February 08, 2022
Deep inside an opulent hotel, an elevator beckons you to leave the lively lounge. A sweet concoction still staining your lips, you step through the mysterious metal doors. Your feet stumble from the rumble of the chamber moving upwards into the unknown. The click of the car settling into place announces this is your floor. A musty mist welcomes you into an enchanted forest. You enter the immersive world of Sleep No More.
This is one example of the realm of Themed Entertainment, where immersive theatre, theme parks, and more draw us inside and invite us to play in a physical, alternate reality.
Whether you are a professional in the industry, aspire to join it, or love seeing how Themed Entertainment experiences come to be, I invite you to join me on a tour through the main principles that guide me as a designer who connects people and place.
Hold onto your hats and glasses! Here’s a map of where we’re headed:
- Start with Story — it’s your thematic through line
- Fulfill the Wish — if you do nothing else, do this
- Define the Roles — invite the guests to join your world
- Entice All Senses — this is the heart of immersion
- Layer in Details — craft each element to serve the story
- Setup the Payoff — make the ending meaningful
- Keep it Fresh — plan to grow and expand over time
In the coming months, we’ll venture further into exploring each of these principles and how to apply them to your designs. For now, we’ll discuss the main concepts of each then finish with one example of how to use the core ideas in daily life. Pull up your favorite chair, or hop into the queue for your favorite ride, and let’s begin.
1. Start with Story
In Themed Entertainment, everything starts with story. The story, and your understanding of it, is the foundation that holds up the entire experience, so make sure both are solid.
Learn the narrative but stay true to the theme.
A story is more than a conventional narrative with a linear storyline. It is a theme that binds everything together. The story can include what happens and the time and place it occurs, but it is the thematic elements that create the experience. Before beginning your design, read, watch, and/or play as much of the existing story as you can to find those thematic through lines.
Craft thematic statements — what this experience is about at a fundamental level — and use them as a guide during each step of the design.
Know your audience and what they love.
Who will visit and how much do they already know about the story? What do they love about it?
Consider who resonates with the story emotionally, either because of the overall message or love of the specific Intellectual Property (IP). Think about whether it is:
- a known IP with nostalgia that crosses generations (such as Star Wars)
- an IP that is beloved within a specific group (Peppa Pig)
- an IP that guests may be less familiar with (Pandora)
- or, an “original IP” that transforms everyday locations into explorable art (Meow Wolf).
And don’t forget about the guests who are with the guests who love the IP.
Consider the context, focus, and promise.
The specific IP is experienced in context with the overall brand — both the IP holder’s brand as well as the company presenting the experience. What do guests expect of these brands? Is it an impressive wow factor? Is it charming nostalgia? Know the distinct brand identities and filter everything through them.
Every part of the guest’s day will influence the way they perceive the story and experience. Consider the real-life factors, including what other activities they experienced before arriving and whether they will need to leave to complete necessary tasks like eating and using the restroom.
The story must also be focused, or refocused, so it is relevant to the type of experience being created, as well as the audience and cultural factors of who is experiencing it. Some IPs have problematic components, and the design can be an opportunity to reinvent, refresh, or even replace the IP to amplify the best parts and make the rest more accessible.
The story is both a premise and a promise. For guests to decide to spend the time, money, and effort to visit your world, they need to know what to expect. As designers, our job is to create an experience appropriate for the buildup. If you can’t meet the expectations of the IP, you need to manage them. But ideally, you will surpass them.
2. Fulfill the Wish
Immersive experiences are grounded in wish fulfillment. We venture into a fantastical version of our world, or a completely different one, and have desires while we are in that world, whether we realize them or not.
Understanding the guests’ desires drives what the experience should be — what they want to do, where they want to do it, and why their participation is worth it. For most guests, there is a core wish to meet that will gauge whether they are satisfied with their experience. General human aspirations, like flying, traveling to space, or defeating the enemy, can support the story to create fun regardless of the guest’s affinity for the IP. The interaction itself is enticing. Uncover the main desires to fulfill the wish for the guest and you’re on your way.
Bring the story to life.
Consider what topics, items, and locations or settings within the story are memorable. Put yourself in the shoes of the guest: What do you want to do or learn, where do you want to go, what do you want to see, who do you want to meet? What do you want to consume or collect? What challenges might you face and how do you hope to overcome them?
Discover the story-specific moments that guests desire to experience in real life — consuming an iconic beverage from the book, encountering a beloved magical creature from the film, or gaining a powerful skill from the video game.
Give multiple ways to experience what guests came for.
Not everyone knows the IP, or likes the same things, or has the same comfort level with interactions. Some guests are waders, dipping only their toes into the water. Some are swimmers, ready to engage with everything they see on the surface. And some guests are divers, who explore beyond what is presented to them. And often, a single family or friend group contains a mix of these. Create a variety of interactions to make each moment more engaging for everyone.
