Creating a New Reality
Feb 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Daniel Keller
Reinventing SeaWorld Orlando’s Legendary Waterfront.
If it's true that necessity is the mother of invention, then it must be equally axiomatic that competition is the mother of reinvention. It certainly holds true in the highly aggressive Orlando, Fla., theme park market, where a dizzying array of venues clamor for the attention and attendance of a year-round influx of visitors bearing an anything-but-mute confirmation of the old adage, “If you build it, they will come.”
SeaWorld Orlando is one of the area's most prominent attractions. As the largest of Busch's theme parks, the Orlando venue has always been placed near the top of families' must-see list, and for good reason. SeaWorld is, and has always been, about life. The park's animals are more than just entertainment — they are its raison d'etre, a living lesson of friendship, caring, and conservation, with a devoted staff of trainers, scientists, and environmentalists nurturing the park's flora, fauna, and aquatic surroundings around the clock, whether ore not there are visitors.
Of course, visitors are an integral part of the park's economy, and keeping things fresh and exciting is essential to keeping them coming. With that in mind, SeaWorld recently completed a multi-million-dollar makeover, revamping much more than a quarter of the park's grounds and creating a fresh new environment for its visitors to explore.
“The project's primary goal was a revitalization of the oldest area of the park, to create a very exciting and energetic epicenter with food, entertainment, and merchandise that guests could pass through multiple times per day en route to different shows and attractions,” explains Jason Kantrowitz, president and chief creative officer of New York-based Luminous Ventures. Kantrowitz, a 25-year veteran of Broadway and theater design and the project's creative director, continues, “We wanted to essentially rebrand the center of SeaWorld as a waterfront experience, to bring a sense of life that came from all parts of the world to celebrate the sea.”
“The corporate direction was to create the feel of an Old World Mediterranean seaport. We worked with the writers and the creative team to develop a back story to explain the existence of this seaport, about when people first settled in Florida. Loosely based on the legend of Ponce de Leon, we surmised that this would have been one of the first places discovered, a place known for its miraculous waters.”
To help make the concept a reality, Kantrowitz, in partnership with Busch Entertainment, (SeaWorld's parent company) assembled a team of visionaries to collaborate with the St. Louis architectural firm of Peckham, Guyton, Albers, and Viets, and Charlotte, N.C.-based architectural and brand design and firm Shook Kelley, which included New York lighting design group KB Associates, headed by Ken Billington, and audio and control systems designer Bill Platt of Platt Design Group.
“The concept explores the land and seashore environment of long ago,” observes Platt, who was brought in to design the audio system, as well as environmental sound and networked show control. “It starts out with an early explorers' settlement, and as you get further into the town it develops into a seaside village with storefronts and commodities, evolving to a more modern-day village environment.”
The magnitude of the project demanded a phased approach over nearly two years' time, with many of the area's buildings being either gutted and rebuilt, or retrofitted to the new theme.
“We took a five-acre area and created three different and distinct ‘neighborhoods,’ if you will,” Kantrowitz says. “The center of the seaport town, called Harbor Square, is the civic center of the village. On one side of the square is an area called The Docks, which once had been the lowbrow part of town, bustling with lots of colorful people; the place where sailors, street vendors, and other visitors would hang out. The third neighborhood is called High Street, which was modeled after a typical European town's high street, the area where sea captains and visiting royalty would cavort. These three unique neighborhoods really gave us a way to create a more textured, exciting, and multifaceted environment, which affords today's SeaWorld guests the opportunity to discover different experiences each time they pass through the waterfront.”
In addition to creating an impressive visual design, however, the team needed to create a convincing aural environment as well. “The soundscape was critical to the project,” Kantrowitz asserts. “The architects could have created an absolutely brilliant visual, but without the audio layers, it would have been unconvincing.”
IT'S ALL IN THE SOUND
The goal was to create an environmental ambience that would be integral but unobtrusive. “The soundscape design was a really critical part of helping to enhance the whole back story and feeling of authenticity. We collaborated for over one year with Bill Platt, as well as our music and sound effects production team at Audio By the Bay, in Orange, Calif., developing 30 hours of music and special effects tracks,” Kantrowitz recalls. “We worked diligently to create the unique feeling of a seaport environment, with the sounds of a bustling village, surrounding the guests with the sounds of nature and waterfront activity.”
A Richmond Sound AudioBox digital playback unit provides a continuous feed of audio cues and sound effects. Mounted on poles throughout the grounds is an assortment of Meyer Sound speakers, including 66 UPA-1P compact wide-coverage loudspeakers, 27 CQ-1 wide-coverage main loudspeakers, nine UPM-1P ultra-compact wide-coverage loudspeakers, and 29 650-P ultra-high-power subwoofers. Eight-inch EV ceiling speakers, powered by QSC amplification, serve interior areas. All the loudspeakers are custom colored to blend with their surroundings.
An extensive BSS Soundweb system with six network hubs, twelve 9088iiML, and six 9008ii units provides DSP, loudspeaker processing, and management, while a massive custom AMX-based control system operates everything from operational modes and fireworks to music and sound. An Alcorn McBride master SMPTE clock feeds a Brainstorm SMPTE distribution amp. “It's all automated,” Platt explains. “In the morning the system starts up the background music and all the ambient sounds, like wind, seagulls, birds flying, and such. The ambient sound and effects are coordinated with the visuals too — things like blowholes on shore and incoming tides.”
