Guest Blog: Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider

February 24, 2011

Robert Niles - Theme Park Insider

Robert Niles - Theme Park Insider

Hi!  It’s Clara here, your blogger-on-the-street, and today we have a real treat for you.  We’re sitting down (ok, chatting via email) with Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, a consumers' guide to the world's most popular theme and amusement parks.  Theme Park Insider has been named the top theme park site on the Internet by Forbes and Travel + Leisure magazines and has been a finalist for the Webby Award for best overall Guide/Ratings/Reviews site.

In 2001, Theme Park Insider became the first travel-related website to win the prestigious Online Journalism Award, presented by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Online News Association, for its pioneering citizen journalism initiative, Accident Watch.

Niles is a former Walt Disney World attractions host, trainer and lead, who worked at the Magic Kingdom from 1987 to 1991.  Since then, Niles has worked as a staff writer, editor and website producer at top newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in political science and the Honors Program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences.

Thanks for joining us today, Robert!  So, to kick things off, what was the first theme park you ever visited, and what do you remember about that visit?

Actually, my first memory of a theme park visit is ... leaving one. I remember being carried by my grandfather under the monorail tracks in the old parking lot as we were leaving Disneyland after a long day when I was a toddler.  It was dark, and I remember the flash of light as the monorail streamed past me.  Perhaps the sound woke me.

I was born in LA, and we visited all the local theme parks: Disneyland, Universal, Magic Mountain, Knott's, and those that aren't here any longer, such as Busch Gardens, Marineland and Lion Country Safari.

My favorite memory was getting picked to be one of the kids in a fake Rice-A-Roni commercial on the Universal Studios Tour.  That started a two-decade personal streak of mine, getting picked as an audience volunteer every time I visited a Universal theme park.

So was it that close proximity to local parks what inspired Theme Park Insider?
I started Theme Park Insider when I was working a newspaper website in Denver.  We were trying to use a lot of reader-submitted content on that website, and I thought it'd be an interesting experiment to see if I could build an entire website based on reader-contributed content.  I've always been a big theme park fan, and I worked at the Walt Disney World Resort when I was in college, so I decided to make theme parks the subject, since I knew them well and could kick-start the website with what I knew.

For the first eight or nine years, I ran the site in my spare time, adding features as I dreamed them up or - more often - as readers demanded them.  Two years ago, I ditched the news industry and made the site my primary job - and have been enjoying every moment since then.

You and your contributors post daily entries about your experiences at the parks.  What do you think designers should consider when crafting a great amusement or theme park?
A great theme park needs to envelop me in a story in a way that completely convinces me that I'm in a different time or place. It must be a multi-sensory experience that engages me with visuals, audio - even smells and taste (food is a too-often overlooked component in great theme park design).

It all starts with the themed land, the layout and design of the exterior, feeding me into more interactive adventures within. Like many visitors, I most enjoy rides and shows that don't get old after additional visits, experiences within which I can continue to find new detail every time I ride or watch.

Games and structured social interaction are becoming more important parts of the theme park experience, so I love to see smart use of those elements within the parks, as well.

With these design characteristics in mind, describe your perfect theme park day.

Obviously, a perfect theme park day begins before the park opens, when I arrive with my pre-bought ticket in hand!  That way, I can go straight to the park's most popular attractions, before lines build up.

Beyond that, the park would offer a nice mix of rides, thrills, interactions and shows in a comfortable environment. (That means protecting me from the heat or rain, but not forcing me indoors on a lovely day.)  Lunch would be at a great table service restaurant with well-prepared, fresh food that fits the area's theme.  Then I'd walk back to a nicely themed hotel, where I'd relax, swim or nap before returning to the park for dinner, a nighttime show and some late rides after the crowd's thinned for the day.

Technology has increased by leaps and bounds what theme parks can do, but some argue that it’s at the cost of the “human element.” What impact do you think technology has had on the theme park industry?

The best technology wows me without my noticing that I've experienced technology in action.  The blending of technology with good old-fashioned stagecraft offers the potential to tell three-dimensional, interactive stories in a completely convincing way.

But we all know that and have been trying to do that for years.  What I find most exciting now is how technology can bring visitors into the storytelling experience, empowering and enabling them to communicate their experience within the park, with people in the park and at home. The industry's only just begun to tinker with that tech, and it is powerful.

So with that said, what do you think is the future of theme parks?  How will parks keep people coming back?

