PICTURES: Montréal en Histoires

I have always thought that museums were ahead of theme parks in experience design; and it’s not that they have more money but rather that they have to be more creative to drive visitorship with less money. Museums are not afraid of bringing new technologies and new disciplines to deliver their messages to a wider audience.

Montréal en Histoires is another example of such multi-disciplinary team creating an amazing experience for visitors and tourists to discover, explore and celebrate Montréal’s history.

On a visit to Montréal I downloaded the app and ventured in the city’s Old Port at night to discover the history of Montréal differently by strolling through the largest outdoor projection circuit in the world. My favorite installation was a projection on a cobblestone street telling an old Indian story, which interacted with people when they walked over. Very cool, very immersive, very memorable.

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REVIEW: Fear the Walking Dead Survival, Fremont Street Experience, Downtown Las Vegas

On my recent trip to Las Vegas I headed up to where it all started – Fremont Street – to experience their newest attraction: Fear the Walking Dead Survival.

For those who don’t know Vegas this is an area a bit less glitzy than the Strip (a lot less actually!) but which has been undergoing major redevelopment in an attempt to attract young adults. Fremont Street Experience consisted in covering the entire street with a giant LED canopy, which comes alive at night with music, live performances and all sorts of events. It houses the famous Slotzilla zipline, which takes people the whole length of the canopy. And Fear the Walking Dead Survival is by the same operator.

When I checked online the website offered to buy tickets for one of the 20min slots running from 1pm to 12am (clearly nobody would want to go to Fremont Street before 1pm!). All slots showed still available (total 36pax) before heading out so I figured it would be OK to buy on the spot, and it was. I paid $32.

There were a total of 15 people in our slot, that’s almost half of full capacity. Not bad for 4.30PM on a week day. And it was all young adults in groups of two or four. Right on target audience!

After splitting us in two groups, the experience started with a briefing by a military personnel followed by picture taking and QR code reading (for us to buy pictures at the end of the attraction), sanitization and scanning before the next briefing by military personnel. Our group was then split again into 2 small escape rooms where we had to solve a simple challenge to open the door. A nurse was waiting for us to rush us to a lift (a moving platform) after which we ended up in the dark following a few ‘haunted’ corridors to the final room: the 3D shooting game (by Triotech). Once complete we exited where we started and of course we were offered to purchase pictures.

Sorry that was quite a quick description but that’s basically what happened: a succession of proven attractions concept (escape room, haunted house, 3D shooting) to support a simple (but effective) storyline and leave you on a high with the feeling it’s worth your $32!

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Surprisingly I did have a good time! I had no idea about the Walking Dead franchise but I thought the live actors and the excellent theming delivered an experience that felt genuine. I liked the fact that I had some interaction with other people in the group that I didn’t know before. I liked that technology was used to serve an immersive experience. Overall Triotech successfully found a new way to sell their 3D shooting game, which otherwise can feel quite dated and a bit boring.

Fiesta Carnival and the number one lesson for property developers

When Fiesta Carnival opened in 1971 in Cubao – back then a suburb of Manila – it was the first indoor amusement park in the Philippines, and probably Asia. At a time when the country was the most advanced in the region J. Amado Araneta, a visionary and a great believer in family entertainment, decided to complement his Araneta Coliseum (home of the famous Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975), New Frontier Cinema (Asia’s largest at the time) and ice skating rink with an indoor leisure and amusement center covering close to two hectares.

By the 1990’s, Fiesta Carnival began to lose its appeal among the children who have become more enamored with mall-based entertainment, computer gaming, not to mention the appeal of grander amusement parks especially with the opening of Laguna-based Enchanted Kingdom during that time. Fiesta Carnival soon degenerated as a run-down amusement park that was plagued by incidents of theft and other petty crimes. Jorge Araneta decides to close the park and bring Shopwise supermarket in the building. The ice skating rink was also closed.

