Thrill & Create Delivers User Centered Web Design To Attractions Industry

I’ve said it many times here at Theme Park University and I’ll say it a thousand times more: networking is nearly as important as having skills in the themed entertainment industry, if not more so. Such was the case when I visited the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Orlando 2014.  I got to meet up with some great people in the industry as well as some fellow enthusiasts who share my passion for attractions last year.
As I was sitting on a couch chatting with Doug Barnes of the fantastic Season Pass Podcast (if you’re not listening to that show, you should be), a guy walking past us recognized our Press badges and told us he was a big fan of Theme Park University as well as the Season Pass.  David Parmelee introduced himself and sat down to chat with us for a while about the state of athe industry and what we had seen at IAAPA during our time on the trade show floor.  
Parmelee actually owns Thrill and Create, where he is a web designer and helps create, design and improve websites for the themed entertainment industry as well as fan sites like mine. After chatting for a bit, I told him I wanted to make some design modifications to Theme Park University that would make it more user friendly, allow for more interactivity as well as make the site more visually appealing and less cluttered.  
A few weeks later, David and I were bouncing some ideas back and forth on how to slowly integrate the changes to Theme Park University, with minimal interruption to the experience of the readers.  Ultimately, we made nearly a dozen changes to Theme Park University and you can see those modifications in pictures provided throughout this article.
Not only is David a web designer for the themed entertainment industry, he’s also a huge fan! I recently got the chance to interview him about how he got started, why theme parks and attractions are his passion and even his thoughts about how technology is changing the guest experience.  Enjoy the interview!
Thrill & Create
Josh Young: Why is your interest and main focus in the theme parks/attractions industry?  
 David Parmelee:  I have had a long-running interest in amusement parks.  I started visiting amusement parks (and remembering it) when I was about 6 years old.  As a kid, I would visit Kings Dominion with a large group of friends and family every year.  I also visited the Magic Kingdom several times in the summer growing up.
The RollerCoaster Tycoon series tends to draw people with an architect’s mindset.  I have some characteristics of that too.  As a kid, I had a wild imagination.  I came up with large shopping malls and amusement parks in my head and drew them out on paper, starting when I was about 5.  And at one point, I reimagined my family’s yard as a theme park and pretended that it was one.  This was all before RollerCoaster Tycoon.  I still have and occasionally play RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 – in sandbox mode, no-holds-barred, just like when I was a kid.
The odd part was that, until I was 19, I had only ridden one roller coaster: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom.  Because that ride stays close to the ground, it didn’t bother my fear of heights.  So when I was starting to get involved in Kings Dominion fan forums, I noticed water rides and themed areas in the park more than the roller coaster enthusiasts did. 
A friend got me to ride Flight of Fear when I was 19.  At the time, I was not used to riding roller coasters and rode it very tensed up.  Two years later, I was on vacation in San Antonio for my second trip to Schlitterbahn New Braunfels.  I knew from sites like RCDB that Poltergeist at Six Flags Fiesta Texas was like an outdoor Flight of Fear.  Because of that past memory of not enjoying Flight of Fear due to being scared of it, and knowing from my research that these rides are perfectly safe, I was determined to enjoy Poltergeist.  I was not tense when I rode it, and I did enjoy it.  To this day, I’m still kicking myself for not riding Superman: Escape from Krypton when I was there.
In 2007, I started working at my first job after college.  Because I had spent several years on amusement park forums by then, reading Screamscape, watching Theme Park Review videos, and posting on the forums after work, Kings Dominion was at the top of my mind when I was looking for new activities for weekends.  I bought my first season pass there in 2008 and rode Volcano by the end of my first visit.  By the end of that season, I had gotten firsthand experience of what the park had to offer. 
Between that and the TPR videos, I got a lot of exposure to what other parks had to offer and started offering ideas for additions and changes I wanted to see at Kings Dominion.  Over the following years, I took vacations to other destination theme parks like Busch Gardens (Williamsburg and Tampa), SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando, Cedar Point, Kalahari Sandusky, and Six Flags Great Adventure.
Pivoting my business toward the amusement industry came down to passion and seeing a need.  At the time that I made this decision, many amusement websites lagged behind most other sites in terms of their design styles.  Many didn’t adapt properly to mobile devices, which I understood to be the wave of the future.  To this day, I still find sites for visitor attractions that are not mobile yet.
