AV brings magic to Chessington World of Adventures Resort

Magic certainly isn’t just limited to the world of fiction, with Chessington World of Adventures Resort’s new attraction, Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey; mixing in a complex AV system to bring a fantastical tale to life. Reece Webb explores

Room on the Broom –A Magical Journey, an interactive walk-through attraction at UK theme park and zoo, Chessington World of Adventures Resort, is based on the children’s book of the same name by renowned author, Julia Donaldson, and illustrator Axel Scheffler.

The attraction is the second at Chessington to be based on Donaldson’s work, with a water-based ride, The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure, being another popular attraction at the Surrey park.

Andrew Porter, creative lead for Chessington, says: “We wanted to immerse children and families into the story books, it was really important that the story that is read to children is physically experienced, meeting the wonderful characters and creating that emotional connection.”

Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey inherited the space of a previous attraction, Hocus Pocus Hall, inside an old mansion on site that has stood there for centuries. Porter explains: “We had this old mansion that had an existing attraction in it and we needed a logical way to get into that story. It’s taking the narrative of the book and guests on that magical journey while all the technical, projection mapping and special effects in the background add that ‘funhouse’ activity.”

Chessington turned to Sarner International to undertake AV and show design, using its technical magic and a touch of spatial imagination to get the different rooms to work.

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Michelle Hicks, project manager for Merlin Magic Making, the in-house creative and project delivery team behind Merlin Entertainments attractions, of which Chessington is one, says: “We’ll have the basis for the attraction, of what we can see in the book and that outlines each room: What is it that we want to achieve? What are we trying to make the guests feel? What’s the experience? We’ll sit down with companies and get their ideas and input into how we could achieve these effects. Sometimes you might want to achieve something and it’s not that obvious, we need to discuss what technologies are available. It’s more of a developing process rather than ‘I want this many screens, I want this many projectors’, you have to build on it as the project progresses. ”

Mike Ross, AV integrator and technical director for Sarner, clarifies: “You enter into a pre-show holding area, which is an old, musty library and that’s where you meet the witch and the cat, who are the first characters you meet in the book. After that, magical things happen, you go through a journey corridor, there’s one of those between each room that helps us separate things from an audio point. “It also means that we can batch guests more easily without having to deal with groups backing up against the other groups.”

Guests then enter a forest-themed area where they meet the dog, followed by the bird in a meadow area, a frog in a bog and a fiery brimstone area where guests meet a dragon, confronting the creature before a finale scene at the end of the attraction.

The attraction itself, despite the grand size of the building, is compact and intimate, meaning every inch of space had to be carefully utilised in a way that was both practical and maintained an element of immersion.

Hicks adds: “That is a challenge with working with existing buildings, some of the rooms in there are quite low, you’d never build it that way if you started from scratch. We were working with what we had and we made it work.

“It was a very quick project and there were lots of challenges in terms of working together on a construction site, making sure everything’s working together, not getting in each other’s way, which inevitably happens on every site, but it’s more challenging in quite a small space.”

As Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey inherited the layout and equipment of a previous attraction, a little ingenuity went a long way into bringing the magical experience to life. Ross explains: “We looked at what kit we could reuse that they already had, wherever possible looking to maximise the return on the limited budget. We did a survey on the existing audio equipment, and all the speakers were still fine from the previous attraction. We reused the Bose32E loudspeakers and amplifiers, which allowed us to do cooler things with the budget we had, rather than having to replace all the speakers and amps for the sake of just replacing them.

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“If we had put that money into the speakers and the audio system, we may not have been able to do as many things with the rest of the attraction, so it was a very good choice.”

As an interactive attraction, media servers played a key role in maintaining the illusion of an immersive experience, as Ross explains: “We’ve got Brightsign media servers for looping video content on the wall, on a monitor or flat projection and then we’re using 7th Sense Delta servers for any of the more complex projection Max and multi-channel projection.

Being able to make updates and tweaks on the fly was crucial to Ross, with frequent updates and changes to the media needed to be made promptly.

Ross clarifies: “It’s very easy to make quick updates and tweaking in terms of the way that their GUI interface works. It’s all timeline based so when the content was updated, we were able to just slice it and dice it in the server rather than having to go edit somewhere else and then bring it back in. It gave us flexibility with how we were able to deliver more complex media.

“We can play with the rest by adding loops or jumping around and it just gave us the control that we needed.”

Projection also played a key role in the project, using Digital Projection E-Vision 6500 laser projectors. Hicks says: “In the finale, we have different layers that are projected on to. In the front layer, you’ve got all of the characters standing behind a physical cauldron, then an animatronic broom rises out of the cauldron before the characters appear on the rear projection surface.”

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A Q-SYS core system was installed at the heart of the attraction, handling the routing and digital signal processing.

Sarner also installed Q-SYS media drives to handle media content that has to be synced with the audio, playing all the other audio in the entire attraction.

Ross adds: “In the ‘Meet the dog’ sequence, it’s not a terribly big room, but there’s a 32-channel audio player routing mapping system to just go to the 10 channels in there, and this allowed us to play numerous different clips over each other to fake different ones in one centralised place.

”Room on the Broom – A Magical Journey features a batched pre-show area; however the rest of the attraction is a free roaming experience. The team had to tweak many of the timings to encourage guests, in groups, to move on to the next area, laying in the narrator’s voice at different points to give the team the freedom to expand or contract each room via the audio system based on how the team felt the group was proceeding.

This was accomplished by studying groups over the course of several weeks, estimating the average time it takes a group to get through certain rooms.

The installation proceeded smoothly, however the ageing building housing the attraction may look the part, but present edits own ancient issues.

Ross explains: “It was Hocus Pocus Hall previously, we had to reuse the existing layout, but because it was a building that goes back several hundred years, we’d open a wall and find a fireplace that nobody knew existed.“ It was more that we didn’t know what’s behind the ceiling.

Our guys in the finale had to put up a tray system for all the lights and speakers and cables. It took them an extra day or two to actually get it done because the ceiling was an old kind of plaster and there were no real solid points. Because it’s so old, there’s a beam every 16 inches, so there’s a lot of trial and error.”

Concealment of kit was an imperative and presented its own challenges due to the type of equipment installed. Porter says: “Content is key when it comes to immersion, designing the sets and spaces to make sense of using them. It’s using a space and projection mapping in clever ways and 3D physical objects to make things come ‘off the page’, it makes it far more magical.”

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Hicks clarifies: “When you put in animatronics, they always come with large white boxes, but we found clever ways of concealing them by putting scenery over them or hiding them in a room at the back, which is easier for access and maintenance if the ride goes down.“ There’s no point making it fully immersive and not being able to get to it and having to rip out the theming a year later to restart next season. ”Ross adds: “In the finale, we weren’t able to hide anything as there wasn’t meant to be anything in the ceiling, but the idea is that if we’ve done our job right, nobody’s looking up.”

The install took a total of three and a half months, completed on time and on budget. Hicks concludes: “You had animatronics, you had air and water effects installation teams, the theming and the IP holders all coming in and signing off at different stages, but our system is the one that controls all of it so we were the glue that held it all together.”

Kit list 
7th Sense Nano-RMedia Server, 
AdvantechADAM-6050Remote IO box, 
Alcorn McBrideshow touch 10interface, 
Bose 32ELoudspeakers, M2150 amplifier, 
Brightsign HD223Media Player, 
Digital ProjectionE-Vision 6500Projector.

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