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Designer of water attraction at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park on greening our fun

Theme parks are not usually considered eco-friendly, with high-octane rides using huge amounts of water, fast-food kiosks and bins overflowing with paper cups, cans and plastic bottles.

But that image is changing. In the past few years, park operators have been opting for more eco-efficient operations, including non-polluting fireworks, LED bulbs and rides using recycled shower water from their adjacent hotels.

“These places occupy large parts of the land, take up large amounts of natural resources, consume vast quantities of energy and generate huge volumes of waste,” says Jim Scheidel, chairman of the board of the Cuningham Group in Los Angeles, whose clients include Disney, Universal Studios, Lotte World in Seoul, the Wanda Group in China, and Ocean Park in Hong Kong. “The question is – how do you mitigate the bad influences?”

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It’s a question, he says, that more and more theme park operators are asking themselves, conceding that while they may not be “the champions of sustainability, they are the entertainment leaders who are initiating change”.

Eight years ago, Scheidel founded Tess – the Themed Entertainment Sustainability Summit, an annual gathering of executives from entertainment and theme parks who met most recently in Shanghai in June, just before the newest Disneyland opened there, to discuss cutting waste and energy use.

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China, says Scheidel, is a hot market for advances in sustainability, because of the growth in leisure entertainment centres there. “We are hoping to show them what they can do, what the competition is doing.”

It starts at site selection, he says; building city-sized destinations while minimising the environmental impact, using as many native plants as possible in landscaping, and building close enough to population centres to avoid construction of huge car parks.

Blending in with the topography was the priority at Ocean Park’s HK$2.9 billion water park in Tai Shue Wan, scheduled to open in late 2018.

“Our philosophy in designing the water park is we wanted it to really just nudge, nestle and sit into the valley,” says Walter Kerr, executive director of the project development division at Ocean Park. “You want to look at it and say, ‘This has always been here’. It should really feel like it is in intimate harmony with the rest of the valley.”

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Kerr says that other steps to minimise the future park’s carbon footprint include “blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors”. Some water rides and slides are being created primarily for outdoor summer-time use but there will also be indoor water attractions and rides.

Buildings will incorporate large glass panels that can be opened to let in cool sea breezes, which should cut back on air conditioning.

New steps are being implemented at the existing marine park, too. To reduce carbon emissions, the park uses solar-powered small vehicles and has arranged with private companies to convert food waste into fish meal. Old cooking oil is used in biodiesel production, drinking straws are discouraged, and seafood cooked and served on site is from sustainable sources. In addition, the paper products are from Forest Stewardship Council sources, and the gift shops sell 100 per cent organic cotton T-shirts.

The Shekou Sea World Plaza in Shenzhen, a project of architecture firm CallisonRTKL in Los Angeles, is also an example of ecological thinking. Thefour-hectare site is centred on an ocean liner, the Minghua, which was launched by late French president Charles de Gaulle in 1962.

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“It’s located in what was a very industrial part of China, and has acted as a catalyst for bringing back that neighbourhood,” says Amber Richane, head of performance driven design at CallisonRTKL. “In any other circumstances, the ship would have been chopped up and put in a landfill. Instead, we have found another use for it, that people can enjoy.”

CallisonRTKL is also working on the retail, dining and entertainment aspects of Bluewaters Island, a man-made mixed-use island under construction off the coast of Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai. The place will boast the world’s largest observation wheel, use long-lasting LED lightbulbs and feature native and drought-resistant landscaping.

In parks in the US, organic and locally grown produce is appearing on menus because, says Richane, customers are demanding more options than the junk food associated with a day out at a theme park.

“Dining today is considered entertainment and an important part of the theme park experience,” says Richane, saying that the major theme park names such as Disney and Universal are leading some of these changes. “Food is a big driver in sustainable operations when it’s locally grown and when leftover meals are donated to food banks or composted onsite. It’s a closed loop system.” Some of the Disney US parks, for example, recycle the oil used in making French fries to make biodiesel for park vehicles.

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Scheidel says that the theme parks of the future will be expected to incorporate energy savers: how outdoor spaces are ventilated while people wait in long lines, harvesting rainfall for use on site, the type of transportation systems that get them from the parking lot to the park, or capturing the power of the water rides to be able to pump water back up again. And, he said, these improvements are being made across the board – even in the local home-grown amusement parks.

“You’re seeing more and more of a new awareness,” he says. “And it’s moving down the line from the top names.”