But at the same time, I frequently have to update the list of sites I’m watching because they get redesigned to be responsive.  And whether their redesigns are custom or a template, web designers are now at a point where the sites they create are functional and at least easier to use than the sites’ 1990s and early 2000s counterparts.  Many of the quick usability wins are getting taken care of with these redesigns.
However, the need is a lot more than a mobile feature or a responsive template.  And fortunately, user-centered design techniques provide me with a way to give attractions and their suppliers more than this.
 Thrill & Create
JY: As a fan of theme parks, what do you think Thrill & Create can bring to various companies to change their user experience?
DP:  I want to see companies have digital user experiences that truly delight the users in their target market.  And it’s important to understand this in light of the history of the web.
Picture it like a pyramid.  If you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s a great starting point.  I’ll walk you through two UX equivalents to this pyramid.
On the first two levels, you have basic needs: functionality and information.  The interface works, doesn’t break, and contains correct and up-to-date information.  Its equivalent: You have a website and a webmaster who knows how to write working code for it.  In the 1990s, this was enough.
At the third level, you have the first higher need: aesthetics.  The site has to look unique, friendly, and professional.  It might need to be designed by a visual designer or a traditionally-trained graphic designer.  This style changed a lot throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and it has continued to change with styles like flat design and material design.  Many sites today still stop here.
The second UX pyramid is somewhat different.  Functionality – just having a product with basic features – is still at the lowest level.  Reliability is next, then usability, proficiency, and creativity.  Usable interfaces are both easy to use and forgiving.  Proficient interfaces “empower people to do more and better”.  Creative interfaces have “aesthetic beauty and innovative interactions.”  And as an interface moves up to higher levels of the pyramid, it shows a higher value for design, and it stands out from its competition more.
I want to help brands in the amusement industry move up the pyramid with their digital products.
Organizationally, Thrill & Create brings two main benefits by changing the user experience: 1) helping larger organizations to augment their existing digital marketing efforts with user-centered insights and 2) helping smaller organizations to have a way to get some of the same benefits from digital UX design that larger organizations can, without having to hire a large agency.
First, I should clarify this: I don’t believe that the existing digital marketers in our industry are doing a poor job, and I’m not here to replace them.  What Thrill & Create helps provide the organizations who have dedicated marketers and/or web staff is a complementary set of skills: a way to add more services and more ways of thinking to what they are already doing well.  For example, as a designer, if I were to team up with a copywriter for a project, that wouldn’t mean that I was bad at design or at writing copy.  I’d be allowing myself to focus more narrowly on design while working with someone who specializes in writing copy, so that we can complement each other’s efforts.
I can empathize with the pressure on marketers to continually embrace the latest social media website, the latest strategies on those websites, and new web or app design styles.  As a business owner, I face these pressures too.  And as a UX practitioner, I want to help relieve these pressures on marketers as they relate to the services I provide.
Yet at the same time, user experience designers have to be willing to challenge established approaches.  For example, if a design approach would break existing brand guidelines, we would want to work with the people who own the brand guidelines to find the right solution.
The user experience is bigger than just the digital touchpoints that I would primarily influence.  Several education sessions at IAAPA discussed guest experience in parks, which covered primarily the physical touchpoints of the park’s customer service.  At a high level, a user or guest could take a path like this:
-They remember that they have visited a particular park as a child.
-They decide to like the park on Facebook.
-Over time, they see Facebook updates from the park. 
-When the park runs a promotion or announces a new attraction that appeals to them, they decide to click on a link to the park’s website.
-On the park’s website, they see what else might have been new at the park since they were last there.  They might start to map out their day at the park.
-They decide to buy a ticket to the park and maybe some extras, like a parking pass, a first-in-line pass, and/or a dining plan.
-On their way out of the park, they might buy pictures of themselves riding attractions or standing with their families near the front gate.
At a low level, touchpoints include individual employees in the park who interact with a guest – both directly and behind the scenes.  Service design for the park involves everything from greeting the guests with a smile to ensuring the best possible safety and uptime on the rides and preparing fresh food.  It would also involve designing good wayfinding both within the park and to the park – even outside park property.  So a user’s experience with the park extends far beyond the park’s website to their in-park experience and even to making sure that they don’t miss an exit or a turn on the way to the park.
