Stories, the Building Blocks of Dreams


Forrec specializes in planning and design – and storytelling. “Storytelling is a huge part of who we are and what we do,” says President and CEO Gordon E. Dorrett. “Everything we do is based on some kind of storyline.”

And Forrec has done a lot. The Toronto based firm has been creating entertainment and leisure environments for over 40 years. Projects span six continents and include a roster of well-known theme parks, water parks, entertainment centres, resort communities, retail districts, museums, and science centres.

From LEGOLAND, Universal Studios Florida, and Canada’s Wonderland to The Villages Florida, Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park, and China’s Happy Magic Watercube, each Forrec project is based on a distinct storyline that inspires and impacts the entire space. “Stories are the foundation that establish a project’s character, making it memorable for the guest,” Gordon explains. “Stories generate the theme, establish a unique identity and provide continuity; it’s our understanding of elements like people flow, the decision-making and mindset in the guest experience that inform how that story should unfold.”

“Our strength as master planners reinforces the success of a story and subsequently the guest experience,” he adds. “Master planning is about having an overall vision, a ‘Big Idea.’ For the Big Idea [or] story to be successful it has to be followed through. Every piece of the project has to reinforce the story, from the master plan to architecture, from interiors to landscape and from wayfinding to the smallest graphic detail.”

This approach means that the entertainment experience is consistent throughout the space, rather than being confined to isolated areas. “Traditionally firms look at entertainment by developing a plan that will accommodate the experience in designated locations,” Gordon points out. “But why should it stop there? We extend the ‘experience’ throughout the project, reintroducing traditional landscape treatments and site architecture by thinking about how the guest is being entertained throughout the site.”

A story may be old or new, provided by the client or created by the Forrec design team. It may be constructed around a branded product or take its cue from adjacent developments, physical features or local folklore. With some projects, such as Aesop’s Village in South Korea’s Everland, the team had to develop the underlying storyline with very little to go on. “Everybody knows Aesop’s Fables, but no one knows who Aesop is or what he looked like or where he lived, so we had to design a whole story around Aesop,” Gordon recalls. By asking questions about Aesop – who he was, what inspired him, where he told his stories – the team was able to develop a clear vision of his village. As the character and concepts surrounding Aesop emerged, the team developed a detailed storyline to unfurl throughout the park, creating a whimsical and engaging experience for visitors to enjoy.

Other projects require careful adherence to a well-known brand. This approach is expected with clients such as LEGO, for whom the team translated the much loved brand into theme parks in Florida, Malaysia, and Germany. “We use our ‘brand wisdom’ to carefully and faithfully translate strong consumer brands into physical spaces,” Gordon explains. Bringing the client’s philosophy to life can be tricky and the team relies on collaboration and experience to get it right. “In branded attractions, the planning and design process is more complex since the product must be specific to the IP,” Gordon points out. “The process involves a lot of coordination with the brand ambassadors and client to ensure the intellectual property is translated properly to a built environment and a comprehensive experience. This can be an involved process as a lot of brands have never been through this translation exercise and therefore a skilful balancing of the brand’s expectations and the client’s overall budgets is required.”

Forrec’s ability to extend a cohesive story throughout an entire project applies to far more than theme parks. “We take our understanding of the guest experience, which we have learned from our knowledge base in entertainment and apply it to traditionally non-entertainment sectors such as Museums and Science Centres and Retail and Mixed-Use developments.”

Clients in these sectors are eager to utilize Forrec’s innovative approach. “We are finding that North American developers want to know how to bring in an entertainment approach to their development. They are coming to understand that a more holistic approach is needed to keep guests entertained and returning. This is indicative of a shift in retail trends; for example, lifestyle centres – pedestrian-friendly shopping areas that are meant to resemble hometown Main Streets – are on the rise.”

The company’s work with long-time American client The Villages offers a prime example. “Who thought a retirement community would hire theme park guys, but the client did after seeing our work at Universal Studios in Orlando,” Gordon shares. The Villages’ goal was to transform an empty field into a unique and entertaining space where residents would enjoy living out their golden years. “We helped the client look at designing from a very different viewpoint,” Gordon remembers. The result was a town square with the look and feel of an old Spanish American settlement – even down to the stunning Spanish style church.

Spanish Springs Town Square was such a success that The Villages asked Forrec to create Lake Sumter Landing, which encapsulates the feel of a quaint seaside village and Brownwood Paddock Square, which is reminiscent of a historic Florida cattle town. Each of these “town square” developments carries a concrete concept throughout the entire space, even down to the signage. The end result is a thriving retail, dining, and entertainment destination enjoyed by both residents and visitors from surrounding communities.

The Portsmouth Historic Dockyard has provided another opportunity to apply an entertainment approach to a very unlikely space. Located in Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Portsmouth, on the southern coast of the United Kingdom, “the dockyard had not realized its potential as an attraction,” Gordon recalls. As the oldest base in the Royal Navy, the site has been essential to the defense of the British Isles for hundreds of years, as well the largest industrial site in the world at one time. Today, it houses important maritime attractions such as the Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior.

Forrec, in partnership with A Different View, was hired to enhance the visitor experience by making the site more engaging, more interactive, and more exciting. The company was chosen for the job “because we approached the project with a master-planning mindset and an entertainment approach,” Gordon reports. “We developed a visitor experience master plan incorporating an analysis of the existing visitor experience as it relates to target markets, recommendations for additional attractions and events, improvements to the visitor experience, a site-wide interpretation plan, and revenue and business performance analysis.”

A team of approximately 100 professionals with expertise across all facets of design is behind Forrec’s ground breaking projects. These experts work in five distinct internal design studios: Graphics, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Interiors and Creative. While each discipline enjoys its own separate division, teamwork is still integral to the company. “Since the majority of projects require many, if not all of these skills, our studios must work collaboratively in large multi-disciplinary teams,” Gordon explains. In fact, this open communication and collaboration has played a key role in Forrec’s success. “One of our core values is to listen to each other,” Gordon suggests. “[At Forrec] it is safe for a landscape architect to comment on architecture and a graphic designer to comment on interior design. No matter what their background is as a designer, they can add value to a project.”

Designing breakthrough projects requires great talent. Finding, recruiting and managing the best talent is a task Forrec takes seriously. The company recently recruited new talent. Glenn O’Connor, a nationally recognized landscape architect who has served as a past president of the OALA (Ontario Association of Landscape Architects) and currently sits on the CSLA (Canadian Society of Landscape Architects), is the new head of Forrec’s landscape architecture studio. Tim Scott and Nolan Natale, previously the owners of Natale and Scott Architects (NASA), joined Forrec in 2013, along with their entire team. With the addition of Mr. Scott and Mr. Natale, Forrec is now licensed to practice architecture in Ontario, providing full architectural services to local clients.

Forrec stories are coming to fruition both locally and globally. In December of this year a major Forrec project, Wanda Movie Park, will open in China. The company acted as executive producers for the six movie based attractions, taking care of everything from initial concept through to hand-off to the design build vendors.

From Toronto to Beijing, the company’s innovative approach is turning heads – and changing the industry. “Traditional architecture has been slow to acknowledge the importance of stories in establishing character, identity and memorability,” Gordon points out. “Now architecture is coming round, but we think we’re ahead of the curve.”

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January 28, 2020, 7:03 PM EST