If social media can help shape narratives that empower revolutions, imagine what it could do within the context of a theme park narrative?  Tens of thousands of people each day, united in a fantastic social narrative that draws each person within it into an ideal entertainment experience.

It won't be as simple as creating some MMORPG (for the uninitiated like me that stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game).  People come into a park within varying desires to interact with it. Some people love coasters; others simply want to stroll and look at pretty things.  Some parents want to watch their children at play; other people want to watch other folks their age and find new friends.  The challenge for theme park designers is accommodating these varying levels of commitment while exposing everyone to the opportunity to participate in immersive social narratives in ways that they will find not necessarily comfortable, but natural.

The design team that does this well will own this industry, creatively, for years after that triumph.

Thank you, Robert!  Be sure to check out Theme Park Insider for breaking park news and views.

Tuesday, we’re hitting the road again, checking out JRA’s projects in Texas and the Midwest.  Cheers!


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Blog 'N Learn: 16 Stages of Project Development - The JRA Design Philosophy

February 17, 2011

Insert dreams here.

Insert dreams here.

16 Stages of Museum and Attraction Project Development
The JRA Design Philosophy

You’ve gotten your land, your building permits and your funding.  Now it’s time to craft your attraction or museum’s story.  Luckily, you’ve come to the right place.

JRA moves continually between the worlds of entertainment, museums and corporate communications. From that diverse body of work, our design philosophy has emerged. It is simply this. JRA regards design as a very specialized form of communicating messages to an audience. We cannot separate design from writing, for all of our work begins with a story. So, our ultimate goal is satisfying an audience by conveying the appropriate information in an informative and memorable way.

This design philosophy can be distilled into a few core precepts:

  1. Design is storytelling and the story is the star. Exhibiting is theater.
  2. Guests are an audience. Design for the audience, not for the designer.
  3. People relate best to other people, so make it personal. Emotion can cleanse the intellectual palette and facilitate learning. Touch hearts in order to engage minds.
  4. Audiences like being challenged to think, participate and choose.
  5. Involvement is better than observation. Promote shared experiences.
  6. No writing, planning or drawing until you get the story and facts right.
  7. Oblige all the ways in which people learn. Provide information at several levels and in various ways.
  8. There is no substitute for real things, artifacts and first-person perspectives.
  9. Theatrical techniques/technologies can heighten the appreciation of real things by creating context and involving the audience.
  10. Guest experiences should have a rhythm that alternates moments of immediacy and interaction with moments of reflection and reverence.
  11. Simple is better than complex. Good designs are accessible, lucid and inclusive.
  12. All of the senses are involved in perception and memory; design for more than just the eye.
  13. Take heed of operational and maintenance realities. Utilize proven technologies and processes. Accommodate change.
  14. Approach each project with a fresh perspective.

Next week, these core precepts and philosophy will guide us into Stage 6, Master Planning and Programming, when your dream will begin to take shape both in writing and design. 


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JRA Journeys: Touring the East Coast

February 15, 2011

Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) - Syracuse, New York

Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) - Syracuse, New York

Greetings!  Today we’re launching “JRA Journeys,” a blog series showcasing the variety of our projects throughout the world.  This month, we’re staying close to home with a tour of North and Central America.  For Part One, we’re traveling 2142 miles down the East Coast, immersing ourselves in everything from science to auto racing to a visit to the Big Top.

We begin our journey in the Northeast, specifically The Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Syracuse, New York.  JRA worked with MOST to completely renovate the exhibit program within the popular science center.  Highlights of completed exhibits include Science Playhouse; a colorful and iconic maze structure full of physical interactives on each of its nine levels; the Earth Science Adventure Cave, where guests can learn about local geology; and a vibrant Life Science exhibit, where guests can walk through a giant reproduction of the human heart, observe how the skeletal system and muscles work, and learn more about the function of the brain and nervous system.

Heading 281 miles southeast and shifting from learning to pure entertainment, we find ourselves at Jenkinson’s Fun House in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.  The Fun House attraction at Jenkinson’s Beach and Amusement Center is a tribute to the American and European carnival fun houses of yesteryear.  All the old tricks, and quite a few new ones, are employed at the Fun House to ensure an amazing visit.  Mazes, foreshortened rooms, calliope music, black lights and moving floors are just a few of the classic fun house elements used effectively to create a disorienting, laugh-filled journey.  JRA’s services included concept and detail design, floor plans, elevations, story line development, material specifications, operational data and fabrication coordination.

