TEA SATE 2019 One for the Books

Ian Klein, Vizir Productions; Shannon Martin, Color Reflections; Nathan Jones, WhiteWater at the close of TEA SATE Seattle 2019.

Ian Klein, Vizir Productions; Shannon Martin, Color Reflections; Nathan Jones, WhiteWater at the close of TEA SATE Seattle 2019.

TEA SATE Seattle 2019 is now behind us but we’ve only begin to reflect on the dialogue and narratives that have come out of it. While I as one of its three co-chairs along with WhiteWater’s Nathan Jones and Shannon Martin of Color Reflections may be biased, I feel it was an extraordinary one. With more women on stage and more voices represented period than any previous SATE, it was an enormous success insofar as being both a summit of ideas and an opportunity for diverse storytellers to share what’s important to them.

SATE is an equation made up of equal parts, Storytelling, Architecture, and Technology, which together inform Experience. During TEA SATE Seattle 2019, I had the privilege of talking a little about the all important element of storytelling through our thematic lens, “Embracing Diversity: Experiences that Bring People Together.” Here is that spotlight as shared on Day 2 of the conference:


Storytelling. We like it. We all know it’s important. And for the most part, it comes pretty natural to us.

In this room, we’re all storytellers. Even if not by title, we all play a part in telling stories. So, there’s no shortage of us talking about storytelling. New ride? Cool story. New building? Let me tell you about the story behind it. New technology? Here’s the story about how we got here.

But what could I tell you that hasn’t been said about storytelling that we all haven’t heard a hundred times or more? I could tell you that we’ve been doing it around the campfire since the dawn of humanity. That storytelling is what makes us human. That without it, society as we know it might simply cease to be. But I’m not going to because, well, I’m not actually one of the people giving a presentation today.

Nathan, Shannon, and I put a lot of thought into what story we wanted to tell with this conference and who were the storytellers that were going to share in that narrative tapestry. We felt like what it all came down to was the human connections that we were going to help create between all of us that made up that complete story.

We are storytellers yes, but storytelling is us. Just by being in this room, on stage or in those seats, you are a unique part of the story and the story is you. And that story is one that wouldn’t be the same without you. Each of you is a beautiful thread in that tapestry.

And if you think about that tapestry, you see each one of those threads is a different hue, each one catches the light a little differently, each one plays a part in holding everything together. Now think about what happens when one of those threads is removed. And another. And another. Pretty quickly, this grand story is a little less vibrant, a little less robust until it looks like nothing at all.

When we stop including members of us who are different than us in our stories, our stories become at best sad, and at worse tragedies. When we take proactive steps to include diverse perspectives, our stories become stronger, more vibrant, and more powerful than we could possibly imagine.

Thank you to all those who shared their stories from the stage during TEA SATE Seattle 2019 as well as a heartfelt thanks to those who attended and shared in these important conversations.

Asset 1.png

Helping ensure those conversations are not left behind in the Pacific Northwest is Cynthia Sharpe who not only gave the SATE audience actionable suggestions to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into business practices, but curated a list of resources now available to all here.

We look forward to seeing everyone at next year’s SATE North America, taking place October 1-3 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas!

TEA Summit: Thea Award Recipients Represent a Range of Approaches to IP


Whether an experience creator is looking to build a new attraction, reimagine an aging one, or construct an entirely new park, the question of “what story will this experience tell?” is always present. The question of what piece of intellectual property drives that story—established or wholly original—usually follows suit.

That decision, however, is rarely straightforward, even amongst the biggest and most successful brands. Disney’s infamous inability to use much of the Marvel universe at its Florida properties due to a perpetuity clause in the licensing deal with Universal Parks & Resorts comes to mind, although one can imagine Disney feeling pretty happy with its library of IP these days thanks to the acquisition of 21stCentury Fox’s entertainment assets. Now can we get that Buffy theme park?

