Many theme park fan sites will start a story with “Ya know, while attraction X is great and all – what would have REALLY been cool, is if they would have stuck with their original idea and built it this way….” That’s crap. No one knows if an attraction would have been any better if it was built from one of the first concepts that ended up on the cutting room floor. Plans change for many reasons: sponsorship, deadlines, egos and yes – even budget. And in the case of Hard Rock Park, many ideas considered before construction didn’t make it into the park that opened in April of 2008 for any and all of those reasons. It’s a fact of life in the theme park business and just because an idea wasn’t fully realized, doesn’t mean it would have been better. However, no good concept truly ever dies. Jon Binkowski had every intention of taking those inspirations and using them for future expansion.
In part one of the series, I discussed how Binkowski took his investment in a small theater in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and ultimately used it as the cornerstone in building an entire theme park utilizing the surrounding land. Many investors were interested in starting a theme park in the heavily visited Myrtle Beach area and they wound up partnering with Hard Rock International to brand it. This new concept would have to be designed and fabricated from the ground up, and there was very little concept artwork done for the park when HRI signed on the dotted line. A first treatment, a general layout of the park, and Binkowski’s resume was enough to get the ball rolling.
Even though Jon Binkowski and Steven Goodwin now had their park branded – they only had an outline of what they wanted for the park and a few overall sketches of what the property could look like. So they went to work and paid for some independent feasibility studies to find out how many tourists would a branded theme park attract. The results were astounding. According to independent research, Myrtle Beach had enough tourists visiting every year to support three parks. A statistic to make any investor drool. Now it was just a matter of giving them concept artwork that would convince them that it would be foolish NOT to invest in Hard Rock Park. But how do you determine what guests, much less investors, would want to see?
Most theme parks and attractions within are created from focus groups. Ever seen those people standing with clipboards or digital tablets at the exit of your favorite park? Their job is to find out how your day was, how much money you spent and what would be a draw to bring you back. Steven and Jon had one unofficial focus group: the girl who made copies of concept artwork for them at Kinko’s. And even her input was minimal. There was simply no time to go back and refine plans based on random samplings of people. As investors climbed on board the pressure mounted to start creating something tangible so they could start seeing a return on their investment.
Hard Rock Park was 100% privately owned: meaning Binkowski and Goodwin could create the park they wanted to build without having to report to top level executives, ask for approval from committees, or appeal to shareholders. They only needed to run certain concepts and images by the folks at Hard Rock International. HRI just wanted to make sure that their brand was being upheld and the park was going to be an asset, and didn’t detract any value.
When a major theme park company like Disney, Universal or Busch sets out to build an addition to their park, they have their own in house team to start the design work. Next, they reach out to a small list of vendors, many of them have exclusive contracts with the theme park Gods. Those suppliers are given first crack at fabricating ride vehicles, signage, props, and so on. Pure politics. In Hard Rock Park’s case? The world was their oyster. They could use anyone they wanted to. There was plenty of talent ripe for the picking.
Timing couldn’t have been better when it came to finding a team to help flesh out some of Jon’s ideas for attractions, restaurants and merchandise shops. Universal had just finished building Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Japan. Disney has just opened California Adventure in 2001. Generally speaking, when you work on a project in the themed entertainment industry – once it’s over, you look for a new employer and hope to get picked up for the next big thing. And since tourism was in a slump after 9/11, there were very few attractions being built – much less entire theme parks. So there were lots of industry veterans chomping at the bit for work. Jon got to hand pick his team of artists, sculptors and designers to bring his project to life.
Music was the driving force behind this park – and playing it at the right levels and not have it bleed between lands was paramount in making the music live for the guests. When Steven Goodwin was involved in the design of the Hard Rock Hotel, he realized that he couldn’t use the same concert style atmosphere as Hard Rock Cafe. If you’ve ever eaten at one of the Cafes, it’s a loud experience. classic rock n roll is designed to get your blood pumping and the music chosen for the restaurants is meant to give you that intense, high energy sound. After 3 or 4 hours of it? You have had enough. The Hard Rock Hotel experience needed balance. Guests would get a headache if subjected to loud rock music all day. So they created several zones of music appropriate for each section of the hotel: the lobby, hallways and pool all have different volume levels and often different types of rock music playing to help create that balance. They considered the guest rooms to be an “oasis of calm” where patrons could get away from the music and relax – if they so choose.
