A Different View: The 2020 TEA Summit Digital Case Study


10 years in the making. A veritable army of people had been a part of creating it. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi has been a part of Thinkwell, in one form or another, for half of the company’s history. We were thrilled to celebrate its recognition with a Thea for Outstanding Achievement – Theme Park and eagerly honed our presentation to share at Case Study day at the TEA Summit 2020 with friends, peers, colleagues, and collaborators from around the world.

Needless to say, 2020 had other plans. We are eternally grateful to the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) for figuring out a way to bring the case studies online, but as we prepared, it was natural to worry that it would feel more remote, that it would lose the collegiality that being in the room brings. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi creative director and former Thinkwellian Dave Cobb and Miral’s Glenn Davidson led a candid discussion about the park, highlighted by videos narrated by Craig Hanna, Thinkwell co-founder and Chief Creative Officer. The online platform made the Q&A more vibrant and participatory – strangely akin to a Netflix watch party with distant friends. Separate, in our homes and offices, we all got to eavesdrop as Glenn and Dave nattered with the four WDI presenters for Galaxy’s Edge and Smuggler’s Run, a masterclass in what goes into these megascale projects.TEA Summit 2020 Dave Cobb

This banter reinforced that no matter the disparate nature of our projects, we all do ridiculous, incredible things in the service of making amazing experiences for people. Typically, when presenting at case studies, you cannot see the audience reaction – here, we were all hanging out in a virtual family room, reveling in the oohs and ahhs of peers and colleagues, watching them geek out, have their minds blown, talk about what they loved about this massive undertaking we’d labored on for so long. It was an unexpected bright spot for so many of us who’d been involved in this amazing project.

We don’t know what Summit will look like next year, if the promising vaccines in development will make it possible for us to be together in Anaheim in the spring, or if the case studies will be virtual again. Whatever form it takes, we’re excited to share our latest project to be honored with a 2020 Thea Award: Midnight Ride at Lionsgate Entertainment World.

A Midnight Ride To A Thea Award

On July 31st, 2019, The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride made its grand debut at Lionsgate Entertainment World in Zhuhai, China. This innovative attraction was the world’s first to combine a fully interactive virtual reality experience with a high-capacity, individually-reactive motorbike motion simulator ride. 

Thinkwell partnered with Lionsgate and the Hong Kong-based Lai Sun Group to bring Midnight Ride from an initial blue-sky idea in 2015, through a multiyear process of design and development, to installation, testing, and ultimately welcoming the attraction’s first midnight riders. This unique achievement was only made possible through the close collaboration with the attraction engineers at CAVU Designwerks and DreamCraft Attractions and the computer animation specialists at Framestore. Yet the journey is never complete on opening day.

As Midnight Ride took guests on a journey through perilous winding forest trails, the attraction’s debut year saw plenty of its own unexpected twists and turns… including a temporary closure due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a grand re-opening in June 2020 with enhanced health and safety guidelines.

The long journey proved worth it, however, as later that November The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride was honored by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Attraction category. The Thea Awards have been awarded by the TEA since 1994 with the stated goal of bringing recognition to achievement, talent, and personal excellence within the themed entertainment industry.

Among the unique factors recognized by the judging committee, Midnight Ride is one of only a few major theme park attractions to give guests meaningful story agency during their experience. Within virtual reality, guests have the ability to choose their own moonlit path as they’re sent on an interactive motorcycle adventure alongside fan-favorite Twilight character Jacob Black and the rest of the wolfpack. This includes the ability to see and react to their friends within the motion-enhanced VR world, such as when they split off from the trail, speed ahead or fall behind, or are even attacked by the vampire Newborns, leaving each rider seemingly the last remaining of their group.

Other projects with Thinkwell’s involvement in past years that have been recognized by the Thea Awards include: Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi (2020 awards, theme park), Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter near London (2013 awards, studio tour), Fernbank NatureQuest in Atlanta (2012 awards, museum exhibit), The Jurassic Park Institute Tour in Japan (2005 awards, traveling exhibit), and The Imagination Workshop in Temecula (2005 awards, limited budget).

The Thea Award recipients for the 2021 ceremony were officially announced on November 19th, 2020. Thinkwell, with all of our partners who helped make this attraction a reality, are thrilled and humbled to see Midnight Ride recognized by our industry peers who placed it among the ranks of many of the world’s most influential and impactful themed experiences.

