Theme Park Design Process

Have you ever wondered what the design process and design phases of theme parks entail? The design process for theme parks, theme park lands, theme park attractions, etc. is fairly standard regardless of the theme park owner or company.

It should be noted, this post is merely a high level description of the entire process for bringing theme park projects to fruition. I quite literally could write an entire book on this subject to dive deeper into the extensive effort that is required from Architects, Engineers, the Construction team, and the Owner’s project representatives and internal design team members to bring theme park projects to life for each phase of a theme park projects life cycle.

That said, I believe it’s important for theme park fans, and those interested in theme park design, to understand there is an intensive process to design theme park projects. Designing theme parks and theme park projects is not merely a two step process of drawing pretty pictures, then constructing the new project. The process is much more difficult and involved than what the general public is made aware of in documentaries and TV shows about this subject.

WDW Master plan Art
Image courtesy Disney. © Disney

Design Phases

Pre-Design

Remember, all new theme parks and new theme park projects initiate out of a specific need from the theme park owner: i.e. they need more restaurants or they may need more rides due to projected attendance or they need more hotel rooms due to projected attendance or they need another theme park to be competitive in a specific market based on market research, etc., etc.

Once the need for expansion has been determined, a budget has been set, a project schedule is compiled, and a general location has been determined they will then secure a creative group, i.e. Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, etc. to begin pre-Blue Sky phase discussions about their operational needs that will be addressed in the new project.

Blue Sky Phase

Cinderella Castle Concept Sketch
Image courtesy Disney. © Disney

The Blue Sky design phase is unique to theme parks and themed entertainment projects. In this early design phase, a small design budget has been provided to a Creative design team to work on early design ideas that incorporate the theme park Owner’s operational program requirements for the new project. In this design phase, a vast array of ideas and concepts are explored.

In Blue Sky, the theme park architects and engineers are often tasked with fact finding – gathering as much information about the building and/or site the proposed new project is proposed to be located. Typically, at the end of the Blue Sky Phase the Creative team presents their ideas to the theme park Owner for a design review, an early high-level estimate is done of their deliverables, and upon review of this information the theme park Owner decides if the design team can move forward into the next phase of design. If the Owner agrees to move forward with the project, an additional small design budget is provided to the design team.

Want to learn more about the Blue Sky Phase? Check out our post diving deeper into the Blue Sky design phase.

Concept Phase

Cinderella Castle Concept Art
Image courtesy Disney. © Disney

The Concept Phase is an advancement of the Blue Sky Phase. The design team will take the design comments from the theme park Owner back in Blue Sky and begin to further refine and advance the ideas and storylines all while working with the Owner to further refine their operational program requirements for the new project.

The theme park Architects and Engineers work in tandem with the Creative design team to begin a high-level evaluation of their early concepts. At the end of the Concept Phase slightly more refined deliverables are provided to the Owner, along with a slightly more detailed project estimate and schedule, for their review. If the Owner agrees to move forward with the project, the design team is given an incremental additional design budget for the next phase of design.

Feasibility Phase

The Feasibility design phase is exactly what it describes; the Creative team continues to advance the design concepts and storyline while the architects and engineers incorporate the Creative design intent to create their high-level drawings to see if the Owner’s operational program requirements and the Creative design intent can actually work on the site and/or in the existing building or in the existing theme park, etc.

At the end of the Feasibility Phase a more detailed set of drawings from both the Creative team and the architects and engineers are provided to the estimators for a deeper and more detailed estimate. All of these deliverables are provided to the theme park Owner for review. If the theme park Owner agrees with the direction the design is going, the estimate of the budget, and the project schedule they are being proposed, the Owner (in most cases) will fully fund the project and greenlight the design team to move forward.

It should be noted that many projects never leave these early three design phases for a variety of reasons. If that’s the case, then all of the work up to this point is archived and the design team is disbanded.