And I found that the primary goal of marketing is to sell, whereas the primary goal of user experience is to serve the customers.  But “never the two shall meet” is not true – especially today.  Word of mouth has long been an important way for people to learn about parks that they should and shouldn’t visit.  Today, Facebook and Yelp make it easier for people to decide whether or not they should visit a park based on the experiences other people have had.  These reviews tend to focus on in-park customer service, attractions, or brand perception.  There isn’t a public forum (with similar traction) dedicated to airing opinions about unusable websites and apps, but there are analytics tools that show us what users do in digital products.
Most visitor attractions are not going to develop an in-house UX team.  Relatively few have in-house web teams.  So I understand that as a UX practitioner in this industry, my projects are not going to last forever.  I’ve seen a couple of my earlier UX projects proceed in ways that I didn’t really intend after they were finished.  So I want to learn from this by helping client staff catch the vision I have for the user experience.  In the near term, this means explaining to clients what I am doing and how it provides value to them, and gearing the methods that I use in such a way that not only is the end user better for it, but also the client derives clear value from it.  In the future, I may offer UX coaching services.
Second, Thrill & Create gives smaller organizations a way to get a hold of that same competitive advantage in their markets. 
In user experience design, there is a principle that parallels well with one in business.
An interface may be hard for me to use not because the interface itself is hard for its target audience to use, but because that interface was not designed for me.
For example, software development tools tend to be geared toward people with expertise in software development.  As a developer gets to know a tool, he or she can become very productive with that tool.  That tool, if designed well, is designed for them to help them do a good job on their project.  But if someone who is not a developer tries to use it, they probably won’t know where to begin in the tool.  They probably won’t know how to set up the first file in a new program’s source code and aren’t likely to know what code does even if they start from an example.  That doesn’t mean that a tool that is designed well for developers does not have a good interface.  It just means that the interface is designed for developers, not for people from other disciplines.
The parallel I would like to draw in business is with pricing in a business-to-business (B2B) setting.  Deals that happen at IAAPA and other trade shows are, generally, examples of businesses doing business with other businesses.
Businesses often price products or services at levels which suggest the types and sizes of organizations that should be buying them.
For example, one of my favorite podcasts is The Businessology Show.  Its hosts are an accountant (Jason Blumer) and a web designer (Dan Mall).  Both of them own their own companies and also do business coaching.  They recently started the third season of their podcast.  In the season’s second episode, “10 Questions to Assess the Value of Your Business Model”, they discussed what kind of organizations they should not try to ask for business.
Someone who had worked with Dan in the past now runs a software development company and is one of Jason’s coaching clients.  Several months ago, he recommended Jason to me as a business coach.  But he warned me that it would be expensive.
So Jason’s response to that question was interesting.  He said that he is now positioning away from solo professionals and other small businesses.  The reason why was that for accounting, he wanted to have one of the accountants on his staff work with each client, who would also be able to have access to one of his customer support staff. 
Having to pay his team for giving their clients individualized attention meant that Jason had to charge a great deal to make any profit from the service.  And if a client were a freelancer, a solopreneur, or a very small business, these costs would eat significantly into any revenue they could generate.  The principle is not that Jason was charging too much, but that that the service is not positioned as being for a smaller business. 
Taking this example back to a website, a small amusement park, zoo, aquarium, or other attraction with only a few employees should not be paying for a custom-designed website designed and built by a large team.  Having a team that has UX designers, visual designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, quality assurance testers, project managers, account executives, and so on all working full-time on this project would mean that the cost of the project could easily go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
Unless the attraction is already planning to spend enough money on expanding to justify the cost of this project, they shouldn’t pursue it.  The project would bleed them dry and probably not deliver enough value to even make its costs back.
Yet at the same time, I am not convinced that an off-the-shelf, $50-100 (or less) website template is enough for an attraction either.  On the one hand, having been involved in the WordPress community, that price point is not sustainable for theme companies.  They would have to approach the project as essentially work for charity, because there aren’t enough amusement parks, zoos, aquaria, or other visitor attractions out there for creating one theme for all of them to use to make business sense for a design agency.  (Full disclosure: My company’s site uses a theme that I bought from ThemeForest.  I customized it extensively to make it look very different from the original theme.  The vendor of that theme is able to sustain their business because their themes sell thousands of copies on average.)
