Interview: Theme Parks with Michael Mitchell

Nov 14, 2016 | Press Room


In your opinion, what makes a successful theme park? What should be taken into consideration in design work?

Michael Mitchell: The first consideration in planning a theme park is understanding the purpose and objectives of the client. Theme parks are built to exploit themes that are generally owned or licensed by the developer. The world’s most successful theme park operators use theme parks to physically express their brands and market identity. The major international entertainment companies like Universal Studios and Disney develop their park attractions around their brands and successful movies. Others, like the successful Parc Asterix in France, build on a comic book. And still others build around historical periods, local botanicals, animals, geology or culture. Of most importance is to understand the client’s goals in developing a park – strengthening an existing brand; anchoring a tourism destination; developing a successful profit center; and the like.

It should be noted that theme parks are planned very differently than amusement parks, which are based upon rides. In designing a theme park, you first need to size it properly to the market potential. Parks that are too big lose money and those that are too small are not sufficiently compelling to attract enough tourists to be profitable.

Secondly the theme needs to be ‘owned’ by the developer. That means that whatever theme is selected – whether it be a licensed character, or selected from a local characteristic – the theme must be able to stand on its own, the brand be special and protected, and not easy for competitors to do the same thing. Building a Monkey King Theme Park is hard to defend.

Thirdly, the thematic expression needs to be thorough enough to be convincing. The psychological purpose of a theme park is to transport people into a different reality where visitors can experience things that are not available to them in their daily lives. Thus successful theme park design pays a great deal of attention to creating experiences that transport people to different realities.

How new technology is used in the theme park design of architecture, indoor, and landscape? How can these new technologies give visitors better experiences?

Michael Mitchell: Simulator, projection and interactive technologies have transformed the design of theme parks. The last generation of theme park attractions was based upon looking at set designs or riding a thrill ride. Today’s parks place the visitor squarely into the action using digital technology. They become part of the story as active participants. With home technology and mobile phones becoming more capable, and as the younger generation becomes the world’s first truly ‘digital generation’ theme parks will need to continually upgrade these interactive experiences to meet the demands of a tech savvy generation.

What’s the difference between outdoor theme park and indoor theme park? What are the features and difficulties of these two kind of theme park design?

Michael Mitchell: In reality there are only a few true indoor theme parks in the world. But if the question relates to themed attractions there are many indoor theme visitor experiences. One major difference is that outdoor theme parks are often of a larger scale from Los Angeles Disneyland at 650 mu to Shanghai Disney at nearly 7,000 mu, ten times larger than Disneyland. Outdoor theme parks are designed for an all-day visit with the average visitor staying almost 8 hours at major international theme parks. Indoor themed attractions, on the other hand, are designed for 1 – 3 hours depending upon the program.

Another important distinction between outdoor and indoor parks is their location. Because outdoor parks require large parcels of land, they need to be developed outside of urban boundaries where land is available and less expensive. Indoor parks, on the other hand, are usually placed in malls and other similar urban locations.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two from a design point of view is ceiling height. Outdoor attractions have a great deal of flexibility in their design because large volumes can be created with large high-ceiling attraction boxes, while indoor attractions are limited to 4-8 meter volumes.

Can you please talk about MCM’s development positioning and plan in theme park design? What theme park projects is MCM designing now?

Michael Mitchell: MCM has a 33 year history of working on theme parks across the world. We have worked on large international parks to small local ones, and both outdoor and indoor. We have also designed stand alone attractions, interactive exhibits and park software programs. Our services have included providing market and economic feasibility studies; financial modeling; master planning; attraction design; landscape design; operational manuals; training programs; as well as park hotel design. For small indoor projects, we have provided design-build services where we offer developers a turn-key project.

Regarding current theme park projects, the largest park we are working on now is in Ghana’s capitol, Accra. This is a 6,500 mu development budgeted at $2 billion, making it the first international level theme park on the African continent. MCM is providing the Feasibility Planning, Sizing and Master Planning support. The theme park has four lands including a live animal Safari Park, as well as a 170 mu themed water park.

In China, we have worked on more than two dozen themed parks from larger outdoor parks to indoor facilities.

Theme park is a special type of architecture. Its phase is very long, and many fields are involved. It needs good coordination among design team, owner, construction team, and supervisor. So, what abilities should theme park designers have?

Michael Mitchell: Theme Park design requires understanding and managing a very wide range of specialists. These include master planners, architects, artists, writers, technology experts, ride designers, special effects artists, landscape designers, graphic designers, lighting designers, show water designers, utility consultants, structural engineers, economists, suststainable engineers, and the like. Literally hundreds of experts are required to plan and design a successful theme park.

In order to undertake managing the design of a high quality theme park, the project manager needs some level of experience in all of the above disciplines. This only comes from working on parks for 10-20 years to fully understand the various issues within each technical area in order to guide the project to complete the overall vision. Having a good sense of how stories are expressed in architectural space, how to create a compelling experience for visitors, then how to deliver that design within a budget, and ultimately to help guide the construction company to fulfill the intent of the design are all important abilities for a theme park designer.

What’s your favorite theme park all over the world? Why do you like it?

As Disney Land and Universal Studio are opening Chinese market now, there will be more and more cooperation between China and foreign companies in theme park construction. But there are huge differences between Chinese companies and foreign companies, such as culture background, standard and positioning, and operation and management. How can these problems be solved that Chinese companies and foreign companies can cooperate with each other very well?

Michael Mitchell: There is no question that there are differences in the working styles between western and Chinese firms. In most theme park designs to date in China, the U.S. design firms have provided master plan or attraction design to local Chinese construction companies to execute. In some cases, U.S. ride companies have designed and provided the equipment and installation supervision for specific attractions. As the Chinese theme park equipment suppliers have gained increasingly sophisticated techniques and knowledge, some have been able to complete high quality attractions fully on their own.

As more and more sophisticated and technical complex themed attractions begin development in China, there will be an increasing need to work together from start to finish. Our own experience has demonstrated that if we guide the client through all the steps required to build a successful project, they help us in coordinating the various Chinese firms involved in executing a complete project.

The main issue is that successful working relationships require respect of one another. We have found that Chinese firms have been great to work with ands have acted as full partners in delivering a high quality final product. It just requires an open-minded understanding and lots of discussion to fully understand each other’s approach and to adopt a plan that takes from the best ideas and styles from both worlds.