Museum & Cultural Institution Transformation, Part 1

At the same time we’re helping partners and clients think through the issues and details of how to open and operate in a pre-vaccine world, Thinkwell is also considering what this means for the museum field at large. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, this is both a hit to the finances and the experience of museums; it’s undermined our audience’s comfort levels and trust in being in public and participatory. It’s clear that even once there’s a widely-adopted, strong vaccine, the field cannot simply go back to ‘business-as-usual’. This time and crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity, and it represents a chance to boldly re-envision what it means to be a museum, what manifesting your mission really looks like in a society transformed by COVID19, and how we collectively get there.

 

In the upcoming weeks and months, we’re going to explore three big areas of change we see for museums and cultural institutions, in what we hope will be a robust dialog with you and some of our colleagues and collaborators:

musuem and cultural institution finance graphic

Funding and operating models: As institutions face major budget shortfalls, financial models and museum governance represent areas of potential transformation. How can museums change board development and function, funding strategies, and income generation in order to be more crisis-proof? Which institutions managed to avoid major staff cuts and what set them up for this success? How will operations evolve in the wake of COVID19?

musuem and cultural institution community graphicCommunity: It’s clear from the research that museums’ role and value in their communities must become stronger, in order to survive and thrive even when the next crisis comes. How can museums ‘do right’ by their own internal communities – their staff – in times of crisis and uncertainty? Who have our institutions failed to invite in, serve, and meaningfully co-create with? How can museums use this time to examine shortcomings in equity and inclusion in their towns, cities, and regions and address those? And how do museums establish themselves as a ‘must-have’ for strong communities, not a ‘nice-to-have’, generating strong financial and governmental support?

musuem and cultural institution touch screen graphicInteractivity: The current crisis presents a ‘worst-case scenario’ for museums that have embraced interactivity and participatory experiences. This situation won’t last forever, but it will force a long, hard look at not just the technologies and interfaces of interactivity, but how interactivity is used and incorporated. Just because touchable surfaces and close quarters aren’t safe for now, doesn’t mean audiences are willing to go back whole cloth to the old days of passively receiving information. What does the future of interactivity look like? What technologies and techniques can address not only the immediate need to reduce the potential for contact transmission of disease, but also free interactives from inherently exclusive modes that not all guests can use? How can this push us towards true universal design? Can we create museums and cultural institutions that are seamlessly, holistically immersive, and responsive to individual visitors?

 

Museums and other cultural institutions need to get through the next few months. Survival is the name of the game. But survival doesn’t have to come at the expense of visioning and growth – the two can coexist. We look forward to plumbing these ideas and opportunities with you, as we all work towards a future that looks a little different than what we might have dreamed up last year.

How Will Technologies Shape Our Interactions and Spaces in the Post-Confinement Era?

In a post-confinement world, human beings will seek the exact opposite of what will be prescribed to them: in the face of social distancing, we will want to get closer to each other again; at the prohibition of touch, we will want to smell and taste the things we had enjoyed; faced with rules and regulations about where we go and how we move through spaces, we will seek fluidity and freedom. We are, by our very nature, social creatures

Over the past 20 years, Thinkwell Studio Montréal has evolved the nature of its interactive projects based on the concept of ambient intelligence. The idea is very simple: the interface is not a screen, the interface is the world we live in. 

Take, for example, our Renaissance Hotel Experience in New York where the body of each guest becomes the communication device between the hotel and its district. Through a partnership with Time Out Magazine, a digital concierge interacts with each visitor to offer them culinary or cultural activities depending on the weather, their desires, and the amount of time they want to spend walking. Using a 3D camera detection system, we were able to detect multi-user signals (body posture and movement, group behavior, eye tracking, and emotion recognition) and transform the experience of the lobby. Let’s imagine that this experience could be adapted for hospital or university spaces. On a university campus, for instance, a digital concierge would become a mobile engagement platform where every student becomes the heart of her or his own journey; a generative digital assistant in real-time that adapts the student successfully navigate not only the demands of their classes and deadlines but also the social, cultural, and sporting life of the community.   

The Illumination of the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal to mark the city’s 375th anniversary was our next step in developing technology and data collection to communicate the emotions and detect the pulse of a city. How can the data of an environment generate an experience without the audience needing to do or touch anything when it’s the audience itself that is at the heart of the show? When the bridge comes to life, what you actually see is the city pulsating in real-time. Thinkwell’s contribution to this celebration has been to use data collection and AI to capture and aggregate all of the relevant data generated by the city’s citizens – traffic conditions, weather, the mood on social media, bike-sharing activity, etc. With physical sensors (radars, weather stations, counting people, etc.) any type of API integration and normalization algorithms, we have the ability to use almost any type of data to modify and influence an experience. This digital platform we have developed for this bridge could be suitablefor the transport or theme park industries, for example. All the data generated by people and systems during a single day in a theme park tells a story: the atmosphere and energy of the crowd, the impact of the weather on people’s experience, the reactions to this or that character in our journey, which guests go where and how they linger (or don’t), what and where they eat and buy, how their pace changes during the day, and more How can this data improve the operationalization and the emotions experienced? 

Finally, I would like to share with you a project that is currently in production, and that perfectly illustrates a solution that could be adopted into museums, theme parks, and any other location-based experiences that will be managing crowds for the months and years to come. It’s a collaboration with Parks Canada where visitors will be able to relive the experience of working in Canada’s first steel company which has been closed for 150 years. This application is an interactive, multi-sensory alcove where each visitor becomes one of the workers through the various stages of iron production. The guests are experiencing a “day in the life” of these steelworkers so that they have a “hands-on” impression of the working conditions of the time. This direct experience allows learning through empathy and leads the way for an impactful emotional souvenir. This innovation makes it possible to select and view high-resolution augmented reality content simply by detecting guest gestures. With no devices such as goggles, headsets, telephones, or tablets, our interactive alcove promotes a collective experience. It is the AI we have developed that generates all the content of the experience from the gestures of each visitor. This innovation can be adapted for any museum, healthcare, or airport experience. 

Crowd flow management, body language detection, eye tracking, emotional feedback, voice recognition, telepresence, data interpretation, accessibility; for us, interactive technologies are a tool to empower each user to become the storyteller.

As the frontiers between the digital and the physical worlds are melting, we see every guest experience as becoming the actual canvas. We believe the future of spaces is personalized, participative, and generative. Each member of the audience is at the heart of everything we do; physical spaces take the shape of their visitors.

Physically Distanced Museums

What is the museum of the future? How will museums operate – physically, intellectually, financially – long after COVID19? There’s big transformation on the horizon for cultural institutions, but there’s also the immediacy of ‘how can we reopen? When can we reopen?’ Museums need to connect with their communities quickly and deeply, to garner the kind of support (visitorship, donors, and community members who will advocate for the institution) they will need to survive and pivot from this time. With nineteen years designing experiences for museums, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, and more, Thinkwell has amassed deep knowledge of best practices, crisis management and transformation, and operations across industries. While Thinkwell is helping our museum clients meaningfully wrestle with the big questions of long-range transformation, we’re also helping them think through the ‘day after tomorrow’ – what will it look like as stay-at-home orders ease, but before a viable vaccine is widely available.

physically distancing in a museum

So what does ‘physical distancing’ look like in an institution that probably has some brain-bending, physical-distancing-rules violating combination of:

  • Multiple constricted entries and exits (into and out of the building, exhibit halls, retail, restaurants, and bathrooms)
  • Hands-on interactives and touch-screens for ticketing, payment, or exhibit content
  • Delightful historic structures that can’t be modified
  • Maybe even a children’s area featuring a ball pit, dress-up activities, and a climbing structure

There are no easy answers. There’s no magic bullet. But there are tools and a deliberative process that can help guide decision-making.

Museums now find themselves in a world that other location-based experiences have been doing for years. Theme parks calculate guest density and flow, and adjust designs accordingly, with a rigor that even Scrooge himself would be awed by. They deal with queue lines, spacing, and hiding the true length of a queue or making it more entertaining. Theme parks and zoos have made materials and cleaning protocols choices based on durability, operational, and health concerns to an extent indoor museum experiences largely haven’t needed to. Mission-driven spaces like museums, zoos, aquariums, and other cultural attractions can benefit from the years of real-world experience other venue types have already amassed. In fact, they must capitalize on this information – there’s no time to waste.

Thinkwell has developed a Playbook for cultural attractions to utilize as they plan not only for the first few weeks of reopening, but also the months until the COVID threat is mitigated globally and the new reality beyond. In the first few weeks of operations, yes, tape on the floor can help with physical distancing. But it’s not an elegant or guest-friendly solution, nor is it a look or emotional message institutions want to sport for the next year. Ours is a methodical yet nimble approach, considering every element of operation while simultaneously centering the experience of the institution. Solutions that diminish the soul of an institution and hobble it from fulfilling its mission are not good ones. As part of our Playbook, we define five main areas to consider as institutions plan for reopening and new operations. By focusing on these key elements, it frames internal review and helps focus the questions.

For example, one of the five areas is “The Big Draw”, which naturally guides the iterative planning process. What are the key experiences to have open as part of your Big Draw for guests? Where are their risk points? Interactives – and how to handle them – is another of the five key areas for consideration. Most museums will lack the time, money, and staff resources to convert every interactive immediately. But in many exhibits, interactives are a key part of the experience. Which interactives are foundational to have working? Our Montreal team is already developing elegant, seamless solutions to transition touch-screen interactives into gesture, voice-controlled, or personal digital device-mirrored experiences, and our teams are also re-envisioning what the new interactivity entails.

Museums need to open. Period. Their communities want and need them, as shown in the recent research work spearheaded by the American Alliance of Museums, and museums need ticket revenue in order to survive. Museums are a critical economic engine, too, and their successful reopening will pay off in a variety of ways. By being thoughtful, yet swift, in planning for “the Day After Tomorrow”, museums can invest their time and limited resources to best effect, helping their communities heal and turn towards the future.

