The Making of IOA: Secrets of the Signage

For more than 25 years, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory —    with its many visual wonders and thematic units — has exercised the imaginations of young and young-at-heart viewers alike. Such magic-wielding worlds as Willy Wonka’s are typically confined to movie land. But movie viewing isn’t the only way to experience paradise. If you’re seeking an off-screen Eden for all ages, you might consider visiting Orlando, FL’s Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park.

Located adjacent to Universal Studios Florida ®, the billion-dollar Islands of Adventure was conceived in 1994. “We were looking for thematic content for a second park; we were looking to build large ‘islands’ that would house attractions,    restaurants and merchandise shops,” explains Steve Leff, Universal Studio Inc.’s (Los Angeles) graphics manager.
To create the park’s six islands, Universal went to great pains to find themes that appeal to both children and adults. The science-fiction/fantasy film Jurassic Park ®provided the details needed to create one island. Another island was born after Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P., La Jolla, CA, granted Universal permission to use Seuss characters. At the same time, Universal contracted with Marvel Comics, New York, to use Marvel    Super Heroes, as well as King Features, a division of the Hearst Corp., New York, to incorporate “Sunday Funnies” characters. The park’s “Port of Entry™” and “The Lost Continent™” islands are themed to reflect adventure, exploration, trading, myths and legends. From these contract agreements, Universal acquired enough content to build a new park. Steve recalls, “We wanted to go into the fantasy realm and create worlds based on the thematic properties we collected from outside sources.” To ensure the detail of each island, it took Universal approximately five years to oversee and complete the project. The park celebrated its grand opening May 28, 1999.

Jurassic Park River Adventure entrance sign

Designing the park 
Under Steve’s guidance, Universal’s seven-person graphics team created design concepts for Islands of Adventure’s more than 2,100 signs and graphics. The designers’ first task was to name the park’s attractions, restaurants and shops. Steve explains, “Many facilities had not yet been named. And since we had to design signs for these facilities, we needed to first create names to put on the signs.” Once the nomenclature was established and legally approved, the designers began creating concepts for the park’s main-identification and large-scale signs. To establish the signs’ placement on various buildings, as well as to ensure the appropriate structural and electrical components, Universal designers worked closely with outside architectural and engineering firms.
The team’s primary goal was to ensure the graphics complimented the overall theme-park environment. Steve says, “Park graphics should blend in with the facility’s overall theme. However, they should not blend in so well they go unnoticed by the visitors.” Another design goal was to differentiate the appearance of the islands while maintaining a uniform wayfinding system for the entire park.
Early planning, hard work, skill and outside help from a number of graphics-design and architectural and engineering firms allowed the Universal team to accomplish its goals and create what it considers “coffee-table-book graphics.”
Upon completing the project’s design concepts, Universal mailed letters to approximately 50 qualified sign fabricators requesting information about their shops’ size, capabilities and product  offerings. The fabricators were also asked to send photos and shop drawings of prior, heavily themed project work. From this feedback, Universal narrowed its search to 25 companies. Steve then traveled to each location and interviewed the candidates. He says, “I wanted to get a feel for the companies and select the island(s) for which they could produce the best graphics.” For example, to produce the signage for “Toon Lagoon™” and “Marvel Super Hero Island™,” Steve sought electric-sign shops. Many of the signs for these two islands incorporate fabricated aluminum, Plexiglas ®and internal neon illumination. Likewise, he sought shops with experience fabricating foam and fiberglass sculptures to complete the signage for “Seuss Landing™” and “The Lost Continent.”
The signshops were then asked to bid on the project, as well as submit technical proposals outlining how they would plan and complete the job. Once Universal received the proposals, it matched qualified fabricators with the appropriate project work. The number of sign fabricators and vendors assigned to each island was determined by the amount and type of work required.
One of the many Dueling Dragons signs