On the other hand, since it is in theme companies’ best interests to sell as many copies of a theme as possible, having a site that looks the same as another attraction’s site is entirely realistic.  When someone buys a template instead of a custom design, they lose much of their ability to stand out against other attractions’ sites. 
Indeed, I recently saw two zoos redesign their websites to the same template.  The sites’ homepages differed only by one word: the states in which the zoos were located.  While the template looked nice, it was designed as a site for any zoo rather than a site for those particular zoos.  Consequently, the sites didn’t have unique branding.
Smaller attractions and businesses should not have to be forced into deciding between a very expensive site that is custom-built by a large team and buying a template that robs them of their chance to be unique.  A middle option that I’ve seen many of these organizations take is to hire a local designer.
That approach has mixed results.  People enter web design and UX design from many different fields and college majors: human factors, graphic design, computer science, marketing, psychology, business, anthropology, and more. 
So one site made by a local designer may appear to be “graphic design first”: a print design that has been repurposed for the web.  Another may be “development first”: a site with a fairly spartan or nebulous interface, which would serve better for a development tool and doesn’t really delight prospective guests of an attraction.  Another site may be “marketing first”, “SEO first”, or “analytics first”: designed based on principles like “Include these keywords to show up in Google” or “Make the button green; more people will click on it.”  Still another site may be done with the kind of user-centered design that I do.
Local designers know their clients’ local markets and can find target users in their local market more easily.  They don’t have to travel to different countries or states in order to find them.  Designers who focus on particular industries (like the attractions industry) can bring the domain expertise they acquire from spending years in that niche to their projects.  In most cases, it is a trade-off.
Techniques that are more specific to UX designers – usability studies, user research, personas, wireframing, prototyping, and so on – are the parts of my job that I gravitate toward most.  But as a UXer who works in an industry with many different sizes of businesses in it, I want to be able to provide the value that I can to as many of these organizations as possible.  When I work with other small organizations, I become more of a generalist who works across different disciplines of design and development to serve as a one-person team – while still looking at every service I am providing through a UX lens.
 Thrill & Create
JY: Beyond changing a theme park’s webpage, are there other applications Trill & Create can help enhance the guest experience such as mobile apps or even interactive media within the park?
As a digital product design company, Thrill & Create focuses on anything on a screen.  My expertise and background are primarily with websites, software interfaces, and mobile app interfaces.  However, I would be open to working on interactive media within parks.  It may naturally follow from other related projects, such as a website redesign or a microsite for a new attraction.
Part of design thinking is that, for new digital products, I don’t want to think that one possible kind of product is the only solution or automatically assume that it is the right solution.  I take potential clients through a discovery process in which we work together to determine what the right solution is.  Generally, I tend to believe that all organizations in our industry now need a responsive website (or at least a mobile-friendly website).  I’ve written articles on my company’s blog showing why companies in our industry should go mobile and how to determine whether or not a business needs an app.
Since UX can have such a wide-ranging impact in an organization’s way of thinking, many indirect impacts are also possible.  For example, as an outside consultant, I am less affected by internal politics in an organization and can ask objective questions.  Marketers who adopt a more user-centered mindset can help products and other brand touchpoints to fit into the lives of their audience as lovable products.  Continuing to help clients after a launch of a website or other product, through support and coaching, helps add to this benefit.
Interactive Magic, Thinkwell Group, and X Studios are companies which have worked on experience design within visitor attractions.  (The founder of Interactive Magic has a master’s degree in human-computer interaction and uses similar approaches to mine.)  Entertainment Designer is a blog on the same topic.  Any of these sources provide insightful reading on what UX practitioners can do for the in-park experience.
 Thrill & Create
JY: Interactive technology in theme parks has become a hot topic with Disney rolling out their My Magic Plus program, do you think this is the future of the industry?  Getting guests involved with a theme park’s website and offerings early on and continuing throughout their stay?  
DP: I should preface this answer by saying that I have not had a chance to see My Magic Plus in action yet because I most recently visited a Disney park in 2012.  However, I have read coverage about it from both the amusement industry and other UX practitioners.
In large part because of technology, I see many park guests who have less capacity to do nothing while they wait in line for a ride.  While this often manifests itself as kids and teenagers picking up their phones to play a game or send text messages to their friends, I’ve seen adults doing this as well.  They might be on the phone working through a business deal, checking email, or using other apps.  I even do this myself.  While I usually leave my phone in the car while I am at a park, I typically bring a book with me and read it in line on busy days.
We have less tolerance for idle cycles in our day than we used to.  Themed attractions, especially, involve a measure of suspension of disbelief, which gets broken when guests in line get bored and take out their phones.  
Parks are addressing this on several fronts.  First-in-line passes are now available for purchase at most chain parks.  Pre-shows are common in themed attractions.  Most of these involve watching a prerecorded video or a pre-scripted show rather than a two-way, interactive experience [good illustrations here: Batman: The Dark Knight at Six Flags Great Adventure; Rock n Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios].  Other parks have opted for multi-stage attractions involving, essentially, a series of pre-shows, like Turtle Trek at SeaWorld Orlando, to minimize time spent in line with nothing to do.  In unthemed roller coasters that draw long waits, Cedar Fair parks sometimes have DJ booths in their queues (as in Raptor at Cedar Point) or TV monitors showing specials related to roller coasters (as in Dominator at Kings Dominion).
Still, many of these experiences are pre-recorded and pre-scripted.  They tend to be designed toward first-time or occasional riders.  After guests have seen all of the programming that there is to see, pushing the same information onto guests starts to lose its value and can become annoying – like the principle of diminishing marginal utility.
So some attractions seek to pull guests into their stories instead of just pushing the stories onto their guests.  That can take the form of interactive queues (like Walt Disney World’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant), shows that ask for young “volunteers” from the audience, shows that make guests the stars of the show (like The American Idol Experience), and interactive stories or shop experiences that function as an attraction in themselves (like Ollivander’s Wand Shop).
Regarding interactive technology in parks and attractions, I expect that we will see a general increase of it.  This is already being done in museums in particular.  For example, X Studios created a “Tot Tanic” ship simulation, which allowed guests to steer a virtual Titanic away from impact.  The same company worked with Universal Studios on an online and in-park game for Halloween Horror Nights.
However, I think that there is much more potential in interactive rides than is currently being used.  Shooting dark rides were a hot topic at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in 2014, but they are just one genre of ride.  I would expect there to be a saturation point for shooting dark rides in a single park, just as few parks add more than one or two of the same kind of roller coaster.  While Millennials and digital natives have commonly grown up playing video games, I would expect to see that they don’t want every ride to be a similar physical-world video game.  And because theme parks have physical space through which guests can travel, they should use their physical space for attractions instead of presenting everything on screens.
I am interested in seeing how attractions that can be experienced differently on every ride can lead to interactive rides whose courses and even plots can be actively determined by their riders.  Already, Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg has several possible scenes in its show building, which help add to the ride’s reride value.  Star Tours: The Adventure Continues has 54 possible combinations of 11 scenes.  At Epcot, Mission: SPACE gives riders an active role in their mission to Mars and falls back to auto-pilot if riders do not do their jobs, and Test Track allows riders to design and test concept cars.  The precedents are there for new attractions to let riders “choose their own adventure”.
In reviewing current mobile apps for parks, I have typically seen them take a task-oriented structure.  Common features include reviewing wait times, viewing the map of the park, and seeing which rides someone in a particular height category can ride.  There is some talk about using apps to gauge guest location and offer suggestions to guests who appear to be happy or unhappy.  In the future, I expect park apps to include more information about attractions and serve as a way to extend the story of attractions – as museum apps are starting to serve as “pocket-sized docents”.
As park websites have increasingly done, I believe that park apps will go beyond just having the features, and the apps will communicate a clearer brand message and effectively immerse users in the world of the park without breaking the suspension of disbelief.  They would go beyond being reference tools or even games and aim to be another channel to make the park’s world more real to the guests.
However, because app design and development costs are significant, this might not happen if the existing apps are not widely used.  While Walt Disney World’s app, My Disney Experience, has tens of thousands of ratings in both major app stores, other park apps vary from thousands of ratings to only tens of ratings.  (The My Disney Experience app is a strong component of MyMagic+.)  And a rating is not a guarantee that the rater is still an active user of the app; 80-90% of downloaded apps are used only once.  Given that building an app can easily cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and an app is just one touchpoint in the journey to a sale, this is not an encouraging level of engagement.  It could make parks reluctant to take extra steps to design their park’s experience into their apps.
