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 the test of time over the decades. Think:
- “Hello Dolly!”
- “Phantom of the Opera”
- “Les Miserables”
- “Avenue Q”
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
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”
- 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.
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.
One 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
These 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.