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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 10, 2006

For Thinkwell, it's been a wild ride

By Richard Verrier
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES It looked like Craig Hanna was in for a white-knuckle ride when he left the safe confines of Universal Studios in early 2001 to strike out on his own as a theme-park design consultant.

Two of the biggest names in the business, Universal and Walt Disney Co., had no new parks on the drawing board. Wall Street was turned off by the industry's thin profits and voracious appetite for capital. A few months later the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would pummel tourism.

"A lot of people asked us, 'Why would you even consider starting a new business in the theme-park industry?' " said Hanna, chief creative officer for Thinkwell Design & Production.

But Hanna defied naysayers, thriving by diversifying and tapping foreign markets hungry for Hollywood-style entertainment.

The company's project portfolio includes an indoor ski resort it designed for sun-baked Dubai, and a traveling Sesame Workshop exhibit. Last month, Thinkwell teamed with casino operator Harrah's Entertainment, Keppel Land and "Titanic'' director James Cameron on a proposed 16-story indoor theme park in Singapore.

Sales jumped nearly 70 percent in 2005 to $5 million, according to the company, and are projected to reach $8 million this year. Thinkwell recently moved to a spacious new Burbank headquarters that gives its 25 employees room to handle their burgeoning workload.

Thinkwell doesn't construct rides and shows; it creates the concepts. Like a movie producer, it assembles the team that builds those things.

The 43-year-old Hanna honed his skills as a top creative executive at Universal, where he designed such high-tech rides as the company's "Men in Black Alien Attack" in Florida, based on the popular movie franchise.

"Anyone can theme a roller coaster," Hanna said. "What we do is tell a story and create an amazing experience."

When Universal slashed its theme-park design group and moved the operation to Florida, Hanna and three colleagues who were working on a project in Spain decided to launch their own business.

Using their contacts, the four partners landed a $6.5 million contract designing a traveling educational attraction in Asia called the "Jurassic Park Institute Tour," inspired by the blockbuster Steven Spielberg movies released by Universal.

They quickly realized success hinged on bringing theme-park entertainment to other venues, such as shops and museums. So began a partnership with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the popular children's TV show "Sesame Street."

Sesame hired Thinkwell to create a series of interactive traveling exhibits using the "Sesame Street" characters to teach children about such topics as the human body and the environment. The show tours science museums nationwide.

To lure customers to the new Pier at Caesars retail complex in Atlantic City, Thinkwell created an indoor water, light and sound show that includes a 15,000-gallon reflection pool and a computerized matrix of more than 150 fountains. The project debuts in June.

"I've been around this for about 40 years, and these people are about as creative as anyone in the business," said Sheldon Gordon, chairman of Gordon Group Holdings, the project's developer.

Gordon also has teamed up with Thinkwell on the Singapore project, an indoor park with shops, restaurants and interactive attractions, including one with animatronic dinosaurs.

Overseas projects have fueled much of the growth at Thinkwell.

"We came into this business knowing how small the world really is," said Thinkwell executive producer Francois Bergeron.

Last year, Bergeron worked with animators at 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios on an indoor water ride at Movie Park in Germany. The ride is based on Fox's hit movie "Ice Age."

Then there's Ski Dubai, a 240,000-square-foot indoor ski resort attached to a shopping mall in the booming desert kingdom of Dubai. Hanna worked with a Dubai investment group and a European ski-resort operator on the project, which opened late last year.

The company's expertise in winter themes led to its latest gig: designs for a $375 million winter-sports theme park in Dallas. Texas investors backing the project hope to have it open in 2008.

Hanna attributes the steady stream of business in part to the company's nimbleness.

"Because we're small and agile, we have the opportunity to get stuff to market quicker than the big boys," he said. "And we're nerds. We love technology."