I would apply a similar way of thinking to how parks might think about the ROI of interactivity in their parks and programs like MyMagic+.  Parks have certain budgets set aside for capital improvements, which includes new rides.  New rides – particularly if they set records – generate a great deal of attention in the media, even if they are older rides that have been significantly modified and promoted as new rides.  Adding interactive media to an existing ride could provide that kind of press attention too if it gets promoted as a new ride.
I do expect to see some other parks following Disney’s lead on programs like MyMagic+.  But due to its high costs of implementation, I would expect primarily the other parks that are seen as national or global destinations to be the ones doing this.  This is due to costs of designing and implementing this kind of system, the distances guests travel to visit the parks, and the value both the guests and the parks would gain back from such a system.  Walt Disney Parks and Resorts draw several times as many guests as any other U.S.-based park chain.  It is also part of a huge company with many other business units and very strong intellectual property sales.  I could see some of MyMagic+’s features providing inspiration for a far less expensive off-the-shelf system that parks in smaller chains could use.  It would not surprise me if we saw a product like this at IAAPA in the future.
A big reason for guests to use programs like MyMagic+ is to plan their day to allow themselves to fit all of the attractions they want to experience into one visit or one vacation.  Many guests at national or global destination parks, such as many of the parks in Central Florida, are visiting the park on an out-of-town vacation rather than on a day trip.  Consequently, there is more at stake for them.  This scales up the larger that their group is and the harder that it is to coordinate their group’s schedules to go on one trip.
In contrast, while resort hotels near parks (such as Dollywood’s new DreamMore Resort) are becoming an increasing trend, many regional parks draw primarily audiences who are there on a day trip.  While I have heard from guests at regional parks about goals for being able to plan a more efficient day, local audiences have more familiarity with the parks and their attractions and tend to have more luxury of trial and error.  There is still a case for a system like MyMagic+ with these audiences.  But I would expect to see a much stronger case for it at the parks located in national or international tourist destinations (such as Orlando and Southern California) or possibly “capital of the world” parks which would attract a good deal of guests who are on vacation (like Cedar Point, Six Flags Great Adventure, Noah’s Ark, or Schlitterbahn New Braunfels).
The visitor experience lasts for much longer than the park visit.  It begins once guests are considering visiting an attraction and lasts until well after the end of their visit, as they reflect on what they did in their visit and share it with family and friends.  Programs like MyMagic+ permit more touchpoints in the visitor experience to have an impact on guests before the park visit.
Thrill & Create 
JY: As a theme park fan, what are some of your favorite parks, rides and attractions?
DP: This answer sends me back to my ride logs and enthusiast site accounts!
Regionally, my home parks have been Kings Dominion and Hersheypark.  There are different things I like about each. Nationally, my favorite all-around park that I have visited is Busch Gardens Tampa.  It has a great roller coaster collection with a good deal of variety (2 B&M coasters with 7 inversions each, a B&M dive machine, an Intamin multi-launch coaster, a Schwarzkopf, a wild mouse, and a junior coaster), several water rides, and a great deal of animal exhibits – all in a beautiful setting.  As someone who also enjoys doing animal photography, I love how this park lets me take pictures of lions, tigers, toucans, and turacos – and then go ride their amazing rides in the same day.  I hope to return soon so that I can ride Falcon’s Fury.
The fast launch, the view for miles and miles, and the twisting drop down make Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point one of my favorites.  I’m a big fan of good launched coasters: Top Thrill Dragster, Storm Runner, Flight of Fear, Wicked Twister, Volcano, Cheetah Hunt… the list goes on.  These rides provide some of the greatest adrenaline rushes that one can experience in an amusement park.  I’d say that in amusement parks, only a good drop tower (like Kings Dominion’s Drop Tower) can rival it.
Storm Runner at Hersheypark feels like a “baby Top Thrill Dragster” to me – a relative term since it’s one of the tallest coasters in Hersheypark, but I enjoy flying over its top hat element and riding through its inversions, including its unique flying snake dive.  Storm Runner and Lightning Racer are two coasters that I feel like I must ride multiple times on each visit to Hersheypark.  Great Bear would be a third.
