An Immersive Tech-Tour of Europe – Physically & Virtually

My bucket list is nearly empty. Sloshing around at the bottom was the burning desire drive the exciting roads through and over the Alps made famous by the infamous ex-boys of Top Gear.

martin howeBy Martin Howe, CEO TEQ4 Limited,

So when faced with planning a trip to Paris for the 2015 Euromax conference followed immediately by Ecsite in Trento, Italy (which just happens to be located in Northern Italy, on the southern side of the Alps), the conclusion was obvious – drive there! But after a little web research it was clear there were risks. My perfect vision of my perfect bucket list item would likely be dashed following long lines of tourists, cars towing caravans, trucks and other slow moving non-petrol heads. OK, plan B, take the motorbike. 2,000 miles on a sports bike with the luggage capacity of laptop bag? Mmmm. OK, plan C, buy another bike. There, plan hatched. What has all this to do with technology, attractions and virtual reality? Read on…

Firstly the bike. Probably the most tech-laden piece of transport this side of a Space-X project, especially once I’d finished laden-ing it with the tech I needed to take to Ecsite for the Gamelab I’d been skilfully coerced into supporting.

Martin Howe Motorbike

Summary of tech outside La Philharmonie de Paris; the new €390m tech-filled concert hall

So packed up and fuelled up I set off to the wonderful La-Géode in Paris to attend the 2015 Euromax event. The first significant point to notice was that attendance was up by 50% on last year when I reported that attendance was trailing off. Well done to Laurent Dondey, directeur général of La Géode and his team, as well as Beth Nicholas of Tilted Entertainment, for organising such a cool event in such a cool venue. The uptake in attendance I put partly down to the convergence of domes from three sectors; the giant screen film world (nee IMAX), large planetariums and themed venues. All are seeking new audiences, new content and better technology. I sense the tides are turning, especially in the attraction sector where the immersive facilitation that domes provide are still yet to be fully exploited. Simply put, Domes are Virtual Reality for everyone to share. Well at least everyone in the same theater. Whereas the virtual reality that is increasingly making its way into daily news pieces, is still a solitary experience. So as VR becomes more popular, so will domes, I posit.

It’s no secret that the ever passionate Laurent, has been, and still is, seeking to find the best technology and suitable content to develop his audiences for the future.

One opportunity is to fill his dome with laser light, and the newest kids on the block are also one of the oldest! Cinemeccanica, founded in 1920, showed up with their own laser technology. They’ve developed a plug-in system comprising boxes of lasers which couple together to feed laser light, via fibre-optics, to existing cinema grade DLP (series 2) projectors. This can deliver close to 60,000 lumens, a wider color gamut, very high brightness uniformity across the screen and over 30,000 hours of use.

Cinemeccanica brought along one of their systems coupled to a Barco projector to show on the dome and it certainly demonstrated the higher light output versus the existing ‘dome insert’ digital projector. Unfortunately the side by-side test they showed didn’t quite stand out as I’m sure they would have hoped; a result probably of limited set-up time and therefore less than perfect calibration. A minor missed opportunity perhaps but this is a big market and a long road and I’m sure they’ll be around for another 95 years or more delivering lasers and whatever else comes next. As will others. Laser is here. Dim domes will become a thing of the past. Hoorah!

Just as well because one thing the VR headsets have in abundance is brightness. Just turn the brightness to full on your phone and put it up to your eyes. Bright enough isn’t it? That’s because it has to work outdoors as well. What they still lack however, is resolution. But that’s changing too. For too long we’ve had to play with Oculus’s development units, low resolution prototypes let loose into the market as, well development units. This was a wise move because clearly they’re not up to the job. But despite that, what really A M A Z E S me is the universal wow reaction when people don the headset and for the first time look down or look behind them. This extended field of view is a revelation to generations brought up on a field of view that can be obscured by a magazine held at arm’s length. Tightly packed onto my tech-tourer was Oculus’s DK2 unit and Samsung’s Gear VR; a very nearly consumer ready version that simply clips their high spec smartphone to a plastic headset with lenses that couple the screen to your eyes. It’s really rather good. As you can see below, Mark Katz of National Geographic is experiencing VR for the first time. But not with my headset, this one belonged to Robin Sip of Mirage 3D (on the left). Looks like we’ll all be carrying them around soon!

Martin Howe Ecsite Mark Katz

Mark Katz, Immersed!

So au-revoir Paris and hallo Schweiz; my stop off in the Alps was the quaint little village of Wassen in Switzerland, nestled among the best driving, and riding, roads in the world. Tomorrow was going to be a good day.

And oh-my. While I have enjoyed many a virtual reality and immersive experience in domes and wearing headsets, there is nothing quite like living it. And feeling it. The cool air, the wind and the OMG-that-was-close moment of realising that the mind can really only focus on one task at a time. Taking in the stunning view, which changes around every corner, versus making sure that you make it around every corner for the next view. One task or the other. Not both. I calculate that I negotiated over 1,000 corners that day, hundreds of which were WOW moments.

Martin Howe Motorbike Blooloop 1

8:00am start. Mountains ahead. It’s going to be a long day. One amazing day.

Martin Howe Motorbike Blooloop 2


Martin Howe Motorbike Blooloop 3

Stelvio Pass. Top Gear’s best road in the world. No it’s not, there are even better ones, just around the corner!

