The Big Break Foundation: Experts at Relational Experience Design

You never forget your first IAAPA. Between the thousands of flashing lights, the mixture of Dippin’ Dots and fog juice wafting through the air, and the slow building sensation that this must be what war is like —  it can be a lot. I first attended IAAPA over half a decade ago and that experience, while memorable, I can’t say was exactly positive. It was overwhelming, confusing, and surprisingly lonely. I left unsure if I even belonged in this industry. That experience could not stand in more contrast to my most recent IAAPA experience in November, in no small part thanks to the stellar work of the Big Break Foundation. 

The Big Break Foundation was founded a couple years ago, at the height of the global pandemic, by themed entertainment industry veterans Chuck Fawcett and Patrick Kling. Run by executive director Monai Rooney, the organization seeks to improve inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility throughout the location-based industry. But from where I stand what the organization really excels at is relational experience design. It looks at the entire industry from above, and in a truly innovative way focuses on both the guest experience and that of the behind-the-scenes talent and identifies ways to improve the experience for everyone, regardless of where they exist in the system. 

The Edutainment program is a perfect case study of this approach. I, along with 49 other students and recent graduates, from writers to mechanical engineers, from college sophomores to mid-career transitioners, and people from all over the country and world found ourselves on a whirlwind immersion program into the attractions industry. All of us had stories of barriers that we kept encountering: lost internship opportunities due to the pandemic that we were no longer eligible for, convoluted international visa requirements and companies unwilling to deal with them, possessing odd combinations of skillsets, unsure how to communicate our value. And over the course of the week I glimpsed a shocking amount of opportunities begin to unfold and the edges of some of the barriers begin to be sanded off.

Throughout most of the history of the themed entertainment industry, making your way in it has been rather difficult. It’s a career that people fall into through luck or who otherwise have had to navigate a dark maze of unmarked doors through sometimes dubious means. It’s often been a hostile climate: people forced to trudge forward for long hours in pain and discomfort with no map, not sure of where they’re going, where only the most obsessively driven, competitive, and frankly, privileged succeed. In short, it’s a place where most of the effort of experience design has been placed on the product, not on the halls where it’s created. But it doesn’t have to be that way and a new generation is looking to change that. Most pros that have been in the themed entertainment industry a while accept that the better the guest experience is the more money there is to be made. People want to be in places that are great to be in. What the Big Break Foundation recognizes is that axiom holds just as true behind the scenes. 

The core of the Edutainment Program is a partnership with IAAPA that provides admission to the IAAPA Expo, EDUSessions, and a 1-year Young Professional IAAPA membership for free, to each of the 50 participants. That alone is huge. Tickets to the Expo are not cheap and the learning and networking opportunities contained within are invaluable. But Big Break goes way beyond basic access and curates an entire weeklong experience, a crucial component of which is community. A newcomer’s first exposure to this industry can often be formidable and isolating. As program participant and industrial designer Gabriel Nunez explains, “At times I felt out of place…a sense of alienation crushed me. How could I join the industry when I come from middle-of-nowhere, Costa Rica?…I found comfort in the rest of the Edutainment Pass Program participants…Thanks to all of them, I ended up feeling like I do belong, we all belong, no matter where we come from.” The Edutainment program combats the isolation of being new by curating a community before the expo begins, with online discussions and multiple meetings, so even on Day 1 you feel just a little less alone. 

Once the expo does start, the program, this year run by the incomparable production manager Sara Needham and sponsored by B Morrow Productions, offers a treasure-trove of experiences that unlock IAAPA in ways 2016 me could never have imagined: Tours of the show floor from industry veterans happy to answer any question you can dream up. Nearly a dozen intimate discussions from even more industry experts happy to share their wisdom and chat one-on-one to answer questions. Schedules and directions to all the mixers and meetups you might not have even known were happening or existed. An invite to the Valtech party. And above all a community to do it with. 

One aspect I love about Big Break’s approach is its individualized, generous spirit. A spirit that flows directly from their focus on IDEA principles. Take for example Sara’s story. They were a participant in the program last year and because of it were able to land an internship with one their top choice companies, but alas there have been additional barriers. 