Fast forward another 20 years and things are changing, back to entertainment. Earlier this year the New Frontier Cinema reopened as the KIA Theatre and is now welcoming some of the hottest bands on tour in the Philippines, Art in Island – off the trendy Cubao Expo – is the country’s biggest trick art museum and Araneta Centre is considering a new-generation indoor family entertainment centre for the extension of its Gateway Mall.

Does this mean we are (finally) seeing the end of the Retail is King era that saw retail driving all property development? Times are definitely different with online retail affecting the expectations of mall visitors. Lifestyle, community and family entertainment are now the key words we hear from every property developer.

I believe that those who understand it and truly believe in it, like Jorge Araneta, will be the big winners of tomorrow, because what Fiesta Carnival brought to many families are collective memories that will never be forgotten. And that is what successful destinations are made of. #jointhemovement!

REVIEW: The Mind Museum, Manila

I have been going to Manila since 2004 and the first time I went to Bonifacio Global City a.k.a. ‘The Fort’ there was really not much, maybe a few high-end condos mostly for expats. Now there’s a massive Shangri-La hotel, some of the best restaurants and clubs in Manila, and even themed attractions since the opening of The Mind Museum (2012) and KidZania (2015).

I was in town working on a new project in another part of town but I had some free time on my last day and decided to visit the Mind Museum on my way to the airport. I was curious to see the outcome of a collaboration between JRA and the Science Centre Singapore, which won the THEA award for outstanding achievement as a science museum in 2014.

The Mind Museum is a project by the non-profit Bonifacio Art Foundation, which is financed by the Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation together with private donors and a few sponsors (well acknowledged throughout the museum). It is a good example of public-private stakeholders coming together to build a landmark facility for a new city as opposed to fully government led. This is one thing developers in the Philippines are very good at; just look at the success of areas like Makati, Rockwell, Alabang, Araneta Centre, etc.

I went on a Friday afternoon and it was busy! A few school groups, some families and quite a number of teenagers and young adults, mostly couples. Entrance tickets are priced at PHP625 (USD12.5) for adults, PHP475 (USD9.5) for children (and foreign tourists!) and PH190 (USD3.8) for public school students. This is in line with privately owned attractions in the region and reflective of the purchasing power in Metro Manila.

Being a stand-alone building it provides a number of advantages such as the Science-in-the-park outdoor area, a covered open space in front of the outdoor ticketing area for activation and exhibitions, and a high ceiling. The inside is not that big, and a lot smaller than the Science Centre Singapore for example.

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The layout works well with most of the exhibitions on the ground floor and a 1st floor wrapping around leaving a nice atrium in the centre. The content is ambitious with 250 interactive exhibits through five interconnected stories: AtomEarthLifeUniverse, and Technology. There is also a dedicated teenagers area and Mind pods classrooms on the 1st floor.

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I enjoyed the Technology part the most as it is more what I would expect from a science museum. The piano stairs were my favorite; I loved listening to the different notes as my feet were passing captors walking down the stairs: simple yet memorable.

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The museum has been open for 5 years and it shows. Most of the stations are well worn out and some are even broken. This is where maybe the design by JRA was more suited for a Western market than an Asian market like the Philippines, where school groups are bigger and people in general maybe less aware of how to handle interactive exhibitions. I thought there was also too much text, which no one was reading.

The show component comprises of a live lab demo, a few movie rooms and an auditorium on the first floor. I would have suggested more show and maybe less interactive stations, which is an easier way to manage kids groups and convey a message in this part of the world.

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So here is the verdict. The Mind Museum is a very praiseworthy initiative with all the good intentions. The ambitious variety of topics in such a small space is double-edged: it includes many aspects of schools curriculum but it lacks of depth and of a strong storyline. The museum would benefit from a consolidation into 3 areas (instead of 5) and an open show area in the centre. Maybe for the upcoming renovation, hopefully soon!

REVIEW: Hub Zero, Dubai

Having worked on a concept of video game theme park for a client, I was looking forward to my stop-over in Dubai to go see the newly opened Hub Zero at City Walk.

