Bar & Leisure Focus - Meet John Burton

Meet John Burton the designer behind Merlin’s new World of Jumanji. Burton’s designs work hard to bring the fantastical and the dream-like to life in spectacular fashion

Edited By Toby Maxwell

THERE ARE FEW PEOPLE who can honestly say that they are working in their dream job, but John Burton, 31, is definitely one of those lucky few. The lure of a role at Merlin Magic Making, the in-house creative team behind the design of the UK’s top theme parks, was so strong that it dragged him away from conventional architecture.

Now creative lead at Merlin Magic Making, responsible for projects including the brand new 11,000 sq m World of Jumanji at Chessington World of Adventures, Burton has absolutely no regrets about his career move. His dad was an architect and Burton had always intended to follow in his footsteps, completing his M.Arch Part 1 and 2 at Birmingham City University. Between the two qualifications he spent a year as an architectural assistant at Leisure Concepts as part of O’Neill Architects. Working on holiday parks including Havens and Butlins gave him a love for the leisure industry, and when he returned to study for his Part 2 he combined it with working for National Sea Life Centre, part of Merlin Entertainments.

‘My two parallel interests started to come together,’ he recalls. ‘I was about five months away from taking my Part 2 when I saw a job came up at Merlin Magic Making’s creative division. I applied and it was nearly six months of really intensive application procedures, which is probably not surprising as there are only three of these creative roles working on Merlin’s theme parks, so it was very niche. For me it was my absolute dream job; it was exactly what I wanted to do, and I didn’t need to get the final part of the qualification to be able to do it.’ He has no regrets about walking away with a Distinction in his Part 2 but without a Part 3. ‘Now I’m like the conductor of an orchestra, coordinating architects, engineers and theme park creatives,’ he says with a grin.

World of Jumanji, which opened in May, includes the only Jumanji-themed rollercoaster in existence, the white knuckle Mandrill Mayhem, which flips visitors upside down while dodging the hazards of the jungle and spiralling up to the 17m Jaguar Shrine, where those who manage to keep their eyes open will see the stone glow, just like in the movie. It may be a pure fantasy, but building a world like this is as real as any other major building project, Burton explains.

‘When I was studying at university we were never told just to create a building. It was always about telling a cultural story – which is exactly what we are doing within a theme park, but more obvious. We are creating both a built  environment and a story – all the same things as an architect does on any project, and to the same baseline standards.

Mandrill Mayhem takes customers on a wild ride through jungle obstacles and ascends the Jaguar Shrine from the movies

‘World of Jumanji started as a picnic field on a steep hill and I was asked to transform it into a themed area with a rollercoaster. I started with sketches that grew into plans – and we have the same planning rules to follow on things like height restrictions and noise regulations and environmental impact as any other project. Massing studies have to be considered very carefully, and the sightlines are really important; we want people to be so immersed in that world that their attention isn’t broken by anything.’

While the rollercoaster is obviously the item that grabs visitors’ attention first, it is only part of the carefully created £17 million World of Jumanji which, like the game in the movie, moves through different themed areas called Biomes. At the centre is the Jaguar Shrine, the height of a five-storey building, and with a steel and concrete structure that has to be just as resilient against wind and weather and meet the same codes. There are two smaller rides, games and food and drink provision which also has to fit in with the theme. The snack bar, for example, is set in what looks like an overturned truck that has been ransacked by the Mandrills.

World of Jumanji started life as a picnic field on a steep hill before transforming into the theme park attraction it is today

‘Everything has to fit together and work cohesively within the space like a giant jigsaw,’ he says. ‘We don’t just design the exterior environment but interiors as well, so there are hotels at the park where people can have an overnight stay that also have to be themed – not just a bed in a box but a continuation of the journey. Everything has to fit the theme, or at least be quirky, so we’ve even worked with Coco-Cola to create a freestyle drinks mixing area designed to look like a garage where the drink comes out of petrol pumps.’

Rather than requiring less resilience than ‘real’ buildings, these fantasy worlds have to work even harder thanks to the additional stresses involved. ‘We build our rides to last 30 years as that’s the safe lifespan of the steel under these stressful conditions,’ says Burton. ‘The material choices have to be so robust as millions of guests go through an attraction each year – the grade of specification is extremely high compared with other areas of architecture.’

World of Jumanji has been nearly four years in the making, which means that Burton was kept busy through lockdown. ‘I spent most of that time sitting alone in my room sketching rollercoasters,’ he laughs. It might be a different field, although Burton jokes that designing a theme park ride is really only designing a transport network, but the process would be recognisable to anyone working on a large building project. ‘We move from Sketch, to CAD and then on to BIM.’ The Building Information Modelling enables Burton and his team to balance different requirements of the themed area, known as a Land, including upkeep. ‘The main ride is a launch rollercoaster so it needs a lot of power for the big electromagnets, and space has to be allocated for maintenance,’ he says.

The power-hungry nature of theme parks is probably inevitable, but Burton tries to balance that with ecofriendly choices in other areas. ‘Merlin is working to be a sustainable company, so we have used a lot of upcycling in World of Jumanji. For example, the bazaar area – a Marrakesh-type environment – is made using secondhand and reclaimed materials, including old bits and pieces from other parks.’

Even in a job as exciting as Burton’s, opportunities like designing World of Jumanji from scratch don’t come around all the time. ‘It was a rare opportunity to launch an entire new Land,’ he says. In between he has been working on smaller but no less challenging concepts such as the newly opened Curse at Alton Manor at Alton Towers. ‘It’s like a haunted house, a dark ride that takes you through a theatre-like experience, with darkness as the canvas.’ Merlin also owns Warwick Castle, which brings with it a different set of challenges. ‘It’s a heritage site so you can’t do rollercoasters and everything needs to be very sympathetic. So, I’ve used lights and projection to bring the castle walls to life rather than doing anything structural,’ he says.

‘Every day is different. I could be sitting at my desk sketching ideas for a new ride or attraction, or sitting with architects discussing plans and how we translate that into the build environment, or even on a movie set directing actors.’ He is frustratingly tight-lipped on what the next project will be, but eventually concedes that it will be the UK’s tallest rollercoaster at Thorpe Park – beyond that it’s all top secret. But he is certainly excited about the challenge: ‘Working on theme parks you can’t just be an expert in one thing, you need to understand everything; how things go together, how they work, how they impact the environment and, above all, how they tell a story.’

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