themed entertainment design

Disneyland Paris Castle Concept” Tim Delaney, 1990

During the development of the Disneyland Paris park, one of the biggest concerns was the park’s centerpiece castle. After all, France was chock full of its own fantasy-like castles, so whatever the Imagineers built needed to be even more impressive than their previous feats. Many concepts and ideas were presented, but one of the most dramatic departures from the formula was from Imagineer Tim Delaney. Shown here, Delaney envisioned an art nouveau-esque observation tower inspired by European visionaries H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Guests would have been able to take ornate elevators to the observation decks for full views of this new Disney land. While this aesthetic was not a fit for the park’s castle, it was incorporated into the park’s Discoveryland and into future Disney parks.

Art ©️ Disney


The Enchanted Forest” 1992

Today’s concept piece is a site plan of a little-seen interactive walkthrough once proposed for the United Kingdom pavilion at EPCOT Center. This charming attraction would welcome guests to explore four zones, themed to Anglo-centric Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and Robin Hood. Peppered throughout the winding, lushly-wooded trail would be highly-themed topiaries, character meet-and-greets, photo ops, fountains, a Cheshire Cat Maze, an interactive Robin Hood castle, and a Mary Poppins carousel. The expansion of the pavilion would also bring the Mouseterpiece entertainment theatre and a much-needed icon in the form of Big Ben and Parliament.

Art ©️ Disney

(Scans courtesy of

Hello Kitty Theme Park” 2011

Sanrio’s delightfully adorable feline friend, Hello Kitty, is an international kawaii icon who has been part of their character lineup since 1974. She is a multi-billion dollar brand, so, a theme park presence was a no-brainer. In addition to appearing at both Japan’s Sanrio Puroland and Sanrio Harmonyland, Hello Kitty now has her very own theme park in China. Shown here is a concept for the entrance plaza done by The Hettema Group. Although never built as such, the colorful art captures the fun, lovable style that has made Hello Kitty the cutest cat in town.

Art ©️ The Hettema Group

“Jurassic Park”

To no one’s surprise, the world of the wildly-successful Jurassic Park films made their first theme park imprint with the 1996 opening of Jurassic Park: The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. However, when Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, it brought guests a more immersive and all-encompassing visit to the dino-infested Isla Nublar. Seen here is an early concept piece for Orlando’s Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park: The Ride, (renamed Jurassic Park River Adventure) can be seen in the top left, while a never-realized helicopter tour attraction can be seen peeking over the trees on the top right.

Art ©️ Universal Creative

“Mystic Manor” 2012

2013 saw the opening of one of Walt Disney Imagineering’s best creations of the 21st century: Mystic Manor. Located within Mystic Point in Hong Kong Disneyland, this stunning trackless dark ride is a cousin of sorts to The Haunted Mansion, bringing guests through an original storyline that ties into the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, which, for those unfamiliar, is an elaborate piece of theme park lore that spans Disney parks, bars, resorts and restaurants across the world. Guests are invited to the home of explorer Lord Henry Mystic, where they meet his mischievous monkey Albert. He meddles with Mystic’s latest artifact, unleashing mayhem and wonder within the confines of the Manor.

Art ©️ Disney

World of Motion” Herb Ryman, 1979

When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, the park’s Transportation Pavilion featured a magnificent dark ride adventure through the history of transportation. Guests boarded Omnimover vehicles and set off on a journey through time, accompanied by the attraction’s theme song, “It’s Fun to Be Free.” Vehicles rode past everything from footpower, to the wheel, to DaVinci’s flying machine to the world’s first traffic jam. The attraction emptied out into the TransCenter, which was full of exhibits and shows about the past, present and future of transportation. Sadly, this iconic attraction was closed in 1996, and Test Track opened in its place in 1999.

Art ©️ Disney

“Spain Pavilion”

The long list of never-built Disney theme park projects is chock full of attractions, shows, parks and, for Walt Disney World, especially World Showcase pavilions. Though many, (as we’ve covered in the past) have widely-seen concept art, others, such as this piece from the unbuilt Spanish pavilion, are rarer. Planned to be part of the park’s “Phase II”, Spain would have followed the World Showcase formula of two attractions, (one a movie, one a dark ride) along with restaurants that sampled the nation’s unique cuisine.

Art ©️Disney

“Fireman’s Landing” Greg Pro, 2014

Silver Dollar City is a 1880’s-themed park located in the Ozarks of Missouri. It is situated next to Marvel Cave, one of the oldest attractions in the area, and thus a mining theme plays heavily into the park. In 2014, the park closed its Geyser Gulch area to make way for Fireman’s Landing, a charming section of the park featuring six firefighter-themed attractions for the whole family.

Art ©️Silver Dollar City / Greg Pro

“Minion Park”

A very happy opening to Universal Studios Japan’s newest themed area, Minion Park! Replacing the iconic Back to the Future attraction, this mini-land features a plaza of themed shops, eateries, photo ops with the lovable Minions, and functions as the entrance to the new Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem simulator attraction. The area also sticks to it name and features plots of astroturf for guests to picnic and take a banana-scented break from their day in the park.

Art ©️Universal Creative

“Jumanji Attraction” 1996

Though many may argue that it’s a new trend, IP-based attractions have been at the forefront of themed design since the beginning. It wasn’t just the powerful companies relying on it. Back in the mid-90s, Landmark Entertainment Group was tasked with creating an attraction based on the 1995 hit film Jumanji for a planned MGM-Studios park in Asia. This piece depicts the entrance to a major attraction, themed to the stately Parrish House, but overgrown and bursting at the seams with the effects of Jumanji. 