Highlights from 2017 TEA SATE conference

Last month, the 2017 TEA SATE conference was hosted at Cal Arts campus in Valencia, CA. With the theme of “The Future of Immersive Realities,” conference attendees were able to listen to and engage with speakers about the future of the location-based entertainment industry. Thinkwell was excited to take part in the conference with Thinkwellians both attending and presenting. Cynthia Sharpe, Principal, Cultural Attractions & Research at Thinkwell, spoke at the conference on the importance of diversity and inclusion. Jason McManus, Art Director, spoke on how millennials tell stories and gave an in-depth look at the evolving audience for themed entertainment.
As we head into IAAPA this week, we wanted to look back at some of the important topics that were addressed and how we can keep these subjects and discussions top of mind moving forward.
We asked Cynthia to share some of her thoughts and key takeaways from the conference, and here’s what she had to say:

  • At one extreme, we had Amy Blackman, from Contend, talking about how “data hacked creative” using AI data-mining to understand what will resonate with potential users/guests. It was fascinating–and to some a little scary (what, a computer can do my job?!)—but as a scientist-by-training, I found it fascinating. I come from a world where the ability to crunch reams of data to find patterns is how discoveries are made and connections unearthed – this is a new application of that.


  • At the other, we had Janet T. Planet and her Spy Adventure. A labor of love, a bespoke, boutique experience for a group of people every several years that draws them from all corners of the globe to romp and roleplay as spies—and she does it for free and in her oh-so-copious free time from her real world day job.


  • And somewhere in between we had the Westworld panel, which genuinely and authentically wrestled with the “how close are we to this moment?” question, cleverly breaking it down into all the innovations that would have to happen to get us there.


  • Woven throughout many of the talks was this sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt call to arms of “doing better.”  We started with a talk that was super honest about the role of theme parks in making a hard reality of a not-picture-perfect childhood better (Danny Byerley) and the value and seriousness of making joy. This notion of how transformative our spaces and experiences can be was touched on time and time again, along with admonitions to not stereotype user groups but instead really understand them (Jason McManus, for example).


  • Ultimately, it was great to see so many talks that really tackled the meat of what we do—the joy of it, the love of it, the power of it—and not shy away from the responsibility that comes with that.

Arielle Rassel, Design Manager at Thinkwell, also attended the conference and sent in her thoughts. Her key takeaway was that we can do better. Here are some of the highlights from her:

  • Danny Byerley’s discussion of how we should take our work more seriously. Do we think about it as seriously as film or painting? We should. We’re often seen as a redheaded stepchild of more “intellectual” art forms, but what we do is so detailed and combines so many artistic disciplines. He also focused on the transformative power of stories, a quote I noted was “we have the ability to change the national conversation about joy,” and his overall idea of “lean into joy.” The key takeaway from this discussion was to “do better”, create more joy, and to remember what we do is art—embrace it.


  • Cynthia’s discussion of how we, as an industry, are often found wanting in our inclusion of populations across socioeconomic, gender, and racial lines. We should not be an industry only for the privileged. We need to reach people where they are, and even as an industry we need to be more inclusive and diverse. The key takeaway from this discussion was also to “do better” and that we need more diversity, more inclusion, and “fewer walled gardens” (great term, Cynthia!).


  • Amy Blackman—how can we use data hacking and machine learning to know our audiences better? Intelligence-driven data will lead to “intelligent solutions.” This will inherently change the design process to be more data-backed.  As the key takeaway from this discussion was to “do better” as well, we were also reminded to stop guessing and make informed decisions. Risks don’t seem as risky when they’re backed by data.


  • Janet Planet—Spy Day. Her creation is an amazing overview of how immersion and creating roles for people creates an incredible level of commitment and investment from participants. The main point from this discussion was how important personalization is in immersive experiences


  • Jason McManus on millennials and storytelling. We can lean into the constant negative characteristics or we can lean into what makes millennials unique—how much they crave story, connection, and experiences over things. How we tell stories needs to shift to account for what they want. The key takeaway from this discussion was to “do better” [and] stop griping about what you think is wrong with your audience. Lean into what makes them unique and they’ll love your content that much more.

We will update the post with SATE video links once available and are excited for the upcoming speaking engagements at IAAPA. Cynthia will take part in two discussions during the conference. On Monday, 11/13, she will present “2017 in Review: Emerging Trends in Immersive Design” with Shawn McCoy of Jack Rouse Associates, reviewing the latest trends, projects and stand-out experiences of 2017. Cynthia will also be leading a session on Wednesday, 11/15, titled “HR Creates: Techniques to Address Gender Issues in the Workplace” to discuss what role gender plays in the attractions industry. The session will also include Nikky Rossini, Riding Chaos, LLC; Trent Oliver, Blue Telescope; Sarah Cole, Adler Planetarium;  Melody Austin, Austin Creative; and Traci Klainer, Luce Group.
We are looking forward to the upcoming conference sessions at IAAPA—see you in Orlando!