Theme Park Architecture: Storytelling via Themed Environments

It was often said when I was at Walt Disney Imagineering that we don’t design themed built environments, we sculpt them.

Main Street, U.S.A at the Magic Kingdom Park
Main Street, U.S.A – Magic Kingdom Park

What is Theme Park Architecture?

When I refer to ‘real-world’ architecture, that is my way of saying and referring to non-theme park architecture. Real-world (commercial/non-residential) architectural projects typically have one main client or owner that provides the Architect with a building program (or list of required spaces that will inhabit and make up the final built project) that are required to make the client’s building function to their specific needs. Most often these projects are places of business, learning, worshiping, health related, judicial related, industrial specific, transportation, or leisure/hospitality focused.

Theme Park Architecture differs from the ‘real-world’ projects in that it quite possibly could be a combination of several of those aforementioned building types with the key differing factor being: there is a unified story, theme, or overarching binding concept driving the architectural design.

Confectionary Store on Main Street, U.S.A at the Magic Kingdom Park
Confectionary Store on Main Street, U.S.A – Magic Kingdom Park

What Design Professionals are required for Theme Park Projects?

Real-world architectural projects typically have a handful of licensed design professionals creating them such as:

  • Architects
  • Design Managers
  • Landscape Architects
  • Mechanical, Electrical, Low-Voltage, Plumbing, Fire Protection and Structural Engineers
  • Civil Engineers
  • Interior Designers

Suggested Reading on being a successful Design Manager.

Theme Park projects typically utilize all of the aforementioned licensed design professionals but they require additional design professionals that are not typically required for real-world projects. These may include:

  • Acoustical Engineers/Acousticians
  • Master Planners
  • Storm Water focused Civil Engineers
  • Bridge and Roadway focused Civil and Structural Engineers
  • Ride and Ride System Engineers
  • Life Safety and Code Consultants
  • Commercial Kitchen/F&B Consultants
  • Water Feature Design Consultants
  • Geotechnical Engineers/Consultants
  • 3D Scanning and Surveying Consultants
  • Fall Protection focused Structural Engineers
  • Fire Modeling/Flame Spread Fire Protection Engineers
  • Sustainable Energy focused Mechanical and Electrical Engineers
  • Graphic Designers
  • Theme Lighting Designers

Suggested reading on How to Become a Theme Park Architect.

In man instances, depending on the theme park owner and client, most of the previously noted licensed design professionals are a part of the Architect of Record’s contract and design team. Meaning, the Architect of Record will be not only perform the contractural requirements of their project scope, but they are also contractually required to acquire and manage many of the other design professionals listed.

For sophisticated theme park clients such Disney and Universal, they typically have in-house Master Planners or owner contracted design disciplines, such as Ride Engineers, Graphic Designers, Interior Designers, etc. In some instances the project may be a blend of outside design talent mixed with in-house design talent. Regardless, the (Theme Park) Architect of Record is required to manage and coordinate all of the various design discipline’s scope and design into one cohesive fully coordinated design package(s).

View of Cinderella Castle from the Hub in the Magic Kingdom
Cinderella Castle from the Hub

Story is King for Theme Park Architecture

Bringing real-world, commercial architectural projects to fruition is no easy task – I know, I’ve spent almost half of my professional career working on said projects. Each year, real-world projects and building types continue to become more sophisticated and nice requiring additional design professionals and consultants. Theme Park Architectural projects are similar to real-world projects in this sense.

Each year, theme park projects become increasingly more technically complex, they typically incorporate new technologies more quickly than real-world projects, and the Guest’s levels of expectations become increasingly more demanding for better, more thrilling immersive experiences.

Unlike real-world architectural projects, for theme parks the story is king! The story drives everything from the individual attractions to the overarching theme, concepts, and story of each theme park. This is what makes and sets apart theme parks from amusement parks. As I like to say, all theme parks are amusement parks, but amusement parks are not theme parks.

If a component or feature of the theme park architectural design does not support the greater story and overarching concept of the attraction or theme park, it will most certainly not be included in the final design for both coherent storytelling purposes and budgetary purposes.

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