How Warner Bros. Cast Its Spell On Abu Dhabi

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.

We all know how hard it is to build sandcastles. Sculpting the base is the easy part but it usually collapses like a house of cards when it comes to putting the turrets on top. So spare a thought for property developers in the city of Abu Dhabi.
In just three years they transformed a 153,000 square meter stretch of desert into Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the largest indoor theme park ever built. It premièred in July with the kind of glitz and glamour you would expect to find on the opening night of a movie.

Confetti rained down and costumed characters of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck looked on as an over-sized red button was pushed by Warner Bros. Entertainment chief executive Kevin Tsujihara and Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the park’s developer, government-owned Miral Asset Management. Warner’s parent WarnerMedia is the first Hollywood studio to have its own theme park in the Middle East and it took more than the wave of a magic wand to get there.

In a bid to compensate for its depleting oil reserves Abu Dhabi’s government is diversifying its revenue and banking on boosting tourism. It is throwing its weight behind theme parks and has covered the $1 billion cost of building Warner Bros. World. The Prince Charming behind it is Al Mubarak, a graduate of Boston’s Northeastern University and a self-confessed comics and cartoon fanatic.

“I am a big fan of the Warner Bros. movies and their Intellectual Property (IP) whether it is DC, Looney Tunes or Hanna-Barbera,” he told us in an interview. “I watched the cartoons growing up, read the comics growing up, still read the comics today and still watch the movies. They are some of the best movies I have ever watched.”

In addition to being the head of Miral, which specializes in building visitor attractions, Al Mubarak is also chairman of Aldar Properties, the leading real estate developer in Abu Dhabi. With assets of $10 billion and more than 75 million square meters of development land it is an economic powerhouse so it’s perhaps no coincidence that Al Mubarak’s favorite superhero is also a titan of industry.

As he explained to local newspaper The National, Batman is his superhero of choice because his alter ego Bruce Wayne uses his vast fortune as a force for good. “During the day he is a businessman who is making billions and billions of dollars, and he uses that money to strengthen his body and his soul. He gets all the gadgets..and he fights crime for the best of the community.”
His affinity for the caped crusader is one of the reasons that he made a beeline for Batman’s owner Warner. His mission began 11 years ago when state-owned Abu Dhabi Media launched a $1 billion fund with Warner for movie and video game development. It fuelled Looney Tunes games and the 2009 fantasy film Shorts, starring James Spader. This led to the theme park partnership but casting that spell involved more than just money.

Warner is a relative newcomer to the theme park industry. Its first outpost, Warner Bros. Movie World, made its début on Australia’s Gold Coast in 1991, 36 years after Disneyland in California kick-started the industry as we know it. Europe had to wait until 2002 for its first Warner park, which opened in Madrid, and although it is still operating, its sister park in Germany dropped the Warner brand when it changed ownership in 2005.

Unlike rival studios Warner generally doesn’t own its parks so doesn’t need an in-house design division for them. Instead it relies on outside agencies meaning that the styles and standards of the attractions can differ from park to park. Al Mubarak’s aim was to build a park which could compete with the best in the world so he needed a design agency which is as much of an animation aficionado as he is. He found it.

The Los Angeles-based Thinkwell Group was founded in 2001 by former Universal Studios park designers who didn’t want to relocate when the company moved its creative team from the west coast to Orlando. They set up a boutique design studio which has gone on to get a reputation for creating some of the industry’s most immersive and engaging attractions thanks to their passionate approach.

Thinkwell has designed attractions for Universal Studios Singapore and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Hollywood but perhaps its best-known work is across the pond. In 2012 Warner swung open the doors to a backstage tour of Britain’s Leavesden Studios where all eight Harry Potter movies were made. It takes guests deep behind the scenes of them by showcasing concept art for the characters, models of all sizes, costumes complete with video descriptions and of course props.

They range from rows and rows of wands to cabinets containing full-size robotic creatures from the films which move at the push of a button. Then come the actual sets where the movies were made. You can walk past the wonky buildings of Diagon Alley and even step into the famed Great Hall of Hogwarts Castle.

It is manna from heaven for fans whilst anyone else will still be spellbound by the attention to detail. Testimony to this, as we have reported, up to 6,000 guests stream through the turnstiles every day in peak season driving annual revenue to more than $115 million.

Warner produced all of the movies about the boy wizard so you wouldn’t have thought it would need assistance to make the tour. However, such is Thinkwell’s reputation that Warner partnered with it right from the start on master planning, design and installation of the tour. Its success put Thinkwell in pole position to take on the task of creating Warner’s first-ever indoor park.
Thinkwell produced the 29 rides, shows and attractions in Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi which alone involved creating more than 7,000 pages of drawings and 2,300 pieces of production-ready art. In addition it conceived, created and produced all of the media and acted as a co-ordinator by bringing in specialist subcontractors. They included designers GDE Creative and Wyatt Design Group as well as audio-visual experts like Electrosonic, Pixomondo and Blur Studios, which has worked on blockbuster movies such as Avatar and Thor: The Dark World.

Thinkwell was also Warner’s ‘brand assurance’ representative and had hundreds of hours of meetings with the studio as well as monthly trips with its executives to the site and vendors around the world. Then came construction.

In June Miral’s talented chief executive Mohammed Al Zaabi told Construction Week that it will have taken “about 39 months by the time we open the park, and [has logged] 32 million man hours so far, with more than 6,800 engineers working on the project.” It paid off.

In a recent interview, the park’s general manager Mark Gsellman said that “the partnership with Warner Bros. has just been fabulous, they’re have people here in one form or another every day. Every square inch of the park they’ve blessed, approved, given their art direction.” One key decision ensured from the start that it would hit the mark.

Daytime temperatures in Abu Dhabi regularly hit 75 degrees in winter and in summer the mercury soars above 95. The heat comes from all angles and feels like standing in front of a huge hairdryer. It’s so hot that you can’t even cool down with fans which spray mist as the water warms up the moment it hits the air.

It makes outdoor parks impractical so instead Thinkwell decided to house Warner Bros. World inside a giant golden structure which resembles the hangar-like soundstages at the studio’s lot in California. Shelter from the heat isn’t the only benefit of the park being indoors. It also allowed Thinkwell to control all aspects of the environment from the lighting and sound right down to the temperature. It has made the most of it.

Rides themed to Wonder Woman, Superman and co are on a street from Metropolis complete with a Daily Planet newsstand and phone box. Batman and arch nemesis the Joker have their own gloomy home in Gotham whilst the oversized boulders of Bedrock tell you that you’re in the Flintstones’ world. Next door is the Grand Canyon-inspired Dynamite Gulch and the toon town of Cartoon Junction.

Bigger is usually better in theme parks. New lands are added to them to drive publicity and taller castles are built to lure guests in. Not at Warner Bros. World. Less really is more there as Thinkwell took the bold step of drastically reducing the amount of the park which is on show to guests as they walk around. Just 30% of the floorspace is visible with the remainder being the rides themselves which are hidden behind internal walls. It reduces the walking time inside the park and makes it seem even more packed with rides. That’s just the start.

The real magic of Warner’s park is that design isn’t just used to make things look pretty but to immerse guests in a fantasy world which is all around them.

You usually know what you’re in for when you head towards a theme park ride as a hulking building looms beyond the entrance. It breaks the fantasy and spoils the surprise. In contrast, at Warner’s park the elaborate entrances to many of the rides are set into the internal walls which has a magic touch as it means that you don’t know what you’re getting until you step inside. It makes the doorways seem like portals to different worlds.

This is put to great effect in Cartoon Junction, where Hanna-Barbera stars like Scooby-Doo are said to live next to Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny from Looney Tunes. The ride entrances in Cartoon Junction are actually the front doors of a row of brightly-coloured town houses with sloping roofs. Some only have small signs hanging in front so it can be hard to tell the rides from the shops which are also in wonky-walled buildings. Warner says that each brick was individually carved and painted by hand whilst all of the windows are different shapes and sizes. They are just as elaborate inside as out.

The queue for one roller coaster winds through a house which looks like it has been trashed by Tom and Jerry. As you get deeper inside you go under the floorboards and pass the mouse’s bed inside a over-sized sardine can. Every last detail seems to have been thought of. Even the queue railings look like Jerry has made them from ear buds and bits of rope.

There’s hint of things to come on the wall at the end of the line in the form of a huge blueprint which appears to have been scrawled by the mouse. It shows an elaborate contraption for stealing cheese and transporting it back to his den. Continuing this theme, the ride cars are shaped like slabs of cheese and spin as they zip down the track in pitch darkness with giant statues of Tom and Jerry lighting up as you pass them.

At the end of the row of houses is a spooky-looking mansion which is home to a Scooby-Doo ride. Instead of taking the lazy route and just creating scenes themed to the cartoon, the ride makes it seem like you’re on a mission to solve a mystery.
The ride cars look like the famous Mystery Machine van and are trackless so they appear to dart around the spooky set looking for clues. They take varying routes and stop in front of different models of museum pieces which come to life. It encourages guests to ride again to see how it changes.

The climax is a recreation of the cartoon’s classic hallway chase as the ride cars pirouette in and out of doors on a long corridor pursued by a ghost which has taken control of one of them. The cars’ paths are plotted by a computer so they can criss-cross each other in what appear to be near misses but are actually carefully controlled.

So much passion has been put into the land that it even appears to have been designed like an actual town. There’s a theater where Bugs and Daffy perform for kids, shops, the wealthy landowners’ mansion which has been taken over by ghosts, and even a factory where everyone works.

Remember ACME and its wacky cartoony killing machines which injured the user but not the target? There’s a ride here where you work as a deliveryman for it. The queue for Ani-Mayhem takes you through ACME’s offices where Thinkwell’s passion for the product is shown in gags which ACME is famous for.