Managing sign production 
Fifteen-year-old Design Communications Ltd. (DCL), Boston and Orlando, FL, fabricated all signs for “Port of Entry” and “The    Lost Continent.” According to Steve, DCL’s proposal stood out because the company’s found-parts coordinator could visit ship yards and salvage companies to seek ship and airplane relics for “Port of Entry,” which features an adventure-and-exploration theme. Also, DCL’s foam- and fiberglass-sculpting experience made it the perfect sign fabricator for “The Lost Continent.” DCL was the only company chosen to fabricate signs for two islands.
The signshop began fabricating signs for “Port of Entry” in February 1998 and “The Lost Continent” in June 1998. Approximately 480 signs were produced for both islands. DCL President Mark Andreasson says his shop’s biggest fabrication challenge was creating so many one-of-a-kind, large-scale signs. “We’re    accustomed to producing large-scale signage — for shopping malls, stadiums and airports — which is repetitive in nature. For the Islands of Adventure project, however, we had to create many completely unique signs that were complicated to engineer and fabricate,” Mark explains.
Project management, Mark says, is the key to overcoming such fabrication challenges. To manage the Islands of Adventure job, his shop broke the project down into small parts and assembled in-house teams. Approximately half of DCL’s 110 employees worked on the project during its peak time. Any work not assigned to an in-house team was subcontracted. DCL hired approximately nine subcontractors to share the workload and more than 100 vendors to supply materials and miscellaneous items.
Good project control helps overcome any production and communication challenges that might arise when a signshop has to monitor the progress of both in-house and outside production. Mark advises that communication between shops remain open at all times. When working on a job of this size and nature, sign-makers should keep the project’s scope in mind throughout fabrication to limit rework. “It’s important for sign fabricators to encourage conceptual designers to spell out what they want. By doing so, fabricators can keep a job’s parameters from changing,” Mark says. To ensure profitability, sign manufacturers should also track a project’s every detail and cost, as well as maintain good documentation and update shop drawings.
Hogsmeade Sign....one of the newest signs at the park

Fabricating and installing the signs 
There was no cookie-cutter approach to the fabrication and installation of the 480 signs DCL produced for Islands of  Adventure. Aluminum, fiberglass, Sign•Foam high-density urethane (HDU) and natural wood were among the variety of    materials the shop used to create the theme park’s signage. Fabrication techniques included hand-carving, hand-painting, sandblasting and sculpting. In addition to being one-of-a-kind, each sign was engineered, manufactured and installed to withstand abuse from the park’s many visitors, as well as Central Florida’s humid climate and severe wind load. Mark and his crew completed fabrication and installation of all signs for “Port of Entry” and “The Lost Continent” in 12 months.
Here’s an overview of the materials, techniques and installation methods DCL used to create five of the signs for “The Lost Continent”:
Alchemy Bar: Measuring 6 feet tall, the sign incorporates an aluminum frame structure distressed to resemble aged pewter and wrought iron; cast-resin embellishments, a carved urethane sign band and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) lettersA hammered, stainless-steel mixing bowl cups a 27-liter    Pyrex™ borosilicate-glass flask, which is plastic-coated for    safety and to simulate a hand-blown appearance. A magnetic stirring device — housed within the steel mixing bowl — spins a plastic-coated steel bar inside the flask and stirs 150 pounds of    fluid. To illuminate the fluid, a neon ring is placed inside the    sign’s base enclosure. A faux-finished mounting plate and square, aluminum tube are used to support the structure.
Dragon’s Keep: The 4-foot-tall sign employs aluminum and medium-density overlay (MDO) with carved Sign•Foam. Acrylic, foam and cast resin make up the sign’s 2-foot-tall medallion. Internal neon illumination accentuates the sign’s acrylic push-through letters, which are filled with crushed amethyst. The sign’s acrylic jewel features bevel-cut edges and internal, fiber-optic illumination. The 9-foot-tall tree — in which the sign is embedded — contains a steel structure with a sculpted-foam shape. Painted, fiberglass, epoxy-coat detailing make up the construction’s outer shell.
Frozen Desert: DCL used aluminum and Sign•Foam to prepare the 7-foot-tall masterpiece. The sign’s aluminum patterns are router-cut from successive layers and filled in with cut-glass tiles. Epoxy resin holds the tiles in place. The sign hangs from steel chains attached to a 10-foot-tall aluminum support arm with a foam and fiberglass surface shaped, carved and painted to resemble aged wood. In addition, this support houses six MR-16 electrical lamps.
Oasis Coolers: An aluminum core structure and a sculpted, rigid Sign•Foam lower panel make up the 8-foot-tall sign. Its 1-inch-thick, double-sided acrylic centerpiece features a translucent cloisonné (an enamel decoration) finish. A    custom, sculpted-foam, glass- and resin-coated tapered flagpole supports the sign.
Shop of Wonders: To produce the 9-foot, 6-inch-tall sign, DCL combined aluminum and carved Sign•Foam. The lower arc’s internal, neon-illuminated, foam-carved letters are paint-filled and covered with glass beads. A translucent paint    finish on polycarbonate makes up the sign’s molded sun and moon faces. The sign’s upper arc comprises internal, neon-illuminated, colored-enamel, routed letters. A gear motor and cam device — housed in the sign’s upper arc — allow the center faces to rotate 90 degrees. The sign is affixed to a building with a square-tube steel support.
Steve admits Universal pushed the envelope in specifying the park’s signage. However, he thinks the project’s designers and fabricators overcame the challenges and produced what he considers outstanding theme-park signage. He says, “I think we’ve created the best theme park in the world. Its signage, as well as its architecture, thematic elements, lighting and rides are state of the art. And the public’s reaction has been tremendously positive.”
According to Mark, the park is a sign professional’s paradise because the signs incorporate every imaginable substrate and fabrication technique. Although DCL has worked on a number of large-scale sign projects worldwide, it considers Islands of Adventure to be its most creative and detailed work to date. Mark says, “The theme park’s environment is superior to anything else I’ve ever seen. And it’s rewarding for DCL to have been an integral part of such a tremendous project.” The only way to grasp the magnitude of this undertaking, however, is to visit Central Florida’s newest unique destination. “It’s a smorgasbord of signage,” Mark laughs.
Islands of Adventure main entrance sign

