Building Dreams


We all want to enjoy life to its fullest, and spend our hard earned money on worthwhile and enjoyable activities. We do have choices here – theme parks, water parks, entertainment centres, resorts, shopping, science or history centres, cultural endeavours, and much more. Can you imagine a company that could possibly cover all of these bases, and do it well?

It so happens that Forrec does all of that and more. Based in Toronto, Forrec has been providing leisure and entertainment design solutions for 40 years.

Forrec was founded in 1984 as a design and planning company that specializes in the entertainment sector. The company’s breadth of successful projects has given it an outstanding reputation for its leisure and entertainment designs. You may not recognize the name Forrec, but you certainly are familiar with what it has accomplished: Universal Studios Florida, Paramount Canada’s Wonderland, Happy Magic Watercube, Nickelodeon Universe, Centara Grand Mirage Beach Resort, Hard Rock Café, WWE Retail Center, Marina Walk, and Canada Olympic Park are but a few of the firm’s many achievements.

We spoke with Executive Vice President Steve Rhys about the industry that keeps us happy, healthy, educated, cultured, and takes us on wild rides of all sorts. As Steve explains, “Clients come to us for our expertise. Every project is unique, so we carefully listen to what their objectives are and then help them to reach them. We can do that because we have had so much history in this field.”

Canada’s Wonderland was one of the first projects undertaken by Forrec and, on the heels of that success, others came calling. The expansive and impressive West Edmonton Mall was another early job and was, at the time, the largest mall in North America. The Mall wanted a theme park under its roof and it presently boasts the largest indoor water park in the world. Forrec has also had a hand in the re-development of the Mall of America which is the largest in North America. By Christmas, the company will be drafting up a plan to begin work on the retail and entertainment complex known as American Dream in New Jersey, near the Meadowlands Arena.

How does Forrec stay ahead of the competition? These are obviously lucrative projects that other companies are vying for, but Forrec seems to enter into them with relative ease. “We get the commissions because we build relationships with our clients,” Steve explains. “They may look around for competitive pricing, but, with clients like Universal (Theme Parks) and Nickelodeon (Mall of America), the trust and respect we have built together is the secret to our success and our clients’ successes.”

Forrec is a multidisciplinary design practice and, with around 100 employees in its Toronto office, it is the largest firm in the industry, bar none. The professional staff includes architects, landscape architects, planners, graphic designers, interior designers, illustrators, 3D modellers, and others. In addition, Forrec also employs a variety of specialists in areas like water park design and retail design.

When unique expertise is required (ride engineering, for example), off-site specialists are often brought in. “Many people think that if you design theme parks that you also design the rides. Rides are highly engineered and have lots of safety issues, so we defer to other experts for that,” Steve explains. Some of the best water park manufacturers in the world are from Canada and Forrec works collaboratively with them. For roller coasters, the expertise comes mostly from Europe – Swiss, German, Dutch and Italian experts. In all cases, the lead designer has to be very familiar with all of the technology that is out there in order to advise clients and to be able to provide cutting-edge design.

Other projects Forrec has completed or is currently working on include the recently opened ScreamLand Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in China; The Bat Cave at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; and LEGOLAND theme parks in Germany, Malaysia and Florida. These projects all fall under the general heading of leisure and entertainment environments, although they represent a wide variety of project types.

The Retail Mixed Use sector represents a growing area of work for Forrec, particularly in the Asian market. A good example is Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. “This new development project is really significant because it is a world heritage site, and an important tourist destination,” says Steve. “So any development has to be extremely sensitive to what’s already there and enhance it, rather than detract from it. In the end, the Ha Long Bay Centre for Culture and Entertainment is a successful and diverse mix of uses that will help to preserve this rare picturesque site, while allowing more people to enjoy it.” Other large mixed-use Forrec projects in Asia also take advantage of existing site conditions – positive and negative – to create leisure environments that are attractive and economically successful.

We asked Steve about the largest project he had ever undertaken, and the answer was indicative of what Forrec deals with on a regular basis. “We do theme parks that cost over 1 billion dollars; we do resort developments that cost 3 billion dollars. But our biggest projects have less to do with the cost, and more to do with the complexity of the challenge.” Ten years ago, when Forrec was asked to work on Casino Niagara and seven others in Ontario, they had little knowledge of casino projects. But the company figured out a way to take what it had learned from the entertainment sector and apply that to casinos. “Casinos are complex projects because of the mix of everything that goes into them. The volume of space surrounding you – for security reasons – oversight, cash control, serving food to thousands of people a day… these are basic considerations, but the integration of all of these things, on a grand scale, makes it more of a challenge.”

Since a lot of the company’s work happens offshore, Forrec has to deal with diverse laws and regulations. Steve says that it is just a matter of understanding the rules and planning ahead. The bigger challenge lies in differing cultural expectations. “We figured out very early on that we can’t import our North American style everywhere we go. We can’t drop a Burger King on every corner. Whatever the concept is, it has to be comfortable in its environment in order to be relevant. You have to know and understand the culture, the audience and the market, so we make it a high priority to marry our concepts with the place we are designing in.”

The Beijing National Aquatics Center was the venue for swimming events during the 2008 summer Olympic Games and has now been converted by Forrec to the Happy Magic Watercube. The building’s exterior fabric consists of structural “bubbles,” which gave Forrec designers the idea of creating an interior that would feel like an underwater world. The important thing was to respect the unique architecture of this world-famous structure. “It really is an iconic building so we made it a point not to fight with the form, but work within it.” The award-winning result is a surreal environment that is truly one of a kind.

Forrec sells creative expertise rather than technologies or hardware, so innovation is more about reading what is going on in the industry and adapting to it. The new wave includes something called “Integrated Resorts” – places where people can do everything in one area – shop, dine, stay overnight, go to the theatre, catch a show. These resorts may serve the broader market as tourist destinations, and the local market as “staycation” spots, where you can stay at home and have a mini-vacation without having to travel long distances by car, ship, or airplane. These integrated concepts are much more robust economically – a hotel, for example, is combined with a water park which is in the middle of an entertainment district. Currently, Forrec is looking at Toronto’s Ontario Place as a possible candidate for this concept. As Steve says, “A firm like ours has experience in all the areas that make up integrated resorts, and we would look forward to the opportunity to create one in our own home town.”

Ultimately, Steve Rhys concludes, “We have hit our stride and have such a range of things that we can do that there really is no challenge that we are not up for. People are really conscious of how they spend – and invest – their money. We’ve got all the tools to help them make those choices and to deliver their dreams.”

With the ability to adapt to different cultural needs and norms along with a focus on originality and new technologies, Forrec will surely be providing us with some great times for many years to come. Forrec is, in essence, an organization dedicated to helping everyone enjoy life.

January 23, 2019, 9:53 PM EST