Theme Park Design: Preventative Maintenance

Would you believe me if I told you long term routine weekly, monthly, and yearly theme park maintenance is baked into the original theme park project’s design from day one?

Dollywood Preventative Maintenance
Repairs at Dollywood Theme Park

Assumptions and Exclusions

When designing new theme park attractions, lands, hotels, and new entire parks the design team and the project’s Stakeholders spend an immeasurable amount of time not only advancing the story and theme of the new project, but we also factor into the final design the means and methods of how the new project will be maintained for the project’s lifecycle.

It’s extremely important to get the story right in the final design, formalize the merchandise program, finalize the menu for new restaurants, etc. Few know a proportionally equal amount of the project’s design hours are spent with the theme park architects, engineers, park operators, and the park’s daily maintenance teams coordinating exactly how the final project will be serviced and maintained during its lifecycle.

I have briefly mentioned in previous posts that during the course of the entire design phases of a theme park project, literally every nut, bolt, paint color, material selected, connection detail, type of windows, etc., etc., etc. being utilized in the project are reviewed, discussed, reviewed again, analyzed, scrutinized, and finally approved for inclusion in the final design of the architects and engineers record design documents used for construction. The level of scrutiny of every component that comprises a theme park project is performed for several reasons.

Life Safety

Above all else, THE most important aspect of any project’s design is the life safety of its occupants, Operators, and Guests. Creating and designing a safe environment for both the theme park operators and Guests is the ultimate priority of the project’s architects and engineers of record. Life safety supersedes everything and is often discreetly incorporated into the themed environments the project design team creates.

The means and methods of life safety do not end on the grand opening day of a new theme park project. The safety of the Guests, the Operators, and the team that maintains theme park assets is designed into the projects for the perpetuity and life of the project. This may include but are not limited to:

  • A safe Means of Egress is provided for both Guests and Operators from within facilities and exterior enclosed locations.
  • Providing maintenance teams safe means of access to uniquely or oddly shaped structures or locations.
  • Providing redundant emergency power, emergency lighting, emergency smoke evacuation to provide a tenable space or safe egress out of a facility or asset.
  • Providing anti-climbing design or barriers such that Guests cannot access certain areas such as ride impact or machinery zones.
  • Ensuring the use and storage of select cleaning chemicals for daily, weekly, and yearly cleaning regimens meet all Federal, State, and corporate guidelines.
Sesame Street Land
Sesame Street Land – Sea World Orlando

Material Selection

The use of and selection of various building and exterior materials for a theme park project essentially must meet two very broad criteria:

  • The materials must support the storyline and theme of the project.
  • The materials must meet all Federal, State, Local Codes and the Owner’s corporate design guidelines to ensure they provide for a safe themed environment (both interior and exterior) for Guests and the Operators all while not incurring any undue or unscheduled maintenance.

As I’ve stated before in this forum, theme park assets – facilities, structured features and exterior features such as hard scape and soft scape take a beating over the duration of said assets lifecycle. Think of it this way, imagine what your living walls, floors, doors, door hardware (hinges and door handles), door jambs, ceilings, etc. physical condition would be if you allowed 2,000+ people to walk and linger through it every day for 51 straight weeks. If your living room was constructed with conventional materials, it would be destroyed within a few days. Theme parks are required to be built like tanks to withstand the yearly or seasonal impacts from the amount of human through-put they accommodate.

Material selection also becomes relevant to meet specific Building Code requirements theme park architects must abide by. The various model building codes state certain building materials must have a specific fire resistance rating – or flame spread rating – in select occupiable spaces. In the event of a fire, the building materials must not act as additional fuel to the flames for a specified length of time, thus allowing the occupants to safely egress the facility in a designated amount of time prior to that specific building material will ultimately fail and combust.

high reach working in theme park
Off-season Maintenance at Dollywood

Company Design Standards

Most, if not all, theme park owners have their own unique company or corporate design and safety guidelines that all theme park architects, engineers, and designers must abide by. For certain criteria, often the company design standards are more stringent or go above ‘industry standards‘ for commercial buildings and projects. By law, however, no company design guideline or criteria can be less stringent than ‘industry standards‘ or the various model building codes that are applicable to the project.