The queue passes empty awards cabinets and piles of forms in trays with the only one which has run out being the waiver and release of liability. The furniture and elevator-esque music even has a 60s vibe evoking ACME’s origins in the heydays of Looney Tunes.

The ride itself is like Disney’s finest on steroids. Disney parks are home to rides that see you firing a virtual shooter at a 3D screen whilst other attractions are trackless and some allow riders to interact with the scenery. Ani-Mayhem does all that and stars toons like Tweetie Pie and Sylvester who are rarely seen in theme park rides. They help you hit parcels on 3D screens and in the physical sets with a gun in the shape of a barcode scanner.

Kids will go ga-ga at the characters but nostalgia is the lure for adults as Al Mubarak knows only too well. “Here we have lots of IPs so you have people who are fans of Hanna-Barbera and fans of Looney Tunes. You get the fanatics of Superman and Batman and then you have the nostalgic parents or the adults who want to come and relive their childhood when they watched Tom and Jerry or the Flintstones on TV.

“I think a great thing is that it is quite a universal theme park. People have watched and loved these characters whether they are from Europe, Asia or the Gulf. Some characters make sense a lot more here. An example is Tom and Jerry which has much more of a fan base in the Arab world and in Europe than they do in the US so it was important for us to have those characters as part of our park.”

It feels like a shrine to Warner and the homage is much more than skin deep. Above the entrance to Cartoon Junction is a wrought-iron sign featuring the ACME name and motto, ‘Caveat Emptor’ which is Latin for ‘Buyer Beware.’ No stone is left unturned. A cartoony rocket is embedded in the window next to the Ani-Mayhem entrance and the window opposite appears to have been smashed as it was fired through it.

Even the ride names indicate that Thinkwell has mined deep into Warner’s library. An innovative roller coaster winds around the rock formations in the Grand Canyon-inspired Dynamite Gulch area. Called Fast and Furry-ous it isn’t a nod to the Vin Diesel movies but is the name of a 1949 cartoon which was the first to feature Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner he endlessly pursues.

It would have been easy just to slap pictures of the characters above the entrance sign but instead it puts you in the middle of the story. It starts in the queue which passes the coyote’s lair, complete with models of the outlandish weapons he built to try and catch the Road Runner. The coaster itself is meant to be one of them as red rockets cover the wheels of its cars which hang underneath the track so that riders’ feet dangle down.

At the ride’s summit there’s a model of the coyote lighting a rocket and then you’re off. Coming full circle, at the finale there’s a model of the same rocket embedded in the ground as the coyote has failed again. It’s one of many blink-and-you-miss-it moments as the ride races by so fast but that too is done to encourage repeat rides.

You won’t find any movies being made at the park though it often feels like you’re on a set. Being indoors allows the scenery to be more elaborate than if it was outdoors as there is no danger of it getting damaged by wind, overgrown with foliage or faded in the sun. It allowed Thinkwell to create the kind of detailed scenery which many other parks can only dream of.

It comes into its own on the gloomy streets of Gotham. Some of the windows in the building facades are cracked whilst others are boarded up or have curtains which are only partly pulled to. Bricks look weathered and soot-stained, there’s graffiti on the walls and posters are peeling off them. The mock skyscrapers even appear to be taller than they actually are thanks to some design trickery known as forced perspective. The upper floors are only a fraction as tall as the ones lower down the towers which makes it look like they are narrowing at the top as skyscrapers usually would.

Down at ground level, fake manhole covers are embedded in the cracked tarmac, steam billows out from underneath them and shadows of moving people are even projected onto the windows of the train in the station. Sounds of police sirens in the distance and crashing waves play from hidden speakers. Its eerily convincing and the only thing missing is a director leaping out and saying ‘cut.’

The scenery even tells a story. One of the gargoyles above a restaurant in Gotham is missing its head but Britain’s Sun newspaper noticed that it is on display in the shop opposite. It’s no coincidence as the outlet is styled as a Pawn Shop which sells salvaged wreckage from superhero battles (memorabilia to you and me).

“When I walk around in Gotham City, it is Gotham City. The steam that comes out of the sewage holes, the smell, the sounds. The quality of the theming is really fantastic,” says Al Mubarak. The elaborate sets allow guests to get stunning photos which look like panels from comic books. Millennials in particular post them on social media and, as we recently reported, this is known to drive traffic to theme parks. Even the rides in Gotham are photogenic.

A dirty-looking spooky circus tent contains trials set by the Joker including a corridor which seems to be turning and a maze of mirrors that are so polished they seem to be endless. The rides are cleverly based on the beloved cartoon versions of the heroes, not the ones in the new movies which have had a more mixed response.

The highlight is a ride which sits inside a miniature version of  the iconic Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. It starts out like a planetarium show but suddenly turns into a 3D adventure thanks to the seats being attached to a robot arm so that they appear to float in front of one of the world’s largest domed screens. It is 124 foot in diameter and shows footage in pin-sharp 4K resolution.

Themed to the Green Lantern character, the ride is like being thrust into an ‘80s sci-fi film as you soar over psychedelically-coloured planets and duel with fire-breathing dragons. It’s a spellbinding experience as you get blasted with mist and air when creatures roar whilst smells of pine are pumped in as you skim over alien forests.

Perhaps the biggest trick in the park’s spell book is one which none of its rivals can boast about. In many of the lands, the curved ceiling is cleverly painted to look like the sky complete with projections of clouds and vivid changing colours as the sun sets. It actually appears to be endless and it’s only on standing still and peering that you can see it is painted onto wall tiles.
The sky comes into its own in the main plaza which looks like an old-fashioned square and is lined with art deco architecture. It hosts Warner’s equivalent of a fireworks show where scenes of classic movies from Superman to the Lord of the Rings are beamed onto billboards above the buildings and even the ceiling itself.

During the Harry Potter segment, projections magically turn the ceiling into a night sky before the villainous Dementors fly past the moon and onto the surrounding buildings. The high-tech wizardry then transforms them into the walls of the Great Hall at Hogwarts complete with detailed brickwork and stained glass windows.

“We wanted to develop a world-class experience for our fans in the region and Miral has been the right partner,” says Pam Lifford, President, Warner Bros. Global Brands and Experiences. “The level of detail they delivered created an environment that truly brings our stories and characters to life and immerses fans into a world where they experience a lasting emotional connection to our brands.”

It gives Warner a flagship which can stand toe-to-toe with the finest from Disney and Universal and, in design terms, it ranks amongst the most significant parks ever built. If it kick-starts high-octane growth in the Middle East theme park sector it could even prove to be the most important park in the modern era. Early signs are encouraging.

According to The National, almost 15,000 tickets were sold before the doors opened. Indeed, the end result is so ground-breaking that Warner is already talking about exporting the model and it is easy to see how it could be just as useful in a cold climate as a hot one.

In a recent interview with Attractions Management magazine, Peter Van Roden, Senior Vice President of Global Themed Entertainment for Warner Bros. Consumer Products, said “it’s certainly possible” to roll the model out. “We have lots of discussions and we have a number of plans in the works.” If they come off they would add even more weight to Abu Dhabi’s status in the industry and that really would be a happy ending.

Diving deep into the detail of Warner Bros. World

Not since Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has a theme park provided such detailed fan service as Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi delivers through its six themed lands. The creative team that designed this park, led by Thinkwell’s Craig Hanna & Dave Cobb, has crafted immersive environments that effectively sell the illusion that you are standing in iconic locations such as Superman’s Metropolis and the Roadrunner’s American West… leaving you to forget that you’re actually walking around inside a giant box in the Abu Dhabi desert.

Warner Bros. World is able to sustain this illusion because Thinkwell’s design team has filled the park with detail that reflects and reinforces each land’s IP. While casual visitors will enjoy the beautiful views and impressive facades throughout park, dedicated fans of each franchise will geek out discovering all the thoughtful details and Easter eggs on display.

The press event to which I was invited allowed me less than six hours walking around inside Warner Bros. World — not enough time for a geek like me to appreciate the full extent of detail within park, which might take multiple full-day visits. Fortunately, I spent about 90 minutes of those six hours walking around the park with Dave, who pointed out many of the details that I missed on my first lap.

Let’s start with three examples of what I will call “ley lines” in the park’s lands. Next the entrance of the Acme Co. factory in Cartoon Junction, you will see an Acme rocket, crashed into a window.

Acme rocket

But if you look in a straight line the opposite direction, you will see the path that the rocket took through neighboring buildings, leading back to a bundle of Acme rockets, minus the one now sitting in the factory window.

Good designers uses this technique to help remind visitors subconsciously that they are standing within a space bound by the laws of physics. Therefore, even thought it appears fantastic, it is real. (There’s another great example in the exit gift shop of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which depicts the destructive flight of a cannonball.)

You’ll find another exampled in Warner Bros’ World’s Gotham, up in the second-floor windows of the abandoned subway station building that’s now the Hall of Doom. It’s the charred damage of an explosive blast that carries across the land. But my favorite detail from this scene is the decapitated gargoyle next to the charred window.

Charred damage

Want to know what happened to that gargoyle’s head? It’s “for sale” in the Pawn Shop gift store across the street.

Gargoyle's head

And, oh yeah, the batarang that knocked it off is on display in the shop, too. The entire store is filled with the detritus of superhero battles, depicted in DC Comics and the land. The pawn shop’s owner is making his bank by collecting the remains and selling them to fans. (The store IRL is selling T-shirts and other Batman-themed souvenirs. Again, not enough time to fully document!)

You don’t always need to look up to see these design lines. In The Flintstones’ Bedrock, you might notice a set of Mammoth tracks leading from the Warner Bros. Plaza entrance toward the Bedrock River Adventure flume ride. In the middle of the path, the tracks cross a planter. So what’s posted next to those tracks inside the planter?

