Jora Vision about designing dark rides and other immersive rides

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A scene from Volcans Sacrés in Vulcania (France), the first dark ride completely designed by Jora Vision

One of the European market leaders in themed attractions is the Dutch company Jora Vision. The company was founded in 1989 by Jan Maarten de Raad. In the early years the company mostly worked on decorations for swimming pools, restaurants and stores. Now, 30 years later, the company has won six THEA awards for their highly themed attractions.

We arranged an appointment for an interview with founder Jan Maarten and creative director Simeon van Tellingen to visit Jora Vision, but as you might have expected, the COVID-19 virus made that impossible. Instead, Jora Vision arranged a very nice online conference call so we could still do the interview. In this interview we talked about their work and especially highlighted the pioneering in their first dark ride ‘Volcans Sacrés’ in Vulcania and designing ‘Snorri Touren’ of Europa Park in a 3 meters tall basement.

Jora Vision founder Jan Maarten

Name: Jan Maarten de Raad and Simeon van Tellingen
Company: Jora Vision (Rijnsburg, The Netherlands)
Jan Maarten: 1989
Simeon: 2007
Favorite (semi-) dark ride:
Jan Maarten: I’m a big fan of Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure in Shanghai Disneyland. It is a very impressive ride. Unfortunately a smaller park can’t build a ride like this, but it is very impressive.
Simeon: I was also going to say Pirates of the Caribbean, but I’ll pick my second: Journey to the Center of the Earth in Tokyo DisneySea. Although it is a classic one and maybe not groundbreaking at first sight, the custom ride vehicle is amazing, as well as the sound mixing and great scenes with blacklight. That’s my number two.
Favorite show ride:
Simeon: Avatar: Flight of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom of course.
Jan Maarten: I also have to say Flight of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That one is fantastic. You get a little blind sighted before the show starts and then the way it pulls you in the experience. Fantastic how they still innovated with a ride like that.

Creative director Simeon van Tellingen

History of Jora Vision – how did they come to design dark rides?

Jora Vision originally started out as a decoration company specialising in artificial foliage. These were commonly used for decoration in (subtropical) swimming pools. Based on the demand of the customer, Jora Vision also started to sketch some designs for decorations. These decorations were made for places like themed stores, bars and restaurants and from that point, the company started to expand their activities. “One of the earliest bigger companies we worked for was Center Parcs (a major owner of holiday resorts), for their indoor play areas and adventure mini-golf courses. Eventually we landed on work in theme parks” says Jan Maarten. But starting to work for theme parks was not easy: “Back then, most theme parks were doing theming themselves. Dark rides were rides that used to be developed in-house by the parks themselves. It took some effort to convince them that they could outsource that kind of work to us,” continues Jan Maarten.

When asked whether it was always the intention to lead Jora Vision towards designing for theme parks, Jan Maarten replies: “That has always been the idea as a one stop company. Delivering high class design in the combination of building the project. We love storytelling, we love designing, we love creating. Especially me, I really like building the rides. Eventually it comes down to the combination of all these elements in the smallest details that leads you to successful immersive theme park designs.”

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Jora Vision in Rijnsburg, The Netherlands

One of the first theme park rides that Jora Vision was involved with was PandaDroom in Efteling (The Netherlands, since 2019 known as Fabula). Jora Vision created a large part of the decor, based on the design made by Efteling themselves. “We also rethemed a lot of old rides at Drievliet, another Dutch theme park. Every year we did a ride. It was fun hearing people talk about a new ride, while in fact the ride was still the old one, we just added new theming”, says Jan Maarten, “These projects were our first steps.”

In 2007, the company hired Simeon van Tellingen. After doing an internship at Efteling during his study at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, he landed on a job at Jora Vision: “I am working as creative director in the design department, more specifically on dark ride design and immersive attractions, rides with an integration of audio, video and scenery,” tells Simeon.

Since their first work in theme park design, almost 20 years ago, the company has worked on many projects around the world. The real highlight for Jan Maarten was designing a complete theme park for the Wanda Group in China: Hefei Sunac Land. The team of Jora Vision designed the masterplan for the 40-hectare theme park that opened in September 2016. “We had a few assignments like that before, but none of them were actually built. But this time they actually built the park in the way we designed it. So that was a big milestone,” says Jan Maarten, “and actually, when I think about it, every dark ride that we could really put our signature on, often became the winner of a THEA award. That makes us proud and this is why we do what we do.”