I’ve never been so wowed. And the thing that made it the most compelling was that I was controlling, most of the time (!), the speed of events and the intensity of the wow. Faster, faster, run out of breath, slow down take and in the breath-taking view. All day long. You can probably tell I had a good time. Bucket list done.

So, next stop Ecsite at Muse in Trento.

Martin Howe Ecsite Muse

Muse. A beautiful science museum in a beautiful location.

And I wish, like last year, I could report on the conference and the sessions. But due to the sheer popularity of the VR tech that I’d brought along, I was tethered to the GameLab, busy servicing the lines of people eager to experience VR for the first time!

Firstly a little about the Gamelab. This was a hands-on space to experience examples of games developed, or being developed for science centers. Malvina Artheau, head of the digital department at Science Animation Midi-Pyrénées in Toulouse did a super job of wrangling a disparate and very enthusiastic group of volunteers to bring along their wares including Carrefour Numérique and Universcience Paris, the Science Museum London, Le Casemate Grenoble and HKD based in Margate. There was a wide range of activities to engage with, both digital and physical, exploring such topics as how can a board game be used to talk about evolution? Is a card game a good way to understand how html language works? Is the LivingLab approach easier to engage with once having used a multi-touch video game explaining it? And even exploring how to co-create games with visitors and Students?

Martin Howe Ecsite GameLab

Most of the GameLab team – hard at work, again. The others went for a wild night out!

But by far the most popular were the two VR headsets. We ended up taking it in turns to manage the participants, then eventually the participants managed it themselves, handing the headsets to the next in line and showing them how to operate it and recommending what to watch.

Martin Howe Ecsite VR

Another immersed couple. Oblivious to the group talking about them!

And without exception, “wow”. Everyone. Within 10 to 15 seconds. I could have charged. I should have charged (it would have covered the eye-watering speeding fine in Switzerland). I was particularly surprised by how long people wanted to be immersed. 5 minutes, 10, 15, more! Yes, even knowing there was a queue of people waiting, many would stay immersed in their own world completely oblivious to the world around them and moving from one experience to the next. This isolation is the Achilles heel of VR headsets.
This VR thing is going to catch on though. There’s a lot of headroom in terms of developing the technology and the content, and there are a lot of big players putting big money into it.

I suspect though that once the experienced of being immersed in the headset, with its 360 x 360 field of view, has made it into the mainstream, then that element of the experience will wane. From then on content will need to amaze all by itself. But what this conference showed me was just how few people have experienced immersion like this, and how intense and how positive the reaction was, by everyone. This points strongly to a very immersive future of isolated experiences like these headsets and group experiences such as domes and other very immersive theaters. Which is good news, all around (pun very definitely intended.)

Next we need to develop a way of recreating that motorcycle ride through the Alps, with all its thrills, sensations and the real sense of danger. Ideally without the real danger. That will take a while. In the meantime just visit and go and make your own thrills!

Martin Howe Motorbike Blooloop 4

Home sweet Dome (yes, that’s Brighton Dome in the background).

blooloopLIVE London 2015: Strategy Wheels and Sheep

gay coley kew gardens

Travel commitments prevented me from attending the first blooloopLIVE event last year, but on hearing nothing but good feedback, I was sure to keep it firmly in my diary for 2015. And I’m so glad I did.

by Martin Howemartin howe

As is regularly the case, there are always a few nuggets one takes away from an event; an idea, a new product, new contact or even a new project. And my first blooloopLIVE on May 7 was no different. In fact it was even better; everything packed into a single day and close to home; it delivered a whole load of bang for the buck.

Charlie (Charles Read, managing director of blooloop) was in a humorous mood and set the scene for an informal, yet informative day. He did suggest that it was in fact his wife Rachel Read, who does all the hard work and essentially runs the business. Which is probably true. However they run things behind the scenes though, they do a great job in front of it.


Bob Rogers‘ (BRC Imagination Arts) presentation Finding the Emotional Connection Bob rogers brc imagination artskicked off the Brands session and featured seven of his keys to a successful attraction. If Bob’s cabinet of awards is anything to go by (and it’s a big cabinet – I’ve seen it) it would be wise to use these keys as guides for your next design. I will be, thanks Bob!

Also on brands, we enjoyed presentations from Kieran Stanley (dan pearlman) and Sean Clarke (Aardman). Islands at Chester Zoo, the latest immersive zoo environment from dan pearlman, is now on my list of places to visit after it opens on the 13th July; six tropical islands re-created 25 miles from the heart of Liverpool! Now that’s a must-see. Sean meanwhile took us through the pun-tastic journey of Shaun the Sheep and the character’s brand strategy. Aardman didn’t deliberately plan to launch Shaun in Asia in the Year of the Sheep, but the coincidence didn’t pass them by. Did you know 2016 will be the Year of the Monkey, Sean? Yes, you probably do!


In the Technology session, Kati Price from the V&A asked us consider how tech can add value to storytelling. Story-teching she called it (yes she did!). In his bid to expand to share the British Museum with the world, Dr Chris Michaels must reach 7,313,970,558 people (as I type this, more by the time you read it). Currently they are reaching about 10 million. Rather than just relying on passing traffic to bump the numbers, Chris is embarking on a different, technology-led approach. Perhaps he won’t get to all 8.3bn (by 2030) but possibly a very large proportion with a little help from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Cloudera, Domo and a few others you haven’t yet heard of!

