JRA CEO Keith James Goes to Extremes in the Arctic Circle

February 29, 2016

This past week, Keith James provided the keynote address for "Design for Extremes" a Themed Entertainment Association SATE Academy Day event in Rovaniemi, Finland that was also part of Arctic Design Week. Below is a transcript of his speech, in which he discusses desinging for extremes - of climate, of client, and of culture.

Thank you very much, and thanks to all of you from both the TEA and Arctic Design Week for participating in what will be an exciting few days.  I'd also like to offer a special thanks to both Lappset Creative and Electrosonic for their generous sponsorships, which have helped make this event possible.

For those of you who don’t me, my name is Keith James, and I’ve had the privilege of working in the attractions business for over 40 years. 

And for the last twenty of those years, I’ve been an owner at JRA, which is a planning, design and realization firm specializing in museums and science centers, brands, theme parks and attractions (including a lot of work for a brand headquartered about 9 hours south on the E75).

Angry Birds St. Petersburg

As I thought about coming up North to Finland and speaking with you today about designing for extremes, it reminded me of my childhood back in the Midwest of the United States. Where I’m from, we have both really cold winters and really hot summers.  But as a kid, both seasons were very enjoyable, and I attribute a lot of that to my parents.

In the Winter, we would sled and have snowball fights, build snowmen and go skiing.  And my father would always be out there with us, joining in the fun… while my mother was the one who would make sure we dressed warmly and had a hot cup of cocoa waiting for us when we finally came in.

In the summer, it was the same thing.  Dad was out there on the beach letting us bury him in the sand, or helping us build sandcastles, or doing cannonballs in the pool….

...while Mom would make sure we were well protected by the sun, lathering on suntan lotion and zinc oxide (usually very much against our will).

So, what does this have to do with designing for extremes? 

Well, if you think about it, designers take on both roles that my parents provided. Whether we are designing attractions for the cold of winter, the heat of summer, or any other season – we need to provide safety and comfort to our guests, while also providing them with a bit of thrilling fun.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how designers have designed for extremes, for a variety of attractions around the world.

First, we have to define what the word “extreme” means.  The dictionary defines “extreme” as an adjective describing something “outermost, meaning furthest from the center or a given point."

Extreme can also be defined as reaching a high or the highest degree.

One World Trade Center

And there are a lot of recent attractions that certainly can be defined as “reaching the highest degree” - beginning with recently opened Observation Deck at One World Trade Center in New York.

And while the view from the top of the tallest building in the US will always be the star, the designer’s role was to enhance that experience and provide context.

Including providing a live video feed showing the street 100 floors below.

Or a display showing popular city activities, neighborhoods and "hot spots” around the building.

But one of the more iconic experience begins well before you even get to the observation deck, as five high-speed elevators immerse you within an animated time lapse of New York from the 1500’s to present day on a 47-second journey to the 1,268 foot summit.

Let's take a look:

But some guests want more of a thrill when they visit a tall building.  And designers are willing to oblige them…


..such as The Ledge, a series of glass boxes jutting out from Chicago’s Willis Tower, which allows guests to step outside of the city’s tallest building - 1,353 feet in the air.

360 Chicago

Not to be outdone, a few blocks away, the John Hancock Observatory offers guests “The Tilt” – providing visitors with a unique, downward facing view over The Magnificent Mile, and Chicago’s famous skyline...

…which - from 1,000 feet up - provides both a unique perspective,

and a bit of a scare for some.


But if you really want some thrills at extreme heights, you need to go to Las Vegas.

First make your way to the Stratosphere Hotel

…where, as you zoom in...

..you'll notice designers have created a miniature amusement park at the top of the hotel's tower.

Stratosphere – Big Shot

First you can take a ride on the Big Shot, where you’ll be catapulted up the Tower's mast...

…to a height of 1,081 feet. And then down again. 

Stratosphere – Insanity

After catching your breath, you can then head over to Insanity - a massive mechanical arm that extends 64 feet over the edge of the Tower and spins riders around at up to 3 G's.