“Being a international graduate student has meant finding full-time employment comes with the added requirement of visa sponsorship…this extra requirement has made my own personal search very difficult. After my internship ended I reached out to Monai and Big Break Foundation to see if there was any way I could volunteer my time while looking for my next opportunity…Big Break gave me a focus, a chance to build some new skills…I became the point of contact for these students [and 33 industry professionals who spoke to them], building an exclusive Edutainment Program schedule for their IAAPA week…sourcing and scheduling chats…organizing booth volunteers…even speaking to the media on behalf of Big Break Foundation. In a time where I couldn’t find my next step and wanted to give up, Big Break Foundation put me in a position to keep moving forward and serve my community.”

This generous, individualized spirit extends to everyone the foundation encounters. The Edutainment program regularly invites people it meets on the floor to relevant events and encourages participants to do the same, when the circumstances allow, because they recognize the goal is creating a better experience for everyone — lifting everyone up. The trailblazer chats were formed through requests of the participants, of people we  directly asked to hear from. And Monai and Sara both make it a point to get to know every participant by name, learn what they want to do, and try to connect them with the people that can make it happen: an attitude quickly mirrored by all the attendees.

Of course the Big Break Foundation knows that there are so many more people out there that could use a hand than the 50 they’re currently able to sponsor. In fact, the Edutainment program is only a small portion of the work they do throughout the industry to try to create a welcoming experience for everyone. This is where their relational experience design expertise comes in. The Big Break Foundation goes beyond quick fixes, and even beyond the model of guest service, to the very core of how experiences are created: how we relate to each other, our environments, and the structures we operate within. Through the principles of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility, the Big Break Foundation seeks to transform the guest and employee experience alike into something better for all. 

I don’t think a lot of people recognize the mental toll being a newcomer, being marginalized, or just having rotten luck can take on a person trying to make their way. Nunez talks a bit about this, “I applied because not many believed in my dreams of becoming a ride designer when I was kid. I applied to show there’s people outside the US with ambition and talent willing to give it their all to become part of this industry. I applied so that one day another student with similar aspirations can look back and see that our voices can be just as strong as anybody else’s. That no matter the barriers that being queer Latinos pose, we will make it.” Many of us in the program have dealt with the lack of confidence being on the outside can bring. I feel echoes of Gabriel’s journey in my own story. One of the reasons I’m pursuing a career in themed entertainment now and not 15 years ago is because as a closeted trans teen I was bullied for loving theme parks, faced with homophobic derision about it, and didn’t have the confidence to say “this is what I want.” Much like Gabriel I hope that my presence now might help some other person who feels afraid to go after what they want. IDEA principles and the relational experience design expertise Big Break provides help cultivate an atmosphere where people like us can feel we belong.

People often get scared or defensive when the IDEA words pop up. Such big aspirations must mean a big change. Change is scary. And sure there is no denying there’s a lot to work on. But really it’s just about helping people: about being kind, generous, welcoming, and curious. It’s about being as intentional in crafting the experiences between each other as we are in creating the ones made out of concrete and steel. To make room for everyone, as the monorail announcement goes.

All week I heard story after story about the opportunities this approach was able to unlock for my peers. Wren Sullivan, another participant and concept artist puts it well, “Applying for Big Break Foundation is one of the most beneficial things I’ve done. All of their fireside chats with industry professionals really gave me the opportunity to understand the industry more, network on a closer basis, and reconfirm that this is the industry for me…I was overwhelmed by the amount of networking that happened amongst all of the Big Break Foundation scholarship receivers.” Matthew Curnutte, participant and mechanical engineer echoes the sentiment, “I’m so glad I got selected. I got way more out of IAAPA Expo through Big Break Foundation than I would have going on my own. “

Big Break asks, “what if we paid as much attention to the experience between each other as we did to the one in Revit?” What if there were people around every corner looking to make your journey just a tad more easy and pleasant, one where you’re given a map and aren’t stuck in line, so that you can save your energy for the actual job. Big Break gives new tools to improve the guest experience in ways that have been historically overlooked and for the first time applies the techniques of great experience design to behind the scenes creators, operators, and those that aspire to become them. It does this by being holistic, by not focusing on one individual detail or demographic, but by focusing on how all the elements work together, just as the best experience designers do, to make a seamless experience for everyone. I feel so grateful to have gotten to be a part of their Edutainment program this year, and so excited by the energy I witnessed among my fellow participants. There’s so much fantastic talent on the horizon and Big Break Foundation is making all of our journeys a better experience.

The Big FAT Problem in the Attractions Industry

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This essay contains mentions of weight numbers, percentiles, and size-related traumatic experiences and may be triggering to those with such experiences or eating disorders. 

