Themed Entertainment: The Future of Themed Design? A Search for Identity

16 March 2008

restless planet dubai uae jack rouse associates

Everyone in the themed entertainment industry wants to try to predict the future, identify trends and seek out new business opportunities.  This crystal ball gazing has been going on since themed entertainment began in the mid-50’s, following the successful opening of Disneyland.  Forecasting the direction of our industry was probably easier to do then than it is now.

By Jack Rouse, Chairman & CEO, Jack Rouse Associates

In the 60’s, and well into the 70’s, there was really only one sector within themed entertainment: theme parks.  Our single sector industry began to boom in North America, globalization was not a well-recognized concept, Pine and Gilmore had not articulated the experience economy and Thomas Friedman had not proclaimed that the world was flat. 

Today, 40-plus years later, that has all changed.  To begin with, we don’t speak exclusively about creating themed entertainment anymore; rather we speak about creating unique experiences.  And while our industry began with theme parks and borrowed liberally from the design principles found in motion pictures and theater, theme park design is now experiential design and our worlds are no longer exclusively theme parks.
jack rouse associates themed entertainment theme park design
There are now many sectors within the world of experiential design.  History museums, science museums, children’s museums, zoos, aquariums, art museums, sports facilities of all shapes and sizes, corporate visitor centers, a wide variety of entertainment complexes (including theme parks), hospitals and shopping complexes are all consumers of experiential design and realization services.  Our industry that began with a mouse in Anaheim, California is now everywhere, begging a fundamental question: Who are we?

 So I predict that the next chapter in our collective history will be a search for identity; for we must determine who we are before we can predict where we are going.  But that’s not all – it is imperative that our next chapter also focuses on the places we are going. Working globally in different regions and different cultures has a strong impact on the way we market, create and produce experiences.

Let’s begin with geography since it is the latest variable that colors our search for identity.  While it is true that the experiential design industry began in North America, those of us who live in North America and grew up with the industry must realize that we no longer have a lock on truth or on great ideas.  This implies getting out of ourselves, embracing different cultures and different styles and understanding design in a much larger context.  When the stage on which we play expanded beyond North America and Western Europe we entered a new reality and many paradigms changed.  We now deal with new economies, emerging economies and evolving economies; those realities are just as important as the stories we tell and the experiences we design.  Our identity must now embrace urban planning, economic development, public/private partnerships, cultural development, mixed-use complexes, a variety of financing models and, in some cases, nation building.  Furthermore, we must embrace those in a variety of regions and cultures, who have their own systems and processes and ideas.  Our identity must adapt to them – not the other way around.  Basing our identity on a self-serving, parochial approach, based in a North American mentality doesn’t cut it anymore. This global identity is a far cry from an identity based solely on a mouse and a dark-ride.

 Experiences alone are not enough

Our identity is also strongly colored by the numerous sectors in which many of us work.  Let me focus here on just one of those sectors: cultural institutions.  Many of the sectors that I mention earlier in this piece entered the world of experiences through many of us: experiential designers and storytellers who applied theme park, audience-centric techniques to these emerging sectors (or as some would less elegantly phrase it – theme park tricks applied to the worlds of culture).  Certainly some of those early forays successfully introduced experiences to a variety of cultural facilities and opened new industries for many of us.  But that world has now changed too.  Experiences alone are not enough.  As the need to balance meaningful content with attendance generation becomes more important to a variety of institutions, we must learn to walk the fine line between content and entertainment.  This means going deeper than story and design and understanding and adjusting to the fundamental mission and DNA of the institution.  We must understand the views and values of boards of directors and institutional leadership.  We must be sensitive to the role the institution plays in the community and the position the institution occupies in their sector.  Our identity is increasingly based on our ability to make those adjustments with great storytelling and design being the price of entry.  It is also important to understand the many sub-sectors within the cultural sector.  Their missions, audiences and place in the community vary widely. Our identity is based on our ability to understand those differences and modify and adapt our processes to fit their needs.  This sector identity is a far cry from an identity based solely on applying theme parks to the worlds of culture.

But the cultural sector is only one of many where creating experiences is both needed and, when presented appropriately, embraced.  Sports and corporate visitor centers present an entirely different set of dynamics requiring us to rethink our approach to design, process and management.  In these sectors, we will remain guided by story.  But we do not own that term anymore for it is now commonly used by urban planners, mega-developers and bureaucrats.

So, an identity based only on story, or on story and theme design is not enough.  Here as elsewhere, we must show sensitivity to the needs of the sector and the way in which the sector works.  When we all began in the theme park industry we were largely in show business; and in an attempt to show sensitivity to other sectors I often said to non-entertainment clients that “show’ was only the adjective.  It’s gone way beyond that now.  Our identity cannot be based solely on a revisionist show business/entertainment approach.  Certainly that will always be at the heart of our DNA.  But we must dig deeper into our DNA and mine our ability to adapt, to learn and to adjust.  For only by doing that will we be able to find our identity; and only after we find ourselves can we begin to see what paths and opportunities lie ahead.

So what do I think lies ahead in all of these sectors and geographies?  Hell, I don’t know.  I’m still searching for my identity.

(Image at top, Restless Planet, Dubai, UAE ; courtesy Jack Rouse Associates)

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