Island Designers and Fabricators 
Port of Entry: The signage for this land of adventure, exploration and trading juxtaposes crude and elaborate elements,    incorporating ship and airplane relics, as well as other salvaged    materials. Senior graphic designer: Wayne Clark, Universal Studios    Inc., Los Angeles; fabricated signs: Design Communications Ltd.    (DCL), Boston and Orlando, FL; DCL’s project manager: Karen    Gorczyca; painted graphics: Jim Neal Signs, Orlando, FL.
Seuss Landing: A wacky, irregular land inspired by the stories of Dr. Seuss, its animated signage is sculpted from foam    and fiberglass and brightly painted. Senior graphic designer:    Cathy Lloyd, Universal; main-identification signs: Jon Richards    Co., Mira Loma, CA; secondary sculpted pieces: Scenic Productions, Gainseville, FL; plaques: Graphic Systems, Orlando, FL; flags and    banners: Olympus Flag & Banner, Milwaukee.
The Lost Continent: The subtly lit signs in this land of myths and legends are sculpted, carved and textured to mimic trees, shields and stone. Senior graphic designer: Stephen Oliver, Universal; fabricated signs: DCL; DCL’s project manager: Angela    Goddard; painted graphics: Jim Neal Signs; flags and banners: Olympus Flag & Banner.
Jurassic Park: Based on the science-fiction/fantasy film, this island incorporates signage made from wood, granite and patented metals. Senior graphic designer: Wayne Clark; all sign work: Architectural Graphics Inc., Virginia Beach, VA.
Toon Lagoon: Inhabiting this island are    larger-than-life, digitally printed graphics of “Sunday Funnies”    characters, including Betty Boop, Blondie, Beetle Bailey and    Popeye. The island also features internally illuminated voice    bubbles and painted, newspaper-shaped walls. Senior graphic    designer: David Woody, Universal; fabricated signs: Heath &    Co., Oldsmar, FL, and Sightline Studios, Starke, FL; painted walls    and graphics: Adirondack Scenic, Glens Falls, NY.
Marvel Super Hero Island: Spider-Man is one of many    Marvel Super Heroes who calls this island home. The island  contains a number of aluminum-backed 3M Scotchprint graphics, which feature various lighting and neon effects. Senior graphic designer: Stephen Oliver; signs and graphics: Architectural Image Manufacturers, Atlanta; Scotchprint graphics: Visual Impessions,    Charlotte, NC.