Entertaining the Future, Part 2

What the Future Holds for Entertainment in Zoos and Aquariums

By Dave Cooperstein


I believe that there is a LOT of value in looking at examples of Show Productions outside the Zoo and Aquarium world, specifically Broadway and Vegas, because these attractions can teach us a lot about where we are headed…about where the future of Show Production lies.

In order to figure out what Tomorrow holds, we first need to look at Yesterday and Today.


When thinking about shows from 20 years ago (or longer), you’re really talking about what most people think of when they think of “Broadway”…a big budget musical, with a linear storyline, huge sets, elaborate costumes, maybe a few special f/x (but nothing outrageous), a big cast (usually), and lots of really great dialogue and/or songs. The focus was on the STORY and the CHARACTERS. These are the shows that Broadway was built on, and have stood 25_haylie-duff-hairspray-pictures02the test of time over the decades. Think:

  • “Hello Dolly!”
  • “Oklahoma”
  • “Cabaret”
  • “Phantom of the Opera”
  • “Les Miserables”
  • “Avenue Q”
  • “Hairspray”

To make a connection to the zoo and aquarium world, I would liken these types of “Yesterday” shows to early shows, where the focus was on the ANIMALS and their stories, at

  • SeaWorld – Shamu, Dolphin, Sea Lion/Otter, Pet’s Rule
  • Shedd Aquarium – Dolphin
  • Classic Bird Shows

28_REC Z 640


In the past 5 to 10 years, and probably for the next 5 or 10, one of the big trends has been the incorporation of technology into theater. This is more than just a few special effects (like the turntable in “Les Mis”, or the falling chandelier and floating candles in “Phantom”), but really the integration of technology into the entire production (music, props, sets, costumes, lights). It’s about Technology (Video Projection, Puppetry, Computer Lighting) infused into the storytelling. This is a trend that started a long time ago (more than 10 years ago) with shows like “The Lion King”, and has been taken to a new level with shows like those by Cirque du Soleil, which use technology as one of the main drivers of the performances (think “O”, which is done entirely over a giant stage pool).

Again, to bring this to the Zoo and Aquarium world, I would liken these to some of the more recent shows at:

  • SeaWorld – “Cirque de lar Mer”, “Blue Horizons,” “Believe” 33_BlueHorizons_01
  • Busch Gardens – “Katonga”
  • Shedd Aquarium – “Dolphin Fantasea”
  • Georgia Aquarium – “Dolphin Tales”
  • Dolphinarium – “de Droom Wens”
  • Indianapolis Zoo – “Dolphin Adventure”
  • Animal Kingdom – “Festival of The Lion King”
  • Animal Kingdom – “Finding Nemo, the Musical”
  • Tokyo Disney Sea – “The Little Mermaid”


So where is this headed? From all the trends that are happening, the future lies in integration of the two themes from ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Today’: Storyline and Technology.

At the very root of theater is the power of the story…that’s what brings the audience into the world of the characters, and compels them to stay involved with what’s happening on stage. That’s why shows of ‘yesterday’ have stood the test of time…the stories are just damn good. But it’s technology that leaves the iPhone/YouTube audiences of today slack-jawed. The marvel of seeing something happen on stage that you could never imagine, and that blows you out of your seat, is incredibly visceral. 38_Turtle-Talk-with-Crush

Shows that use technology to drive the storyline and make Personal Connections will transform the landscape of theater in the future. When technology becomes so integrated into the production that it almost begins to ‘disappear’, it’s the performers and their stories that become the highlighted elements. When that happens, the Story becomes the focus of the production, and personal connections begin to happen. Technology is totally integral to telling the story.

37_wallpaper_ka_1280x1024One of the best examples of this would be “Ka”, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas which manages to use technology in spectacular ways that actually advance the storyline, and allow the actors and director to tell a story that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to tell.

This is a place where the attractions industry is almost ahead of the curve when compared to theater:

  • Disney – “Turtle Talk with Crush”
  • San Diego Wild Animal Park – Robert the Zebra
  • Disney Fantasy – “Animation Magic” show @ Animator’s Palette Restaurant
  • Disney California Adventure – Mr. Potato Head @ “Toy Story Mania”
  • Sentosa Island – “Crane Dance”
  • SeaWorld – “Turtle Trek” & Retail Orange

39a_42_rws_CraneDance_2These are all attractions that use technology to tell the story in ways that create those Personal Connections with the guest. The audience has no choice but to be wrapped up in the storyline unfolding and becomes completely open to receiving the story or the message that is being delivered. And that’s how theater and show productions transcend expectations.

Read Part 1 of ‘Entertaining the Future’ here.

Dave Cooperstein is a Senior Creative Designer at PGAV Destinations, where he’s spent the past 15 years master planning zoos and aquariums, developing ride and show concepts for world-class theme parks, and designing for some of the most popular themed attractions around the country and the globe. He also writes for PGAV Destinations Blog, is an dad, architect, actor, storyteller, tech nerd, and card-carrying member of the International Jugglers’ Association.

6 thoughts on “Entertaining the Future, Part 2

  1. Dave,

    Having worked on a number of the special effects for “Beauty and the Beast”, I’m going to have to challenge you on your statement:

    “This is more than just a few special effects (like in “Les Mis” or “Beauty and the Beast”), but really the integration of technology into the entire production (music, props, sets, costumes, lights).”

