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Interview

Ken Bretschneider and Josh Shipley

Evermore is one of the newest theme parks in the US. CEO Ken Bretschneider and chief creative officer Josh Shipley talk to Attractions Management about their plans for the park and how they got to this point


Evermore – a first of a kind theme park which is based on role play experiences – was spawned from two of the most creative minds in the attractions industry.

CEO, Ken Bretschneider, started out as an artist, becoming involved with digital arts, 3D animation and videogame development at a young age.

"As a child I always felt escapism was a really important thing," he says, speaking to Attractions Management.

"I grew up in a rough situation, with a very abusive father, but I had the wonderful opportunity of being around other people who were mostly artists. They helped me escape out of my negative world and embrace a positive one. That really meant a lot to me and set an important tone through my entire life."

While focusing on his art, Bretschneider also showed his entrepreneurial side, creating a number of new products and companies based on innovative concepts, with some proving to be a hit.

His major success came in 2002 when he founded DigiCert – an internet company that verifies the authenticity of secure websites on behalf of web browsers.

Initially founded using US$30,000 of his own money, he sold DigiCert a decade later in a multi-million dollar deal, with the company going on to become a multi-billion dollar asset.

More recently, Bretschneider co-founded virtual reality company The Void.

"I liked the creative aspects of being an entrepreneur," he says. "I was fortunate enough to have a couple of successes along the way that allowed me and afforded me the ability to create everything I'm building now."

Despite these successes Bretschneider, has always had one dream – Evermore. Designed as an old-world, gothic-styled European village, the brand new theme park concept combines theatrical performance, movie-quality costumes, state-of-the-art effects, and cutting-edge technologies to create an experience unlike any other currently on the market.

Trick becomes treat
As an unintended precursor to Evermore, in 2008 Bretschneider and his family started hosting special Halloween events at their home in Lindon, Utah – a city with a population of around 11,000. These events were so anticipated and spectacular that by 2013, practically the entire city's population was visiting the 22,000sq ft (2,000sq m) property over the course of two days.

"It was originally an event for my wife, daughters, surrogate kids, neighbours and friends," says Bretschneider.

"They all worked together on an immersive production at our home. There was the ghost adventure and then we did a Victorian graveyard haunt. Every year we kept building it bigger. In 2013, a year after I sold DigiCert, we had 11,000 people come through our house. You can imagine in a small town how crazy that is. Linden City Police had to figure out where to put people and direct everyone, because we had waves of thousands of people coming into our house."

It was then that Bretschneider recognised the niche he had carved, in creating a detailed immersive experience based on storytelling. To expand on this idea, he stepped down as CEO of the Void in early 2017, placing his full attention on the realisation of Evermore.

"We live our lives through story," he says. "People love experience and that's what life is. I decided the business I wanted to be in and the thing that I was most passionate about is creating experience. To some degree, I did that with The Void. What I'm doing with Evermore is taking that idea to the physical world of doing things to immerse people and to get a deeper, richer experience based on story. That's what this idea is all about."

A spark of imagination
Work started on Evermore in 2017 with a US$50m investment. Josh Shipley, who at the time worked for Disney Imagineering, caught wind of the project and was very intrigued in Bretschneider's ideas.

"My daughter ended up in Utah as a student in 2014," he says. "She went over to Ken's Pumpkin Fest event because it looked like this weird, new, fun Halloween thing. She called me and said, 'I wish you could be here right now, this is one of the most amazing Halloween things I've ever been to and it's super fun'."

Working for Disney Imagineering and seeing spectacular, well-known Halloween shows such as Universal's Fright Nights and Knott's Berry Farm's Scary Farm event, Shipley was surprised that there was such a popular event in such an unknown region for major attractions.

"I was confused by what my daughter was telling me," says Shipley. "I'm down at Imagineering, working in the big realm of themed entertainment offerings, and she's saying, 'I'm out here in the middle of a field in Utah having the best Halloween experience I've ever had'."

After doing some digging, Shipley discovered that it wasn't a company putting on this amazing production, rather one man – Ken Bretschneider – backed essentially by his friends and family.

"For New Year's 2017, we decided on a whim to drive up to Utah and visit family while the kids were going back to school. We didn't have any plans, and I'd seen something posted that said Evermore was back in development. It interested me so I went to LinkedIn and I found Ken on there. I sent him a note asking to meet up.

