An Interview With Bob Baranick, Former Disney Imagineer and Creator of Whirligig Woods
Recently, WRAL, the Raleigh, North Carolina NBC Affiliate, aired a “Tar Heel Traveler” segment on their evening news that featured former Disney Imagineer Bob Baranick that highlighted his plans for a small theme park to be built in Saxapahaw, NC, about 20 miles west of Chapel Hill, where I graduated from college.
Since I’ve been writing for Coaster101, people I know will sometimes send me roller coaster videos or news stories, just to make sure I’ve seen them. I’m not exaggerating when I say that at least five different people sent me this video a few days after it aired. Since this was a new park in my “backyard,” I reached out to Bob to find out a little bit more about him, as well as his theme park concept, Whirligig Woods. Though he’s currently on the west coast working on the Cirque du Soleil theme park in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Bob was gracious enough to find the time to talk to Coaster101.
C101: For our readers who might not know – tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the theme park industry.
Bob Baranick: It’s been 45 years of kinda ‘being behind the curtain.’ For most of that time, I’ve been working with Gary Goddard, and he is somebody I’ve really enjoyed working with. I’m currently working with him right now on the Cirque Park. I had a short stint with Walt Disney Imagineering for close to 15 years. I feel privileged because I got to work on some really good things with them. It was neat being there during the [Michael] Eisner-[Frank] Wells “renaissance” where we really felt like the future was ahead of us. And we had all these fun things, and [Eisner and Wells] were very open to them. That’s how we were able to get Indiana Jones off the ground, that took several years of time while we were working on Disneyland Paris, which is probably something that I’m most proud of.
C101: What are some attractions and parks you’ve worked on in the past?
Bob Baranick: I’m actually one of the few guys who got to do some things twice. We did Monster Plantation and Monster Mansion [at Six Flags Over Georgia]. At Busch Gardens Williamsburg, we did the original Enchanted Lab show, which is one of my favorite all time projects – and the we went back in and did the Ireland conversion. I worked on the infamous [Six Flags] Power Plant in Baltimore – that goes way back – that was with a lot of ex-WED guys, so that was really fun. Hersheypark was another one we worked on twice — The Chocolate Factory at Hershey’s Chocolate World. Busch Gardens Tampa with Jungala. And then things all over the world – a lot of things in China, Dubai. I’ve been around. [laughs]
Bob Baranick: I was lucky to get into WDI, but it was in that period where they were gearing for Disneyland Paris. They had me slated for that when they hired me. They hired Eddie Sotto, and three or four other guys they had in mind that were kind of the ‘core group’ and while we were doing that, along came the George Lucas stuff with Star Tours and Indiana Jones, it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed working with George.
C101: How would you describe your creative process when creating a new attraction?
Bob Baranick: The first place I start is always with the guest expectation. Every single thing I’ve ever worked on, we’ve gone to the grassroots and figured out what it is. For Whirligig Woods, it’s using North Carolina’s heritage. You’re familiar with Carowinds, Busch Gardens, and all of those wonderful regional theme parks that deliver what everyone expects them to be; they’re high intensity, mega roller coasters, and Whirligig Woods is a whole different thing. It’s all about the charm and intimacy – I call it ‘boutique’ theme park because it’s very unusual. It’s geared for a small crowd. We think it’s going to be a very “VIP” experience. It’s got the treehouse resort element, and so it’s all about showcasing about North Carolina’s rich heritage.
Bob Baranick: One of the ironies of that is that I grew up, born and raised in California, at a little park called Frontier Village in San Jose. Before I went to Los Angeles and worked for Gary Goddard and Disney and all of that. It was very similar. Frontier Village was a smaller park that was geared toward the local crowd, for the demographics of San Jose. I didn’t know the first thing about North Carolina, but as I learned about it, North Carolina has everything offer that a highly themed amusement park would have.
C101: As a former Imagineer, what are your thoughts on Disney’s current expansions in the United States?
Bob Baranick: I’m keeping my fingers crossed on Star Wars. This last image they released out of Disneyland that had the walkers was really intriguing to me. My greatest fear is that they would overdo the media-based simulation. That was some of the struggles we were having on Indiana Jones. I’m the guy who wants the immersive scenery. I’ve now got my hopes up and am really excited, because if they’re building large scale action equipment like that – they have to do something to go above and beyond Harry Potter, because Harry Potter is certainly the benchmark now. It’s primarily media based, so I was hoping they would give a nod to the scenic show action stuff.
14 acres is a lot to devote to a single property, especially where the location is in the park, where I think “well, I hope that works out.” I’m not sure about going past Big Thunder to get to Star Wars, but I think they’ll solve that problem.
Over at Walt Disney World, I think we’re all excited about Avatar, that looks stunning. And I actually have higher hopes for Star Wars at Hollywood Studios, because it seems to be the perfect area for it. It’s the studio tour IP, and we already have Star Tours, and I think that’s going to be a better fit.
C101: The question I like to ask all of my interviews, are you a roller coaster fan, and if so, what’s your favorite roller coaster?
