This is the unedited version of the article being published by IAAPA in the November 1998 issue of FunWorld magazine

Beyond Leisure World: The Process of Creating Storyline-based Theming

by Randy White

Successful actors do a lot of work the audience can sense but can't see. The actor, using the script as a starting point, creates an imaginary past for his character - childhood, old loves, triumphs and failures - that informs the character in the present. What's the point of the exercise? Actors know that this history, the story behind the story, creates believable, three-dimensional characters in a way that just showing up and reading lines does not. Odd as it may sound, the same phenomenon is at work in the design of leisure/entertainment centers, and it's every bit as important to success.

The actor whose performance is created out of a rich imaginary history is believable, as is a leisure/entertainment center with a storyline-based theme that permeates the design of the center. Contrast this with the actor who shows up, reads lines, and goes home. Not believable, not human, not going to be thanking Mom come Oscar night. The same is true for leisure centers whose theme is an afterthought, like a coat of paint slapped on a cardboard box.

Storyline-based themes are powerful. They draw guests into a fanciful, imaginary world and have the potential to touch the eye, mind and heart of visitors. This is just as true for family and children's entertainment/edutainment centers (FECs) as for larger leisure destinations such as theme parks. Yet FEC after FEC ignores the power of theming, and, in our company's travels throughout the U.S. and the world, we see the evidence that these centers have the highest failure rate in the industry.

For these centers, the design process starts with some lame name like Kid Palace or Family Odyssey. Next, they design the building shell, the exterior and structure if it's a new building, then they prepare a floor plan and architectural drawings, then add decorative items and design features to the walls and ceilings. Some people consider this theming. It's typically some generic treatment like a wild West or tropical or outer space concept. Okay, so at least there's more unity in the decor than in a non-themed facility, but it's missing something. The result is flat, ambiguous, and devoid of any emotional meaning and life.

This cookie-cutter approach might have worked ten years ago when there was little competition and consumers didn't expect much, but today, it'll barely keep an FEC in business for a year or two. The caliber of all consumer destinations has dramatically increased, as have consumer expectations. The problem is that center owners use the traditional, architect-driven design process, one that works great if you're designing a warehouse or office building, which, unfortunately, they are not.

Creating an experience vs. designing a warehouse

When guests visit a leisure/entertainment center they want to have an experience, not simply hang out in a building. Experiences are emotional and deal with psychological factors. They deal with the feel and impact that the experience has on the guest. They deal with the "atmospherics" of the environment - the conscious designing of the environment to create certain effects in guests to make it more likely that they will purchase and return. To create an experience requires a holistic approach to every factor, every sense, every interaction the guest has with the environment, staff, and other guests.

Architects create buildings, not experiences. It's not their fault, they're just doing what they were trained to do. Most architects are technically competent to design buildings from structural, mechanical and building code standpoints, but they aren't trained to create themed environments that produce holistic, totally integrated and meaningful experiences. But it's those experiences that the leisure designation guest wants.

Leisure experiences are produced, not designed, and the process couldn't be more different from the traditional, sequential, architect-driven process. While architectural considerations are part of the process, they're only one part and they do not drive the process. Instead, the creative production process is managed by an experienced "producer."

And, like a movie producer, this person also begins with a story. The power of the story drives the process of creating a themed center. It all begins with a storyline, which is the foundation for everything that follows. From the storyline flows the thematic interpretation in the form of the characters, the physical, visual and sensual environment and the facility's operational consideration. Unlike the traditional model, creating the name and the logo are usually the last two steps in the process

The traditional model is a relay race.

Along with the starting point, the rest of the thematically driven design process is completely different than the traditional architectural model. The traditional model is sequential, like a relay race. The architect grabs the baton from the client, does the site and floor plan and passes the baton to the structural engineer, who passes the baton to the specialists who, one by one, creating the lighting, the mechanical and electrical systems, the signage, etc.

One of the big problems with this relay race is that each stage of design squeezes the stage after it, often closing off options that could have improved quality, reduced costs, and sped up construction. Another problem is that each person only sees his or her short segment of the race, without any unified vision to guide the design. Instead of being part of a cohesive team, each individual must do the best she can with what's handed her. A few laps into the process, it may be too late to change decisions made in the first leg of the race without costly change orders, confusing details, and possible construction delays.

