Off Mic is a new series that allows you to hear from members of the St. Louis community describe their passion projects or organization’s work in their own words. If you’d like to suggest someone for us to approach about writing an Off Mic article, please contact Amanda Honigfort at amanda @ hectv.org.
I want you to picture a 5-year-old boy, running around the house, all dressed up in the pirate costume he made. He’s got a wooden sword that he wrapped in foil, a homemade patch hangs down over his eye, and his tattered jeans complete the ensemble. He runs from room to room fending off every attacker.
But as he runs into the living room, he spies his father, the inventor, sitting in his chair drawing on his pad as he often does. The boy sneaks up behind him and raises his sword.
Staring into the pad though, this time, something’s different. The gears and pulleys start burning into the boy’s brain.
The pulleys could raise the sails on his ship, the gears could raise the drawbridge on his castle. The boy is inspired. He wants to draw too. He smiles at his father, sneaks the pad from under his father’s shoulders, plops down on the floor, and begins to draw.
Fast-forward twenty years. Now the boy has become a man – his first week on a real job – his first professional image. The boy is fired-up. This is the rendering of a lifetime! He puts everything into his rendering. Just the right view! Spotlight, pointing up – the chrome glistening with bits of color. The moment has come. He licks the tip of his brush, holds his breath, and begins signing the right-hand corner.
His boss, Bill Castle, a 20 year veteran grabs his right hand. “We don’t sign our renderings here. The ideas you paint are not yours alone. Teams create ideas. The best ideas don’t have to be yours.
The best ideas don’t have to be yours? I was devastated! How can this be true? My whole life I was taught that the person with the best ideas wins. Like Edison with the light bulb, like Einstein with the theory of relativity – they became our heroes with their inventions. Every class I took we were evaluated on the strength of our ideas. This turned all that on its head.
In 1986 there weren’t a lot of jobs for a kid who wanted to design roller coasters and theme parks, so I figured I’d better stick around, and as I did I learned the truth of that philosophy. I noticed that when an aggressive person strong-armed his idea into a project all the team members start backing away. And when the project encounters challenges – as it always does – it doesn’t have a strong team behind it or the momentum to carry it through to the end.
But when the creation is far more important than the creator, suddenly people start rallying around the idea, they start cherishing it, so when the project runs into obstacles, there’s a diverse team with diverse ideas to push the project through to the end.
This does not mean that there is no room for the champion – for a person to grab the project, and wrestle the idea till the end, and be the main person who cares for it. This certainly doesn’t mean there is no room for the starry-eyed inventor to stay up late at night, going through his brain – trying to imagine the perfect solution to the problem. What it does mean is that when an ego grabs hold of a project and does not let it evolve, does not let it change, the potential for failure is high.
An idea has to be flexible so that when it comes to problems it can change and evolve.
We demonstrated this flexibility when we were asked to create a combination roller coaster and cheetah environment for Busch Gardens Tampa.
Now you would think that adding a roller coaster to a theme park is a no brainer, but Busch Gardens Tampa has some of the best roller coasters in the marketplace. It has roller coasters that sit on the top, roller coasters that hang from the bottom, dive coasters that dive at a 90-degree angle straight to the ground. We couldn’t just take any roller coaster off the shelf, throw it in the park and expect to be successful.
Not only that, but Busch Gardens is located right next to Orlando, the theme park capital of the world – where billions of dollars are spent every year. So to make a difference our coaster had to be iconic. It had to stand out in its environment – it had to show something that only Busch Gardens Tampa could create.
Not only that – it had to be so exciting that it would draw people from across the world. We had experience creating icons in the past. When a small child looks nose to beak at a penguin in it’s own environment, that is an icon for the Saint Louis Zoo. When you see a family standing before the largest aquarium in the United States seeing Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Groupers swimming around – that is an icon for Georgia Aquarium. And when you see a family plummeting from the towers of Atlantis as it rises from the sea, that is an icon for Sea World – we had to create an icon that was just as powerful for this ride.
