These artists can tell you how to get to Sesame Street

April 8, 2019, 3:14 PM · Editor's note: While Ben Mills was in Spain to cover the opening of PortAventura's new Sesame Street: Street Mission interactive dark ride, he spoke with several of the creative and development leaders behind the attraction.

In the first interview, Ben spoke with Ed Wells, the Senior Vice President, International Media and Education of Sesame Workshop, and Fernando Aldecoa, the Director General of PortAventura World. After that, Ben spoke with Rich Hill, a Creative Director at Sally Corporation and John Wood, who is Sally's Chairman and CEO.

Please note that the interviews contain spoilers about the ride.

Ed Wells and Fernando Aldecoa
Ed Wells and Fernando Aldecoa

Ben: Congratulations – it's a brilliant ride. I can see how it's going to fit so well into the park and more widely into what you're doing here, and even to the Sesame Street brand. Can you talk about how the process worked between the park and Sesame Workshop, developing the idea for the attraction?

Fernando: We started the relationship with Sesame Street in 2010 with the opening of the SesamoAventura area. After the big success of SesamoAventura, we decided that we had to build a dark ride. It's the only kind of ride that we didn't have before, so we thought that for 2019, we needed a dark ride. We of course thought about Sesame Street to be the perfect partner to develop a project together.

Ed: And then PortAventura and Sally Corporation created a concept and then they worked with our team of creatives in New York. They came to our studios, and basically put the creative process through the same process we would do for any episode of Sesame Street. So we worked with them to develop the story lines and the characters to make sure that all of the motion of the characters, the story lines, every element that's in this ride is true to what Sesame is and the characters themselves.

Ben: So your creative teams were really involved in shaping the narrative and the format?

Ed: Yeah, very involved. The original ideation came from PortAventura and Sally, and then they worked with us to craft that narrative to its final form.

Ben: In the press conference, you talked about the values of Sesame Workshop – “helping kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder.” Do you see attractions in theme parks as continuing that mission?

Ed: We do. We think it's a great way to engage with kids and families. We want them to have a great time, but also to walk away with a really powerful learning experience, and this ride has lots of opportunities for that built in as well. The interactiveness of the ride itself lends to things like hand-eye coordination and motor skills. And there's problem solving throughout – this is called Street Mission, and there is a mission to solve as you know, right! So from the minute you start in the pre-show, all the way through to the end, you are following a mission and trying to solve a problem. And that teaches problem solving skills. So we think about that through the whole thing.

And I'll just say, we are also so proud to be partnering with a company that's so forward-thinking like PortAventura. The way that they're thinking about sustainability, and climate change and getting rid of plastics; those are all things that we also really fundamentally believe in, helping the world become a better place.

Fernando: I think this is going to be our next project together.

Ed: I hope so.

Fernando: In PortAventura as a resort we are very committed to sustainability. We are very committed to become a plastic-free resort in the coming years and also 100% green energy. And we are talking about developing a project together to have these values, PortAventura together with Sesame Street.

Ben: Will that be an attraction, or something more... [Ed laughs] You can't talk about it yet!

Fernando: We will explain more in the future.

Ben: Just lastly, on the subject of interactivity. Why is interactivity so important for you when creating an attraction for family audiences?

Fernando: One of the goals of the ride is that it should be a family ride. Of course for the small kids, but also for that families to enjoy this experience together. One of the strengths of interactivity is that every time you come to the ride, it's a new experience. Once you will compete with your friends, another one with your kids. So every time you come to Street Mission it's a different mission – a different experience.

Sally's Lauren Weaver, John Wood, Rich Hill, and friend
Sally's Lauren Weaver, John Wood, Rich Hill, and friend

Ben: What really impressed me about this attraction, just as with the Justice League attractions, is that you've managed to crack somehow the formula between creating a dark ride experience that is narratively strong, but also serves the interactivity really well. Could you talk about what that formula is for striking that balance?

Rich: It's really keeping the team on track. When you're working with the media group and then you're working with the interactivity group, media always wants to push story and character, interactivity always want to push the game to come first. So my job is really to keep those two working hand-in-hand. It really is a fine balance. You're always going back and forth going “what's the focus of this scene?” Dialogue comes first, because if you don't understand where you are, why you're there, what you're doing, then the ride is a failure. But then the game has got to be fun.

