Until We Celebrate Again, Honoring Poverty Encounter

One of the springtime traditions I look forward to all year long is the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Thea Awards. “The Theas,” and the TEA Summit that they cap off, bring together many of our cherished friends, colleagues, clients, and co-creatives to celebrate the great achievements of the themed entertainment industry worldwide.

But just like so many other important events held at this time of year—weddings, proms, graduations, family reunions—the TEA Thea Awards Ceremony, which was to be held tonight at the Disneyland Hotel, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 isolation orders.

Some of the greatest themed attractions in history were going to be honored tonight for their outstanding achievement, including Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Smuggler’s Run at the Disney parks, and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal Orlando. But one of the projects on the list of honorees is very close to my heart—Poverty Encounter at Children’s Hunger Fund (CHF).

So instead of lamenting the loss of the event and missing the community connections we might have made, I want to still celebrate that project and the creative and storytelling innovation it represents for our industry.

Poverty Encounter is the immersive, walk-through attraction at CHF in Los Angeles (Sylmar) that brings visitors face-to-face with the realities of poverty in fragile communities around the world.

For many years, thousands of school children and families had volunteered at the organization, boxing food to be distributed to families in need. Although this was a positive experience, Dave Phillips, CHF’s president, wondered if there might be a way to enhance it by creating a transformational experience visitors could never forget.

Rather than playing an antiseptic safety video before entering the volunteer center, what if the first act actually immersed guests into an eye-opening, heart-wrenching journey through areas of the world where the poor need the most help? Might guests leave with a greater sense of empathy and passion for the needs of others?

When I first heard what CHF wanted to accomplish, I was more than a little excited. Our team of artists, architects, and artisans at Storyland Studios helped them discover their big idea through a series of intensive blue sky sessions that led to the preliminary concept. Eventually, the underlying story broke through and we put their ideas down on paper and screen so they could present the concept to their donors who believed in the idea and invested in bringing the experience to life.

In the year since it opened, Poverty Encounter has transported thousands of guests through realistic, dimensional scenes of real-life situations faced by hungry kids – the garbage dumps in Guatemala, earthquake disaster zones in Haiti, and the Nepali brickyards where children as young as 10 are put to work.

Poverty Encounter is that rare attraction that grabs you by the heart and won’t let go. In fact, the experience ends with guests being offered an opportunity to step into the charity’s working food prep stations to prepare food for shipment to kids in need.

For many in the themed entertainment industry, the conversation of what makes a great attraction has turned from “story is the key” to “transformation is the goal.” Immersive experiences with great stories are compelling, but now we are finally asking what attractions should be compelling visitors to do, or even become.

So now, as we all slouch toward a post-COVID-19 world, attractions like Poverty Encounter will offer visitors new ways to see and impact their world.

The TEA Thea Awards Ceremony and TEA Summit are rescheduled for July,  and Poverty Encounter will receive its due applause, but until then let’s continue to aspire to make attractions that are more than fun, more than entertainment. Let’s make attractions that transform lives.


Mel McGowan, Chief Creative Officer, Storyland Studios

Listen to my conversation with Alissa Whiteley, Director of Poverty Encounter on the Themed Attraction Podcast.