Introducing Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience

Follow a forest light trail and discover illuminated moments from the Wizarding World this Autumn at Arley Hall.


We are thrilled to announce Thinkwell’s newest project with our partners at Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment, Unify, and Fever. Read on for the full launch announcement!



BURBANK, USA and MANCHESTER, UK (21 July, 2021): Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment in partnership with Thinkwell, have announced a breathtaking experience that will take Harry Potter fans of all ages down a light trail inspired by the iconic Forbidden Forest featuring creatures from the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts series.

Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience will make its debut in the beautiful woodland at Arley Hall, Cheshire, U.K.. As evening falls, mesmerising lights will transform the landscape into a magical outdoor trail for families to enjoy. As visitors make their way through the woodland, and follow the illuminated path, they will discover wonderful surprises, some of their most favourite moments from the Forbidden Forest, and encounter mystical creatures such as Hippogriffs, centaurs, unicorns, Nifflers – and many more.

Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience is suitable for the whole family to enjoy and provides a huge amount for fans of all ages to see and do, giving them the opportunity to experience the magic of the wizarding world in a brand-new way. From discovering the wondrous and beautiful forest come to life, enjoying a wide range of delicious food and drinks at a lively and seasonally themed village; to perusing the on-site shop for Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts merchandise to take home – it promises to be a special evening to remember!

The outdoor experience has been created by Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment in partnership with award-winning theatrical designers and experiential creators, Thinkwell and their partners Unify and leading entertainment discovery platform Fever.

The Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience offers fans a new way to enjoy some of the most iconic and magical wizarding world moments,” said Peter van Roden, Senior Vice President of Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment. “We’re thrilled to be working alongside Thinkwell to bring this incredible light trail to life at Arley Hall & Gardens, a perfect location where the natural beauty of the forest trail and illuminated sets filled with familiar creatures from the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts series, will make for a magical experience for fans of all ages.”

The trail follows a one-way route and is designed to be accessible to all as well as COVID secure and will adhere to the latest Government safety guidelines to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit. Guests will be able to view the most up to date guidelines on our website,

Fans can sign up to join the waitlist at and receive early access to tickets and information about the experience.

Ticket prices will start from £19 and will be available on Fever’s marketplace here.

Press Contact
[email protected]

Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment

[email protected]


About Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment

Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment (WBTE), part of WarnerMedia Global Brands and Experiences, is a worldwide leader in the creation, development and licensing of location-based entertainment, live events, exhibits and theme park experiences based on WarnerMedia’s iconic characters, stories, and brands. WBTE is home to the groundbreaking global locations of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, WB Movie World Australia, and countless other experiences inspired by DC, Looney Tunes, Scooby, Game of Thrones, Friends and more. With best-in-class partners, WBTE allows fans around the world to physically immerse themselves inside their favorite brands and franchises.


About Wizarding World

In the years since Harry Potter was whisked from King’s Cross Station onto Platform nine and three quarters, his incredible adventures (based on the original stories by J.K. Rowling) have left a unique and lasting mark on popular culture. Eight blockbuster Harry Potter films have brought the magical stories to life and today, the Wizarding World is recognised as one of the world’s best-loved brands.

Representing a vast interconnected universe, it also includes two epic Fantastic Beasts films, (the third releasing in 2022), Harry Potter & The Cursed Child – the multi-award-winning stage-play, state-of-the-art video and mobile games from Portkey Games, innovative consumer products, thrilling live entertainment (including four theme park lands) and insightful exhibitions.

This expanding portfolio of Warner Bros. owned Wizarding World experiences also includes Harry Potter New York – a brand new flagship store, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, Warner Bros. Studio Tour Tokyo, and the Platform 9 3⁄4 retail shops.

The Wizarding World continues to evolve to provide Harry Potter fans with fresh and exciting ways to engage. For the worldwide fan community, and for generations to come, it welcomes everyone in to explore and discover the magic for themselves.

WIZARDING WORLD and all related trademarks, characters, names, and indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Publishing Rights © JKR. (s21)


About Thinkwell

Thinkwell Group is a global experience design and production agency with studios and offices in Los Angeles, Montréal, Beijing, and Abu Dhabi. For the past 20 years, Thinkwell’s multi-disciplinary team has created compelling experiences for a wide range of clients and brands around the world. Thinkwell has extensive experience in the strategy, planning, design, and production of award-winning theme parks, brand & intellectual property attractions, events & spectaculars, museums & exhibits, expos, and live shows.


About Unify

Unify Productions Global are a UK experiential  and production consultancy with operations and guest experience expertise stemming from their work as senior group leaders at London Olympics 2012. Unify’s principals, Heather McGill and Anthony Norris, honed their skills creating and operating major festivals around the UK., are now helping to create, craft, and bring to life the experience and operations of Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience with Thinkwell.


