Architecture for kids: blueprint for a green theme park

Too bad SeaWorld won't commit to more than PR on their theme park.

by Rebecca Grijalva with Platt/Whitelaw Architects


t all began with a dream, a day dream. The homework assignment for the fifth- grade students in Mrs. Becky Reid's class at Sunset View Elementary was to daydream and imagine the perfect theme park ride. Their mission statement was to use earth-friendly design principles that reflect SeaWorld's commitment to the environment and to create an exciting and educational experience for all visitors and employees. The goal was to design a new companion theme park, next to SeaWorld, that compliments but doesn't copy and educates visitors about the importance of taking care of our earth.

    Armed with their imaginations and first hand experience from a recent field trip to SeaWorld, the students put on their Imagineer hats and brainstormed to make their dreams into miniature magic. The term Imagineer was invented by Walt Disney to describe the “idea people” of a theme park design team. Imagineers include a storyteller, who inspires the idea, combined with illustrators, engineers, architects and film designers to make the story a reality. Being an Imagineer comes naturally to today's children, who are experts in building ideas with legos, tecknics, robotics and computers.

A blueprint for building a story


    Guided by Rebecca Grijalva, a parent and designer with Platt/Whitelaw Architects, the students learned that the “theme” in theme park design refers to the stories each ride tells. A “dark ride” is one that is completely indoors using virtual reality and motion simulators to set the theme in motion. The BEEP program combined a Blueprint for a Green Theme Park with San Diego Unified's Blueprint for Student Success, with a focus on literacy.

    First, the students arranged their theme ride ideas into sequences on a storyboard, just like real Imagineers. Some students started with an idea and remained true to their story. Others moved through variations and alterations on their ideas. Other literacy activities included comparing and contrasting the ordering principles of other theme parks, writing a commercial to advertise their ride and researching and writing an evaluation of a green building. Math was used to measure the theme ride's dimensions, square footage and cubic volume. Science lessons dealt with the earth friendly use of energy, air and water.

    Other discussions centered on sustainable development concepts from the Earth Summit in Rio, planning topics like transportation, traffic and parking, natural habitat conservation, where to put the naturally cleaning waste water treatment ponds designed like the ones found in Arcada, California, and what to do about the problems associated with the former toxic dump next door to the park.

It is easy to be green


    “Why is it tan color and not green?” asked fifth grader Eddie Gallagher while on a tour of the City of San Diego Environmental Services Department, located in the Ridgehaven Green Demonstration Building. He soon found out that green means more than paint color. It is the term architects use to describe earth-friendly building environments. The tour ended with students feeding their apple cores to worms in the compost bin. A few of the students used the ides from the worms, or vermiculture, in their theme park ride designs in the form of fast-food for creatures underground.

    Driven by their daydreams and the spark of ideas, the stories ignited into magical schemes, from two dimensional story to three dimensional fun. Ask most children what their favorite SeaWorld attraction is and they will tell you that hugging Shamu's pool as he flaps his flippers is the best. Kids love water. Based on a foundation of earth-friendly values in design, and the desire to get wet, the students force park visitors to learn about the environment and have fun at the same time. Built on the existing parking lot, “WaterWorld” is a wet compliment to SeaWorld. The name and entry court is a simulation of the WaterWorld amusement park that washed away in Ocean Beach years ago. History won't repeat itself in Mission Bay. But history is part of two rides, Justin Kundrak's “Water through Time” and Jessica Shutt's “Time Warp.”

Buildings that don't look like buildings


    If you suffer from motion sickness, this may be a park to avoid. Tyler Rohr's lightening fast “Solar Coaster” has a 600 ft. drop straight down, guaranteed to be the longest-line attraction. Kirsten Skala's “Dump of Death” takes you on a harrowing journey through the depths of a landfill. Erica Tremble's zip line takes you over, under and through a rainforest. Using recycled materials, each student built a model to go along with their blueprint drawing.

    What makes WaterWorld especially appealing is the variety of rides in three fantasy environments. Upon entering the park, you will find rides with environmental conservation themes. From there the path leads to rides that allow visitors to interact in the Science of Earth and Water. Finally, with education goals aside, you come to the pure water amusements area to experience “Tsunami Surfing,” “The Human Torpedo” and an underwater roller coaster that takes you into a gigantic shark. The final destination is food and relaxation in a waterfront plaza.

    Employees will use a stacked elevator parking garage, and there is limited parking under a portion of WaterWorld. But the balance of the visitors must use the see-through BlimpRail, a monorail that travels through an the erupting “Volcano Blast” ride to an off-site parking garage near the Linda Vista Trolley Station.

    The most important contribution to imagineering that WaterWorld makes is to put a new face on theme park design, from a story and amusement experience to one that allows Mother Nature to be the guiding force of fun. Armed with the experience of inventing their own ideas using conservation, renewable energy, smart planning and “green thinking” these future voters will take better care of the earth and have fun doing it.



    Many people worked together to make a project of this magnitude happen. Giving them credit makes it possible for other schools and students to experience how partnering can make a difference in education. Please support these generous businesses and individuals so they will say yes the next time they are asked to help.

    Recycled materials: John Baker Frames, Scan Furniture and Sea Trader Deli. Blueprinting: Advance Blueprint. Food: Pizza Hut, Friars Blvd. Organizations: SeaWorld, City of San Diego Environmental Services Dept., Ridgehaven Public Environmental Library, Platt Whitelaw Architects, C P Kelco, Keystone Institute. People: Reed Morgan, A.I.A., Scott Sandal, Christine Segal, Patrick Owen, John McGee, Alison Whitelaw, Maya Rohr and Steve Pomerenke.

What is B.E.E.P.?

    The “Blueprint For A Green Theme Park” project was made possible by the Built Environment Education Program or B.E.E.P. Through this program the San Diego Unified School District, the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects are collaborating to raise awareness among elementary level students about architecture, landscape architecture and urban design. B.E.E.P. involves both teacher and design professionals working together in the classroom to teach students about the built environment and the architect's role in it.

    If you are interested in learning more about B.E.E.P. call Local B.E.E.P. Director, Paul Hobson at (619) 236-7970.

    Sunset View M.O.D.E.L. Elementary School, San Diego City Schools, Point Loma Cluster, 4365 Hill Street San Diego, CA 92107; (619) 223-7156;