Shanghai Disney Resort, Disney’s first theme park in China and fourth overseas, opened this week to much rain, but ecstatic fanfare (President Barack Obama sent a letter of congratulations to mark the opening). The park, which cost a reported $5.5 billion required the services of 100,000 people to build it. At 963 acres, it is more than 11 times the size of the original Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, The early reviews are raves. “I have never seen anything like it,” Su Xuanjun, 60, a teacher, told USA Today.” The technology was so advanced. Initially I thought the tickets were too expensive, now I think it’s worth every penny.”
Xuanjun was referring to one of the park’s most ballyhooed attractions, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure.” This is not your parents’ or grandparents’ “Pirates.” The creators of the new attraction, located in the park’s Treasure Cove area, which is inspired by the billion-dollar Johnny Depp movie franchise (which was itself based on the original Disneyland attraction), were charged with designing an experience that would take visitors 20,000 leagues beyond the original ride.
And by all reports, they delivered. From the official description of the ride on the park’s website: “Board a ship christened after some of history’s most scandalous scoundrels and watch their notorious tales come to life….each vessel twists, twirls and steers backwards while navigating treacherous waters!...Swallowed by the ocean, you plummet to the Graveyard of Lost Ships, where gold glimmers from wrecked hulls. Without warning, the monstrous Kraken awakens as you enter what’s left of Davy Jones’ massive craft… Swords are drawn and cannons blast as the captains wage war over the biggest booty in the Caribbean. You’re caught in the crossfire, with fighting pirates battling to their doom….”
When you are in line for a theme park attraction, and the minutes turn into half hours, do you ever muse about what went into its creation and the artists behind it? Millionaire Corner spoke with Adam Bezark, owner and creative director of The Bezark Co. and who served as creative consultant, writer and staging consultant for “Battle of the Sunken Treasure.” Bezark was also the co-creator of the Universal Studios theme park attraction, “Terminator 2: 3D,” which celebrated its 20th anniversary in April, as well as a creative force on "Jurassic Park: the Ride" and "The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man," among others.
How does one become a theme park attraction designer? Obsession helps, but in Bezark’s case, it was a classic case of nurture. Bezark grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a community supportive of the arts and arts education. “I was always making movies in the backyard, doing puppet and magic shows for local kids. I was in the marching band in high school; any sort of creative thing I could find,” he said in a phone interview. “If you grow up in Highland Park, you’re likely to grow up doing silly creative things because you have encouraging parents.”
A family vacation to Disneyland when he was 13 “blew my mind,” he said. "The ‘Haunted Mansion’ attraction was everything I was interested in: special effects, magic, illusions and puppetry, as well as things I didn’t know I was interested in, like architecture, graphic design and set design. I couldn’t think or talk about anything else for the next four to eight years. I wound up trying to reverse engineer the special effects (at home) to figure out how they had been done.”
Came time to go to college and select a field of study, Bezark said he was stumped. “My dad suggested, ‘You like Disneyland; why don’t you go and do that?’ I said, ‘You can do that?’”
At that time, in the late 70s, it wasn’t easy. “There was no avenue to do that at the time,” Bezark said. “The people who started off creating theme parks for Walt Disney were all people that Walt pulled from other businesses, such as animators, and set designers. If he needed a boat designed, he went and found a boat builder. The first generation of those parks was designed by people who were literally inventing an art form on the fly.”
So Bezark did what any enterprising, theme park-obsessed youth would do; he got creative. He attended the University of Southern California, whose interdisciplinary major program allowed him the opportunity to virtually create his own degree in theme park design.
Fast forward through an eventual Disney internship, a stint as tour guide at Universal Studios and finally, a lucky break that afforded him the opportunity to pitch Disney on a lagoon show attraction for Epcot park, which was then in development. “We pitched the biggest, most expensive thing in the history of mankind,” Bezark recalled. “They laughed and said they had a lagoon show planned and that it would be fine.”
But it wasn’t and Disney called to ask Bezark and his collaborator if they wanted to take a shot at upgrading the under-performing attraction. “That was my first gig,” he said. "After working as a “glorified freelancer” and with another company run by a former Disney Imagineer, Bezark opened his own company about four years ago.
“Battle for the Sunken Treasure” is a Disney creation with which Bezark became involved at the beginning of the project roughly seven years ago. He was brought onto the project by Luc Mayrand, creative director for Treasure Cove, and who oversaw a team of more than 50 Imagineers and hundreds of outside vendors. “They were just starting to talk about what Shanghai Disney was going to be and what different lands and areas there would be,” Bezark recalled. “I was invited to (brainstorm) ideas for a pirate ride.”
What was exciting about the project, he reflected, was that it forced the Disney team to look at a beloved attraction with new eyes. “Disney’s Chinese partners considered the original Pirates ride to be (old hat). I think it’s one of the greatest rides of all time. We took a hard look at it, and by today’s standards, it might seem a little slow and less energetic. We (came up with the idea) of a ride based on the Johnny Depp movies, which have been very successful. I got to be part of a creative team of about six who dreamed up the ride, the story, and the scenes. It starts out deceptively tame and it gets crazier and builds up to a ridiculous finale.”
Among the ride’s innovations is its mix of classic boat ride elements with cutting edge technology that allows unprecedented precise control of the boats that can be made to go sideways, backwards and to spin around. “It’s a very cool ride that is a seamless blend of real scenery, animatronics, and gigantic film images (created by Industrial Light & Magic of “Star Wars” legend),” Bezark marveled of the artisans who brought it to life.
The most enduring theme park attractions, as with movies, are those with a strong story. Special effects, Bezark said, can only take you so far. But “story” takes on a different meaning when designing a ride that lasts minutes instead of hours, like a film. “You have to do is reduce a story down to its essence,” Bezark observed. “Even a fireworks show can be a story if it creates an emotional arc. The best theme park ride experiences, through all these different tools, pull you in and makes you (engage) with this world you’ve fallen into. Then, once you believe, you can go on a great, fun and thrilling adventure that feels special for you.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.