Schematic Design thru Construction Documents Phases

Cinderella Castle Architectural Drawing
Image courtesy Disney. © Disney

I have grouped these design phases, because for the most part these design phases are structured similar to most large-scale Commercial projects. The duration of each of these design phases will vary depending on the size of the project. For large projects such as entirely new theme parks or new theme park lands, these design phases may take 1.5 to 2 years to complete.

The architects and engineers will continue to work with the various Creative team members, the Owner’s internal project stakeholders, etc. to achieve all the necessary final design inputs that will be required to be captured in the architect’s and engineer’s construction documents.

There will be multiple design reviews throughout these various phases and all the while the construction team and/or the Owner’s Estimator will constantly be reviewing and updating the project’s financial status. The end goal at the end of the Construction Documents Phase is for the Architects and Engineers of Record to deliver complete, permittable construction drawings and specifications to achieve all the necessary building and jurisdictional permit requirements and Code compliance.

Want to learn more about theme park Design Management? Check out my book!

Implementation Phases

Construction Phase

Cinderella Castle Construction Photo
Image courtesy Disney. © Disney

Similar to the design phase, the size of the theme park project will determine the schedule and duration of the construction phase. For large projects this can be 2 or more years, while smaller projects may have a 12 – 18 month construction duration. During the construction phase the theme park architects and engineers’ team will reduce in size. At this point in the project, the architects and engineers will have a smaller more focused team of experts to deal with late design changes that will – and always do take place at an increased cost to the project – during the construction phase.

It is also the responsibility of the theme park architects and engineers to monitor the contractors work to ensure they are following the legal construction documents and specifications that were used to obtain the necessary building and construction permits. During the construction phase, for theme park attractions or rides, this is when the Owner’s Ride and Show Engineers are doing their daily and nightly testing of the ride systems, the various show systems – i.e. lighting, animation, special effects, etc.

Project Turnover

Cinderella Castle with Walt Disney

At the end of the construction phase of the project, there are several weeks or even several months of time that is called ‘project turnover’. For large projects, the project turnover phase usually happens in phases – i.e. certain portions or buildings of the project are released to the Owner for their initial use. The ultimate goal for the project team during project turnover is to achieve what in the industry is called ‘Substantial Completion’. Substantial Completion is a major schedule and contractual milestone the overall project duration.

To achieve Substantial Completion all three major entities that comprise a project team – the design team, the Owner’s representatives, and the construction team work in-tandem to complete a legally substantial amount of construction for the Building Department, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), the Fire Marshal, etc. to sign off on an extensive list of reviews of the construction completed to this point in the project that will ensure it is safe for non-project team members to inhabit the project site. Why is this important?

Upon receipt of Substantial Completion, the AHJ has provided the project written authority for non-project team members to inhabit the project site prior to the Guests being allowed to inhabit the project site. This is extremely important in the theme park business due to the training regimen the Owner/Operator requires to train new Cast Members, Team Members, etc. who will be both operating and maintaining the project on a daily basis.

During Project Turnover the architects, engineers, and construction team are turning over mountains – books – of data, manuals of the equipment, documentation, final as-designed or as-built construction drawings, etc. to the Owner. Often, during Project Turnover (and once Substantial Completion has been achieved) is when you will hear about theme parks having ‘soft openings’ of new attractions. Soft Openings are a time when the first Guests are allowed to experience the new project with the understanding the ‘kinks’ are being worked out prior to the formal, grand opening.

About the Author J. Daniel Jenkins, AIA, NCARB is a licensed Architect, Theme Park Design Consultant, and former Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering with over twenty years of subject matter expertise and design team leadership experience. Jenkins is the creator of themeparkarchitect.com who's goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment industry related topics. For nearly a decade, Mr. Jenkins has worked in the themed entertainment industry on new themed entertainment attractions, theme park lands, and new theme parks. Upon leaving Walt Disney Imagineering, Jenkins started his own Design Management Consulting company where he has consulted with and provided subject matter expertise and project leadership for new, confidential projects for several themed entertainment companies. Mr. Jenkins holds a five-year Master of Architecture degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and a Virtual Design and Construction Certificate from Stanford University.
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