Dubbed to be “the region’s first immersive gaming theme park” according the press release issued by Meraas, this 15,000sqm indoor theme park offers “an extensive e-Sports LAN gaming zone and a children’s play area, in addition to event rooms, retail space, and food and beverage offerings”.  Jean Marc Bled, General Manager, Leisure & Entertainment at Meraas, adds: “the experiential entertainment at Hub Zero will challenge visitor perceptions and revolutionise how gamers see and experience video games. We are confident the stimulating and engaging journey will compel visitors to come back time after time.”

If you read my previous post entitled “Why video games are the future of theme parks” you will understand why I got excited about Hub Zero. And so I went hoping to get a glimpse of the future of theme parks and maybe my first ‘gamified’ visitor experience.

I got there after my visit of IMG Worlds of Adventure at around 8pm on a Saturday (the end of the weekend in Dubai). City Walk was not very busy that day and Hub Zero even less busy, which I thought was not a good sign for the end of the weekend.

Hub Zero occupies its own building in this al-fresco retail complex. The entrance lobby is very big and impressive, with a bit of a futuristic look & feel (of course, it’s video games!). Tickets for the ground floor area (gated) can be purchased from the ticketing counter and an escalator leads visitors to the first floor (non-gated), which features the e-sports gaming zone, billiard room, karaoke rooms, old-school video games arcade (think Pac Man, pinball, etc) and a café.

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I decided to go upstairs directly and see if I could look at the ground floor from the top. I was virtually alone on the 1st floor but the view was quite good and I got a feel for the entire place.

Most of the attractions are media and IP-based (e.g. Resident Evil, Battlefield, Gears of War) and include VR experience, dark ride, 5D cinema, laser tag, laser maze and simulators. There is also a kids and toddlers Plants vs. Zombies themed play area, which looks a bit like an after-thought.

I will not make any assumptions on the performance of the park but judging from what I saw it doesn’t feel like people are rushing through the doors. Why is that?

First I was told City Walk is having a slow start as the concept of an al-fresco mall is very new for the region and people probably still prefer big enclosed malls such as Dubail Mall (only 15min walk away and packed that night!). This doesn’t help Hub Zero, which probably needs more eyeballs for a new concept and a new brand not borrowing from any of the big video game publisher brands i.e. it’s not a Nintendo park or a Ubisoft park.

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Second I am not convinced the gated park approach is the right one. It is minimum AED160 (USD43.5) to access the attractions on the ground floor. Yes I know Dubai residents are wealthy but it is still a lot of money for a teenager or a student, which seems to be the main target audience. In a region where FEC’s are very popular maybe Hub Zero should have tried to give the FEC model a new twist… maybe using the principles of gamification! Instead of a series of video game-based attractions dispatched along a circular corridor, why not try to take the visitor into a video game, where he/she becomes a player of the park?

Third I think the choice of theming is too segmenting. It assumes all video game players are geeks and like futuristic stuff. It’s not the case. There are all sorts of people playing video games, including girls and young kids. These are the ones Hub Zero should have thought about and catered for with the same elements that make a theme park successful: fun and immersive theming, experiences bringing people together, live entertainment, etc.

Is Chinese culture a trump card to rival Disneyland?

This is a very interesting opinion piece from Yang Huan, the chief editor of China Radio International Online. I think she provides a great analysis of the ‘war’ on Disney started by Wanda.

The highly-anticipated Shanghai Disneyland officially opened its gates on June 16th. Although there are no official statistics yet about the number of visitors on the first day, one thing for sure is that the US$5.5 billion complex will become a gold mine of Walt Disney, which is eyeing expansion into China’s lucrative market.