Leaving New Jersey, we literally switch gears, hopping on I-95 to DAYTONA USA in Daytona Beach, Florida.  In conjunction with Exline Design Services of Newport Beach, California, Jack Rouse Associates provided overall planning and design for this 50,000-square-foot visitor center located on property at DAYTONA USA.  The center is open year-round and is the “front door” to the 28 racing events held at DAYTONA USA every year.  Special features include the 16-second Pit Stop Challenge, where visitors are invited to test their mechanic skills in a race against the clock; the Trilon Trivia Tower, where guests test their racing knowledge; a robotic system that lifts away different levels of Jeff Godon’s No. 24 Winston car; and a full-scale slice of Daytona’s 31-degree banked track.

With our engines revved up from our racecar experience, we decide to drive all the way to Guatemala City!  Our destination is El Museo de los Niños, the last stop on this leg of the journey.  JRA was honored to have worked with the former first lady of Guatemala to bring her country its premier museum for children. El Museo de los Niños has something for every child.  Regardless of a young visitor’s level of education or familiarity with the wider world, he or she is sure to find areas of interest.  Six colorful galleries housing experiential exhibits engage children, inviting them to explore universal information on science, health and geography.  The importance of human values is woven through this museum experience.  

Phew!  That was a lot of traveling for one post!  Next time on JRA Journeys, we’ll saddle up for a tour of projects in Texas and the Midwest.  Until then, you can check out our complete slate of projects on

Tags: JRA Journeys , Project Spotlight

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Blog 'N Learn: 16 Stages of Project Development - Financing and Feasibility

February 10, 2011

Every little bit helps.

Every little bit helps.

16 Stages for Attraction and Museum Development
Stages 4-5: Show Me the Money

After you’ve gotten your approvals and your site is ready to go, two looming questions now come to the forefront:

  1. Do you have the money to pay for this, and if not, can you get it?
  2. Is there enough need for this project to make it sustainable (a nice way of saying, “will anyone care”)?

It’s always desirable to have financing (Stage 4) in place as early as possible.  Realistically, however, there is a chicken-egg relationship between financing and design.  You have to know roughly what you’re building in order to shape your fundraising/financing requests, but to get to a level where you have that knowledge, you’ll probably need to make some investment in the design.  Usually, getting your design to the master planning or preliminary concept level is enough to a) establish a range-of-magnitude budget, and b) provide your potential donors or financiers the “pretty pictures” they need to understand your project.  We’ll go into more detail on master planning, preliminary and final concept design over the next several weeks.

While conducting a feasibility analysis follows financing in our stage progression, in reality they go hand-in-hand.  In order to make a compelling case to your donor, government entity, investors or lending institution, you have to assess whether there is sufficient demand for your project and who your target audience should be.  The best way to make this assessment is to commission a feasibility study from an objective third-party who has experience in the attraction industry (i.e., not someone who has a connection to you, your organization or your project).  This type of independent analysis allows you to get a business and market assessment that is not biased by the excitement and passion that you may have for the project.  Feasibility studies usually include:

  • Demographic analyses
  • Assessments of your target audiences’ ability to spend money and their willingness to spend money on attractions like yours
  • Estimations of capital expenditure and potential revenue
  • Determination of the optimal dwell time for your facility and whether there are opportunities for repeat visitation
  • Distance people are willing to travel to get to your facility
  • Evaluations of like facilities (your competitive environment)

All of these factors determine your ability to raise capital and attract a sustainable number of visitors.  JRA is happy to provide a list of trusted consultants that can provide these analyses for you. 

So your project is feasible and has secured at least enough funding to get you through the next stages.  Now the fun begins!  And we’ll begin the fun next week when JRA joins your team and begins crafting the story for your project!

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Blog 'N Learn: 16 Stages of Project Development - Beginning at the Beginning

February 03, 2011

Zoning Map

Zoning Map

16 Stages of Theme Park and Museum Project Development
Stages 1-3: The Work Before the Work, Getting to Know Your Government Officials

Over the next several Thursdays, JRA + blog will be examining the 16 stages essential to any successful theme park or museum project.  These stages need not necessarily be sequential, but can overlap, particularly in the early phases.

