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Playing With New Themes

A Burbank design firm broadens the park experience, bringing high-tech attractions into shops and museums as well as overseas.

April 12, 2006|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

It looked like Craig Hanna was in for a white-knuckle ride when he left the safe confines of Universal Studios in early 2001 to strike out on his own as a theme park design consultant.

Two of the biggest names in the business, Universal and Walt Disney Co., had almost no new parks on the drawing board. Wall Street was turned off by the industry's thin profits and voracious appetite for capital. A few months later the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would pummel tourism.

"A lot of people asked us, 'Why would you even consider starting a new business in the theme park industry?' " said Hanna, chief creative officer for Thinkwell Design & Production.

But Hanna defied naysayers, thriving by diversifying and tapping foreign markets hungry for Hollywood-style entertainment.

The company's project portfolio includes an indoor snow park it designed for sun-baked Dubai and a traveling Sesame Workshop exhibit. Last month, Thinkwell teamed up with casino operator Harrah's Entertainment, Keppel Land and "Titanic" director James Cameron on a proposed 16-story indoor theme park in Singapore.

Sales jumped nearly 70% in 2005 to $5 million, according to the company, and are projected to reach $8 million this year. Thinkwell recently moved from offices in Pasadena to new Burbank headquarters that is four times bigger, giving its 35 employees room to handle their burgeoning workload.

Thinkwell doesn't construct rides and shows but creates the concepts. Like a movie producer, it assembles and guides the team that builds them.

Hanna, 43, honed his skills as a top creative executive at Universal, where he designed such high-tech rides as Men in Black Alien Attack in Florida based on the popular movie franchise.

"Anyone can theme a roller coaster," Hanna said. "What we do is tell a story and create an amazing experience."

When Universal slashed its theme park design group and moved the operation to Florida, Hanna and three other colleagues who were working on a project in Spain decided to launch their own business.

Using their contacts, the four partners landed a $6.5-million contract to design a traveling educational attraction in Asia called the Jurassic Park Institute Tour, inspired by the blockbuster Steven Spielberg movies released by Universal.

But they quickly realized that success hinged on bringing theme park entertainment to other venues, such as shops and museums. So began a partnership with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the popular childrens TV show.

Sesame hired Thinkwell to create a series of interactive traveling exhibits using the Sesame Street characters to teach children about such topics as the human body and the environment. The show tours science museums nationwide.

Thinkwell also has targeted retailers that are eager to offer unique shopping. To lure customers to the Pier at Caesars retail complex in Atlantic City, N.J., Thinkwell created an indoor water, light and sound show that includes a 19,000-gallon reflection pool and a computerized matrix of more than 150 fountains. The show debuts in June.

"I've been around this for about 40 years and these people are about as creative as anyone in the business," said Sheldon Gordon, chairman of Gordon Group Holdings, the project's developer. "They grabbed on to what I was saying."

Gordon also has teamed up with Thinkwell on the Singapore project, an indoor park with shops, restaurants and interactive attractions, including one with animatronic dinosaurs.

Overseas projects have fueled much of the growth at Thinkwell, which also has an office in Barcelona, Spain, to handle its growing European business.

"We came into this business knowing how small the world really is," said Thinkwell Executive Producer Francois Bergeron, a former sound designer for Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based producer of circus extravaganzas.

Last year, Bergeron worked with animators at 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios on an indoor water ride at Movie Park in Germany. The ride, which has more than 50 animatronic characters, is based on Fox's hit animated movie "Ice Age," whose sequel is now Hollywood's top movie at the box office.

"They did a really incredible job in bringing the characters to life," said Amy Lorbati, vice president of worldwide promotions in Fox's licensing division.

Then there's Ski Dubai, a 240,000-square-foot indoor ski resort and snow park attached to a shopping mall in the booming desert kingdom of Dubai in United Arab Emirates. Hanna worked with a Dubai investment group and a European ski resort operator on the project, which opened late last year.

"Just the thought of snow in Dubai was pretty scary," Hanna said.

The company's expertise in winter themes led to its latest gig: designs for a $375-million winter sports theme park in Dallas that Texas investors hope to open in 2008.

Hanna attributes the steady stream of business in part to the company's nimbleness.

"Because we're small and agile we have the opportunity to get stuff to market quicker than the big boys," he said. "And we're nerds. We love technology."

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