It is probably the ambition of the Disney empire seeking to expand its market share globally that is provoking a number of Chinese “patriots” who maintain that China could crush the Western entertainment giant with its own theme parks featuring localized attractions. Wang Jianlin, the billionaire boss of Wanda Group, has already declared a “war on Disney” with the opening of his own theme park in Nanchang, capital city of southeast China’s Jiangxi Province. The project, as Wang describes, highlights “China’s influence in the cultural domain.” He also struck a nationalistic tone during its opening by claiming “craze for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is over,” saying “the period when we would blindly follow where Disney led has been gone for years.”

Honestly, I am somewhat astonished to hear his nationalistic remarks, which sounded as though they came from a revolutionary period in China. Granted, Wang most likely made this comment as part of his commercial strategy.  But insisting that the popularity of legendary cartoon figures from Disney have vanished is simply a testament to ignorance and arrogance.

I am not going to blame those who claim that China’s theme parks are no worse than a Disney resort. What I am saying is that Chinese culture is not a trump card to play when competing with a Western entertainment conglomerate. In terms of exploring and inventing cultural icons, China can learn a lot from Walt Disney in many ways.

There is no denying that China has a time-honored history and profound culture. Thus, it shouldn’t be that difficult to build a theme park in China with a distinctive character which embeds Chinese culture throughout the centuries. However, these characteristics in theme parks in China are – in many cases – devoid of glamour and charm. In 2010, a theme park dedicated to the Chinese literary classic “A Dream of Red Mansion” opened in Shanghai. Although the novel is known the world over, the number of visitors to the park is much lower than many had predicted.  A theme park built in Hebei province featuring mythological characters from “Journey to the West” is also struggling.

The failure of these parks can be attributed to various factors, among which includes attempts to transplant cultural icons in an outdated manner.

Disney has created a wealth of impressive cartoon figures, all of which are amusing in their own way, and also have enduring vitality. Even youngsters born after 2000 are familiar with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. So going to the Disney resort provides tourists with a unique experience, allowing them to interact with iconic figures. You can sing and dance with Snow White or fly with Peter Pan. The moment you step into Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, is as though a spell has been cast upon you.

In comparison to the iconic figures at Disneyland, cultural icons at Chinese amusement parks are merely decoration. There is far less interaction between tourists and the characters. What visitors are treated to at Chinese amusement parks is a lot of cutting-edge technology. It’s easy to pour money into a theme park. But if it has no soul, it’s doomed to fail.

A review of China’s long history shows there is boundless inspiration for building an amusement resort. But those famous images from China’s unique past are being lost on the youth of today.  Young people today have little reverence for the past. So, it is – in essence – a question of innovation. China’s entertainment industry lacks innovation to create new and recognizable brand.

Disney is at the forefront of innovation, and this entrepreneurial value has allowed Disney create a world of loveable characters. There is a hidden value that Disney can unleash by creating new characters through its existing brand. “The Avengers” is a great example of that. By pulling together different characters from different movies, Disney has been able to create a completely new product.

Last but not the least, the success of Disneyland is also related to its superior customer service. “We don’t put people in Disney, we put Disney in people” is the line used by Disney HR in recruitment and training. Every employee and volunteer is instructed to be extremely friendly, doing all they can to assist visitors with the hope of creating a memorable customer experience.

Tokyo Disneyland staff encourage tourists to cheer as the Disney characters walk past in a colorful daytime parade. There are also volunteers who teach visitors how to take best photos. All the staff at Disneyland are aware of their responsibility and individual roles in the narrative they’re projecting. They are fully integrated into the Disney culture.

There is no need to consider Disneyland a ‘wolf’ that threatens China’s entertainment industry.  Companies in China, such as the Wanda Group, would also be wise to reject any narrow-minded plans to create a Chinese “wolf pack” to take down Disney. As the world’s largest tourism company, Disney has a longevity in its brand. Right now is a good opportunity for Chinese theme parks to observe and learn from their Western counterpart.

If history has taught us anything, it is that we should never take our ancestors’ legacy for granted.  Attempts to exploit our rich history without innovating or adapting it to fit today’s standards won’t work. Confidence in China’s culture is great. But we need not cross a line into cultural arrogance.