Obviously, any attraction or museum project begins with an idea.  If it’s an attraction project, is it a theme park, amusement park or Family Entertainment Center (FEC)?  If it’s a museum, what is the focus?  Who is the audience (children vs. adults)?  Are you rehabbing an existing facility or building a new one?  If it’s new build, where will it be located, and who owns the land?

Once these details are sketched out, the client, along with specialty consultants, will begin the 16-stage process.  Most developments, whether new or existing build, will require zoning studies and approvals before any planning or design work can begin.  The definition of zoning is the “process of planning for land use by a locality to allocate certain kinds of structures in certain areas.”  Zoning can include a host of restrictions depending on the zoning area, including building heights, green space and lot usage, density (number of structures in a certain area), and business types.  If, for example, the area in which you want to construct your project is zoned for residential use, you may have some trouble getting the project approved unless you can get a variance (exception) from the local zoning authority.  Zoning studies are a safeguard for the client, any additional investors and the community in which the project is located.

After or concurrent with the zoning process, other government approvals must often be obtained, which brings us to Stage 2.  Approvals may be needed for such things as permits related to the use of municipal water and sewer lines or points of ingress/egress to and from city roads and highways.  It is sometimes necessary to complete a certain amount of preliminary design work in order to obtain these approvals.  This can be a lengthy process depending on local conditions, politics and other business and financial realities.  In order to potentially shorten this process and create broad-based buy-in for your project (not to mention future financial support), you and your specialist consultants should develop first-name-basis relationships with local government, business and community leaders.

To round out the pre-design municipal approvals process, most projects will need to carry out Stage 3, an environmental impact study.  Because lenders are often required to assume responsibility for the environmental impacts of their projects, environmental considerations (impacts on air quality, water quality, etc.) should be considered early.  Again, proactively engaging local government leaders in the process, particularly if your municipality has an Office of Environmental Quality, will mitigate time- and cost-consuming surprises.

Congratulations!  You have the approvals.  Now, how are you going to pay for your project, and is your project viable?  We’ll answer these questions next week.

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Project Spotlight: Go Packers!

February 01, 2011

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Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame - Green Bay, Wisconsin

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For today’s Project Spotlight, we honor the NFC Champion Green Bay Packers in their quest for Super Bowl glory this Sunday.

Few sports franchises evoke such passion as the Green Bay Packers, and few stadiums embody that passion as much as Lambeau Field.  The only publicly-owned franchise in major league sports, the Green Bay Packers answer not to a single organization or individual, but to all of its 111,000 stockholders.  Lambeau Field, like its namesake, is a one-of-a-kind emblem of the love of American football and the will of a community.

Within this hallowed sports landmark, the five-story Lambeau Field Atrium transforms the stadium into a 365-day-a-year destination, with conference/banquet space, a themed restaurant, a food court, themed retail, exhibition spaces and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.  The 25,000-square-foot Hall does more than simply enshrine the team’s best players and coaches. The Hall celebrates all facets of the Green Bay Packers franchise as well as the game of football. Attractions include a multimedia timeline, the Weather Theater, Ice Bowl diorama, trivia challenge game, re-created locker room and a re-creation of Vince Lombardi’s office. The Hall of Fame’s inner sanctum features a multimedia show, celebrating great moments in Packer history, as well as a display of the franchise’s three Super Bowl trophies, a database containing information about every Packer ever to play, and, of course, an exhibit dedicated to the 147 enshrined Packers.

“The Green Bay Packers organization was one of our best clients ever,” lauded Senior Project Manager, Rick Steele.  “They knew their subject, they were passionate about it, and they had 50 years of artifacts in excellent condition and knew exactly where and what they were.”

In addition to designing the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, JRA assisted the team in planning components of other major guest areas within the Lambeau redevelopment, including exterior plaza areas, food service venues and a games area to ensure consistent thematic treatments, efficient guest flow patterns, optimal revenue generation and an overall integrated guest experience. Jack Rouse Associates also designed and produced a number of interactive experiences for the museum and its surrounding area.  Adults can test their football skills in the Interactive Game Zone while children and families play and learn in an area themed to resemble a training camp.

“We’ve always been proud to be associated with the Green Bay Packers, one of the most well-known sports franchises in the world,” said Jack Rouse Associates COO, Dan Schultz.  “We’ll be watching Sunday and look forward to another Packers’ Super Bowl win.”

Thursday, we’ll begin our weekly series on the 16 Stages of Theme Park and Museum project development.


Tags: Project Spotlight

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