Seeing Reds: Opening Day with JRA!

March 31, 2014

Our JRA home team was all decked out to celebrate our baseball home team - the Cincinnati Reds!  Founded in 1869, the Reds are the world's oldest professional baseball team, and today is (finally) Opening Day 2014!  This local holiday, officially established in 1970 by then-manager George Lee "Sparky" Anderson, is celebrated with packed sports bars, tailgates, raucous crowds below our office window, one of the grandest parades in baseball, and of course, an afternoon game.  Fun fact: the Cincinnati Reds have had a home opener every year (save one) since 1876 and are scheduled to have home openers in perpetuity.  They are the only team to be granted this privilege by Major League Baseball.

Grand Marshall of this year's parade is Dave Concepion, widely considered one of the best shortstops in history and a five-time Golden Glove winner during his time in Cincinnati.  Concepcion and another legendary Reds shortstop, Barry Larkin, will throw out the first pitches in this afternoon's Opening Day Game against our rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.

You can find out more about Anderson, Concepcion and Larkin at the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, designed and produced by JRA.  While you're at the ballpark, be sure to also check out the JRA-designed Reds Shop and Fan Zone.

Thanks for reading, and GO REDLEGS!



Tags: JRA Team , Project Spotlight

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"Gib"bing and "Gab"bing with the Future of Themed Entertainment

March 26, 2014

Hi, it's Clara, Blogger-in-Chief, here. 

Last week, I had the extreme pleasure of taking part in Gib Gab, a speed networking mixer in Orlando co-produced by the NextGen Committee and the Eastern North America Division Board of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). At the mixer, which was hosted and sponsored by VOA with additional sponsors Nickelodeon and Themeworks, 34 TEA NextGen members interested in themed entertainment internships participated in a series of 3-minute, rapid-fire interviews with representatives from 15 TEA member companies that are currently hiring interns.  When students weren't speed networking, they were engaging in roundtable discussions on professional development topics with Kirstin Cobb and Bob Brandenburg of Nickelodeon Live Show, Alex Grayman of Walt Disney Imagineering and Todd McCurdy of Morris.  I got to listen in on the discussions and observe the roundtables, and it was a blast watching the NextGens give their "elevator pitches" and learn about the variety of industry opportunities available to them.  With this great crop of new recruits in museum design, theme park design and attraction design on deck, the future of themed entertainment looks rock solid.

Included among the student participants were former JRA co-ops, Jacob Berding and Martha Gutierrez Navarro, as well as Josh Schwartz, a student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) who will be joining us as a co-op this summer.

You can read all about the event, as well as the other initiatives that the NextGen Committee is cooking up to connect students and recent grads with professional opportunities, here on the TEA blog.  In the meantime, enjoy these pics!

From left: Todd McCurdy, Alex Grayman, yours truly, Chelsea Whikehart

The Assembled Masses

Jacob (left) engrossed in a roundtable discussion

Three minutes to tell your professional life story.  And...GO!

Next week, we're root, root, rooting for the home team, celebrating Opening Day with the Cincinnati Reds!

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Tiki Birds, Trains and Enchanted Tales: The 2014 TEA Summit and Thea Awards Gala

March 19, 2014

After this year’s never-ending polar vortex, any sign of spring is a welcome one here at JRA. But beyond the chirp of birds and bud of flowers is the springtime beacon we're most excited about, the annual TEA Summit and Thea Awards Gala, which take place at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California April 3 through 5.

The festivities begin with a full-day Executive Master Class. Targeted at industry C-suites and directors, the theme of the 2014 Summit Day One is “Sourcing Solutions”. Kicking off the program are Jill Bensley of JB Research and NormaLynn Cutler of CutlerEnterprises, who will introduce the audience to the “$1.1 trillion market they need to know about.” Attendees will then have the opportunity to participate in a peer group discussion of the unique challenges facing the industry with business consultant, Linda Feinholz, which will be shaped by the questions and concerns attendees submitted before the Summit. After recruiting specialist Camille Jenkins shares her perspectives on effective hiring practices, the dialogue shifts to global market and business trends, with informative presentations from TEA member compa AECOM, as well as Cynthia Torres of the US Department of Commerce, Marianne Hughes of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and Cesar Arellanes of the Center for International Trade Development.