Mammoth crossing

My favorite attraction in the park was the Animayhem shooter ride, which is set within the Acme Co. building in the factory town of Cartoon Junction. Above the street, you can see the factory gate, emblazoned with the Acme motto, “Caveat Emptor.”

Acme factory gate

Which is Latin for… “Buyer Beware.”

The queue for Animayhem is a tour of “Mad Men”-inspired, mid-century-styled Acme design studio, where you find fan service gems such as the motivational slogan, “Quality is our #1 Dream!”

Quality is our #1 Dream!

And look what form the company has run out of on its paperwork table.

Missing release forms

Deep in the extended queue of the ride you will find the Acme Co.’s awards cabinet.

Acme Co.'s awards cabinet

Um… not much there except cobwebs, right? Well, there is this:

Caveat Emptor Award

It’s the “Caveat Emptor Award” for “Achievements in Legalese”… and it is adorned with an asterisk. Brilliant.

Dave explained the unpublished history of Cartoon Junction. It’s an old railway town, which made it an attractive site for the Acme factory, which would ship its defective products all over the country from here. The mansion at the end of the town was owned by the railway baron, who filled it with collectibles from around the world. He’s long passed, and now the abandoned mansion is haunted museum, making it the perfect location for Scooby-Doo! The Museum of Mysteries.

The backstory for the Scooby Doo building reminded me of the story of Harrison Hightower and Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror, BTW. But the Scooby-Doo ride is filled wit fan service, as it tracks the story beats and conventions of Scooby-Doo episodes, including a chase across a hallway, Shaggy looking for food, and finally pulling the mask of the perp while he complains about “you meddling kids.” If you’ve never seen an episode of Scooby-Doo, you can appreciate the amusing dark ride. But if you are a fan, you can appreciate that the ride’s designers have shown that they are fans who get what this franchise is all about, too.

One more detail in Cartoon Junction. Here’s a billboard for another Acme product posted next to the portal into Gotham.

Batsuit

Here are three of many moments of fan service within Batman’s hometown. A wanted poster for Joe Chill, who killed Batman’s parents:

Wanted poster

Graffiti from the Court of Owls, who are “always watching.”

Court of Owls

And the take a look at the domed roof on the abandoned subway station building that is now the Hall of Doom, the Legion of Doom’s headquarters. If you watched the Super Friends animated TV series in the 1970s, you might recognize the homage to the Hall of Doom from that show.

Hall of Doom

Next door in Metropolis, the inside of the Hall of Justice will leave you feeling like you are standing within the Pantheon of gods.

Hall of Justice

The queue of the Justice League ride lies on the far side of the Superman statue. Within it you will find boards that explain who all these superheroes are, for visitors not familiar with the IP. But longtime fans might recognize what is revealed later in the queue, that the “villain” the superheroes are fighting in this trackless dark ride is Black Mercy, which first appeared in the Superman comics in 1985.

Black Mercy

Outside the Hall of Justice, note the paper for sale inside the news box on the street. It apparently references a moment within the ride (which I did not get to experience).

News box

And the directory for the office building (facade) next to the Hall of Justice includes names pulled from DC Comics, including Emil Hamilton, Starrware Industries, and Cale-Anderson Pharmaceuticals.

DC building directory

I didn’t get a photo, but I also wanted to note Dave’s backstory for why the Marvin the Martian and The Jetsons rides are located within the Roadrunner’s Dynamite Gulch. The IRL reason is that these are carryovers from a sci-fi themed land that didn’t make the cut in the design process, but that the developers nevertheless wanted to save. So how to explain their presence in the American West. Well, that part of the land is its “Area 51 1/2,” the secret government facility to house the aliens and time travelers who crash landed here.

Nice. Even that loose end has been pulled tight.

In all, I couldn’t find anything haphazard in Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. There was no surface unfinished (though two rides did remain incomplete in that they were not sufficiently tested to be open for the preview event.) Warner Bros. World offers a thematic consistency in its placemaking that I have not seen on a park-wide level since Tokyo DisneySea.

Right now, based on what I saw in my brief visit, I would place Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi among the top five theme parks in the world for consistently convincing placemaking in its lands, joining Tokyo DisneySea, Disneyland in California, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

This article was originally published here.

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi: Reinventing the movie park for the 21st Century

How do you top the world’s largest indoor theme park? By building an even bigger one, of course. That’s what destination developer Miral has done in Abu Dhabi. Blooloop profiles Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the latest showstopper at Yas Island. 

This article was originally published on blooloop.com.

The UAE’s (United Arab Emirates) newest theme park opened to the public on July 25, following an inauguration two days earlier. The 1.65 million square feet (153,000 square metres) facility represents an investment equivalent to US$1 billion.

Yas Island
They don’t do things by halves at Yas Island. Located on the northeast side of Abu Dhabi’s mainland, 10 minutes from its international airport, the leisure and entertainment hub first rose to prominence in 2009 with the opening of the Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The spirit of Formula 1 was celebrated again a year later with the launch of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. At the time it was billed as the world’s biggest indoor theme park. At 240km/h, its signature Formula Rossa ride remains the planet’s fastest roller coaster.

A passion for super heroes
Yas Waterworld, which opened in 2013, has been named as one of the best waterparks in the world. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious and expensive. Then there’s Yas Mall, which sits between Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World. It’s the largest mall in Abu Dhabi, and by definition very large indeed.

All three theme parks are operated by Farah Experiences. As a movie park, Yas Island’s third theme park clearly adds something fresh to the mix. Yet the local press has suggested that this particular kind of park wouldn’t have arrived in the Emirate were it not for a passion of the Miral chairman. You see, Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, who also chairs the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, is super into super heroes.

“He’s a visionary leader,” says Peter van Roden, senior vice-president of global themed entertainment for Warner Bros. Consumer Products. “He is also this huge comic book and IP fan; the perfect partner.”

Step through the shield into an immersive world
When guests make their way through the park’s iconic Warner Bros. shield, they will be able to explore six themed zones. All in air-conditioned comfort. Warner Bros. Plaza is there to welcome them. There’s also Gotham CityMetropolis (pictured below), Cartoon JunctionBedrock and Dynamite Gulch.

Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi
Spread across these immersive lands are 29 state-of-the-art rides and attractions, featuring characters from DC Comics, Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera. A particular favourite of Al Mubarak is Superman.

Thinkwell, the LA-based global design and production agency, acted as creative lead from start to finish, bringing in several subcontractors as required. Among these was Wyatt Design, which served as key design consultant on several areas. LifeFormations created over 100 animatronic figures used in six attractions. Aspen Creations, based in Dubai, did the fabrication and installation on a number of areas including Warner Bros Plaza, Cartoon Junction, Bedrock, The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure, Fast and Furry-ous, Bronto Burgers, Gotham City and The Riddler Revolution. Other suppliers included Animax Designs, Inc., Blur, Ears Up Sound DesignElectrosonicGDE, Louis Berger, Smart Monkeys, Pixomondo, Pure Imagination and Ted King Entertainment.

Everything, including the park’s two roller coasters and flume ride, is indoors. Unlike at Ferrari World, where four coasters escape outside. The vast building in which they are housed shimmers in a gold finish. In the UAE, you wouldn’t expect anything less.

Warner Bros. – back in the themed entertainment business

It’s 16 years since Warner Bros. last lent its name to a new theme park. Namely Parque Warner in Madrid. Whilst Warner Bros. Movie World (founded 1991) still operates on Australia’s Gold Coast, the German outlet of the same name was rebranded simply as Movie Park when it changed ownership in 2005. So why did the Hollywood studio decide now was the right time to return to the themed entertainment business? And why Abu Dhabi?

“The process started 10 or 12 years ago,” says van Roden. “Specifically, under our chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara, there has been a real focus on building franchises around our DC, animation, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings IP [intellectual property]. Kevin has brought us into this new world and allowed us to think big. That lead to discussions with Miral, which had this vision not only for Yas Island but also for Abu Dhabi in general. We were looking, and they were ready. It’s lead to a really great partnership.”

Fully realised worlds
“Warner Bros has an almost 100-year legacy of producing and distributing high-quality entertainment to global audiences,” says Tsujihara. “This world-class attraction continues that tradition in grand style. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi literally brings our characters to life and provides fans a truly unique immersive entertainment experience.”
One character conspicuous by his absence in Abu Dhabi is Harry Potter. “That was not a deliberate decision,” says van Roden. “Pretty soon after starting the masterplanning for the park, we settled on this mix of DC and animation. We didn’t want to overreach, you know? Not putting too many different IPs into this park is to its advantage because you can fully realise each of these worlds.”

Warner-Bros.-Plaza at Warner-Bros-World-Abu-Dhabi
Making memories, not movies
Unlike a handful of earlier movie parks, or indeed Warner Bros. Studio Tour London (home of the Harry Potter backstage tour), you won’t find any film-making going on at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. Rather, this is an entertainment park that celebrates the silver screen and small screen intellectual properties within in. As families enjoy the richly-themed experiences and interact with the characters inside the park, they will surely make memories for many years to come. Yes, there will be selfies.

“This is not a ‘behind-the-scenes’ park, says Craig Hannachief creative officer at Thinkwell. “At Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi we treat the characters as living and working in the park. Where would they live? Where would they eat and where do they work? That was the basis for the stories, rides, shows and attractions in the park.”

Different moods
“There is such a mix of environments,” says van Roden. “You move from this classic Warner Bros. Plaza and into the animation side. I think all of us have wanted to walk through Bedrock and meet The Flintstones some point. Dynamite Gulch is this cartoony kind of wild west, home to Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. Then you’ve got Cartoon Junction with this really bright, stylized sky and a beautiful Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera carousel.

“On the other side of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is this really cool Metropolis. However it gets darker and darker as you move into Gotham where the DC Super-Villains have taken over. The different moods created inside each of these lands is incredible, and the lighting is absolutely stunning.”

