, hand sanitizer stations and instructions for guests to wait in family groups are now becoming common mandates. Guess what? That means a lot more signs.

With public spaces already filled with signage and messages of all kinds, this poses a challenge. Theme parks, museums, live events, and public spaces now grapple with both directing visitors and need to change their behavior. Activities we take for granted are now obsolete or need to change. Waiting in lines for attractions could be things of the past. Teaching people to learn new patterns of behavior requires clear directions and signage.

One danger is that guests get information overload/graphics fatigue in spaces now filled with new yellow, black, and red emergency signage. Too much info, blaring in the same key and intensity, is likely to be tuned out as people become desensitized to the “new normal.” It is visually overwhelming.

This creates a real problem of key messages being missed.

Critical information can be ignored, because our brains are wired to tune things out over time, due to repeated exposure. This happens in physical and digital landscapes, whether we read online dialogue prompts, hear audio messages, or see actual signage. Anthony Vance, the director of the Center of Cyber Security at Fox School, says, “it often has to do with memory… we saw it last time, so we don’t have to scrutinize it so much this time. Sometimes we remember something more than we actually see it.”1

Our human tendency is to group similar patterns, colors and typography into simple schemas, which helps the mind organize information. In graphics (and psychology) it is called gestalt theory. It is a way of sorting out and classifying the information that surrounds us. While this grouping technique simplifies our life, it can make us miss the visual informational cues that help us navigate. Information that should be differentiated gets lumped in with other directional information that seems similar.

So the challenge is to create wayfinding and operational safety signs that are “sticky” and stand out in visually disruptive environments.


Here are five tips to improving important safety graphics:

1. Fear Overkill

Avoid signs looking like strident warning signs similar to hospitals, chain-link fences on government facilities and institutions or atomic labs (unless required). People get visual fatigue with signs that blare fear in red and black. Worse yet, they tune them out.

2. “Please” vs “Don’t”

Say “Please” instead of saying “DON’T”. Give a positive incentive for the desired behavior by making it more human, instead of a command. People respond to respect.

3. Humor

Humor can attract attention and be sticky, but needs to be tempered with the seriousness of the message. A sign should leave the reader with a smile and still show a sense of care for the topic. Keep calm and carry on.

4. Don’t Cry Wolf

Warning signs can create bad choices when it overstates the risk. “A warning sign can increase danger when it overstates the danger – meaning we take less precautions if our experience and subjective perception is that the danger is usually less than stated on the sign.”²

5. Branded vs. Off-The-Shelf

One-size-fits-all solutions from code required sign catalogs all look the same. If you need a signage solution in a branded customer facing space, design the sign for that space. Use your brand colors, fonts and imagery, (where possible) to show that this is a deliberate response, not an imposed reaction.


The right next steps:
Creating wayfinding signage as a tool to inform safety decisions is key. If you want to impact behaviors, you will need the right strategy. Assess how your clients, customers, and guests interact with the space, and see what works in similar venues. This will help you to develop a signage plan that will be visible, easy to understand, and differentiated from other competing messages.

If you need our consulting or signage design services, contact Thinkwell’s team of experienced wayfinding and location-based graphics professionals. We are skilled in developing signage solutions customized to your unique needs.



  1. Megan Alt , Tuning out Security Warnings, Temple University Fox School of Business, January 28, 2020
  2. Dr Robert Long – PhD, Why Do We Ignore Safety and Warning Signs – Sometimes With Tragic Results?

Bringing the show to the audience rather than the audience to the show

The Theater Guest Experience

It wasn’t long ago we were packing stadiums for concerts, or filling every theater seat for the opening weekend of a blockbuster movie. Guests would line parade routes at theme parks to catch a glimpse of their favorite princess, or to sing along with a marching band blasting a popular song. Theater makers were innovating new tactics to market traditional plays and musicals, to “get butts in seats,” as the old adage goes. And meanwhile, a new crop of artists were pushing boundaries, blurring the lines between audiences and performers, immersing visitors in the action of a play, haunted house, or escape room.

It seems like, in the blink of an eye, the entire live entertainment and performance industry has changed. The novel coronavirus has shuttered venues from Broadway’s largest houses to the tiniest Chicago storefront theaters. High capacity stadiums and small capacity escape rooms all went dark. But like the ghost light that remains lit on any stage, artists are finding their way through the dark to figure out how to bring entertainment to the world despite the restrictions and guidelines that dominate our new normal.

Escape Room Guest Experience
Escape Rooms, like Tommy Honton’s “Stash House,” asked guests to solve riddles and puzzles in an immersive environment, up close and personal. Thinkwell’s own Dave Cobb seen at right, above.

The internet became an immediate resource: artistic powerhouses like National Theater London started airing superstar performances, available on YouTube (for free) for limited runs. Other companies tinkered with paywall options to stream content that was (thankfully) recorded before the virus shut them down. Here in Los Angeles, the experimental opera company, The Industry, had to shutter their immersive, multi-path, wildly innovative Sweet Land well before its scheduled closing date. The company was able to think quickly and film the entire show, offering folks who missed out on the live event (yours truly included) a chance to watch from the safety of our laptops.

These are all great options. Pivots. Adjustments. But as shelter-in-place drags on, and restlessness sets in, performers and producers are beginning to think about how long term solutions can produce not just adjustments, but new inventions and fantastic innovations to the live events industry.

Here at Thinkwell, we’ve been brainstorming this head-scratcher using one of the basic tenets of our charrette (creative development work session) process. We’re assessing the parameters of our unfortunate situation: we assess CDC guidelines, think about how humans are going to respond to the “reopening” of their world, and understand guest expectations and wants for live entertainment. Then, we create the “box,” or the set of given circumstances that creates our creative sandbox. Personally, I love understanding the limitations of a creative conundrum! I think that knowing the walls and barriers of a task actually yields more creative solutions than “the sky’s the limit” thinking. 

Socially distanced audiences

And our creative sandbox has yielded exciting results! We are coming up with all kinds of ways to flip the switch on how to put live entertainment on the “stage of life,” so that we keep audience members safe. We want to produce parades-in-reverse, in which audience members drive past entertainment. We want to deliver immersive, content-driven shows that wind their way through neighborhoods, across the country, creating surprise and delight moments far beyond what happens when kids hear the “Turkey and the Straw” of an ice cream truck. We are tinkering with the idea of delivering neighborhood “walk-in” live shows or movies, utilizing park space or parking lots for communities to catch the newest blockbuster or a kids’ puppet show, all while staying socially distant. 

Storytelling, from a performer to an audience, has existed since time began. This virus won’t stop storytellers from putting on a good show. Thinkwell is ready to dream big about solutions to bring the show to our audiences.