Summit Day Two welcomes a broader audience and introduces this year’s distinguished roster of Thea Award recipients:

A representative from each of the Thea recipients will present their attraction or museum in case study fashion, highlighting the processes, discoveries and challenges they encountered along the way.

JRA CEO/Owner Keith James and his wife Patti at last year's Thea Awards Gala.

Saturday April 5th brings the 20th Annual Thea Awards Gala, the industry’s answer to the Oscars®. Sponsored by AECOM and Garner Holt Productions and produced by Patrick Roberge Productions, this black tie affair was created by the TEA to bring recognition to achievement, talent and personal excellence within the themed entertainment industry, and it ,will honor the recipients listed above in lavish fashion. Last year’s gala welcomed Bonnie Hunt and Tow Mater from Cars, Optimus Prime from Transformers, and the dementors from Harry Potter, so we can’t wait to see who will grace the stage this year!

We wanted a sneak peek of all that this year’s Summit and Theas have to offer, so we posed a few questions to the ladies of the TEA responsible for all of the magic: Summit Co-Chairs Roberta Perry and Pat MacKay, and TEA Director of Development/Event Producer Kathy Oliver.

JRA: Roberta and Pat - You are back as Co-Chairs! What have you learned from last year and what made you decide to co-chair again this year?

RP: Well in fact we both have a great deal of fun working together to come up with speakers and subjects that we think will make a difference in the way the TEA members think about the business, their business opportunities, and the future of the industry.

TEA Summit Co-Chairs, Pat MacKay (left) and Roberta Perry

JRA: What is your process for putting Summit Day One and Day Two together - how do you pick the speakers and sessions?

PM: We work together as a team, but I have primary responsibility for Day One, and Roberta has primary responsibility for Day Two. Day One is an Executive Master Class that is for the top execs in our member companies. That means it's a day where peers are talking with peers about business and industry challenges and solutions. Every year the "hot topics" are different. Roberta and I always have our ears to the ground and have a sixth sense about what the industry is talking about and interested in. Then we look around for experts in our industry as well as outside experts who are best suited to bring a fresh point of view to the Day One attendees.

RP: Day Two brings the case studies from the Thea Award recipients. I am always impressed with how much thought goes into these presentations. Each project's challenges and solutions present a raft of takeaways that every company and client in the industry can learn from.

JRA: Speaking of hot topics, what do you consider to be the "hot topics" this year in themed entertainment, and how are you addressing them in Day One and Day Two? Any sessions from either day that you are particularly excited about?

PM: Of course all the presentations are "hot topics". But I'm intrigued by how Jill Bensley and NormaLynn Culter's Baby Boomer presentation is going to tie in so closely with John Robinett and the AECOM’s presentation on the "Life and Times of Global Attractions." And the global trends that AECOM and new markets will present lead right into the full afternoon of presentations from the Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, the Export-Import Bank, and the SBDC's International Trade Development program. There are amazing services available to our industry to assist US companies working abroad as well as helping non-US companies work within the US. We think that these are really well kept secrets that have astonishing impact on the way we all do business and grow our businesses.

RP: Something new we're working on this year is to begin discussion among ourselves on the ongoing, never-get-solved problems we all face in this business. Whatever those elephants in the room might be, we hope we can begin talking about how to solve those.

TEA Director of Development/Event Producer, Kathy Oliver

JRA: Kathy, anything you can divulge about the Thea Awards? How are you involving the NextGen attendees in to the production process?

KO: Well, I can’t give away too much – you’ll just have to be there! I can tell you that the Thea Awards are being produced and directed for the 2nd year by TEA member and show creator extraordinaire Patrick Roberge of Patrick Roberge Productions in Vancouver. We are again asking our spirited NextGen members to provide vital event production support in roles such as stage manager, host, technical director, assistant to the producer and assistant to the co-chairs. Some of the team members assigned to our production crew have worked with us at previous TEA gatherings, while others are new to TEA. This volunteer opportunity helps our 21 NextGen volunteers “earn” their scholarships (generously provided by Walt Disney Imagineering), and receive valuable hands-on learning experience and professional training.

JRA: What would you like attendees to walk away with at the end of the Summit?

PM: I always hope that our Day One executives will come away with ideas, suggestions and approaches that will energize them to think differently about how we all do business.