After generating ideas of what you think guests will like, run a playtest and observe guests’ reactions to the experience. Playtest with as many different types of people as you can to evolve your assumptions and improve your design.
Be willing to look beyond seeking support of your idea and be open to starting over or pivoting for meaningful change. We create these spaces to bring all guests together, and it is important to ensure we are purposefully and actively inclusive.
Discover opportunities within constraints.
There are always constraints for the kind of experience you can make — required guest capacity, types of attractions to balance out an overall portfolio across the resort, available budget and resources, the scheduled opening date, and even the presence of other guests.
Use constraints as opportunities for innovation. Find a way for crowds to be an asset. Leverage person-to-person interactions, whether within the same group or with complete strangers. If required to make a boat ride, for example, not only find the way that the story makes sense as a boat ride but why a boat itself enhances the world.
3. Define the Roles
Guests, along with the staff and the experiences themselves, have a role to play. When guests enter the world, who might they want to be within it? Not only do you need to understand their desired role to figure out what the guests want to do, but the guests will have a more enjoyable time if they know what is expected of them. This includes ensuring they understand when and where the story, and their role within it, begins and ends.
Place all guests at the heart of the story.
Placing guests at the heart of the story is what pumps the blood into every other aspect of the encounter. And not just kids. Every guest is part of the experience.
When guests believe, “What I do is important. My actions make a difference. It matters that I was there,” they develop an emotional connection to the story. This can be achieved through active participation but, to really make it matter, it’s about how the experience would not be the same without their participation. It’s not only helping to solve the mystery of a missing artifact, but it is making the key decision that results in whether or not the culprit was found and, equally important, realizing that there was an alternate option possible if they had made a different choice.
Invite a balance of participation.
Sometimes the guest’s role is only to be a visitor, limited to being an observer. But to fully immerse guests into the world, just like in our daily lives, active participation is key. What are the rules of that participation? What is the guest’s call to action that encourages the interaction? Are they invited to dress the part, and to what level of costume?
Strive to give guests the right level of role so they can take in the story without experiencing cognitive overload. Have a mix of passive, reactive, and interactive activities. Balance the pacing between action and observation. Give guests a chance to rest and feel excited to interact again.
When you create a strong prompt, build a detailed set, and describe their character, the guests become actors on your stage with all the cues necessary to play their part.
Populate the world with other people.
Fill your world with living characters because people make a world feel real. Actors guide the guests in their story, playing the part of co-stars who support and validate the world. Having characters inhabiting the world is also an opportunity, and responsibility, to reflect all types of guests in the experience.
Think beyond who is in front of the guest.
The guest experience is the heart, but you need to actually build your world with real physics and building codes. Plus, you need to run it, repeating the experience over and over again for each set of guests. And then, you need to maintain it and refresh it to drive repeat attendance and ensure return on investment.
In addition to the guest roles, you are designing roles for operations, technicians, entertainment, marketing, merchandise, IT, food and beverage, and many other layers of stakeholders that impact the experience the guest will have during their visit.
Everything we create is in service to the guest. For our creations to live on as intended, we need to design for all the other people who bring the story to life every day.
4. Entice All Senses
We need to meet our guests where they are in the tangible space. Yes, digitally connected stations and well-placed screens have become a part of guest experiences, but our senses exist for the most part in a very physical realm. Everything must be grounded in where and how the guest is going to engage with it.
Location-based experiences are all about the — you guessed it — location. What should the guest feel in the space? How can you make their experience the best it can be by giving as many opportunities as possible for them to experience it? The more senses we can engage at the same time, the more we tailor to being inclusive and giving a chance for people to experience it through the sense that works best for them.
Connect Sight and Sound as a pair.
One of my personal tenets is to pair auditory and visual responses. What you see and hear are often the easiest to think about and control. Engaging both senses at the same time makes it more accessible to guests who only have one of those senses available to them. For those who do have both senses, it makes the experience more enjoyable, adds clarity, and directs focus.
Try playtesting your own experience with your eyes closed or with the audio turned off, and then notice how the experience feels in each situation. You should still understand what to do and receive the feedback you need to interpret what is happening.
Leverage the power of Taste.
Provide food and beverage opportunities for guests to taste treats that follow the theme or that they remember from the original books, films, or games. Even if there aren’t story-specific treats to satisfy the sense of taste, your design should ensure that food is not a point of friction and that a variety of dietary needs are met. Eating is a necessary part of the guest’s day that has the potential to enhance immersion and keep guests’ focus within the story.
Stop and make the roses Smell.
Smells can be introduced through food or as part of an indoor atmosphere, can make fake elements feel more real, or provide reactions to experiences, like casting a spell on a barrel of dragon dung, causing it to enlarge and waft its scent towards you (this is a real thing).
