THE development path to a successful themed project can sometimes be long and winding.

By Martin Zurauskas

While traditional real estate construction projects have 33 divisions of work, the specialised development of a destination, such as a theme park, has 113 such categories.

With the high costs and complexities of these projects, risk is a key consideration. The only way to partially mitigate the high degree of risk on such a project is to devise a pathway to a project’s success from the very start. Careful, comprehensive management is required, or work streams will drift out of alignment and the dream theme park will become a very scary ride.

Developers need to follow specific strategies for distilling complexity into order and keeping every aspect of a themed destination’s development in alignment.


First things first


The development pathway for themed destinations varies significantly from other projects. This presents a unique challenge for new theme park developers.

The capital expenditure required to create a destination that will actually see opening day is so enormous, that failing to plan correctly from the start can result in disaster. Many first-time destination developers have a background in a different sector of real estate. It is therefore important that the developer understands the key contrast in the destination development process.

The major difference is that in destination development, a tremendous number of factors must be determined prior to any work being performed. While many developers and other stakeholders will imagine that bigger is always better, the reality is that the creative vision must be carefully and realistically framed for the location.

The project budget can be met only if the project is built at the right size for the specific creative concept, its location, the physical site and the cost of the corresponding built environment. Each specific creative concept will carry its own varying financial considerations, from caring for wild animals to creating roller coasters.

Because some form of entertainment is a given at a destination, the size, intellectual property costs, use of technology and personnel, fabrication of themed environments, landscaping and changing décor must all be right-sized at the outset of the project. Clearly, failure to do so will result in having to later redesign parts of the project, reimagine the entertainment itself, create new rides or devise a new layout for the entire destination.

Taken as a whole, if the planning is not done upfront, the seed money on which the project is cradled will be misspent, killing a project before it even breaks ground.



Can you hear me now?


The same holds true for the communications process. Dealing with public-private partnerships, IP agreements, fabricators, creative directors and ride engineers are all items not typically found in other development processes.

In addition, destination development is meant to attract huge throngs of visitors. Unlike a new apartment community or office building, destination projects change the make-up of the cities in which they are built. This means the project must include input regarding additional fire and police presence, potential impact on new or existing roadways, transportation systems and utilities.

And with projects this large, city officials in which the project is being built must also be constantly updated on any changes. If the changes are large, cities may require additional approval processes, which will delay complex timelines.


Can we deliver?


And speaking of city officials, all discretionary entitlements need to be finalised, including those for height, noise and any other restrictions. This should be done before the developer secures the debt and/or equity commitments for full funding of a project’s total budget,

What happens if that is not done upfront? Based on restrictions, items that may seem like a small, insignificant modification can sometimes cost millions of dollars if any part of the project has already moved to the next step. For example, if a ride manufacturer is proceeding with engineering design before the entitlements have been resolved for the applicable noise standards or height restrictions, and the assumptions being used are incorrect, the time and cost to redesign the ride are likely to be quite large.

In addition, the solution to resolve the problem may have implications on the design of other parts of the project. In some cases, there may not be a workable solution to the entitlements criteria – resulting in a rethink of the concept.

Naturally, rethinking the creative concept will likely create changes to the entire project, from the entertainment portion, to the layout, to the related rides and learning opportunities, to the food offerings.

Because destination projects are so complex, a change requiring a new concept can literally take the developer back to the very beginning, where the concept must be tested for right-sizing against the site, the location, the cost to build the environment and the cost of the food service operations, among others. With the seed money already spent, this again can be the end of the project.


Documents rule construction


Once everything is decided, approved and in place on the initial plan, it’s time to create the project-saving documents.

The architect and engineers of record must ensure that design documents are not just complete, but also aligned between teams, ensuring that vendor input for all show and ride distribution and structural loads are fully coordinated and reflected in completed documents for all civil, infrastructure and foundation work.

For example, ride systems require a tremendous amount of electricity. Therefore, the development team and local utility provider must ensure that electric panels are sized to carry the load required. Next, all construction strategies must be agreed upon in accordance with a prepared delivery plan to ensure the process stays on schedule.

Here’s where we come back to the beginning: In destination development, rather than the traditional 30-plus construction work divisions, in the speciality construction of destinations, there are at least 113.

Further, site access, procurement strategy, package design alignment with that strategy and tender documents must be formalised in an implementation manual. This will also cover how the work will be divided between each team, from the ride systems to control systems to audio-visual and special effects, etc. Each team must know exactly where their work ends and another team’s work begins.


Grab the shovels and get to work!


Fantastic new destination projects do, in fact, open all over the globe every year. Those who open these projects are the people who have planned for success by taking each pre-development step in order, documented all required processes and didn’t start work before it was time.

For those who hold an opening day, the advance work is all worthwhile. As the throngs of guests stream in to enjoy the fruits of the developer’s hard work, he or she can rightfully be proud of the decisions made along the way to bring this day to reality.


ACM portraits


Martin Zurauskas is the managing director of nFusion, a programme, cost, design and specialty construction management firm that specialises in destinations, attractions and experiences, including theme parks, resorts, mixed-use properties, cultural exhibits, brand experiences, family entertainment centres, themed restaurants and retail centres. The firm’s primary objective is to deliver destinations. World-class clients include Disney, SeaWorld, Halul Real Estate, Fort Edmonton Park and CJ Entertainment.