Not Your Childhood Theme Park

VR at an amusement park
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A common question I hear is, “What is the difference between a theme park and an amusement park?” Not to be flip, but it is the theming of the areas. Some parks just have rides and a few shows; some parks have fully immersive worlds with rides and shows. The needs for both are very similar, with the theme park needing more attention to detail. There are multiple park sizes and brands, and each has its own set of requirements. As in all things, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A key item to remember is that parks are entertainment venues, and they use their AV systems to make money. If a conference room is not working, people can move to another one, but if a theme park attraction is not working, the park will lose revenue.

When I speak with people about theme park design, it becomes clear that not everyone is aware of the technology and effort put into crafting the guest experience. My belief is that if the design is working well, the AV becomes a part of the scene and the image. It becomes the “invisible background.” However, there are other times that technology should be clearly seen and experienced. The decision about what to show and what to hide is a creative one made by the design team. That is the start of the process: having a story or idea about what the guest will experience. It can be a highly themed experience that transports guests to another place, or it can be an encounter with no theming and just background music.

Knowing the goal and boundary conditions will guide every decision. The goal of almost every park is to get people into and through the park as easily as possible. That ease is for the guests, not always the staff. That is also where AV technology can help in ways beyond simply entertainment. 

Hear more from Bradford Benn at the AV Network Nation event on Dec. 10. 

Some parks overlook the importance of having digital signage and wayfinding starting at the ticket windows. It is not just about telling people about prices; signage can convey what attractions are busy that day and where the shortest lines are.

Park entrances serve as an important welcome spot, providing a sense of place and mood for the guests. If people hear the sound of traffic, they may not be able to relax. Having audio playing is a great way to set the mood and provide noise masking at the same time. 

The criteria for selecting speakers for this use is the same as for any other project: we ask what sound pressure level (SPL) and bandwidth will be needed. There are now extra things to think about, like color, size, and hide-ability. One also has to think a little more about placement, as having a wide-open pathway means that there might be larger areas to cover than expected. Speaker locations might be a light pole or a planter. One needs to be aware of what else might be occupying those spaces, such as wireless access points or theatrical lighting.

Technologists also need to consider the environment when making the equipment selection—and it’s not just about the color. Mounting a speaker on a light pole might seem like a great way to get it out of the way, but you’ll still need to consider the smallest details. If an adult has a child on his shoulder, will the child’s head hit the bottom of the speaker? How does one provide a safety cable for the equipment? Does the device need to be protected from lightning? Is it in direct sun and will the color fade? Is it paintable so it can match the color of the light pole? There are a lot of things to consider and the process can be overwhelming, though the questions you need to answer here aren’t much different than what you’d think about for any outdoor project.

You’ll also need to decide whether the speaker system should be high or low impedance. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, there are factors that will guide the decision, with budget being a primary one. If the park has mobile vendor carts, it might be advantageous to be able to turn down a speaker if a cart is parked underneath it that day. If there are parades or pop-up shows, it could be beneficial to be able to directly adjust each speaker or a zone of speakers.

The use of video in the park can easily enhance the guest experience, with applications including interactive wayfinding and showing current wait times in lines. Yes, much of this information could be accessed via a mobile device instead, but the tradeoff is that the mobile device will remind people of the outside world.

Don’t overlook the importance of video for information transfer with regard to queue lines and load instructions. Using video, park personnel can give instructions that are accurate and in a language that everybody can easily understand. People in a queue may have a long wait, and entertaining and informing them with video can reduce their perceived wait time.

Video is also a powerful tool for creating effects inside a ride and outside during a nighttime show. Projection mapping has been demonstrated successfully in many places. Unexpected projection mapping is a great tool for adding mystery and surprise. The ability to transform a static scene into something with motion using video is powerful. A misconception is that video effects can be too expensive; instead, look at it as part of the overall cost. Is the use of video reducing the cost of scenery or other items?

This article has touched on just a small part of the process of designing audio-video systems for amusement parks. If there is nothing else you take away from this piece, remember that AV is there to support the overall story and experience. While it might not be the reason people are going to the park, it will definitely be missed if not there. The whole process starts with one question: “What is the experience you want to create for the guest?”