Toon Lagoon

It's hardly unusual for a theme park to draw its inspiration from pre-existing pieces of pop culture. But even on these terms, Toon Lagoon is a hugely complex project, according to producer Chris Stapleton. It features over 150 characters from 80 comic strips, spanning the century. "We go from the Yellow Kid to Zippy the Pinhead," laughs Stapleton.

It's a visual explosion, a 3D Expressionist collage, which sends zany characters and bizarre architectural details spinning in all directions. Consider King's Row, dedicated to the King Features comics. Every venue features its appropriate comic-strip reference, whether it's Cathy's Ice Cream Parlor, the sandwich shop Blondie's: Home of the Dagwood (with a facade made up of a towering Dagwood special), or a newsstand dominated by an image of girl reporter Brenda Starr. Elsewhere, one encounters a singing Betty Boop, a boatful of Vikings straight out of Hagar the Horrible, and the inimitable Krazy Kat. Naturally, the fabrication of all this scenery was a huge challenge, notes Tom Lloyd of Adirondack Scenic, Inc., which, along with the Florida-based company Sightline, was responsible for fabricating the scenery in Toon Lagoon. Reid Carlson was the senior art director of Toon Lagoon exteriors.

John Martin, who worked on the design of exterior lighting park-wide, designed the lighting for King's Row. He says his goal was to "make the characters come to life at night, make King's Row really bright and beautiful. I wanted to add color that would not necessarily be there during the day, so the area would be transformed at night."

Martin's design broke down into two basic approaches. "You have accent lighting; you find an inconspicuous place for it--behind a tree, on a roof--then you work to make it clean and nondescript. Then you have character fixtures, which are part of the interior design." Character fixture design for Toon Lagoon was done by Ken Daniels of the firm KDLD; the in-house character fixture coordinator was Wendy Wood.

As for units, Martin says, "We used a lot of Phoenix CSI fixtures. Their advantage is their throw lengths--you can push across 100' successfully with color. Also they generally have good implementation of color accessories. We also used a nice small floodlight from Sill, a European manufacturer, that is sold in the US through Hydrel. The Sill has a metal halide lamp, but in a reflector environment with five different reflector beam spreads. They offer a variety of accessories to go in front. We also used a lot of PAR-38 metal halide accent fixtures." The design was hooked into the Strand ParkNet system.

"The biggest single issue in Toon Lagoon," concludes Martin, "was that there were no standardized details. Every 10', the facades change--in nature, construction, approach."

King's Row is also a sound design challenge of tremendous sophistication. "It's a music zone, which is shaped like a dog's leg," says audio software producer John Rust, adding, "I wanted to put a stereo soundtrack down the length of it. In that soundtrack, there are 14 point-source speakers, down the length of the area. Let's say Betty Boop is singing 'I Want to be Loved by You' on the top of her piano. At the same time, her piano player is performing a solo on a separate track. Up the street a bit, all the dogs from various comic strips are sitting in a fountain, and they're barking to 'I Want to be Loved by You.' Further up the street, Blondie and Dagwood are singing fragments of their theme [from their 1950s animated cartoon series]--they're putting their melody against Betty's song and everything else. Across the street, there's Hagar the Horrible, with a glee club of drunken Vikings, singing original music and lyrics about how awful it is to be a Viking. There are 14 of these vignettes playing up and down the street, which requires two Fostex hard drives running in synch." As in the rest of the park's exterior locations, Bose speakers are used.

In contrast to King's Row, the adjoining area of Sweethaven, dedicated to Popeye and his friends, was designed as a respite for visitors. It features Wimpy's, for hamburgers, and Popeye's three-story-tall boat, named Me Ship, The Olive, which has a number of interactive treats for guests, including the Cargo Crane, where one can shoot water at people on the nearby Bilge-Rat Barges ride. The softer look comes from the use of character fixtures, which use round, frosted globes for the most part, says lighting designer Pat Gallegos. "They're decorative street lamps, mainly lanterns with a nautical flair, hung off oars, posts, and buoys. For the purposes of saving money, we came up with a set of variations on a theme--we called them the Fab Four. We used one globe, worked into four design considerations, with six different mountings--such as a chain, a bracket, or a pendant." Project designer with Gallegos on all the Toon Lagoon projects was Aram Ebben.

Other key personnel in Toon Lagoon include project architect Robert Pennypacker, area development architect Brett Lemmon, the architecture firm CRSS, audio hardware director Asher Blum, and hardware audio designer SPL.