Considering the use of IP for an experience can feel like feast or famine for experience creators; the biggest studios appear to have the luxury of boundless IP, while smaller or more cost-conscious organizations may have to work harder to find relevant characters and stories, whether through complex licensing deals or their own creativity. At Day Two of this year’s TEA Summit, Thea Case Studies Day, Thea Award recipients not only represented projects from across the budgetary spectrum, they also represented a diverse range of approaches to identifying and implementing IP in their projects now recognized for Outstanding Achievements.

Universal Spectacle Night Parade, Universal Studios Japan, Osaka
Live Show Spectacular

Early on in the four years it took to develop the Universal Spectacle Night Parade at Universal Studios Japan from concept to completion, the creative team at Universal Parks & Resorts considered over 18 different IPs before ultimately deciding on the four franchises represented in the final parade: Jurassic World, Harry Potter, Despicable Me/Minions, and Transformers

© Universal Studios

© Universal Studios

For a parade intended to celebrate “The Best of Hollywood” it was a review process, Mike Davis, Senior Vice President-International Entertainment and Project Director at USJ, Matthew Preston Jones could not take lightly. That process included creating varying levels of design concepts for all 18 IPs, considering how franchises would physically translate into the park environment, weighing them against other areas of the Comcast NBCUniversal business—its “Symphony” strategy in action—and perhaps most importantly, how each IP would translate for the Japanese audience, something that Davis emphasized several times during his presentation.

The result of his efforts along with those of roughly 1,000 staff and vendors is a fluidly choreographed, total immersion into these fictional realities.

Bazyliszek, Park Legendia, Chorzow, Poland
Attraction, Limited Budget

“Every Polish man knows the story of the Basilisk” said Legendia Director, Paweł Cebula. So, when the theme park contemplated a new attraction to mark its 60-year history, the legendary Basilisk—a snake with a rooster’s head—made it “the best IP you can imagine” on which to base Bazyliszek, Poland’s first interactive dark ride created with the help of Alterface, Jora Vision, and ETF Imaginative Engineering.

Concept art for the Bazyliszek attraction created by Alterface, Jora Vision, and ETF

Concept art for the Bazyliszek attraction created by Alterface, Jora Vision, and ETF

In an interview with InPark Magazine, Cebula notes that Legendia was already conceived around bringing Polish legends and fairy tales to life. While “some of them have been forgotten or seem old-fashioned,” Cebula says, “they hold great symbolic value and storytelling potential.” Specifically, Bazyliszek is “based on such an authentic Polish folklore, but shared in a way that speaks to modern audiences.” 

Indeed, as the Thea Awards Committee noted in its remarks, “Delivering an attraction that is well integrated in its cultural context, but that manages to deliver a compelling modern and fun experience is not only remarkable, it is also a great alternative to major IP offerings. Bazyliszek is an outstanding model of an attraction that speaks to its regional audience.” The attraction’s narrative furthers that connection to the parks guests by integrating original characters found elsewhere in the park, making it a contender for the “meta attraction” designation we previously wrote about on our blog here.

Fantawild Oriental Heritage, Xiamen, China
Theme Park

For its 22nd theme park, Oriental Heritage in Xiamen, China, Fantawild Holdings melded traditional Chinese culture and modern technology through 12 attractions across nine themed areas. “China has a long history,” Fantawild Holdings Executive President, Daisy Shang told Park World, “There are a lot of stories to tell.” Indeed the sheer volume of stories from over 3,000 years of history meant Shang and her team conducted a great deal of research in order to come up with the right narrative foundations for the park’s media-heavy attractions.

“Some cultural stories are very famous but some elements are not suitable for modern audiences,” Shang told the TEA Summit audience. Others, like the legend of the Butterfly Lovers, featuring the characters Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai known as the Chinese Romeo and Juliet, were such a part of the Chinese mythic tapestry that including them in the park was an easy choice.

“The Butterfly Lovers” Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo in the Panoramic Augmented Reality Theatre at Oriental Heritage © Fantawild Holdings, Inc.

