The Construction Insiders: Episode 3

Podcast Transcript

Jason: Welcome to the latest episode of the Construction Insiders podcast, where our host, Jessica Busch, talks with industry experts about new trends, best practices, and how to successfully deliver construction projects in today’s market. Whatever your role on a project, we think you’ll find these discussions interesting and worth your time.

Jessica: Okay, well thank you Jason. This afternoon we are going to change topics a little bit, and for this episode we’re going to talk about themed entertainment, and we couldn’t think of a better person to bring in than our own Asif Parkar. He has been leading up our themed entertainment group for years, well before I got here, so it’s all I’ve known and he works on the most secretive, the most fascinating projects, I have to say, our company is in charge of and manages. So, we rarely get to sit down with him and talk about these projects because he won’t tell us a peep about them. But today I convinced him to come in and we’re going to talk this space and his very unique skillset and how that plays into these projects and getting them completed so we all can have fun at these theme parks. And you know, he’s done everything — not to brag too much about you, Asif — but everything from the Universal in Beijing, Dubai Parks and Resorts, Disney parks all over from here on the mainland to, where, over in Shanghai, I mean you handle it all over the place. So, I’m really happy that you were able to join us and come out today and hopefully we can get some good information out there.

Asif: Thanks very much, Jessica. I’m very pleased to be here, thanks for inviting me.

Jessica: Alright, so without too much time I’m just going to jump on in because I have a lot of questions for you and we have a short amount of time to get through them. So, just a little bit about, kind of giving the listener, I mean, I’ve kind of said everything about, you know, project-wise what you work on with us and all of your expertise there, but a little bit of your background and kind of what got you into this kind of very specific space of themed entertainment. It’s not something that you hear about a lot on the construction side, project management side, excuse me, so what was your background and how did you get into this space?

Asif: Okay, well, I grew up in London and I’m actually a trained quantity surveyor by background — for those of you who don’t know what quantity surveyor is, just think estimator in the U.S. — and I worked for several companies in London before attaining chartership status with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I always wondered what it would be like to work on theme parks and attractions. I tended to be more interested in projects that were complex or unique in a certain aspect and so that kind of led me to theme parks and attractions. And the folks that I spoke to, they repeatedly told me that the overwhelming majority of world-class theme parks were actually in America, so at that point I set my sights on looking for a company and seeing if one even existed that kind of focused on such a narrow scope of work in the industry.

Jessica: Right, okay.

Asif: I was fortunate enough that I came across Cumming and then, of course, even more fortunate that they made me an offer.

Jessica: Back then, did we — because you might be more of the historian with the company — did we have a themed entertainment sector or was this kind of your baby that you started, seeing the need in the industry?

Asif: We did have a skillset. Our founder, Finlay Cumming, you know he had worked for Walt Disney Imagineering back in the day, so that’s where the roots –

Jessica: So, we had history in that, ok.

Asif: Exactly.

Jessica: Makes sense, ok. Well, and so when you joined and kind of took over this group and kind of made it into what it is today, such a big part of our business is this themed entertainment sector. What were you working on then, what did those projects look like back then? Was it the Disneys and Universals, is that how we started?

Asif: Yeah, very much the first few projects were working for Disney. They might have been a small engagement where either we had some staff that were seconded on site to Disney or it could have been some estimating perhaps that was done in the offices. Could have been a variety of things, from a rehab of an existing attraction all the way up to a full attraction.

Jessica: Hm, wow okay. So what we’re talking about, this kind of unique sector, unique beast that it is, what certain, we talk about the skillset, right — what are those skills, what are those unique knowledge bits that you need, what do you look for when we’re hiring or what are the Disneys, Universals of the world looking for when they come to us?

Asif: Well, the theme park world really can be broken down into three main components —

Jessica: Ok.

Asif: Which is called facility, show, and ride. The facility really covers the base building of an attraction and most estimators can kind of capture that, it’s the steel, concrete, MEP systems and so forth, you don’t need to be a specialist to really cover that.

Jessica: So, you could be, you know, really well-versed in mixed-use, things like that, to cover that?