You’re 12. You’re excited. You’ve waited all year for the summer to come and school is finally out! You and your friends are headed down on a vacation to an exciting theme park you’ve been seeing television ads for weeks about. You’ve looked up ride videos online, gazed longingly at the park map, and you know exactly what you want to do first: that big flashy coaster right at the front of the park. It’s so tall, and, ominous. You can’t wait.

The day finally comes and you and your friends are practically spurting out steam you’re so excited. You get to the park right as it opens and zoom straight to the coaster. The line is already an hour long. Undeterred, you persevere. One hour later, feet sore, your reward is in sight: the experience you’ve dreamt about for god knows how long, the thing you’ve seen on tv for countless weeknights. The gates open and your friends eagerly scurry into the open car and you follow swiftly behind.

You reach up and pull down the overhead restraint. But there’s a problem. You can’t seem to get it to ratchet down like your friends next to you. It just springs back up. You realize why this is. Your friends are thinner than you. A jolt of anxiety floods through you and you feel a unpleasant lurching in your stomach. No matter, you probably just have to reposition yourself. You try again. No luck. The ride attendants are proceeding with the restraint checks. They’re only two rows away. Your friends are all situated: restraints locked, supplementary buckles in. Yours isn’t. Beads of sweat start forming on your forehead. Will they send the train off with you still unrestrained? Of course not…right?

The restraint checkers get to you. You look at them apologetically. You hope they aren’t mad. One rolls their eyes and walks away, the other gives you a smile and tells you it’s not a problem at all: happens all the time. He lowers the restraint onto your stomach and proceeds to throw his entire body weight onto the harness as he attempts to get it to lock. You feel like The Rock just kneed you in the kidneys. He does it again. You’ll find bruises on your stomach later that night. Your friends are staring at you, silent. He lunges again. The wind is practically knocked out of you and still, no luck. There’s now a train behind you, waiting to be unloaded. The guests at the gates are all looking at you, exasperated at the scene in front of them, impatient for their turn. You feel like a trapped insect, desperately wishing to scurry from the light, but trapped under a magnifying, glass dome.

The attendant apologizes. You’re just too big for the ride and will have to exit. Your face flushes, your eyes are bloodshot as you futilely strain to hold back the tears that are burning them. You say pleasantly “of course, ‘course, no big deal,” as if a grocery clerk just said they only have paper instead of plastic. You stand up. Your friends look up at you and give a shrug. You laugh and tell them it’s not a problem – you’ll see them at the on-ride photo station – you don’t even like roller coasters. You clumsily climb over their legs in the confined car, as you attempt to make your way to the exit. You nearly fall. You hear a few poorly disguised snickers coming from behind you. After what feels like half an hour, but was really only a few seconds, you make it to the exit platform and hastily head towards the ramp, away from the people, desperate to get away from the spotlight. As you turn the corner you hear a huge round of applause: the train has finally left the station – without you. Welcome to the loneliest place on earth.

That’s a true story. It was told to me several years ago. It’s very similar to my own. The person in question vowed to never visit a theme park again and suffered with eating disorders for the rest of their teen years and into adulthood.

The relationship theme and amusement parks have to fat people is abysmal and has been steadily getting worse over time. I’m a relatively fat person. The older a ride is, the better the chance is that I will fit on it. Modern coasters? Forget about it. Hell, apparently dark rides that move slower than their queues are off limits now too. I don’t understand how the same companies who are able to build floating mountains, stunt-tracks, and generally physics-defying achievements on a daily basis are unable to create a seat fat people can sit in.

This is a problem the industry is going to have to address sooner or later. People are getting bigger. It doesn’t show signs of stopping. The majority of women wear plus sizes. But even if that weren’t the case, there’s so many people right NOW that are being excluded. An absurd amount. 

How absurd? My weight is right around the 90th percentile of Americans. I can’t fit on most roller coasters. What if we treated height like weight? The 90th percentile of men in the US (using men, because they’re taller and I’m feeling generous) is 6’. Imagine a world where anyone over 6’ tall couldn’t ride a roller coaster. Would we treat that with the same eye roll, head in the sand, “just stick a tester seat outside and call it a day” approach?

Test seat for revenge of the mummy at Universal Studios Is restrictive and very public.
“Revenge of the Mummy: Excruciatingly Public Test Seat, the true psychological thrill ride.