Stratosphere – X-Scream

You can then ride X-Scream - a teeter-totter type ride that will shoot you headfirst over the edge of the hotel, where you dangle weightlessly above the Las Vegas Strip before being pulled back, and then shot out again. 

Stratosphere – SkyJump

But if you really want a thrill, you can just jump off the building by signing up for SkyJump – the Guinness World Record-holding attraction, where you’ll leap 829 feet from the top of the tower.

Voodoo Zipline

Not to be outdone, the nearby Rio Hotel Las Vegas offers guests the Voodoo Zipline, where you can zip 800 feet across the hotel’s two towers, soaring higher than 400 feet over the streets below.

So obviously designers know how to create attractions atop extreme heights made by man.  What about creating attractions atop extreme heights that are created naturally?

Grand Canyon Skywalk

Well, just two hours east of Las Vegas, you’ll find a great example.

The Skywalk is a glass platform that allows guests to walk 2,000 feet above the Grand Canyon. 

The attraction has become quite popular since its opening in 2007.  In fact, too popular, say some environmentalists, who say that it attracts too many people to the site, which negatively impacts the environment.

The Mogao Caves

On the other side of the globe in China, they are experiencing a similar problem, where designers have created an experience to protect an extremely delicate cultural attraction.

The Mogao (Mah-gow-oh) Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, were carved out of hillside in the Gobi Desert over a period of one thousand years.

About 26,000 people visited the caves when the site opened to the public in 1979.  In 2014, the number reached a million tourists.

Unfortunately, the amount of humidity and carbon dioxide related to this rising tourism began to deteriorate the art on the cave walls.

So, a $50 million visitor center was created that allows people the opportunity to experience the caves with minimal access.

One technique used by the design team in this case was to scan all of the caves, which allows guests to virtually view the cave paintings within the museum’s 3D theater.


A similar technique is used within the new Stonehenge Visitor’s Center, which features a 360-degree immersive experience –– based on laser scans of the historic stones.

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

When designing within extreme conditions, it's imperative that the design team and the project's owner are on the same page in terms of what is required from both a design and operational standpoint. For example, one of my company’s biggest projects, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, was built upon desert, which not only means scorching temperatures, but also a lot of sand. The park’s spectacular building was created by Benoy, with a roof painted in vibrant Ferrari Red...

...which becomes not so vibrant when the desert sand coats it. While an automatic washing mechanism on the roof was suggested, this option wasn’t operationally or financially viable for the Owner.  So, a compromise was reached to keep the roof clean and colorful...

which consists of a team of workers climbing on to the roof to clean it on a regular basis.

This not only creates some pretty interesting photographs, but also illustrates the challenges in creating attractions within extreme conditions.

The sand also had to be taken into consideration when we were creating Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest rollercoaster. 

Because we are accelerating guests 249 kmh (154 mph) outside the building within 4.9 seconds, we had to provide riders with goggles in order to protect their eyes from flying sand.

So, designing for extremes is about knowing your environment, and that can also include knowing the attraction’s cultural environment.

Wild Wadi

For example, Wild Wadi is a popular waterpark located in Dubai.

For religious reasons, the park features a women-only night each Thursday to adhere to cultural norms of men not seeing women in any clothing deemed to be revealing, even if that swimwear included the popular Burquini.

Ocean Park

Some of the more difficult challenges theme park designers have to work through is placing a park on extreme terrain.  However, these challenges also present great opportunities.

For example, Ocean Park is a theme park and amusement park located on the outskirts of Hong Kong.  THe park features two attraction zones, which are separated by a large mountain.

In order to allow guests to move to and from both sides of the mountain easily, a variety of techniques have been implemented.

Guest can ride on a 1.5-kilometer cable car system,

Or take one of the longest outdoor escalators in the world.

Realizing that some guests want a quicker experience, the park decided to tunnel into the mountain to create the Ocean Express funicular railway, which can shuttle 5,000 people per hour between the Park's two main lands in just 4 minutes.

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island in Singapore also took advantage of its mountainous topography, turning it into three attractions.

To go up, you can take the peaceful Skyride.

And to get back down, you can either hop on a luge...

