All over the world, children grow up watching Sesame Street. With adaptations of the series broadcast in more than 140 countries, almost everyone is familiar with characters like Elmo, Bert, Ernie and Cookie Monster. However, apart from a select few people, hardly anyone has ever been told how to get to Sesame Street themselves. But since a couple of years, a way to visit the famous street has been available in Spanish theme park resort PortAventura. The park already featured a Sesame Street-zone, and decided to add a more immersive experience by constructing a dark ride with the same theme. They turned to Sally Dark Rides, who delivered Sesame Street – Street Mission turn-key for the park to open in 2019. Team DRdb had the opportunity to walk through the dark ride with its lead designer Rich Hill.
PortAventura has been a legendary theme park from the moment it opened, back in 1995. Initiated by famous theme park operators such as Anheuser-Busch and Tussauds Group, the park was exceptionally carefully designed. It included surprising vistas to eye-catching rides like the major Dragon Khan roller coaster and lush planting immersing visitors in lands like Mexico, Polynesia and China. The shares of Tussauds Group were acquired by Universal in 1998, after which the park was known as Universal’s PortAventura until the group sold their interest in 2004.
Over time, the Polynesian area was partly changed to become a children’s area called SesamoAventura, which is entirely dedicated to Sesame Street. In the back of this area, opposite the train station and close to the impressive camelbacks of the Shambhala hyper coaster, we find PortAventura’s only dark ride to date: Sesame Street – Street Mission. The location created a bit of a challenge for Sally Dark Ride’s design team, since it has a rather elongated shape. Between the supports of Shambala and the railway line, a stretch of land 30 metres wide remained, which was the allotted space for the new ride. The design team, led by Rich Hill (now Chief Creative Officer of Sally Dark Rides), had to create an immersive family-friendly ride on this stretch of land. And in this case ‘family-friendly’ truly means that the smallest children as well as their parents should fully enjoy the ride.
Sally Dark Rides functioned as turn-key manufacturer for this ride, meaning that they were the only contractor for PortAventura. The team worked closely together with Sesame Workshop, the company behind the production of the TV series. “The complete ride concept was designed from blue sky, led by me and the Sally Dark Rides team, in coordination with Sesame Workshop and PortAventura,” as Rich Hill said during our tour. Sally managed other companies to build specific elements they designed for the attraction.
In this case, ETF Ride Systems delivered the ride vehicles and Alterface the interactive system. Moreover, sets and scenery were delivered by Sim Leisure and BMP, while Bon Art Studio created the CG Media. Jon Baker orchestrated the music score, based on the well-known tunes from the TV show music. The animatronics were produced in coordination with Jim Henson Creature Shop in New York. Sally Dark Rides built all of the animated set pieces, show control and programming from their studio in Jacksonville (FL, U.S.A.).
Since even the smallest children, the target group of the television series, should be able to enjoy the ride, the design team decided to keep both the storyline and the effects relatively simple. Although the chosen vehicles could move in any surprising direction, Sesame Street – Street Mission just consists of a continuous ride winding through Sesame Street, avoiding sudden changes of direction. In most scenes, theming consists of a setting with physical props, complemented with a large 3D projection screen fitting in the setting. Visitors ride in taxi cabs down the street, using gaming devices to ‘collect’ virtual cookie crumbs on the screens or practical ones in the sets and scenery – the game is simple. Sally Dark Rides however left one surprise for the finale of the ride, which we will describe later.
Getting to Sesame Street
“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?!” This music welcomes us, and all other PortAventura visitors, when entering the building housing the dark ride Sesame Street – Street Mission. Approaching the building, we see a series of cartoony façades, creating an L-shape that encompasses two sides of a little square. In the middle of the square is a fountain, decorated with a statue of Detective Grover. In the left wing of the façade, one monumental building stands out, welcoming us to see what’s inside.
We meet Rich Hill after closing time, just outside the ride, from where he takes us inside to find our way to Sesame Street. The indoor queue area is pretty large, and decorated partly as if it is the office of Detective Grover. He is the main character of the ride, and we join him on his latest quest. Detective Grover is one of the ‘roles’ that Grover, one of the Sesame Street characters, tends to play in the TV show: a very enthusiastic, though not entirely careful detective.
In his office, we see a web of clues, bookshelves, but also an (apparently) indispensable dart board and more little gags. One corner of the queue room is decorated as city hall, with a balcony on the side. “There is a 10-minute queue pre-show experience, featuring Detective Grover in the city hall,” tells Rich. “This is where we get our mission directed, and we understand that the Big Cookie has gone missing. He is asking us to help him on the investigation to find where it went. We have to follow a trail of cookie crumbs that leads us to the Big Cookie.” The pre-show experience is achieved partly by projections, where we see Detective Grover as a silhouette inside the city hall, and partly by an animatronic moving along the balcony. For international guests, the whole experience is translated in three languages on screens.