RP: I would hope that our Day Two attendees will come away not only with a profound respect for the Thea recipients, but also some new approaches for dealing with the challenges they themselves face, as well as a renewed appreciation of the breadth and depth of talent in our Association and our industry.

For additional information on the TEA Summit and Thea Awards Gala, and to purchase tickets, click here.

Stay tuned to @JRATweets (as well as @TEA_Connect) and JRA’s Facebook page for up-to-the-minute coverage of the TEA Summit (#TEASummit) and Thea Awards Gala (#TEAtheas), and check back here April 9 for our favorite moments from the weekend.

Tags: JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio

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Defining Your Story, Conclusion: You Are The Storyteller

March 13, 2014

Recovering from a broken ankle, Keith James zooms through the conference center grounds.  We are now happy to report that he is walking around the office!

Recovering from a broken ankle, Keith James zooms through the conference center grounds. We are now happy to report that he is walking around the office!

 Through his IAAPA Leadership Conference presentation, “Defining Your Story”, our CEO Keith James has explained

  1.  Why stories are used to create compelling experiences.
  2. How different storytelling styles can be applied to your attraction.
  3. How to create stories from facts, or create "facts" through story.

In this concluding segment, Keith offers advice on to employ more abstract storylines, examples of how several storytelling types can be interwoven, and guidance on how to create a unique story for your facility.

Sometimes the most interesting attractions are those that are based upon the most abstract storylines.

Cirque du Soleil is a perfect example, in that the show is amazing, but you’d be hard pressed to explain what it was about. This is because it’s usually based upon an abstract statement. For example, from the show program: "Mystère is a voyage to the very heart of life--where past, present, and future merge, and all our emotions converge." 

The equally evocative Blue Man Group shows are based upon a storyline of “life, technology and the failure to communicate” (at least, I think).

The beautiful Ashes and Snow exhibit is based upon the man’s relationship with nature, and a fictional account of a man who, over the course of a yearlong journey, composes 365 letters to his wife.

But as is many cases, the storyline is only the foundation upon which an engaging experience is based and organized. The guest may never understand it, or notice it, but it’s nonetheless a critical part of the experience itself.

Other experiences are based upon a broader view of fact, by looking at entire genres and subjects,
Whether it’s a general topic such as animation,

Which is the theme for Disney’s Art of Animation Resort

Or rock and roll

Or football, again entire experiences can be built about exploring the stories of a genre.

More and more, entire theme parks, museums and attractions are being developed to tell the story of a brand, whether it’s Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi

Which features the world’s fastest rollercoaster

Or Volkswagen in Germany.

Or Coke in Atlanta

Heineken in Amsterdam

Jim Beam in Kentucky

Crayola in Pennsylvania

Or LEGO in Denmark and around the world

Guests around the world are willing to pay a lot of money to become immersed within the story of a brand.

As stated at the beginning of my talk today, while this was a quick look at a variety of story types, most story-based attractions are actually based upon a mix of many of these examples, and I’ll provide one more example to illustrate this.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is based upon a number of story approaches. First, it’s partly a zoo, meaning that it tells fact-based stories.

It also re-creates famous regions and places around the world, so it tells a Place-based story.

Within those regions, a variety of cultures are described.

These areas also feature rides,

Which are typically based upon pure Fantasy.

So, in one park, you have at least four story-types being used.

So, as you look to develop or enhance your attraction’s story, how do you find the right one? Well, the answer to that question is really the end result of a lot of thought and development. So that’s not something that I can answer for you in a simple slide.

However, I can list the questions that you should ask yourself as you begin this journey.

  • Will the story have appeal to the greater public and, specifically, your target audience?
  • Does the story provide numerous theming and experiential opportunities, such as rides, shows and attractions?
  • Is it unique to your location, or can it be easily replicated?
  • Is it based upon an authentic story that can be tied to your facility?
  • Is it marketable?
  • And finally, is it a story or theme than you can use for the long-term?

When you answer these questions, then you will answer the most important question of all – what’s your story?

And speaking of story-based experiences, next week on the blog, we're offering you a sneak peek at one of the year's biggest industry events!

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , JRA Team , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight

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Defining Your Story, Part 3: A Place for Fact and Fiction

March 12, 2014

Through his IAAPA Leadership Conference presentation, “Defining Your Story”, JRA CEO/Owner Keith James has so far answered the question of why stories are used to create compelling experiences and offered examples of stories based on history and place. In part 3 of our excerpt, Keith takes us across the country and around the world to illustrate some attraction stories that are based in scientific fact, some drawn from cultural references, and others that are steeped in imagination.


