As the Walt Disney Co. prepares Disney's California Adventure, its new $1.4 billion theme park, for its Feb. 8 debut, Barry Braverman is overseeing every aspect of the last-minute preparations from workers performing extensive test runs on its towering Ferris wheel, roller coaster and other rides, to painters putting on the final touches to Paradise Pier.
Braverman, 52, who led the design team that developed the park, expects it to enhance, not compete with Disneyland.
Built on an old parking lot adjacent to Disneyland, California Adventure is the 55-acre centerpiece of an expansion of the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, and it's expected to be a major tourist magnet for the entire Los Angeles area.
Braverman, former executive director of the Epcot Design Studio at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and his team began designing the park about five years ago. Site preparation began about three and a half years ago, and construction of the theme park took just over two years to complete.
Divided into three "lands," the new park will offer 22 attractions and shows featuring distinct aspects of California.
Braverman, who grew up in Philadelphia, has moved up the ranks at Walt Disney Imagineering since joining the company in 1977 as a research assistant. He also plays a key role on the Disneyland Resort Development team. Prior to joining Disney Imagineering, he taught elementary school in Northern California and worked with special needs students in Los Angeles.
Taking a brief hiatus in the mid-1980s, he formed a consulting company specializing in interactive media for museums, toy companies and educational publishers. Braverman returned to Imagineering to assume the mantle of show producer for Wonders of Life, which opened at Epcot in 1989.
Question: How does someone with a B.A. in economics from Pomona College and a teaching credential end up leading the design team for a $1.4 billion Disney theme park?
Answer: I have always been a writer and a creative person. When I was teaching, I was a very progressive teacher, so basically I was designing three-dimensional curriculum for children. It's not that different working for Walt Disney Imagineering, you know, it's just a different classroom.
Q: When did you move on to Disney?
A: I started at Imagineering as a research analyst for Show Design and Business Affairs in 1977. It was basically doing research supporting show development for Epcot attractions at the Walt Disney World resort. After a couple of years as a research analyst, I was invited to be a part of the design team for the Imagination Pavilion at Epcot. So I produced some interactive exhibits, then I moved on to producing larger exhibits, including The Circle of Life and Food rock shows. After several other projects, I was put in charge of design for Epcot. I learned my craft at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Q: There are a number of theme park design companies located in Southern California. What makes the region so attractive?
A: I think that is somewhat related to the theme of this park. It's a personal belief, but I think the state is conducive to design firms because there is just a very creative atmosphere in California. I think it attracts innovators both technically and creatively, and people are unencumbered by traditional forms of design and thinking. So there is a freedom of expression that attracts people here. Once it has begun, it builds on itself because people sense this is where you can do interesting work. The movie industry is a piece of it too. The movie industry gathers around it a tremendously rich artistic community, which then can work on other things. It's really the spirit of California.
Q: How long did it take to develop and construct the California Adventure park?
A: We started what we call "blue-sky" design, when we started thinking about the concepts for the park, in August of 1995. It took about five and a half years from concept to completion. Construction of the 55-acre park took about three years. The challenge for us was to design a theme park that created a sense of place for visitors.
Q: Did you develop the park's rides or themes first?
A: We developed the themes first. We wanted to come up with, what is our view about California? What are we trying to say to people? Once we identified what we wanted to say, then we started to work on the attractions that would allow us to get across those impressions and information. Then we decided on what kind of settings we would put them in. So it really starts out first with, What are your objectives? What are you trying to accomplish? And then you work your way toward attraction ideas.
Q: What is your role as the theme park prepares to open to the public next month?
A: Right now there are all types of last-minute things that we are looking at adjusting and adapting to make sure that they work. Then there is expansion, which is already under way. At this point, we are thinking about adding attractions and shows. So I'll probably be involved in the ongoing growth of this park.
Q: There have been several serious accidents involving rides at Disneyland, most recently the one in which a 4-year-old boy suffered serious brain damage after becoming trapped under the park's Roger Rabbit ride. What precautions have you taken to ensure such accidents don't happen.
A: We have world-class engineers that are responsible for ensuring that every ride we design is designed with the utmost safety standards. That's an ongoing policy.
Q: Where do you draw the line when it comes to Disney's famous E-ticket rides?
A: Our designers and engineers have a good understanding of what a Disney level of intensity is. We are not trying to be the most intense ride park in the world. We are trying to get family audiences with a broad range of tastes. So I think it's a combination of visiting other rides, calibrating what kind of things we think are appropriate for our audience, and designing those aspects into our rides.
Q: When you go on vacation, do you ever spend time visiting other theme parks?
A: When I go on vacation, I tend to not go to amusement parks. I try to do that on business trips. When I do get the chance to go on vacation, I like to travel to either foreign cities and experience culture or head off to the wilderness.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you and your team of designers faced in getting this project completed?
A: The biggest challenge has been that this park is part of an entire urban fabric. This is not building on a greenfield site in Walt Disney World. We have an operating theme park, an operating city (Anaheim), traffic, safety issues, power and other issues going on around us. We are trying to operate and build a very complicated project, not just a theme park, but a new hotel, Downtown Disney, so the logistics of building a massive project like this in the middle of an urban area were sizable. It just required a constant planning and adjustment process, which I think went very well thanks to the dedication of the planners that work with us. This project was a private-public partnership. The city of Anaheim was involved before construction and has been involved throughout the process.
Q: What will it take to make this theme park successful?
A: What will make it a success is the guests' response to it. If the guests come in significant numbers, enjoy themselves, say good things about it, and tell their friends to come, it will be a success. It's all about, do people love this place? Do they want to come again and again? That we will see over time.
Q: Some pundits have criticized attractions such as California Adventure as merely being a sterile, cartoonish version of reality. How do you respond to such comments?
A: This park is a celebration of the California dream and the ideals of California. It's not an attempt to replace the real California that would be silly. But it is an attempt to distill from California the most compelling, magical impression that someone might get. Nobody in one day in the real California can take a raft ride on a wild river, hang-glide over Yosemite, see movie stars and visit Bel Air. You can't do that all in one day in the real California. You might try it in a month and you might succeed. But to be able to bring those impressions together in one place, in one time, we think it's a real salute to the greatness of California. We think if we do it right, it's going to inspire people to go out and see the real California.
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