Or take a quick zipline.

Universal Studios Singapore

The island is also home to a Universal Studios theme park, which is partially covered by a roof to protect guests not only from Singapore’s extreme heat, but also its torrential downpours.

Defining Extreme

For my last few examples, I wanted to re-visit our definition of extreme, in particular the thought that extreme can be defined as  “furthest from the center or a given point.”

These last few examples are about creating attractions for guests who are sometimes forgotten, because they might be considered “furthest from the center.”

For while attractions are typically designed with a profit margin in mind, we should never forget that everyone should be given the opportunity to smile.

Autism Nights

One of the more positive trends that I’ve seen over the past few years within the museum industry, especially children’s museums, is the creation of special nights where autistic guests are invited to explore the museum in a more comfortable setting. 

Lights are lowered, music is softened and a variety of specialists are on hand to help the children navigate through the museum in a way that wouldn't be possible during regular hours.

Visually Impaired Experience at Oregon Zoo

Another one of my favorite programs was recently held at the Oregon Zoo.  When Nikki, a 110-kilogram Siberian Tiger was anesthetized for her annual check up, visually impaired children and adults were invited to the zoo to pet her fur, feel her claws and listen to her heartbeat.

The amazingly simple, yet impactful experience, not only allows the children to learn more about animals, but also gives them the chance to socialize with other children with similar disabilities.

These kinds of programs, provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences for those who may be considered “furthest from the center.”  But what if there was a permanent attraction that was designed especially for this special audience?

Morgan’s Wonderland

You can find this place just outside of San Antonio, Texas, where Morgan’s Wonderland was designed as an attraction where special needs children and their families can laugh, play and create memories together.

This 25-acre, $36 million dollar park features more than 25 attractions, including rides, playscapes, gardens, and a whimsical train, all of which are completely wheelchair-accessible.

Created by the philanthropic father of a special needs child, this unique theme park admits special-needs guests free of charge and has been named one of America’s top theme parks.

Imagination Playground

My final example illustrates how designers can create engaging experiences that can work within a variety of environments, even extremely impoverished ones.

Imagination Playground is the brainchild of American designer David Rockwell. 

Developed as the result of years of playground study, this portable playground arrives in a box, cart, or bag, and invites children to creatively play with a variety of interchangeable pieces.


Not only can these colorful play sets be found within a variety of children’s museums around the world, the project has become part of an initiative to bring play to children in poverty-stricken, developing nations. 

Recently, Disney partnered with UNICEF to bring the blocks to more than 13,000 children in Bangladesh and Haiti, which is a powerful reminder of the power of design.


With that, I'd like to again thank you for your attention this morning

If you remember anything from our time together this morning, I hope that when you are designing for extremes, you remember that good designers are like good parents and that you provide your guests with comfort and safety, but never forget to give them a bit of fun and thrills as well.

Thank you.



Tags: Blog N Learn , Outside the Studio

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Meet the Team: Talking Green Day, Harry Potter and X-Men with Michael Stafford

February 26, 2016

For the last of our "Friday Fives", we're talking music, magic and Marvel with University of Cincinnati Design Architecture Art and Planning student, Michael Stafford:

Favorite entertainment experience...

I would say that my favorite entertainment experience I’ve ever had would be one of the first few times I saw the band Green Day. As a kid, Green Day was more than my favorite band - they were simply my favorite thing in general! They are true performers, and I was lucky enough to see them for the first time when I was about 13 years old. It was quite the spectacle. They had a huge stage set up in the arena the show was held in, with large screens that displayed video footage that changed with the beat of each song. And there were pyrotechnics and fireworks! I had never seen anything like it! Since then, I’ve seen them three times, and their shows only get better and more impressive.

I beat a creative block by …  
Sketching! Drawing has been my favorite hobby ever since I was very small, and it’s always been a good outlet for me when I need to blow off some steam. Often, I’ll find myself hitting creative blocks while I’m drawing, so I’ll take a short break and get out a piece of loose paper that I can just go to town on. Normally my work is detailed and controlled, but by cutting loose with a piece of scrap paper, I’m able to be more expressive. This helps to put whatever’s got me stumped in perspective and allows me to work out new ideas to find out what’s working and what’s not. 