Tony Guillan at the Tate and independent digital producer Adam Clarke showed us wizard keen i.e. adam clarkehow the Tate is embracing technology through a game/app called Tate Worlds, embracing Minecraft to recreate the environment that paintings at the Tate portray. I already have see a few opportunities where this idea could be used; to engage young people while they are in the venue and as a form of outreach and ongoing relationship with the museum.

The final technology presentation, from Colette Hiller at Sing London, highlighted the Talking Statues project being piloted in London and Manchester. It’s a great way to add a form of interactivity to existing art and I can imagine further applications will spawn out of these. Next stop for Colette and her talking statues, Chicago!


Who better to put on after lunch than a comedian? David Schneider (Guardian columnist and broadcaster and expert Tweeter) kept us all alert in the People session by regaling us with stories and fun examples of how to tweet, and not to tweet, to support and develop your brand. His best advice of the day? Get him to do it for you. I probably will, one day. He’s with that lot at

Then on to the serious stuff of HR. Tea Colaianni from Merlin Entertainments walked us through ‘The Merlin Way’; a comprehensive staff engagement programme. What it proved to me is that fun is serious business. But any business that has grown as fast as Merlin, which is now in the FTSE 100 with over 22,000 people, needs a programme to keep everyone ‘on message’ and on plan. Merlin’s own survey says 95% of them enjoy working for the company. That’s a lot of happy employees.

Jamie Thomson and Drew Stevens-King from Butlin’s shared with us the cultural small boy and girl at butlins 1970sjourney and the history of the holiday park operator since it was founded by Billy Butlin back in 1936. It was like a trek back in time through the eyes of working class Britain. After a lot of hard work and a £300 million investment in 2000, the team (and they clearly are a team) have grown to 5,500 strong, serving 1.5 millions guests a year. There’s clearly a lot of pride and passion at Butlin’s.

It must be contagious as I remember being caught up in that same passion back in the ’70’s when I was proudly awarded the grand title of Mr Butlin’s (that’s me on the left, embarking on my own cultural journey!).


I’m not quite sure why natural history photographer, filmmaker, diver and author Doug Allan’s presentation was included as part of the session on Strategy, but it was interesting to hear, and see the lengths he has gone to, to capture stunning images and footage of wildlife, mostly at the coldest parts of our planet.

Gay Coley from Kew Gardens talked about passion, and with passion, about her career at the Eden Project and at Kew. You may have heard the saying ‘if you want something done, give it to a busy person’. Well I imagine Gay is one of those busy people that just gets things done.

Last and, certainly by no means least, we were treated to an energetic presentation by Juliana Delaney chief executive of the Continuum Group. Her recommendation on juliana delaney ceo continuumstrategy; live it! Either spend your time writing a business plan, or spend the time delivering it. She did have a Strategy Wheel that she shared with us. From where I was sitting it looked much like Merlin’s and Butlin’s, but that’s no great surprise. With a staff of hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands, it’s important to concisely articulate your values and expected behaviours across all team members.

Which left us with Charlie to sum up. “Off to the bar”, he cried. Great tactics Charlie, great tactics. But what about strategy? Off to Hong Kong next month then back here again next year. That’s a great plan Charlie (and Rachel). See you then!

Martin Howe is CEO of TEQ4 Ltd

Hong Kong Disneyland: Tracy Sheds Some Light

paint the night hong kong disneyland artwork

“Where can I find financial information on Hong Kong Disneyland?” was a question recently asked in Blooloop’s LinkedIn Group and since I did something I typically don’t do — I answered this question privately — I figured that it would only be fair if I shared my answer with the rest of you.

Familiarizing yourself with Blooloop’s Park Ownership data is a great place to begin (and an updated version is to be released shortly – watch this space!). In this instance, as in many others, knowing the park ownership is key to finding the answer to your question. In this particular case, knowing that the Hong Kong Government (aka Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is one of the owners of Hong Kong Disneyland was the key to finding the answer.

Locating the website for the Legislative Office of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (legco) was like striking gold for me, as I will illustrate below:

Once there, you will find the latest three papers that were published in conjunction with he 16 February 2015 meeting:

• Administration’s paper on update on Hong Kong Disneyland;

• Paper on Hong Kong Disneyland prepared by the Legislative Council Secretariat (background brief); and

• Paper on update on Hong Kong Disneyland provided by the Hong Kong Disneyland Management Limited (power-point presentation material).

While all the papers have great data, it is the initial one that provides detail of the performance for fiscal year 2014 and this is the one I highlighted in my response to the question asked. As promised, I am showing you some of the great data here:

key revenue hong kong disneyland

year on year key revenue hong kong disneyland

origin of hong kong disneyland visitors

When searching this site, you will find data that takes you back to year 1999 and I have listed some of these papers below.