And clarity of targets – they don't all have to be the same, but it helps if they are visually similar because you're going through and basically looking for targets. If you can find those things easily then you have room in your brain for the story to come through. Because you're not trying to figure out “what am I shooting at?” You're just shoot-shoot-shoot, and still have space for the story.

So it is a fine balance, and it is very difficult to do. But I think that we do a pretty good job of striking that balance.

Ben: How did you have to adjust that for an attraction that skews younger in its potential audience?

Rich: When we were initially talking about this attraction it was always skewed young. You know, the demographic for Sesame Street is young. But they wanted to push it a little bit wider because the attraction is for families – we're trying to reach grandmas, grandpas, teens, everybody.

So it was trying to figure it out. We can't do a lot of pop-out. When you're using a 3D attraction, when you're building something in 3D, a lot of pop-out is fun – when something's flying off the screen at you. But with little kids, you don't want to do a lot of that because it can scare them. So we reduced some of the pop-out. The only things that really pop out are the targets – when you hit them, they flip around and pop out at you in 3D a little bit. But they won't come out and hit you in the face!

One of the scenes that we went back and forth on was flying through Count's Castle because it really does get you. It's kind of a finale where you break the plane of the screen and fly through Count's Castle in a virtual moment. It's completely immersive. When that happens, we wanted it to be very gentle. So you'll notice that the movements in the vehicle are very light, they're not super dynamic. We tried to keep it very gentle. Even the motion of the video is very smooth, very dynamic. You know, fun – but it's not like a thrill ride where you flip upside down and do loops.

Ben: And I suppose using trackless tech allows it to not be such an intense thrill, but still give you that physical engagement.

Rich: That's right.

Ben: Do you find that with the gameplay elements, young people are sometimes more sophisticated in what they can manage than the grandparents?

Rich: Oh yeah, sure.

John: These guys beat me every time!

Ben: I thought what was also really clever was how you created this detective narrative – hunting for clues, and the traditional 'shooting' mechanism became something much more connected to the brand.

John: The “Clue Collector.”

Ben: Was it a long process to finding that idea?

John: Well, we submitted different ideas to both Sesame Street and PortAventura. This was one of [Rich's] ideas and designs that our design team came out with. And they said “that'll work.” One of the things we're sensitive about is finger fatigue. Believe it or not, there are a lot of folks out there who have tried interactive rides, and – you get tired before you've finished the ride!

But with ours, we really work hard to make sure that it's easy. It doesn't tire you out, it's not too heavy. So those things take a play in the design. Making sure that it can fit into the holster effectively. We had interface with [ride manufacturer] ETF on that. So it's a process that we figured out.

Rich: Sesame Street was very sensitive about us not having something that was gun-shaped. Everybody uses remote controls, so we thought that remote controls were an easy way to go about a new shape. And it is a new shape for us – we like it.

Ben: Yeah, I think if you've used a Wii remote...

Rich: Yeah, that's exactly right.

Ben: And that's perfect for the age group. I found it was a really smooth trigger control. And the way you've created those moments of pause – to rest – is so helpful. Is it difficult getting to that sense of pace?

Rich: It's almost intuitive. We've been doing dark rides for so long that we know correct pacing. We know how to build a story arc. Since The Odyssey and Homer, it's been figured out already, we just follow that Hero's Journey. The three acts, the story arc and the story beats are kind of intuitive for us at this point.

Ben: I just spoke to Ed [Wells, Senior Vice President of International Media and Education for Sesame Workshop] about brand values, problem solving, and all those things that went into the ride. It's such a Sesame Street project. What was the process of working with Sesame Workshop and PortAventura to develop the ride?

Rich: This is kind of a dream for me! I mean, for the whole team – we all grew up on Sesame Street. So when we were first given this opportunity, we jumped all over it.

One of the interesting stories about our process working with Henson Creature Shop and Sesame Workshop – which were two new ones for us – was going into New York and hiring the actual puppeteers to act out the ride in a linear format on their soundstage. We filmed them, and that was all the reference that we gave to the animators for the CG. I got to go up there, and they got to act out the script, direct the cast. Which was like, wow – Big Bird, Ernie and these guys are saying my lines on stage! So cool.

When it was all said and done, they came up and they said, “we've really got to thank you guys. No one has ever had us give the direction to the CG animators. We watch CG animation sometimes, and it's like – they never nail it.”

