Nov 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Daniel Keller
Integrated AV lends realism to role-playing at Wannado City.
With the popularity of theme parks and themed entertainment venues at an all-time high, the designers and proprietors of these establishments have done what any business would do when faced with the prospect of an oversaturated market. They have responded by diversifying. No longer is it just a race to offer the biggest shows, the fastest rides, and the scariest roller coaster. New and creative ways must be found to entice customers to spend those limited entertainment hours and dollars at this venue, rather than down the road.
As the home of Disney World, Sea World, and a host of other high-profile names, south Florida is certainly not lacking for themed entertainment options. So it was a fairly gutsy move for Wannado City to open its doors at Fort Lauderdale's Sawgrass Mills shopping mall in August 2004. But Wannado City is a classic example of clever innovation, and it has clearly proven to be an idea whose time has come.
The concept itself is hardly new. The 140,000-square-foot (that's roughly the size of three football fields, for those of you taking measurements), realistically designed city was created on the premise that children love role-playing as adults — particularly in adult professions with all the accoutrements. At Wannado City, kids are given the opportunity to act out a wide variety of occupations in a realistic, fast-paced, hands-on environment that's both fun and highly educational. The entertainment park features more than 250 possible professions in 60 venues — including kid-sized police and fire stations, a movie theater, television and radio studios, a newspaper office, a hospital, a bank, a dance club, and more — all designed to inspire kids aged 4 to 11 to play at being grown-ups.
A wide array of career options are on offer — everything from chef, sculptor, ER doctor, pizza maker, and hairdresser, to jeweler, miner, pathologist, fashion photographer, model, and defense attorney, to name just a few. Each venue is sponsored by a real business entity, adding an air of realism that might otherwise be missing. The radio and TV stations, for example, are underwritten by CNN, which provides guidance on both technical and educational levels. And, as additional sponsors sign on, the list of career options continues to grow.
More than serving as just a high-tech playground, however, Wannado City also strives to teach kids about commerce and responsibility. Upon entering the city, each “kidizen” is given a check for the city's official currency, Wongas. The children then have the option of setting up a bank account; spending the “cash” at a number of entertainment options (games, shows, eateries, etc.); or earning more Wongas at any of the numerous career options offered. When a child runs low on funds, he or she can then select a new career to earn more.
The kids are also fitted with disposable RFID bracelets not unlike those now in use in modern hospital settings. The bracelets perform multiple functions, from helping keep track of the kids' Wonga bank accounts to building a resume of the various career choices they've made during their stay. Most importantly, the bracelets keep track of the kids themselves, affording parents a welcome degree of security as their offspring roam the massive grounds.
A partnership with the Mills Corporation, the owner of major shopping malls throughout the United States, Wannado Entertainment is the brainchild of Luis Javier Laresgoiti, an entrepreneur from Mexico City and Wannado's chief creative officer, and Jane Cooper, an entertainment industry veteran and the company's CEO. Cooper and Laresgoiti are emphatic about creating an experience that is both realistic and educational. “It's an innovative and interactive concept where kids are in charge and gain experience by making their own decisions,” explains Cooper. “And parents appreciate that their offspring start to finally understand that the ATM doesn't magically dispense money; you have to earn it.”
“Wannado City is a dream come true, both for kids and for me,” adds Laresgoiti. “Every venue, down to the smallest detail, is realistic and believable. Kids can tell the difference. That's why in the hospital, we have real incubators; the dental office features scaled-down dentist chairs equipped with working parts; and in the TV studio and radio station, we have working cameras, microphones, and audiovisual equipment. Wannado City even has its own kid-sized fire truck and ambulance.” And for the aspiring airline pilots, Wannado Entertainment rescued a real DC9 from retirement, transporting it across the United States from New Mexico in advance of the grand opening.
“This is really the future of black box entertainment,” says Richard Wagner, principal with Integrated Electronics, the company contracted to design and install the AV system at Sawgrass Mills. “This was a gargantuan undertaking from both a strategic and technical perspective. Each independent venue has a combination of its own music and sound effects. And there's also plenty of interaction between the venues, which all needs to be coordinated.”
As an example, Wagner cites the fire station. “When the kids choose a profession, they're first shown a short orientation video. For the firefighters, a fire is staged at a nearby fireworks storage facility. Of course, the fire can't happen until the kids have watched the training video, so they know what to do. When the fire breaks out, they load into the electric fire truck, drive through the city, get the hoses hooked up, and extinguish the fire. At the same time, the police are called out to barricade the streets, the TV and radio reporters are dispatched to cover the story, and so on. It's highly interactive, and timing is critical.”
SPEAKERS, SPEAKERS EVERYWHERE
Equally critical to the experience is the realism factor. A fire at a fireworks facility would be nothing without ground-rumbling explosions, courtesy of heavy amplification and multiple subwoofers. The multiple distributed systems incorporate literally hundreds of speaker systems, including 210 EAW Commercial CIS400 two-way ceiling speakers, and 65 EAW SMS4 70V distributed speakers. Another 58 JBL Control 29AV speakers are also part of the 70V system, as are 19 Soundscape GT16+ Inground mushroom drivers and several Community CPL23BT coax speakers.
An assortment of EAW AS460e two-way cabinets, as well as AS490e and AS690e three-way systems, handle the lion's share of higher-fidelity needs throughout the venue. Low-end is delivered by EAW AS414e single- and AS625e and SB48e dual-subwoofer systems, making the most of the explosions and other serious earthshaking. Crown CH and CTs series 70V amplifiers drive most of the distributed speaker systems, with Crown CL series amps driving the higher-powered rigs. The TV and radio stations use Mackie HR624 self-powered studio monitors.
