19 August 2015 // News

A View From Both Sides of the Fence – Five Tips for a Successful Designer/Operator Partnership

Dan Schultz, JRA Chief Operating Officer

Dan Schultz, JRA Chief Operating Officer

In July, we asked the question, “should I build my museum or attraction?”

Congratulations, the answer is YES!

So now, how do you ensure that, once its open, it will operate efficiently? Over the next two weeks, former theme park operations manager and current JRA COO, Dan Schultz, discusses theme park operations from both hats of his career, from assembling a team, to determining a vision, to financial considerations, and finally, to what happens after Opening Day.

Note: The original text for this blog post was published in InPark Magazine.


I am very proud to be a part of the entertainment and attraction industry. I have had the great privilege to have been a part of the operating side of the business in theme parks for 15 years and I am currently in my 22nd year on the side of the planning, design and implementation of attractions with JRA. I believe that this background gives me a unique perspective on the level of teamwork and spirit of cooperation it takes for an attraction’s operating group to collaborate with a design and production consultant in the creation of a truly compelling and successful guest experience.

Here I am hard at work at Paramount’s Kings Island…

For perspective, let’s start with two real stories from my past.

  • As an operator:

The summer crush had just begun at our theme park, and I was already having one of those days. As the manager of entertainment and attractions, I had juggled the staff schedule, helped find a lost child, handled a guest complaint, sat in a long budget meeting and realized that I would have to work a double shift. I had barely caught my breath before another small emergency hit. The lighting in a dark ride had malfunctioned. When we got in to take a look, we found that the lighting problem was directly overhead of the ride’s conveyance system – a track within a water trough. The only way to get at the necessary lighting equipment was to shut down the ride and: A) drain the water and place an A-frame ladder in the trough; B) build a scaffold over the trough or C) put a ladder in the trough without draining the water and hold on tight.

Typical, I thought. Whoever designed this ride never considered the maintenance aspect of keeping this ride looking and operating, as it should.

  • As a consultant representing my design and production company:

I’m sitting in a conference room watching our design team present ideas for a new park attraction. Our designers have presented some wonderfully creative and functional options, but our client’s operations people look doubtful. They’re raising all sorts of red flags, and I feel frustrated. Why can’t these operators think out of the box? Why don’t they trust us?

After 37 years in the theme park/attractions industry, I realize how crucial it is for operations and design to have confidence in one another, and I know how hard that can be.

…and here I am not so hard at work with an ecclectic cast of characters at Paramount’s Kings Island. 

Each side has questions. The operator is thinking: Can these people design to my budget? How much theming do we need? How much will this increase our attendance, revenue, per caps, etc.? Will they provide me enough service access and storage? Will they listen to my creative ideas? The designer, meanwhile, wants to know: How far is this client willing to go? What is their budget? How much theming can they afford? What are their expectations for throughput, per caps, etc.? Will they be open to new ideas?

At the end of the day, everybody just wants to feel that his or her needs have been taken into consideration. The operator wants the designer to understand what he goes through on a daily basis. And the designer wants the operator to understand that she is willing to listen – that she does have a conscience.

The good news is that understanding is possible. Based on my experience on both sides of the fence, I offer five tips to develop a happy and productive collaboration.

  • 1. Putting the Team Together

Operators: Here’s a piece of basic strategy for selecting a designer: When selecting your own staff members and colleagues, one of your criteria is probably whether you feel that you actually want to work with them on a day-to-day basis. The same strategy should apply to the designer: regardless of the designer’s reputation, do you feel that you can work with him or her? Do you get a sense of understanding and empathy to your needs? Are members of the design team able to ask the tough, objective questions that enable them to fully understand the scope of work required?

Designers: Okay, the operator really selects you. But you can help make a persuasive impression beyond your design talent. Before meeting the operator and making your pitch, take the time to research the operator’s facility(ies). Understand the history of the attraction. How much theming has been used in the past? What is the theme? What audience is the attraction directed to draw? Showing a basic understanding of the operator’s attraction during your initial marketing presentation and discussion will usually provide a more conducive environment for negotiation.

  • 2. Collaborating on a Vision

Operators: When the designer asks in your initial project kick-off meeting to describe the project, don’t hold back. Too much information should never be enough for a designer. Talk about your operating needs, the budget, the schedule and your vision. This is your opportunity to describe the project as you see it. If the designer does not show a genuine willingness to hear what you have to say, then you probably have the beginning of a communication problem. This does not bode well for the future of the project.

Designers: Listen first, talk second. Most operators have experienced situations and problems that you would never think of, problems like baby stroller traffic jams at the entrance to a facility and guests wet from a water ride dripping on theatre seats. Allow the operator to fully explain his or her needs, objectives and initial thoughts. Let the operator recognize that you want to fully comprehend the design requirements. Then use your design experience to offer mutually advantageous solutions.

So you’ve assembled your team and have a path for moving forward. But how do you execute and evaluate it? Tune in next week to find out!

One of our earlier theme park projects: Warner Bros. Backlot – Six Flags St. Louis