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Artwork of Hefei Sunac Land in China

Simeon adds his highlight of the company: Volcans Sacrés in Vulcania (France). “That was our very first dark ride from A-Z. Several companies made a pitch for a small budget ride. You had to execute the whole project with that budget. We won the pitch and that was the first dark ride where we were also in the lead for the ride system, video and audio and a lot of special effects,” tells Simeon.

Jora Vision’s first dark ride: Vulcans Sacrés

Vulcania is a park in the south of France. What started out as a museum has developed in an educational amusement park that revolves around volcanos and volcanic activities. For one of their modern rides, they asked several manufacturers to pitch a design. “We came up with most of the theme. The park came with some suggestions,” says Jan Maarten. “Yes, the park wanted something with culture around volcanoes, but we got to pick our own story and pitch it to them” adds Simeon. The company temporary expended their project team by hiring a French volcano expert. “We could do some research with google, but for a museum like that, things need to be right. So we hired an expert in our team and he helped us finding the best stories, the best myths around volcanoes. That was really an interesting project” tells Jan Maarten.

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Concept art of Volcans Sacrés in Vulcania (France)

Jora Vision eventually came up with a ride called ‘Volcans Sacrés’ (Sacred Volcanos), a trackless dark ride with a car system made by ETF Ride Systems. In the ride you are floating on a lavastream and take a journey through legends of volcanoes around the world. Vulcania choose the concept that Jora Vision pitched for this new ride and now Jora had to lead the complete project. Besides the design, that also included the demolishing of the old ride, picking out a ride system and searching for the perfect projection systems. “We really put in our best effort,” tells Jan Maarten, “The ride is packed with several special effects. There is no effect that we didn’t use in that ride. It really became a very special ride.”

We really did some things in that ride that would still be daring,” adds Simeon. “We created a vortex tunnel, but also used a trackless car system. No one had done that before, so we had to build a bridge for the cars through the vortex. More effects included smoke, smell, video projections, animatronics. Also at the end there is a scene where multiple cars come together in one scene. There is even one car in that scene that is not a ride vehicle, but actually used as scenery.”

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Some behind the scenes photo’s of the construction of Volcans Sacrés

Of course nothing goes exactly as planned in the first ride you design. That was also the case for Jora Vision. It turned out that both Jora Vision as well as Vulcania miscalculated the time that was needed for boarding the vehicles. Vulcania already had a couple multimedia attractions, but this was their first real ride. Jan Maarten explains: “With a ride, you get ride operations and people that need to board a vehicle. The footprint of this ride is rather small and we planned a short amount of time for boarding. Together with ETF and Vulcania we optimized the operations.”

By talking about this, it really becomes clear that this ride was an important step for Jora Vision, yet the ride is hardly known among theme park fans. Most of the readers probably wouldn’t have heard about this park before. “The park is developing further. They want to attract more young people and feel that they need to step more into the direction of a theme park. On that part, they are really making a step further then most museums and that makes a park like that even more fun. It’s not just theme parks that want dark ride experiences nowadays, it’s also museums. A dark ride is a fantastic ride, because it is easily accessible for young and old,” says Jan Maarten.

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Volcans Sacrés revolves around legends about volcanoes from around the world.

Developing a dark ride for Europa-Park: Snorri Touren

Earlier in the interview, Jan Maarten mentioned that dark rides used to be rides that were often developed in-house by theme parks. “But you see that that the market has changed over the last years,” he adds. “Take Europa-Park for example. They have a big design department that develops most of the park’s theming and dark rides. However, for Snorri Touren the park asked us to help them with the design of the ride.”

Snorri Touren is currently the newest dark ride of Europa-Park, until the rebuilt version of Piraten in Batavia opens coming summer. Main character of the ride is Snorri, a cute octopus who is the main character of the recently opened water park Rulantica. Snorri Touren opened in fall 2019 and is situated in the basement of the Scandinavian area of the park. This section of the park was burnt down during a big fire in May 2018, which also destroyed the dark ride Piraten in Batavia. Reconstruction of Piraten in Batavia is still ongoing, but the Scandinavian area was already reopened in 2019. During reconstruction of the area, the park decided to expand the already existing basement in order to host a dark ride.