Bob Baranick: I am absolutely a roller coaster fan and my favorite is still Giant Dipper at [Santa Cruz Beach] Boardwalk. It’s the most terrifying thing I ever did as a child, so it stuck. I wish I could say I’ve been on every coaster, but I haven’t. I’d love to get over to Dollywood and ride Lightning Rod, it just seems like I’m working all the time, so we haven’t been able to do the coaster trips like most of us fans like to do. Some day!
But I’d have to back to the first one because it had the biggest impact on me. It’s a classic.
C101: Moving on to Whirligig Woods, what was your reaction to the WRAL Tar Heel Traveler piece?
Bob Baranick: I don’t know how it went viral, but I’m glad it did. Our partners are just ecstatic about it.
C101: How did the inspiration for the park come about?
Bob Baranick: Honestly, the content is my childhood. What I am all about is inspiring another generation to use their imaginations and create and build things, just like I did. I feel gifted and blessed that I had such a wonderful career. It goes way back to when I was 10 years old and I discovered the Pirates of the Caribbean book that had all of those wonderful guys with their white shirts with their thin black ties, and all the all the artwork and the models, and I thought “That’s the job for me.”
So I geared myself toward that. All the while I was having these wonderful experiences in my backyard, building tree houses, and making train rides and haunted houses and all of those things. I just wanted to create for another generation that kind of experience. When I applied it to North Carolina and learned about North Carolina and all of the stories there are to draw from, it just seemed like a natural fit. Even though I was from the west coast, it all applied so well to North Carolina.
C101: Why Saxapahaw?
Bob Baranick: There’s really two reasons. The most important reason is a business decision. It is equidistant from the triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) and the triad (Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem), and those are two demographics that have not had an “experience” to tap into. Everyone knows about Busch Gardens, they know about Carowinds, they know about Dollywood. But it takes some effort to get to those places. So I wanted to bring something that was a smaller scale for those two markets. It was a simple exercise in finding out where those lines cross, and it’s an ideal spot.
Saxphahaw is already a booming destination, it’s a small mill town on the Haw River. It’s a huge rural experience that people are drawn to from the city, it’s a # 1 music venue with the Haw River Ballroom, and it has several 5-star restaurants. It’s amazing. I don’t know if you’ve ever been, but it’s packed when you go there. Unfortunately, the children need something to do.
I thought, “this is just perfect.” Whirligig Woods is really all about the rural experience. I would like to say that it’s one of the top environmentally friendly projects that I know of. We are designing the park to pay honor to the old growth trees and the natural landscape. It’s all about that. We want families to come out and experience that kind of immersive environment, and then have all of these other attractions intermixed with it. It’s beautiful gardens, small charming architecture. Even the attractions are scaled down. It’s going to be very intimate, very charming.
C101: Who is the target audience for this park?
Bob Baranick: Families from the Triangle and Triad. It’s a very small capacity, by the way. In our peak, I would imagine that we would only have about 12,000 a day at the most, and that’s probably 10 years out.
One of the “bread and butter” elements of the park is actually going to be our group picnics. We think that besides Children’s Birthday Parties, it’s going to be a big draw for company picnics, boy scout groups, church groups, we’re going to be into charities. We’ve got a few local charities in the area that we want to help out, and anything that we can gear towards children and families, like the UNC Children’s Hospital for instance.
C101: What kinds of attractions are you envisioning for Whirligig Woods?
Bob Baranick: We’re going to start small. I want to use the old Walter Knott philosophy. I’m not growing Boysenberries, but it’s that kind of analogy of starting with a train ride and a couple of attractions, and then letting it grow as demand increases, and as the market guides us to what it needs to be. In my heart and soul, it’s attractions like train rides and haunted houses, and tree houses, and one of my favorite attractions we have planned is a soap box derby – kind of like a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, indoors and outdoors, very extended. There’s a lot of cool stuff planned.
Another North Carolina tie-in to Whirligig Woods is our miniature golf course. Minitature Golf was actually invented down in Southern Pines, NC. This particular mini golf course will be very interesting because its very “Rube Goldberg” — every hole is a challenge, much like the game Mouse Trap.
Bob Baranick: We have a small roller coaster in the long term plans, I would consider it more of a Jet-Star type of roller coaster. It is heavily themed like all of the rides will be, and it takes place in a gem mine. Part of the queue goes through the Crystal Caverns. That’s another western North Carolina Heritage thing, about the emeralds and quartz, and all that wonderful stuff. It’s a classic mine-car coaster, but its very small and very intimate.
We actually have designed four lands a “Treehouse Resort,” and the roller coaster would be in the “fifth” land, which is Supersition Mountain. That’s the last phase. We don’t want over extend ourselves on that property. It’s only 21 acres, and we want to keep 60-70% of it natural, not even touched. We’re not going to tear any of the trees out. It’s the “tree project!”
C101: How would you describe Whirligig Woods to a casual theme park fan?
Bob Baranick: It is very geared towards families. It’s an immersive family experience. It’s all about making and sharing new memories together for parents and children, it’s a place that hopefully will inspire discovery. We want people to be able to – using the Disney Design Model – be able to explore the park and discover new attractions and things beyond the next corner. It’s a mix of family attractions. There’s going to be a few thrill attractions, some interactive attractions, but its definitely not your heavy media-based simulator type attractions. We’re staying away from that. There’s a theater show, that’s got a wonderful message in it, but it’s geared toward younger families. We don’t want to compete with Carowinds and Busch Gardens, they are successful and we love those parks for what they deliver, and we don’t want to be stepping on their toes.
