What you’ll learn:
- Be a good listener.
- Use visuals to convey information.
- Be technically creative.
- Own the role of creative ambassador.
Millions visit Disney World and Universal Studios each year for the characters, food, drink, and spectacle. Most don’t stop and think about the critical role of engineering in these carefully constructed environments. Nor should they.
The work that goes into the creation of immersive environments must remain invisible. It’s the result of years of collaboration between artists and artisans and engineers and technicians. Often, this work creates friction between creative and technical teams. Each team works passionately, albeit differently, toward a common goal they may not realize they share. Yet, this tension—when directed appropriately—can create truly remarkable experiences.
Both creatives and engineers like to think big and push the limits of what’s possible. The creatives must balance storytelling, experience, and budget. Conversely, engineers must take those abstract thoughts and balance them against safety, sustainability, and (often a different) budget. Sometimes, these partnerships lead to roadblocks. Here are some practical tips engineers can use to help alleviate some of the most common challenges across projects.
Be a Good Listener
First and foremost, a successful attraction is one that “moves” people. Sometimes, it literally means moving people, but it always means reaching inside someone and making them feel something (joy, terror, or wonder). It may seem obvious, but to a new engineer in this industry, it represents a mindset shift. Of course, it also must be safe and easy to maintain, but it exists to be fun.
Creatives tend to describe their visions with qualitative words like “blue,” “really bright,” and “very fast.” To the engineer, these words may seem unintelligible and unhelpful. Engineers must work to translate these concepts into quantifiable qualities.
To do so, engineers must start each project as excellent interviewers before they are developers. Coaxing out specifics for these descriptors helps to align expectations with the creatives and mitigates the risk of mid-project intervention. Ask questions. Probe the answers. And ask follow-up questions. Try to ascertain the priorities from a storytelling and immersion perspective.
Almost every attraction has a couple of things in common: a tight budget and a grand vision. Agreeing on these details early on can reduce headaches down the road. For example, a desired speed might be adrenaline-inducing, but it also could make guests unable to appreciate the animatronics and other visual elements of the ride.
In the themed entertainment industry, after-the-fact iterations are often called “million-dollar hand waves.” It’s when creatives point at a slight change that isn’t so slight on the budget or from a technical standpoint.
Use Visuals to Convey Information
Engineers tend to be auditory learners while creatives are more visual. The disparity can lead to instances where both parties are far apart on the same subject and don’t realize it. This is especially true in matters of object depth for an attraction.
This challenge most often arises when creatives want to use projection for a holographic-like optical illusion, but they also want plenty of set pieces to increase immersion and spectacle. The distance of these set pieces from each other and the guest can dramatically affect the optical illusions, so engineers must express these limitations through visuals.
Modern technology has made this kind of visual communication easier in some ways and more challenging in others. Virtual reality (VR) allows engineers to show creatives a schematic walkthrough of attractions, while 3D printing can more accurately show a physical item or prop before it’s developed.
However, new innovative VR and augmented-reality (AR) attractions also have added complexity to the creative and engineering process. When a guest touches something in an experience, there’s a whole new level of sensitivity and scrutiny around safety, brand identity, and ensuring consistency with the stringent requirements of the intellectual property (IP).
Guests don’t often think of the effort that goes into a light gun, VR helmet, and backpack while experiencing a five-minute attraction. It takes months of testing to refine weight imbalances, comfort, potential hazards, tightness of the gun in the holsters, etc. Never mind the hundreds of times each wearable device must be adjusted and 3D-printed repeatedly before it’s acceptable to all stakeholders.
VR attractions often require low-latency wireless, where signal obstruction from environment set pieces becomes a concern. It has never been more important to present things visually to creatives or risk an issue further down the line.
Be Technically Creative
Safety and entertainment tend to be at odds with each other. No theme park developer would (or could) ever put a ride in production that didn’t pass the rigorous safety tests. But that doesn’t prevent disagreements over how to approach the loss of guest immersion due to safety requirements.
For example, dark rides must have an illuminated EXIT sign in case of an emergency. This breaks immersion, and sometimes engineers must work with the authority having jurisdiction to resolve the issue. In some cases, an exception will be made where a fire or power outage could trigger an EXIT sign to light up. Other times, creatives and engineers might choose to work an EXIT sign into the guest experience.
The growing desire for personalized and controllable guest experiences also brings a new element of engineer creativity and safety. For instance, controllable vehicle-based rides create new questions. If it’s a shared vehicle, how do you divide steering time among guests so that everyone feels represented? Also, how do you clearly alert guests when it’s their turn to be in control? Do new safety elements need to be installed?
Working together with creatives to come up with the best possible solutions for personalized ride experiences will be an ongoing challenge for the industry and for engineers.
Own the Role of Creative Ambassador
One of the most unique aspects of developing experiences is establishing and maintaining a consistent project vision across trades. While engineers and creatives spend most of the time designing the attraction, the builder must understand it, too. The result of all the money, collaboration, and long days and nights that went into a project hinge on whether that plan is followed during construction.
Engineers have the technical knowledge of the attraction to best oversee the development. In this crucial time period, it’s their responsibility to take ownership of the overall integration of the attraction and unify project team efforts. An example of a construction-based error is a soda fountain placed in the wrong location that could interfere with the reflection of a projection experience, or workers might install conduit on a wall that’s supposed to have a beautiful mural. Not catching these problems in real-time means more costs and operational delays.
When building theme park experiences, the approach of engineers and creatives can be contentious at times. But learning how to channel it toward achieving the common goal that both parties share is the key to producing a successful guest experience.