Poseidon adventure: KB Associates voyages to Sea World for a Journey to Atlantis


An epidemic of water on the brain has engulfed producers of themed entertainment--how else to explain a wave of attractions based on the legend of Atlantis? At Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Race to Atlantis, which combines an Imax 3D ride with a fanciful queuing area, opened earlier this year. The newest and biggest restaurant in Minnesota's Mall of America, Cafe Odyssey, has a dining room inspired by the fabled lost city. And, in the Bahamas, the well-heeled chairman of Sun International Hotels, Solomon Kerzner, is putting the finishing touches on his own Atlantis, a $750 million pleasure island that will presumably prove more seaworthy than its legendary counterpart.

The culture at large has produced a new book, by Richard Ellis, entitled Imagining Atlantis, which explores the history of Atlantean lore since the ancient Greeks first heard the tale spun by Plato (who, with a good agent, would be rolling in pita if he hatched it today). Move over, Titanic; with its combination of topside splendor and undersea catastrophe, Atlantis is the spectacle of 1998.

In April, Sea World of Florida launched its own multimillion-dollar contribution to the restoration of the legend of the sunken kingdom--an action-packed aquatic adventure called Journey to Atlantis, housed in a complex that dominates six acres (2 hectares) of Sea World's extensive holdings in Orlando. Your city may have already been visited by the stingray-shaped S.E.A. Force One, a futuristic promotional vehicle for the attraction, which Orlando-based ITEC Productions has outfitted with an array of whiz-bang special effects, including 6'-long propane flames that shoot out of top-mounted exhaust pipes.

Journey to Atlantis, the first-ever combination roller coaster and flume ride, represents at least two other milestones: the first time Sea World of Florida has built a thrill ride, and the first time New York-based KB Associates has lit one. "KB" is the renowned Ken Billington, best known for his work on Broadway, including the Tony Award-winning lighting for Chicago. His two close collaborators, Jason Kantrowitz and John McKernon, work on a slate of projects that encompass theatrical, architectural, and themed lighting design. "We use our theatrical background--our main emphasis--to make architectural projects look good," Billington says. "All three of us are lighting designers, so after we talk about a project with the client or with the architect we discuss it together, developing concepts that make it even better in the long run."

The venue was a three-year project for Sea World of Florida and its St. Louis-based owner, Busch Entertainment Corp. KB Associates, which created the lighting for three live stage shows at the park's 2,250-seat Nautilus Theatre, came to the project in June 1996, when the pieces were already largely in place. "The architects and designers had already been developing their concepts by the time we got there, and the footprint of the ride had already been locked in," Billington says. "This is because the ride itself is very complex; the boat vehicles rise out of the water and onto a track, at which point it becomes a high-speed roller coaster. Our job was to work with the creative team to refine the storyline and how the ride would look as it proceeded through the track."

The ride experience was KB Associates' chief concern at Sea World, but not its only one. "Just about everything that lights up on that property, inside and outside, we did," says Billington, including a queuing area and a combination gift shop and aquarium that passengers enter once the Journey to Atlantis adventure ends. Kantrowitz, who has worked with KB Associates since an internship about 20 years ago, was appointed project designer. His first task, with McKernon ("who was really brilliant at getting all those ideas translated onto paper") at the helm, was to develop an initial 40 pages of drawings in two weeks' time, a blizzard of activity that kept draftsmen and their MiniCAD programs up past midnight.

"In August 1996, Sea World was going to start construction on the property," Kantrowitz relates. "The lighting bid package was delayed, but once we were hired everything had to come together quickly; Sea World needed to see our project numbers, and the electrical engineers we were coordinating with needed to see our drawings for their purposes and submit their own drawings as well. We've worked on many big projects, but the speed with which we had to work on this one was incredible."