My favorite exhibit/attraction is …

Universal Studios Orlando! I went to Universal for the first time when I was really young, and although that memory is distant now, I’ll never forget how exciting it was. The Islands of Adventure portion of the park was especially cool to me, because it features Marvel Superhero Island. I’ve been a Marvel Comics fan most of my life and this place puts you right on the page with your favorite heroes. After the first visit, Universal became a summer tradition for my family that lasted for several years. After a few years of vacationing in other places, we went back last summer and nothing has changed - even at 22 years old I still LOVE that place! The new Harry Potter attractions were especially impressive as well!

In my spare time, I … 

Draw, write and play guitar. It’s not uncommon to find me at home after work, drawing for hours on end on any given night. As I mentioned, it’s been my favorite hobby since I was a kid. Now that I’m getting into the professional creative world, it's become much more than that to me, and I’m always trying to improve my skills. Plus, I’m in the process of creating my own comic book! That’s where the writing normally comes in. Sometimes though, I’ll write songs, as music is another one of my favorite outlets for expression.

Do you collect anything? If so, what?

Yes, I primarily collect comic books and action figures. In case my answers to the other four questions didn’t already prove that I’m a total geek, this one should. I’m a total plastic addict, and I’ve got tons of action figures both on display at home and in storage. The newest Star Wars film definitely helped to fuel my addiction, as Hasbro recently began producing a whole slew of new products. And of course, as a comic book fan, I’ve got a bunch of superhero (mostly Marvel) figures as well! Additionally, I’ve got comic book collection of X-Men, Spider-Man, Star Wars and a few indie titles which is always expanding as new books come out on a weekly basis.

Thanks, Michael! We are extremely pleased to have Randall, Erin and Michael with us this semester and look forward to seeing what they create!

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Hundreds of Citizen Lobbyists to Make the Case for Museums on Capitol Hill

February 22, 2016

Image courtesy American Alliance of Museums

Image courtesy American Alliance of Museums

Did you know that...

...there are 850 million museum visits annually in the United States, more than the attendance at all major league sporting events combined?

...museums invest more than $2 billion in educational programs each year, serving Americans of all ages and income levels, in a variety of ways?

...there are more than 55 million visits by schoolchildren in US museums each year?

...museums are the most trusted source of information for Americans?

...for every $1 invested in museums and other cultural organizations, over $5 is returned in tax revenues through cultural tourism and economic activity?

Over 200 museum leaders and supporters will be sharing these facts and more with US Congressional representatives as part of the eighth annual Museums Advocacy Day, organized by the American Alliance of Museums. The goal of the event is to educate Congress about the work museums do and to garner federal support of America's cultural institutions.

"Museums are essential to communities everywhere, as part of our educational infrastructure, as economic engines, and as community assets that improve the overall quality of life, said Alliance president and CEO Laura L. Lott. "We feel privileged that so many museum professionals will be joining us in Washington for Museums Advocacy Day. These museums are doing outstanding work all over the country, and members of Congress need to hear from constituents about how these institutions serve their communities."

For more information on how you can support Museums Advocacy Day, including via social media (#museumsadvocacy2016) and a mobile app, please visit the American Alliance of Museums website.



Tags: Outside the Studio

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LaunchPAD Children's Museum Takes Off in Sioux City

February 16, 2016

"LaunchPAD welcomes 50,000th visitor before first anniversary" - KCAU-TV

"Visitors young and old are impressed with the Museum's exhibits" - Sioux City Journal

LaunchPAD Children's Museum expands hours "in response to popular demand and the overwhelming response during its first four months" - Sioux City Journal

"LaunchPAD receives 'Star of Siouxland' Award" - Sioux City Journal

A journey that began 13 years ago has reached its destination, as LaunchPAD Children’s Museum is now open. This new $6 million family-friendly venue, targeted to children ages birth to ten, not only provides an interactive learning and discovery zone to serve greater Siouxland families, but also contributes to the ongoing rejuvenation of downtown Sioux City’s Historic Pearl Street.

