Less than a month after California’s Great America announced RailBlazer, land clearing on the site is nearly complete. With the park recently applying for a permit to construct the ride,...
“As Principal, Creative Development, Dave guides project development from concept through all the phases of design with a focus on story and guest experience. From theme parks, rides, and attractions to museums, retail, and resorts, Dave has collaborated on numerous entertainment projects all over the world, constantly looking for new ways to integrate technology, interactivity, and theatricality to engage and excite an audience. Dave has consulted on numerous projects for nearly every entertainment medium for such diverse clients as Cirque du Soleil, Nickelodeon, NASCAR, Hershey’s Chocolate, Universal Studios, Six Flags, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympic Committee.” – Thinkwell Group
We at ACE NorCal are incredibly excited to share this very special interview with you. Dave Cobb was the Creative Director for SURVIVOR: THE RIDE (now Tiki Twirl) at California’s Great America back in 2005-06! The following interview not only takes you through his extensive career, but through the story of SURVIVOR: THE RIDE’s development, including never-before-seen concept images of the ride in its originally intended location. Read on to learn more – enjoy!
Laschkewitsch: First off, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed by us!
Cobb: My pleasure! Thanks for asking!
Laschkewitsch: How did you get started in the amusement industry and how did your educational path lead you to the career you lead today?
Cobb: My first real job after high school was as a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood. This was back in the days when it was primarily the tram tour and live shows – but they had opened Kong shortly before I started, and then a few years later Earthquake, so they were sort of evolving into a much bigger presence in the theme park industry.
I was studying film production in college (with an interest specifically in cinematography and special effects), and stayed as a tour guide as a part-time job for many years – but eventually fell out of love with film production. Plus, all the craft I was learning was in analogue film production techniques, and this was the early 90s when independent film and digital technologies were starting to blow up, so the writing was on the wall that I may have been studying the wrong thing.
About that time, I found a job posting at Universal for an entry-level position at what was called “Planning and Development” (now Universal Creative). It sounded pretty interesting, so I interviewed and got the job – as an Assistant Project Coordinator on the USH construction & installation of “Back to the Future: The Ride”, and the rest is history.
Laschkewitsch: Your background work prior to starting with Paramount Parks in 2002 consists of many companies, such as Universal Orlando, Landmark Entertainment Group, and Warner Bros. Movie World Madrid. How did your position at Paramount Parks come to be and was any of your previous projects part of this position becoming a reality?
Cobb: After completing “Men in Black: Alien Attack” at Universal Orlando in 2000 and moving back to LA, I ended up freelancing for awhile for numerous companies (one of which was the fledgling Thinkwell Group, where I have now worked full-time for about a decade). This is a very freelance-oriented and project-based industry, like the film business in a way, so it’s all about building relationships. Every small job leads to the next small job, which eventually leads to bigger jobs.
One of my key mentors in the early days was Ty Granaroli, a show producer while I was at Landmark Entertainment Group. He ended up at Paramount, doing development on some international theme park concepts that they were licensing to various developers around the globe. He brought me in to do some freelance development in 2000, which snowballed into more and more work, which justified bringing me on full-time.
Most of that work was for the studio’s licensing group – but in about 2002-2003, there was a change in organizational structure at the Paramount Parks office in Charlotte, North Carolina, who designed, marketed, and operated all five properties in North America (Carowinds, Kings Island, Kings Dominion, Great America California & Star Trek: The Experience). While owned by parent company Viacom, Paramount Parks was run as a separate business and not run by the studio directly. The reorganization changed that creative structure a bit, and the Charlotte office needed to lean on the LA office (who was mainly doing overseas development unrelated to the North American park chain) for more of the US attraction development.
So, my freelance, on-and-off-job became a multi-park responsibility nearly overnight. It was a really great opportunity to work in the regional-park world, where I learned a TON and will be forever grateful for my time working there.
Laschkewitsch: In October 2002, you began your career as a Senior Creative Director at Paramount Parks. Before SURVIVOR: THE RIDE was built in 2006 at the then Paramount’s Great America (PGA), what are some of the other significant projects you worked on for Paramount? Why do they stand out to you?
Cobb: “Tomb Raider Firefall” at Kings Dominion stands out because it was a very particular challenge. Before I got to Paramount Parks, Kings Island had already built their indoor version of Tomb Raider, which was incredibly ambitious and a step towards more immersive, dark-ride-like attractions – but ultimately the creative idea required more than the engineering of the “off-the-shelf” ride system could really accomplish, resulting in a lot of unexpected maintenance and some down-time.
So, in bringing the Tomb Raider brand to another park, it was clear they wanted to go in a different direction – not to mention at a lower capital expenditure. So my challenge was, how to bring a real Tomb Raider experience, inspired by the epic grandeur and thrills of the movies, on a more limited budget – and without the theatrical lighting and sound control of a show building?