For riders who still missed the message and the mission direction, the last part of the queue area is decorated with a large poster to announce ‘Big Cookie Day’, though a banner stuck on top of the original poster indicates that the cookie parade has been postponed since the Big Cookie has gone missing. When we see the poster, we are almost at the boarding station where the vehicles by ETF Ride Systems, decorated as taxi cabs, await riders for their ride down Sesame Street. During daily operation, this is also the place where riders receive their 3D-glasses. When we are at the station after closure, we notice that the music playing here, which is hardly heard throughout the day, is actually pretty loud when all other noises are absent. During our walk through the ride, we notice that each scene has another cheerful track based on famous Sesame Street-songs, something we did not realise during our earlier rides.
Our stroll down Sesame Street
Normally, riders would ride through Sesame Street in the taxi cabs from this point, just like we did ourselves earlier this day. However, tonight we can walk through the ride and see all the scenes at our own leisure, with Rich describing to us how all the details were made. Unfortunately, the projection screens were turned off during our stroll, and we were, reasonably, not allowed to photograph entire scenes with the projections showing a test image. However, since the ride uses a combination of projection and physical sets, there was still a lot to see and photograph inside (and of course we already took pictures during our earlier rides, with permission).
Our first stop along the way is 123 Sesame Street. This is the house where Elmo lives, along with Bert and Ernie. In this scene, riders would usually meet with Elmo, who is projected hanging out from his window – but tonight, no Elmo appears as the projections are turned off. We can see Detective Grover however, who appears as an animatronic on the steps in front of the building and normally chats with Elmo to find clues about the missing cookie. “This scene is created using projection mapping, animatronics, show action elements mixed with sets and scenery,” as Rich explains. The stairs and the door are indeed physical sets, while the rest of the building consists of projection. “The virtual and practical elements combine to create a prefect representation of 123 Sesame Street.”
The job of the riders is to collect the cookie crumbs appearing on the projection, as they are clues to find the missing cookie. Moreover, riders score points depending on the size of the crumb (or clue) they target. “Each rider has their own colour coded ‘clue collector’ gaming device,” Rich explains. “As they play the game, the reactions of each target are matched to their individual colour, so they know instantly what cookie crumbs they have collected.”
However, as we learned during our earlier interview with Alterface, their shooting system allows for shooting at both digital and practical targets. That feature was also used for Sesame Street – Street Mission, as we can see already in this first scene. Here, we find a street light that actually lights up in the colour of the person shooting it. “Besides collecting virtual crumbs from the screens, turning lights on and off is also a lot of fun and highly visual. So aiming at a street light might cause a big effect!”
More gags and details can be found to the left of 123 Sesame Street, where we find the bike shop and a newspaper kiosk. “Inspired by actual props from the TV show, we replicated many of them for the attraction,” Rich explains. “You can see some of the show designers featured in the newsstand. It’s a lot of fun: The Gallo Gum for example, that’s one of the show’s scenic designers, Jim Gallo. We put a lot of granular detail into the ride for accuracy and repeat ridership. When you’re driving down Sesame Street, you may not see all these details at first glance, but guests will catch more as they ride it over and over.”
Continuing our stroll from 123 Sesame Street, we pass by Big Bird’s nest. This is a transitional scene where vehicles do not stop, but it still contains a lot of details and practical targets to collect. “When you collect this cookie crumb in the mailbox, the box closes and the flag comes up. Other cookie crumbs drop out of sight when they’re hit. It’s a lot of fun, these practical targets!”
After passing along Big Bird’s nest, we enter the playground. This is where we find Big Bird, appearing as an animatronic, while the playground consists partly of actual sets and partly of a large projection screen. “In the playground, we introduce a ‘freshly cut grass’ scent,” Rich tells us. “This makes it feel very outdoorsy, it’s a nice pleasant smell.” Then, when we pass along Big Bird, Rich suddenly moves close to the figure, saying that there is something he needs to do. He starts moving around the foot of the animatronic, adjusting its position. “His foot was in the wrong position,” he explains when he is done. “It was seriously driving me nuts, every time I’ve ridden it over the last week. So, now, that’s so much better!” Here we see the designer taking care of his own creation up to the finest detail.
Now, back to the ride’s storyline. “This is the playground, it is where Detective Grover falls out of a tree, he is looking for the Big Cookie. Meanwhile, we are collecting cookie crumbs on the digital screens, but when we turn, there are physical targets as well.” Rich points at a physical set, functioning as transitional scene before entering the next scene. “This is Abby Cadabby’s garden, and these are again perfect reproductions of the TV show. We have our cookie crumb targets, all practical targets, and when we collect them, they disappear.”
“Now we enter Hooper’s Store,” Rich says as we walk into the next scene. “This is where Bert and Ernie are cleaning up cookie crumbs. Detective Grover arrives, directing us to look for clues throughout the store, but making a bit of a mess himself. We blast boxes and cans off the shelves, revealing more cookie crumbs to collect. Again, there are lots of fun practical elements we can activate as well: you can turn on the milkshake machine, and open the cash register.”