Further adjustments, to the budget and to the ride, consumed Kantrowitz for the next two years. The designer lived on-site in Orlando during the final four months of installation. "The goal was to create a magical place," he says. To that end he worked closely with Valencia, CA-based Technifex Inc. on special effects, the team of architects from Peckham, Guyton, Albers, & Viets, and Suzanne Sessions Inc.'s theming designer Kim Wilson. Sea World's in-house technical staff, and assorted subcontractors, also joined him on-site, in a melee of furious activity ("There were hundreds of construction workers packed into very tight spaces where the ride is") as opening day loomed.

"The building is 10 stories high," the designer relates. "And you could never casually say, 'I'm going up to the third floor,' and try to hike it; you'd get winded quick. On the first level alone, the ceiling is 30' (9m) high." Compounding Kantrowitz's exhaustion, most of his activities were confined to the dead of night in humid Orlando: "I would go to work at around 11pm, and supervise theatrical crews from midnight till 8am. But I would also be there during the day, overseeing the crew from United Electrical Contractors from 7am to 3pm."

Though budget limitations cut down the amount of exterior lighting considerably, there was much to illuminate within the ride environment itself. Journey to Atlantis is a six-and-a-half-minute extravaganza that cruises past 23 separate scenes, each "lit like their own Broadway show, except that the audience travels from one to the other," Billington says.

In the backstory to the attraction, Atlantis has risen anew in a harbor off a Greek fishing village, to world amazement. Passengers in a Greek fishing boat moored off the village are transported through a portal of fog and fiber-optic lighting effects to the undersea world of Atlantis. There they explore some of the kingdom's watery wonders, much to the displeasure of some dispossessed sirens, who conjure mayhem as guests view the kingdom. "When one of the evil sirens, Allura, comes crashing down from the ceiling, the boat leaves the water and is sucked up through a cone-shaped vortex of laser lights [from a Coherent Inc. Laser Group unit, with Pangolin Laser Systems software, designed and installed by Sea World] and begins the coaster ride," says Kantrowitz. As they do in many themed environments, ETC Source Fours (here mounted on catwalks) illuminate much of the interior.

The designer is intimately familiar with the course taken during Journey to Atlantis, having ridden it three or four times a day for weeks to fine-tune the lighting before it opened. Kantrowitz says the boats, which hold eight passengers apiece and are dispatched every 20 seconds, sail through a 3'-deep ride trough at a relatively leisurely 3.5' per second before they hit the coaster track, at which point the speed doubles. Each boat is equipped with 40 ride sensors that trigger each scene, interfacing with the show control system to activate the audio, effects, and lighting in each one.

"As designers we were challenged to help tell a story through the medium of light," Kantrowitz says. "We knew the ride itself would be great, but also knew that contributing theatricality and emotion would make it an awesome experience for Sea World's guests. We set the lighting scene by scene, creating cues and looks as we would in a play. The chief difference is that when you're sitting in a boat, you can turn your head and look in any direction; the cues help focus your attention."

A-lamp striplights from Starfire Lighting are recessed into the backs of elaborately detailed Atlantean columns, to highlight the interiors of the ride environment's inner chambers. Wavelights from Precision Projection, which simulate a water-ripple effect, were also employed to create what Sea World calls "aqualusions." "They were perfect for this kind of low-light application," Billington says. "The ride is very dark; you just need flashes of light, and little glimpses of patterns. We do use a bit of blacklight [from Wildfire], but what was most important was to carefully sculpt the light, revealing only what needed to be revealed." Aqua blues contribute to waterscapes, one of which is home to a golden seahorse that "flies" underwater and transforms into a magical guide (both created by more than 24,000 fiber-optic lights, supplied by Technifex).

Following Allura's attack, the ride leaves the interior of Atlantis and scales its exterior for a stretch. "As the boats climb what is the hillside of Atlantis, guests dodge water catapults [aqua-cannonballs custom-designed by Technifex] hurled at them by Allura. After reaching the summit of Atlantis, the boats drop down a six-story, log flume-style plunge, returning guests to the harbor," Kantrowitz says.

