Theme Park, Amusement Park and Attractions Industry News

SATE 2012

An international representation of themed attraction creators, operators and consultants assembled last week at Disneyland Paris Resort for the latest SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology and Experience) conference from the TEA (Themed Entertainment Association). So was SATE great? Owen Ralph reports.

ìThe best thing about the TEA is these kinds of gatherings,î noted the associationís president, Rick Rothschild of Far Out! Creative Direction. After last yearís record-breaking turnout in Orlando, and a smaller Europe-only event in Amsterdam, around 150 industry professionals gathered in Paris for the two-and-a-half day event at the Newport Bay Club Hotel from September 19 to 21.

By moving the main conference to Europe for 2012, there was some acknowledgement of the efforts that have been made over the last decade in increasing TEA membership outside North America (and indeed California). A straw poll of SATE delegates this September revealed that around a third were from North America, with France and the UK the two most heavily-represented European nations, and the Netherlands probably not far behind. A good opportunity, then, to address the topic of cultural diversity ñ the theme that linked the entire conference programme.

Presiding over the proceedings as co-chairmen were acclaimed live event/show producer Yves PÈpin and senior vice-president and creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, Joe Rohde, with much assistance from SATE producer Kathy Oliver. ìJoe and I are a very good example of cultural diversity,î smiled Yves on Wednesday night, opening the conference.

ìThe world is our office,î Joe observed during his Keynote Address. ìWe have travelled from all over the world to be in this room for two days, but the common thread that unites† us all is that we are storytellers; we take a story and we give it form.î Taking a sip of the champagne provided for an earlier toast, delegates than sat back and strapped themselves in for a whirlwind presentation from this philosophical, but entertaining, Imagineer. We’d be lying if we said we could remember every bit of Joe’s speech ñ there was an awful lot of information and thought ñ but it set the tone nicely for the rest of the event and sent delegates away with something to ponder, before they retired for the night to the slightly less deep and meaningful Billy Bob’s Saloon.


Yves PÈpin opens the conference as TEA president as Rick Rothschild looks on

Cultural Considerations

The conference programme proper began on Thursday morning as master of ceremonies Klaus Sommer Paulsen of the CNA Creative Network Agency took to the stage, followed by an Introduction from Steve Simons of Event Communications who revealed the challenges of integrating culture into attractions: îNo brief from a client has ever asked for our attitude to cultural sustainability,î he said. Steve went on to explain that prestige projects inevitably come under political scrutiny, resulting in homogenised products designed to appeal to international audiences, yet it is those things that are different about destinations that attracts people to them. Developers of ‘world-class’ attractions take note!

Kicking off the session Multicultural Teams For Cross Culture Projects was Patrick Stalder, formerly of Disneyland Paris but now responsible for staging various Olympic ceremonies and sport-related spectaculars. The scale and number of stakeholders in such events mean, ìYou never really own the project,î he said. Yet they were also hugely rewarding, and he is now hard at work on proceedings for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

A recurring theme within the industry is the risk of having ideas stolen when working in the† Far East, particularly China, not something that troubles Matthew Jessner of the Franco Dragone group: ìIf you’re worried that they’ll clone you, then please do, because we need a bigger talent base out there!î

The aftermath of a Korean typhoon prevented delegates from that country attending to speak about The Big O Show, but Emmanuelle Charotte of ECA2 was on hand to explain more about this multimedia spectacular performed around the O-shaped worldís largest water curtain. The highlight of this summerís Expo 2012 in Yeosu, it has survived as a standalone attraction complementing an aquarium.

According to moderator Bart Dohmen of BRC Imagination Arts, the three speakers lined for the session From Concept To Means: How They Go Through Cultural Borders were each worthy of keynote contributions in their own right. First was Forrec executive vice-president Steve Rhys, who gave insight into two different story-driven attractions. Aesop’s Village at Everland near Seoul retells many of the famous Greek fables inside a colourful English village, and has become an engaging experience for the Korean park’s family guests. Best of all, revealed Steve, ìno one owns the [Aesop] brand!î Aqua Dunya, meanwhile, was intended to boost Dubai’s reputation as a tourist destination and become, ìone of the few waterparks you would want to jump on a plane to go and see.î Like many other projects in Dubai, it is currently on hold.