“The speaker systems are predominantly EAW and EAW Commercial-based,” states Wagner. “In most of the zones, we felt that the EAW systems offered by far the best solution, both sonically and technically. Particularly in the areas which called for heavy-duty sound effects and good-quality foreground sound, the AS series systems gave us the most realistic and in-your-face performance possible.”
SEEING IS BELIEVING
The TV station's video systems are also highly realistic, with a full Panasonic studio camera system, including three AW-E300 TV studio systems with AW-LK30 lens controllers, an AG-MX70 video effects switcher, and two AG-DV2500 DV format master record decks. The systems travel around on three Da-Lite AV6-48 portable TV carts.
Also incorporated is a Horita blackburst/colorbar generator and three ProPrompter PP102 monochrome teleprompter systems using PPR-SW software. A wall of eight JVC TM-A101GU 10in. program monitors provides feedback to the production crew. The roving reporters are outfitted with JVC GY-DV300UZ and Sony DCR-TRV22 MiniDV camcorders, Anton/Bauer remote camera lighting kits, and Universal Pro camera tripods.
Three Sony DVD-375 DVD players and an Alera Tech dual 1:7 DVD duplicator are also part of the video ensemble, as is an RMT/Sony DUPE-6 VHS duplication center. Outside the TV studio, four large NEC PX-42VP4A 42in. plasma displays, four Sharp LC-20E 20in. LCD screens, and 13 RCA J27430 commercial 27in. TVs are used primarily for showing the career orientation videos and other program material.
ELSEWHERE IN THE NEWS
The radio station is similarly tricked out, with Marantz PMD320 and Denon DN-4000 CD players, a Rane MP 22z DJ mixer, and five Sony CDP-CE275 multi-disc players. Six Sony STR-DE197 stereo receivers and two Alcorn McBride AMI 8-TRAXX MP3 players also grace the racks.
Microphones in the TV and radio studios are primarily Sennheiser E335 and E345 dynamics, with three Sennheiser EW112P wireless systems for the TV cameras. Eleven more EW series UHF systems are in use in the studios, along with ME2 lavalieres and MD421 radio station guest mics.
In the equipment bays, dbx 26XL dual-channel compressor/gates keep levels under control, with four dbx 215 dual 15-band EQs and eight dbx 286A mic processors to make it all sound professional. A Mackie SR24-4 VLZ-Pro 24-channel mixer runs the main mix, fed by submixes from five strategically located Mackie 1402 VLZ-Pro 14-channel compact mixers, all housed in Middle Atlantic consoles.
ON THE NETWORK
“One of the biggest challenges we faced was simply the sheer magnitude of the project,” Wagner explains. The CobraNet-based system connects eight equipment rooms via a fiber-optic backbone. The network is linked via eight Symetrix CobraLink Ethernet links, with a phalanx of SymNet I/O units including 8×8, 12-input, and 12-output configurations, all under three Symetrix ARC local control panels. A Crestron Pro2 master system controller and six Crestron CP2E sub-controllers handle the system chores, along with a Crestron TPS-3000LB master station touchscreen.
Multiple equipment rooms feature 10 Lowell equipment racks, stocked with Kramer 105VB distribution amps and VS-808 matrix switchers, and Audio Access audio and video patchbays, all connected to some 50 Whirlwind AV I/O panels throughout the grounds. Various audio feeds are sourced from two Arrakis DC6 six-zone audio players capable of 318 hours of playback.
“The number and complexity of events going on at once is pretty amazing, and there's a considerable interactivity factor involved,” Wagner continues. “Different events from multiple venues need to coordinate with each other on so many different levels, which makes for a highly complex program.”
PERFECTING THE MIX
The complexity of the programming would be challenging even under typical circumstances. But add to that the spontaneity and unpredictability you get with any large group of kids in a room, and the complexity is increased by an order of magnitude. “One thing we all had to keep reminding them throughout the planning process was that kids rarely do what you expect them to,” Wagner muses.
Indeed, the first few days were an exercise in madhouse multitasking, a shakedown of fine-tuning based on observing the kids' reactions and adjusting systems interactions and timings accordingly. “Some of the interviews and other programming [are] pre-recorded, but a lot of stuff needs to be very spontaneous,” Wagner says. “If you try to orchestrate it too much, you're setting yourself up for disaster. Besides, the kids can really tell the difference.”
SPREADING THE WORD
By all reports, the flagship Wannado City's opening days have been nothing short of phenomenal. Reactions from parents and educators have been overwhelmingly positive, and the company has received offers from numerous high-profile corporations to sponsor various Wannado venues. With outfits like CNN sponsoring the news reporting operations and Johnny Rockets helping teach the budding restaurateurs, Wannado City is not only growing, but also is adding an unprecedented degree of authenticity and credibility.
The company has aggressive plans for venues in 10 major metropolitan areas, beginning with locations in California and the New York tri-state area in 2005. According to Mills Corporation CEO Laurence Siegel, the companies share a vision of “creating dynamic, entertaining, hands-on experiences that promote education, skills development, and community involvement.”
Wannado has also launched a website at www.wannadoentertainment.com, loaded with animated graphics, audio, and interactive presentations. Although it is, not surprisingly, highly kid-oriented, it's also an ideal resource for information for adults, including press kits, partnership and sponsorship opportunities, behind-the-scenes tours, and employment information. As Cooper states, “Wannado City has introduced a new concept in entertainment to kids, parents, media, and business partners. As we continue to grow, we will be adding more content to the online site, making it even more robust and interactive. Our goal is to make www.wannadoentertainment.com a bookmarked site for kids and parents.” And, clearly, to make Wannado City a must-see destination for their next vacation.
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Daniel Keller is an author, musician, and pro-audio veteran.
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