It can be hard to control scents in outdoor environments, so existing scents of the area should also be considered and embraced or countered.
In many cases, guests may not realize how the smell of the nearby restaurant, or the scent of the ride queue impacts them, but it does. There’s a reason there are entire product lines of scented candles based on iconic attractions.
Embrace physical, and emotional, Touch.
Holding something in our hands reinforces that it is real. There is magical simplicity in the tactile nature of buttons, wheels, and textured surfaces. And no matter how concerned we are over germs on shared surfaces, there will always be a desire to reach out and touch things.
But guests don’t need to touch everything with their hands to feel physical sensations. Practical special effects engage the physical senses, like heat blasts, air blasts, water spritz, mist, smoke, fog, and haptic vibration. And when practical effects are paired with gesture control, you can elicit the feeling of touch without contact.
There are other ways to think about touch, too. Beyond the five external senses, there are emotional, intellectual, and social aspects to meet. What is the mood of the space? Is it scary, heartwarming, epic? Is the guest learning a new skill? Is there a sense of belonging? How do guests engage with each other?
Each of these senses, when present, allow the guest to feel more immersed in the space.
5. Layer in Details
Make every design element in service to and dedicated to the story the guests are experiencing. Look at the whole ecosystem of the experience from the greater fantasy world that the story lives within to accessibility for all levels of guest ability and interest to how the interactive activities themselves tie together.
When guests return to explore and discover different aspects of the experience, what makes it feel authentic? Make it detailed enough that guests need to come back to experience all angles of the story. A highly themed environment is central to creating authenticity in immersive worlds, including hiding that outside world from view, or at least drawing focus away from it.
Utilize the whole environment.
The environment is like a narrator, filling in the details and backstory around the experience. Use it to craft new depths to the guest experiences contained inside the world.
If elements are already planned to be fabricated, tailor them to have layers of meaning to create repeat interest. Transportation, storefront signage, and artifacts placed in windows can all tie back to a storyline the guest is following.
Direct with indirect control.
Move guests subconsciously and direct their focus using visual hierarchy and indirect control, drawing them towards elements you want them to experience first and helping them make decisions on where to walk and what to do. You can also use it to encourage or discourage gathering, as desired.
Combining lessons from architecture, user interaction, and game design, we can remove confusion and reduce friction. These concepts should be used in all design decisions, from building to pathway placement, but especially for interactive activities. When encouraging engagement, you need to smoothly convey the guest’s goal and role, both for their own enjoyment and to keep guests moving quickly so as many guests as possible can participate in the experience.
Balance authenticity and everyday life.
Our desire as designers is for every piece of the world to feel authentic and real, avoiding contradictions with the story. However, if the bathrooms are too well hidden or if there is nowhere to sit, the guest will break their own immersion to solve the problem. No matter how beautiful and detailed the world is, a guest can’t suspend disbelief if they’re struggling to meet their own needs.
Hide the technology.
Unless the story is about technology, then the tech is not why the guest is here. Keep the magic of how the experience was created hidden. Even as digital tools and high-tech illusions become more prevalent, they should be in support of the physical experience, not replace it.
The lower tech you go, the more suspension of disbelief guests will have. Purely digital experiences are more likely to be replicable at home. Plus, technology is held to a higher standard and ages quickly. It needs to be intuitive, and it needs to feel different enough that guests don’t think about how they use it in their daily lives.
6. Setup the Payoff
The payoff plays into wish fulfillment but isn’t just about an achievement. Achievements are progress markers for successfully reaching goals, not the reward itself. The reward is learning, growing, and succeeding. The reward is having fun with family and friends.
An achievement is a goal the guest has the satisfaction of completing, but the payoff can include recognitions for behavior. Like collecting items and the delight of finding them all or unlocking new, exclusive experiences. Even points awarded for actions are another kind of record for the amount a guest has accomplished and can allow them to see their rank amongst others, to satisfy a desire to compete.
To help guests realize those rewards, we need to create moments of recognition that celebrate that they made it, that their action and exploration mattered. If we do it sparingly, these moments will have more impact.
Reward engagement with feedback as it happens.
Sometimes the feedback following an experience is earning a badge for completing a goal or revealing a new sticker in a stamp book or accessing something they couldn’t before or seeing their name appear on the leaderboard. But those are often delayed or hard to convey in physical spaces without heads-up displays or screens to show notifications in real time. Even in games where points pop up as guests play, guests might not notice them in the moment because they are translated results of the activity, not direct feedback of the action.
The best feedback is timely, meaningful, and in kind with the action.
Direct feedback of actions, like lights, sounds, and haptics confirming a guest is doing the right — or wrong! — thing, allows the guest to continue succeeding or to adapt their actions in real-time and improve. Guests want to be validated and immediate feedback provides that validation.