"We went and sat for this half hour meeting, and then two-and-a-half hours later I was so blown away by how this person was willing to take this massive risk and try something new.

"At the time, I didn't feel like we were taking big risks at Disney anymore. I would go into several pitch meetings and instead of them saying things like, 'let's try this new thing', the responses I was getting instead were, 'has somebody else done this yet, we'd like to know it's been proven'. It was a risk-averse environment.

"I go from that, to this guy saying, 'I know this hasn't been done before, but that's what sounds fun to me'. After the meeting, Ken said 'let's keep talking', and we did, with him eventually offering me the position of chief creative officer for Evermore."

Now working together, Bretschneider and Shipley conceptualised the idea of Evermore, putting storytelling and immersion at the forefront of everything they created in the fantasy world.

"We built Evermore off the idea that we can create productions that are story-driven and involve a lot of detail in the production value, almost like a film," says Bretschneider. "That was always our goal. For one night you can immerse someone into a story and they can feel like they've left this humdrum world for a moment and experience some kind of fantastical story driven experience.

"It's different in that when you go to most theme parks – and I'm not in any way cutting down the experience at those parks. They're great and I really enjoy places like Universal or Disney, but they're primarily a ride-based experience.

"Our product is different to that. At Evermore, we offer a more elaborate and immersive production. There are also more characters and there’s more gamification going on within our visitor experiences."

Technological advancement
Evermore, which covers 479,000sq ft (44,500sq m) has been built effectively as a giant stage for visitors to explore. Depending on whether or not they want to get involved with this world, guests can choose just to explore the park, take in its scenery and watch different scenes unfold, or they can become part of the action and follow a quest line in the experience.

"We've built it from the ground up with the idea that the park is dedicated to this level of immersion and role play," says Shipley.

"From a fantasy, storytelling aspect, really the only thing that’s been approached at this level – and I do say storytelling because it's not a physical build out – is the concept of Westworld, which is the idea that you would take your day and dedicate it to playing, embracing the world around you as being something different, with yourself playing an integral role to that product. That's what we are at Evermore."

The technology of the fictional WestWorld might not be there right now but Evermore is prepared for the future, says Shipley: "One day the user experience will speak on a technological level. We're actively pursuing that now, so new things will start to come online fairly soon.

"What this means is it's not just you that's coming to Evermore for the day or the evening and playing through for that day, it's every time you enter. The residents of Evermore, as well as other guests, will start to build your personality and persona and continue to be a part of this living, breathing world."

Looking to the future, this concept is one that the team at Evermore plans to build on, with the park future-proofed to adopt new technologies.

"We've built this as a smart park," says Shipley. "There's still a lot to come online with those efforts because it's quite robust. Underneath the park are miles of wiring and conduits, which in the future will be activated as new technologies come in. There are moments in the park, where we'd love to have technology that’s able to interact with you in real-time. Not just in real-time in the sense of asking a question, but in the sense that something would recognise you, be aware of what you've done in the past, to help or thwart the efforts of the characters in the park and continue to engage.

"We're not necessarily pursuing robots like in WestWorld, but we're definitely ramping up for a very robust technologically smart park concept."

Bretschneider went into more detail, revealing some of the planned technology uses coming to Evermore.

"We can do things we haven't been able to do before and the park is designed so we can take advantage of technology as a way to create magic," he says. "That could be by doing something as simple as having really good interactive lighting, but could also involve reality and things like aromas.

"We have interactive elements like 3D projection mapping and we're planning to implement human tracked 3D projection mapping, which will be used to create magical costumes.

"In time, we plan on implementing other technologies. For example, we're working with MagiQuest to create interactive elements within our Mythos experience that you can purchase at very low cost. These will be things such as magic wands, keys and other environmental interactives you can use around the park.

"As Evermore comes of age, we want to use other technologies such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence where we can add physical actors into an environment and guests can experience discovering things – objects or characters – using these wearable or holdable augmented reality devices. It's not there yet, but we know it's coming. Technology is exploding, so once it gets to a stage that it's more than just a gimmick, we'll be implementing that technology."

Storytelling supreme
The experience at Evermore will be different depending on the time of year, encouraging repeat visits. The debut season was Mythos – A magical lantern festival based on Norse mythology that celebrates the light of summer. For the Autumn, Evermore enters Lore, a haunted experience from Celtic folklore that explores the battle with darkness. In the winter, Aurora brings a Dickensian feel, with a magical snowy festival taking place through Christmas.

"The basis of our story is that Evermore sits on an energy gateway," says Shipley. "Evermore sits along these energy lines, which the portal crosses over at certain points of the year, opening different gateways to different worlds. It's like our own Narnia, with those other worlds stepping into Evermore. Creating a magic portal is a nice, convenient, storytelling device that helps us continue to build."

The park's European aesthetic was decided on by Bretschneider, with the goal of creating the ultimate stage for his live-action adventure to play out on. Its design not only plays off real-life heritage, but it also provided a fantasy backdrop to bring the Evermore story to life.

"We're one part immersive theatre, one part an event venue and another part gamification," he says.

"We designed the park as an old European village because there's a lot of mystique, history, and magic to it.

"Part of the reason for doing that is the genre has proven to be very successful in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Those are all characterised by that design, style and era.

"Evermore has a park element but it's really a themed stage. We create productions within that. You get to enter a story and get immersed in that world when you go into it. This setting is perfect for what we want to do."

Casting the net
One of the strengths of Evermore is that its offering can be experienced by almost anyone. The park has a widely targeted demographic and can be enjoyed by most people regardless of age or disability.

"Our audience depends on the production," says Bretschneider. "A good comparison would be a traditional theatre. You've got a building with a bunch of seats, theatrical lighting and a stage. What happens there from one month to the next – when a new production comes in – can appeal to different audiences.

One week it's Beauty and the Beast and the next maybe it's The Book of Mormon. Both those shows appeal to very different audiences. The theatre stays the same but the productions change. Our venue is this giant stage we've created and within that stage the productions change, the lighting changes, the characters change, the set design changes, the story changes and you get to live a different production or experience.

"Right now, we have two different kinds of audience that we're already attracting. During the earlier hours, we make this Halloween experience more ‘spooky fun’ for families. At night, the whole experience becomes a little bit more macabre and scary, appealing to older visitors."

Looking forward?
With Evermore only just open, Bretschneider is keeping his feet on the ground for now. However, there could be plans in the future to take the concept to new US states, possibly even overseas.

"We knew Utah was a good market for the first park," he says. "It's vastly less expensive to build here for the kind of quality that we wanted but we’re certainly not just ending here.

"We're open to the idea of expanding the Evermore brand further. It's a regional brand but we've already reached national and international audiences in our first few weeks of operation.

"What's really important for us right now is to get it right. As the creator, I will never be satisfied. I want to push Evermore in directions no one's ever experienced before and I want to see it continue to grow. I want to learn and discover new ways to make more magic for guests."

IMMERSIVE TECHNOLOGIES

THE VOID – Making its debut in July 2016, The Void uses virtual reality hardware with motion tracking, haptic feedback and special effects systems to explore and interact with virtual settings within the confines of specially-designed environments.

Debuting with a Ghostbusters-themed VR attraction at Madame Tussauds in New York City, The Void has gone from strength-to-strength, becoming prominent in the VR realm. It was among the first major attractions anywhere in the world to be built around mixed reality content.

MAGIQUEST – First opened in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 2005, MagiQuest is an interactive live-action, role playing game, where players embark on quests and adventures using magic wands to solve the mysteries of the game.

Players use an infrared device – formed into a wand – to interact with objects. By waving and pointing the wand at an object, players activate different parts of the quest. Doing things like pointing a wand at a treasure will cause the chest to open, awarding an amount of gold to the player’s account.

Applied to Evermore, these kind of technologies would offer a new level of immersion to the park.

Virtual reality and infrared devices are just two examples of 
technlogies Evermore’s management is planning to incorporate
Virtual reality and infrared devices are just two examples of technlogies Evermore’s management is planning to incorporate

WESTWORLD

Westworld – a sci-fi Western television series set in a technologically advanced Wild-West-themed amusement park – is in the same vein as Evermore.

Populated by android “hosts”, Westworld caters for high-paying “guests” who can live their Wild West fantasies – good or bad – without fear of retaliation from the hosts, who are prevented by their programming from harming humans.

Evermore’s approach obviously doesn’t follow the dark overtones of Westworld, but there are comparisons to be made between the sci-fi and real-life creations.

Sci-fi television series Westworld has guests explore an immersive world populated by humanoid robot hosts
Sci-fi television series Westworld has guests explore an immersive world populated by humanoid robot hosts
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