We’re all guilty. You arrive at a park that you have never been to before. After pushing through the turnstile, you make a mad dash for that one E ticket attraction you’ve been daydreaming about for weeks. Anybody who lives to visit a theme park knows – you’ve got to plan what rides in advance you want to go on to maximize your time and money. Assuming you cover those essential top 10 must do’s in the park, you may be able to squeeze in some time for a show or grab a bite to eat. After all, getting some culture and being off your feet is a good strategy if you’re going to pace yourself through an action-packed day, right? What if there was a theme park that was designed with very few big rides? Hard Rock Park was created with a different mentality than most competitors: slow down and chill out.
In Part Two of Theme Park University’s series on Hard Rock Park, I take a look at how Jon Binkowski and his team started the design process of building the world’s first rock n roll theme park. Using money from private investors to bankroll the project, Jon lead the charge in creating an entirely new themed entertainment experience. The possibilities of a music-inspired park are endless, and the team came up with unique concepts of distinct environs so investors and the public could get a taste of what was yet to come. Today, we take a look at how those original concepts were used to create a $400 million dollar experience that was unparalleled.
When visiting any of the Disney Magic Kingdoms, as soon as you come out from under the train station – seeing that castle as you come up Main Street is inspiring. It catches your gaze like a tractor beam. Even if there were signs in every window proclaiming “Free Money! Come Inside!”, 99% of guests would never notice in the first hour the park is open. All Access Entry Plaza was designed to break that. After coming through the front gate, you are faced with a row of shops and cafes forming a slight S curve. The lake that the entire park is built around, roller coasters and more couldn’t be seen until you round the first bend in the curve. It’s a subtle hint: slow down, grab a cup of coffee, and take your time.
Once guests navigated their way through All Access, you find yourself walking down the neck of a guitar facing a lagoon that overlooks the rest of the park. Across the water, replacing the Dobro in the concept art, is a Gibson Les Paul guitar – a classic to represent Hard Rock. As you look around the lagoon, you can see each of the themed lands.
Cool Country and Born in the USA made the cut, but Classic Rock and World Rhythms bit the dust from the original drawings. Led Zeppelin wanted to be involved with the park’s signature ride – a B&M roller coaster which was best placed to the far left of the property line where World Rhythms was originally slated. Rock N Roll Heaven ended up using that real estate, providing a theme that was still tropical with plenty of water features, with the added twist of sexy rock angels and pearly gates.
Each section of Hard Rock Park featured at least one: roller coaster, kid’s play area, theater show, family attraction, restaurant, bar, live music venue and roaming entertainment. If you have ever visited Sunset Blvd at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it’s geared towards one demographic: thrill riders. If there are members of the family who can’t or don’t want to ride the Tower of Terror or Rock N Roller Coaster? They are forced to sit on a bench outside the attraction, or even worse, split up and visit another section of the park. Binkowski knew the importance of family time and designed the park to keep everyone together. If you have little ones who can’t experience Led Zeppelin The Ride, but some of your family still needs their adrenaline fix? Just grab a rider switch pass from the greeter at the coaster, take a few steps over to Reggae River Falls and burn off some energy in the water playground.
So you don’t want to walk around with soggy shorts all day, but the kids are itching to get soaked? No problem. The Taste of Paradise Grill is designed as an open air restaurant complete with a lanai. The outdoor seating area is directly across the walkway from Reggae River Falls. Grab a beer, kick off your shoes and relax as you listen to the sounds of some of the best known artists in rock n roll history. The indoor dining room of the restaurant features music from some of the greatest rock legends ever. For example, Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” is exactly like you remember it when it was released in 1989. Take a few steps on to the lanai, and you’ll hear “Like A Prayer” seamlessly blended from the original track – to an instrumental steel drums calypso version as you walk closer to Reggae River Falls outside thanks to the strategically placed speakers in the ceiling. Pure genius.
Keep in mind, this entire park was built around music that had to be played at the right levels and never clash. If you could hear two separate soundtracks, they had to be blend together seamlessly. All the background music for British Invasion comes from the legendary artists that originated across the pond: The Beatles, Queen, The Rolling Stones, and more. Now the designers of Hard Rock Park could have taken the easy road and just blasted the same songs you hear in the park through the speakers on All The King’s Horses carousel and called it a day. However, if you have never ridden a fiberglass horse listening to Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” played through a calliope? You haven’t lived. They took an attraction that most guests would skip and turned into a hidden gem.
Speaking of diamonds in the rough, last week I showed you in the concept art that they were planning a bounce house in the Classic Rock section in the shape of a jukebox. Generally when you think of a bounce house, a few images come to mind: an inflatable castle with a dragon, bright neon colors and children’s birthday parties. Got a picture in your head, right? Great, forget it. The Punk Pit was an inflatable play zone with a soundtrack inspired by grunge rock like David Bowie and The Clash. Instead of mindlessly jumping around on a cushion of air, they created a small obstacle course that looked like it could have been sponsored by Hot Topic to navigate through. Upon entering the pit, there were two different courses – one for children under a certain height, and one for adults. Hard Rock Park was serious about keeping families together. Besides, when was the last time you got to kick off your shoes and play?
Born In The USA did make it to the finished product that opened in the summer of 2008. Yet, the wooden roller coaster and log flume were tabled for possible future expansion. Instead, a hybrid of those two attractions came in – Slippery When Wet. This suspended coaster had water cannons strategically placed around the perimeter of the track where onlookers could soak the riders. And if those riders wanted to get revenge, they could hit a red button next to their seat that would send a radio signal to strategically placed water features designed to get revenge on the guests behind the cannons. Clever.
The concert venue in the northwest corner of the park still made it, and the midway was moved closer to that section of Born In The USA. All of the carnival games were made specifically for Hard Rock Park. They took the classic Whac-A-Mole game and gave it a sinister twist: Whac-A-Boyband. While you took a malet to the melons of clean-cut, pimple-free, no talent wanna-be’s, you were treated to a custom song from the band that was made just for the game. Ingenious.
Cool Country might seem a bit out of place in a rock n roll theme park, but keep in mind this was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Regardless of your personal opinion of country music, it’s part of the fabric that makes up the south and if Hard Rock wanted to cater to that market? It had to be done. Last week I mentioned that Jon Binkowski’s theater, that the entire park was built around, was earmarked for a 3D movie. In the end, the Ice House Theater was used for exactly what it had been for many years prior – an ice skating show. Country On The Rocks took the typical theme park ice skating snooze fest and gave it a razor sharp edge. It used current country music artists like Brooks and Dunn, Garth Brooks and Big and Rich. Contemporary, rowdy and sexy. Try using those words to describe a show you’ve seen in a park recently. Easily one of the best theme park shows I have seen anywhere on the planet.
Hard Rock Park created an experience designed to keep the family together. They were serious about letting music be the driving force in everything they did. And they were not afraid to take risks. It was often referred to as an “entertainment park”, not even a theme park and the pace felt much more laid back as a result. For the Clark Griswold’s out there wondering, “Where are the big rides?”. Chill out. Come back next time and we will discuss the E-tickets.