“The Butterfly Lovers” Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo in the Panoramic Augmented Reality Theatre at Oriental Heritage © Fantawild Holdings, Inc.

Shang also pointed out the fundamental differences between Fantawild’s business model and other brands: “Many theme parks use IP to have global appeal, but licensing fees for well-known IP are high and may not fit very well with local culture.” By creating original content based on folklore, folktales, and mythology, Fantawild both combats the high cost of IP and achieves its goal of building “localized parks based on localized culture.” 

Be Washington: It’s Your Turn to Lead, Mount Vernon, VA
Museum Experience, Limited Budget

© 2019 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Cortina Productions

© 2019 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Cortina Productions

“What if we wake up one morning and find the busses no longer there?” That was the existential question posed by Rob Shenk, Senior Vice President for Visitor Engagement at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, that became the genesis of the Be Washington: It’s Your Turn to Lead interactive theater experience created in part by Cortina Productions.

In the on-site experience—also available on the web for in-home or in-classroom participants—guests face some of the same crises that Washington confronted during his presidency with the aid of on-screen advisors and gamified interactivity. To relay the same urgency Washington must have experienced to guests, participatory moments are timed and everything is rooted in history.

“We didn’t need to invent any heroic stories,” Shenk said, “we just needed new ways to tell them.” In each of the four possible scenarios, the heroism of Washington and others is realized in rich, cinematic scenes played out on a 6K screen while 36 guests stay engaged with 18 touchscreen kiosks. Through its self-imposed directive to stick to the facts, use primary sources, and eschew any alternate universe narratives, Be Washington demonstrates that the key to learning history is to live it. 

Universal’s Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando Resort, Orlando, FL
Water Theme Park

In a video introducing the story behind Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Theme Park, Dale Mason, Vice President & Executive Art Director at Universal Parks & Resorts, tells the tale of the fictional Waturi people who traveled the world’s oceans in search of a new home. During their voyage across the South Pacific, they “made friends and collected the culture” from real-world places such as Tahiti, Bali, and the Chilean island of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island).

One of the ten creative principles that drove the Universal Creative team in the development of Volcano Bay was the aim to achieve “plausible fantasy,” something this blending of authentic cultures and fictional creation certainly suggests. Of course, using art, architecture, language, and other iconography from real cultures can make for a tricky tightrope to walk. 

During the TEA Summit, Mason briefly addressed this citing the team’s extensive travel and the use of cultural experts to help mitigate any issues of insensitivity, but goes further in an interview on Theme Park Insider’s podcast, Building The World’s Best Theme Parks from November of 2018. In it, Mason references a trip to Bali and an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Natural History about the Pacific Rim and the cultural convergences that naturally take place across the region. “You want to make sure you honor the cultures, but we also don’t want to go too deep,” Mason says. In fact, one of the reasons he cites for pulling cultural elements together is to achieve “a much broader view of it all.” 

Overall, Mason says, “there’s an incredible amount of work that goes into making sure we’re making the right decisions.” While Volcano Bay may not feature characters and locations guests already know and love, having IP that celebrates exploration, friendship, and cultural diversity ensures guests from all over the world feel a sense of belonging throughout their stay and beyond.

IP or its implementation can make or break an attraction (or in some cases an entire park), which is why the research phase was paramount to each one of these projects. What worked yesterday may not work today, and given the investments these experiences represent, the choice of IP has to resonate with the tomorrow’s audience just as much as it does with today’s—2, 5, or even 10-20 years down the line.

The experience creators that took the stage at the TEA Summit Thea Case Studies Day may have come from an incredibly diverse backgrounds, but together, their stories demonstrate that despite quite different approaches to IP, history, myth, culture, and the best of Hollywood are timeless keys to success.

VIZIR PRODUCTIONS was founded on a love for research and delivering creative that maximizes the potential of story worlds represented by IPs and brands. Contact us to discuss how Vizir can help guide your vision from concept to completion.

