TECH TALKS: The Role of “Invisible AVL” at Theme Parks

In our “Tech Talks” series, we ask the pros at HARMAN about the ways technology can solve problems customers face. In today’s Tech Talk, we spoke with Bradford Benn, Senior Solutions Manager, Themed Attractions for HARMAN Professional Solutions. Bradford is an AVL industry thought leader with a long history of working with theme parks. He got his start working with theme parks back in 1992, when he worked for an AVL integrator in Florida. In 2000, Bradford joined HARMAN as an application engineer in the Crown amplifier group, working on large venues. Bradford’s experience with themed attractions eventually helped him become the internal subject matter expert for the themed attraction segment, which led him to his current role.

Given his experience, I reached out to Bradford and spoke with him on the subject of AVL in theme parks. Specifically, I wanted to talk to him about what technology goes into making theme parks successful and how that technology disappears into the background and makes a big impact in a comparatively invisible way.

Bradford Benn, Sr. Solutions Manager, Themed Attractions, HARMAN Professional Solutions

[SKD] Obviously, we know that AVL technology is everywhere and has impacted a wide range of markets and applications. However, I think that a theme park (especially a small or medium-sized park) is one of those places where people don’t always see how much technology is used. In fact, I’ve even read articles recently from within the AV industry implying that theme parks don’t use a lot of technology. That just doesn’t seem right to me. How much technology really goes into theme parks, and why don’t people notice it?

[BB] I think oftentimes people are surprised at how intricate crafting the experience for guests can be. For the first stadium I did, I was surprised that they had a 48-channel console. I thought there was one microphone and an announcer. I didn’t realize that the music came from all of these different spaces, and there was video board playback and all of that. If you look at a theme park, there’s a lot going on in the background that you don’t realize if it’s done right. I call it the “invisible background.” If you do it correctly, the AV becomes part of the scene and the image.

If you are walking down the main thoroughfare in a park, you might want to hear birds chirping. It sets a good mood and makes people happy. So, the sound of birds chirping is piped in. Whether they are the right birds for the area or not, it doesn’t matter; it’s the idea of birds chirping that people are looking for. This reinforces the mood of the environment, but it also ensures you don’t hear sounds outside the environment such as traffic noise. Having audio playing is very good noise masking, which is why you hear a lot of music at the park entry and then background sound in other areas.

[SKD] It sounds like a lot of the role of AVL in a theme park is setting the mood, and part of that is blocking out things that go against that mood. What sort of technologies do parks use to accomplish this?

[BB] A large part of the AV technology in the park is to fully embrace you in the world. When a theme park is built, you want to do a couple of things. First, you want to help transport a guest away from their every day lives. When you think of the rollercoaster you ride, it’s typically built so the queue runs under the ride itself. That way, you hear the noise of the coaster, and it gets you more excited and more nervous for what’s coming. It sets up the theme and feeling of a thrill ride. For a more sedate walk, on the other hand, you want something that is going to ensure people don’t hear something from outside that would make them forget that they’re in a theme park having a fun time. There are things that can be done to help that. Large distributed audio systems, for example, can be spread out across the park and have those birds chirping, as well as background music and messaging.

When you add video distribution and lighting into the mix, these also become elements that can be subtly changed. One of my favorite examples is street lamps. In many parks, they don’t often use standard street lamps. They use architectural lighting instead because it looks nicer so the park looks warmer and sets the mood for the environment. Digital signage is also a great way to set the theme, and provide messages about ride wait times or what have you. It can even post deals on umbrellas on days when it’s raining. Using digital signage rather than something like TV news lets you add messages that you want to get out, but it also keeps the message in the park so you can control what the guest sees. Nothing brings down the day of a guest like seeing bad news on TV.

Theme Park Coaster[SKD] Now, not all theme parks are huge maga-parks with an endless budget. Are there things smaller parks can do to achieve the solutions you’re describing without paying a lot of extra money?

[BB] The great thing about the HARMAN portfolio is that we have a wide range of products with different features and prices. So, you can certainly get the solution I’m describing while still being budget-minded. Instead of our Crown DCi amps, for example, you could use our mid-range Crown CDi amplifiers. There are some feature differences, but they’ll work fine for smaller applications. For lighting with an exterior wash system, we can use a couple big washes instead of a number of smaller washes for more control, like higher-budget parks would do. This can all be designed based upon the budget and needs of the park. We can also put together systems that are expandable, so the system grows as the theme park grows.

It is really all about determining exactly what you need, and then we can find the best way to provide that. If you hire a painter and tell him to “paint your house,” that’s kind of open ended. Is he painting inside or outside? What color is he painting? Where do you live? All of these questions affect the materials, time and ultimately cost of the job. So when people say they need audio or lighting for a theme park, that’s also kind of open ended. How much area do you have to cover? What’s your budget? What’s your timeline? The answer to these questions will affect exactly what type of solution will be right for the particular application, but there are solutions for many different park sizes and budgets.

A big thanks to Bradford to speaking with us on this subject. I think it’s really amazing all the ways that AVL solutions make a big impact at theme parks, and I know what Bradford mentioned here was just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll just have to bring him back and speak to us some more!

Do you have experience designing “invisible AVL” for theme parks (or other applications)? Tell us in the comments how you used AVL to create the “invisible background” and set the mood.