We landed on the idea that a top-spin-style ride is pretty much a show in itself – lots of people who don’t like riding them love watching them, so why not put it on display in an epic way? We painted the ride to look like some sort of ancient infernal device, setting it amongst ruins suggesting a towering temple that used to enshrine the machine – in the queue we had planned scenic displays with pages from Lara Croft’s diaries, showing the discovery of the machine and how it was some sort of crazy altar where tribal true believers could test their faith or be flung to the heavens. Then we added fire and water effects, and scored the entire ride cycle with a custom music and audio track to give it a cinematic build, for both riders and onlookers.
It was a fairly inexpensive ride compared to some of the bigger projects at those parks, but I’ve always been proud of it as an example of how to have a unique, fun, and quality experience even if you don’t spend tens of millions of dollars, and without the use of new prototypical ride hardware. There were also some really great people working on it with me – from the awesome concept renderings by William Alton, to the really ingenious local scenic painters and sculptors on-site, to the incredible audio design and music score by composer Andy Garfield.
Laschkewitsch: What types of duties are associated with someone who has the title of Creative Director?
Cobb: It helps to have a key skill set like writing and public speaking, as the job is 90% communication – writing treatments, pitching ideas, moderating creative sessions with your team. I always say it’s a “pollination” job. A Creative Director is part ringleader, part cheerleader, part problem-solver. You have to be able to synthesize input and ideas from different disciplines and get the entire project team excited and moving together towards the Big Idea.
Laschkewitsch: When did work on SURVIVOR: THE RIDE for PGA begin?
Cobb: Late 2004 or early 2005, if I recall? Paramount Parks was always looking to leverage their corporate partners, CBS being a major one, so the request came to us to look into ideas of how to put Survivor into the parks. We looked at things like audience-participation shows, contestant meet-and-greets, themed eateries – but they really wanted a ride, which seemed like a fun challenge to try and figure out.
Laschkewitsch: Did you watch the show SURVIVOR at the time, and, if so, did your prior knowledge of the television program help with the creative development of the ride? If you hadn’t watched the show at all, was there a steep learning curve for you?
Cobb: I had watched the first season just like most of the rest of the country, because the whole idea was so new. After that, I caught the occasional episode but didn’t follow it regularly. Once we started working on the attraction, I went back and watched a few seasons to get a feel for how the show looked, and felt, and had evolved.
Laschkewitsch: Did SURVIVOR: THE RIDE turn out drastically different than any of the original concepts for the attraction? Discuss how the ride evolved over time.
Cobb: The ride system was one of the first we pitched – we had others in mind, too, but everyone immediately took to the Zamperla Disko Coaster because it was so fun to ride. We’d ridden the smaller floor model at IAAPA the year before and loved it – I’m not really a spinning-ride guy, but it rides much more like a coaster than I expected. Really fun and floaty. So, we never considered any other hardware after everyone seemed to agree on the Disko – it was the right family demographic the park was after, too.
Laschkewitsch: Was SURVIVOR: THE RIDE always going to be located where it ended up today or were there previous locations looked at?
Cobb: We originally looked at overlaying it atop the rapids ride – the “hump” of the ride going up over one of the flumes, and one of the end pieces dramatically placed over the lake beside it – and the idea was, we were going to build a really fun queue filled with walkways and bridges in the middle of the rapids ride, and the queue would have these “tribal challenges” as little side-quests while you were waiting in line (which ended up as a post-ride photo op in the final installation).
The idea was that the rapids ride would be re-themed as well as “Survivor Rapids” with additional interactive water effects triggered by guests in the queue and a new visual look, creating a Survivor “mini-land” with two rides and a small “canteen” food kiosk. Once that concept was priced out, all the complication of installing it there turned out to be very, very expensive, so we went with a simpler location.
Laschkewitsch: Was it your idea to add the dancing, clapping, and chanting interactive component of the attraction the riders used to experience prior to boarding? Since the stripping of this element from the ride after Cedar Fair took over the park, the interactive piece of SURVIVOR has been sorely missed.
Cobb: I’m glad you liked it! We hit upon that idea pretty early in development. We realized that the essence of Survivor was competition, so just putting the name on a ride wouldn’t really be much of a Survivor-like experience. But I’ve always been fascinated at various attempts to “plus up” simple flat rides – Universal’s interactive water elements during the “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” ride at Islands of Adventure was a huge influence on what we had done on Tomb Raider at Kings Dominion that year, the idea of scoring a ride cycle with a “story” that runs the duration of the ride, rather than just background music. So, that idea clicked with the idea of Survivor competition. Music and rhythm interactive games like Dance Dance Revolution were blowing up then, too, and I was playing it at home and the arcades a lot. So all of that became part of the discussion.
We also took into account the fact that a flat ride isn’t continuous load with multiple vehicles, but rather a “cycle” ride where guests are grouped and wait a whole ride cycle before loading – which became the basis of our “tribal challenge” competition. We took that wait cycle and made it part of the attraction, with monitors and the game play – making waiting riders a competing “tribe” to the people currently riding.