• Environmental Impact Assessment for the Development of Hong Kong Disneyland;

• Financing and Financial Benefits of Hong Kong Disneyland;

• Hong Kong Disneyland Third Party Investors; and

• Hong Kong Disneyland: Paris / HK Comparisons

It is the last paper that I find extremely interesting and again I will take this opportunity to show you a few of the items found here:

hong kong disneyland data

While I got carried away with the data per usual, my initial purpose was to show you why Blooloop’s Theme Park Ownership document is significant.  If I hadn’t known that the Hong Kong Government was one of the owners of the park, I wouldn’t have known where to begin finding the answer to the original question, “Where can I find financial data about Hong Kong Disneyland?”

Images & video copyright Disney

Come to Wuyishan and Extend your Life!

Ms Guo, President Wuyishan Culture & Tourism Investment Group, says that she feels lucky to have been born and live in such a beautiful place as Wuyishan with its clear waters, beautiful countryside, tea and relaxed way of life.

“Come to Wuyishan and extend your life,” Ms Guo told us when Blooloop visited Wuyishan’s latest attraction, the multimedia spectacular, “Fountain of Dreams” from ECA2 (see full article and press release).

countryside in wuyishan china

We thought our readers might like to know more about the plans for Wuyishan.

Ms Guo and Mr Zhong, General Manager Wuyishan Clearwater Festival Tourism Cultural Ltd Co, are heading up the development of Wuyishan from a small (250,000 population) town in Fujian province with a UNESCO World Heritage site on its doorstep to a fully-Mr Zhong General Manager Wuyishan Clearwater Festival Tourism Cultural Ltd Co fledged world class holiday destination. Over a traditional tea ceremony they explained the plans for the region.

The development strategy for the area is focussed on enhancing the existing local areas of interest as well as introducing world class attractions such as the Fountain of Dreams show, all with a view to preserving the Ms Guo President Wuyishan Culture and Tourism Investment Group environment and the pace of life.

The local Wuyi Mountain scenic area park is an established draw for tourists. With stunning limestone rocks worn smooth and etched by waterfalls and a nine bend river, the area has many beautiful walks and areas of historic significance as well as a bamboo raft ride.

In 2010 the Impressions of Dahongpao show by Chinese movie director Zhang Yimu was introduced to encourage guests to stay overnight for one or two nights. In 2014 the Impressions show welcomed 530,000 people generating tax revenues of 8 million RMB.


Scheduled for completion on June 30th is a rail fast link to Fuzhou, joining Wuyshan to China’s high speed rail network. Journey times to Beijing will be reduced to seven hours and Shanghai to 3 hours 20 minutes. There will be a potential 40,000 train passengers a day with access to Wuyishan at this point of which it is estimated that 10% may stop off in Wuyishan.

Figures from the Wuyishan Tourism Culture Group record tourist numbers for 2013 at 7.3 million. This rose to 9.3 million in 2014 as a result of marketing efforts and the rapid increase in the numbers of car owners in China. In addition the Group ran a promotion for 1RMB entry to the national park during a Chinese autumn festival to test how the area coped with being at full capacity.

There are eight attractions to be included in the next phase of Wuyishan’s development:

Fountain of Dreams

WUY_BestOf-15The Fountain of Dreams multimedia spectacular from ECA2 opened on April 10th. The impact of the show is expected to be to increase the length of stay of visitors and the show is aimed at a family audience.

Flower World

lotus blossom flower park wuyishan

WuFu is a local town which has around 7,000 hectares of lotus flowers – 350 species – and 1,000 hectares of roses. Accommodation and restaurants and infrastructure are being built around the town.

Tianhong Polar Aquarium Park

Tianhong Polar Ocean Park 1200

A large aquarium is being built by a private developer (Tainhong Touristic Projects Investment Ltd Co) across the road from Fountain of Dreams. It is expected to open in summer 2015.

Historic Attraction

An attraction is under development to celebrate the area’s involvement in the roots of the cultural revolution.

Wuyi Palace – Song Dynasty Street

A street with architecture reflecting that of the Song Dynasty is under development at Wuyi Palace.


A camping area is under development.


XiaMei wuyishan china

XiaMei is a historic tea town with architecture from the Song dynasty will feature in the group of attractions presented as things to do in Wuyishan to tour operators.


An attraction recreating the home of local poet Zhuxi is under development. Phase one of this is already completed.

For more information about Fountain of Dreams please see article and press release.

Further pictures from Mr Zhong, General Manager Wuyishan Clearwater Festival Tourism Cultural Ltd Co can be seen in this gallery.


Disney’s Citizenship Performance: Live Healthier

Jiminy Cricket

Jiminy Cricket summed up the principle of corporate and social responsibility rather snappily – “always let your conscience be your guide.” All very well in theory, of course, but as Pinnochio found to his cost, not so easy in practice.

So, are Pinnochio’s creators doing any better?

Disney’s Citizenship 2014 Performance Summary report certainly seems to suggest so. Like all big companies, Disney has a CSR programme governing their own conduct, “Act Responsibly” (which covers all the usual stuff about Ethics, the Environment and Civic Engagement), but what’s different about these initiatives is that the company is looking beyond itself and considering ways in which it can use the power of its brand to constructively influence its vast network of fans.

Disney Citizenship Framnework

Under the banner “Inspire Others” Disney is targeting 4 key areas where it believes, not unreasonably, that it is in a position to make a real difference to the happiness and well-being of children and their families: Live healthier, Think creatively, Conserve Nature and Strengthen Communities. “Citizenship isn’t just a responsibility we have as a corporation,” says the report. “It is an opportunity to connect with and inspire others.” I’ll be looking at their vision, targets and performance in a series of four blogs to find out what they are promising and what they have already achieved. They certainly have the clout and the resources to make an impact. And, where Disney leads, others will surely follow.