According the Simeon, the plans for a ride in the Scandinavian section of the park were not new. “Europa-Park had already the idea of a ride in the basement of the Scandinavian area for a couple years. That would be a smaller ride and the plans did not yet include Snorri. After the fire, they expended the basement and decided to build a dark ride inside.”

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Concept art of Snorri Touren in Europa Park (Germany)

During the development of Snorri Touren, the park’s design department was occupied with the design of the reconstruction of Piraten in Batavia. Therefore Chris Lange, creative director at Europa Park at the time, asked an external company for the design of Snorri Touren. “When they saw a video of Bazyliszek (Legendia, Poland) they decided to ask us to develop a dark ride with Snorri,” Simeon explains. “Initially we were only asked to develop a concept for the ride and pitch it to the park. They were very enthusiastic about it and decided to ask us for the complete development of the ride, including not only the complete ride design but also the production of the theming. We really got the freedom we wanted in developing the ride.”

It was rather unique that Europa-Park asked another company to completely design one of the park’s dark rides. Big parks generally tend to develop such a ride in-house. “A dark ride of often a ‘darling’, so I understand that a park wants to design the ride by themselves,” Jan Maarten says. “But we have the knowledge on designing a dark ride. We have the experience that a park does not really have, parks don’t build a dark ride every year. I mean, a dark ride is obviously quite an investment for a park. You can build either a rollercoaster or a dark ride. A dark ride is not cheaper than a coaster. If you choose to build a dark ride, you must do it well. I get and and I am in favor that a park has its own development department to protect their own ‘DNA’, but I think it’s better to do like Europa Park and hire specialists, tell them the story you want to bring and collaborate on the style of the ride within the park. That’s what I try to tell potential customers. It’s easy to think that your own development department can design a dark ride, but when we collaborate we can achieve higher standards since we have designed multiple complete dark rides. When we make a concept, we can also make a cost estimate. We have experience also on smaller dark rides and costs of various aspects of the ride, so we can stay within budget and help a park to create a nice ride with a smaller budget.”

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Scenery for Snorri Touren in production in the Jora Vision workshop

The ride system for Snorri Touren was manufactured by Mack Rides, as are most of the rides in Europa-Park. “The collaboration with Mack was really good,” Jan Maarten says. Mack already had the ride system in mind, which was a track-based ride system. It was based on a system that they had developed before, but they wanted to upgrade it for Snorri Touren. This upgrade involved for example making the ride system suitable for use inside projection domes. Apart from the upgrade of the system the ride vehicles were custom designed. “We got the freedom to design the vehicles,” Simeon explains. “Eventually, Mack could build the vehicles almost exactly the way we designed them. Together we decided to give the cars a higher railing on one side of the car. This way, we could build the scenery closer to the cars which made quite a difference as the ride footprint is rather small.”

“That really is the great thing about Snorri Touren,” Jan Maarten adds. “Due to the clearance area around the cars, the scenery generally must be put further away. However, because of the higher railings people are unable to reach out their hands on one side of the car which decreases the clearance zone. That enabled us to place the scenery closer to the cars which makes the ride much cosier. It feels like stepping back in time to the old-fashioned ghost trains, where scenery was also put close to the ride vehicles. You don’t see that often anymore, which is a shame as it decreases the intensity of the ride. It’s much more fun when riders come close to the scenery.”

“That is one of the main things about designing a dark ride,” Simeon continues. “In the end, you want to make the riders forget that they are inside a large box. By creating some compact scenes – not all of them, you should not try that in all of the scenes – you can really add to the experience of the ride. It makes a lot of difference if you look for example to a ride like Ghostbusters in Motiongate Dubai, where you can see through multiple scenes in one straight line. That really decreases the immersive experience.”

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The design that Jora Vision made for the cars of Snorri Touren

For Snorri Touren the space was rather limited. The ride does not only have a small footprint, it is also built inside a low basement. The entire ride had to be fit inside a room with a height of approximately three meters. That does not only include the visible things for visitors, like the ride system and decorations, but also all technical aspects to run the ride and all installations like ventilation and all cables and pipes which were already present. “It was quite a challenge to fit everything in there,” Simeon says. In order to make sure that the decorations would fit in the space the whole design for the basement, including all installations and shafts, was made in 3D. Based on this 3D-model the decorations were produced by Jora Vision’s workshop in Rijnsburg. “The ride includes many rocks which would generally be made from shotcrete, but instead we made them all as prefab-rocks in our own workshop and later transported them to Europa-Park. Everything in the ride had to fit exactly, not only because of the limited space but also because of for example the projections. All of them had to be perfectly placed on the projection screens. We worked out all the storyboards for the video projections, which were produced by MackMedia. By producing the whole ride in our own workshop, we could deliver the ride in time.”