The indoor advantage
The prime reason for the park being indoors is obviously the local climate. “It’s 109 degrees [Fahrenheit, 43°C] outside right now,” said van Roden, speaking to Blooloop the weekend before opening. “Being able to walk into an air-conditioned box is a wonderful thing.”

Yet in most movie parks, the majority of major attractions and pre-shows are already inside buildings. All Warner Bros. World has done is bring the other attractions and the themed environments that link them inside too. “That has been a huge advantage,” says van Roden. “It gives the park this intimacy. We can really control the lighting, the sound, the ceiling heights; the way you transition between these immersive environments.”

“Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is special,” says Hanna. “We took advantage of the fact that we were indoors to fully immerse guests in worlds and stories in ways that can’t be done outdoors. Like the perpetual night of Gotham, the continual ‘hero hour’ of Metropolis, or the always ‘sunny’ Cartoon Junction.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 18, 2018: Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi on July 18, 2018. Christopher Pike, www.cpike.com
Storytelling techniques, technology and rides systems
Today’s technology means Warner Bros. has been able to create an entirely different park to those that it put its name to in the latter part of the 20th Century.

“We determined the best mix for the broadest demographic and developed experiences with certain technologies and ride systems in mind,” says Hanna. “For example, the dark rides Scooby-Doo: Museum of Mysteries, Ani-Mayhem and Justice League: Warworld Attacks take advantage of being trackless in ways never before seen in theme parks.”

Dark rides – such as Ani-Mayhem – are a great way of telling stories. Another is Batman: Knight Flight, which marries a dark ride with a dynamic motion system and state-of-the-art special effects. Flying theatre fans will enjoy Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey, which transports audiences to distant galaxies. Featuring an i-Ride system by Brogent Technologies, it’s the first attraction of its kind to be supplied with 3D glasses.

There’s a more traditional ride system at the heart of The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure. Yet this family-friendly flume ride from Intamin is a lot of fun as it takes visitors on a voyage through prehistoric suburbia.

Even the park’s roller coasters immerse riders in an adventure. Tom & Jerry’s Swiss Cheese Spin is a spinning coaster that uses backlight effects to keep guests on the edge of their seat. Then there’s Fast & Furry-ous, a suspended family coaster from Intamin, which van Roden particularly enjoys.

Every attraction tells a story
“Like each of the rides, Fast & Furry-ous has its own soundtrack. It’s perfectly timed to the ride as Wile E Coyote chases Road Runner around the track. I’m laughing every time I get off it.”

Van Roden also singles out The Riddler Revolution – pictured above – perhaps one of the most elaborately-themed Zamperla Disk’O Coaster installations ever. “You feel like you are going to hit the edge of this building as its breaks through. It’s absolutely thrilling, and clearly one of the best rides in the park. The beauty of this park is it’s not like we spent all the money on a few e-ticket attractions and then bought some off-the-shelf rides to fill in the gaps. Every single attraction has a story.”

International audience and local considerations
In designing the park, Thinkwell considered the market and demographic makeup very carefully.

“We wanted to make sure the park appeals to an international audience,” says Hanna. “Plus we looked at the attractions next door at Ferrari World to ensure this park was distinctive and balanced. Whether you’re a local, an expat family, or a tourist there will be unique things to see, do and taste around every corner.”

“There was a discussion about language very early on,” says van Roden. “It was decided that English should be the base language, with Arabic supporting in certain areas such as signage and restaurants. That’s because Yas Island as a destination attracts people from from Europe as well as to the East, so the common language is English.”

A market within a four to five hour flight time
There were other considerations to make when it came to the local audience. “We have some wonderful prayer rooms, and have addressed all the appropriate things in terms of dress and diet. But overall there were very few adjustments to make. The UAE is quite forward-looking in terms of openness within the Middle East. This park is very much a statement of that.”

Van Roden says the park’s core market is expected to be those within a 100-200 mile (160-320km) radius, comfortably taking in all of the UAE. Yet European, Indian and South East Asian visitors are also in its sights. “The number of Chinese visitors who booked for opening day was remarkable. There is a strong market within that four to five hour flight time.”

The UAE’s increasingly diverse attraction mix
“I think increasingly the UAE is becoming a destination in itself,” says van Roden. “People are coming to visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai together. We have some visionary leaders intent on building enough travel hooks between all the beaches, hotels and shopping malls. It’s all about moving beyond being that weekend destination. Abu Dhabi is really adding to that with museums and culture. The Louvre, down the road from us, is absolutely mind-blowing.”

And how long might Warner Bros. World keep families entertained?

“You know, I think this is an all-day affair if you are going to wander through it all, see everything and ride everything,” declares van Roden. “It adds to the length of stay for Yas Island and the entire region.”

A record breaking indoor theme park
Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi snatches the title of world’s largest indoor theme park from IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai, and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi before it. All three feature licensed intellectual property of one kind or another. So too do the trio of properties at Dubai Parks and Resorts, which launched in late 2016.
IMG’s creator, the Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group subsequently announce

d plans to build an even bigger theme park. If it comes to fruition, the 2 million sq ft IMG World of Legends will be crammed with dozens of brands from multiple IP providers. Yet plans for a 20th Century Fox movie park in Dubai have been put on hold amid concerns about oversupply of parks in the region.

IP quality vs. quantity
Van Roden isn’t worried that the UAE has gone OTT on IP. “I don’t think it’s overload,” he says. “The way the UAE is developing as a destination, I think there is plenty of room to grow. We didn’t come in and try to blow everybody out of the water by putting 20 IPs in there. We thought we are going to build the best theme park in the region. And I really think we’ve done that; up there with our friends at Disneyland Paris in terms of quality for EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa].”

“The DC film franchise is a juggernaut and continues to grow,” he adds. “The great success of Wonder Woman, and we hope the future success of Aquaman and other films coming down the pipe, is really exciting for us.”

Giving classic brands a new lease of life
Van Roden concedes the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera brands might not be as powerful as they once were. But he believes they are a great fit for the park, and that their inclusion within Warner Bros. World can nurture a new generation of fans.
“These are iconic IPs that, even if they are not at the top of their media game, within the immersive environment of a theme park can help relaunch a brand in a lot of ways. That is actually part of our strategy.”

Above all, “we have built a park to grow into, with partners who have an interest in the future. We are already having discussions about what we can do next.”

That may include future attractions that are partially outdoors.

An Orlando model for the Middle East?
Peter van Roden joined Warner Bros. Consumer Products in March of 2016. He has more than two decades’ experience in creating location-based entertainment – from touring exhibits to theme parks – for media companies including Sesame Workshop and National Geographic. So whilst everyone is still finding their feet in the UAE theme park market, he’s certainly not green around the gills.

Craig Hanna, too, has a good pedigree in both themed entertainment and working with major film/TV brands. He works out of LA for goodness sake. So how does the Thinkwell executive rate the industry’s potential in this particular corner of the Middle East?

“The UAE is trying to transform its economy. Its offer to tourists with an ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality is a bit like what Orlando did. Already the UAE is seeing huge growth in tourism. This park will give Yas Island a strong and distinctive competitive advantage. I’m not an economic advisor, so I can’t look into my crystal ball and predict where the cap for these parks will be. However, I would ask you this: When will Orlando reach a critical mass of theme parks?”

About the construction of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, van Roden says: “Construction is always an interesting thing, a life of compromise and communication. I will say Miral has been an incredible partner. You go into these big projects looking for someone who brings value. It’s not just about coming along with a cheque book. And the value of Miral is that they are a world-class building and construction company. They have unbelievable people working for them; their resources and connections in the marketplace were second-to-none.”

Finding a creative force to bring the park to life
Thinkwell was appointed to lead the design effort in Abu Dhabi following several previous Warner Bros collaborations, including Warner Bros. Studio Tour London.

“Disney has Imagineering, Universal has Universal Creative,” says van Roden. “While we have the IP and storytelling expertise, we do not have that creative design house. So in partnering with an outside firm we looked for someone that could take on the roll of master designer and provide overall creative management. That’s hard to find. Thinkwell brought that capability, and they were able to scale themselves up to take on a project like this.”

“We have worked on this project for more than 10 years in one form or another,” says the company’s Craig Hanna. “Hundreds of Thinkwellians and hundreds more talented, creative and passionate people all over the world were involved. We have seen it through from blue sky concept through to opening, producing more than 2,300 original art files. These range from the park’s map to can labels on props on shelves. We produced all shows, rides and attractions as creative and technical integration leaders. And we conceived, created and produced all media for the park. We are extremely proud of the work we’ve done on it. I think that passion shows everywhere you look.”

Abu Dhabi’s theme park future
The fate of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi now lies in the public’s hands. Unlike many new theme parks, there was no soft opening period. There was, however, about a week of trial runs as invited guests, travel agents and military got to sample its delights. This proved invaluable to general manager Mark Gzellman and his team to fine tune operations. The inauguration event on July 23 was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice-president and ruler of Dubai.

Van Roden says Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi can comfortably accommodate anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000 guests per day. The annual attendance target is between 1.5 and 2 million. Now in its eighth year, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi entertains over a million. Yas Waterworld welcomed 550,000 visitors last year. So Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi must work hard to achieve the visitor numbers expected of it. Its offer is arguably more inclusive though than Ferrari World.

The UAE’s theme park capital?
A fourth theme park has already been announced by Miral for Yas Island. SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is set to open in 2022 and will be the first SeaWorld outside the USA and the first without orcas. This Abu Dhabi entertainment hub certainly looks like giving any competing operations in Dubai a run for their money. Can Abu Dhabi become not just the sovereign state’s capital, but its theme park capital too?

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi – six immersive lands
Here are the themed zones that make up the world’s largest indoor theme park, and the key attractions within them.