Put the gift shop before the exit.
Interweave the physical merchandise with the experience itself. What can guests wear? What can they use? How will those items react with the world? How will the world react differently to the guest because they have it?
Ideally, the merchandise is so intricately tied to the wish fulfillment and the story that it is a given that guests want it as part of their experience. It is a tangible anchor that reinforces the experience.
Craft opportunities for lasting takeaways.
A successfully designed experience is about how you make guests feel and the lasting memories. All your carefully crafted details blur together into a larger picture once guests leave, and that’s ok. Help craft the story they tell of their visit through opportunities for photos, videos, insights, and connections with other people in the world.
Celebrate with a finale.
This is where we purposefully separate from real life — real life keeps moving and does not have a tidy end to each chapter. But we crave that as storytelling creatures. We want the fanfare, to find the treasure, to see the climax of the story, to have a resolution to the chaos.
Guests want to know there was a purpose behind their visit and have a chance to celebrate with everyone at the end of their journey.
7. Keep it Fresh
Build for tomorrow and design for repeatability. Just like our world, immersive worlds are living and breathing and changing, and can either improve or decay.
These worlds need to live and evolve because our guests live and evolve, too. Guests are in different places in their lives when they revisit, and the space should meet them where they are. When they return and the experience has evolved along with them, it makes it real, alive, and an immersive world that they want to enter again and again.
Build with expansion in mind, whether refreshing content on a regular basis or creating entirely new areas, new goals, or new perspectives to see existing content.
Create personal progression.
When you convince guests they need to come back, consider what else is available for them other than taking in more details of the world. Is their direct experience different?
This is where achievements and points can play a larger role. Communicate to guests what they have accomplished and what goals are ahead of them. Allow them to reach new levels and unlock new challenges, new things to do, and more elements of the story.
This applies to the progression in their personal story, too. A reminder of their past experiences can show them how their current situation has changed and provide a personal reason to return. The experience needs to feel familiar and continue to fulfill the wishes guests want to repeat but also have nuances that are new and different so that returning is worth it.
Allow guests to experiment and fail.
If guests are playing a game, they should be able to both win and lose, or at least win better.
It’s ok for guests to lose, as long as it is fun. Losing makes winning more rewarding once it happens. Instantly succeeding over and over leaves little room for improvement and makes experiences less satisfying. If everything is easy on the first try, there is no reason to try again.
Season with seasonal offerings.
Just as we celebrate the change of the seasons and cultural holidays in our regular lives, we expect other worlds to do the same. The traditions can be different, but every culture, real or fictional, finds new excitement in the passage of time, even if everything else appears to stay the same.
Limited-time events bring urgency and anticipation, motivating guests to visit now instead of some unknown day in the future.
Maintain the magic over time.
You designed a beautiful, immersive world — make sure it stays that way. Upkeep needs to be an integral part of your design. If elements fade or break, it breaks the immersion.
Work with the operators and technicians to plan maintenance access and methods into the design. If the service team can’t get to an element to fix it, they have no choice but to remove it or turn it off. Think about how to care for the experience and your world will live on after your work is complete.
Putting it all together
There are many more considerations and tools for creating themed, location-based experiences, but these are the principles that guide me during the early phases of designing immersive experiences.
I’ve posed a lot of questions. We’ll look at strategies for answering them by deep diving into each principle in a series spread over the next few months. Thank you for stepping into this world with me.
Beyond Immersive Worlds
These principles can be applied to other forms of experience outside of themed entertainment. To anywhere something happens in a shared space, where you want people to interact and engage. To any story we wish to enter, including the story of our everyday life.
Consider a meeting at work (in-person or virtual). When planning the meeting, ask yourself:
- What is the purpose of this meeting? What is the context for why we are here?
- What is it that we hope to achieve for this meeting to have been worth it? How will we leave feeling a sense of accomplishment?
- What are our roles in this meeting? What are the expectations of participation and why does it matter that we are present?
- How are we going to make sure we are all fully engaged, mentally and physically? Is there a way to entice all our senses to stay focused?
- How can we best utilize our meeting room, whether it is in a shared office or over a video conference? How do we keep the meeting on track while balancing outside needs?
- What’s the payoff for being in this meeting? How do we conclude the meeting in a way that generates excitement around actionable next steps?
- How will we set up the next meeting for success to expand on what we’ve done? How will we progress as facilitators or attendees to contribute new ideas?
Time for you to enter the story
Think about what principles are important to you. What are some great examples of immersive worlds you have experienced? When is a time that you have created something where you found these principles to be true? What other principles guide your designs? What would you like to hear more about as we dive deeper into each principle over the following months?
Reach out to Erica McCay, Creative Experience Lead at Valtech Themed Entertainment Studio