Asif: Exactly, and there are some nuances, whether it’s theme plaster or rock work, but that’s very easy to coach at that level. So that’s the facility components, most folks can pick that up. If you’ve been estimating for a period of time it’ll come as second nature.

Jessica: There’s similarities —

Asif: Yeah.

Jessica: Between other sectors.

Asif: For sure. Then we get into what makes these projects what they are, the magic, and that’s called show components.

Jessica: Sounds flashy.

Asif: Right? Absolutely. So, when we talk about show components, we’re talking about things like animatronics, LN2 [liquid nitrogen] systems, we’re talking about audiovisual systems, projection systems. All of these things suddenly open up and they’re a skillset that you don’t learn even if you’ve been estimating or doing project management for 30 years on non-theme park projects.

Jessica: Mm hm.

Asif: They’re very very unique to this industry.

Jessica: Ok.

Asif: And then there’s a third component which is the rides. A little bit easier to understand, of course, it’s the coasters, simulators, those types of things, but between show and ride you’ve probably got, depending on which classification systems you use, could be up to 30 to 40 divisions of work to really master this.

Jessica: Ok, so when we’re talking about these projects and bringing the ride to the visitor, there’s a lot of steps in between there. Is there some sort of, you know, universal metric for costing for building these out that is used? I know a couple podcasts ago we talked to our in-house MEP expert and he was really talking about the need for this universal, you know, published metrics so that everyone is speaking the same language. So when it comes to themed entertainment, I know we have the big giants, you know we have the regional zoos, the aquariums, things all over the place that maybe don’t walk the same walk as Disney or do things a little bit differently. Are there these universal metrics that people are using or how do people with your specialty talk the same talk? How does that work?

Asif: It’s a great question, Jessica. Typically, if I focus just a little bit on estimating, folks are wired to think in terms of cost per square foot, or cost per square meter if you’re working internationally. That approach works for, say the base building of an attraction, but it really doesn’t work when you get into show and ride. I’ll give you one small example. You could have two identical dark rides and one of them has media that costs $10 million and one has media that costs $1 million for a variety of reasons. When you divide that across the cost per square foot, it really skews the numbers and is not really a meaningful kind of metric you can use. So that’s one of the challenges. The other is there’s no real standardized chart of accounts in this industry.

Jessica: Ok.

Asif: So typically –

Jessica: Is that, is that because everything is so unique? Or is the industry just not there yet in this sector?

Asif: I think part of it, or most of it, is really down to confidentiality.

Jessica: Hm.

Asif: So, a lot of these projects, the owners really keep all the project data to themselves and so we’re in a very privileged position. In my vantage point, I get to work with all kinds of owners, all kinds of creative designers working on projects all across the world.

Jessica: Mm hm.

Asif: So, I’m able to benchmark stuff, but of course I have a constraint that I cannot share any of that kind of information.

Jessica: Right. So you’re seeing it from, you know, the 3,000 foot level and you’re able to kind of see, “Oh man, how they’re doing it here’s great,” or “Ooh, they could – lessons learned,” but you’ve signed so many NDAs that there’s —

Asif: Exactly, and I think I’ve been doing this too long because I’m not joking when I say this, I can recognize a creative designer from a color palette on a drawing.

Jessica: Really?

Asif: Yeah.

Jessica: You know who did it?

Asif: I know who uses a distinctive orange and other colors.

Jessica: Oh, how funny. Well, I guess that’s why people bring you on board, right? Cause you know down to those details. Very cool. Okay. So, you know, we talked about kind of the differences of, you know, you can’t just be a hospitality guy or mixed-use guy, and how detailed and unique this sector is. As we go into, you know, we’re entering into 2020 now, can’t believe it, how do you see the industry? I mean, as someone that has seen it for so many years through ups, downs, with the current market today, are we, are things booming in themed entertainment? Are they cautious? What is that looking like? To kind of change gears here.

Asif: Yeah, I started purely working in themed entertainment in 2008, and at that time we did have a downturn.

Jessica: I was gonna say –

Asif: A deep downturn.

Jessica: That’s a very interesting time to start in themed entertainment.