META ATTRACTIONS: The Rides, Shows, and Experiences Where the Park is Part of the Story

From landscaping to lampposts, every detail of the theme park’s environment contributes to a story. When guests pass under the archway to Adventureland at Disneyland, visual and aural cues signal their entry into daring tales of the untamed unknown. Further into the land, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye invites guests to experience one such tale first-hand.

As in this example, in most theme parks, guests progress from a sweeping, atmospheric narrative suggested by the park itself to a contained land that offers its own narrative framework to an attraction with a linear story. Each of these transitions furthers the promise of escape offered by theme parks as they immerse guests deeper into other realities. In the best attractions, the illusion that begins the moment guests step into the park is made complete. 


Still, an attraction’s script often acknowledges guests as such in order to orient them toward their role in the story. “Tourists,” Indiana Jones mutters in the Adventureland attraction that bears his name, “Why’d it have to be tourists?” On some level, many attractions are conscious of their status as tourist destinations, but far fewer acknowledge the experience as part of a theme park. By referencing the parks in which they take place, the stories told in these “Meta Attractions” uniquely contribute to the narrative fabric of the theme parks themselves.

Universal Studios Hollywood | Universal City, CA | Opened 1964


Since 1915, Universal Studios has been a fully functional film and television studio and from the beginning, studio tours were part of its DNA. In 1964 the studio tour was reborn in the form of “GlamorTrams” that offered guests the unique opportunity to get a glimpse into Hollywood production. As years passed, the studio tour evolved to incorporate staged spectacles that demonstrated special effects and of course, new forms of Hollywood magic in the form of mixed media attractions. To this day, the Studio Tour remains the heart Universal Studios Hollywood, blending fantasy and reality from park open to close. So intertwined with the park’s history and identity, the Studio Tour may be the original meta attraction. 

Disney California Adventure / Epcot / Shanghai Disneyland | Anaheim, CA / Orlando, FL /Shanghai, People's Republic of China | Opened 2001 / 2016 / 2016


When it first debuted as Soarin’ Over California at Disney California Adventure, guests took a simulated hang glider journey across the state ending with a flyover of Disneyland’s Main Street USA toward Sleeping Beauty’s Castle during a fireworks spectacular. On one hand, this supported the park’s original intent to showcase what California had to offer visitors, but the attraction’s final scene underscored the emotional connection guests have with the Disneyland Resort itself: it feels like coming home. This notion was so integral to the storyline that it remains the finale for the attraction’s current iteration, Soarin’ Around the World while Epcot’s version ends with a pair of fireworks exploding over Spaceship Earth and Shanghai Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over the Horizon swoops into downtown Shanghai at its close. Each attraction captures the joy of travel and the fantasy of flight and by referencing the park or city in which each one is located, suggests that returning home can be the greatest thrill of all.

Knott’s Berry Farm | Buena Park, CA | Opened 2015


Voyage to the Iron Reef is a 4D, interactive dark ride whose action takes place beneath the Boardwalk themed area of the park, but whose story pertains to the park as a whole. As guests embark, they learn that recent construction on the Boardwalk area has awakened the villainous Kraken Queen and her aquatic army whose “unquenchable appetite for coaster metal” has put the rest of the park at risk (Knott's Berry Farm). During the skirmishes in which players take aim at the Queen’s mechanical minions, background scenes display sunken roller coaster tracks and decaying ride vehicles. By integrating the park’s history, real-world expansion, and attractions without stories of their own, Voyage to the Iron Reef adds narrative value to the loosely themed Boardwalk area and allows guests to become active participants in the story of the ride and the park as a whole.

Chimelong Ocean Kingdom | Zhuhai, People’s Republic of China | Opened 2015


A year after Chimelong Ocean Kingdom opened, the technically impressive 5D Castle Theater followed suit debuting the 13-minute animated film, KaKa’s Great Adventure, which weaves a narrative thread through the park’s more than half a dozen themed areas and, at the time, the world’s largest oceanarium. In an interview with InPark Magazine, project creative director, Rick Rothschild, describes the experience as “the central storytelling piece for Ocean Kingdom” designed to “inform the overall guest experience” by providing backstory on the park’s themed lands and the characters that inhabit them. With park mascots, Ocean Genie, KaKa, and KiKi as their guides, guests journey to a fantastic planet filled with Ocean Kingdom landmarks and populated by many of the animals found in the park. KaKa’s Great Adventure is a meta attraction whose story, locations, and characters make the park a better experience for all.  