I’m glad people liked it – frankly it was a bit of a risky concept, and I’m grateful that the park management liked the pitch and let us run with it. I’d love to see more of this kind of group game play and competitive elements added to attractions. I think it helps make waiting more fun, and encourages socializing amongst park guests.
Laschkewitsch: Both Ethan Zohn and Jenna Morasca were previous champions of the actual SURVIVOR television show (winners of SURVIVOR: AFRICA and SURVIVOR: THE AMAZON respectively) and ended up being the stars of the both the ride’s pre-show and during-ride queue videos. How did the two of them get picked as the hosts for the ride?
Cobb: CBS gave us a shortlist of Survivor contestants who were fan favorites, and Jenna & Ethan both rose to the top of our selections because of their chemistry and outgoing personalities. Plus, they were dating at the time, so it was a convenient package deal!
Laschkewitsch: What was it like filming the queue videos for the ride and where were they filmed?
Cobb: We actually filmed the preshow elements in the park, inside one of the park’s storage buildings – we put up a simple jungle-like backdrop and a few tiki torches and shot everything fairly close-up. We shot everything in a single day, a few months before the ride opened. Jenna and Ethan were absolute pros and a joy to work with, very easy-going and funny.
Laschkewitsch: At the exit of the ride there currently exists an interactive climbing challenge. Were there more of these SURVIVOR-like challenges planned for the area surrounding the ride?
Cobb: In the original concept layout over the rapids ride, there were about five or six of those integrated into the queue. We wanted to do more than the one in the final installation, but only had room for one. One of the things that led to those was the rise of mobile phone photography and online sharing – Facebook and Twitter were still a year or two away, but I was a heavy Flickr and LiveJournal user, and saw that people were taking more daily social photos and sharing them with friends – so we tried to make sure the parks and any new attractions had “selfie” moments!
Laschkewitsch: When did the ride finally open and what was it like being present at the ride’s Media Event? Did the ride get a lot of local and/or national press coverage being marketed as the “world’s first reality coaster?”
Cobb: I always laughed at that tagline. It didn’t really make sense, but it sounded buzzy and interesting, and certainly fit the Survivor brand. Opening day was really fun, Lex van den Berghe from Survivor: Africa was there, and the local ACE region brought a bunch of members. It was a really great day, and very gratifying to see everyone enjoying the ride and game elements.
Laschkewitsch: What about SURVIVOR: THE RIDE makes it a memorable and cherished project for you? Have you been back to PGA to ride it since the removal of some of the key thematic elements?
Cobb: I think the uniqueness of the creative challenge and the “never-done-before-ness” of the attraction is what I remember most. We weren’t like Disney or Universal with big budgets and long development cycles – in addition to being an extremely modest budget, the entire attraction went from early concept to opening in only about a year. I think there can be enormous creativity to be found in constraint – ask any artist, that a truly blank or unlimited canvas can be more terrifying than knowing the exact scope or size of your intent.
I’ve been back since the gameplay and theming were removed – it’s sad to see it gone, but I’m happy that it existed in the world for a couple of years.
Laschkewitsch: Since Paramount Parks as an entity became defunct, what have you done in your career?
Cobb: I spent another year at Paramount Studios working on some international theme park development projects, and then joined the team at Thinkwell. Since then, I have worked on literally hundreds of concepts for theme parks, museums, cultural attractions, and live events. My biggest project for them is a major international theme park that will be opening in 2018, that will have more announcements coming later this year.
Laschkewitsch: If a student has aspirations to work in the themed entertainment industry as a concept developer like yourself, what is some advice you would give to this student?
Cobb: Be curious. Be a lifelong learner. Be a generalist – learn a great skill set that you can master, but also be conversant in other disciplines. This is an industry that greatly rewards polymaths. It’s great if you’re a coaster fan, but you’ll have more avenues to explore professionally if you’re also a fan of theater, or museums, or basket weaving – especially at Thinkwell, we don’t hire a skill set, we hire a full person, and we value all of the passions you can bring to the table. To be more succinct: I see a lot of resumes and portfolios from people who want to design theme parks – but many seem like theme parks are the only thing they’re interested in, and we are a much larger industry than just coasters and rides.
Laschkewitsch: Thank you very much for talking to us! SURVIVOR: THE RIDE as it first opened was a big favorite among local ACE members and it has been an honor hearing all about the ride’s backstory. We wish you the best of luck at Thinkwell and beyond.
Cobb: My pleasure. All the best to all the fans out there, I love your enthusiasm and passion for this industry!
To learn more about Thinkwell Group, visit their website at www.thinkwellgroup.com. Thanks again, Dave!
BONUS! Check out the original SURVIVOR: THE RIDE queue video below; again, thanks to Dave.