One after one, the runners have dashed around the track, until it's time to pass the baton to the interior designer. By the time the theme is selected (hmmm...outer space is big this year, let's pick that one), many design decisions already have been made. It's too late to change the floor plan, type of construction and finishes, so theming applied as an afterthought is typically superficial and trite. Often, the facility's very design is creating an unfriendly guest or operational environment, but the sequential process means the flexibility to correct the design problems has been lost.

Concurrent design begins with the end in mind

Our company has found that the best way to create high-quality, themed destination leisure experiences is through concurrent design, a process very different from the traditional model. Concurrent design means pulling together the practitioners of all the disciplines who design the facility and those who operate it at the same time. Everyone jumps into the sandbox at once, with specialists from many different areas participating as members of a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional design team from the beginning. The storyline, the guest experience, staff needs and operational considerations drive the concurrent design process.

Function is examined prior to looking at form. For example, if the facility will host school field trips, the logistical needs of bus unloading, the simultaneous arrival of large numbers of children, staging areas, and moving groups throughout the facility are all defined before design starts. Needed capacities, delivery considerations, and queuing needs are all defined first.

Along with function, the design team must distinguish the culture in which the leisure center will operate. Culture is the combination of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, material traits and behaviors of a particular group of people-in this case, the targeted guests. To be successful, a center must be both culturally sensitive and relevant. Designs must address cultural considerations that are reflected in foods, colors, territorial spacing, scale, customs and religious beliefs. Cultural sensitivity is integral to good design, and cultural considerations should greatly influence the design process.

Through concurrent design, it is possible for storyline-based theming to affect every aspect of a leisure center. Rather than applying a theme to the architecture, the storyline is the foundation that drives the entire design process, including the exterior design of the building, the landscaping (themed landscape design is just beginning to be understood in the entertainment industry), the space plan, the mix, school field trip curriculum, uniform design, the color palette, all finish materials and even things like the shape of the walls, the menu, marketing, and the facility's guest policies and procedures. In a well-themed project, you can look at any single element, recognize the theme and see how it is all seamlessly combined as a harmonious, meaningful and cohesive whole. Everything is integrated into the environment and experience, rather than being stuck into the space or applied to the building's surfaces.

The storyline creates a bond between the center and the guest

And it all starts with the story. In a sense, the storyline is the facility's mythology. Although fabricated, a well-crafted storyline can be very credible, and, especially for children, very believable. Often, the storyline is more a back-story than a literary story for guests, like a character's history created by an actor. A back-story becomes the mythology used to focus the designers' creativity. As the first stage of design, it guides the conceptualization of the project and becomes the filter for all subsequent design decisions. It keeps the themed guest experience highly focused and unified, and gives the facility believability and authenticity.

Good back-stories don't have to be explained. Guests need not know the storyline when they visit, but have the option to learn more. The general theme concept is readily identifiable and guests feel the place is real. However, the more literal the storyline, and the more it is revealed to guests, the stronger the facility's sense of place and uniqueness will be. A well-executed theme creates an emotional bond with the guest.

And, it has the potential to become a brand. Keep in mind that theming for a community-based leisure destination like an FEC is much different than for a theme park or tourist attraction that must have universal appeal to an extremely broad market. That said, we have found that the best way to create a new brand for a community-based leisure center is to reintroduce the local community to itself. In a sense, the community becomes the brand. To accomplish this, you find out about the target market. You identify what about the community makes them proud, you learn about their values and their heritage, and then you integrate them into the storyline and theme as subtext. Our company calls this cultural- and values-based theming and design.

Cultural- and values-based theming gives a center a soul, something lacking in most sterile entertainment projects, whose superficial decor themes lack true meaning and relevancy to guests. We use cultural- and values-based theming every time we produce a center for a client, whether that center is in the U.S. or in another country, because people everywhere positively respond to it. Soul combined with an appropriate mix and quality operations gives a center long-term staying power and profitability, along with reinforcing what members of the target market consider to be most positive about their own identities and community.

