Creating a visual guide for a boat ride attraction is both a challenging and rewarding task. The last boat ride I designed was Pirates of the Caribbean in Shanghai Disney Resorts, where the story takes the audience both underwater and into a naval battle on the surface – two distinct environments each with their own unique lighting. In the case of this most recent project: the Na-vi River Journey in Disney World (adapted from the film Avatar), everything was set at night in the dense jungle of Pandora, with most of the light coming from the bioluminescent plants and other life forms on the planet.

Artistically, there are two key challenges when designing a boat ride. The first is to create a fully immersive experience while simultaneously drawing the viewers attention to specific areas. A boat ride is intended to be a very immersive experience; while the boat is controlled by an underwater track, the audience has the freedom to look in all directions. So a scene has to be both dynamic and full of detail, but also has to have specific points of visual interest that easily catch the viewer’s eye.

To work through this, I need to evaluate just how much of the jungle actually needs to be visualized so not to overwhelm the audience with detail, but maintain the lush feel. I have learned as a concept artist that a lot of visual information can be “suggested” with the right composition, light, and colors, and the brain can quite successfully fill in the gaps.I also need to create a visual and emotional buildup throughout the ride, as the boat navigates from one scene to the next. The compositions need to flow effortlessly from one to the other, but also increase the audience’s excitement as their journey progresses. In the case of Na-vi River Journey, as the audience travels, the colors become more and more intense.

The second challenge is working with a unique set of technical requirements, such as visualizing the clearances needed so that the audience can’t touch elements of the set, or the placement and shapes of projection screens for animations that will give life to the ride. Over many years of working on boat rides, I’m now much more familiar with the process and greatly enjoy the challenge of finding pleasing and practical solutions given the restraints. I get an opportunity to work with two different part of my brain – both the aesthetic and the structural – and it is rewarding to see the paintings become a tangible attraction. They’re no longer just images; they become a combination of visuals, sounds, and FX that creates an immersive and emotional experience.

The secrecy and length of time to see these projects come to life, however, are a frustrating yet necessary part of the process. But having seen the ride in it’s full form, I have to admit it’s well worth the long wait.

If a trip to Disney World is not in the cards for you, fret not! Thankfully, there’s a high resolution walk(boat)-through for us all to enjoy: