Conference World Tour 2017: Immersing Myself in SATE

September 15, 2017

Hi! Clara, Blogger-in-Chief, here.

Storytelling is as old as human speech (and perhaps far older). While storytelling techniques have changed throughout the centuries, the need for audiences to step outside of their everyday lives and become immersed in compelling narratives remains steadfast.

Today’s technological marvels allow designers, fabricators, and engineers to create innumerable worlds through which visitors can laugh, cry, scream, and dance. In order to craft tmagical places and spaces, these creators must have opportunities to converge and network, to share their successes and failures, to teach and to learn.

The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) SATE conference offers just such an opportunity. SATE explores the art and craft of experience design (Storytelling + Architecture + Technology = Experience), and on October 5 and 6, TEA and SATE will welcome over 200 industry professionals to California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles.

Under the theme “The Future of Immersive Realities,” more than a dozen speakers will address such topics as the intersection of art and technology, immersive theater, and why the TV show Westworld may not deviate that far from real life. Michael Jung of Walt Disney Imagineering will offer a keynote conversation, moderated by Travis Preston, dean of the CalArts School of Theater.

Michael Jung. All photos courtesy TEA.

Over the years, SATE has been held mostly in the US, but recently the SATE calendar has expanded to include meetings in Europe and Asia. Last spring, SATE Europe took place in Beaulieu UK, and a few weeks after SATE 2017 LA, Beijing will host the first SATE Asia on November 3-5. The type of venue for SATE varies, but to underscore its educational and professional development nature, the conference is often held at a university with a themed entertainment degree program. CalArts goes one better: Not only is its curriculum complementary to the industry TEA serves; the school was founded by Walt Disney for that very purpose.

As a TEA International Board Member, SATE is one of the highlights of my professional calendar. Every year I arrive excited to reunite with friends, greet new members, and discover new ideas. And every year, SATE delivers. I leave with my mind blown, my (virtual) Rolodex full, and my spirit stirred to implement the insights I’ve gleaned from my distinguished colleagues.

By virtue of my love for SATE, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the secret of its success. Luckily, my good friend and SATE Co-Chair, Chris Conte of Electrosonic, was more than happy to oblige.

SATE 2017 LA Chairs

CR: You co-chaired last year’s SATE in New York City. What brought you back this year?

CC: I’ve been involved in the planning of previous SATE conferences, and I have always enjoyed the process. That said, the SATE conference is evolving into its refined format and I wanted to participate in the long-term planning and strategy for future SATE conferences. As we grow these events and begin to produce them for our international membership and community, we are setting in place processes and expectations for SATE to ensure the SATE conference is consistent wherever we take it around the world. It’s a very exciting time for the expansion of our SATE conference program.

CR: Talk about the curatorial process – how did you arrive at “The Future of Immersive Realities”?

CC: We felt strongly that the host city should be an important component of our theme. Los Angeles is the film, TV, and video gaming content capital, and because there is a huge trend to develop immersive experience based on film, TV, and video gaming content (IP), I thought it would be of interest to our SATE audience to explore the challenges of converting this “Hollywood content” into dynamic attractions, museum tours, and all levels of a guest experience.

[VP of BaAM Productions and TEA Past President] Christine Kerr pointed out that this theme concept resonated because there is an obvious connection between media producers and experience attractions as well as the current cross-cultural addiction to handheld screens and its wide-reaching influences (second screening, emoticon as language, avatars, reduced attention spans, push vs. pull content, etc.). It was a nice brainstorming effort with key industry leaders that made this happen.

I’ve been impressed by our SATE chair teams over the past few years. This year, I successfully recruited a few leaders from the film industry (producers, art directors, visual effects, etc.) as well as icons in our industry who have great experience across the board. I feel that my current team fits this requirement perfectly.

Last year's co-chairs - Conte, Traci Klainer of Luce, and Michael Blau of Adirondack Studios - discuss the importance of taking risks at SATE 2016 NYC.

CR: One could look at the title of this year’s conference and think, “oh, another conference on AR and VR,” but your session schedule alludes to a more diversified approach. Without revealing too many SATE secrets, what can audiences expect to learn this year, and what “knowledge nuggets” would you like them to walk away with?

CC: Funny you should ask. Presentations about AR and VR are exactly what we did NOT want to do. There is already so much buzz about AR/VR and we felt there was no reason for us to re-hash the same topic. I also suspect there is nothing new and groundbreaking about AR/VR that the industry is not already aware of.

Immersion in the themed entertainment world is so much more than an electronic recreation and media content additives via AR. Also, the isolation that is inherent to VR is very off-putting in my opinion. Immersion is best served as a group experience. Immersion is to design and blend unique elements to create experiences using all the tools available from architecture, technology, and dynamic storytelling.

We wanted to explore the use of all these elements in creating new and exciting immersive worlds. One of the big lessons I want our audience to take away is that we all have unique skills that can play a role in creating these immersive worlds. It can’t just consist of virtual software and hardware. I want our audience to be inspired to engage and contribute.

SeaWorld's Brian Morrow reviews a NextGen portfolio during GibGab at SATE 2015 Carnegie Mellon.

CR: One of the components of this year’s SATE is GibGab, a product of the TEA’s NextGen program in which students and recent graduates engage in a rapid-fire round of interviews with top industry leaders – speed dating meets “Shark Tank”! As SATE Co-Chair and as a hiring manager, what does GibGab bring to SATE and to the TEA NextGen program as a whole?

CC: GibGab is all about preparing new talent for our industry. For years, new graduates from universities were schooled well on the subject matter but were not ready for the real-world challenges that awaited them. The SATE/GibGab format helps with perspective, informs them about real-world challenges, opens their minds to future possibilities, and hopefully inspires them to think freely. They witness first hand that no one person has all the answers. Success is a collaborative effort of talent, diligence, and most importantly, hard work. The most important thing for the GibGab audience can take away is that you never stop learning.

CR: Why is SATE important to the TEA’s mission?

CC: SATE is all about challenging our thought processes and how we do things. Specifically, SATE is about challenging our audience to think differently and explore new ideas. We guide content and encourage our speakers to offer new ideas and challenge the norm. We know that audiences come to SATE to see presentations that are thought-provoking and even controversial about how we normally approach design and implement ideas. It’s also one of the best opportunities to network with interesting people both inside and outside of our industry.

The themed entertainment industry is growing and diversifying at a rate heretofore unimaginable. In order to sustain this pace, we as industry professionals must continue to meet new challenges, seek new answers, and benefit from each other’s expertise. I hope you will join me at SATE to hear professionals from within and without our industry tell stories about better ways of telling stories. If you’re like me, you’ll leave with a fresh perspective on the role of immersive realities in creating narratives that engage minds, evoke emotions, and conjure memories to last a lifetime.

The Themed Entertainment Association’s SATE Conference takes place October 5-6 on the campus of CalArts in Valencia, California, USA. To find out more about the TEA, purchase tickets to SATE, and view sessions from previous SATE Conferences, please visit JRA is a proud global sponsor of the Themed Entertainment Association.

Industry professionals gather for a museum tour during SATE 2016 NYC.

Tags: JRA Journeys , JRA Team , Outside the Studio

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New Voices - The Importance of Designing Responsibly

September 08, 2017

Mikaila Wenker

Mikaila Wenker

In a new series on the JRA blog, we ask our co-ops, the future leaders of the themed entertainment industry, to share their thoughts on topics of interest in the design field.

To kick things off, Mikaila Wenker, a graphic design student at the University of Cincinnati, discusses two critical components of a company’s social responsibility policy: developing the next generation of talent, and creating experiences that all can enjoy.


I think of social responsibility as being an ingrained aspect to any company or individual. It’s the idea that all actions should respect and benefit a business and the community around it. I think responsibility is a good word for it because it really is almost an expectation as opposed to a decision.

