1st May 2020 –
As we trailed the Lion Dancers christening the launch of the Novotown shopping center in Zhuhai, China, Lionsgate’s Jenefer Brown turns to me and exclaims, over the loud beat of the tanggu drums, “You’ve never seen a theme park like Lionsgate Entertainment World!”
The next day, after touring the attraction, occupying 22,000 square meters of prime retail space, I can say she just may be right. I could even argue that the attractions industry does not have the right vocabulary to describe the new attraction…yet.
On the one hand, Lionsgate Entertainment World (LEW) is similar to a family entertainment center (FEC). The park is located inside a shopping mall and features individual experiences like a three-tiered ropes and obstacle course and an escape room, where groups of 12 spend up to 45 minutes trying to decipher clues, first individually, then as a team.
LEW is also like a theme park. There are extensive stores and ride theming produced by Scenario/Cockram, as
well as cutting-edge rides using popular characters and intellectual property (IP). Roller coaster enthusiasts will certainly put “Gods of Egypt – Battle for Eternity” on their bucket lists.
But not so fast. Name a theme park where one of the top attractions has an average throughput of just 16 people per hour—on purpose. That would be the “Dauntless Fear Simulator,” a walk-through virtual reality (VR) attraction based on the “Divergent” film series where two people have exclusive access, often for up to 15 minutes, to take on their fears while other pairs queue outside (more on p. 43).
“It’s been the hardest thing to explain to people,” says LEW General Manager Selena Magill, an industry veteran who has opened more than half a dozen parks during her three-decade career with Australia’s Village Roadshow Theme Parks. Magill now simply describes LEW as “next generation.”
LEW is owned by Hong Kong’s Lai Sun Group, designed by Thinkwell, and operated by Village Roadshow Theme Parks. More than 20 vendors contributed to the development of its signature attractions.
“I think we’ve changed the theme park industry,” says Brown, Lionsgate’s executive vice president and head of global live, interactive, and location-based entertainment. She has overseen the project since its conception more than four years ago. “This is a game-changing product,” Brown says.
The first thing that captures a visitor’s attention when entering LEW is the triple-decked Media Chandelier. Suspended in the middle of the park, encircling a performance space below, the chandelier is formed by eight massive, curved P3 LED screens, some more than 9 meters long, each one story in height. The park wraps around the chandelier, which is like an art installation making a dramatic statement.
Original media from each of LEW’s intellectual properties plays on the screens, providing visitors with the backdrop for Instagrammable moments from “Twilight,” “Now You See Me,” “The Hunger Games,” “Gods of Egypt,” “Escape Plan,” and “Divergent.”
The park itself is split over four mall levels—the equivalent of 10 stories in a residential building or office tower.
Going vertical and retrofitting an attraction of this scale inside an existing structure presented Lionsgate and its partners with unique opportunities and challenges.
Take the media chandelier. Originally, a vertical tower ride was slated for this space, but there’s parking under the Novotown building, which rendered the construction impractical. Developers also had to abide by local building codes, which necessitate, for example, the placement of emergency exits. Attractions had to be positioned around clearly visible exit doors, not the other way around. The limited footprint and unique shape of the building, which is itself curved, required some creative planning for the back-of-house areas as well.
The positioning of attractions close together, where visitors can quickly move between them, helps spread the visitor load. In traditional outdoor theme parks, visitors often head straight to the newest attraction or start with the first one they see.
“We have less of that behavior here,” says Magill. “Unlike a park that’s built out, you can see a lot more of what’s there to experience, and just by virtue of that, the park naturally does a lot of work for you.”
“The verticality can’t be understated,” adds Brown. “A big challenge in our industry is land and the capital investment required for projects that are as immersive and capable of storytelling as what we’ve created here. But by keeping the footprint smaller and using multiple levels to tell the story, it really opens up opportunities to do this in other places.”
While LEW is a gated attraction, the park leverages its positioning in the Novotown shopping center to generate additional revenue and attract spur-of-the-moment visitors. LEW’s flagship retail store is accessible to the public; offerings like “Now You See Me” magic sets and “The Hunger Games” jackets can be purchased by mallgoers and park visitors. A diner is also open to visitors outside the park. This dual access, particularly for the eatery, forces LEW to be price competitive with other restaurants in the mall, a reality that is great for visitors, but which can depress margins. At the same time, non-park patrons peering through the store and restaurant windows get a glimpse of LEW’s offerings, providing instant marketing.
Breaking the Rules
“Destroying things is much easier than making them,” writes “The Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins. But going vertical is not the only way Lionsgate Entertainment World is breaking the rules. In addition to being Lionsgate’s first solo theme park—in which every themed ride and attraction is a world-debut—here are just a few ways in which LEW goes its own way:
A new roller coaster designed and built specifically for VR
“For the last few years, we’ve been watching people try to put VR on existing coasters,” reflects Thinkwell Asia President Kelly Ryner. “But one of the big challenges is that those coasters were designed for thrill, so the G-force makes it hard to enjoy the VR component.”
By designing “Gods of Egypt – Battle for Eternity” with VR in mind from the beginning, designers needed to take a different approach than designing a traditional roller coaster.
“The path needed to match the VR,” explains Brown.
