Theme Park Design Programming Fundamentals I : An Interview with Norm Doerges

Part I

What Went Wrong?

Your financial analysis projects fantastic returns. Your creative vision has everyone buzzing. Yet within weeks of opening your new park you find that guests are gridlocked in hour-long queue lines. Walkways are packed in one area, empty in another. Diners can’t find an open table in the food plaza, while shoppers drift aimlessly through retail venues that are too big and too impersonal. The general mood is one of frustration, which means your guests might not come back. What went wrong?

The first question you should ask yourself – did you follow your design program?


The Difference Between Success and Failure

In the complex and costly business of theme park development, few things are more critical to the success of your project than sticking to a solid design program. Occasionally overlooked and often misinterpreted, accurate and thorough design programming can mean the difference between a park that succeeds and one that fails.


Building EPCOT

No one understands this better than Norm Doerges. In the early 1970s, Norm and a handful of industrial engineers pioneered the field of design programming for the Walt Disney Company. Over the course of his 30-year career, Norm built an extraordinary resume that encompassed operations management, design, engineering, construction, and attraction development. Best known for his instrumental role in the planning and development of the enormously successful EPCOT, Norm led a work force of over 6,000 people, holding complete operating responsibility for the US $1.3 billion exhibition in Florida.

Prior to his vice-presidency at EPCOT, Norm served as a Vice-President of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) where he was responsible for creative and design support for Walt Disney World. As the Executive Vice President of Disneyland he led the development and implementation of the marketing program for the Indiana Jones Adventure and the 40th Anniversary of Disneyland. Under Norm’s direction, this program set a new forty-year annual attendance record of over 15 million visitors.


Insights From a Pioneer

A pioneer in the theme park industry and co-founder of Apogee Attractions, Norm shared with us his insights on studying your markets, listening to your guests, and why your design program is critical to a successful park.

Q Most professionals within the theme industry recognize the importance of market research and feasibility analysis. Yet a real understanding of how the design program fits into the development scheme often seems a bit more elusive. How would you explain the design program?

Doerges The short answer is that the design program is the quantification of everything having to do with a theme park. A more involved answer is that it’s a living, dynamic tool that takes observed data, derived from actual operating experience, and mathematically applies it against different levels of attendance extracted from market research.

Q So take us back to the beginning. How did you first come to develop the design program concept?

Doerges When Disneyland California was originally built in the 1950’s, it was built by a group of designers from Walt Disney Studios. These were very talented people, designers who had been responsible for the success of Walt’s classic feature animation. But they had never designed a theme park before. Of course, a true theme park didn’t exist at that time, so these guys were both inventing and learning as they went along.

The first configuration of the park was ingenious in many ways, but there were a lot of things that simply didn’t work. When Disneyland opened to the public in 1955, there were numerous problems that required a lot of retrofitting. Walkways weren’t wide enough; long lines led to attractions that needed more capacity. Certain locations were terribly crowded and guests were frustrated. In other cases there was too much capacity – attractions, shops and retail venues were underutilized and therefore didn’t make a good profit as a standalone operation.


There’s Got To Be a Better Way To Do This!

Doerges  Ten years later when it came time to build the first park at Walt Disney World, the management decided to try a new approach, putting together what they called the “project development” team. The goal of this group was to provide an operator’s input to the designers, and in a lot of ways they were quite successful.

Q So they had learned from their mistakes.

Doerges In terms of lessons learned, the overall experience of developing the Magic Kingdom in Florida was certainly better than those first years with Disneyland . Still, when we opened the park in Florida we found ourselves very much in the same situation as before – and it was costing millions of dollars a year in terms of retrofitting. In fact, some problems couldn’t be corrected because they were just too expensive. This caused a real rift between the design organization and the operators. Finally the senior executives said, “You know what, there’s got to be a better way to do this.”

So they pulled me from the Magic Kingdom where I had been operating as General Manager, and teamed me with a fellow by the name of Bruce Laval, who was the head of Industrial Engineering. He took the best of his industrial engineers and told them, “We’re going to build a lot of theme parks in this world. We’ve got to figure out a better way of doing this.” This was in the early seventies, and for the next several years our little group gathered enormous amounts of data. From this we worked to develop methodologies, a system that would allow us to design a park and get everything the right size.

Q So the design program was really born out of a need to have the experience meet the needs of the guest?


The Key is Sizing

Doerges Getting everything the right size is the key to the success of a theme park. This principle holds true on many levels. If the size is right, the guest feels comfortable – they feel cozy in the spaces that are meant to be intimate, they feel a sense of grandeur in the spaces that are meant to be awe-inspiring. Size is essential to a successful guest experience, and the guest should always be your first concern.

But size is also a critical part of the economic equation. The capital investment in a true theme park is so large that it has to operate properly to achieve its profit potential. So for a park as a whole you want to capture high rates of return in each line of business – each attraction, each restaurant, and each retail shop. The last thing you need is to have spent too much money in one place and not enough in another; one attraction too big, another too small. When this happens you have to retrofit and put additional capital in to fix things. That’s wasted money. Once the park is built, you want your additional capital to go into marketing and new attractions to drive attendance – not to fix things that don’t work because they were designed wrong in the first place.

What’s important to understand is that these two considerations – the guest experience and the economics – are inextricably linked. Simply put, if you design to meet the needs of your guest, your operation will be profitable.

Q So where do you begin?

To be continued . . .