This week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, we talked with Dave Cobb, senior creative director at Thinkwell, an independent theme park design firm in Burbank, California. Thinkwell’s the team behind The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in the United Kingdom, as well as the Special Effects Stage show at Universal Studios Hollywood, among many other projects around the world. Before joining Thinkwell, Dave worked at Universal Creative, where he was the creative director for Men in Black: Alien Attack at Universal Studios Florida, then he moved onto the Paramount Parks chain, where we oversaw themed attractions such as the Italian Job Stunt Coaster and Tomb Raider, before that chain was sold to Cedar Fair.
In our conversation, we talked about one of Thinkwell’s current big projects, a Monkey King-themed park in Beijing, China. From there, we got into a broader discussion about how parks copy one another, and how, too often, they miss the crucial distinction between form and function that leads fans to fall in love with great theme park attractions.
Dave: Money King, yeah, we just wrapped up schematic on that, maybe a little further. All of our projects are broken up into phases. In most of the theme park world, it’s usually blue sky phase, concept development and refinement, schematic, which is where you figure out space and size and cost, design/development, which is where you actually figure out engineering and architecture, and then production, which is when you put stuff in the ground. Usually, you end up putting stuff in the ground sometime in D/D, hopefully.
Unlike an operator, a Disney or a Universal, we don’t have the luxury of saying from the get-go, we’re absolutely for sure going to build something. A lot of the time we’re hired by clients in phases. Monkey King is a perfect example of that. We did the concept back in late 2009, early 2010, and that was with a developer in China who does a lot of real estate. They had us develop a concept package which then went to the Chinese government for approvals and blessings and everyone said hey, this looks great. Then we did a concept refinement, and we finished schematic a couple months back. It’s this huge package. What’s funny is that we brought them the final package and it was like three feet tall, and they said you didn’t need to bring so many copies, and we said, no that’s just one — it’s the schematic. It’s literally hundreds of sheets per attraction.
The Monkey King project really represented a milestone for us in our projects dealing with China. It was the furthest got in terms of design/development with a project there. Also, culturally. Those are stories [Monkey King] that are in the DNA of more than a billion people. You can’t screw it up. And that was a concern, but we have a lot of designers who either are Chinese or have worked on projects in China before. We actually had a couple of Beijingers (where the park is going) working on the project here [in Burbank] and we really tried to imbue the whole team not just with a sense of cultural responsibility — of course that’s there, that’s assumed — we wanted them to really celebrate it and get their heads into why these stories are so cool.
It’s easy to look at them [the Monkey King stories] and think, oh, they’re fairy tales. But they’re really more than that. They’re national consciousness in a lot of ways. They’re superheroes. They’re a trickster character who lives by his guile and thumbs his nose at the authorities. So there really are some fun themes to play with there. Half of the challenge was to find unique ways to show off what we do, which is spectacle and Western entertainment and dark rides — all the stuff they’re hiring us for. But [we have to] make sure it still stays true to why people like those stories.
I had a standard question I would ask all the clients: “What’s your favorite Monkey King story, and why?” Journey to the West is the name of the book, and there are 100 or so chapters. And everybody had a different answer. Now, there was a constant on a couple of them. There were two or three that were always in everyone’s top [answers], and those became some of our bigger attractions. (Laughs)
The gratifying part of this was, after pitching to cultural consultants and people there, we pitched to this guy who is head of one of the film boards in China. He approves which films from outside of China get played in China. He’s that guy. I pitched one of the rides that all of us worked so hard on, and at the end he stood up at the desk and he applauded. I was so tickled. One of our guys was actually recording that moment, so we showed it to the team when we got back.
It’s a challenging place to work for a lot of reasons, but the culture is so incredibly cool and different from ours, yet [it’s] the same and different. People ask me, how different is a theme park there? Well, at the end of the day they’re hiring us for spectacles and dark rides. They want that. But how do we address that to a Chinese sensibility and culture? That’s an ongoing collaboration.
Robert: The stereotype of Chinese theme parks is, thanks to Tumblrs on the Internet, cheap knock-offs of Western theme parks. The Bizarro Disneyland.
Dave: [Laughs] And I’ve been to all those.
Robert: Obviously, there’s been a demand for that, but now we’re at a point where they’re contracting out and building the real thing. There’s going to be a real Disneyland in Shanghai. Chinese are contracting with companies such as Thinkwell, who know how to build a real Western theme park. How do you see this trend playing out?
Dave: I think the demand for a real, quality, Disney-style theme park is no different that the burgeoning demand there for luxury goods: the real Prada bag and not the fake Prada bag. Knock-off culture is what it is there. It’s the elephant in the middle of the room in a lot of ways. But that’s changing because you have two or three generations of people who have been educated overseas. They’re understand why those extra steps in creating technology, or entertainment, or goods, or services, make for a better product and will make your audience fall in love with it.