Therefore, Mack Rides designed a steel track in tandem with Framestore, which developed state-of-the-art media. The result is a storyline that is seamlessly synced with the coaster’s movements.
“Battle for Eternity” extends over two stories, and each ride includes two loops of the track, allowing the park to make better use of a small footprint. With the VR headsets on, virtually no rider realizes they are passing through the station more than once.
Combining ride systems, game technology, and VR in a unique way
In “The Twilight Saga – Midnight Ride,” parkgoers with VR goggles mount a real motorcycle attached to a simulator platform. Their avatar enters Jacob’s garage from the world of “The Twilight Saga” to embark on a vampire chase with the wolf pack. Inside the virtual world, riders control their path and can see and interact with other participants. While there are more than 20 permutations in the storyline, everyone reconnects for key moments.
“Force feedback actuators, physical haptics, scent technology, and wind effects deeply immerse guests into the world of the Twilight franchise,” notes DreamCraft Attractions, which co-developed the custom VR ride system with CAVU Designwerks.
“Every time you ride it, it’s a bit different,” explains Kirsten Taylor-Hall, Lionsgate’s vice president of partner relations, global live, and location-based entertainment. “The way that the bike responds to the media and how the vehicle is actuated is absolutely unique.”
Taylor-Hall identifies as a “Twilight Mom.” She was introduced to the series by her daughter, then fell in love with the books and movies, long before working for the movie studio.
Facing fears in the “Dauntless Fear Simulator”
Fans of the “Divergent” series will recall that young entrants to the Dauntless faction must undergo simulations to test their fears. In LEW’s “Dauntless Fear Simulator,” visitors are invited to take a similar challenge.
Imagine walking across a thin plank connecting the rooftops of two high-rise buildings, scared that one misstep will send you plummeting far below. A moment earlier, you kicked a can and watched it fall. Or picture yourself walking through a door to find yourself in a new environment, where buildings are tumbling around you.
Two participants at a time confront their fears of height, darkness, and the unknown in this walk-through VR attraction. Each person wears a VR headset and backpack, as well as sensors on their hands, and sometimes, their feet. The sensors are 3D-printed by Noitom, which was responsible for the attraction’s hardware and software development. The participants can see and communicate with each other in the virtual world.
There are more than 70 motion detectors in the room. Calibration is a stringent process done sensor by sensor every night. As much as possible, the virtual experience is closely tied to the real world. Fences, brick walls, and other objects inside the room match the virtual media that people see through their goggles so tactile sensations are in sync with virtual ones. Outcomes depend on user choices, so repeat visitors enjoy a different experience each time.
The “Dauntless Fear Simulator” is so popular that visitors routinely queue for up to three hours for the chance to experience it.
Lionsgate has also hidden several gems throughout the attraction for those who seek them.
Consider the Oculus Lounge, the octagon-shaped “Now You See Me”-inspired bar that serves flashy, molecular cocktails. If you feel the need for a double take of the artwork on the lounge walls, it won’t be due to the strong drinks. Some pieces undergo a gradual metamorphosis only noticeable to careful observers. The drink tabletops, meanwhile, are interactive tablets inviting visitors to solve increasingly difficult puzzles. Unadvertised, and unbeknownst to most patrons, the games unlock a secret bar menu.
Inside Capitol Couture, where fashion-lovers and cosplay fans can purchase or rent “The Hunger Games” haute couture, shoppers will enjoy a special “mirror” that shows how they would look as a member of the Capitol class. With a swipe of the arm, the outfit or its color changes.
And in the “Dauntless Fear Simulator,” participants who take their cue from the series’ lead character, Tris—overcoming the VR to recognize they are in a simulation—will find surprising, and possibly terrifying, results. First-time visitors are unlikely to discover this twist in the VR.
Not all of the surprises are high-tech. In the themed Macao night market, where authentic Portuguese egg tarts are for sale and illusionists demonstrate tricks inside the magic shop, “Now You See Me” fans will enjoy searching for The Eye, the symbol of the films’ ancient, powerful organization of magicians. And then there are original movie artifacts like the framed photo of Bella and Charlie Swan that sits on the chief of police’s desk in the re-creation of the Forks Police Department.
No one likes visiting a park only to find their favorite ride is closed for maintenance. Lionsgate and its partners have, in large part, avoided this by building in redundancy.
There are two identical simulators, for example, for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Flight – Rebel Escape.” So, while capacity may be affected if one is down for repairs, the ride should always be operating. Similarly, in “The Twilight Saga – Midnight Ride,” there are two “garages,” plus within each ride, motorcycles are linked in groups of four. There are also two “Escape Plan – Prison Breaks,” though normally one is used for a walk-through tour, while the other is for the full experience.
“We have developed a different genre of an entertainment space,” says Thinkwell’s Ryner. “We realized we had this incredible opportunity to do things we wouldn’t normally get to do in a great, big massive theme park because we had lower throughput requirements. So, we could create these really small, intimate experiences and cluster them together in a way that’s never been done before.
“I believe this is the wave of the future, especially in China,” Ryner adds. “As shopping malls are struggling and they’re looking to turn them into more entertainment spaces, this will be the flagship example of how to do that.”
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.
Article first appeared in Funworld.