What’s Coming to Your Favorite Theme Park? Highlights from the 30th Annual Thea Awards

Annie Wilson

The 30th annual Thea Awards were held on March 16, 2024 in Hollywood, California. This annual event hosted by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) celebrates the creative and talented people behind some of the best-themed experiences around the globe. From theme park attractions to experiential dining, the Theas recognize the best of the previous year.

30th Annual Thea Awards Gala

TEA invited Universal Parks News Today out to the Thea Awards gala and it was an honor to attend. Listening to these creative and passionate people was inspiring and truly gives us an idea of what the future of theme parks can be.

A projection on the ceiling of The Ray Dolby Ballroom for the 2024 Thea Awards Gala.

There’s a lot on the horizon for Universal Destinations and Experiences. With Epic Universe and other projects in the works, Universal is ready to give guests what they want. Theme parks are more than just rides, though. The Thea Awards gives us a look at what can be achieved and what direction the themed entertainment industry is going. Guests are craving immersive experiences, from theme parks to shopping to dining.

A Restaurant That Can Be a Ride

One of the newest and most mysterious themed dining experiences to open lately is Eatrenalin. Think about combining a trackless ride vehicle with an eight-course dining experience. That’s exactly what you get from Eatrenalin, located by Europa-Park in Rust, Germany. This experiential dining attraction gives us a small look into what the future of theme park dining could be.

Eatrenalin, a dining experience that is also a ride of sorts.
Image source: Europapark.de

Imagine sitting in a chair that glides you from room to room as you dine on dishes inspired by your surroundings. Your chair is a ride vehicle, slowly moving you about the room as you dine and enjoy the immersive scenes around you. Each course is served in a room that compliments the dish, so your seats will take you from room to room through the experience. Trackless rides and dark rides are popular with guests, so why not take it up a notch by making it a fine dining experience?

Eatrenalin does not allow filming in most of the rooms, so there’s only a little bit of footage available. This helps keep things a surprise and encourages guests to be in the moment.

Eatrenalin is considering opening a location in the U.S., so you may not have to travel all the way to Germany to see what this new dining is all about. The idea of a dining experience that is part dark ride is something we’d love to see here!

The Future of Themed Shopping

As for shopping, times have changed as well. Malls and shops around the country are becoming empty as people turn to online shopping more and more. What was once a popular spot for everyone to hang out has almost become a ghost town. How do you get people to come to a physical store to shop? You create themed experiences! Give people a reason to visit, just like the AURA: The Forest at the Edge of the Sky. AURA, located in Haikou, China, took home a Thea Award for Immersive Mall Experience.

An escalator up a series of pink and purple glass installations for AURA: The Forest at the Edge of the Sky.
Image source: bestawards.co.nz

This shopping experience features an immersive light show that encompasses a 360-degree soundscape. Riding the elevator is like riding through an intricate art installation. Sculptures, projections, and a 29-meter-tall LED screen create a beautiful environment. AURA: The Forest at the Edge of the Sky is bringing the mall experience back for a new generation.

An immersive shopping experience doesn’t have to be as massive as AURA, though. A Thea award was given to the Disney “Encanto” X CAMP team for outstanding achievement for a retail experience on a limited budget.

An activation for Disney "Encanto" x Camp.
Image source: camp.com

CAMP created the world’s first Disney “Encanto” experience where guests can visit Casita! CAMP’s Disney “Encanto” experience is interactive with music and surprises all around, transporting guests to Antonio’s rainforest, Isabela’s floral wonderland, and more. The team brings Casita to life for guests to enjoy and offers a variety of Disney “Encanto” merchandise by CAMP. Shopping is more than just buying merchandise for today’s guests.

Universal Orlando Resort has embraced this concept over the last few years, with elaborate “Tribute Stores” that change their theme every few months. Souvenirs have become more than just merchandise; they’re tangible memories. Shopping online is so convenient, but there’s a big difference between buying a souvenir on your vacation versus ordering the same items a week later at home. Immersive, engaging shopping experiences are what make an item a true souvenir from your vacation.

Immersive Attractions

A presenter during the 2024 Thea Awards.

Themed entertainment is not limited to theme parks, but they are a major part of it. This year, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind was recognized for best attraction. For our readers, this ride probably doesn’t need an introduction, but this is the indoor roller coaster located in EPCOT at Walt Disney World. What sets this ride apart from other indoor coasters is its innovative ride system. The way the cars rotate creates a different sensation than most coasters. The way the vehicles move, paired with one of six different songs, makes this an unforgettable ride.

Universal Epic Universe is currently testing a coaster with rotating vehicles in the Dark Universe section of the park. A Fast and Furious roller coaster is being built at Universal Studios Hollywood that will also be able to make 360-degree turns. Attractions don’t have to be roller coasters to be impressive, though.

Constellation Carousel concept art

Universal claims that Epic Universe will be the “most technologically advanced park” when it opens next year. One attraction that has officially been announced is the Constellation Carousel in Celestial Park. This is no ordinary carousel, though. Constellation Carousel is made up of celestial creatures and as it goes around, each one turns 360 degrees, making you feel like you’re riding on constellations through the Milky Way. This is a great example of taking a theme park classic, like a carousel, and giving it an update for the next generation.

Augmented Reality and Technology in the Parks

Technology has come a long way and theme parks are always looking to show off the latest advancements. Augmented reality (AR) creates a new way to immerse guests in their surroundings and can be seen in experiences like Colored (Noire). HoloLens 2 goggles, a headset, and a small backpack are used to transport you back to the 1950s using AR. Colored (Noire) was recognized for using AR to create this incredible extended reality exhibit.

A reporter's hand holding the AR headset for Universal's Mario Kart attraction.

AR technology has already started to show up at the Universal parks, both through testing in the Universal Orlando app last year and in the brand new Mario Kart attraction in Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood and Japan. AR binoculars can also be found in Super Nintendo World, adding video game characters throughout the land.

The Geneva Journey multimedia drone show won an award for live spectacular. Geneva Journey was performed May 18-20, 2023 at Geneva Harbor, in Switzerland. Billed as the largest drone show in Europe to date, this live spectacular featured 1,400 programmed light drones, 11 heavy carrier drones, and 400 light drones equipped with pyrotechnic sky effects.

​Geneva Journey set a new standard for drone shows with a combination of technical and creative elements. Drone shows have started to become more common, especially at the theme parks. Several Disney Parks have drone shows and Universal Studios Hollywood uses drones as well. Recently, Universal Studios Florida has been spotted testing drones over the park. Drones provide a new way to create nighttime spectaculars for audiences around the world.

Guests Want More!

Theme parks are a source of joy and an escape from the outside world for many. One thing that has not changed over the years is guests’ desire to be immersed in the stories they love. The TEA knows what guests want and the talented people in this industry work incredibly hard to deliver. There’s no denying that the theme park industry is thriving, thanks to the many teams who bring these experiences to life.

The stage at the 2024 Thea Awards

The Thea Awards are just part of several days of events that bring together members of the themed entertainment industry. Intending to inspire those individuals, the TEA helps connect creators from around the globe. The 2024 Thea Awards Recipients deserve to be celebrated, not only by their peers, but by all theme park fans. Take a look at the 30th Annual Thea Awards Recipients on TEA’s site and read more about the experiences and the teams behind them.

The event booklet for the 2024 Thea Awards Gala.

And if you want to save the date for the 2025 Thea Awards, mark your calendars for March 15, 2025. The event will take place in Universal City, California.

What do you think about the future of theme parks and the desire for more immersive experiences? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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