Steve Rhys of Forrec delivers his presentation as Bart Dohmen looks on

Iconic Ambitions

When working abroad, it is important to, ìListen first Öespecially if you’re American,î remarked Keith James of Jack Rouse Associates (JRA). One question you should always ask, however, is why the attraction in question is being built ñ as it might now always be to make money. In the case of Ferrari World, for which JRA designed the content, the developer Aldar Properties wanted to ìbuild an iconî that would position Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination to rival Dubai. Given the stalling or projects in the neighbouring Emirate, it has partially achieved its aim. One challenge for JRA was that, ìFerrari had final approval on everything, but Aldar paid the bills.î An earlier JRA project, Volkswagenís Autostadt in Wolfsburg, was also built without regard to typical attraction operator wisdom. Here attendance figures and profitability were less important than embedding the VW brand into guests’ minds. If only 1 to 1.5% of visitors were persuaded to buy one of its cars rather than one its competitors, then it would prove to be on of the German motor giant’s most cost effective marketing initiatives ever.

Fresh from his work on Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, Imagineer Bob Weis was invited to take on the creative portfolio of the Shanghai Disney Resort. Walt Disney Imagineering’s (WDI) efforts to understand the local culture have, Bob revealed, gone as far as observing its employees’ day to day to routines. In return, staff at WDI’s California headquarters are being taught about the Chinese way of life. It is envisaged that the Disneyland-style project, scheduled to open in late 2015, will be, ìa unique Disney park with a Chinese influence ñ built by Chinese people.î Along the way, WDI hopes to nurture a new generation of Chinese Imagineers to work on Disney projects worldwide.

Introduced by Jora Vision’s Jan Maarten de Rad, Andrew McIntryre of Morris Hargreaves McIntrye (MHM) detailed plans for a children’s museum in Qatar as part of the session Engaging Culturally ñ Interpreting Authentically. Like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar is making contingency plans for when its oil runs out, and already expectations on tourist attractions are high. Yet with a population just 1.7 million, including many families without children and a lack of typical parent-child interaction in those that do, such a project is not without its challenges. MHM has carried out detailed research and found that whilst most families struggled to grasp the concept of a children’s museum, once they had it explained, many remarked that it would provide a more fulfilling day out than the FECs that currently dominate the market.


A SATE session in full flow

Know Your Feathers!

Laura Miotti of gsmprjct and Adriondack Studios’ Louis Allen highlighted two more projects, the Living Galleries of the National Museum of Singapore and the Seneca Allegany Casino in New York respectively. The latter, said Louis, had provided an important lesson in, ìBeing very careful about the iconography you useî ñ such as the correct feather configurations for various Native American headdresses.

Speaking of her experience working in Saudi Arabia, Audrey O’Connell of London’s Natural History Museum (NHM), remarked, ìyou can either go in with your prejudices or treat local customs as little nuances to be learned and understood.î As such, one of her first tasks when working on a gallery for the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture was to go out and buy a new wardrobe so she could dress in common with the women of the country.

Les Petits FranÁais’ Martin Arnaud’s apology for speaking with a French accent was sweet but unnecessary given the conference’s location, while the project he shared with delegates delivered its message using very few spoken words. Yo MÈxico was a visually stunning live performance set inside Mexico Cityís ZÛcalo Square, using music, dance, light and projection to chronicle 100 years of the Mexican Revolution, and subvert certain events within.

Sophie Poirier of MU Events, less apologetic for her Frenchness, had fallen in love with China after spending several of her formative years in the country. Recently she was invited to produce a multimedia spectacular for OCT Bay in Shenzhen, together with ECA2. Rejecting a brief for a show with an international flavour, she chose the local Mangrove tree as the inspiration for Mangrove Groove, a production that nevertheless fulfilled the Chinese thirst for, îBig, bold statement-making projects.î

ìOver the years all sorts of b/s has been put out about Hawaii,î observed Joe Rohde in his case study of Aulani, Disneyís new resort on the island. ìGrass skirts are not Hawaiian!î Describing the finished product as, ìVery different for Disney,î Joe revealed how his team had gone to great efforts to integrate Hawaiian culture into Aulani. Yes, Mickey Mouse does make an appearance, but elsewhere the content is more authentically Hawaiian then many of the islandís existing hotels and resorts ñ a highlight being the Ōlelo Room, where all drinks must be ordered in the local language. Later in a Q&A session, Joe revealed that the experience had encouraged Disney to re-examine some of its existing offerings such as the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World, which came from, ìa very different era.î The Imagineer is now working on concepts for Pandora, a new themed land at Animal Kingdom inspired by the James Cameron movie Avatar.