JRA provided overall planning and design development for LaunchPAD’s 7,000 square feet of exhibit space. The museum’s master plan was the outcome of a series of comprehensive and collaborative community meetings held with community leaders, museum boards and committees, and children. These meetings captured the community’s dreams and aspirations for their children’s museum and served as the basis for exhibit design.

“When you see a child playing, you are watching a learning process,” said LaunchPAD Executive Director, Bob Fitch. “Play is a child’s work. They are engaging and experimenting with the world around them.” The PAD in LaunchPAD stands for “play and discover”, as all of the Museum’s exhibits are experiential and hands-on, encouraging imagination, problem solving and open-ended exploration.

Exhibits include:

  • Me and You: As visitors enter LaunchPAD, they learn about themselves and experience a connection with others in the museum and throughout the world.
  • Construction, Mechanics and Architecture: This exhibit encourages visitors to explore the six simple machines (lever, wheel and axel, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw) in unique, playful, dynamic and compelling ways. It also offers multiple opportunities for building.
  • River: Children play with and use their senses to investigate the physical and aesthetic properties of water, employing scientific concepts and fostering curiosity-driven learning.
  • Wind: The wind exhibit gives children the opportunity to learn some of the mysterious powers and properties of this most vital substance while practicing the basics of scientific investigation: asking questions, collaborating and discussing, suggesting and testing ideas, making observations using the senses, and describing and communicating what is observed.
  • Market and Café: As children play in the Market and Café, they encounter a variety of foods, take on diverse roles, and even work on skills such as early literacy and early math as they restock shelves, sort, count, group and serve.
  • Agriculture: The agriculture area offers an environment where children discover and learn about some of the different foods that grow locally and explore the growing process. An easy path between the agriculture exhibit and the market shows how these industries are connected. In addition, the grain pit uses all six of the simple machines.
  • Infant-Toddler Area: The Infant-Toddler Area provides an outstanding learning environment for the littlest visitors and the adults who care for them. Here, carefully steeped developmental challenges encourage every little body to grow and develop. 

“The Chinese philosopher Confucius said: ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,’” said Fitch. “Doing in the pursuit of understanding underlies the approach at LaunchPAD.”


Tags: Project Spotlight

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Meet the Team: Five Questions with True "Belieber" Erin Hatfield

February 12, 2016

Erin Hatfield

Erin Hatfield

For Part 2 of our "Friday Fives" series, we talk iTunes, Ireland and Olympic aspirations with graphic design student and current intern, Erin Hatfield.

My favorite person and biggest supporter is...

...my dad.

My iTunes is full of ...

...country music and Justin Bieber, no shame in admitting that.

In my spare time, I like to...

...stay active, and I’ll never say no to a good movie.

My dream vacation would be...

...to go to Ireland. (Erin go Bragh!)

The best way to beat a creative block is...

...to take a break and have a good laugh!

My “dream design project” would be...

to design environmental graphics for the Olympics someday!

Thanks, Erin! Next week, we'll meet our final intern, Adam Stafford. Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Meet the Team: Talking Bikes, Iceland and Medieval Garb with Randall Jones

February 05, 2016

Randall Jones

Randall Jones

It's a new year, which means we welcome three new superstar interns from the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. For the next three Fridays, we'll pose five questions to each intern, plus a bonus question asking them about their "dream project". So without further ado, let's meet aspiring industrial designer, Randall Jones:

In my spare time, I …

Cycling, dive bars, road trips, and concerts.

My ideal work uniform would entail…

Toned down medieval.

The part of my career I enjoy the most is …

Being exposed to many occupational fields, specialties, and personal talent levels that previously I did not know existed.

Dream vacation...

Right now Thailand or Iceland.

I’m reading …

Just finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and now on to Life After Life.

My dream project:

To be involved in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal.


Thanks, Randall! Next week, we'll talk with graphics intern, Erin Hatfield. Be sure to follow our blog and social media, as we have lots of project openings, new people and fun adventures on the way!



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