But the ride reverts from placid to perilous yet again as the sirens draw the boats back into Atlantis, ultimately depositing them in their treasure chamber, which is located on the third floor of the attraction. The chamber is lit by thousands of faux candles provided by City Theatrical; KB Associates and Technifex collaborated on a flickering candlelight effect, created through light reflected off moving mirrors, that "brilliantly bathes" the room, Kantrowitz says. The ride climaxes with an escape that first spirals the boats deep underground on an S-shaped track, then propels them out of Atlantis, splashing down into the Greek harbor for a final time.

"We had to draw a line between what was Greek and what was Atlantean in this environment, and none of it could look like Sea World once you walked into the space. Even the streetlights differ between Sea World and our Greece," says Billington, who says the firm drew on various research materials, including photos from a trip to Greece two years ago, for visual assistance. "We had to have colors that were so rich, saturated, and beautiful, which we achieved through patterns and projections," Kantrowitz says.

KB Associates tapped GamProducts in Los Angeles for its palette of GamColors, including pinks, peaches, and blues ("Atlantean colors"); its TwinSpins, to project shimmery template patterns through Plexiglas pans of water with agitators in them to create ripples; and Stik-Ups, tiny quartz lights, that were hidden inside props and animatronic creatures. Kantrowitz says his favorite contribution, colorwise, was GAM 350, a "very rich gold" that served as a foundation for the rest of the attraction's hues. "We layered patterns over this gold to create a sense of ancientness, as if this were an archaeological excavation," he says.

Once deposited safely back in the harbor, guests enter a gift shop and aquarium complex, also accessible to landlubbers who stay behind. The aquarium has nine interactive tanks, one of them a special effects tank housing a mermaid devised by Technifex, and another with a button that allows visitors to illuminate jellyfish under different underwater lighting conditions. Sea creatures also swim above the heads of guests in a glass-domed ceiling and under the feet of visitors on an etched-glass floor; the ceiling and floor spaces house sharks, stingrays, and other gilled inhabitants. Kantrowitz relates some fish stories.

"Besides being our first thrill ride, this is also our first aquarium," he says. "For research, I spent some time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, one of the best in the country. One thing I learned about was how fish respond--or don't respond--to lighting."

The lighting also provoked other fishy responses. "I had to change the cueing in one of the tanks, where a school of fish swims in continuous circles; the shifting light disoriented them, and wrought havoc on their choreography," Kantrowitz says. "In another tank, I had a bright shaft of light filtering through kelp; the fish were vying to sunbathe in that area. Sharks, on the other hand, don't seem to care about lighting one way or another."

The architectural lighting in the aquarium, and throughout Journey to Atlantis, is controlled by an ETC Unison engineered and installed by Production Arts. "We discovered that when the marine biologists turned the lights on at 6am when they came to work, the fish were unsettled and didn't want to eat. So we reprogrammed the Unison system to gradually bring up the lights at 5am, and the fish are much happier--we don't wake them up on the wrong side of the tank." The show lighting for the ride is controlled by a Triad show control system, which is interphased with two Unison control modules that handle the work lighting and emergency guest exit lighting.

The control system is part of the magic of Journey to Atlantis, though it is, of course, concealed from guests. Ron Brodeur, who powers up systems equipment for clients and manufacturers at Production Arts (hence his title, "energization engineer"), says "the system is unique in that we have a number of different control points for it. One console can change lights day-to-day for events that occur within the Atlantis area, and another controls guest exit lights, if there's a failure with the ride. The worklight system is integrated with the guest exit console, which is controlled through Unison."

The Unison has all custom stations and interfaces at two major locations: the lighting control room and the operations ride control booth. Says Brodeur, "From these stations you can turn on and monitor anything going on in each of the ride's scenes. We're using a new version of the Unison Light Manager software; there's a sophisticated program that allows us to run the guest exit lights in each sub-area the ride is broken down into. For example, if a guest decides to exit one of the boats for whateverreason, you don't have to ruin the guest experience for everybody; the exit lights come on in just that one zone."