By any stretch of the imagination, Universal's Islands of Adventure is a watery park--ride after ride offers patrons the chance to get wet (not an unattractive prospect, given Orlando's frequently tropical temperatures). But even by these standards, Toon Lagoon is particularly damp. The main reasons for this flood of activity are the water rides, Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, and Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges.

Both rides are similar in that they hook their thrills to comic narratives involving kidnapped heroines; riders encounter numerous vignettes on the way, featuring audio-animated characters. But each has its own unique architecture and structure.

Ripsaw Falls, says Stapleton, is "an aqua-coaster--half roller coaster/half flume ride." The hook: Snidely Whiplash kidnaps Nell, and Dudley tries to save her. Guests ride along in the water--a 400,000-gallon lagoon--encountering nearly two dozen vignettes laying out the storyline, until the ride climaxes in a 75' drop (at a 55-degree angle) and a thundering splash that sends guests 15' below water level.

The building that houses Ripsaw Falls (credits include concept designer Steve Lodwick and production designer Denise Imhoff), is a crazy construction in the Jay Ward manner. The ride is dominated by a Mount Rushmore-like facade, which features the faces of Dudley, Nell, Inspector Fenwick, and Dudley's horse.

Gallegos says that the biggest challenge of lighting Ripsaw Falls was "integrating it with a very complicated building. Standard construction techniques don't lend themselves to buildings that are purposely off-angle. One big challenge was to get the mountain lit in a dramatic way without blasting into the eyes of the people on the ride or in the queue line."

On the other hand, the Bilge-Rat Barges is a log ride, as horizontal as Ripsaw Falls is vertical. The story: Bluto kidnaps Olive Oyl and Popeye goes off to rescue her. The guests become Bluto's captives on a whitewater raft ride that sends them speeding over rough waters at a rate of 16' per second. Guests passing by Popeye's boat find themselves on the receiving end of water cannons, then pass into Octopus Grotto, where they encounter an 18'-tall, 14'-wide creature with five 10' to 12'-long tentacles bulging with water. Then they are whirled into a fully operational boat wash where, in all likelihood, they will get completely soaked.

Lighting for both rides required a mixture of architectural and theatrical approaches--the former for the attractions' exteriors and the latter for the many character vignettes. Gallegos, the principal designer on both water rides, says, "Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges is integrated into the whole area development. It's a show for the people riding it and for people watching it as well. The challenge is to create an environment that works for both groups."

The key is keeping lighting focused, "as carefully as you can," he adds, "because there aren't any good framing projectors designed for outside use that give a tremendous punch. There are a few, but they're expensive and don't get used much." Instead, he chose to work with outdoor PAR cans, both metal halide and halogen. "Then it's a matter of using glare shields, and also using the landscaping to do your masking for you--working units into rocks, hiding them with bushes." The project was greatly aided by a dimensional model of the area, built by Universal when the project was still in the planning stages. "We spent quite a bit of time with it," says Gallegos, "putting pushpins into it, indicating where our lights would go in order to develop the lighting story agreed to by the project team."

Speaking of Ripsaw Falls, Universal staff lighting designer Tim Linamen says, "The vast majority of the units used for lighting the interior scenes are [ETC] Source Four PARs and ellipsoidals." He adds, "We used a lot of Lumiere Cambrias, the exterior architectural fixture, both inside and outside, because they're so compact, and the lamps are relatively easy to change. A lot of Altman PARs are used for exterior scenes as well. Also, because some of the show scenes are exteriors, we used CSIs [outdoor floodlights by Phoenix] located around the venue's exteriors to provide general illumination for the whole area." Other key lighting suppliers, for both water rides and the Sweethaven exterior lighting, include Environmental Lighting Associates, Lumiere Manufacturing, Hydrel, Altman, Bega, Columbia, Tokistar, McPhilben, Architectural Cathode, Times Square, ETC, Mole Richardson, Rosco, and RLH Enterprises. Strobes were provided by Diversitronics, Flashworks, and High End Systems. Special F/X Lighting provided dichroic color filters. Dimming is by Strand, with relays by Micro-Lite. ETC provided lighting control on the ride.

One key ride moment comes just at the big drop, when riders make the big plunge into a shack filled with TNT that "explodes." The drop is accompanied by popping strobes, which create just the right disorienting touch. This moment is also the chef d'oeuvre of Show Technologies, which produced 13 special effects and 19 show action systems for Ripsaw Falls. As the riders plunge, the explosion is simulated by a series of effects; the walls and roof move in and out, signs spin, the smokestack twirls, a chicken leaps in the air, making frightened noises. There are also sound effects, plus fog and water cannons. The vignette is complicated enough to have a dedicated control system, which is triggered by the approaching log vehicle.

