That’s Entertainment

Merlin Entertainments Group‘s Mitch Bernstein shares the company’s magic formula and how lessons learned in real estate and facilities management prepared him for the twists and turns of attraction development

Most magicians are rather guarded when it comes to divulging their secrets. Mitch Bernstein, group project director, Midways, for Merlin Entertainments Group—which operates 111 attractions throughout 23 different countries on four continents—doesn’t have those qualms.

As Bernstein points out, Merlin actually has a four-step formula for making magic. The new business developments team finds it, the creative team creates it, the production team produces it and the project-delivery team—you guessed it—delivers the magic. To more weathered and cynical members of the construction and development industries, the Merlin strategy might simply sound like good development practice rather than actual magic. Nevertheless, the projects that Merlin opened in 2015 alone are no small wonders.

On April 29, 2015, Merlin Entertainments Group for the first time in its history opened three attractions on the same day. The opening of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the Orlando Eye observation wheel, and SEA LIFE aquarium at the I-Drive 360 development in Orlando marked the culmination of roughly six years of collaboration, planning, and development. It also signaled a collective success for the company in what Bernstein deems “the theme park capital of the world,” where competition for everything from space to signage is heated.

Just two months later, on June 30, 2015, in London, Merlin opened the Shrek’s Far Far Away Adventure attraction in the historic County Hall building. Although opening a themed attraction based on one of the most successful and familiar movie characters of the past 20 years in one of the most famous cities in the world might not seem like a big deal, Bernstein says trying to get the attraction in a historic building presented a special set of challenges.

“We couldn’t touch the rooms,” he says. “We couldn’t touch floors, we couldn’t touch walls, and we couldn’t touch ceilings.”

Such limitations could doom some developments. Merlin’s solution was to build rooms within rooms to accommodate the attraction. The result is so striking that Bernstein breaks from his more modest project director persona to try getting you on the next flight to Heathrow.

“I’d implore everyone to please go visit this attraction—whether you have kids or not,” he says. “It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Work is Fun (Again)

Given the fact that he’s in charge of delivery teams in Asia, Europe, and the United States that develop attractions tied to exotic sea creatures, Lego, movie heroes, and seemingly everything in between, it’s almost expected when Bernstein refers to the “fun” and “excitement” inherent in his job.

Now in his early 60s, Bernstein says he waited more than 25 years to feel the same kind of verve he did in the early 1980s when he was starting his career as a real estate and facilities manager for Liz Claiborne. Besides being part of one of the fastest growing companies in the country at the time—Bernstein helped the company grow from a $165 million business to a $2.2 billion one—he says he never felt the excitement in business or in working for a dynamic individual like Liz until he joined Merlin in 2009 and began working with the company’s CEO, Nick Varney.

“He’s the kind of guy you want to work for and go through a wall for,” Bernstein says.

That’s not to say the time between Claiborne and Varney is without its merits, however. Bernstein also worked for Tommy Hilfiger, with an advertising firm where he helped rebrand a 35-location nationwide office, built high-end health clubs such as Equinox, and worked as a project-management consultant.

The payoff for all that experience is that although Bernstein is in charge of multiple teams throughout the world, he’s able to work as a guide and mentor rather than a micromanager. He can pass on the skills he’s learned throughout his career and provide advice when complications arise instead of looking over shoulders or holding somebody’s hand through every step of a problem. He also credits his project managers for the work they do and their ability to adapt strategies appropriately to their particular projects or regions.

“It’s very satisfying to be able to give someone the wherewithal to do their job,” Bernstein says. “Do we make mistakes? Do we have hiccups? You’re damn right we do. But we learn from them and move forward.”

Orlando magic

That the three new attractions that buoy I-Drive 360 in Orlando were able to open simultaneously is an impressive feat given that the economy nearly torpedoed the development before it could take shape. Bernstein, who was still new to Merlin in 2009, says he had begun to cost the project, when the recession hit and put the development “on life support.”

The developer added a team of owners to the partnership in 2011, which Bernstein says breathed new life into the project. From there, Bernstein says the team had to determine not only how the development would be structured, but also how each of the three pieces would fit together on site.

The unifying element, he says, was to build an airport-styled arrival terminal in the I-Drive 360 development, which provided a starting point for visitors who want to take in the different attractions. Even with all those pieces coming together, Merlin still faced pushback from other attraction companies that wanted to protect their own interests in the city. It took nearly a year and a half just to get signage for the attractions approved by local government.

Just as his previous experience now helps Bernstein mentor and guide different project teams, he also was able to lean on his time in real estate and facilities management to explain to both developers and local officials what Merlin wanted to achieve.

Having all the pieces come together and the three attractions opening together is a testament to Merlin’s magic formula. It’s a formula that Bernstein says has worked for each of the 111 attractions the company has around the world, and despite the obstacles that might come in seeing each of those projects through, it has all the tangibles of a great roller coaster. “It’s a stress-filled, crazy, grey-haired, joyous ride,” he says.

Sea Life Orlando

Location: Orlando, Florida

Opened: April 29, 2015

Project Size: 25,000 sq. ft.


 I-Drive 360 Madame Tussauds

Location: Orlando, Florida

Opened: April 29, 2015

Project Size: 25,000 sq. ft.

Shrek’s Far Far Away Adventure

Location: London, England

Opened: June 30, 2015

Project Size: 35,000 sq. ft.