Disney CSR Inspire Others

Disney’s 2014 Citizenship Performance Summary: Live Healthier

Disney CSR Inspire Others Live Healthier

This section of the report is introduced thus: “At Disney, we are committed to creating healthier generations, and we believe that inspiring healthier lifestyles today will create a brighter tomorrow.”

There is no doubt that the spiralling problem of childhood obesity needs to be tackled by a heavyweight. It is a priority of the World Health Organisation with reports suggesting that 32% of US children are now classed as obese or overweight. If they remain so into adulthood, they are at risk of associated health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The problem is one of the priorities of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and figures bandied around suggest that the medical care in America alone is costing an estimated $147 billion.

With Disney-branded foods filling supermarket shelves the company is perfectly placed to confront the problem head-on and arguably has a duty to do so.

A recent report on childhood obesity in medical journal, The Lancet, is very damning of the way the food industry targets children: “The food and beverage industries as a whole have a financial investment in creating overweight ..[children]. With about 50 million school-age children in the USA, the combined value of their excess food consumption each year approaches $20 billion.”

It’s hard enough to steer children towards healthy choices without the ever-present white noise of temptingly packaged carb and sugar-laden rubbish. So, in my book, if a Disney-branded item also happens to be a healthy item that doesn’t just help the child, it helps the parent, too. I find it reassuring that they are now aiming “to prioritize and promote wholesome foods such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grain, and lean proteins that contribute to a healthful diet”. In 2006, they set a long-term target to ensure that 85% of Disney-licensed foods met Nutrition Guidelines and support children’s health. According to the report, “In 2014, 71% of globally licensed wholesale food sales consisted of everyday foods that meet our global Nutrition Guidelines; we remain on track to meet the 2020 target of 85%.” Why not 100%? They say the remaining 15% allows for celebration items such as birthday cakes and seasonal treats. I’m prepared to give them that. If treat items really are only consumed as treats and as part of a healthy diet, that’s fine. Who wants a broccoli birthday cake?

Already well-documented is their initiative, announced in 2012 and hailed by Michelle Obama as a game-changer, to allow only food-and-drink advertisers on its network that meet federally approved nutrition standards. Branded ‘The Magic Of Healthy living’, it’s a strong stance for a commercial company to take, even if you argue that with a reach of 100m homes, it’s more likely to be the advertisers who lose sleep over it. The fact is, that when you’re the world’s largest media and entertainment company, you make the rules. And, if you make the right rules then you not only improve your own behaviours, you give others no choice but to improve their behaviours, too.

The report also highlights other Disney initiatives to spread the message of healthy-eating such as the Mickey Check and the TRYit campaign.

Disney Live Healthy

Introduced in 2012, the Mickey Check is a tool that makes it easier to identify nutritious choices in stores, online, and while on holiday at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. To qualify for the Mickey Check, foods must meet Disney Nutrition Guidelines developed by health experts and align to federal dietary guideline recommendations.

The TRYit campaign uses on-air content, digital tools and local events to encourage children and their families to try nutritious foods, exercise and generally improve their health. Last year it reached 100m homes and the report states that “75% of surveyed kids reporting willingness to make changes in health-related habits.” The TRYathlon road tour reached 500,000 people.

‘Live Healthier’ is not just about diet. The report also references the company’s creation of play spaces to encourage children to get outside: “Since 2012, we have helped support the creation of 34 new playgrounds and 18 Imagination Playgrounds, for a total of 52 play spaces.” They have already exceeded their target of 50 play spaces by 2016.

All in all, I’m heartened by this section of the report. It will be interesting to see how their lead will affect the entertainment industry, the food industry and beyond. A few ripples from Disney can bring about a sea change.

Images: Disney and Jiminy Cricket –

All Aboard the Hogwarts Express – Photo Op on Platform 9 ¾

Hogwarts Express Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

The preview of the Hogwarts Express at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter last week was a classy affair as would be expected from this classy attraction, with great attention to detail, quality, authenticity and a touch of magical inspiration.

Dry ice cocktails at Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio TourThe 78 year old steam engine in Hogwarts Express livery, displayed with billowing steam in a permanent new 20,000 sq ft recreation of Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station, opened to the public on Thursday 19th March.

The evening preview event gave Blooloop and other lucky industry insiders including Lesley Morisetti, Ray Braun, Paul Kent, Sarah Joyce and Baz Slatter the opportunity to tour the finished attraction, with the welcome enhancement of cocktails and canapes.

Popping Candy Eton Mess at Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio TourA touch of magic had been added by the caterers – ‘smoking’ cocktails and a surprise twist of popping candy in the Eton Mess.

Then there were the special guest stars – real owls, a rat and a very grumpy Crookshanks cat on the platform. Typically the cat stole the show with its lack of co-operation.  We waited quite a while for this shot.

Cruickshanks at Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

Of course the platform would be incomplete without a gift shop stocked with the new Hogwarts Express merchandise.

Hogwarts Express Merchandise Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

The focal point of the platform expansion is naturally the beautifully lit, red, shiny steam engine and carriage.

