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.

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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 SATE 2019 Begins

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It’s been just a few weeks since my fellow co-chairs and I shared a complete look at the sessions and speakers for the Themed Entertainment Association’s SATE Seattle 2019. Our most recent announcements included Keynote Speaker, Starbucks Senior Recruiter Neiha Arora as well as entertainment for the program, singer Alexandria Henderson, said to be the first African American woman to play Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods—on a Seattle stage in fact. This week, the stories we’ve been crafting and nurturing for this conference meet their audience.

Months ago, President of WhiteWater’s Park Attractions Division, Nathan Jones and Director of Business Development at Color Reflections Las Vegas, Shannon Martin, and I had our first conversation about what this SATE could be. By its very nature, SATE (Storytelling + Architecture + Technology = Experience) comprises so many creative ideas and fields that the possibilities are truly endless. But we had to choose a path and that path was one that each of us had tread in our personal and professional lives: recognizing differences in one another and making those differences work in symphony for the greater good. As co-chairs, we’ve walked that path together and now invite others to join us.

The need to embrace diversity—as our theme “Embracing Diversity: Experiences that Bring People Together” urges—could not be more pressing. The World Economic Forum estimates that gender equality in the U.S. will not be achieved for another 208 years.* 26 U.S. states do not expressly protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.** 70 United Nations member states still criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults.† There are 2 million immigrants and refugees in the U.S. with college degrees from their home countries but remain unemployed or working far below their skill level.‡

These are sobering statistics, to be sure, but to dwell on them without action is unacceptable. It’s clear we need to do better. And we can. SATE brings together creators from all over the world, from all different walks of life, and from trades of every kind. Together, we create entire worlds; it follows that we can create a better one.

To embrace diversity is to embrace possibility. We hope TEA SATE Seattle 2019 clearly demonstrates this. We have new voices. We’ve changed up the program. We have the most women on stage of any previous SATE conference. And we’re ready to learn from all our speakers and everyone in the audience.

We look forward to our paths coming together in Seattle and beyond.

TEA SATE Seattle 2019 takes place Seattle, September 26-27, 2019 at Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center. Follow the conversation on Twitter at @TEA_Connect and #TEAsate.

* World Economic Forum
** Movement Advancement Project
International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association
Upwardly Global

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.

IP, Storytelling, and Expanding the Narrative

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On the eve of this year’s IAAPA Attractions Expo, I—Ian—had the pleasure of joining Amusement Advantage’s Josh Liebman and Matt Heller of Performance Optimist Consulting as a guest on their podcast, Attraction Pros, to talk about Vizir’s work in bridging the gap between IP holders and experience creators.

Over the course of the hour-long episode, we talk about: attractions as narrative extensions, reconciling source material, fandom, and good storytelling when developing experiences, and effective ways to not only immerse guests in storyworlds but allow them to live in these created universes. Bonus: find out how Vizir got its name!

Thanks to Josh and Matt for inviting me to talk about what Vizir does and the ideas and concepts that fuel our passion for the attractions industry.

Listen on iTunes