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30 November 2011

With The Red Sea Astrarium, RGH dives into themed entertainment

All images are courtesy RGH Themed Entertainment and used here with permission.
Interview by Judith Rubin
The Red Sea Astrarium (TRSA) is a $1.5 billion+, 184-acre, mixed-use, 5-star themed resort opening in 2014 in Aqaba, Jordan. It is targeted to visitor markets in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. The project was announced in May 2011.

TRSA is being designed and produced by RGH Themed Entertainment, a division of Rubicon Group Holding (RGH), a diversified global entertainment company active in the development and production of 2D and 3D animated television, film, Web-based and mobile content for both entertainment and education. Led by CEO Randa S. Ayoubi, RGH has some 300 employees among its four locations in Amman, Jordan; Los Angeles, Manila and Dubai. RGH Director of Themed Entertainment Lenny Larsen has been instrumental in forming the creative team for the Astrarium project.


One well-publicized aspect of TRSA is its “Star Trek” connection. By arrangement with CBS Consumer Products and Paramount Recreation TRSA will prominently feature an attraction that is exclusively themed around the 2009 “Star Trek” motion picture and the 2012 sequel. But RGH representatives stress that while the “Star Trek” attraction will be an outstanding feature of the resort, it will not wholly define it, but rather be an aspect of an adventure “celebrating the heritage and culture of the region’s past civilizations, drawing from Nabatean, Babylonian, British and Roman influences.”

To learn more about TRSA, we spoke to Jason McManus, Creative Director of Attractions at RGH Themed Entertainment. McManus, a graduate of the CalArts Experimental Animation program, has previously worked as a concept designer and art director on numerous projects for Walt Disney Imagineering, The Smithsonian Institute, MGM Resorts, and his own themed entertainment consultancy group, StudioVitru.


IPM: Tell us about the new RGH themed entertainment division.
Jason McManus: RGH is working to establish itself more broadly. The company has a significant portfolio in television and video games; it has relationships with many IP owners, owns some of its own IPs, and has other resources such as an animation house. To this existing infrastructure the people in the new themed entertainment division bring experience from top companies such as WDI, Thinkwell, Lexington and Landmark. We are interested in where themed entertainment is going and in shaping its evolution, informed by the examples and experiences of past projects. While TRSA is our first themed entertainment project, we have others in the works.

IPM: How will “Star Trek” be incorporated into the TRSA project? Will there be other IPs as well?

JM: Right now we can’t announce any other IPs but that could very well change in the near future. The “Star Trek” attraction will include multiple attraction experiences, which we are now working to create in alliance with CBS Consumer Products and Paramount Recreation. The overarching storyline of TRSA will allow for elegant transition from the “Star Trek” world to other worlds – to the many worlds we’re creating here.

IPM: What is the overarching storyline?

JM: The main ideas are creativity, inspiration, integrity and the warping or bending of time. These are woven into compelling stories that make up the different areas of The Red Sea Astrarium’s overall adventure.

IPM: How will that be realized in the guest experience?

JM: Some examples: The Summit, one of the lands in the resort, will be a focal point for a lot of the story. There, we’ll tell a deep narrative that will serve as the seed to the stories of the other areas of the park. Save the Astrarium: An Interactive Adventure, will be a massive walk-through experience where the guest truly becomes part of the story. Cradle of Inspiration will feature an entirely new, groundbreaking ride system we are developing, but we’re using it not for a thrill ride but for a very immersive, story-based experience. We’re developing new technologies for every attraction so that a guest can repeat and repeat and have a different experience each time.

TRSA slightly resembles a lot of projects but doesn’t closely resemble anything. It’s not a theme park but rather a story-based destination resort. We looked at a lot of models and spent a lot of time trying to create something entirely new and fresh. The result is a park for everybody - for young couples to come in and go to spas, for shopping, shows mixed with dining, plus attraction elements that are more like a theme park. You don’t have to move out of the story to go from one zone into the other. We’ve found a unique way to operate that will be a signature of this place.