And there were so many things that we found came out during that process. You look at Oscar, when you're down in Oscar's can at the end of the ride, and he breaks the fourth wall and looks right at us with this little grimace, like, “grr, I can't believe we didn't know it was Cookie Monster!” The animators never would have got that. But for the puppeteers, that was part of their performance and they just nail it. So it's those kinds of moments. We worked closely with them on the entire process. It's just been a joy – we're hoping to do more.

Ben: I thought in particular, the pre-show with the screens above and the Grover animatronic -

John: Wasn't that brilliant?

Ben: It was! And like you say, the detail, and the truth to the Sesame Street world was so clearly there. It was great that you invested in creating an experience even before the ride begins so it was one complete package. Why was that important to you?

Rich: When I come to a park – you know, we're designers, owners, fabricators, producers, and they always give you VIP access. I hardly ever take it. I like going through the line, because I want to see what the real guest experience is. And you know, lines suck. Queue lines are horrible, they are no fun. So it's really important for me to put in that kind of detail, and create an emotional investment out there in the queue. It's really important to have the show happen before the ride happens – so you end up with a 20-minute show really, and the queue line is part of that.

Ben: And is that a hard pitch to the park, to make the case that they should invest in that?

John: No, it's not hard. I mean, it's different for them. When you're going and saying “I want a pre-show, I don't want just a queue,” they're not used to that. But we're in the “show business”, we're not in the “ride business”. So part of the show is the pre-show, and it's so important to have a good set up. A good finale and a good set up play hugely to the success of a ride like this. And the set up is only good if you know what you're doing, how to do it, and how to succeed. As Rich already said, not overstating the show, not overstating the game, just making sure that you understand both before you get on the ride.

Ben: Just thinking about technicalities – you talked yesterday about the other firms involved...

John: ETF ride, Alterface interactive, Bon Art Studio for the CG, Sim Leisure was the scenic, we used Tecnolux for the lighting, Bose for audio, Brian Morrow Productions did scenic design. And it's a collaboration of course – all these team members bring something to the table, but they follow our lead well.

Ben: And were all those partners on board from an early stage in the design process?

Rich: Yeah, that's one part of the process, picking who your vendors are. We've worked with all these guys before, and you want to work with a good team. For instance, John Baker did the music. John is an award-winning songwriter and composer and he's worked with Sesame Street before, so he was a natural. We've been trying to work with him – and he's even been trying to work with us – for four or five years. Finally we got this attraction and said, “you know John, this is the perfect moment – let's do this.” And he nailed it. This is all custom music score, and it adds to the level of detail again.

John: He came out here and tweaked it when he was here, like everyone else involved. Bon Art came out and took additional direction from the Sesame Street team to really improve the experience. All of them were in all the way.

Ben: It's so evident, as well – that continuity. So often in interactive dark rides we go from one scene, to the next scene, to the next scene in a really episodic way. But this is one complete narrative.

John: And I'll tell you, it's one of the secrets of our success. Being the lead, not being scattered. The big guys like to break it down to the little pieces and control everyone and you end up with an incohesive package. Often, not always. But with Rich and our creative team guiding the way, unquestionably being the lead, then it becomes on time, on budget, and on the mark.

Ben: You've obviously got a very diverse team of creatives that work for you, and with you. Beyond traditional theme park influences, are there other art forms and areas that you look at to inform your ideas and your process?

Rich: Absolutely. Music, movies, video games...

John: Even museums. Anything that involves you, we pay attention to.

Rich: Classical art. You know, people have been doing this for a long time. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of psychological tricks that have been used for thousands of years to make people attracted to music or art in a certain way. So I try and learn from all those tricks of the classics.

Here is Ben's review of Sesame Street: Street Mission.

Replies (4)

April 8, 2019 at 6:11 PM

Port Aventura World certainly appears to have made more of their license to use Sesame Street IP than SeaWorld Entertainment has done so far in the U.S.A.

April 8, 2019 at 6:15 PM

FWIW, Universal has the Sesame Street IP rights in East Asia, with a play land in Japan and an Elmo dark ride in Singapore.

April 9, 2019 at 6:32 AM

I managed to get on the Singapore ride a couple of years ago, and it's similarly an excellent bit of attraction design that speaks with the same clarity Street Mission does. It does make me wonder if Sesame Workshop are more hands-on than other license holders. My conversation with Ed certainly suggested that they're passionate about themed attractions as a valuable part of the company's mission.

April 9, 2019 at 11:16 AM

Just curious, when John said, "The big guys like to break it down to the little pieces and control everyone and you end up with an incohesive package," what do you think he's referencing? Specific Disney/Universal attractions?

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