By Gene Jeffers, for InPark Magazine
A few kilometers southeast of Brussels lies the prosperous town of Wavre. Every five years, the people of the community come together to remake Le Jeu de Jean et Alice – a medieval dialog of spoken word, song and dance involving more than 500 local inhabitants, that celebrates the granting of the city’s charter of liberties in 1222. At city hall, a permanent statue of an impish boy scaling a wall to get to the other side can be found. The piece speaks to the same 800-year-old tale. While much of Le Maca, as the locals call the statue, is covered with years of rich grey-green patina, the boy’s derriere has been turned to brightly polished bronze by many hands.
In this city of stories, you will also find the headquarters of Alterface, creators of world class, narrative-based interactive dark rides.
“When the company formed 20 years ago, we wanted the name to have meaning,” says Creative Director Laurence Beckers, who has been with the firm since its inception. It breaks down like this: alter, as in “the other” or “alternate,” and face, from the French word meaning “side.” Alterface – Other Side. For Alterface, the concept applies to an active or interactive guest experience, as opposed to passive. “We wanted to create attractions where guests could reach the ‘other side’ of a story, not just be part of an audience – to offer a different and new reality in which they become participants in creating their own tale of adventure, not simply an audience viewing someone else’s,” says Beckers.
“Alterface attractions are more than just shooting at targets,” adds Stéphane Battaile, CEO. “We provide immersion in and engagement with the client’s story. We build in the capacity for the guests to affect the story they are living in, a story that is new and changes every time they return to the attraction. And they do return. Often.”
Story-based immersion and discovery
“If a park owner wants a story-based attraction integrated within their park’s theming, they should come to us,” says Etienne Sainton, Head of Structural Engineering and Product Manager. “For smaller projects, we can handle all of the theming and technical needs. For larger projects we team up with equally capable partners to deliver what is needed when it is needed.”
It is no secret that park visitors today swim in a highly competitive sea of in-home and out-of-home “distractions,” so park and facility owners must continually offer something new for guests, while at the same time preserving the integrity and authenticity of their brand.
“It takes more than one skillset to deliver successful attractions today. We provide a unique mix of advanced technology and creative energy. That synergy between the two areas, between the science and the art, helps us to deliver new and unique experiences,” Beckers says. “Alterface brings both to your project.”
The company’s Erratic Ride approach, featured in the celebrated Popcorn Revengeattraction at Walibi Belgium, for example, combines the team’s love for storytelling, group experience, dark rides, and state-of-the-art interactive theater with an unexpected twist: the experience changes and evolves with every ride with random, added secret targets to collect. Vehicles follow different paths through the attraction’s rooms before reuniting in a ballet in the center of the attraction. Visitors cannot predict the next journey’s path no matter how many times they ride. Popcorn Revenge opened in 2019 and was honored with a TEA Thea Award.
[See “Kernels of Truth,” InPark issue #79]
“We want to surprise and amaze guests, to give them not what was expected but rather what they will remember and treasure,” says Sainton. “We want that same feeling of discovery to happen every time they come. We want them to have ownership of the story and experience, to believe they are creating a new story with each visit.”
And as creators of such ever-changing adventure generators, the Alterface team feels most rewarded when the guests themselves approve. “I like to be at the grand opening to watch as the guests exit – and see the smiles on their faces, their excitement in talking with each other about what they just did together,” says Battaille. “I really felt their excitement at Maus Au Chocolat – I had such a warm feeling as whole families came out exclaiming, waving arms, smiling, laughing and then—quick, quick—racing back to the entrance queue for more.” Maus Au Chocolat opened in 2011 at Phantasialand in Brühl, Germany, and its enduring popularity is a testament to Alterface’s capabilities and vision. “It was our first big turnkey project,” says Bataille. “Maus Au Chocolat pushed our creativity to the limit but also made us grow up as an organization, focus on structure, business development and all the other disciplines that make for a successful and sustainable operation.
That ability to create excitement and family joy takes more than cutting edge technologies; it requires an understanding of what can have an emotional impact on the guest. Not all new technologies create the same depth or flavor of experience.