Here too, we find both physical sets and projections. The counter, with milkshake machine and cash machine, is a physical set and Bert and Ernie are animatronics. However, the shelves of the store behind them are all projection mapped. While walking through the store, we notice that there are also physical shelves on the opposite side of the room, which would be the side riders generally don’t see. Rich explains: “In dark rides, we sometimes define ‘show’ and ‘non-show’ sides. In Sesame Street however, it was important to have theming all around.”
After Grover made a mess in Hooper’s Store, he wants to get himself cleaned up. That is why we follow him into the laundrette. Here the projection plays a key role, as we see Grover entering the store and trying to open a washing machine. However, when the machine finally opens, it blasts out a wave of washing water, creating a whole mess in the store and getting Grover completely wet. “Real fun scene, isn’t it? This scene is mainly digital, the whole store front is projection mapped. The scenic Laundrette sign is a targeted elements, as well as a few practical the cookie crumbs on top. And, as you can smell, we introduced a new scent here… the smell of clean clothes.”
We continue our stroll and we end up outside Count von Count’s castle. The castle is made of physical sets on both sides, with a projection screen in the middle. The Count appears on the projection screen, but we also see an animatronic of Abby Caddaby flying in front of the castle. This scene acts as the bridge between the traditional ride through Sesame Street and the finale where riders actually fly through the castle, accomplished by large projection screens. The first of these scenes is entered by riding through the large castle doors, also covered by digital media.
“Count von Count helps us add up clues in his courtyard, but has trouble opening the front doors of the castle to let us in,” Rich explains. “Luckily, Abby Cadabby is there to help us out by zippity-zapping the front doors open. As we ride through the doors, entering the castle, the magic affects us too. It causes our vehicle to levitate and fly! This is a big effect: from here we use the wrap-around screen with 3D projections synced with vehicle motion to create an amazing, high-flying finale the surprises guests every time.”
“It’s a great space, right?” Rich says, as we walk into the next room. Here we find the first of two large dome projection screens that are used to create the flying finale of the ride. Rich is definitely right, the room is huge, about twice the size of the Hooper Store scene for example. He explains how these scenes are designed to fully immerse riders in their flight through the castle. “In these wrap-around projections, there is a lot of movement on the screen, and you feel as if you are really flying. But actually, we’re right in the middle of the screen, and all the vehicle is doing is rotating – yawing slightly to the left, slightly to the right. No propulsion in any direction, nor tilting. You know, when you can capture people’s sight lines, from side to side, you can completely control their perception of movement.”
From the first dome projection, we walk into the second dome projection scene. “At this point, we bounce out of the Count’s castle and drop down into Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. From my childhood watching the show, I always wanted to see what was inside Oscar’s Can. Now, this is our chance! Once we are inside we meet Oscar and Cookie Monster… and – spoiler alert – it was Cookie Monster who took the Big Cookie. He didn’t know it was bad. [deep voice] Cookie Monster very very sorry.” This second wrap-around projection does not include any movement, like the flight through the castle, though the large media screen offers a lot of cookie crumbs to collect – a final chance for riders to score points.
We move out of Oscar’s trash can into the final scene. “At this point, we have solved the case, we’re about to exit. The entire cast of Sesame Street is assembled to tell us how good we did, and thank us for saving the big Cookie Day parade. So now the parade can continue! Abby Cadabby creates a new big cookie, and Grover takes credit for solving the case. As he leans against the big cookie, it rolls away and (of course) Cookie Monster chases after it. And we yell at him NOT to eat the big cookie again.”
This scene includes on-ride photos of each guest, together with their scores. Apart from the digital media, the scene also includes a last way to immerse riders in the happy end of finding the Big Cookie. “Do you smell the cookies? Yummy, right? So we use three different smells throughout the ride: grass in the playground, fresh laundry at the laundromat, and here we have delicious chocolate chip cookies!”
Before ending our stroll down Sesame Street, there is one last thing that we wanted to ask Rich about. Because, there should be some super special bonus target in the ride. “That’s right, there is one such target in there! But watch out in case you’ve already found it, because its location may change the next time you ride it.”
Now that we have arrived back at the disembarking station, decorated with large banners of the Cookie Day Parade, it’s time to say goodbye to Rich. We feel really privileged to have been able to walk down Sesame Street and hear from the designer himself what cute little details can be found there. It is amazing to see how much effort is taken to get every detail right, in the same way as in the TV show. It gives a nice charming feeling to the ride, you can tell a lot of attention to detail was put into all of the sets. For us personally, it made us appreciate Street Mission even more. Nevertheless, we already loved the ride straight after riding, because of its fun way of playing, nice combination of projection and sets, and the surprising flying finale. We again like to thank Rich Hill, not just for the tour, but also for creating an amazing dark ride.
Visit by Luc and Erik
Article written by Luc
Pictures by Luc, unless indicated otherwise