Disney Dreams! provided Thursday night’s entertainment. Image courtesy†Phil Hartley,†PHA

Dreaming of Disney

You canít stay on a Disney property without stepping foot inside the parks, so on Thursday evening SATE attendees were invited to enjoy a front row view of† Disney Dreams!, lighting up Disneyland Parkís Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Moderating Friday morningís Reaching Broader Audiences session, Lesley Morisetti introduced representatives from four museums and heritage sites, including the Science Museum in London, Franceís Universcience and Chateau de Chantilly and the Sharjah Museums Department, United Arab Emirates. In exporting its CitÈ des Enfants/Little Explorers concept to Dubai, revealed Marie-Sophie Mugica, Universcience had encountered conflict between the attractionís science and ëedutainmentí content and the marketing policy of the shopping mall that hosted it. Indeed, throughout the four speakerís presentations, it was evident there was still a certain amount of division between institutions like these and more ëmainstreamí visitor attractions ñ which is why events such as SATE have an important role to play in breaking down barriers.

Chris Conte moderated the final formal session of the day, entitled Taking Our Skills Into New Sectors. His own company, Electronsonic, had for example assisted digital artists, advertising agencies and emergency services, while architect Ray Hole had, together with technology expert Blair Parkin of Visual Acuity, applied his skills to an Oil-focused visitor centre in Kuwait.

After designing a drug education centre in Hong Kong, MET Studio landed a contract for a similar outlet in the arguably more challenging environment of Culiac·n, Mexico. Alex McCuaig explained the brief: to educate citizens about addiction of all kinds ñ including drugs ñ whilst trying not be killed by the people the local dealers that dealt them. At The Bridge, visitors can ëenjoyí experiences such a Fun-House style revolving tunnel designed to simulate the effect of being drunk and a paranoia-inducing wall of staring faces. By incorporating theme park-flavoured elements like these, MET reminds visitors that, like a rollercoaster, what goes up, must come downÖ

Entertaining over 2.5 million visitors in just four days, Lyonís FÍte des LumiÈres has come a long way since its humble beginnings 160 years ago as a religious tradition involving the placing candles on window ledges. Now, each December, the French city is lit up by more than 350 illuminated displays of all kinds, and offers advice to other lighting festivals around the world.†

Following the earlier presentations on Mangrove Groove and The Big O Show, Sanjay Kara of the charity BAPS presented details of another multimedia spectacular realised in co-operation with ECA2, but a show that would only have been possible with the help of almost 400 local volunteers. The Sat-Chit-Anand Watershow in New Delhi celebrates Hindu culture and incorporates all four SATE components, not least architecture thanks to the stunning temple-like backdrop of the Swaminarayan Akshardham. The same venue, incidentally, also hosts an IMAX cinema and a boat ride taking riders through 10,000 years of Indian heritage.


Rick Rotshchild (left) and Joe Rohde bring the conference to a close. Image courtesy†Phil Hartley,†PHA

Time to Talk?

If there was one overriding criticism of this yearís SATE programme, it was that there wasnít enough time to talk between sessions ñ†10-minute coffee breaks became 5-minute breaks, then almost no pause at all. It was as though a three-day conference had been squeezed into two. This was a great shame as networking has always been one of the primary functions of the TEA. The event would also benefit from the presence of more attractions operators, otherwise it risks becoming a forum for vendors and consultants to talk among themselves, which of course they already do.

ìThere seemed to be more operators last year in Amsterdam,î observed Benoit Spriet, general manager of Compagnies des Alpesí leisure park division. ìBut itís good for us to come here and see what people are thinking. Weíve sent four people this year from across the group and would recommend to the operators who want to get some fresh ideas.î

Over an hour was set aside, however for GW Group principal and past TEA president George Wiktor to conduct a Wrap-up Session. Here a large number of delegates were given a chance to speak, including the students who had been invited along as part of the associationís ëNext Generationí initiative. ìIím† getting into this industry not because I want to duplicate Disneyland, but because I want to make Disneyland obsolete,î offered David Younger, currently studying for the worldís first PhD into theme park design at the University of Lincoln, England.

The bearded double act of Rick Rotshchild and Joe Rohde brought SATE 2012 to a close. ìItís been a privilege to meet so many people Iíve not met before,î remarked Joe. ìHopefully in future we can make our collaborations richer and more relevant to the cultures of the world.î

A weekend excursion to the Thea Classic Award-winning Puy du Fou and Futuroscope followed for those delegates with time to spare. We wish we had been there.

SATE will return in September 2013, at a North American locatation to be announced. A more intimate half-day ëtalking shopí is planned for Shanghai the following month. For details of these and the TEAís frequent ëmixerí get-togethers, see

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