“Fair Warning”: Pushing the Limits of Fair Design at the Calgary Stampede

Posted by Sasha on Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Calgary Stampede Park

Here at Entertainment Designer, we talk a lot about how theme parks and museums get designed, but we almost never mention fairs. There’s a reason for that. The words “fair” and “carnival” have developed somewhat of a stigma in the industry, conjuring images of rickety old sets and cheap thrills. Even though carnival and fair attractions are close relatives of theme park attractions, most of them don’t represent the same attention to storytelling, thematic detail, and concept development found in theme parks.

But there are a few fairs that stand out for having a particularly high caliber of guest experience. One of those is Calgary Stampede, which is among North America’s largest fairs. Every July, the city of Calgary, Canada hosts 1.25 million people for the Stampede, making it into the 3rd largest city in the province virtually overnight. The festivities last for 10 days and pay tribute to the area’s “wild west” heritage with the world’s highest paying, invitation-only rodeo. The fair offers a variety of other entertainment as well, including concerts, traditional midway rides, activity spaces, fireworks shows, theatrical productions, and performances. This year, some of the performances will include an extreme pogo show, a motor cross show, Peking acrobatics, and “Super Dogs” (a canine performance group).

Calgary Stampede

Calgary Stampede’s wide range of entertainment is a challenge to produce and coordinate, since all arenas and venues must be assembled and built in a one month time period. Curious to learn more about how this large-scale production comes together, we spoke with the Stampede’s Programming Design Manager, Kyle Corner:

Tell us about your role at Calgary and some of the projects you’ve spearheaded.

As Programming Design Manager, I create and develop new programming and lead a small team of coordinators in the design, development and execution of nearly a dozen entertainment programs, which span children’s activity areas right up to arena theatrical productions.

Through Stampede I have created some very unique entertainment experiences including an indoor beach complete with a surfing simulator, a featured celebration stage for the organization’s Centennial year, and an indoor show theatre, which I have heard has now been adopted in other cities.

My favorite and most “outside the box” design was a venue called “Bell Aqua Ranch” (sponsored by Bell Mobility), the largest touring pool featuring a freestyle Jet Ski show and a Bellagio-inspired fountain show. When I pitched it, there were a lot of raised eyebrows because it was a big departure from the standard in fair entertainment and pushed some senior management out of their comfort zone. People were afraid it would rupture and flood, and just the sheer weight, size and timeline seemed impossible to manage. But it was a huge success. The pool (at 180’ x 70’) was assembled in as little as nine days, holding between 300,000 and 500,000 gallons of water!

Photo Credit: Bill Marsh / Calgary Stampede

Bell Aqua Ranch Out of the Blue show

Photo Credit: Shane Kuhn / Calgary Stampede

For this year’s Stampede, I developed an original nightly show, redesigned a new theatre concourse experience, and constructed a temporary motor sports venue, among many other things.

How did you become Programming Design Manager?

Before my role with the Stampede I was a creative working in the production world of concerts and events. I landed at Stampede as more of a talent buyer but soon found myself designing temporary venue spaces and reworking other performance spaces to enhance the guest experience.

What is one of the biggest design challenges that Calgary Stampede has faced?

Last year, our city’s largest natural disaster hit hard during set up, just two weeks before opening day: the river right next to Calgary Stampede’s grounds flooded, and our park basically became part of the river…every inch of it was under water.

Calgary stampede park: flooded!

2013 flood in Calgary

The show is central to Calgary’s identity, and the city mayor declared that the show must go on, so we mobilized and built out contingency plans. Our team did an amazing job getting programming off of the ground quickly. Fortunately, none of my programming got cancelled.

Theme Parks vs. Fairs: Expectations and Logistics

Like any good theme park, the Stampede strives to give guests an innovative experience each time they visit. The big difference is that, for the most part, the Stampede is all temporary. Guests know that a theme park is permanent, and while they have high expectations for new rides and experiences, they understand that some things won’t change from year to year. Calgary Stampede has to contend with a different set of high expectations: since it’s a temporary event, guests expect them to reinvent the wheel each year and “wow” them. The thinking is that if it changes every year, everything should be different, but guests also expect to see sharp design that doesn’t look temporary. This is quite difficult to accomplish when the entire fair is constructed in only a month — 29,000 square foot stadiums get constructed in a matter of weeks, and at the end of the fair, it must all get packed up in an equally short amount of time. The tight schedule and high expectations for an amazing guest experience make Kyle’s job stressful and frustrating, but it’s what he loves most, because it demands innovation.

Though being Programming Design Manager is a full-time job, there is still plenty of time during the year to take on other projects. Kyle recently started his own entertainment design firm, The OTB (Outside the Box) Company, after designing a successful haunted house.

“My first fully independent project was for an amazing philanthropist and television personality here in Calgary, W. Brett Wilson. He has a tradition of turning his 100-year-old heritage home into a Halloween experience for trick-or-treaters every October 31st. In 2013, when the group who had done it in the past decided they could not take on the project, I jumped at the opportunity. I had been to the Halloween event in the past and it was fun but I felt it lacked story, so I got to work with Emily, my wife and business partner, to develop a new direction.

Casket character

We converted the property into a funeral home and cemetery with proper signage, a hearse, casket, and live zombies. It was on a shoestring budget, and took some great support from an amazing team to pull it off but ultimately it was a huge success. Nearly 2,000 attended in less than 3 hours of operation. Mr. Wilson said, ‘In past years it was a 6 but this year I would say it was a 9.5.’

Durham Ave sign

This design project was the launch of The OTB. Since this event, we have been recruited to re-imagine a major fundraising concert for the Alberta Children’s Hospital. We’re also slated to design Mr. Wilson’s haunted house attraction again, and this summer we will start bringing more themed environments to other festival sites.”

This July will be Calgary’s 102nd Stampede, and Kyle and his team are already preparing for #103: “We’re trying to be ahead of the game for 2015 so that we can co-produce and develop our entertainment, rather than pick up entertainment on the fair circuit.” We’re looking forward to seeing how the team continues to re-imagine this historic fair.


image source: Calgary Stampede, Everyday Tourist, o.Canada.com

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