Creating Experiences with Theme Park Lighting

A theme park is, by nature, an experience. Park designers spend immeasurable hours delicately crafting every element of the space, ensuring that guests have an immersive time where they are whisked away into another world full of fast rides, fun shows, and great food. All parts of this experience are important, and every detail goes into maximizing the thrills the guests receive. This is definitely true when it comes to the audio, video and lighting.

In particular, there are a lot of intricacies to great lighting in a theme park that should be considered. Some of these are related to outdoor lighting in general, as much of the lighting in theme parks is outdoors. However, there are many specific ways in which lighting can be deployed in theme parks that can create great effects, though they also come with their own challenges.

As we said, some of the lighting involved is architectural lighting for the outside of the various buildings and attractions. Sometimes, this can be color washes that make the buildings vibrant, engaging spaces. However, the buildings can also include other lighting elements, such as LED video fixtures. These reshapeable LED strips can be combined to create media façades or other vibrant lighting effects. Video (including ads, creative clips or simply moving colors) can be projected across the LED strips which are configured into creative shapes. These features can even be interactive if you want.

For more subtle effects, you can use trimmable LED light strips to create various visual effects for coasters, Ferris wheels and other spaces. A popular application involves using a “micro-dot,” a single, controllable LED light, placed in strategic locations. For example, it’s common to place a micro-dot at the intersection of each beam on a wooden coaster. This covers the ride in light without compromising the look of the coaster, and because of the micro-dot’s IP rating, the lights can remain up year round. You can then adjust the lighting for the season. Christmas can be red and green, Valentine’s Day can be pink or red, and then St. Patrick’s Day can be green leading up to July 4th (for those in the US), where you can have red, white, and blue.

These same microdots are also popular for indoor spaces. 4D rides, for example, use lighting to make these rides more immersive. If the audience in a 4D cinema is engulfed in a fireball, lighting can be used to make the entire room a fiery red. Micro-dots implanted beneath the audience’s feet can help with this effect, ensuring the room is a consistent flaming color on all 6 sides, including the floor.

Lighting is obviously very important when dealing with indoor attractions like 4D rides. However, often times in an indoor attraction, things don’t stay put, but instead rider in a car move through a set of indoor experiences. In these situations, great lighting is vital. Moving heads, for example, are very common in these indoor spaces, where they can be used to tracking riders through a space. The moving head follows the riders through an area, and can make the riders feel like they are being tracked by a helicopter, for example.

You can use potentially moving heads in outdoor environments as well, but you should always check the IP rating, as most moving heads aren’t designed for permanent installation outdoors. That said, you can enclose the fixture in Plexiglas, if you desire to permanently-install moving heads for an outdoor performance space. However, high durability is important for these applications. In a theme park, lights will need to run an average of 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is much longer than in a touring environment, where the lighting will be used for 3 or 4 hours a day for 200 shows a year. In this kind of grueling environment, it’s important to have a product that will continue to work over a long life cycle, including both the mechanics of fixture and the colors.

Another common lighting application for indoor rides is gobo projectors. By obfuscating part of the light and creating custom lighting shapes on the wall, projectors can create immersive scenes, giving the feeling of, say, light coming through trees along a river front. Of course, these projectors are also great in other areas as well. Low-cost fixed Gobo Projectors like the RUSH Gobo projector can project a logo onto a floor or wall, and are perfect for branding a space.

Of course, to make lighting truly effective, you also often need to have hazers or similar systems to create the effects that you may be desiring. Hazers and fog machines allow you to reflect light off the fog for in-air effects, such as creating beams of light, displaying gobos etc. You can even make “walls” out of lights and smoke, which is great for stage shows. And for rides, having good fog machines and hazers is vital. Hazers are of course a requirement for a jungle ride, and fog machines allow you to obscure things on a dark ride, making them great for scary attractions.

For theme park lighting, however, it’s important to get high-output machines. These higher-quality devices are actually much more cost effective than getting a low-quality machine, even if the initial device cost is more. Lower-quality devices typically need to be replaced every year and are less economical in fluid usage that high-output machines. This makes the long-term total cost of ownership much lower for a higher-quality machine that can work for 10 years or more.  As well, due to high output and performance, these machines can even be implemented for outdoor lighting applications, something that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for low-output devices.

No matter the application, there is a lighting solution available to help solve it. Theme parks are huge, involved locations and great lighting is a key component to making them truly immersive. Do you have some suggestions for lighting in theme parks? Let us know in the comments.


  1. Pingback: TECH TALKS: Designing for Creative LED Video on Tour | HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights

  2. Alan Kettler

    I want to put a spotlight in my back yard that points straight up to Heaven with blue LED dimmable bulbs. I am an ecologist. The light would need to project about 300 feet or so. As far as size, I want to keep it modest at about the diameter of a trash can.

    I am a visionary artist. Can you help me?

    • Hey Alan,

      We sent you an email asking for more information. Be on the lookout for it.


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