Written by: Sasha Bailyn Monday, December 10th, 2012 .
While most of us have heard of major theme parks and attractions like LEGOLAND, Alton Towers, Madame Tussauds, or the London Eye, fewer are aware that the same core group of designers is behind them all. Merlin Magic Making (MMM), the primarily UK-based creative development arm of Merlin Entertainments, is made up of a small, but highly talented team responsible for creating and producing the magic behind nearly 100 attractions across 21 countries. EntertainmentDesigner had the chance to talk with Paul Moreton (Group Creative Director), Candy Holland (Creative Director of Merlin’s Resort Theme Parks), and Justin East (Creative Director of LEGOLAND Parks) to get a better sense of what this group of Magic Makers is like:
What makes Merlin Magic Making unique?
Merlin Magic Making is like the most creative art college on earth; we have every department imaginable, from graphics, to wax, to engineering and on and on. What makes us unique is that we not only design and develop hundreds of attractions worldwide, we also produce many of them in-house, and we do it all in a relatively short amount of time and with lots of passion. MMM, unlike many big companies, makes use of the 20,000 staff members under the Merlin umbrella and takes their ideas and reactions into account. We act as a catalyst, using a variety of ideas to make amazing things happen.
With so many properties and attractions worldwide, how does the Merlin creative team stay innovative in the face of large-scale expansion?
Many of us come from completely different industries that have nothing to do with leisure, and that collaboration helps us stay innovative. We’re constantly trying to think differently, and there tends to be a lot of cross-socialization. We also have an active R&D department for exploring new ideas, and we bring in new people for fresh perspectives.
To keep our brains thinking creatively, we have “brain dump” sessions that last about 15-30 minutes: everyone brings in a random thing they came across – a news article, YouTube video, sculpture, something a child has said, or what have you – and we think, “how can we add to that?” We like to think of it as taking an idea and saying, “what would that be like on steroids?”
We also turn to children for ideas, because children don’t see limits like adults do. They don’t have a fear of being creative or worry whether something’s going to be good enough. We work with several schools around the world to develop ideas.
Once we have an attraction in place, we are constantly checking how it is received, spending months “underground” testing the jokes and analyzing daily the guest satisfaction data that we get from touchscreen feedback systems at our attractions. We want to track how much fun people are having and what they like best. It’s a huge pressure to get those high scores.
How is designing a destination resort different from a stand-alone theme park?
All of our theme parks are resort destinations, meaning they have many other reasons for staying. It’s a bit like Monopoly, in which we start with a theme park and then add property – first a hotel, then evening activities, and so on. These “second gate” attractions are what grow the destination, and for us the sky’s the limit!
We have become big hotel operators through developing our holiday villages, LEGOLAND hotels, and other resort hotels. We pride ourselves on our accommodations, and have some of the most successful and best themed accommodations in the world. All of our hotels are unique, special places that feel like extensions of the parks and cater well to children. For example, where there are counters, we make sure that there are lower counters for the kids. Rooms are designed so that kids feel separate from their parents’ rooms, and our staff is trained to deal with children.
Paul – How has your background in marketing and Television helped with your role as Group Creative Director at Merlin Magic Making?
T.V. is constantly evolving and you’re only as good as your last show. The theme park world is not much different. MMM has to provide the best possible experiences and exceed expectations, and what we do is all about trying to understand what consumers want and what product is going to succeed, which is the same as marketing for most any medium.
How do you manage character development for rides and attractions?
With LEGOLAND, we have autonomy to create our own stories and unique things for the market. With some attractions, you might get the new big product from Lego, or you might get a unique creation that you’ll only see at LEGOLAND parks. We have some incredible licensing IP to work with, like “Star Wars,” for example.
Many of our attractions are IP-based, from movies or elsewhere, which provides rich material to draw upon. For example, “Saw the ride” was easy to create from the world of the movie “Saw.” Other rides are non-IP based, and we create the stories from scratch. An example is our new coaster “Raptor” in Gardaland, which is based on the idea of an underground alien creature (Gardaland is really into storytelling). With each ride we are trying to create mini-brands, which is very challenging and exciting because you can turn it into whatever you want and act like a film producer.
With so many advances in augmented reality and digital technology, how do the LEGOLAND parks stay true to the bricks-and-mortar of Lego while moving forward into the digital world?
Legos stimulate a lot of fantastic fun. LEGOLAND is an antidote to technology because families can come for an interactive, wholesome experience.
Lego is the world’s #1 toy, and it is ultimately low-tech, but adults and kids love them. Our LEGOLAND parks are all about building and working together with your friends and family, which makes the experience different from other parks. For example, at the LEGOLAND water park, you create your own raft with custom bricks. Rather than become passive audiences, guests make their own experience at LEGOLAND. We only go down the technology route for the right reasons (if it’s going to create a better experience).
The new Alton Towers’ ride, “Nemesis: Sub-Terra,” recently became the first theme park ride ever to be rated by the British Board of Film Classification. This ride, along with others at Alton Towers, seems to focus on psychological thrill more than most rides – can you comment on this?
The “Sub-Terra” ride builds on the existing brand that we developed for “Nemesis,” an extremely popular inverted roller coaster at Alton Towers. “Nemesis” has a powerful story and “Sub-Terra” builds on it with deeper storytelling and special effects. We wanted to really play with people’s minds by building a sense of anticipation – it’s all about the psychological wind-up.
British audiences like clever attractions and things that are unexpected or different from the norm. It’s fascinating to see guests around “Sub-Terra:” they are all screaming on their way out and saying, “It’s good – you’ve got to go!” It’s like a mini Alfred Hitchcock experience.
What do you find most fulfilling about designing theme parks and what advice do you have for aspiring designers?
What I love most is when you actually open a new attraction (any kind), and see the guests’ reaction to it, whether it’s watching them scream their heads off in sheer terror, or smile with delight at experiencing a new adventure. This is what’s so important for any aspiring designer to absorb: the whole purpose is for the audience. Aspiring designers should also observe everything from the big picture to the small details.
My favorite is seeing people have a knockout experience with what you’ve designed, but even more amazing is just the overall process of seeing a seed idea from years ago come to fruition through gated development phases, all the way to becoming a reality.
My advice for aspiring designers is to absorb experiences, be a good listener, and become autonomous with your own ideas.
What’s amazing about our jobs is that we’re creating things that probably don’t exist. In a few years’ time, we take an idea, create something that didn’t exist before, and open it for people to experience. Then, they start speaking the language of that attraction we created from scratch.
My advice: Attractions have to be good fun! Can’t forget that!
One of the things we found most striking and surprising about MMM is how carefully they balance imagination with practicality. The common image for theme park designers is that they represent the pinnacle of artistic personalities, riding scooters around a trendy office and having brainstorm sessions whilst playing with toys and sitting on beanbag chairs. While the daily norm for the MMM team has its fun oddities – after all, they share their home base with the Madame Tussaud wax studio – their attitude towards designing attractions is decidedly more down-to-earth. More than any company we’ve spoken with, MMM really cares whether their rides and attractions are satisfying audiences. They look to people of all ages for input and even seek feedback from Merlin employees of any department. Theme park designers need to be imaginative and playful, but they also need to be in touch with what’s fun and what actually works. Merlin Magic Making’s focus on collaboration and audience satisfaction, along with a passionate dedication to quality, is what allows them to transform creative ideas (whether silly, far-out, or downright impossible-sounding) into some of the most successful attractions in the world.