Take a trip with me, back to the early 2000s, when childhood meant writing the date of the Jimmy Timmy Power Hour in your school planner, and when Roller Coaster Tycoon was a staple of grade-school hangouts. Good Lord, that game. It wowed us all with its offer of immense power. And yeah, that power was often used to open unfinished coasters to the throngs of colorful NPCs, sure. But as we matured, it was used instead to tackle in-depth design and beautification. Destroying a park was easy, but making one attractive, efficient, and successful was much more challenging, and ultimately more satisfying, too.
For my part, I spent hours working at it. I happily pushed aside algebra homework to finish designing a coaster in the shape of the word, ‘HI.’ My parks were extravagant. They had at least 3 coasters each, a monorail, and top-tier gift shops, the whole deal. Go ahead and call me a geek, but I loved watching the guests’ enjoyment meters skyrocket.
Even at such a young age, the game was inviting us to dip our toes into the intricacies of running an amusement park, and to everyone’s surprise, it was actually interesting. During research for this piece, more than a few of my designer friends told me that games like Roller Coaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon did in fact play a role in sparking a desire to learn more about what makes a physical space enjoyable for visitors.
But very few have taken their love of theme parks as far as Norihisa Hatakeyama, whose actual, real-life job is to design them. He works in conjunction with LA Design Associates, who take on a huge range of design projects, including many within the theme park industry. Norihisa has contributed planning to parks in South Korea and China, and has also worked with Tokyo Disneyland, one of the biggest parks in the world.
“At Tokyo Disneyland, I worked in Operations,” says Hatakeyama. “This experience working on the front line, learning first-hand what it takes to run a theme park is a tremendous asset to me. A theme park is such a complicated undertaking. You have to be mindful of the needs and wants not only of the guests but also that of staff members who operate and maintain it.”
It’s the kind of job you didn’t know you wanted until just know. Before meeting Norihisa, it was a job I’d never even thought about, but of course it’s a crucial role in what can be a highly profitable industry. The revenue for Disney’s parks and resorts worldwide in 2015 was $16.16 billion. To put that in perspective, in 2012, Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise, one of the most popular/successful film properties of the last 40 years, for $4 billion. So basically, they could afford to buy Star Wars 4 times every year. Just on the money coming in from their amusement parks.
In other words, it’s big business, and not just for Disney, but also for the countless other independent theme parks scattered all over planet Earth, which draw hundreds of millions of visitors.
At the same time, theme parks are so much more than a business. For one thing, they’re possibly the most tangible form of escapism in the world of entertainment, offering an actual, physical place to escape to, one that imagines a hopeful future and a low-stress, fanciful present. They have a profound and lasting impact, on children especially. And that’s what drew Norihisa to the industry as well.
“I grew up watching Hollywood movies from the 30s and 40s, and it was only natural that I developed a very strong emotional connection with Tokyo Disneyland, where you can actually stroll through and even touch a Victorian main street or a frontier boomtown. My countless visits there as a child left such a powerful impression on me, and I haven’t thought about much else ever since. I felt very thankful for those who came up with the idea of bringing a piece of America to Japan, and carried the plan all the way through to make it a reality.”
Amusement parks have long been dominated by American ideas like this one. Ever since the start, they’ve served as a playground for visionaries who have imagined what the future will look and feel like. This the basis for Disney’s famous Epcot, which Walt Disney himself had hoped would serve as an example of the ideal living community. But this fixation on the future goes back much farther. The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 aimed to show the world that the U.S. had big ideas for the years ahead. It famously featured copious amounts of electric light, and an architectural style that looked to the future, a style that had a major impact on American architecture for decades to come.
Ever since, theme parks have only upped their ambition. They’ve been home to some of the most outlandish rides and structures in recent memory. (For a good example, look up the long-defunct Disney World ride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, which actually took visitors underwater, to a land of real and animatronic sea creatures and hired women to pose as mermaids on nearby boulders.)
In terms of design, these parks of whimsy and fantasy pose a unique challenge. Each attraction presents its own distinct personality, which then has to flow seamlessly into the next, without confusing or disorienting the visitor. Norihisa told me about the key concept behind successful themed landscape design, which he carries with him to every project.
“Storytelling is at the center of every design. A theme park is, after all, show business, and that show is not all about rides or attractions, while they play a very big role indeed. Our job is to create convincing story environments that guests can immerse themselves in. All landscape elements, including pavement materials and planting palettes, are chosen so that they enhance, not contradict, the story idea we are trying to present to our guests. And all of this has to be accomplished while still working within the limits of the real world and the immediate demands of the area. It’s definitely a challenge,” says Norihisa.
“Your fantasy environment has to be designed within local building codes, and has to accommodate emergency vehicle access, for example. And constant changes [are] made to the scope/content of the project.”
I tell Norihisa about a theme park from my childhood, Story Book Forest in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Basically you follow a path through the woods, visiting life-size structures and statues depicting scenes from famous fairytales. It’s charming, but outdated, and even as a kid I noticed how old a lot of the scenes looked, how out of touch they were with the kinds of advanced tech at the bigger parks like Universal Studios. It pulled me out of the fun and out of the story. Some of the scenes have even become vaguely creepy (i.e. a huge whale with sleepy eyes, overgrown with moss).
Norihisa had similar experiences growing up, and it taught him something important about his future career.
“I’m a very detail-oriented person, and I often got disappointed as a child when the ‘show’ was not picture-perfect. Even a slight glimpse into the backstage area, chipping paint, one dead light bulb, all these bad shows have always bothered me tremendously because it felt like they immediately took much of the magic of the place away. I learned very early on that these small contradictions to the storyline add up very quickly.”
Despite the enormous reach of theme parks as whole, there are relatively few people who get to make the big decisions that go into designing them. It takes some serious skill to get to be one of these people, and a pioneering sense of innovation as well. Norihisa is proud and thankful that his hard work has led to a successful career in the industry.
“I find myself very lucky to have a career I always dreamed of with LA Design Associates. Themed entertainment is a very small field, and it is difficult to break into this industry.”
But he did it anyway. Norihisa became a real-life version of a Roller Coaster Tycoon, making the best kinds of parks from the game: the ones that made money and looked good while doing it.