Similarly, I love Lightning Racer because 1) it always races, 2) there are so many crossovers in the layout, 3) it’s a smooth ride with nice floater airtime throughout, and 4) there’s a friendly rivalry between the riders on each side regarding who wins the race.  Another wooden coaster that I immensely enjoyed – although I have only gotten to ride it a few times – is El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure.
Manta at SeaWorld Orlando provides one of my favorite queue experiences, has some of the best-looking trains I’ve ever seen, and has an unforgettable pretzel loop – a coaster element that certainly ranks among my favorites.  Among steel coasters with chain lifts, Manta, Montu, and SheiKra are probably my top three.
My favorite flat ride that I have ridden to date is maXair, the Giant Frisbee at Cedar Point.  My two-day visit to Cedar Point in 2009 had several memorable experiences: the entire ride on Top Thrill Dragster, the view of the entire park lit up at night (just before park closing at 10pm) and repeatedly upside down on maXair, and the thought that I was about to fly off the end of Wicked Twister.
My next favorite flat ride is the Zamperla Air Race, which I rode on the IAAPA show floor right after I stopped by the booth of one of the software companies at the show!  I’d love to see one of these rides come to any of my regional amusement parks.  IAAPA might be the only trade show at the Orange County Convention Center that allows attendees to view the entire trade show floor from nearly its ceiling, upside down!
I’ve been to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels several times.  While the Master Blaster deserves the hype as one of the best waterslides in the world, Dragon Blaster (rethemed to Dragon’s Revenge since I was there last) was their original water coaster.  It has a great layout and a very cool, unique flooded queue – possibly a precursor to the Transportainment systems in the more recently-designed Schlitterbahn parks.  Their long tube ride across the older side of the park, which ends with tubing in the Comal River, is also well worth riding because it is a very long ride with good variety, which lets riders see much of the park.
I really enjoy fast lazy rivers like Roa’s Rapids at Aquatica Orlando, but Torrent at Schlitterbahn New Braunfels is my favorite in this genre due to the height of its waves.  Being able to stay on one fun ride as long as I want to allows time to just disappear!  There’s quite a nice parallel between that and one of the goals in interaction design, discussed in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  I’m currently reading that classic text quoted by many UX practitioners.
Journey to Atlantis at SeaWorld Orlando and Escape from Pompeii at Busch Gardens Williamsburg combine great theming with big drops and big splashes.
Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a fairly long ride that provides me with a different experience every time – seeing different animals and traveling on slightly different paths.  When I do wildlife photography, I have to ride this multiple times.  Incidentally, one of the best days I’ve ever had at Walt Disney World was when I got a one-day park hopper ticket in 2012, during an off-peak time (mid-November).  I started by visiting Animal Kingdom from its opening to its closing (and took tons of pictures), then went to Hollywood Studios to ride Tower of Terror and Rock n Roller Coaster.  I ended the day with a very short time at Epcot, just barely making it onto Mission: Space before park closing.
One of my favorite themed areas is the Asia area of Animal Kingdom: Anandapur, or Place of Happiness.  A Bollywood-style dancing show broke out – in a way that appeared spontaneous to me – while I was on the midway.  The queue and ride for Expedition: Everest are incredible and tie in very well to this theme.
The San Marco themed area at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is an interesting and particularly beautiful part of that park to me.  Its Garden of Inventions, which honors the concept art that Leonardo da Vinci created for inventions that wouldn’t see the light of day for – in some cases, hundreds of years – is really a nice tribute to one of the true creative geniuses in history.
David Parmelee Thrill & Create
Editor’s Note:  Many thanks to David Parmelee of Thrill & Create for taking the time to chat with us and for helping revamp Theme Park University. Since the changes have been implemented, the amount of time readers spend on the site has gone up, the bounce rate (how many people leave after reading one article) has gone down, and I’ve gotten solid feedback from regulars saying they appreciated how much easier it is to navigate the site. 
I know many Theme Park University readers work within the themed entertainment industry or have their own fan sites. If you’re looking to build or modify your website to make it more user friendly, have a stronger impact and engage with your audience on a more intuitive level, I highly recommend Thrill & Create.  Not only does David understand how people use and interact with websites, he also has a deep appreciation and knowledge base of the theme park industry and how it works. For more information, check out his website at 
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