Signal Perfection Limited handled the installation of the sound systems on these rides. Both rides make use of a wide array of sound equipment, including speakers from EAW, Anchor, Atlas Soundelier, NEAR, Soundscape, Crest amplifiers, Fostex hard drives, Symetrix mic preamps/voice processors, and Shure microphones. Other contributors include AMT, Best, Bitree, Entrelec, Hoffman, JL Cooper, Middle Atlantic, Rane, Slorus, and White. One key piece of equipment was the Wet Series of speakers from Community. Lighting and effects are controlled by the Anitech system, with sound effects under the control of Marshal Long Acoustic control, with an Allen-Bradley PLC calling all the shots. Animation and show control for both rides was provided by ITEC.

Like everything else at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, Ripsaw Falls and the Bilge-Rat Barges are likely to raise the bar for others attempting to create similar rides. "The Bilge-Rat Barges and Ripsaw Falls are the next generations of the raft ride and the log flume ride," says Stapleton. Just make drip-dry clothing a priority when you visit the park.

Without a doubt, the best-named attraction in Toon Lagoon is the Pandemonium Cartoon Circus. This live stage show offers plenty of what the title promises. The cast includes such well-known names as Bullwinkle, Rocky, Bluto, Olive Oyl, Woody Woodpecker, Broom Hilda, Dagwood, Blondie, Boris Badenov, Natasha, Beetle Bailey, and Snidely Whiplash (actually, live actors in character costumes designed by Alyja Kranich) in a fast-moving revue filled with singing, dancing, and slapstick.

On a circus-style set designed by Bob Harris, all sorts of things happen: Dudley Do-Right and Nell star in a knife-throwing act; Betty Boop descends from the flies on a crescent moon and dangles by an arm and a leg; Blondie and Dagwood circle the stage on rollerblades. Linking all these episodes is a through-line featuring Dudley in pursuit of Snidely, who has kidnapped Nell. Other creative personnel include producer Scott Helmstedter and executive producer Tom Geraghty. Scenic production was by Piper Productions. Costumes were built by Custom Characters, John David Ridge, and USE Costume Shop.

Clearly, the show has been conceived in the spirit of Broadway razzmatazz, and the New York connection continues in the work of lighting designer KB Associates, with Jason Kantrowitz as project designer. Kantrowitz assembled a sizable rig that blends moving lights and conventional units to create an overtly theatrical design that grabs the audience's attention even during the show's many daytime performances. Blue, pink, and yellow hues wash the stage. The runway is lined in red light bulbs. A series of R40 strips at the rear of the stage feature glass filters in red, yellow, and blue. Gobo effects and strobes underline key comic moments, while three followspots send beams racing around the stage.

One interesting choice made by Kantrowitz was the Clay Paky Stage Line 300 moving light. "It's a punchy little unit, perfect for creating eye candy," he says. Universal staff lighting designer Linamen says the choice "was born of a maintenance issue, because Clay Pakys are such durable fixtures. They're usually more expensive, but that particular line was within our budget."

Other key parts of the lighting design include approximately 274 ETC Source Four units, 20 Altman 65Q fresnels, 15 Altman R40 light strips, 12 GAM Products TwinSpins, 220 TRP Star Strobes, hundreds of City Theatrical lighting accessories, and followspots by Lycian. The lighting is controlled by an ETC Obsession, although the entire show is controlled by SMPTE timecode. Other key lighting personnel included programmer Jim Ohrberg, production electrician Chuck Haigler, and board operator Mikey Rau.

The show's sound system also underwent considerable revision. Bob Owens of SGA Audio Design and Services was brought in to rework the original mono system created by another designer and installed by SPL. The original design consisted mostly of a large center cluster of EAW speakers; Owens added more equipment to create a surround system. "I put EAW KF400 stacks on the left and right of the proscenium on the floor, and also Meyer MSL 4s with PSW 6 cardioid subwoofers. I also used EV SX500s for surround speakers." Owens also used the Meyer SIM system to EQ the space. Other pieces of the sound installation include Crest amps, a Peavey MediaMatrix processing system, and a Yamaha PM-3500 console. The designer adds, "The show operates off an Akai DR-16 hard-disk unit, with a 360 Systems instant replay for certain slapstick sound effects triggered by the operator on visual cues." The soundtrack for the show, which is pre-recorded, was created by Audio by the Bay.