“We explored AR and VR goggles and glasses, but research has shown they interfere with family or group experiences,” explains Beckers. “There is a great danger of isolating people from each other. We believe parents want to see their children’s smiles, friends want to laugh together, to see each other’s faces. We like to say that our projects create joint experiences, offer a richness that other approaches cannot match, so we emphasize the collaborative nature of our adventures.”
While not a large company, Alterface has the capacity to work as either a turnkey provider or in collaboration with a team. Their portfolio reveals the range of their output and the variety of roles the company can play in creating interactive attractions, from a single location with a small footprint to a larger venue or a chain of parks, around the world. Alterface has partnered with The Hettema Group, Merlin Entertainments, JoraVision, Sally Dark Rides., Thinkwell Group, Oceaneering, ETF, and Pico Global, among others. Through these partnerships Alterface technology has been reliably delivered throughout a world of well-known attractions, such as Six Flags’ multiple JUSTICE LEAGUE dark rides (the Six Flags Magic Mountain iteration of this ride was honored with a Thea Award in 2019), and Qingdao’s Oriental Movie Metropolis’ Investiture of the Gods high speed indoor rollercoaster… the list goes on.
Risks worth taking
From the recently opened Popcorn Revenge back to Alterface’s earlier accomplishments, such as the Castle of Chaos spinning interactive theaters and the Desperadoes 3D, full-media interactive theater now in 51 locations worldwide, Alterface’s body of work attests to the team’s ability to deliver, its willingness to take risks and the willingness of clients and partners to take those risks along with them.
“Popcorn Revenge was a complete Alterface project that introduced a new way of doing dark rides,” explains Battaille. “We came up with the Erratic Ride idea and recruited ETF, a great ride manufacturer, to work with us. We did everything from concept, story, IP, and realization. Walibi trusted us to create something quite new, and we did. A great partnership.”
“Turnkey projects allow us to try really new concepts that we have imagined here at Alterface.They can be risky but it’s something of an advantage when we only have to convince one partner, the client,” says Sainton. “When we’re part of a team, then everyone has to get on board with the risks: the designer, the ride company and the customer, for example. But those collaborations are also immensely enjoyable.”
“We work very hard with our partners to create attractions that are authentic for our clients and their guests,” Beckers notes. “For the unique dark ride Bazyliszek (Basilisk; another Thea Award recipient in 2019) created for Park Legendia in Chorzow, Poland, it was important to create the creature of that country’s legends, not the one featured in the Harry Potter film. The joy on the face of the client as the designs were revealed and on the faces of the visitors as they recognized their basilisk, was overwhelming.”
“Partnerships allow us to deliver technologies faster, to try new things within larger projects,” says Sainton. “We always find new ways to amaze guests, to adapt technologies to different tasks, to work together with ride designers and the customer.”
Alterface has been delivering leading-edge interactive attractions since 2001. Those 20 years have seen many changes to the industry, to the technologies at hand and under development, and while the staff has been remarkably stable, there have been some changes to the company’s culture.
“When the company first opened, we were in startup mode – a band of extremely passionate people willing to take risks today but not so worried about tomorrow,” admits Battaille. And now, in addition to our European headquarters, we have offices in Singapore and Miami to support our growing client list.”
Alterface had to make the transition from a startup culture to a more solid and robust demeanor very quickly – but without losing the fiery, creative core: the passion, the risk taking, the push to find something new, the audacity. “We had to channel our creativity and ensure everyone was heading in the same direction,” says Battaille. “And so we have completed more and more projects, we have improved our professionalism and discipline while still keeping the creative fires on full blast. L’audace, toujours l’audace… but now with discipline and science and accountability.”
And so, park owners and operators, and creative partners seeking a new interactive attraction that will put smiles on the faces of guests often find their way to Wavre. Legend has it that a little pat on the polished bronze derriere of Le Maca will bring good luck. But success often requires more than luck – it may also require a chat with the team at Alterface, who stand ready to take dark rides and attractions to the next level of interactive storytelling, helping guests explore, adventure and discover the other side of the story.