Amplifying New Voices

An obvious example (and the most impactful to me) would be a company participating in a university’s co-op program. I find this act to be a big gesture towards social responsibility, because the participating company is quite literally training the future of the field. In doing so, they not only benefit themselves, but they also benefit the clients looking for designers to transform their visions into realities.

Co-ops should not take these work-study opportunities for granted. These companies are going above and beyond to ‘pay it forward’, so to speak. Reaching out and encouraging co-ops like me is definitely not a requirement, but it is something smart companies do anyway because they know the positive impact it makes and the ripple effect that strengthens the design community.

Experiences for All

The next example is far more general but it was certainly an eye opening aspect to design that struck me in both of my co-op semesters – the importance of designing for accessibility. Now, I realize that adherence to ADA guidelines is the law, but in design it really starts at Day One. Although an often-overlooked detail, it has really been something I’ve taken account of this semester. To me, it has really stood as a proud example of always keeping in mind the audience you are designing for – which is like the golden rule to me. Obviously, it shows social responsibility because it ensures that no matter the physical setback an individual may have, they can still enjoy a design like anyone else.

An investment in the talent of the future, and an eye for inclusive design, are the hallmarks of a socially responsible company, and important actions for ensuring the successful future of the industry.

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Team

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Conference World Tour 2017: Six Reasons to Join Us Where the Business of Fun Begins

August 25, 2017

Meet Our Team at EAS Booth 20-707!

Meet Our Team at EAS Booth 20-707!

Fall is upon us, which means it's time to grab your passport and join JRA for the next leg of our conference world tour! This season, "the business of fun" begins at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions' Euro Attractions Show (EAS) in Berlin, Germany. Here are six reasons why you should book your ticket:

1. Experience One of Europe's Most Dynamic Cities: From its historical sites to its dazzling modern facades, Berlin is a study in contrasts. Packed with museums, parks, restaurants and shopping, Berlin serves as the perfect host for a cultural and entertainment attractions show. 

2. Exercise Your Legs Walking the Show Floor: Considered the largest attractions industry trade show in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, EAS will welcome over 11,000 industry professionals from 119 countries. From museum designers to theme park operators, resort hotels to cruise lines, over 500 exhibitors will fill the six expo halls and 13,225 square meters of exhibit space over three days. 

3. Exercise Your Brain in the Education Sessions: But the Euro Attractions Show is more than just companies showcasing their wares - an integral component to the EAS experience is education. In addition to its perennially popular day-long programs, such as the Safety Institute, IAAPA Institute for Attractions Managers, Water Park Forum, and FEC/Small Parks/Playgrounds Day, this year's show features over 20 education sessions covering a variety of tracks, including digitilization and immersive experiences. 

4. Discover How Berlin's Top Attractions Operate: A variety of EduTours take learning experiences outside the convention center to such sites as Karls Erlebnis Park, the Berlin Zoo and Tropical Islands. Coupled with the Expo sessions, these tours show how many of attraction operations theories are put into practice.

5. Network, Network, Network: It wouldn't be an IAAPA Expo without networking events! An Opening Ceremony, Opening Reception, two lunch-and-learns and other events offer ample opportunities to mix, mingle, and connect.

6. To Visit JRA at Booth 20-707!

"I always look forward to EAS," said Dan Schultz, JRA COO.  "Professionally, it is an extremely important exhibition for JRA, both for seeking new opportunities and gathering qualified resources for our projects. Personally, I enjoy being in the midst of so many companies and individuals that are from the region that have such long, outstanding years of service within our industry."

Ready to meet us where the business of fun begins? Register for EAS today, and we'll see you in Berlin!

Tags: JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio

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Pop Culture Shorthand Part 3 - Creating the IP-Based Experience

July 21, 2017

We’ve touched on the history of IP usage and how it has become such a pervasive part of theme park design and production today. We also talked about how without a story, IP is nothing more than a shell of an idea. 

That of course still leaves the question: What is the best way to work with IP? What makes (or breaks) an IP-based attraction?