Asif: But the funny thing is, in terms of, say, investment and folks designing theme parks, a downturn doesn’t necessarily limit a theme park development. The reason for that is a theme park, a full theme park, may take seven to 10 years to go from inception to actually opening. So, a downturn sometimes is not a bad thing to happen because owners can take advantage of a very competitive market.

Jessica: Labor —

Asif: Yup

Jessica: Cheap.

Asif: Yup, great pricing and then by the time that they’ve finished with the project we’ve probably just come out of that recession.

Jessica: So, they have made a deal.

Asif: Exactly, it’s all timing.

Jessica: Life, right? Life is timing. Ok, ok, so where are they kind of at in the mix right now? Are things…

Asif: Yeah, so right now I’d say the market is buoyant, it’s been buoyant for many, many years. We’ve been fortunate in our own group that we’ve managed to work on one large project, a super project, over the last few years and I don’t see that reducing to any extent. Right now across the world there’s a lot of activity in Asia, both coasts in the U.S. have a lot of activity. California and Orlando, that’s really where our focus is at the moment, and then beyond that there’s a few interesting things happening in the Middle East.

Jessica: Really? Ok.

Asif: So, some very very big projects, giga projects that they’ve been termed, and they’ll probably push the envelope a little bit, push the bar in terms of what’s possible. So that’s, that’s quite exciting.

Jessica: So, in terms of, you know, the most creativity, something that’s completely different, where are those projects happening right now? For you, what are you most excited at? What are you looking at and like, “Wow, that’s something”?

Asif: Yeah, so I think one of the fascinating things about working on theme parks and attractions is that innovation and the fact that people are always trying to do something different, technology moves as well, so being able to harness something like virtual reality or RFID technology and so forth, so that makes it really interesting. It makes it tough as well to manage because a lot of these things have never been done before so there’s no proof of concept.

Jessica: No proof of concept and you personally must always be having to learn and challenge yourself and read up and just constantly be trying to get that knowledge as well to stay the expert that you are.

Asif: Exactly, it’s an ongoing process. I mean, I don’t know anything, there’s way too much divisions for me to know everything, but it keeps me on my toes and I always tell my team as well, “Listen, just try to pick up a new kind of division of work, learn about it, become a master of it, and shortly over a period of time you’ll become an expert.” It’s a big step to be able to manage a single attraction and then a complete theme park one land, and then a complete theme park, and then the most extreme project we had which was managing multiple theme parks, as in Dubai Parks and Resorts. Three theme parks were built, including a water park at the end, all at the same time. Never been done before, incredible.

Jessica: Wow, yeah. Yeah. Talk about a challenge. Well, very cool. Kind of again talking about where we see things going and what’s going on around the world, what are – other than just innovation, are there other goals that you see these clients having that are similar, or are their goals generally different from each other? What do you see in what the client is looking for and with the market and interest of the visitor today?

Asif: Well, I think ultimately theme park operators are there to earn a profit and to earn a profit they need to get guests at the turnstiles and into the park, so they’re always trying to do something. Might be the biggest, the windiest, the coolest, the fastest — something, some kind of hook to get people to go to their park. Look at Orlando. Look at how many different theme parks there are and yet, new ones will appear there. That’s because you get such a dump of people there that they’re all fighting, they all have options there. So, I think that’s pretty incredible and that’s happening right around the world, really. There isn’t really even a patch of earth that doesn’t have even a regional park at this moment, you know, so there’s lots of plans out there.

Jessica: So, people still are getting out of their homes, they’re still getting excited. You talked about, you know, you talked about Orlando. Do you see that a lot, where there’s a region, a city, that just really becomes a hub versus having something spread out across different cities? Why having a hub versus having it spread out, you’d think that — I can see pros for both and cons for both.