    For over 20 years, Broadway shows have benefited from very tightly integrated technology–computer control of lighting, and sound, and stage action. Servo-controlled electrical motors typically drive scenery on and off stage (winches), move scenic elements (actuators), and–in the case of Beauty–even pick up the actors and spin them around a bit (a dedicated, custom-designed, three-axis robot). Lumiere’s hands shot flames. In the original Broadway production, each individual foot-light popped up under independent control. The high-tech integration has been there for a while now.

    You are right, however, about the importance of the story. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had an amazing flying car, but the American audience never bought into the story, and…the show suffered from a very short run.

  2. Boothby, I actually agree with you. “Beauty and the Beast” was a bad example on my part. Perhaps it was a missed cut and paste from a list I was brainstorming. You are correct in your explanation of the integration of technology into theatrical productions for a couple of decades now. And your point is well taken.

    My example was meant to illustrate the iteration of a period of theatrical development that was just beginning, before shows like “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” came to life on stage. A period when shows like “Les Mis” and “Phantom” were using technology as one (or maybe two+) trick jaw droppers. Before the integration of technology in the way that you described.

    And certainly before the amazing integration that is just now, relatively speaking, starting to happen…integrating technology and storytelling in such a tight relationship that they can’t live apart. Using technology to tell great stories isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. And your stories better be great ones, if you want to move the audience, no matter how you tell them.

    Perhaps I need to amend my post to change that example. Thanks for the discussion, and for calling me out.

  3. Dave,

    I was lead mechanical engineer on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, on Cirque/MGM’s KA, and the Dancing Cranes in Sentosa, Singapore. I’ve also designed some of the chandeliers for some of the Phantom road shows, as well as the stage wagons for Miss Saigon road shows, and some Lion King scenic elements.

    This phrase you use, “Integration of Technology.” I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Phantom of the Opera was one of the first Broadway musicals to “integrate” industrial servo-control technology into the production of a theatrical show in the United States. This very same show had originally been produced, with similar technologies, in England. The candles rise on motorized drum actuators. The scenery is pulled across the stage, and kept from intersecting itself, through the use of coordinated, servo-controlled electric winches. Trapdoor drops are synchronized through the use of industrial PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). Trusses are raised and synchronized through the use of industrial controls and servo motors.

    Behind the scenes (often in the basement), are a handful of “Show Carpenters” running control panels, queuing up the next profile and running it, queuing and running, queuing and running, all through the show. The Technical Director calls the beat, makes sure people are safely in position for the next cue, and so on.

    Phantom has been running for over 25 years. This “integrating technology and storytelling in such a tight relationship that they can’t live apart” has been around for a very long time.

    By the way, the Greeks did it, too. Ever hear of Deus ex Machina? The Greeks built real machines.

  4. BTW, let’s not forget the amazing TRACKLESS ride at SeaWorld’s “Antarctica” penguin exhibit.

    We both know how wonderful, amazing, great, spectacular, and otherwise extremely superlative that ride is!

  5. Boothby,

    I don’t think we are disagreeing, really. You are describing what I consider shows of “Today”. Certainly we can spend the next year discussing which shows fall into which ‘category’ (as I’ve described them). But, whether it was during the past 15 years, or 25 years, I agree…technology as been an integral part of show production for a LONG time.

    But, what we’re seeing now takes technology and uses it in new ways, in an even deeper level of integration…one that blurs the line between story and willing suspension of disbelief…one that starts to let you forget that the technology is even there.

    When I’m sitting in the MGM Grand theater, watching “KA”, and I’m totally wrapped up in the story, and start believe that the stage IS a mountain…IS a beach….IS an ocean…without noticing HOW it’s happening, that’s powerful.

    Sitting in Turtle Talk with Crush, at some point I’m so enraptured, I forget that there’s any technology at all. I’m totally into the story, and the characters, and what’s going on that I’m lost in the moment.

    Watching the Crane Dance, I get wrapped up in the love story, and the relationship of these two ‘birds’, and the technology ‘disappears’. It’s incredible to feel this happening.

    That’s where *I* see the future heading. That’s what *I* get excited about. That return to story…the thing that makes theater powerful….is what keeps me wanting more. Wanting to see what the future holds.

    And, yes, SeaWorld’s “Antarctica” is exactly as you describe it! 🙂

    • There is something amazing about how the human mind is wired. If you tell us a good story, and tell it well, whatever else is around it fades into the background. We accept it. People don’t act in real life the way they act on stage, yet we accept it. They don’t act in real life the way they act in the movies, yet we still accept it. We can ignore the Bunraku puppeteers. We can even ignore the people sitting next to us (as long as they’re not unwrapping a hard candy or chatting on the cell phone!)

      Since I got into the world of theater about 21 years ago, I’ve been a “maximalist.” More horsepower, more servos, more tech. But I know people who embrace minimalist theater–performers in grey leotards, a card table and some folding chairs. And if you get good performers, and a good story, the LACK of tech similarly fades away, and you are left with the human and emotional content of the story. I’ve been in the audience when it’s happened; I’ve directed simple shows where it’s happened. Heck, I’ve been on stage when it’s happened!

      Mark Twain once said, “All I want is a good story, well told” (he then went on to say, “That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself,” but that’s neither here nor there).

      However, there’s not much money to be made in grey leotards, card tables and folding chairs.

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