First and foremost, the core of the property has to be identified. What is it that makes that film or story unique? What is it that has made it as successful as it has become? And while these considerations are important, they goes well beyond material choices or visual style. As an example, Harry Potter is a story that is based around magic, of course. But it is also a story about growing up, finding yourself, and becoming the person you want to be. Each film is filled with mystery and adventure, with the sense of a larger universe that can only be glimpsed by humble muggles like us. This might inspire us to create a unique attraction, which takes us on an adventure with Harry, where surprises are around each corner, with a magical ride system that defies category. All of these attributes are found in the ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. A Harry Potter roller coaster, while maybe exciting, wouldn’t have nearly the same connection to the property.

Yet it’s not enough to simply re-create a storyline or moment from a famous film or television show. Any successful IP-based attraction looks beyond the original source material and creates unique moments and narratives that feel perfectly suited to the world, while taking the adventure to places it has never been before. We see this in Forbidden Journey, which is not based on any specific movie in the franchise. Or in Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, which features all of the characters of the films, but in an all-new adventure, which has never been seen before. Another way to think about it is that if there is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, then the attraction should be considered a hypothetical adventure from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.5. It has to bring something new to the table, which still seamlessly fitting into the existing narrative.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios Hollywood. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. 

But the most important element when leveraging an IP in a theme park, by far, is placing guests directly into the story. This is something that no television show or film can do, and is where theme parks and attractions excel. These rides, when done well, become the ultimate form of escapist entertainment. When visiting a theme park, we don’t want to be reminded that we’re in Orlando, or California, or wherever we are physically. We want to pretend we’re Pirates on Tortuga, or new recruits to the Ghostbusters, or explorers on Skull Island. A well designed and inspired IP-based attraction literally put guests in the action, where they are able to create a brand new story, one that features all their favorite characters, settings, and events. But with one all-important addition: themselves.

Tags: Blog N Learn

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Pop Culture Shorthand Part 2 - Why IP?

July 20, 2017

Yesterday, we re-capped some of the bigger IP-based projects of the past several years, and how the “IP movement” is only gaining ground.

But why such an obsession with IP-based attractions? What has changed? Some of the most classic attractions of the original Disneyland were all new ideas, featuring new characters and situations. There was no Jungle Cruise film, or Haunted Mansion television show, or Pirates of the Caribbean video game. (Of course, Pirates has ironically inspired a series of films, which then inspired changes in the existing attractions, and heavily influenced the newest incarnation of the ride at Shanghai Disney, making in now a ride based on IP!)


Pirates of the Caribbean - Battle for Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The reason for this leveraging of IP is to take advantage of the aspect that all films and television shows have in common with the best theme park attractions:


Nearly every project starts first and foremost with the story. If it’s a branded experience, a science museum, or yes, a theme park, story and narrative come first. Human beings have always been storytellers, whether it’s sitting around a campfire, writing it down in a book, or watching it on screen. Or, in the case of theme parks, riding it.

But a narrative is hard to build, especially in the span of a three-to five-minute ride experience. In a theme park, you don’t have the luxury of a two-hour film to introduce characters, settings, and plot elements. But we know that these are vastly important to create an investment in our audience, and to give each attraction real stakes, in the end creating a more immersive and exciting experience.

The classic way to introduce these story elements is the pre-show. Every modern attraction has a pre-show of some kind, even non-theme park locations, such as the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

Even non-theme park attractions can leverage a pre-show to introduce a narrative, such as the World of Coca-Cola, which has an introductory space that includes artifact displays, a live docent, and an animated film.

But when using film or television based IPs, in a way that previous media can act as your pre-pre-show. Guests enter your attraction already knowing the characters, and the setting, and maybe the basic plot. They know to cheer for Harry Potter, or to be frightened by King Kong, or to help Superman fight Lex Luthor. This has become part of our “Pop Culture Shorthand”, and allows each attraction to embrace, and even leverage, those previous experiences, and all the emotion they bring with them.

So you've got your IP and your story? Where do you go from here? Tomorrow, we'll close the series with how to leverage your IP assets to create a one-of-a-kind experience. 

Tags: Blog N Learn

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