Culture provides a great resource from which designers can develop a storyline and thematic approach. One of my favorite examples is Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawai'i, which literally immerses guests within the art and culture of the Hawaiian people.

The resort features the largest private collection of Hawaiian art in the world, which can be found within its reception area.

Within its architectural details.

At each elevator lobby.

Within each room.


At the bar.

And even within its water attractions, where cultural icons are used as theming

As interactive elements

And are even used as part of a scavenger hunt.

Perhaps most importantly, guests can also learn more about Hawaiian culture through a variety of programs where the meet with native Hawaiians, who share stories.

Teach cultural art,


And dance 

One of the neater examples of using culture as a storyline and theme can be found just outside of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where Suo Tien Amusement Park and Water Park is based upon the story of Buddha, which makes for some very elaborate theming.

Sometimes the storyline of a facility is a simple presentation of facts, conveyed in an interesting manner. One of the greatest examples of this is here in San Francisco at the Exploratorium, where Frank Oppenheimer’s vision for a place where art and science inspire guests has served as a model for the modern science museum. Here scientific fact and art is celebrated through exhibits


And even artistic installations such as this fog bridge.

The storyline at MSI’s Science Storms is based upon understanding the science behind nature’s power, and does so in an awe-inspiring manner.

Zoos are also based upon a fact-based storyline, whether its species, environments, conservation or man’s relationship with animals.

The same can be said for modern aquariums and sea parks.

Where even the attractions are based upon fact, such as at Turtle Trek

Or Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld in Orlando.

At the other end of the spectrum, when we think about stories in attractions, especially at the large theme parks, we think about fantasy, where attractions are based upon the storylines created in popular movies

Television series

Comic books

And children’s toys

Whole areas, 


And rides can be based upon books, such as at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal,

Or Seuss Landing

And again, to illustrate how stories can impact your bottom line, this is a picture of a restaurant at Kings Island, where, until the late 90’s

was themed as a German beer garden. The per caps were good, but not great.

My firm was commissioned to turn this same building into a shrimp shack, based upon the Forrest Gump story.

And as guests wanted to be immersed in the story of Forrest Gump, revenue skyrocketed, to where it became one of the most profitable centers in the entire park.

In tomorrow’s concluding excerpt, Keith explains that storylines don’t always need to be complete, and that the lines between storytelling styles need not always be defined. He’ll then offer tips on how you can tell your own tale based on one (or several) story types.

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , JRA Team , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight

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Defining Your Story, Part 2: Rooting Stories in Place and Time

March 11, 2014

JRA was a proud sponsor of the IAAPA Leadership Conference 2014.

JRA was a proud sponsor of the IAAPA Leadership Conference 2014.

Yesterday, we introduced Keith’s IAAPA Leadership Conference presentation on “Defining Your Story”. Today, Keith identifies the eight different types of stories. Today, we’ll get an in-depth look at two of those story types – Place and History.

While every attraction really uses a variety of story types, we’ve identified eight (8) basic types of stories, specifically those that are based upon:

  • • Place
  • • History (person, place, thing, brand, event)
  • • Culture
  • • Fact
  • • Fantasy
  • • Abstract
  • • Brand
  • • Genre

And these stories are conveyed in a variety of ways, including:

  • • Theming
  • • Rides, attractions, exhibits, etc.
  • • Music and shows
  • • Events and parades
  • • Food and retail
  • • Staff

Let’s begin with Place, which is really about creating an attraction based upon a geographic location or region.
A great example is Disney California Adventure, which by its very name immerses guests within the story of California.
From a nod to its historic piers and boardwalks

To its landscape


To taking guests Soarin’ over the state, including right here in San Francisco.

Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is based upon the immersing guests within the stories of the Smoky Mountains, and does so in its theming, such where this ride is set within an agricultural theme,

or this rustic water play area

or this theatrical experience we created where Dolly Parton talks about how growing up in the Smokies was the primary influence on her life and music.

Living history museums are also primarily driven by the stories of their place, whether it’s the story of Gettysburg.

Plimouth Plantation

Or Colonial Williamsburg.