Exclusive reveal of the Hogwarts Express - at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

However, the options available to create an attraction from the train itself are clearly limited by the narrowness of the carriage passageway and compartment layout. Visitors queue to walk down the passageway of the carriage in single file. Each (closed) compartment is set out with props from one of Harry’s years at Hogwarts. It’s well done and authentic and lots of people were taking the opportunity to have their photos taken waving goodbye to loved ones on the platform.

Hogwarts Express carriage at Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

What’s interesting is how this particular section of the Warner Bros experience caters to the needs of the selfie generation. Perhaps because of the limitations of the Hogwarts Express as a centrepiece, other than looking very beautiful, there has been a deliberate effort to create photo opportunities for the young Potter fans. Some of these are informal, like waving from the train, but there are two structured photo ops on the platform, developed in partnership with Picsolve, that enhance the visitor experience by putting the guest in the film, which is after all where they want to be.

Mark Williams, Mr Weasley in the Harry Potter film series, pushes the luggage trolley on Platform 9 -¥ at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

The first photo op is a simple pushing the trolley into the wall scene. But it’s well done with attendants offering a choice of Hogwart’s house scarves as well as advice on posing.

The second is much more high tech, and an experience in itself, created in the same interior train carriage set that was used for filming. This railway carriage section has green screen windows that show iconic moments from the Potter train journeys.  A voice over encourages the riders to interact with the film by trying to catch escaping chocolate frogs or cowering at the sight of Dementors. With moments of recognition and the odd jump, the attraction nicely extends the experience in a way that is impossible to do on the train itself.

Picsolve Hogwarts Express carriage set Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

Of course there are many fantastic examples of animatronics and innovative AV throughout this wonderful studio tour that engage visitors with the superb props that can’t be touched. Here’s our montage of the best moving bits from the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter including some from the Hogwarts Express.

Image credit: Hogwarts Express image on empty platform and Mark Williams pushing trolley courtesy of Warner Bros Studio Tour London.

Snow Business – Arctic Inspirations in Lapland

paul kent and rick worner with santa

The attractions industry is a business of conferences and trade shows and many of us frequently travel abroad to attend such events. Generally held in attractive, tourist-friendly cities, delegates are encouraged to attend both for the quality of the conference and the location. This is why I have been to shows in Orlando, Singapore and Amsterdam and none to date in Leeds, Detroit or Calais.

And so it was that the opportunity arose to attend a seminar in Lapland. Snappily titled The Arctic Inspirations Seminar and – importantly for any conference – already boasting its own acronym, AIS, it was organized by Lappset, the Finnish designer and manufacturer of play equipment. The company recently made the news for the creation of its branded activity attractions division, Lappset Creative and its partnership with the UK’s HIT Entertainment, home of brands such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Barbie and Bob the Builder.

The format was two days, the first during which delegates would hear from leading experts in the attractions industry and on the second would have the opportunity for a factory tour of Lappset’s premises. The unusual location, Rovaniemi, a town just inside the Arctic Circle made for an attractive destination and the added extras – a night in the famous ice hotel, a chance to snowmobile (is that a verb?), an opportunity to meet Rovio, the creators of Angry Birds – were enticing prospects.

The (long) night before


Early evening and on arrival at Rovaniemi airport – an hour’s flight north from Helsinki, a small group of us were bundled into extremely thick winter clothes and out of the airport exit. Here we were we met with not the standard line of bored looking taxi drivers but a not so standard line of reindeers with sledges (sleighs?). The snow was thick and the firs and spruces that ringed the airport were heavily laden with a brilliant white carpet of snow. The beauty of the scene was heightened by the singular lack of grey sludge and brown, gritted snow. To the Finnish, deep snow is a given for a big chunk of the year so they deal with it in a mature and organised manner. With snow tyres on there is no need to grit, so the roads remain a pristine white. (As we drove at 60mph in the snow in our coach, back in the UK Manchester airport was grinding to a standstill as a few thousand snowflakes caused predictable chaos) .

We were under strict instructions not to touch the reindeer. This was easier said than done, especially as they were over-friendly creatures and kept trying to lick us.

Our reindeer found Ronald Hoppzak, owner at recreatiecentrum de Schatberg, particularly irresistable:

reindeer kissing Roland

Our “taxis” took us directly to SantaPark attraction. Uniquely the park is sited in an underground bunker, in fact the same one which is designated as the shelter for the population should a nuclear winter occur.

Owned and operated by husband and wife team, Ilkka Länkinen and Katja Ikäheimo-Länkinen, this unique attraction welcomes over 70,000 visitors form over 40 countries a year.

SantaPark elfWe were greeted by genuine elves, with musical voices and turned up noses, who led us on to the different attractions at the park: the Elf School, Mrs. Gingerbread’s Bakery ride, the Magic Sleigh Ride and Santa’s workshop where we met the Big Man himself and were given presents. There was also an ice bar where we sampled the local liquorice flavoured spirit while dressed in thick furs before enjoying dinner in the restaurant situated just inside the Arctic Circle.

The Santa Claus hotel in Rovaneimi to which we retired for the night was comfortable and warm and a trip back to reality after our magical arrival and evening with Santa and his Elves.