Art ©️ Landmark Entertainment Group

“Journey to the West Boat Ride” 2011

In 2010, the Thinkwell Group was contracted to create a theme park based around Journey to the West, a celebrated 500-year-old Chinese folk tale about a Monkey King’s adventure to find enlightenment. The park, to be called Monkey Kingdom, would immerse guests in this iconic tale through attractions, shopping, dining and entertainment. One of the attractions, depicted here, would be a meandering boat ride past miniatures displaying famous scenes from the tale. The project stalled, but was recently revived, (albeit by another design group) and is currently scheduled for a 2019 opening.

Art ©️The Thinkwell Group

That would require audiences actually appreciate them though - and considering its rides like Horizons and World of Motion that earned Epcot the reputation of “the boring park” I can see where it’s a hard sell.

Granted horizons and world of motion (and the rest of classic epcot) are also examples of edutainment and presentational design - the former of which also contributed to early Epcot lack of appeal to the general population. Of course those are elements I’d also love to see a return of - I don’t think they ever got their full fair shot before being dismissed.

Argh the rides I want are slow, loooong, full of sets and special effects, semi-presentational aesthetics, basically anathema to prevailing ideology about theme park design and operations. (Not that I’m against those philosophies. I just want both). Themed entertainment shouldn’t just be limited to extremely detailed recreations of environments and explicit adventure stories. The medium can be used for so much more and in so many more ways than that. Themed entertainment has been handicapped by a slowly developing dogma that the only acceptable style is that of the ultra-realistic environment and story - which don’t get me wrong is an awesome style - but limiting.

The best ride never built, Western River Expedition, is a prime example of how a more presentational and stylized format of attraction could have been developed while still in a narrative context. Hell Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion has moments of this in the load zone and seance room that work so effectively for the same reasons those stylization techniques work well in theater. Modern theme park theorists might see blank black walls and ambiguous locations as bad design - and certainly they can be - but at least in the case of the mansion I see purposefully selective focus, theatricality, and dream-like spaces. When used well stylization and presentationalism can elevate an environment, story, and emotion - something the Worlds Fair and Epcot attractions did with perfection and that influence (of the fair that is) rubbed off on bits of Pirates, the Mansion, and some of the Magic Kingdom in Florida, often to great effect (with a few misses - namely presentational design doesn’t work so well when applied to exteriors and lands as a whole in fantasy parks. That’s just called visible show buildings).

Anyway I’m just worried the themed entertainment industry is going to be hamstrung by an artificial dogmatic adherence to realism, explicitness, and such in the same way the film industry has. So few films take advantage of the fact they’re an artificial medium - but the ones that do (Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine come to mind right away, as do many musicals and early Woody Allen) are praised and loved but no one seems to get the lesson.

Anyway. Sorry for the early morning ramblings on a topic I address too often. Typo apologies in advance.

“Alice in Wonderland Maze”

A very warm, (albeit delayed) Happy 25th birthday to Disneyland Paris, one of the most beautiful theme parks in the world!! Today’s piece is an early concept for that park’s Fantasyland. Though Alice’s Curious Labyrinth currently operates in the park, the idea went through many changes during the development process. In this iteration, the Queen of Hearts Castle, was shaped out of a hedge, instead of being fully-explorable as it stands today.

Art ©️Disney

“Carousel of Progress” John Hench, 1967

When Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress made its grand debut at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, it quickly became one of the fair’s most-visited pavilions and delighted guests with its musical story of progress and optimism. The theater system, where guests would stay seated and rotate around different scenes, and the flashy new Audio Animatronics wowed visitors young and old. The overwhelming success inspired Walt and the Imagineers to include the attraction in their plans for 1967’s New Tomorrowland at Disneyland, shown here in a piece by John Hench. While the attraction has since moved to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, its legacy has continued on, and this great big beautiful tomorrow is the longest running stage show in the history of American theater.

Art ©️Disney

“Pirates of the Caribbean” Tim Delaney

Long before Shanghai Disneyland’s incredible Treasure Cove area debuted in 2016, the original arrival of Pirates in China was to be in a planned “Pirates Cove” at Hong Kong Disneyland. The headliner attraction, of course, would have been a modern take on the classic Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Shown here in a concept by Tim Delaney, the flume ride would’ve featured a massive splashdown from the fiery peak of a skull-encrusted mountain into a shipwreck lagoon. This project, originally envisioned as Part Four of the expansion plan that included Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch and Toy Story Land, was shelved and later expanded upon for Shanghai.

Art ©️ Disney

“Beauty and the Beast Expansion”

As Disney’s live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast continues to hold global audiences captive, Tokyo Disneyland’s Beauty and the Beast-centric Fantasyland expansion breaks ground. We’ve previously covered this area, which will feature new eateries, shops, an exciting new trackless E-ticket dark ride, and a new live show venue. This new piece gives us an overview of what it will feel like to walk down the streets of Belle’s Village, with the peaks of the Beast’s Castle looming above us beyond the trees. Based on the art, by the time this project opens in Summer 2020, we can expect this area to be a larger, more lush version of Magic Kingdom’s Beauty and the Beast area.

Art ©️ Disney