At these attractions, the story is as much about the place as it is the history that took place there.

Sometimes, an attraction is developed to take guest to another place, such as the New York New York Hotel in Las Vegas, which recreates Manhattan’s iconic skyline

and streetscape.

Or EPCOT’s 360 theaters, which immerse you within both China and Canada.


History provides a rich source of inspiration to create stories.

These stories can be about the history of a person, such as here at the Walt Disney Family Museum, which tells the story of the Disney family history... well as Walt’s dream for what would become one of the world’s most beloved theme parks.

An attraction can also be based upon the story of an event in history. For example, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans tells the story of not only an event, but a place in time, through exhibits


An amazing immersive theater created by The Hettema Group

And even a live show venue that immerses you in the history of the 1940’s

Great examples of using history as the basis for a storyline and theme can be found at historic piers, boardwalks and amusement parks both here in the US and around the world, from Santa Cruz

To Santa Monica, where even the rides are classic, as you’ll almost always see a Ferris Wheel

Or swing ride

Period signage and graphics are often retained to convey each location’s rich history. For example, Santa Monica’s iconic entrance has changed little in the past 100 years.

And place guests within an historic setting at the very beginning of their visit.

The leverage of the history story can even be found in the name of an attraction, such as at Galveston Island’s Historic Pier.

We hope you’ve enjoyed Keith’s journey through some of the world’s place and history-based experiences. Tomorrow, he’ll show us attractions based in either fantasy or fact, before wrapping up on Thursday with a discussion on how you can meld these different narrative styles to create your very own story.

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , JRA Team , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight

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Defining Your Story: Creating Experiences By Telling Tales

March 10, 2014

Keith co-presented with Jim Pattison, Jr., President of Ripley Entertainment

Keith co-presented with Jim Pattison, Jr., President of Ripley Entertainment

Last week, our JRA CEO/Owner Keith James presented to an eager group of listeners at the IAAPA Leadership Conference 2014 in San Francisco, California. The Conference, which continues today and tomorrow, provides top industry leadership the opportunity to discover the latest industry trends and hear how attractions around the world have addressed business opportunities and challenges to create compelling experiences.

During the learning session “Defining Your Story”, Keith discussed how storylines have been used to create some of the world’s best visitor experiences. Over the next four blogs, we’ll share with you the transcript from his presentation, beginning with why we tell stories at all:

Thanks for allowing me the chance to speak with you today.

Like many of you, over the past forty plus years I have made my living immersing a variety of guests within stories – be they in theme parks, attractions, museums, halls of fame, etc.

But it occurred to me, that while our industry often talks about stories, we don’t often talk about why we use stories, how these stories are developed, and how each of us can determine what story is the right fit for each our facilities and project.

So, that’s what I’d like to discuss with you today, specifically:

  • • Why are stories used in visitor experiences?
  • • What are these stories based upon?
  • • How are these stories conveyed?
  • • How do you define or improve your story?

So, to begin with: why do we in the leisure industry use story? What are the benefits?

There are a variety of reasons, some of which are very obvious, some of which may not be:

  • • First, stories attract and engage guests. Whether its immersing themselves in the world of Harry Potter or the history of the New Jersey boardwalk, guests want to go to a place where they can take a brief escape from their day-to-day lives.
  • • Second, stories can provide differentiation. For example, if two theme parks have the same ride, but one is themed to a more evocative story, it can be a point of differentiation for attracting guests.
  • • From a design standpoint, stories provide a foundation for creating the guest experience, from the selection of rides and attractions that best tell that story, to theming, to music, to what the staff wears.
  • • Stories also orient the guest during their visit, whether it's a zone within a theme park, or the pre-show experience within an attraction, stories provide a bit of context to where a guest is in the site/facility.
  • • Finally, and perhaps more important than you might first think, stories can help drive food and retail revenue.
  • • If you don't believe me, when was the last time you had a turkey leg outside of being immersed within the story of your local Renaissance Fair?
  • Photo credit:
  • • Or, how much more money do you think Universal Studios makes on Butterbeer, versus selling the same drink without its backstory?
  • Photo credit: NBC News

Now that Keith has helped us explore why we use stories, in tomorrow’s excerpt, he identifies the various types of stories that can be used within leisure experiences.

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , JRA Team , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight

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