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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Shawn McCoy's Top Tips for Creating Compelling Children's Museums

January 13, 2016

As reported by Blooloop, JRA’s Shawn McCoy recently presented "Creating Meaningful Children’s Exhibits" at the Museum Education for Children Symposium in Beijing, China. In his presentation, Shawn offers top tips for producing educational and engaging experiences, including providing familiar fun in an inviting context, letting the child be the hero and offering challenges and rewards. In addition to offering design philosophies, he suggests tangible tools for executing a great exhibit, including captivating graphics, opportunities for role play, and immersive environments.

Shawn was kind enough to record his presentation for the JRA blog, which we've included below. Questions about the content? Want to learn more? Contact us at crice@jackrouse.com.

And speaking of children's museums, we have two opening within the next few months, so stay tuned!

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Emerging Trends in Immersive Design, or the Day a Girl Turned Into A Gorilla

November 18, 2015

JRA VP of Marketing and Business Development, Shawn McCoy, co-presents

JRA VP of Marketing and Business Development, Shawn McCoy, co-presents "Emerging Trends in Immersive Design" at the 2015 IAAPA Attractions Expo.

As we previewed in last week's blog post, this week our own Shawn McCoy, along with Thinkwell Design's Cynthia Sharpe, took a capacity crowd on a whirlwind tour of the world's blockbuster experiences in their 2015 IAAPA Expo presentation, "Emerging Trends in Immersive Design." According to Shawn, a successful attraction's key ingredients are:

  1. Boldness
  2. An Interesting Story
  3. Personalization
  4. Immersiveness
  5. ...and a Touch of Magic.

Throughout his presentation, Shawn traveled from the Guggenheim in New York to the battlefields of Bannockburn to the Mogao Caves of China's Gobi Desert, breaking down the technologies and techiniques of truly memorable experiences.

If you weren't able to travel to the IAAPA Expo to see the session in person, below is a Slideshare version with a complete transcript. Hopefully it will provide you with some tips, tricks and inspiration for your next attraction project. If you are at IAAPA this week, be sure to visit us at booth 1353, and stay tuned for some more exciting news from JRA tomorrow!


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

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IAAPA 2015 Preview: Emerging Trends in Immersive Design

November 11, 2015

Shawn McCoy

Shawn McCoy

  • What are the most incredible cultural and entertainment projects to open recently?
  • Why do these projects stand out, and what links them?
  • What techniques can museums and science centers take away from these projects and apply to their facilities?

For the fifth year in a row, Shawn McCoy, JRA Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, and Cynthia Sharpe, Thinkwell Group’s Director of Cultural Attractions and Research, will answer these questions and more during their 2015 IAAPA Expo Presentation, “Trends in Immersive Design: 2015 in Review”. Over a single hour, they’ll send attendees on a rapid fire, maximum fun, international tour of the latest standout attractions. From virtual reality and immersive media to personalization and storytelling, Shawn and Cynthia will explore a variety of recent projects and the techniques that make them uniquely memorable. They’ll also reveal that when it comes to creating personalized, compelling guest experiences, the ingredients for success are often the same for both attractions and museums.

"For this year’s presentation, I wanted to go beyond just detailing a series of cool projects to see if there were some underlying approaches and techniques that made each experience really resonate with visitors. What I found are some guiding principles that both attractions and museums can use to create truly breakthrough experiences.”  - Shawn McCoy

Emerging Trends in Immersive Design: 2015 in Review
A 2015 IAAPA Expo Presentation
Monday, November 16, 2015
3:30 p.m. - 4:45 p.m.
Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), Room S310EF

To find out more about Shawn's presentation, read this interview in the latest IAAPA Attractions Issue of InPark Magazine.

Can’t attend? Either visit us at the JRA booth (#1353) or email Clara Rice, Director of Media Relations, at crice@jackrouse.com for a digital copy of Shawn’s presentation, available immediately following the live session. And follow @JRAtweets next week for our coverage of the 2015 IAAPA Attractions Expo (#IAE15).


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

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Demystifying Your Dream: The Top Ten Questions We Will Ask You at IAAPA

November 04, 2015

It’s officially November. The leaves are turning, store shelves are overflowing with shopping temptations, and we’re about ready to escape the Cincinnati chill and enjoy one of our favorite weeks of the year – the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Expo in Orlando, Florida!

From November 16-20, over 28,000 industry professionals will descend on the Orange County Convention Center, where they’ll enjoy over 100 educational opportunities, dozens of networking mixers, behind-the-scenes tours of the area’s latest and greatest attractions, and 30 hours of exhibit time on the Expo show floor.

As usual, the smiling faces of the JRA team will be ready to greet you! We’re eager to learn about your latest ventures, whether they be long-term ambitions or short term plans. To help us understand you and your projects’ needs and desires, here are the top ten questions we’re likely to ask when you visit us at IAAPA:

  1. Who is the client?  If you are not the client, please tell us about the client you represent – where they are from, what type of business they are in, and what they are hoping to achieve from their themed entertainment project.
  2. What kind of project is it? Is it a theme park? Museum? Branded visitors center? Sports attraction?
  3. Where is the project located?
  4. What is the budget of your project? How is it (or will it be) funded?
  5. When would you like the project to open? Are there certain milestone dates that you can share with us?
  6. How will the project be awarded? Formal RFP process? Creative competition?
  7. How much zoning work has been done? Has the project received the necessary government approvals?
  8. Has any feasibility work been completed? What is the anticipated scale of the project (optimal size and number of visitors)?
  9. Do you have any design consultants, architects or engineers currently involved in the project?  Will there be a local team working with you?
  10. Have you seen existing attractions that you think might compare or inspire the type of project that you are hoping to create?

These ten questions will help us a) assess where you are in your project development process, b) discover where we can best assist you, and c) set up your project’s next steps. The more detail you can provide, the more we can help you hone your vision for the future. Is your project is still just a faint glimmer in your eye? That’s okay! We can work with you to help answer the questions above and/or point you in the right direction.  

If you have a project that you’d like to discuss with us, please email Chloe James Hausfeld at cjames@jackrouse.com to set up an appointment during the Expo, or drop by Booth 1353. Safe travels to Orlando, and we look forward to meeting you!

Track our IAAPA coverage throughout the week on our blog, Facebook and via @JRAtweets on Twitter (#IAE2015).


Tags: Blog N Learn

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