The engineer for the park – Mark Rose – said “What if this coaster is unique because it clings close to the grounds, swinging back and forth through the trees, narrowly missing them just like a cheetah runs across the valley?” And we all embraced the idea and started drawing storyboards.
We had storyboards of the coaster careening through the trees, we had storyboards of the coaster just narrowly skipping across the water, storyboards of the coaster tearing through the rocks – narrowly missing them as it passed.
But even though the storyboards were cool, they really weren’t hitting that note that made this ride feel unique. Not only that, but when we talked to the ride manufacturers they said “Who builds a coaster that stays low to the ground and you never see it?”
Our coaster has to rise into the sky – celebrate itself for all to see. We felt momentum slipping, and we knew we had to be flexible to succeed. So in the next brainstorming meeting the general manager of the park said: “You know. Our park is so beautiful, and it has these massive expanses of land with the animals running around. What if the coaster rose up to the sky and the guests could peer down?”
The engineers joined in – not only that but we could launch our coaster like a cheetah – going 60 miles an hour to the top of the tower with a figure eight at the top! The animal people joined in – that would be perfect because a cheetah, will run to the highest precipice to spot his prey. We could be the cheetah! The creative director for the park said that would be fabulous – we could have this coaster be a whole stack of sticks all rising into the sky with the coaster going along the top.
So we were flexible and started to build and adapt the project, and on the plane ride home I built them a 3D model. This simple idea started to build momentum – we showed it to the board, were approved for the project, and more and more people were added to the team. We started developing all the pieces of the project. Showing what the retail shop, queue, and food areas could look like. Showing how the animals and the people could look like they were right next to each other. We wrapped all these pieces of the project around the guest until you felt like you were somewhere that cheetahs and man all interacted.
Now projects all encounter problems, and this one was no different. When we showed our tower to the ride engineers they laughed at us. They said “Who takes a 6-ton roller coaster and slams it into a pile of sticks? The tower must come directly to the ground.”
But that look and character was so important to achieving the icon that we wanted! So we assembled our engineers from St. Louis (who were used to working with these crazy designers) and the engineers from Germany (who were used to building the rides that come firmly to the ground), and we sat across the table adding sticks, taking away sticks, extending sticks so that all these pieces came together to create this icon.
The team worked well and soon we began to move forward again. Momentum continued to grow, and all the pieces of the project were becoming one.
Twenty-Five years of adjusting my philosophy to the thought that people design things together turned upside down that day. I wasn’t THE designer. I headed a team of people who designed the attraction. Once again I was devastated, but I thought to myself ‘maybe no one will show up’.
It was the largest opening day in the history of the park.
I started signing these postcards for the kids as they came out, and as they came by they said to me “You’re the designer!” And I would stumble – Well, you know I’m not really the designer…”
The kids would look at me funny and I began to understand that these kids wanted the hero to tell their friends, to take the idea home and so I began adjusting my story.
“Yes, I was one of the people who worked on the team who developed the attraction. What do you do? What do you like to do? Oh you like animals, well an animal person actually…. Oh you like engineers? You should have seen the engineers when we told them we wanted to build a tower made of sticks. Oh you like art? We need artists in the world to show the ideas to people so they can understand how wonderful the idea can be.”
The best part of the day was when a small kid came around again all excited to show me a placemat on which he’d designed his own roller coaster, and I knew I’d made an impact on that kid.
Imagine a father driving home in his mint 1974 Ford Caprice. He’s worked all day with the designers, trying to solve problems of scheduling, marketing, trying to keep all the characters working together, never getting to take the ideas in his head any further.
He drives with the radio off, and as he does an idea starts burning into his brain. He eats dinner with the family – laughing, having a great time – but that idea keeps turning in his brain. Once the dishes are done and the family starts running throughout the house, he thinks he’ll sneak over to his chair, pull out his pad, and begin drawing. As he does, he feels a breath over his shoulder and turns to see a five year-old pirate raising his patch, peering into his pad.
The man smiles as the boy sneaks the pad out from under his arm and watches the boy flop down on the floor and begin to draw wild worlds and wild rides.