Platt made extensive use of Meyer's MAPP Online to plan loudspeaker placement, focus, and delay schemes. Bob McCarthey and Roger Gans helped plan and implement the system and its DSP. “We also used Meyer's SIM system to measure and verify the aiming, equalization, and delays of the speakers,” Platt says. “Part of the challenge was the fact that the area was still under construction, and there was lots of heavy equipment generating noise at the same time. SIM was probably the only system that could identify and isolate the sound of the speakers to give us an accurate analysis.”
AMX panels at key locations provide the park's street performers with control over their particular zones. “As the performer comes out, he or she presses a button on a control panel, which gives them a few minutes to get into position before their accompanying track starts,” Platt says. Sennheiser EW-Series wireless microphone systems are placed at the various performance stages. “When their performance is complete, they push another button and the ambient sounds resume.”
While the outdoors are awash with ambient and environmental sounds, the Waterfront's dining and merchandise establishments also needed their own unique personalities. “In addition to composing and producing original orchestral background music tracks for the three exterior neighborhoods, we created unique soundtracks to play in each restaurant and store,” Platt relates. “Each establishment has its own sonic environment.”
Kantrowitz continues, “One of the restaurants is a big pizza parlor. We decided that the owners would have probably played the local radio station, so we created our own Waterfront AM station, ‘WETT,’ which is broadcast live from the top of SeaWorld's Sky Tower. We recorded three hours worth of broadcast material, including fun world music, commercial spots for our local storefronts, and even Waterfront weather reports.”
“Every shop, every area has its own back story, because without it, the visitors really aren't getting the full experience,” adds Ken Billington. “Whatever that establishment's story was, we designed the look, the lighting, and the sound to be an integral, yet subconscious part of it. It had to be invisible to the end user.”
Outside too, visuals play a big part in creating the area's welcoming atmosphere. “Particularly at night, it needs to be absolutely magical,” Billington continues. “We wanted to draw people into the area to stroll, to shop, and to eat, even though there might not be a show happening at that moment.”
Indeed, complexity aside, the primary objective of the system design was to achieve the subliminal. Any given moment will find dozens of sound sources emanating out of every corner of the park. “Walking down any street, park guests would have no idea they were hearing so much manufactured ambience — anything from crickets and birds to waves rolling in and distant buoy bells,” Platt remarks. “The audio portals are integral to separating the neighborhoods, as the various audio triggers give the psychological sense of passing from one area to another.”
Confirmation that their goal was within reach came during the construction phase. “At times Ken would ask us to mute the soundscape while he was testing and adjusting the lighting,” Platt recalls. “Everyone was amazed at how silent and empty the Waterfront became. It was far more conspicuous in its absence.”
A FLEXIBLE, SOLID SYSTEM
Another goal was to create a system that was as versatile as it was intricate. At night the distributed speakers become a large concert sound system for the fireworks, luau, fountain shows, and other events. Akai DR16 and 360 Systems playback units handle music and additional audio for shows. “Not only were we creating a sense of ambience during the day, but we also wanted to create opportunities for SeaWorld to present nighttime spectaculars on the waterfront. Bill and I both paid close attention to the flexibility of design,” Ken Billington explains.
“We wanted to make sure the exterior was performance-ready, that they could set up a stage anywhere — on the lakefront, in the harbor, on a village street — and do a show. We have places all over the park where they can plug in automated lighting, audio, dedicated power, and switching, so they could do whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted to.”
Florida's unstable and occasionally hostile weather conditions presented another challenge in designing the system. Every component of the system has been engineered to withstand extreme forces of nature — everything from hurricanes to corrosion. “In building an outdoor system in Orlando, we needed to be conscious of issues that simply aren't relevant in other areas of the country,” Billington says. “Erecting a sound and lighting pole in Florida ends up costing significantly more than in California. Every rack room needs to be climate controlled. Maintenance becomes a major issue — how will things hold up, how to design systems to be maintenance-friendly. And SeaWorld's staff is wonderful about maintaining every aspect of the park. If you go there today, it looks just as good as it did the day we opened.”
SPEEDING UP THE PROJECT
And if the sheer size, complexity, and special design considerations of the project weren't challenging enough, add to that a last-minute decision to fast-track the schedule. “Shortly after getting underway, the owners decided they wanted to move up the opening date,” Platt recounts. “Needless to say, that led to a lot of late nights and all-nighters.”
The marathon project became something of an obsession for all involved, with the better part of two years spent creating a unique environment that was part real life, part fiction, and entirely SeaWorld. As Billington puts it, “Lots of theme parks are built to create a fantasy, but SeaWorld is all about nature. The animals never seem like they're captive; they're always well taken care of. Their environment, the water, and their health and well-being are tended to day in and day out. SeaWorld takes nature seriously, and we wanted to create something that would fit with that.”
“Orlando has so many great, world-class theme parks,” Kantrowitz adds, “and we knew we had to meet a very high standard. Our goal was to create an environment where the minute you step through the front gate, you're in another world, yet that world had to be as natural and as full of life as the rest of the park.”
Both the SeaWorld organization and the park guests have given the park a resounding thumbs-up, and all involved are justifiably proud of what they've achieved.
Kantrowitz sums it up: “This was an exciting opportunity for us to really take SeaWorld to the next level. We were able to take some fairly generic, 1970's-era architecture and transform it into a brand-new world that feels like it has always been there. I was lucky to work with a fantastic team. There was such a wealth of great ideas, one of our biggest challenges was just figuring out how to implement as many as possible.”
Daniel Keller is an author, musician, and pro audio veteran.
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