That same level of detail the hotels developed was also used to create different sound zones in the park. Not only did each environ in the park need to have its own respective style of music, but the idea was that you couldn’t hear the music from one section in the park in another. Most theme parks use buildings as buffers to block sound from one land to the next. Hard Rock Park didn’t have the luxury (or the budget) for a lot of buildings.
What they did was point each speaker in the direction of the land the sound was playing. So as you left one environ, the speakers would face the direction of that section of the park. There would be a buffer of about 50 feet with no audio coming from any source. Then speakers would be placed in the next land playing entirely different songs, facing the next environ. The music was never loud enough to be heard outside of each respected land. Most importantly, never so loud to be heard outside of the park. This gave the designers an idea of how big each section needed to be, because that buffer/transition section between each land was crucial. Each environ of the park had to be built around a lake, not the best sound barrier.
The lake already existed before the park was built. Waccamaw pottery used it years ago as a clay quarry. It filled with water over the years to become a managed retention pond. Hard Rock Park would have to be built around that lake because it was already its own mini-eco system and they didn’t want to upset that. Plus, the lagoon was the perfect spot to put on a nightly fireworks show, because it could be seen from any of the lands within the park.
Originally, when Hard Rock International bought off on the park concept, they were sold on 4 different lands: Classic Rock, Born in the USA, World Rythyms and Cool Country. In addition, Jon knew that he needed a Main Street section to bring guests into the park. Every park always has an opening scene to establish that they are leaving the real world and entering a world that is exciting and new. Plus, let’s face it, it’s the best place to sell souvenirs as guests are leaving the park. In addition to the four lands, All Access Entry Plaza was created to fulfill those basic needs. The architecture is a southwest mission style and the icon for the park, at the time, can be seen in the background – a Gibson Dobro guitar.
Located behind the Gibson guitar, the Classic Rock section of the park was placed in the back center of the park. If you look at the left of the rendering, the “Sock Hop” was going to be a bounce house inside a jukebox. To the right was the Twist N Shout – a scrambler ride set to the popular 60′s song. Pinball Wizard, on the left, was an arcade where you could “play some mean pinball”, and across from it a roller coaster that had yet to be named. Most importantly, in the center and rear of Classic Rock was the Magical Mystery Tour – a dark ride through the Beatles greatest hits. That attraction was to be housed in the old Waccamaw Factory Outlet building that was still standing.
To the right of Classic Rock was World Rhythms – a land that celebrated all of the great music that came from far off lands (outside of the United States). The theme was tropical with influences from Hawaii and Costa Rica. In the background is a yet to be named/themed coaster, which later became Led Zepplin – The Ride. World Rhythms was to be filled with features designed to get you wet, including a water playground and a water slide attraction. In addition, space was earmarked for a tropical themed show and to the far right, a restaurant featuring flavors from the islands.
Continuing counter-clockwise from World Rhythms was Cool Country. Myrtle Beach is located in the South and country music is, arguably, the most popular genre of music for many visitors. Rockabilly BBQ, in the lower left, would serve up the dish that Hard Rock Cafe is famous for – BBQ. In the center of the land was a live performance venue where local acts could come in and belt out country music standards and just behind it: a classic swings ride. To the left was Country Star, a karaoke attraction where you could see how your vocal skills stack up against music legends. And across from it, a 4D attraction housed in (you might have recognized it) Jon Binkowski’s original investment, the theater he owned in the southwest corner of the property.
And finally, in the northwest corner of Hard Rock Park was Born in the USA. A tribute to all the American artists that founded rock n roll. To the left upper left is a log ride that was unthemed at the time the rendering was made, as well as a wooden roller coaster on the bottom right. A boardwalk midway with games and food faced the lagoon. If you look in the back right corner, you’ll find a 50′s themed diner with classic cars parked out front. In the back center a giant concert venue was set up for big name artists who could perform live.
So did the finished park look like the concept artwork I posted today? Not exactly. They still had to partner with big name bands, find sponsors, and continue to scout investors to determine a final budget. The purpose of the work shown here today was to give investors and the public a taste of what the park could be. What they did end up creating is far more innovative, edgy and ahead of it’s time than anyone could have imagined.
Next week Theme Park University will take a look at what Hard Rock Park looked like on opening day. We will examine how the concepts in these sketches were dropped, morphed and fleshed out. So come back next week and we will take a walk around the park and point out some the details you may not have noticed or have never even heard about. See ya then.
*Editor’s note: Many images used in today’s article come from a book called “The Park That Rock Built” which was sold during the park’s inaugural (and only) season. All artwork copyright HRP LLC.