For the retail and hospitality areas, we are developing design guidelines to carry the thematic vision throughout the property. TRSA will have four hotels and we are working very closely with the providers to make sure that the guest experience fits the aesthetic and story guidelines.


IPM: Please describe the site and the location.

JM: The TRSA site is a lush, mountainous region in Aqaba, which is a quickly growing, beach and spa resort town. It is 35 minutes by plane from Amman and about an hour from Petra, and will help bring Jordan into the limelight as a tourist destination. Aqaba is what’s called a “tourist based free zone,” which means it is focused on tourism as its central means of income and receives full support from the Jordanian Government for any sort of tourist-based function. His Majesty King Abdullah II checks up every now and then to see what’s going on - he wants TRSA to succeed. The project emphasizes green technologies and we want to make sure the technology and infrastructure of TRSA – as well as the storyline – compliment and tie in with the surrounding landscape.

IPM: Who owns the land?

JM: We are working closely with the development group that currently owns the land. The property that The Red Sea Astrarium will eventually reside on is secured and the funding is all in place for this project. At the moment we can’t discuss contracts with our developers, but more information will eventually be released as we move further along into the process.

IPM: What is TRSA’s target visitor demographic?

JM: We’re creating a family park for a Mideast audience and a Western audience, with something for everyone all the way from tiny tots to seniors. The Jordanians are very progressive and we’re making this project progressive in attitude. The main language of the resort will be English. We have conducted a lot of studies to make sure that the architecture and the project will truly resonate with the audience. We are trying to push communications and evoke emotions that are universal, that people from all over the world will understand.

IPM: You’ve said that you will apply gaming technology in new ways to the attractions at TRSA. Can you give some specifics?

JM: First of all, it will be felt in how the stories vary every time you ride. The experiences will evolve and change with the guest. Compelling stories are at the core of our mission statement at RGH Themed Entertainment and the foundation of what our industry does, but the way theme parks are going to tell those stories has to change.

In Save the Astrarium: An Interactive Adventure, guests get a call to action to travel through time and confront an evil genie who threatens to destroy the park. This heavily themed, walk-through environment will have devices that pull each guest deeply into the narrative to actively participate in the story by becoming one of the characters. They will be able to make decisions and perform actions that affect how the story ends up. This attraction is being developed and themed just like a major dark-ride, but in this attraction, the visitor is pulled through with no need for a ride vehicle. While I can’t divulge the specifics of the proprietary technology at this time, it will use a highly intuitive gaming system, relying on a main central brain to control all the scenes, raise different challenges as the guests walk through, learn “who” they are and eventually adapt and change the story each time. It’s very theatrical in execution.

Cradle of Inspiration will feature a circular ride platform that rises through multiple show scenes, takes guests into a 360 projection dome, and achieves up to 2Gs of force, traveling 12 vertical meters in less than 3 seconds. It will be a very ambitious ride system, unlike anything seen before.


In another of the attractions, we’re working on a technology that observes and learns how the user is responding and will adapt in real time, while people are engaged with it. We’re looking past current technologies like RFID to find or create the next big idea. Here we’re working on what will be the future of themed environments.


While we’re reaching to the cutting edge in terms of developing the technologies, we’re relying on the best traditions of filmmaking in terms of telling the stories; developing them with storyboarding, color scripting and framing that reveals things in a paced, deliberate way. We’re blessed to have in-house media departments at RGH, and very talented people on animation projects to pull from in the various locations. It’s sort of the way theme parks used to be designed: people from the film studios would come in, take from the old and develop something really innovative for the future. That’s our process.


Technology will also be used for dynamic and intelligent crowd flow, to help dictate where visitors are going throughout the day. We’re looking into technology that improves our guests’ experiences in every way imaginable.


IPM: How big of a team is RGH putting together to design and build TRSA, and how can interested parties apply to join it?

JM: There’s no saying at present just how big the team will become. But we are growing the team rapidly now and looking for talent. As the project manager, RGH is doing the core design and feasibility, and the master planning is in partnership with Seattle-based Callison Architects. We are creating a lot of the attraction experiences in-house. For more information people should contact Mitch Russon [mitch.russon@rghentertainment.com].