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"It's kind of fun to do the impossible" --Walt Disney

The phrase "location-based entertainment" (LBE) is a catch-all term used, predictably, to refer to destinations to which people journey in order to have fun. Theme parks are the most obvious examples, but museums, zoos, arcades, movie theaters, casinos, and a number of other venues also qualify.

While the manufacturers of other forms of entertainment need only concern themselves with the quality of the entertainment, generators of LBE must also deal with environmental issues. Creating an interesting atmosphere that emphasizes a particular activity while still accounting for the comfort of those being entertained requires the collaborative efforts of a wide variety of professionals. Concept designers and writers create and flesh out ideas. Architects design buildings to house the entertainment. They have a difficult job -- figuring out how to make the best first impression. Musicians, filmmakers, and set-builders contribute to the assault on your senses, creating mood and helping guide the flow of guests through the facilities. All of these people must consider issues like throughput (how many people can get through the place in a given period of time), how to deal with queue lines, and general creature comforts (Is there really a way to make bathrooms seem futuristic/rustic/ancient/nifty? Do people really want to pee in interesting places?).

A well-themed and well-executed instance of LBE can transport you almost as effectively as a really excellent book,* eliciting, when appropriate, a similar suspension of disbelief. Sometimes this is primarily due to the environment. A sufficiently convincing location allows you to temporarily forget the fact that you are just a few miles away from a strip mall that contains a Starbucks. Sometimes you lose yourself in the entertainment (Do you remember the first time you ever came out of a movie theater amazed to find that the universe itself hadn't changed in order to conform to story that you just fell out of?). Ideally, good LBE will combine both of these elements, with the lighting, artifacts, building treatments and other special effects acting to emphasize and extend your enjoyment of the entertainment.

Hrm...it's all well and good to discuss LBE, but perhaps providing an example will make the concept gel a little better.

All right, then. I like roller coasters. Actually, that's not strictly true. I hate roller coasters. I am afraid of heights. Being out of control of moving vehicles that currently contain me makes me uncomfortable. I am not unduly fond of waiting in lines. However, sometimes things are greater than the sum of their parts, and given that 1) the thrill of traveling 50 miles per hour with no windshield, 2) experiencing such extremes of acceleration that the air is forcibly pushed out of your lungs, and 3) being upside down are some of those parts, I am willing to mill about like a farm animal, strap myself into a vehicle that is probably being run by a circus freak, and hyperventilate for the minute it takes to get to that first delicious instant of freefall. Apparently there are a number of other people who also enjoy this form of entertainment, because the lines are usually rather long. With good theming, the tedium of line waiting can be greatly diminished. I think that this is well demonstrated around Batman: The Ride (located at a Six Flags theme park near you--my personal experience with this ride is from Six Flags Great Adventure). As you progress through the line, you are directed through an area resembling a dark and scary neighborhood that would probably be full of thugs were it not housed in a theme park. There is grafitti everywhere, sprayed onto broken bits of useless stuff. Loudspeakers play bits of the original movie's score, and this sound is occasionally punctuated by the thwirring rumble of the rollercoaster passing overhead. Every once in a while, the line's path permits you an impressive view of the coaster, building up your excitement for the ride. The last segment of the line takes you into a dark and rather close space that has a very industrial feel. Every time I went through this part of the line, I got the sense that there should be steam squirting through random pipes into the space, but it has been long enough since I've been there that I don't recall whether there actually was any mysterious steam. Imposing. There is something a bit imposing about the whole thing. The area lends to the sense that something is imminent, but in a way that keeps with the movie's dark and vaguely disturbing theme.

Of course, all of this is ruined when you get to the airy open space where grinning twenty-somethings strap you into the rollercoaster. But, for a while, despite the fact that people are bumping into you and your feet are hurting, you manage to get a little distracted from reality. And that's what location-based entertainment is all about!

some of the people doing it:
disney's imagineers

some of the resources available to them:

With special thanks to my friend Andy who should really be working in location based entertainment. Instead he makes video games. I guess that's a pretty good gig, but I think he'd be happier as an architect.

* I say almost because there will invariably be someone in the building who you, for whatever reason, find immensely annoying, while the control you can exert over your environment while reading allows you (if you are so inclined) to avoid the sticky, screaming three-year-old who was named "Charisma" by her parents in a fit of impressive wisdom. Yeesh.

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