Day One – Snow Business

The seminar took place at the hotel. What made the day unique were the local speakers. So while Paul Kent, Tony Sefton and Ray Hole delivered interesting, succinct presentations full of what I believe are called “actionables” and “takeaways” none of them knew very much about making hotels and buldings out of ice. However, Ville Haaviko and Taavi Heikkilä did.

Frozen innovations chainsaw ice

Ville is Managing Director of the Arctic Snow Hotel and an expert in snow construction and Taavi is President at Frozen Innovations Ltd. They each told us about the mechanics and logistics of both creating and then managing a building or attraction made entirely out Taavi Heikkilä and his chainsawof ice and snow. Remarkably the snow they use is not the white stuff lying around in huge drifts and constantly falling from the sky but it is made artificially and created on-site. Something to do with consistency.

Taavi showed us a slide with him standing with his enormous chainsaw and I, along with half the men in the room, sighed: my trusty chainsaw back home is barely 18 inches long and just a toy, a girl’s saw. Taavi’s however, was undeniably a proper man’s chainsaw for proper man’s ice. We then watched a video of him and his team cutting up great thick sheets of ice from a river, slicing through the frozen surface under their feet as it swayed beneath them. They obviously knew what they were doing.

After our enjoyable evening the night before at Santa Park, owner Katja Ikäheimo-Länkinen delivered an engaging presentation on the past, present and future of the official home of Santa.

We also heard from Rick Worner, from the States, who is MD of National Realty Advisors. Rick’s expertise lies in assisting real estate developers and investors to identify and fund opportunities for themed attractions.

From Lappset we had a warm welcome from Chairman of the Lappset Group Board, Johanna Ikäheimo, while Johan Granholm, Director of Lappset Creative wrapped up the day with a presentation about the new division’s branded activity attractions.

Snow Hotel

Snow Hotel Lappset

After the seminar we spent the night at the Arctic SnowHotel Experience, enjoying dinner in the vaulted ice dining room, snow saunas and the outdoor jacuzzi in the snow.

Frozen innovations sauna

The braver souls among us – step forward CDA’s Jan Reuvers and Hammerson’s Richard Pearce - opted for beds made from blocks of ice, we instead set off through the snow for our comfortable heated igloo, with a glass roof for watching the (sadly absent – we’ll have to go back) Northern lights.  An unforgettable experience and definitely a tick on the Bucket List.

Jan Reuvers in Snow Hotel

Factory Tour and More Snow

lappset angry bird dinosaur

The morning brought a factory tour, a glimpse into the process by which Lappset creates their signature play parks and play equipment. We were given an introduction to the business by Tero Ylinenpää, Lappset Managing Director, who also explained how the company is involved in the phenomenon of “older play”, play parks for pensioners which are proving wildly popular as meeting places for romantic OAPs in parts of Spain.

After lunch we headed for the snowmobiles and zoomed off over a frozen river for an afternoon of high-octane low-temperature thrills and spills. Later on, with the sun setting behind us, we threaded our way home through the trees to the warmth of the hotel.

A superb trip to the Arctic Circle, a great crowd and an interesting conference. A huge thanks to Lappset and their team who organised the event.  As well as being wonderfully welcoming hosts they managed all possible permutations of guest itineraries and winter clothing requirements with superb skill.

Hope to see you in Rovaneimi next year!

charlie onsnowmobile

Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #4

AT&T Dolphin Tales Georgia Aquarium dolphin

AT&T Dolphin Tales Georgia Aquarium

Stacey Tarpley continues her review of innovation in zoos…

I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Zoo Innovation #4: Sneaking in the Veggies: Education Disguised as Fun, and Fun Disguised as Education

Ultimately, the zoo is supposed to be fun. But all AZA accredited zoos and aquariums must include education and conservation as part of their mission. As such, disguising conservation education into a fun, engaging experience is a recent innovation on which many zoos are still working. Today’s zoos are using many strategies (and often innovations unto themselves) to achieve this.

The first is a deeply thematic exhibit. Think theme park attraction quality storyline, thematic architecture and propping. Animals are not just being presented in their “natural” habitat; that’s just layer one. Add complex stories involving cultural, historical references, and conservation threats and solutions alongside imaginative, adventurous settings, and visitors are being swept away to another place and time to encounter an animal experience.

PGAV Dolphin Tales Georgia Aquarium

AT&T Dolphin Tales at Georgia Aquarium

In addition to the thematic exhibits, some zoos and aquariums are truly taking a cue from theme parks and are adding shows—from elaborate stage productions with lighting and sound to more modest (and therefore more often implemented and repeated multiple times throughout the zoo) keeper chats and training demos.

PGAV Glacier run at louisville zoo training panel

Glacier run at Louisville Zoo

Some zoos even embrace non-animal shows with a conservation message, like the puppet show at the Bronx Zoo.

Rides are also a commonplace element of a zoo these days, but the real innovation here is the integration of ride and animal habitat. From the very simple skyride across an African savanna exhibit, to monorail systems immersing guests in large enclosures. New ride systems are continuously being evaluated for the ability to direct guests exactly where the animals are, controlling flow, and generally controlling the experience as a whole.