C101: Do you see any similarities between Whirligig Woods and smaller regional parks in the state like Tweetsie Railroad?
Bob Baranick: I think this is going to be more of a “Hometown Experience.” Tweetsie in particular is for families who take a trip to the mountains, and its geared for the train. I grew up in California where we had Roaring Camp, same type of experience. I love that you go up to Tweetsie, and you have the big serious train ride that winds you through the mountains, and they have the holiday overlays. This is more for when kids have birthday parties every year, the company that mom or dad works for wants to do a picnic. It’s a repetitive local “mom-and-pop” type of park.
C101: How will the logistics of a resort inside a theme park work?
Bob Baranick: It’s really neat. All of the tree houses are themed, and there’s a huge variety. We’ve got an exotic one, we’ve got a romantic one, we’ve got a fantasy one, we’ve got a haunted one, an adventure-themed one that has all sorts of Tom Sawyer type things in it. Not only are they themed, on the exterior, but inside, each room is full of amenities that are show-based. When you’re tired of that, you flip the switch and the room’s dark like any other hotel room.
It’s going to be in the middle of the park, it essentially would be what the castle is to a Disney park, and what’s really fun would be if I’m a registered guest and have made a reservation for a tree house, I come into the park with all the other guests, my luggage has been picked up at the front gate, and taken to the treehouse, I have my experience in the park, I get on the Whirligig Woods Railroad, and get the grand circle tour like every other guest, but I’m dropped at a private depot, where I’m met by a hospitality manager, who takes me to the tree house. Then I’ve got that area that has it’s own attractions, as well as free play in the park.
The Tree house Resort is getting probably as good a reaction as the park is right now.
We’re looking at somewhere between 30-50 total beds in the 5 tree houses by the end of the the full ten-year master plan. There are expansion possibilities with a tree house resort. One of the units has multiple rooms in it, similar to the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, and it’s also got a grand room where families can congregate. Executives with companies would be able to rent those for meetings, and other tree houses are much more intimate. The romantic themed tree house has one room, a hot tub, and a fireplace. They’re all different.
C101: In the Tar Heel Traveler video, there was a mention of several other parks you’re working on for the future? What do you have planned for future parks?
Bob Baranick: Seaside Amusement Park was originally slated for the Nags Head area, and we passed on the property – it was only 5 acres, a little too small. It’s also a very limited market. So we thought we would move south and try to find something. I feel like Whirligig Woods is going to be a better test model for what our brand is going to be, and basically what our business model is going to be, with smaller parks and limited seasons and so forth.
Seaside would happen second to Whirligig Woods, and its primary focus is Blackbeard the Pirate. A family friend, Mike Daniel, is the one who discovered the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. We’re planning on partnering with him, and we’ve got a whole section of the park, which is basically a Pirate town. It’s got pirate-themed attractions. And there’s another section which pays homage to the glory days of Coney Island and Luna Park, the “seaside pleasure pier” kind of park.
The third park we’re working on is another children’s park, which is re-purposing an old mill; there’s dozens all over the state that are just vacant. We’ve been talking with some folks about some of the developments going on around the state, some of the bigger companies are going into the mills and fixing them up, much like what happened in Saxapahaw. It would be somewhere else other than Saxapahaw, and its geared towards the Chocolate Factory/Candyland concept.
C101: Where can people find more information about Whirligig Woods?
Bob Baranick: Unfortunately it’s not out yet. It will be Whirligig Woods.com. We’re waiting until we have our final tally of investors. We’ve got a core group, but still looking for a few outside investors. We’ve got a target for an opening date, and then we’ve got a master plan that projects out 10 years. We may build a few extra elements, or we may just build the current opening day pieces, that’s what we’re uncertain of right now.
We’re targeting 2019 with a train ride and a few other attractions, but it may be more than that, and it may be later than that. When we’ve pulled it all together and figured out who is involved and how big it’s going to be, then we’re going to know absolutely what’s going to be in it, and that’s when we’ll release the social media package and information. I’d guess that we’re at least six months away from that. I think people deserve to know, because this is a breaking story, and most people are unfamiliar.
C101: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Bob Baranick: It’s a different kind of thing. I think its going to require a certain amount of patience and understanding that we’re not creating another Carowinds, and we’re certainly not creating another Disney World. I’ve been fortunate enough to be associated a lot of these types of parks around the world, and this is a different type of experience. I like to manage expectations, and I’m not sure what guests are going to assume, but it’s the kind of thing where folks will have to wait and see, that it is a different type of situation than anything they’re used to.
But I hope they’re going to like it because I think it’s going to open up a whole new realm of themed entertainment. And I think other parks are going to be happy about it, because it doesn’t step all over their feet. It’s just more fun, more theming. I think there’s room for all of that.
Thanks to Bob for his time. For more information, visit his website, www.bobbaranick.com