About Fever

Fever is the leading global entertainment discovery platform. Fever has revolutionised the world of entertainment since 2015, inspiring over 40 million people every month to discover the best experiences in their cities. Through the use of its technology, Fever empowers event organisers to create amazing experiences, and works alongside organisers, promoters and brands. Successful examples of their experiences include the “Candlelight Concert Series” attended by over 1 million guests, the Los Angeles based “Stranger Things: The Drive-Into Experience”, or the “Mad Hatter G&T Party” present in multiple cities across the world.

Celebrating 20 Years: Looking Back & Looking Ahead

It’s hard to believe that this year Thinkwell has turned 20.

When Thinkwell first started, the owners thought we’d be a small, boutique firm, serving just a handful of clients in the theme park industry. Needless to say, we’ve outgrown that vision several-fold. With projects on almost every continent and at every scale, from adorable little 300 square foot children’s exhibits you want to hug to the world’s largest indoor theme park, we’ve been to places, dreamed up concepts, and built things we never imagined back in the Fall of 2001.

The moments that stand out to us over the years inevitably come down to people: the colleagues and clients who have become our friends, the current and former Thinkwellians doing amazing things out in the world, the guests who are awed and overjoyed in our creations. The isolation and strangeness of 2020 has made us miss the people in our industry all the more intensely, and reinforced for us the truth of how the places we design and build really are meant to be enjoyed together as social experiences.

So we hope you’ll join us throughout the rest of the year through continued employee, client, and collaborator stories that explore and celebrate the best of Thinkwell – from looking back at the moments Thinkwellians hold dear from projects over the years, to a few behind-the-scenes and never-before-heard stories, and of course, a look towards the future of what the next 20 years will begin to look like for us.

We’re grateful for every client and collaborator we’ve had the opportunity to work with over these two decades, and for every guest our clients have had the pleasure of inviting into their experiences we’ve worked so diligently to create.

Thank you.

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

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.

The Museum Exhibit Design: Education Should Be Fun

Have you ever thought about a trip to a museum as the equivalent of eating your leisure-time vegetables? It’s good for you, but it’s not always the most palatable option on your plate. It’s vital that museums offer something more than just education.  That they offer fun and excitement and inspiration and connection in order to avoid being relegated to brussels sprouts status. So when we start thinking about museum exhibit design and how to tell a story that appeals as it educates, it can be as simple as beginning where you would with any story: the who, the what, and the where.

NatureQuest Starfish

Let’s start with the last of those: the where. Creating a sense of place isn’t just for theme parks, and museum exhibits don’t have to be displayed within formless or nonspecific gallery spaces. Giving guests a sense of location, an environment to explore, can transform their serving of educational goodness into a journey of discovery, even an adventure. Take, for example, our approach at NatureQuest, the children’s exhibit at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia. This indoor-for-outdoor space recreates the different environmental zones of Georgia, populated with species-accurate depictions of plants, animals, even the correct sounds of bird calls and other wildlife for that region. In this space, rather than being told about the estuary or swamp or mountain caves, kids and their parents get to become the discoverers, the scientists spotting species in their natural habitats and learning about them from their environments.

Next, let’s think about the who. While the where can immerse guests in a time or location, ultimately people connect with people. It’s the personal stories that provide unique moments of identification and communication between guests and the educational content. In museum exhibit design, this can mean creating opportunities to get inside someone else’s head, building empathy and understanding. At the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, we wanted to give guests a chance to see and hear how Nixon thought — in his own words — while balancing it with outside perspectives and responses. We recreated the Lincoln Sitting Room, Nixon’s favorite room in the White House, and placed a statue of the president at work in his chair, scribbling away on a notepad. Projected words animate onto the wall (real quotes from his own handwritten notes) as guests hear Nixon’s voice, from later interviews, narrating what he thought about a particular issue. The windows of the room were filled with media of news reports, commentary, even protests, giving a glimpse of how the outside world responded to Nixon’s actions. 

Last of all, the what. In the context of museum exhibit design, the “what” that we’re specifically interested in are the artifacts — the real, authentic pieces of history (or geology or whatever field our museum is focused on) that tell a story with their physical presence. First, it’s important that you are choosing an artifact that has significance and a story to tell — you’re not just displaying it for the sake of having something in a case. At the CIA Museum1 for example, the letter written to his son by a young American officer at the close of WWII might move guests in its own right, aided by the writer’s later role as Director of Central Intelligence. But the fact that the letter is written on a captured piece of Adolph Hitler’s personal stationery makes it unforgettable. Just as vital as what it is, though, is how the artifact is displayed: are you giving it the kind of context that makes it come to life? Can we see, through its environment or displays, how it was used or where it came from? Can guests touch or interact with it? It’s one thing to be able to see a rock that was brought back from the lunar surface, but to be able to touch one — as you can at Space Center Houston, among other locations — gives you a chance to physically connect with history, or even the universe. 

Who, what, and where. When you take it back to the basics of storytelling, it becomes clear that museum exhibit design can be both delicious and nutritious — the best of both worlds.2


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.

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.