1. Warner Bros. Plaza
Art-Deco inspired building facades feature in this entrance portal to the rest of the park. Streets are lined with restaurants, cafes and themed shopping outlets. Among these, the Warner Bros. Studio Store and Superstar Souvenirs offer an exclusive range of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi apparel, collectibles and stationery. In addition, guests can enjoy Warner Bros. Cinema Spectacular. This symphonic celebration uses projection mapping to bring the Warner Bros film library to life.

2. Gotham City
Home to Batman, the caped crusader has vowed to crush the sinister criminal underworld
that lurks deep beneath this urban landscape. Rides and attractions as follows:
Batman: Knight Flight. An exhilarating dark ride featuring robotically controlled flying Batwing vehicled capable of sudden manoeuvres including drops, climbs, spins and rolls. This ride combines a high-tech flight simulator with immersive scenery and state-of-the-art special effects.
Riddler Revolution. A custom-themed Zamperla Disk’O Coaster. Supervillain Edward Nigma lures guests into a run-down shipping warehouse for a thrilling nightmare.
Scarecrow Scare Raid. A rousing flight experience with dramatic aerobatics and whirlwind barrel rolls.
The Joker’s Funhouse. A villainous twist on the classic walk-through carnival attraction featuring Batman’s biggest foes.

3. Cartoon Junction
The land where Warner Bros.’ most iconic characters and animated worlds can be discovered. Highlights include:
Ani-Mayhem. An interactive dark ride where passengers use barcode scanners to deliver ACME packages and accumulate the most points to become ACME Employee of the Month!
Tom and Jerry Swiss Cheese Spin. A family‐friendly spinning Twister Coaster from Zamperla featuring added blacklight effects.
Scooby-Doo: The Museum of Mysteries. Dark ride that follows the comical cartoon dog through a spooky museum filled with fun and frights.
Cartoon Junction Carousel. A colourful twist on an amusement classic featuring Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters.
Daffy Jet-Propelled Pogo Stick. A ‘jump’ tower that bounces young riders up and down with Daffy Duck.
Tweety Wild Wockets. Here kids can spin “awound and awound” as they try to avoid Sylvester the cat on this mini jet ride by Zamperla.
Ricochet Racin’ with Taz. A giggle-inducing children’s car ride (Zamperla Speedway) that whips racers around the track.
Meet Bugs! (And Daffy). A participatory live character show experience featuring Bugs Bunny and friends.

4. Metropolis
The Manhattan-like skyscraper city mixes 1930s Streamline Modern styling with 21st Century state-of-the-art materials. Rides and attractions as follows:
Superman 360: Battle for Metropolis. A 360-degree action spectacular that pits the greatest comic book hero of all time against the Man of Steel.
Justice League: Warworld Attacks. Dark ride featuring immersive theatre experience and special effects.
Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey. 86-seat i-Ride flying theatre by Brogent Technologies that transports guests across to extraordinary worlds. Enriched with special and visual effects, including 3D.
Teen Titans Training Academy. A multi-level play area featuring a zipline and other physical activities.

5. Dynamite Gulch
An animated storyland where guests will encounter Wile E Coyote and Road Runner. Experiences include:
Fast & Furry-ous. Suspended Family Coaster by Intamin. Passengers climb onto the ACME Road Rocket 9000 for an exciting journey through the desert cacti and chasms in pursuit of Road Runner. Beep! Beep!
Jetson’s Cosmic Orbiter. An Aero Top Jet by Zamperla where guests can pilot their own futuristic spaceship.
Marvin the Martian: Crater Crashers. Bumper cars, supplied by Zamperla.

6. Bedrock
Yabba-Dabba-Doo! This age-old land powered by birds and dinosaurs is home to The Flintstones. Here guests will find:
The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure. This Intamin flume ride invites passengers to embark on a scenic boat ride …with a big splash finale!
Bronto Burgers and Ribs. Here guests can dine in prehistoric cars, or just stop for a photo opportunity and eat inside the diner.
Bedrock Boutique. Selling everything the modern stone-age family could need!

The times they are a changin’

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen cultural touchstones undergo earthshaking change. From the announcement—quickly followed by the unveiling at Disneyland Paris — that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would no longer feature the “Bride Auction” scene to the undeniable diversity in the A Wrinkle in Time trailer to the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Dr Who, we’ve seen all manner of assumptions get toppled. And as is de rigueur these days for announcements of this type, we’ve seen an onslaught of reaction, both positive and negative, online. Much of the negative reaction, in all three cases, goes back to remarkably similar foundations: that it’s not how a given creative work was originally envisioned and that this is yet another example of political correctness taken too far.

At Thinkwell, we say: bring it on. We’re delighted to see more mindful and better representation in creative works. Storytelling, in our minds, is better when it’s not exclusionary or needlessly hurtful. Culture changes. Mindsets evolve. This isn’t a matter of being politically correct; it’s a matter of us, as a society, being more mindful, inclusive, and welcoming than we were when an intellectual property was initially developed decades prior. And thus, the things we have grown to love with the warm fuzzy halo of nostalgia may not look as fantastic in the clear light of day when we actually take a step back and think deeply about what these creative works tell people about our values and what’s acceptable.

It’s not how it was created to be, it’s not what Walt made. We get it. We love what we love, we cling to the good ol’ days, the touchstones of our youth. Some of us are still bitter about the removal of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from the Magic Kingdom in Florida, for instance. Pirates, however, is a great example of needing to change. It’s not a historical treatise on piracy in the Caribbean (if it were, it’s doing a really poor, whitewashed job of it), so the complaints that it’s somehow historically “accurate” to have a bride auction fall flat. It’s meant as escapism, as a created world, not a historical diorama. With the heightened unreality and stylization of the feature films—which prominently have female pirates in them—it’s a created world that Disney is inviting guests to be a part of. We see this beyond the ride and movies, too, from “Pirates in the Caribbean” on the cruise ships to the Pirates League makeover experience at Magic Kingdom to the Jake and the Never Land Pirates TV series. Disney wants guests to envision themselves as part of this world.

By that logic, of course the bride auction is overdue for reinvention. It’s emblematic of violence against women, a moment that many a parent has cringed at and distracted their children away from as, societally, we become more aware of just what this scene is telegraphing. There’s fat shaming, loss of agency, abuse, enslavement, all things that, again, we didn’t think twice about a couple of decades ago. Those things don’t belong in a creative world Disney is inviting everyone to be a part of. We know better now. And so, our experiences need to also be better.
We already see this push to “be better” in action in a variety of ways in other attractions and events at both Disney and Universal.

Disney has increased diversity and representation in its IP, from the casting choices in A Wrinkle in Time to the mixed ethnicity in Miles From Tomorrowland, Doc McStuffins embracing of a middle class African American family to the Latina Elena of Avalor. While the Harry Potter movies featured a white lead trio, the “world” of Harry Potter itself is diverse by design; Universal upholds this sense of being welcoming to all, “you can be a part of this world” strategy in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both park empires have become more forward thinking in their marketing and events, too: Universal particularly excels at appealing to the large Latinx market in southern California (even incorporating a maze based on the La Llorona legend into its Hollywood Horror Nights) and Disney has gone from appeasing offended heterosexual men who happened to be in the park on the unofficial “Gay Days” and distancing themselves from the event to embracing it entirely (down to rainbow-themed merch in the stores, of course). These are all great things, which continually expand the worlds of Universal and Disney to let more and more people be right there in the heart of the story, not just on the fringes. And we’re eager to see how this continues to play out, from Universal’s Nintendoland to the potential for full-on immersion in the Star Wars universe at various Disney Parks (especially given the increasing prominence of women and people of color in the IP).

So we see the upgrades—and let us be clear, we see these as upgrades, not changes—to Pirates of the Caribbean as the next step in this march toward being better and doing better. In a world where Disney is encouraging little girls to dream of being a princess, like Elena, or a pediatrician, like Doc McStuffins, or even dress up as a pirate themselves at the Pirates League experience, it only stands to reason that they’d elevate the representation of women from victim to victor, from princess to general. Long live the Redheaded Pirate, long may she reign.
Image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr

White Paper | The (Sometimes Dumb) Wisdom of Crowds: Experience Design and Augmented Reality in a Post-Pokémon Go World

Augmented Reality. It’s a phrase that’s been bandied about for over a decade. It’s a concept that’s come to life in myriad ways. But until the launch of Pokémon Go, the promise and pitfalls of AR hadn’t been laid bare on a grand scale. Now, as Pokémon Go ignites countless Facebook wars, propels Nintendo’s market value by upwards of $7.5B USD, and sees parks and public spaces overrun with children and adults—individually and in groups—running around gathering Pokémon and snagging treats at Pokéstops, we’re seeing the potential for fun, community building, and social engagement on a grand scale. But we’re also witnessing the problems inherent in building a massive AR based upon decisions made long ago, rooted in data collected in part from users, and disconnected from the realities of a changing world.

As a quick overview, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game1 played via a smartphone or cell-enabled tablet. Players traverse the real world, catching Pokémon, visiting Pokéstops to gather supplies, and battling at Pokégyms. Pokéstops and Pokégyms are “anchored” on the map to actual places, such as statues, fountains, signs, gardens, or specific locations in or near buildings such as churches. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, spun off from Google with investment from Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and Google, after their successful launch of an earlier AR game called Ingress—and that’s where a number of the issues lie.

The Pokémon Go map is built in large part upon the Ingress map2. Ingress, while it has millions of app downloads (upwards of seven million), has a relatively small core player base (current estimates range from 350,000-750,000 active, regular users). Its rollout was also staggered, launching on the Android platform first, on December 14, 2013, and then for iOS on July 14, 2014. Without delving into the backstory, much of the action in Ingress revolves around portals—interacting with them to gain items, deploying items to claim or improve them for your chosen faction, defending them against the other faction. It’s this portal map that has seeded much of the Pokémon Go world—those portal locations have formed the basis for the Pokéstops and Pokégyms.