Also, in community-based attractions that depend on a high frequency of repeat business, the theme must be strong enough for its presence to be felt, but subtle enough not to overwhelm guests. The theme also should have a sense of timelessness and qualities that will endure. Themes that are too heavy-handed or faddish result in "theme burnout," which generates guests who are bored with the theme's execution and reluctant to return.

Bamboola shows the impact of a good story

So what does this storyline business look like in the real world? An excellent example is a children's edutainment center our company produced called Bamboola, which opened in San Jose, California, in 1997.

Early in the feasibility and concept design phase, we conducted demographic, socio- economic and psychographic research on Bamboola's target market. In addition to quantitative data, we researched the culture of the lower Bay Area, where Bamboola is located. We conducted research on the area's history, its ethnocultural population mix, and common design archetypes. We also held focus groups to determine the values of children and adults. Because Bamboola was planned as an edutainment center with a strong emphasis on school field trips and learning through play, it was important that the storyline and theme not only appeal to children on an entertainment level, but also have underlying educational and social values, both for use with educational experiences and to add perceived value for the children's parents.

Our research narrowed the possible social and historical tie-ins to Ahlone Indians (a totally extinct group that had been native to the area); nature and the sea; and environmental issues. Based upon these elements, we developed a storyline about two Ahlone Indian children who are blown to sea in a storm. A sea turtle leads them to the Island of Bamboola, where they discover that debris from the islands of Use-It-Up and Throw-It-Out is covering the beaches and preventing the sea turtles from building their nests. The children visit the two islands, explain the problem, and convince them to stop throwing their junk into the sea. Then, they clean up Bamboola's beaches and use the junk to construct a pretend play village. The sea turtles from all over the world gather to thank the children. The sea turtles line up in a row, like a floating bridge, and the children run across their backs all the way home.

The pretend play village the children created is Bamboola. The visual theme of Bamboola utilizes bamboo (from which we developed the center's unique trademarked name) and junk and materials that you would find on beaches including such things as parts of boats, netting, life preservers, bottles, driftwood and shells. The center's mascot is a sea turtle. Because San Jose is an "outdoor society," the center includes a jungle-vegetated outdoor adventure play garden and parent seating area.

Cultural-based theming for international projects

An international example of cultural- and value-based theming versus just cloning a visual decor treatment is Dinotropolis, a 55,000 square foot family entertainment center our company produced in Caracas, Venezuela in 1996. Through our extensive cultural research, we found that although Venezuela does have extensive history, Caracains place little value on the country's past. Instead, they associate with the Northern hemisphere and are futuristic thinking. However, futuristic themes can become quickly dated since our vision of the future changes with time. We found that the children in Caracas loved dinosaurs. So we created a storyline about an intelligent civilization of dinosaurs called Momosauros, inspired by King Momo (Momo Rex) who appears in many local children's fables. The storyline is about four Caracas children. Their archeologist grandmother gives them a map to a buried space ship that transports them to the planet of dinosaurs and its capitol, Dinotropolis. There they made friends with the Momosauros and teach the evil Toromoros from the dark side of the planet about electricity so they won't bother the Momosauros anymore. The children visit the magnificent Play Palace built for the Momosauro children. The four children return to Caracas and build a replica of the Play Palace that they call Dinotropolis.

We then developed a unique design theme which we called "dino-tropical-deco." The design has elements of Miami Deco style, which many Caracas parents are familiar with. It also captures the lush topical landscapes of Venezuela.

Dinotropolis has become a well recognized brand with Caracas children and families. In addition to the sale of the branded plush characters and logo merchandise in the redemption prize store, the center has produced a CD and is exploring the possibility of producing a television series.

Soul equates to financial success

The storylines and themes of both Bamboola and Dinotropolis have given the centers identity and meaning, created a sense of place and an emotional connection to their target markets, and raised the perceived quality of experience that guests have when they visit. The themes create the unique branding for the centers and are designed to work at their particular geographic locations within their particular target markets. The themes have helped create the centers' financial successes, and here as in other centers, it has done it with soul.