Company design standards and guidelines often address unique design situations theme parks often have in their themed environments – designs issues or situations that would not be applicable or relevant in standard commercial projects. These standards may address maintenance staff access issues to unique or confined spaces, for example within or behind themed rock work; track, ride barrier, ride machinery guidelines for roller coasters, spinning rides, water rides, show effect areas, catwalks, facility roof access, or show set climbing access. Others may include Guest queue stanchion poles and impeded sleeve details, the use of and specification of rugged door and gate hinges that would normally fail upon thousands of cycles of use every day, temporary scaffolding construction and access during design, new tree anchoring to resist winds, temporary construction wall construction to prevent toppling, etc. The list is endless with unique design situations a theme park’s design guidelines and criteria may address.

Model Building Codes and Law

National model building codes – one example being the International Building Code – are defined as “a building code that is developed and maintained by a standards organization independent of the jurisdiction responsible for enacting the building code. A local government can choose to adopt a model building code as its own.” When theme park architects, engineers, and designers are bring sketched ideas to fruition within their record construction documents used to achieve building and applicable authority permits, they must adhere to all model building codes the theme park project is deemed to fall within. These various Codes are almost always a combination of local, State, and Federal Codes that affect every aspect of a projects design from everything component in the exterior all the way into the interior of the building.

Upon last count of a well-known and recently completed theme park project for a Fortune 100 theme park owner, there were over 20 unique model Codes the architects and engineers of record had to abide by – separate from the corporate design guidelines and criteria we had to follow as well. While model Codes purely address life safety issues and not the enduring or ongoing maintenance of a project, there are select Codes that will affect and guide the construction of and the preventative maintenance of a project as well as the maintenance teams ability to access and work within the unique theme park environments we create.

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Themeing The Obvious

The unique challenge theme park architects, engineers, and designers face is abiding by all the aforementioned design guidelines and Codes that I’ve only briefly mentioned in this post all while themeing them into the immersive environments we are trying to create. To fully explain and list all the design criteria we must follow when designing theme park projects would quite literally be a book three inches or more thick.

Successful theme park projects that achieve a high level of themeing have had a dedicated team working to creatively theme, hide, disguise, and incorporate all of the aforementioned criteria into the story in manner in which the story is the most prominent elements a Guest sees and experiences and not Code required or design guideline specified exterior and interior components. Examples of this are fire sprinkler system fire risers that are thematically painted to look like tree trunks, exit signs that only illuminate in a dark environment when the fire alarm system is triggered, maintenance pathways and access walkways that are themed into a building element to not be dominant or obvious upon visual scrutiny, lightening protection systems that utilized to eliminate lightening rods all over a thematic building that in no-way would ever have lightening rods atop, etc., etc.

Worker under HVAC dunnage
Construction Worker Backstage at Theme Park

Cut To The Chase

I literally could talk about this specific topic of theme park design ad nauseam. The endless amount of design issues theme park architects, engineers, and designers must address in their final design is staggering. This post at best only scratches the surface at explaining some of the design issues and guidelines theme park architects must incorporate into their design all while maintaining the storyline and themeing of a project. All of these issues are factored into and can affect a theme parks preventative maintenance regimen.

If the theme park architects, engineers, and designers can address these issues – specifying the right materials that meet all the Codes and company guidelines and providing a safe means of access and egress for all of the theme park’s occupants (Guests and Operators) – while creating an immersive Guest experience; then the project is a success.

As with this post, and others on, my goal is to shine light on the fact that designing theme park projects goes far beyond what is conveyed on TV and the internet. On those forums it appears the Creative teams make pretty artwork and then – poof – it’s under construction and then opening to Guests. The reality of designing theme park projects – the reality the theme park architects, engineers, and designers must address – is truly where the magic happens and what I hope to bring to light on this website.

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