Finally, interactions with animals are becoming more and more popular. This is a bit of a retro innovation as guests feeding animals has long been a tradition in historic zoos as well as in less than ideal zoos of today. But the innovation here is not in the interaction itself, but in how it is being achieved. Today’s interactions are highly controlled, managed and messaged by trained keepers, and provide the animals the choice of whether or not to participate. Regulations for dolphin encounters, for example, require a ‘sanctuary’ space into which dolphins may retreat if they decide they no longer want to participate. Giraffe feeds occur on a single platform and giraffes decide if they want to participate. Feedings in general occur on a timed schedule and the food is carefully allotted, allocated, recorded, and considered an integral part of the animals’ diets.

All of these provide a platform for communicating an educational message while guests are just having a great time.

What great data will be available in the 2014 Walt Disney Company Fact Book?

Disney castle

Throughout my years in the leisure time business, I have become known as a tenacious researcher and the one that is able to find data that others can’t. Therefore the reason I have chosen to report on secondary data as the basis of this and most of my prior Blooloop Blogs.

The quality and quantity of data available in each of Walt Disney annual Fact Books has always amazed me. While these books cover statistics pertaining to all operations of Disney, this Blog focuses only on Parks & Resorts. As far back as I can remember each of annual books has included the statistics (opening dates, resort acreage, ticket pricing – base and options available, #hotel venues, # hotel rooms) that are shown below for the most current year available (2013).

Prior years of the Disney Fact Book have included additional data as well. Take for example the 2010 fact book included the rarely quoted and often asked for number THEME PARK ACREAGE. In 2010 the Disneyland Resort was 85 acres and Magic Kingdom was 142 acres. I wonder if the current acreage will be listed in the 2014 Fact Book? The Fact Book for 2008 reported the Domestic Convention Space at Disney-Owned Resorts — In 2008, the Disneyland Hotel had 136,000 sq. ft. of Net Meeting Space. And, the “Estimated Workforce” was included in the 2005 Fact Book.

What do you think will be included in the latest Disney Fact Book? I don’t know about you, but I am hoping for capture rates, length of stay, merchandise per capita for each of the theme parks. Well, a girl can wish can’t she?

Disney Fact Book: Operations – Parks & Resorts, 2013

(You may need to adjust the zoom view in your browser to see all the figures!)

Disney 2013 factbook pg 8

Disney 2013 factbook pg 9

Disney 2013 factbook pg 10

Roller Coasters for the Non-Enthusiast

Jeff Havlik of PGAV destinations

We all know that coasters are the mainstay of many parks. They often drive the marketing campaigns with the eternal race for statistics such as the “tallest”, “fastest”, or “steepest.”

And they work. Guests show up wide-eyed and thrilled to ride the latest and greatest record breaking coaster. The coaster enthusiasts hungrily review every airtime hill and new maneuver. The rides are applauded by the industry and competitors, both parks and manufacturers, while at the same time they begin to lay plans to unseat the latest king. I’m a fan of this competitive spirit. It drives the industry to dream, innovate, design, and build. But I think that they can do more than simply fuel marketing and excite the enthusiasts.

cheetah hunt rollercoaster bush gardens tampa bay

If you look at the penetration of big coasters in a family park, they’re often quite lower than one would expect. Height restrictions, health restrictions, age, and the “fear factor” cause many guests to be non-riders, or “non-enthusiasts.” Shouldn’t these record-breaking coasters, which also often set records for capital expenditure, strive to capture the attention of the non-enthusiast as well? I believe these monumental attractions need to engage guests in ways other than just riding. For example, they should create a visual icon strong enough to be appreciated as a piece of sculpture like the tower of Cheetah Hunt (above) at Busch Gardens Tampa (BGT).

The ride should engage the guest on the surrounding walkways where the speed, force, and exhilaration can be experienced by everyone. Air at Alton Towers or Griffon (below) at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (BGW) are excellent examples, especially where the first drop of Griffon dives below the bridge.

Griffon rollercoaster at busch gardens williamsburg

When a guest on the path can see the coaster speed past, feel the wind, hear the roar, and see the faces of the riders, it creates a powerful, lasting impression. Add some interaction like the water effect at BGT’s Sheikra and BGW’s Griffon, and you have broadened the appeal well beyond the bounds of those that just ride the ride. On a hot day, there are often more people waiting for that splash than are in the ride queue (a slight exaggeration, but you get the point).

This broadening of appeal is tremendously important because it directly correlates to overall guest satisfaction. This enduring appeal will help continue to bring guests back to the park long after the first year attendance surge has died down, and another coaster has stolen the top spot. I do realize things are easier said than done. Mature parks that are trying to incorporate a big, new ride with a massive footprint and, worst of all, crane access to reach a 300-foot tall track, are forced to make room by tearing something down, placing the coaster on the outskirts of the park, or plowing through the parking lot.

thorpe park rollercoaster

But it doesn’t take much to draw the non-enthusiast in. Bringing the spectators in close to just a short piece of track (not the break run before the station) that showcases the ride’s speed, height, nimbleness, or whatever makes it special, can go a long way. When we look at the rankings of best coasters, the ones that have endured year to year, they aren’t all record holders. Some of the best ones are the ones that engage the non-enthusiast in enduring, thrilling, memory-making ways.

Images. 1 Jeff Havlik and 2. Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa courtesy of PGAV Destinations 3. Griffon courtesy of Busch Gardens Williamsburg 4. Rollercoaster at night, courtesy Thorpe Park.