Asif: Yeah, I think Orlando is very much a unique case. Look, you get whatever it is, 40 million-plus visitors a year to that region, but typically, honestly, I get a lot of phone calls where a prospective developer will say they want to do a theme park in, and I’ll just pick on California for a second, and they want to do it in California and I ask a couple of questions: “Well, why California?” And often it’s because they live there. Well, that’s not a very good business reason to be building a theme park. These things are difficult enough as it is. So, I think Orlando is the exception, but the reason it gets so much interest is just because you have so many people or people that go there that obviously understand theme parks, so if there’s a new theme park for them to try, they’re more kind of educated to try it.

Jessica: Yeah, okay. So kind of on that note, when we’re talking about where are the theme parks located, what’s coming up, kind of planning for the future and seeing where it goes, what are some of the most interesting kind of lessons learned from these projects around the world that you’ve seen? I don’t know if you have like your top three or five, but I’m sure that would be kind of interesting to talk through because I’m sure you’ve seen some crazy things, you’ve seen some “what are you doing?” things…

Asif: Sure, well in terms of a trend that’s happening, you know, we’ve spoken a lot about attractions and theme parks, but when you talk about themed environments, it’s not just about theme parks. I was talking to someone the other day that spoke about needing creative input at medical facilities. And when you think about it, yeah, that’s a horrible experience for many people, right? To go in and have some surgery, so why not make that a more pleasant experience? We’ve already gone through that cycle in airports, but they’re doing a lot of that in the retail environment, so this whole aspect about improving the customer experience is not something that’s necessarily unique to the theme park world.

Jessica: Yeah, so they’re taking aspects of the flash and the visuals and all of that, now you’re saying that’s transferring to everything down to healthcare.

Asif: Yeah, yup, yup, absolutely, it’s all about leaving people with smiles on their faces after they visit –

Jessica: The doctor.

Asif: Yeah.

Jessica: After they get their flu shot. After they have surgery. The dentist, well that’s, the dentist could use some of this. So okay. So, what are some of those lessons learned?

Asif: So, lessons learned — listen, there are many, but there’s a few things that come up repeatedly. The first one, I would say, is, look, the easiest way, by far the easiest way, to lose financial control of a project during the early stages is down to pure building program. Gross floor area. If you build more, if you increase the size of a building, of course you’re going to add cost, and as obvious as that sounds, you’d be surprised how many projects we work on where there isn’t enough focus on that during the early stages. So that’s one really easy thing to fix, but it happens from project to project. Things will always increase because you’ll get additional input from the stakeholders, operations, or safety, or just for guest experience, but having a mechanism where adjustments to GFA (ground floor area) is actually managed and approved, I think that’s definitely something that can be improved.

Jessica: And so it sounds, I mean you’re quite passionate about that.

Asif: I’ve seen too many projects that have stalled because of it.

Jessica: And so it sounds like that in itself is a reason that coming in so early, someone with your skillset that has seen all these projects, is really important to really get a grasp on that from the start.

Asif: Yeah, absolutely. I would say that we add most value during the earliest stages of design because we’ve got so much experience that we don’t need a fully developed set of design documents to have an opinion on scope, schedule, or budget.

Jessica: And you can see where it’s going to go, you’ve been there a million times.

Asif: Exactly. I mean I’ll give one small example. I worked on a project in Brazil and on that project, it was a corporate center that had high-tech components. So, the owner actually hired a local QS, a quantity surveyor, and we did our own estimate from the U.S. We don’t have an office there, so we used our tried and trusted method of researching the marketplace. What happened on that project was that our numbers were higher than the local quantity surveyor’s and initially that caused some concern because they felt that we didn’t have a grasp on the market. But as the design developed, our numbers stayed the same, but the local quantity surveyor’s number actually kept creeping up.  

Jessica: Kept increasing.

Asif: So the reason that that happened was that we were able to identify things and allow for plenty of things that hadn’t yet made it to the drawings. The quantity surveyor did pick that up, but only when they started appearing on the drawings.

Jessica: And that’s something you know that’s so interesting, we see that across sectors, right? “You don’t know our region or you don’t know this,” and it’s like, we don’t, we can do all that research, we got that. That’s fine. But we’ve seen 500 of these projects where your local team, this is their first or second one they’ve seen, and we know what comes next, we have our forecasting team also looking at the market side of things, like what’s the cost going to change, is there going to be a fluctuation, is there going to be a correction, so even those little outside things that we have our eyes on. So, it’s interesting when things like that happen. You don’t want to go to bat with the local team, but it’s like, hey, we just have a little bit more experience with this.