Delivering the ride in time was rather exceptional as Jora Vision had a very limited time frame to design and produce the ride. “We were able to do the entire project, from the first concept to final delivery in just one year,” says Simeon. Jan Maarten adds: “Europa-Park appreciated very much the work we delivered in such a short time. It’s a very compact ride, but you see that it is very popular, even in a park like Europa Park, which has many bigger rides and rollercoasters.”

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The finished dark ride Snorri Touren in Europa Park (Germany)

Upcoming dark rides and other ongoing projects

Apart from insights in the development of some of the recently opened dark rides designed by Jora Vision, we were also curious how much Simeon and Jan Maarten can tell about projects they are currently working on. One of the major projects for Jora Vision currently is currently the Pushkin project. This entails the design of a complete theme park based on the fairy tales written by the Russian poet Pushkin, who is considered one of the greatest poets in the world’s history. The theme park will eventually be called ‘Lukomorye’ and is located near St. Petersburg.

Jora Vision’s work on the park started in fall 2018. At that time, the park’s design was not yet at stake. Instead, Jora Vision worked together with the developers of the park in the pre-masterplanning study. During such an early-stage study the basis for the eventual park is laid down. This includes for example a selection of rides and basic park plan, but also an analysis of the feasibility of the park by researching local culture and the number of potential visitors. “Over the last years we see a lot of parks which are developed without sufficient knowledge of the theme park industry. A couple of years ago we decided to start collaborating with Pieter Cornelis, a Dutch expert on theme park economics. Together with him we have a lot of knowledge on European theme parks and can we help parks in this pre-masterplanning phase. We make a business plan to advice the developer on the type and scale of park to develop, so the development of the park does not only start with a creative idea but also with a feasible business plan. For Pushkin we did the same thing where we advised the developers to build an indoor park which creates revenue in both summer and winter, with a small outdoor part for the summer.”

“That is the design we are currently working on,” Simeon continues. “The park consists mainly of an indoor hall with extensive theming, and a outside garden area with a few family rides that express some of Pushkin’s fairy tales. I am not sure how much I can tell about the park itself, but at least it will include two dark rides and one walkthrough. One of the dark rides is a classic ground based dark ride which tells the tale of the Dead Princess. This story has some similarities with the story of Snow White, though it is based on a classical story from Russian folklore. It is quite poetic. The other ride will be a suspended dark ride which also tells one of Pushkin’s stories.”

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Concept art of the Puhskin theme park in Russia

Apart from such dark rides for theme parks Jora Vision has been working a lot for smaller tourist attractions over the last years. In the last years they had a couple of projects involving the creation of smaller walkthrough experiences which tell a story from for example local history. “We have two of these projects in Europe which we soon hope to start constructing, but I cannot tell anything more about that,” Jan Maarten says. “We know that such experiences are not included in your website since they lack a ride system, but we are not really bound to a ride vehicle. We want to tell a story through scenes, regardless of the way the visitor is transported through these scenes.” 

Luckily Jan Maarten and Simeon can at least tell us about a few developments for such tourist experiences which are already published. In February 2020 ETF Ride Systems and Jora Vision presented the design of a small scale dark ride concept ‘Pirate Mania’ at the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Trade Show. In this case, ETF Ride Systems had the idea for developing a small scale darkride which would be suitable for smaller theme parks of Family Entertainment Centres. After some talks on an expo they started the collaboration with Jora Vision and together developed the concept of Pirate Mania. For this ride, ETF produces the ride system including an interactive shooting system and functions as turnkey supplier. Jora Vision contributes to the ride by developing the theming concept and constructing the decorations. “We decided to choose a pirate theme for this ride,” says Simeon. “As it is a ride concept without a further elaboration of specific storyline, we wanted to have a very basic theme which is accessible for almost everyone. Pirates can be fun for the whole family – a  bit exciting, but also jolly. We had some very nice feedback on this ride, customers liked the small scale and the small budget.”