The portal maps were rooted, at first, on popular locations. This included not only obvious choices such as the Washington Monument, but also locations which were frequently geo-tagged in photos—in short, user generated data, where the original creator had no idea their geo-tagging would be used to site a real world game stop. In addition, Ingress players were invited to submit portal suggestions. Niantic was flooded with over 15 million suggestions, and the review and approval process was lengthy, opaque, and prone to inconsistency. One player might suggest a portal location and have it rejected, while another player would suggest the same place and get it approved months later. Over five million user suggested portals were placed.

Ingress, however, is a fundamentally and radically different game than Pokémon Go. For one, it didn’t have the power of a decades-long, beloved intellectual property behind it. It has a significantly smaller player base, even in when you compare the first bloom of launch, widespread press, and “try it out” adoption. While it supports social engagement and cooperation, the backstory of Ingress is one of intrigue and shadowy goings-on. It is aimed squarely at adults, and lacks the chance aspect of collecting items out in the real world away from portals that Pokémon Go has with its “gotta catch ‘em all” Pokémon gathering aspect.
And here’s where it all horribly collides. A quick search of geo-tagged photos reveals thousands of photos at places like the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and the reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Sure enough, Arlington National Cemetery is littered with Ingress portals, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Medgar Evers’ tomb, the final resting place of Robert F. Kennedy, and more. And that’s translated to Pokéstops in what many consider sacred, hallowed ground.3 Similarly, the area around the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is rife with Pokéstops. But even if there weren’t stops at these places, Pokémon spawn all over the map, regardless of Pokéstops (though players can drop items at stops to lure Pokémon there). People could traipse through America’s iconic graveyard and memorial for service men and women snagging Magikarps and Psyducks. Or, as one New York author put it after visiting a variety of emotionally charged sites in the city, “That is a coffin of nameless orphans and that is a Pokéstop.”4

To put it mildly, it’s a problem with the game. Having the leadership of major memorials and venues come out and say they are trying to get their site delisted as a Pokéstop or gym does not make for great press. Homeowners who live in unusual or iconic buildings that are now private dwellings have found strangers in their yards and on their driveways at all hours of the day and night. And the process of delisting is fraught with challenges—within the game, one can “report an issue” with a stop or gym, but that is a general category of issue. At launch, there was no clear, obvious way for the director of a venue or the owner of a site to make an emergency or high priority request. Interestingly, many of the portals in Ingress at these challenging sites are relatively low level; that is, few people engage with them, perhaps out of a sense of propriety. The older, theoretically more mature audience of Ingress is likely more discerning about where and when it’s appropriate to play a game than an 11-year-old chasing a Pikachu, iPhone in hand.

All of this is not to say there aren’t positive aspects of Pokémon Go—far from it. Many libraries are reporting a surge in usage; colleges are cheerfully offering Pokémon tours, posting maps of Pokéstops and gyms on their campuses, and encouraging students to play together and responsibly. Players are self-reporting significant upswings in their physical activity levels (in order to incubate eggs that you can get at Pokéstops, you have to walk varying distances, in addition to the need to get out there and explore to find Pokémon, stops, and gyms). Kids and parents are frequently seen playing together in parks and playgrounds. Players are voluntarily leaving lures near children’s hospitals, so the kids inside who can’t walk the necessary blocks outside can still play the game. Within the Autism Spectrum parent community, there are already innumerable reports of children who typically avoid changes in routine and social engagement being willing to go to parks, engage with others, and try new things in the service of playing Pokémon Go. As a social experience, Pokémon Go is breaking barriers and getting people out and about—something many experience designers strive to achieve.

As designers of location-based entertainment and educational experiences, Thinkwell has long touted the promise — and challenges — of technologies such as AR, and the idea of using a mobile device to enhance and augment a visit to a theme park, museum, or attraction with gamification and social interaction. The experience since the launch of Pokémon Go highlights the need for owners and operators considering an AR overlay or component to take some serious precautionary and planning steps:

  • Think about your audience. As we’ve shown, part of the underlying issue with Pokémon is not just the different gameplay, but also the radically different and bigger audience. Creators need to think about who will be playing the game and how they engage with the world. One very smart thing that Niantic did relates to safety: if a Pokémon appears on your map, it can be caught from where you are (you can even switching from AR mode to on-screen play mode to make it easier). There’s no need to cross a busy street or hop a fence. Given that children and teens are playing, this was a savvy design choice.
  • Consider where engagements happen. Choose wisely, to be blunt about it — and if you are in essence outsourcing the location selection to data someone else has generated, have a review process and standards in place prior to launch and scrub your map accordingly. You cannot rely on user generated data to make responsible, thoughtful, mindful, or empathetic choices.
  • Have a clear process for handling people roped unwittingly into the game. It took over a week from launch for Niantic to unveil a way for ‘owners’ of questionable locations to quickly and permanently delist their locations; it’s unclear how the new system will prioritize delisting or how quickly requests will be addressed. Until Niantic quietly rolled out this system, the bad press and angry location owners continued to churn, and the damage is done.
  • Think through the ramifications of open world play. Pokémon can spawn almost anywhere, and this is a problem. A site such as a cemetery or memorial should be able to request that theirs is a ‘clear zone’ where no Pokémon spawn; currently they cannot. If you are developing a game that extends beyond the boundaries of your site, it behooves you to think about where gameplay is appropriate and inappropriate, and structure the game accordingly.
  • Work with location owners. While some location owners, such as small businesses benefitting from an uptick in traffic, welcome Pokémon Go players, others are still trying to figure out what to do about the fact that a fountain on their property is suddenly attracting people. Consider developing an informational kit that provides these location owners with contacts for reporting issues, ideas for how to capitalize on player presence, and an explanation of the game itself.
  • Be prepared to capitalize on unexpected positive outcomes. The positive effect of Pokémon Go on some children with ASD is an unforeseen, yet fantastic, effect of the game, that Niantic could build upon, perhaps by partnering with advocacy groups to develop targeted materials around the game. The active exercise aspect of Pokémon Go is another aspect that could be highlighted — imagine an ongoing tally of gross distance walked, or calories burned, by all current players? Groups developing new ARs should be willing to leverage unforeseen positive outcomes.

Much of the issue with Pokémon Go and AR in general boils down to the fact that it’s just new, uncharted territory. Or is it? It seems with any new technology and subsequent pop-culture craze that emerges from that technology, there is bound to be challenges, pitfalls, and hand-wringing. Before Pokémon Go, Sony Walkmans were distracting people into accidents — and now headphone-listening in public is something we’ve all adjusted to responsibly. Before Pokémon Go, videogames were “rotting our brains” and keeping kids indoors — and now it’s a burgeoning artform creating all new forms of social storytelling. There will always be folks in the herd whose bad behavior will ultimately get them thinned from said herd — but as designers, we can help craft experiences that will guide the audience in the right direction, with the right motivation — slowly creating audiences that are thoughtful, engaged, and maybe, hopefully, even more community-minded.


1 For an overview of AR, see http://www.explainthatstuff.com/how-augmented-reality-works.html
2 http://mashable.com/2016/07/10/john-hanke-pokemon-go/#iOfQr1i7vmq3
3 http://www.firstcoastnews.com/news/local/holocaust-museum-is-a-no-go-for-Pokémon-go/271981022
4 http://elitedaily.com/social-news/Pokémon-go-tragedy-sites-nyc/1549925/

Museum of the Future

MUSEUM CONUNDRUM
Recently my colleagues and I were discussing museums over lunch. We all have a passionate interest in museums of all kinds, to one degree or another. We each had a memory to share about a favorite exhibit, a particular artifact, or even a favorite display technique, but something else came up that was very intriguing. Although we pronounced our undying affection for museums of every type, none of us had actually been to one as a guest in months. In fact, as it turns out, this relatively diverse group of writers, producers, creative directors, and artists, the so-called “interested” individuals who would seem to be the heartiest museum-goers, were all uniformly unenthused about the promise of a museum outing. Why?
We had the typical excuses: the museums are too hard to get to, the parking is a hassle, the price is too high, I can only go on the week-ends when the crowds are bad. All of these are legitimate, but none of them so daunting that they would really keep us away if the museum were compelling enough. And there’s the rub– they just… aren’t. The more we talked, the more we realized that generally museums aren’t worth going out of our way for. In some cases, they aren’t compelling enough to even warrant a spot on our recreational pastimes list (when discussing why we choose to go to museums when we do, one person replied, “When there’s nothing better to do”).

Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock.com
Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock.com

In light of all other entertainments, museums feel slightly out of touch. Even the word “museum,” feels archaic and dusty, like an invention from the 19th Century that has outlasted its usefulness. The word brings to mind the vaulted, marble floored institutions filled with relics, sarcophagi and other musty dead things behind glass or encased in formaldehyde. This is the iconic Hollywood location; the “Museum of Antiquities” visited by characters ranging from Indiana Jones to Curious George. Of course, that image doesn’t necessarily jive with the reality of today’s museums, but even the edgy architecture and the modern compulsion for Science Center interactivity cannot overcome our reluctance to go. We know it’s good for us, but so is oatmeal.
Art museums, meanwhile, elicited off-putting visions of stark minimalism: lean, streamlined galleries with a hint of erudition that left us feeling cold and out-of-place: these galleries are for experts and aficionados, certainly, but not for lay folk. The art itself is beautifully displayed, typically, but in a surreal vacuum of context. In so many cases, the works are presented with a succinct text panel, with barely any room to share even the most compelling stories about the piece, its creator, or of its time. This information is surprisingly hard to find; relegated to text on handouts or the monotonous banter of an audio tour.