Like you said, the Tumblr blogs show us these scary Small World clones. I’ve ridden them, and they are creepy as hell. But that’s because they copied just what the saw and not necessarily what they felt. At least that’s my own B.S., psychological evaluation of that. I went on one of those Small World rides. It was trying to be Small World. It had all the blocky graphics, sort of like Mary Blair, or I always like to switch the first letter of someone’s name when it’s the knock-off, so it’s Barry Mlair.
At the end of the ride, I look up in the sky above all the singing dolls and there’s this sort-of starburst pattern on a little logo and I squint and look at it said “Mattel” on it. And I went, why is there a Mattel logo? Then I realized it’s because Mattel used to sponsor the one here [at Disneyland in Anaheim]. So they had just taken a picture of the set and copied everything, not knowing what the context of that meant.
This is just cultural misappropriation, misunderstanding. They’re trying really hard to get the same feeling, when the feeling of that ride isn’t just the way it looks. It’s many other things, too. That’s an education for them, as it’s an education for us to learn how to adapt to Chinese culture and audience.
Another one I saw was a park in Beijing where they’d obviously went to Islands of Adventure. There was one area of the park where right next to each other was the facade for The Cat in the Hat dark ride, the giant arm from the collapsed Poseidon statue, and a row of sets from Port of Entry. I mean, I was working there [at Islands of Adventure] at the time when all of that was being built, so I saw it come out of the ground. I have a photographic memory of that park. So I walked in and I went, “Wow, this is deja vu.” They literally took a picture and said “We want that.” But the seams of where they went together were not there. And that’s the kind of thing that we can help them with.
Hong Kong Disneyland had an impact there, but there’s a bit of dissonance when we deal with mainland China clients. They see [Hong Kong] as a different audience. That’s changing, but I think a lot of our clients reacted that way because [Hong Kong Disneyland] initially was seen not as a success. But we all know that Disney’s just going to turn on the money hose until it works. So now it’s working, and very well. Grizzly Gulch and Mystic Manor are two of the best things they’ve done in the world in a long time. That Mystic Manor ride, I can’t wait.
Robert: And what’s interesting about Mystic Manor, that final, climatic scene…
Dave: …It’s Monkey King!
The thing people need to know is that Monkey King isn’t some licensed character. It started as oral tradition, told between families, and then it was written down and now it’s what they call one of the five greatest books in Chinese literature. Then it turned into operas, and stage plays, and animated series, and comic books, and toys. There’s a version for it with a very famous Chinese actor that was made for television in the 70s, and that’s the one that the current generation of adults, like our age, know and absolutely love. We got it on DVD when we were over there and watched it and it’s so charmingly funny. The Gen Xers will know what I’m talking about — it looked like a Sid and Marty Krofft show, with slightly cheesy costumes and goofy special effects. It was like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, or Wonderbug, or any of those things. Seeing that really helped me understand that this isn’t some creaky old novel. This is something that every generation reinvented.
There was that great HD video of Mystic Manor that hit the day after the ride opened… by the way Internet, I love you. Theme park nerds out there, first know that we’re one of you, and we love all of you. We travel a lot for work, but I can’t get out there and see everything. But when something opens, all I have to do is go to Google. The day after it opened, there was this gorgeous first-person video that showed everything. So thank you for that, whoever you were.
Then it got to that last scene, and I’m like, “Holy crap, it’s the Monkey King!” He’s being used as a cultural touchstone. If the story of this ride is that all of statuary and objects come to life and reveal their magical properties, well, he’s a trickster. Of course, he’s going to screw things up at the end. It’s a brilliant little get for them. And it’s a perfect example of why you can’t necessarily do the Haunted Mansion in a Chinese park. Ghosts are not the same. In most Asian cultures, ghosts are different, but in China ghosts are very, very different. It’s usually about magic, and whether or not that magic is good or bad. It’s more about demons and elemental spirits than it is about the ghosts of dead people.
So you go through Haunted Mansion [as a Chinese visitor] and it doesn’t quite read. People don’t understand the idea of your friends and family, or strangers, people in the graveyard singing at you. We have an affinity for that because we’ve been told that old New England-style houses and graveyards are creepy places. That has no cultural relevance at all [in China]. It doesn’t push any buttons.
I thought that ride in particular was a brilliant retelling of the tenets of the Haunted Mansion but as something entirely different. And also, it starts with a monkey, too. The whole mischievous monkey idea, it’s great. Monkeys are celebrated as tricksters in the culture, and sort of adored as cute things.
Robert: As you were talking about all these knock-off parks that copied the form, but totally missed the function. Here’s something that got the function of the Haunted Mansion [as a spirit-driven magic show], but it’s in a completely different form.
Dave: Now [clients in China] see that Disney’s going to make this work, they’re going to adapt to the audience, not the other way around. Shanghai is a perfect example of that. From what little I’ve seen, it has only the most tenuous connection to the physic design of Magic Kingdoms we know. It shares a lot of the philosophies, but it’s expressing them in a completely different way.
For more of our interview with Dave Cobb, including the challenges of designing for a multi-generational audience, the damage of the Coaster Wars, and the power of letting your audience be part of the show, download Episode 4 of Theme Park Insider podcast on iTunes.