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Concept art of Pirate Mania, an interactive dark ride collaboration between Jora Vision and ETF Ride Systems

Another example is the development of the ride concept called ‘The curse of Blackstorm Bay’. In this case Jora Vision had the idea to work on the concept of the immersive tunnel and approached Simworx as partner to develop a next generation immersive tunnel. Simeon explains that this ride is rather different from existing immersive tunnels. “We wanted to have an immersive tunnel in pirate theme, with vehicles shaped like a ship rather than a truck. And we wanted a real scene in the loading station. When you board the vehicle, you see a scene on your left with projections which creates more depth. After the scene, the gates open and you enter the tunnel where the ship is actually surrounded by a water basin. And when you return to the station, there is also a final scene where characters from the ride show up once again.”

“For this ride we also had a generic pirate theme when we presented the ride concept,” Simeon says. “When the concept was sold to a customer in Mexico, he wanted a more specific storyline which was based upon the local pirate’s tales. We used the existing fortress in the Mexican town of Bacalar as inspiration for developing a storyline for the entire ride.” The ride is completely designed and was sold to the Amikoo Theme Park, which is still in development.

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Concept art of Black Storm Bay, a new generation Immersive Tunnel developed with Simworx for Amikoo Theme Park (Mexico)

Looking back – Lessons learned from earlier projects

Apart from projects which are realized or still in development, there are obviously also projects which were stopped or not executed in the way the designer might have hoped. We wondered to what extent Jan Maarten and Simeon could tell about projects they are disappointed about, or lessons they learned from mistakes in projects.

“I know one, but I can’t tell you,” says Simeon laughing.

“Well, to me the most disappointing project was Adventure World Warsaw which suddenly came to a stop,” says Jan Maarten. “It would have been the first park which we could fully design, just like the Wanda park we have in China now. Something similar happened in Turkey. For these projects you work with a large team for more than a year on developing rides based on local stories. When such a project is suddenly cancelled that has an effect on the morale of the team and sometimes for the company’s financial position. Eventually, when you evaluate such a project, you see that generally the business plan of the park was not strong enough. Therefore, we started working on business plans together with the customer, to reduce the possibility of such a sudden stop of the project.” However, Jan Maarten adds that a business plan is not the same as a feasibility study and Jora Vision is not making those. “These detailed reports are pessary to external investors and banks and we don’t want to compete with these specialists,” according to Jan Maarten.

“It is always demotivating to see a project of yours being cancelled,” adds Simeon. “But over the last few years, the percentage of the projects we do that is actually realized became rather high. That is not only very motivating, but you also learn a lot from that. Only when a project is actually realized, you can see potential flaws in your design which you can prevent in your next design. By realizing projects you are getting better and better in your work.”

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Concept art of Adventure World Warsaw

When asked for examples of such lessons that Simeon and Jan Maarten learned, Simeon refers to Vulcans Sacrés. “We had problems with the loading times there, but because of the tight schedule of the entire ride the vehicles would stack before the station. To solve that we had to extend the times of each scene, including music, media, animatronics and so on. So, the change in loading times had a dramatic effect on the entire ride.”

“That was a rather big issue,” adds Jan Maarten, “but generally we see smaller flaws, things that regular guests would hardly witness. Over time we also learned a lot about special effects: what we can or cannot do with smoke, what about sound design? We learned a lot of the details in all our projects. Every time we need to decide how deep we need to go into detail for a new ride; what does the visitor see and what won’t the visitor see, that kind of things.”

“One thing about special effects was in Bazyliszek,” tells Simeon. “Here we tried to project scenes on blacklight. That is already experimental and we eventually made it work, but in hindsight we could have used a different projector. Because projecting on a black screen makes the projection more grey. Now we know that for a next project.”

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The blacklight projections of Bazyliszek in Legendia (Poland)

During this interview Jan Maarten and Simeon told us a lot about the aspects that they came across when designing some of their a dark rides. We would like to thank them very much for their open answers to our questions and the confidence they gave us to write our very first interview about their company. We would have loved to visit the workshop and see how dark rides are produced, but due to COVID-19 it was impossible for us to visit Jora Vision in real life. Maybe we come back later to visit the workshop and check on the state of the ongoing projects like Pushkin. (Perhaps) to be continued…

© 2020 Dark Ride Database
Interview by Johan, Erik and Luc
Article by Erik and Luc
Images provided by Jora Vision