TOO MUCH STATIC
While we have become increasingly spoiled by instantaneous access to information and entertainment literally at our fingertips, museum exhibits are frustratingly undynamic. The content is selected, processed and delivered down a one-way pipeline; an authoritarian board selects and presents the information that they deem worthy of our consumption. The typical museum communicates through lectures, not dialogue, and there are few ways within the museum itself for guests to pose questions or explore tangential ideas that the exhibits might inspire.
For better or worse, we live in an age of instant gratification and information access. The Internet provides an infinite web of information over which we wield complete control. Type in any subject and in a keystroke you have hundreds of relevant links that let you dive as deep into content as you want; even Wiki your own. As you do, you’ll inevitably stumble across another topic that strikes your fancy, and off you go on a whirlwind, stream-of-consciousness infosearch that could continue infinitely, if you so desire.

You don’t even need a computer anymore! Hold an iPhone in the air and with a touch on the screen and the right app, you can find out the name of the song that is playing in the elevator, and what artist or artists recorded it. Take a picture of any product anywhere with the same iPhone and another app will “look” at the picture, identify the product and then scan the Internet for more details, including make, model, and msrp. With the tap of another button, you can download the song or order the product online (after price-comparing on multiple sites for the best value, of course). And with the advent of services like iTunes, TiVo, and Netflix (along with home theater systems that rival the local cineplex’s) even television and the movies are under our beck and call.

IN THE DRIVERS SEAT
We’ve grown fond of this control. Rather than follow a designated path the curator has chosen for us, we prefer to choose our own and use the museum exhibits as a jumping off point for further investigation across many disciplines. The internet provides links to all sorts of tangential topics, how can the museum do the same and allow us to explore equally fascinating (and sometimes tangential) topics of our choosing?

Technological overlays could enhance the presentational nature of static exhibits and transform them into interactive research tools that put the guest in the driver’s seat. Imagine a digital heads-up display, integrated into a clear display case or panel in front of an art piece. With gesture recognition hardware linked to a computer database, the art or artifact becomes the touch point for multi-disciplinary research. Through the display, the guest can explore, not just the piece itself, but also the history of the object, the tools and techniques used to create it, the historical timelines that parallel its creation. You could, with the wave of a hand, learn more about the artist, link to other works that have a significant connection, grab a virtual magnifying glass and drag it across the canvas to “see” the brush work up close, or open video clips of experts and curators sharing interesting information about the item, and then record and share your own insights about the item for others to access.

Audio programs have become a ubiquitous part of the museum experience, but often they are simply dry recitations of facts and figures. These could be diversified to provide a unique point of view, to provoke a laugh, an epiphany or an opposing viewpoint. Imagine these audio devices featuring a selection of different voices each providing their own personal and sometimes biting commentary. What if, instead of the faceless avuncular voice museum audio programs currently employ, we could hear Jon Stewart’s take on this exhibit? Or David Sedaris? Or the creator of the artwork that’s on display. Suddenly, each visit to the museum takes on a new personality and a new point of view that contrasts sharply with the last, leading the guest to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions.
In this way, the audio track enhances the exhibit like the director’s commentary on the bonus tracks of a motion picture DVD. Taken to the next logical conclusion, the audio commentary might be guest-created, with personal observations and Wikipedia-like modifications. Now the audio programs function like blog entries on the Internet, entries which are oftentimes more enjoyable than the articles themselves.

We want to play. We want to touch things, turn them around, take them apart,see how they work. Play is an important learning tool for both children and adults, and museums should provide hands on labs for grown ups whenever possible. Perhaps this is a painting studio, where we can get a first-hand appreciation of art techniques like highlights and shadows, brush work, color mixing, and so on. It might be an adult-scale paleontology dig pit, with real equipment instead of sand pails and shovels. Perhaps this is a kinetic physics lab, where we can create our own kinetic sculptures, build DaVinci’s incredible machines, or play with light and sound. This isn’t just an assortment of science center, touch-the-button-interactives, but a working shop where we can deconstruct, analyze, and touch the rudimentary components of the exhibit.

This is a place where the current museum model would be exploded: where the back-of-house spaces, the archives, the workshops, the libraries, would all be available to the public for unlimited use, and would no longer be the exclusive domain of the museum staff. This is an institute where the guest is the creator, the researcher, and the arbiter of the museum’s ever-changing content.

MUSEUMS AS AN EVENT
Ultimately, we see a blending of all these programs and resources until the museum becomes the anchor and hub for a new entertainment, a multifaceted and wide-ranging event, designed and directed by the museum, that immerses guests completely within the exhibit experience. The subjects of these events could be a single artwork, artifact (a White Star Lines dinner plate, say), even a significant date, 1492, for example, or 1968. Imagine an art event, for example, which is anchored by a single work, but which allows you to explore your own path within multiple disciplines as defined by the work. The art work is the catalyst for a totally unique, self-directed experience through connected subjects.

Say the featured work is, for example, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte. Surrounding the main piece are supporting, cross-discipline experiences that are totally unique, yet connected to the original piece through which you can freely roam. The evening begins with dinner in the restaurant surrounded by Seurat’s other works while the artist himself (a performer, in this case) discusses their importance. Afterwards, you might step into Seurat’s studio if you wish, slip on a smock and get your hands dirty as you paint and begin to understand and appreciate “pointillism”.

In the studio, you can see how the artist worked in a world without Photoshop and art supply stores. You might explore the chemistry paint and the colors Seurat used, how his canvases were framed and stretched, even how he made his own brushes.
Another hall then immerses you in a living history of the era, in a pub, perhaps surrounded by (and interacting with) the people depicted on the canvas. By talking with them, you learn their hopes, dreams, and daily struggles, and see and explore the social influences under which the art was created. Through open discussion you can understand why was this piece created, what the artist was trying to say, what he was responding to culturally or politically. In yet another gallery, you could trace the evolution of the piece in previous and future works. How was the creation of this painting inevitable, and how has it transformed what came after? Who were the other great thinkers, creators, pioneers at the time of this piece’s creation? In any case, the subject of the exhibit, whatever it may be, becomes impeccably relevant and indelibly memorable for the visitor.

Ultimately, we see the museum as a versatile destination with multiple uses. A sort of contemporary salon: a place where people can dine, sip coffee, read, share ideas, research, create. With a lush coffee shop or café at its core (that is interwoven with, not isolated from the exhibits), this new museum would become a hang-out, a social and ideological gathering place, with a library, a theater, even a creative laboratory with accessible studios and workshops.
During our discussion, one of my colleagues blurted, “My God we’re inventing college!” Indeed, like a college campus, this museum provides a safe haven for open discussion, exploration, invention and research, but this place would be available to students of every age, not just college kids.

OUT OF THE BOX
As we continued to explore these “what ifs,” we almost simultaneously realized that we had yet to really smash the old museum model. We may have shaken up the contents of the box, but we hadn’t yet taken them out of it. All of these previous notions assume that the museum is a separate institution located off the beaten path in its own separate and self-contained building.
But why must the museum insist we go to it? Instead, what if the museum board thinks more like a retail developer: find a way to bring the museum to where the people already are?

There is no good reason for museums to assume the additional effort and expense to physically add restaurants, workshops, libraries and theaters to create a social hub, when these destinations already exist and are thriving. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Main Street gave way to the suburban shopping mall. Ironically, in the 21st century, the mall is ceding to the lifestyle center: destinations where shopping and entertainment (complete with green spaces, rides and multi-use concert venues) commingle to create a bustling place to see and be seen. These regional neighborhoods, with their residential condominiums and apartments hovering above retail stores, movies, restaurants, even bowling alleys, have become America’s new Main Streets.

Museums exhibits would fit in this place as naturally as Starbucks. These smaller, satellite locations could either stand alone or work in support of a museum’s flagship institution. The museum would provide the brand for a franchise, not of stores, but of exhibit galleries through which the museum’s artifacts and programs would rotate. By inserting itself in a residential address that also happens to be a thriving commercial hub, the museum becomes an integral part of the neighborhood, where a visit to the gallery is as daily a routine as a grande latte.
In this location, guests are not captives in the museum. With their membership or paid admission, they can enter and exit as often as they like during the day. They can browse the galleries at their leisure, in digestible chunks, and then take a break and discuss the content over a meal at an adjacent restaurant, bistro, or coffee house, where still other exhibits are on display.

The museum also has the opportunity to extend beyond the gallery walls and provide a thematic overlay to the lifestyle center. Exhibits could become interwoven into the landscape and signage of the entire plaza, providing content while drawing guests to the facility at the same time. Museums used to be the exclusive domain of the IMAX theater, but not any more. More and more studios are releasing large format versions of their films (now in digital 3D!) and the IMAX experience is quickly becoming de gigeuer at the local multiplex. Rather than compete with the studios, the IMAX could become a shared resource, showing the museum’s short subjects during the day and early evening before transitioning to the feature films later on.

What museum staffs cannot forget, whether they like it or not, is that museum admissions are, in the eyes of the guest, entertainment dollars. The money they pull from their pocket to pay the entry fee comes out of an ever-dwindling discretionary budget, and though that entertainment dollar is limited, entertainment options are anything but. Never mind the lofty mission goals and educational standards; today’s museum is competing directly with movies, theme parks, corporate brand experiences (i.e. The World of Coke, M&M’s World, etc), nightclubs, and restaurants for a tiny share of that precious entertainment dollar. Rather than compete against these other offerings, we see museums collaborating with, intermingling among, and even perhaps, branding them.

In these challenging economic times, when endowments are dwindling and promised contributions shrink or disappear entirely, the museum must begin to focus on the sure revenue stream: admissions. True, most museums generate less than 25% of their revenue from ticket sales, and the average visitor spends less than $1.00 on retail and food and beverages, but these are past statistics, not rules. Why not open a restaurant within the museum walls? Why not build a gallery smack in the middle of a retail hub? Why not aggressively pursue the visitor’s entertainment dollar? This doesn’t mean turning away from the institutions goals, but it does require creativity to find a way to achieve the mission within a new business plan, one that focuses on the desires and interests of the guest, and that means understanding, responding to, and delivering on their expectations.