Alton Towers | Opened 2000 | Alton, Staffordshire, United Kingdom

Alton Towers originated as a tour of the Earl of Shrewsbury’s estate; over a century later Alton Towers found even greater success with the inclusion of rides and other attractions beyond tours of the historic manor, grounds, and gardens. Within the park, Hex – The Legend of the Towers offers a unique, localized experience through a storyline directly connected to the area’s history. Set within the Towers themselves, the dark ride reframes the local legend of the Chained Oak Tree for maximum thrills. The story tells of the Earl’s encounter with an old beggar woman, who, upon being cruelly dismissed, places a curse on the Earl’s family: each time a branch falls from the oak tree, a member of his family would perish. In this version, the Earl experiments on one of the branches deep in a vault in an attempt to break the curse. The attraction’s self-awareness in regards to cultural myths, history, and its own geography mark Hex as a distinct entry in the meta attraction category. 

Knott’s Berry Farm | Buena Park, CA | Opened 2016

Ghost Town’s contribution to the identity of Knott’s Berry Farm cannot be understated. The area, which contains many structures that date back to the early days of the park, was already rich with atmosphere before its 2016 refurbishment, but along with it came more than just a fresh coat of paint. Though various forms of live entertainment had previously existed in the park and specifically within Ghost Town, the ambitious Ghost Town Alive!, a daylong theatrical experience, breathed new life into the heavily themed streets. Beginning at park opening, guests are able to participate in a branching narrative with the area’s townsfolk. The story invigorates all aspects of Ghost Town from retail and dining establishments to artisan demonstrations and attractions. While the performers themselves do not express awareness of the theme park as the site of the activity, the experience contributes to the park’s narrative integrity in the way it elevates the role of guests, encourages exploration, and applies new meaning to attractions across the park.

Epcot | Orlando, FL | Opening 2021

First announced at the 2017 D23 Expo, the as-yet-untitled Guardians of the Galaxy attraction at Epcot will mark the debut of the Marvel universe at Walt Disney World. When completed, the attraction, which replaces Ellen’s Energy Adventure, will be one of the “world’s longest enclosed coasters.” Of course, Walt Disney Imagineering promises a coaster experience like no other, designing a “new innovative ride system” and a new story for the characters (Disney Parks Blog). While story details are still under wraps, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek told the D23 audience that Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord) actually visited Epcot as a kid, a revelation he paired with a vintage Polaroid picture of a boy in front of Spaceship Earth. As to how much the theme park is referenced within the ride itself remains to be seen, but the information that has been released certainly suggests that the attraction’s narrative will lean into Epcot’s legacy, which would be a welcome development for many fans nostalgic for the Epcot of yesterday.

Walt Disney once said, “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park. I want them to feel they’re in another world” (D23). While theme parks offer escape from the real world, many attractions take that escapism to the next level, making guests forget—even for a moment—they are in a theme park. The attractions described here do not do this. On the contrary, meta attractions remind us of the otherworldliness of the park itself.


By taking guests on journeys that use the parks as a narrative backdrop, these attractions help tell the story of the parks and amplify their mythic nature. Though they differ in their approach, each one makes the park in which it is located feel simultaneously more intimate and more vast—bound in physical scope but made boundless through the multitude of experiences contained therein. They suggest that no matter how far our adventures may take us—another planet, the wild west, or somewhere over the horizon—we can always return to our home away from home: the theme park.

Are there other meta attractions you would include on the list? Leave us a comment or tweet us @vizirprod and make sure to check out the Meta Attractions infographic here.