Asif: Yeah, actually —

Jessica: We’ve seen this before.

Asif: It even comes across in the questions. Let’s take the example of an attraction. If you don’t have enough experience on an attraction, you don’t even know to ask, “How many minutes of media does this have? Do we have show action equipment? Is there show control?” You won’t even know to ask those questions.

Jessica: Right. So what’s another good one that you’ve seen, that you’re like, “Oof, gotta avoid that”?

Asif: Actually, I’ll pick on one that happens at the end. Most clients ask for close-out reports.

Jessica: Ok.

Asif: And, you know, there’s a perception that you do that at the end of a project, right? You know, you’ve got everything’s done, you’ve put a nice neat bow on it.

Jessica: It’s in the name, “close-out” report.

Asif: My opinion is, don’t leave it ‘til the end.

Jessica: Really?

Asif: Do it as you go along. Capture the data. Whatever you need. Capture it as you go along. It’ll be more meaningful, because if you capture it as you go along, people will check it and that’s when sanity checks will be done. And then at the end, you know, if you need to tweak something or go back and get a final, that’s relatively easy to do. But this concept of doing it right at the end, it doesn’t work. People are focused on doing their next job. It becomes a “check the box” exercise. That’s definitely something that I would recommend. Just do it as you go along.

Jessica: And it seems like there would just be more detail, there would be, it’s not being rushed at the end, that there would be a lot of benefit to, just as you said, having those checks and balances along the way.

Asif: Yeah, and people are invested in giving you the right information at that point because if you check it along the way, the project is live! So you actually get the real data.

Jessica: Right, huh, interesting. Ok, so not to take too much of your time, but since you are the themed entertainment guy, what is your favorite ride? What do you enjoy most personally about the industry and why are you still doing it?

Asif: Well, let’s see. When it comes to favorite rides, the top place has been knocked off by various rides that have come out in recent years. It used to be Indiana Jones for me.

Jessica: Ok.

Asif: Until I did Forbidden Journey.

Jessica: Ok.

Asif: And then I went to Orlando and did Right of Passage and that’s just number one for me at the moment. I don’t want to give too much away, I think guests just have to…

Jessica: For all the junkies out there going this holiday season.

Asif: And in terms of what I like most, I tell you, when I visit a theme park, to this day when I go, what I like most is going with someone that has not been to the park or attraction, always.

Jessica: Really?

Asif: I just love seeing their reactions and whether it’s Soaring at Disney, whether it’s going to Knott’s Berry Farm, or one of my favorites is the reveal moment in Diagon Alley in Orlando, again I won’t say any more about that, you guys will need to research it.

Jessica: Don’t ruin it. Very cool, ok. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about or bring up that maybe people out there in the industry, whether they’re an owner or a team that’s been assigned to one of these new rides, what would they want to hear?

Asif: Yeah, I think what I’d say — look, to be able to provide project management or estimating for these types of projects is not necessarily a career path that a lot of people even know exists. So, if you have an industry interest and you want to explore something in this industry, there are some great organizations out there, the TEA, IAAPA, Blue Loop, and then if you’re not put off by learning, being a sponge, absorbing as much as you can, you’re not fazed by working on projects that don’t have nice neat square lines, then maybe the theme park world might be something for you. It’s high intensity, high octane, but I tell you at the end of it there’s a lot of satisfaction with being able to do something like this because not many can.

Jessica: Well, awesome. Thank you for sitting down with us and hopefully this was informative and entertaining for other people that have an interest in this sector as well.

Asif: Alright, well thanks so much Jessica.

Jessica: Alright, we’ll talk soon, thanks Asif.

Asif: Alright.

Jason: If you enjoyed this episode of Construction Insiders, we encourage you to check out our website at, that’s Where you can find our full knowledge library under the Insights tab. It’s all great stuff, we’re really passionate about it, and we hope you’ll check it out. Thanks for listening.