Actually, lets talk about tester seats: a wet bandaid of a solution if there ever was one. Is this supposed to be a compassionate alternative? Congratulations, you’ve moved one of the most potentially humiliating scenarios an American can experience in modern public life from the loading area, where dozens of people can witness it, to right in front of the bloody attraction marquee, where they can experience what it’s like to be a severed head on a pike. “Fat people beware.” Every attraction has a published minimum height requirement right in the park guide map, right in the description. Did we lose the measuring tape when it came to waist circumference? Did we run out of private alcoves to put tester seats in? How is this the world we live in? The rides we build dont even fit the people designing them! The twilight zone should stay inside the Tower of Terror.

And this isn’t only about emotional trauma and feelings – for those that need something more than human suffering to motivate them to pursue change – it’s a physical safety issue. The existence of fat people is ignored, forgotten, or otherwise overlooked in the design of attractions. The Punga Racers waterslide at Volcano Bay has notoriously injured over 100 people and PARALYZED James Bowen because it wasn’t designed properly to accommodate larger guests. Universal was forced to implement a 150 pound weight limit. 150 pounds. Guess what? That means its inaccessible to 63% of women, and 88% of men! Sounds like inclusion to me.

By the way, Mr. Bowen: he was 215 pounds. Even if the ride was designed to accomodate him safely, it would still exclude 30% of all men and 16% of women.

In 2013 a woman was killed on a roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas because the restraints weren’t designed to accommodate her. The same thing happened earlier in 2004 in Massachusetts. How many people have to die, be maimed, seriously injured, or laden with a lifetime of mental illness before we invent a solution to accommodate fat people that isn’t “shove harder”?

I’m disgusted by the attitude this industry takes toward accommodations – as if they’re an annoying requirement imposed upon it, something that can be ignored or brushed off, as if the guests these decisions affect don’t really exist or aren’t that numerous. But we’re talking about, at the absolute very least, 30 million people in the US alone. And this lackadaisical attitude towards accessibility affects way more than fat people…unaccommodating restraints and vehicles are no friend to those in wheelchairs, those with mobility issues in general, amputees, etc, either. 

So what can be done? Well at the very least communication around issues of accessibility needs to be drastically improved. It shouldn’t be incumbent upon the guest to miraculously know if they might have an issue, or go on the worlds worst treasure hunt to find a hidden pdf somewhere on a park website to find out all the ways they don’t fit. Put it in the map, put it in the attraction description. Treat size and other accessibility issues the same way you treat height requirements: spelled out clearly. Make it simple. Don’t be afraid to list weight numbers if there’s an ACTUAL weight requirement, but don’t use weight in place of measurements. If the restraint only accommodates someone with a 40 inch waist, just say that. Waist, hip, and chest measurements would be a good place to start. Most people already know theirs. Hell create an online size chart like clothing manufactures do. 

Include chairs without armrests in restaurants and theaters. Embrace bench seats. Talk to actual fat people. Put the damn tester seat in a place where the entire land isn’t an audience!

These should be the obvious things, but harder work needs to be done in the long term. Designers and engineers and business leaders need to stop pretending that every person is the dimensions of a standardized test dummy or reference illustration. Accessibility needs to be a priority, not just for fat people, but for everyone. It shouldn’t just be shrugged off with an “oh it’s just not possible.” Really? This industry makes the impossible possible every day. It’s the entire business model: go faster, higher, more spectacular, more impossible than ever before. Embrace the freakin’ challenge. 

Hell, for the completely soulless capitalists among you, imagine the increased merchandise sales you’d have if all the t-shirts came in plus size and you suddenly trippled your market of potential customers. Imagine how many more “I survived ____” t-shirts you’d sell if those people actually were able to ride “____”. Imagine the increased attendance, increased good-will, increased number of visits per guests, increased guest-spend per guest if those 30+ million Americans actually felt welcome. 

For those of you feeling angry or exasperated with me, welcome to experience design. You are right now experiencing a small fraction of what it feels like to actually visit a park as a fat person. Will your restraint hold you? Remain seated please; permanecer sentados por favor.

  I shouldn’t have to argue that more guests should feel welcome because its better for the bottom line. I shouldn’t feel the need to write a 2000 word essay that’ll probably get me placed on a list somewhere to argue that fat people are, surprisingly, also people that deserve the same experiences their thin counterparts get for the same priced ticket. I shouldn’t have issues fitting on rides built in the last few years when I have no problem fitting on rides built in the 1950s. I shouldn’t have to argue that emotionally traumatizing 12 year old girls for life is maybe a bad thing that we shouldn’t contribute to. And yet here we are. 

This is an industry built on big dreams. Dream bigger.

Theme Park Musing #7 – Accessibility

Those of you that follow the blog know that accessibility to as many guests as possible is something I care a lot about as I wrote before in this article. The following was part of a late night tumblr post series.

Based on some quick research:

  • 20% of America has some sort of disability.
  • 20% of Americans are over 60.
  • 20% have anxiety disorders
  • 20% have chronic pain
  • 5% is dependent on some sort of mobility device
  • About 5% of women are pregnant at any time
  • 30-60% of the population is in a body that a park might deem “too large”

Theme parks are for everyone, and if you’re not designing for this huge segment of the population then who the hell are you designing for? Everyone deserves to be able to have fun and do cool things. Doing the math – and assuming there’s significant overlap in the categories that means on any given day there are 40-70 THOUSAND people at Walt Disney World and maybe 15-24 THOUSAND people at Universal Studios that are probably not able to experience at least one, and likely more than one, attraction (assuming they don’t self select out and choose not to visit – which assuredly happens).

And a followup:

Yes there is always room for nuance but I have trouble with being the nuanced voice in the room on this topic because there are too many people, nearly all people, who will reply “but what about X, they just CANT be accommodated that’s impossible, that’s too much effort, that’s too small of a need” and when you keep following that logic that’s when you get a ride like like flight of passage which somehow got built without one stationary seat, or Potter which somehow got built while forgetting that tall people and people with 40 inch waists exist.

Yes it’s probably not safe to put a wheelchair on a rollercoaster but I’m also not sure there really has been much effort to try. Yes some rides inherently are very full of motion which might rule them out for some guests – but at the same time parks haven’t put much effort into making motion free versions – whether that’s alternate programming, or a walking path through a ride, before or after park hour tours of attractions, virtual reality recordings, etc.

For instance – tower of terror could easily be programmed for the drop sequence to be essentially just like a normal elevator – letting people who can’t tolerate drops, or have prosthetic limbs, etc experience the show scenes within. Just having this option say, once an hour, would be a huge improvement. Motion base rides like Indiana Jones and Dinosaur could easily have the motion base deactivated – will the ride be suitable for everyone then? No. But probably more suitable for more people if such an option was available.

And there’s room for priorities – there’s always going to be some condition, some edge case, that is impossible to foresee, or would just cost so much money as to make impossible. But the problem is now much of the time theme parks act as if there are no conditions or edge cases at all. And frankly if you’re gonna spend a billion dollars on an attraction and you pride yourself on doing the impossible it’s hard to find any excuse for not making sure there’s room for everyone. Yet, often the attitude seems to be: If you don’t fit the mold of a plastic dummy that describes an average human that no longer exists tough shit. Yes focus on the most common accessibility needs first, but that doesn’t mean stop at item 1.

I know too many people for whom almost nothing at a theme park is open to them – they pay the same price of admission as anyone else but with a quarter or less of the experiences available. I’ve seen too many people get so excited about seeing something only to be crushed when they find out the park didn’t think about them – didn’t consider the fact they existed. I’ve personally experienced the shame and humiliation of barely fitting in a seat and being forced into it. I know too many people with disabilities who’ve been left out entirely. I can’t in good consciousness gush about how amazing theme parks are to my friends when I know that so much of what I gush about they can’t experience. And it’s hard to find much room for nuance in those moments.

Please Make Room for Those Needing Special Assistance

In the late 1960s a young army nurse, while trying to protect and restrain an out of control patient, was kicked in the spine and her life was forever changed. While she was spared paralysis, she was told that she would not be able to walk within a few years and would suffer from intense chronic pain the rest of her life. However she proved the doctors wrong and despite the pain, managed to live her life on crutches for the next 50 years and now in her 70s continues to push past more pain than she should ever have to, to try to experience a world that is not built for her as best she can. 

In 2009, the movie Avatar came out and burst box office records. The movie had special significance for this woman, and I imagine many disabled individuals around the country. The film centered around a disabled veteran, like herself, who gets a chance to leave the troubles and frustration of his body behind and experience the joy of being able to take his body for granted again through the Avatar program and use it to go on spectacular adventures. She fell in love with the story, watched it again and again, even had an illustration of Jake riding a banshee join her growing collection of tattoos. You can imagine the excitement she felt when she heard that Disney was going to build the world of Pandora just down the street from her house. She waited eagerly, for over half a decade, for the day to arrive that she too could experience the spectacular sights and journey of the film in real life.

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