Excalibur – Drayton Manor Park

Excalibur at Drayton Manor ParkI’ve worked on a few theme park projects over the years. Some of the projects included white knuckle rides, but one of the most enjoyable was a rather sedate family boat ride at the UK’s Drayton Manor Park called Excalibur – A Dragon’s Tale.

The brief was to revamp the rather tired Jungle Cruise ride at the theme park. The ride system (based on underwater cables) was provided by BEAR GmbH of Switzerland, while the theming and mechanical effects were the responsibility of the team at Farmer Studios here in the UK (where I was working at the time in a cross-discipline role as designer, animator and scriptwriter). Here are some highlights from the previsualisation video I produced as part of the concept development process:

The Excalibur concept – the result of much brainstorming between me and my colleague Tony Archer – was a ‘Knights of the Round Table’ story appropriate to the park’s location in the heart of England. The twist was that we’d tell the story from the point of view of a family of dragons being persecuted by Arthur and his gang of knights, who are more concerned with redeveloping Camelot than preserving the ancient dragon homelands.

Given the ride’s slow pace, we decided to tell the story by means of a lavish audio drama, which was produced in surround-sound and featured plenty of groan-inducing puns aimed squarely at the target audience of families with young children. The resulting audio track was split into chapters and recorded on solid-state sound stores located in each individual boat. Infra-red sensors along the route triggered each successive chapter at the appropriate time. The soundtrack was designed to run seamlessly without a break but, in the event of stoppages, the infra-red system put the story on temporary hold and ran a loop of  ‘holding music’ until the boat got moving again.

The challenge for the scenic and engineering teams at Farmer Studios was to theme the enormous lake location within a relatively tight budget. The scenery and effects we put in included a castle tower and submerged mechanical effects including thrashing dragons’ tails and – of course – the sword Excalibur rising out of the water (while the Lady of the Lake moans about how heavy it is). At the climax of the ride, the boat enters a dark cavern inhabited by Cantata, a full-sized animatronic dragon … not to mention her fire-breathing husband!

The video I’ve posted here is an early CGI previsualisation of the Excalibur ride. For the technically-minded among you, I created it by building a 3D model of the ride track in 3DSMax, using data supplied by BEAR. It’s therefore an accurate replica of the actual ride, in terms of both layout and timing. I then ‘themed’ the ride with additional models using the concept designs as reference. The models are fairly crude because the whole thing was constantly evolving as the project progressed. In the end, it proved so useful that we used it to choreograph the animation of the various animatronic effects – including the big dragon at the end.

This version of the previsualisation is a ‘highlights’ edit featuring selected moments from the complete ten-minute ride. The soundtrack is one of the early audio edits.

The Excalibur project was directed by Nick Farmer and project managed by Dan Tippetts. I think most of the supremely talented folk at Farmer Studios worked on the project at some stage, including Tony Archer, Simon Mitchell, Jim Bishop, Simon Hearn and about a million others … if you’re one of the missing names, put a comment below and I’ll add your name to the list! Thanks too to Edward Pawley at Drayton Manor Park for granting me permission to upload this video.

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