Kantrowitz adds that in other theme parks, guests have been known to leave ride vehicles and explore backstage areas, though Allura and her pals will no doubt make short work of any mischief-makers at Journey to Atlantis. "This was a simple problem, but our approach was quite complex. And it works great," Brodeur says. Adds Kantrowitz, "We could be lighting in one scene, and have just the worklights on for painters or technicians in another."

When Brodeur completed his duties in January, he e-mailed changes to the system's operations code to Kantrowitz in Orlando. "In the old days, when everything was hardwired, we were locked into a design executed two years earlier and couldn't change it, but now we have this incredible flexibility to change things on the fly," Kantrowitz says.

Kantrowitz credits Sea World's shipshape staff, led by director of theatrical services Scott McMurtrie, for their assistance during and after the build. "They're really amazing; at this venue they have a full-time team of five technicians who ensure that everything is running 100% for the guests everyday." He also applauds enthusiastic park guests for their inspiration and input in the preview period prior to the official opening. "I loved riding in the boats with the guests to observe what excites them, and I took notes on their reactions to finesse the show programming. It's very important to immerse yourself in the total show experience and begin to see it as the audience sees it, and not just as a professional. At the end of the day, for Sea World's visitors, it's not the state-of-the-art lighting, effects, and technology they remember, but the thrills, the fun, and the beauty." Thanks to a concerted effort on everyone's part, the world gets a new glimpse at an old legend, now playing an estimated 1,800 shows a day in Orlando.

CLIENT Busch Entertainment Corp./Sea World of Florida


ARCHITECT Peckham, Guyton, Albers & Viets Inc. Jim Wible, designer; Michael Linenbroker, project architect; Jim Moorkamp, project manager

LIGHTING DESIGN KB Associates Inc. Jason Kantrowitz, project designer; Ken Billington, John McKernon, designers; Anne Cheney, John Hoey, Jon Kusner, Jeff Nellis, draftspeople

THEMED DESIGN Suzanne Sessions Inc., Kim Wilson, art director ITEC Productions (S.E.A. Force One)

SPECIAL EFFECTS DESIGNER Technifex Inc. Rock Hall, designer; Kurt Wilson, project manager

LIGHTING CONTROL SYSTEM DESIGN Production Arts Michael Lay, project manager; Ron Brodeur, energization engineer

SHOW CONTROL Triad Productions Inc.

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Foster, Conant & Associates Inc. John Sullivan

SHOW PRODUCER Paragon Entertainment Group Richard Hoag

RIDE MANUFACTURER Heinrich Mach GmbH & Co.

GENERAL CONTRACTOR Suitt Construction Co.

ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR United Electrical Contractors Inc.


THEMED SCENERY The Nassal Company

THEATRICAL EQUIPMENT LIST (65) ETC Source Four 50-degree ellipsoidals (80) ETC Source Four 36-degree ellipsoidals (50) ETC Source Four 26-degree ellipsoidals (10) ETC Source Four 19-degree ellipsoidals (15) ETC Source Four PARs (45) LTM Pepper fresnels (85) Strand Orion cyclights (24) Strand Coda cyclights (10) GAM Products Stik-Ups (10) GAM Products TwinSpin IIs (130) GAM Products GamPatterns (200) sheets of GAM Products GamColors (24) Precision Projection Systems Wavelights (20) LSI Q400s (3) Wildfire 400Ds City Theatrical candles Mee Fog foggers

LIGHTING CONTROL EQUIPMENT ETC Concept 2x for theatrical lighting ETC Unison, with 17 custom-designed lighting control stations and two custom-designed master worklight stations, for architectural lighting (4) ETC Sensor SR48 AF dimmer racks (1) ETC Sensor SR24 AF dimmer racks

ADDITIONAL EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS B-K Lighting, Bronzelite, Capri, Coherent Inc. Laser Group, Day-Brite, Designplan, Edison Price, Forecast, Gardco, Hadco, Halo Lighting, Hilite, Hydrel, Lumec, Pangolin Laser Systems, Phoenix, Rejuvenation Lamp & Fixture, Spero, Starfire Lighting, Stonco, SuperVision