Grand Canyon Visitor Center Gets High-Tech Makeover

Benchmark Theater Provides Visitors with Enhanced Learning Experience

What’s the gold standard today for a park or museum visitor center?

Judy Hellmich-Bryan, Chief of Interpretation for the Grand Canyon National Park, believes a great theater should introduce visitors to the key themes of the venue, inspire with compelling audio and video, yet be easy to operate and maintain.

The National Park Service hired a talented producer, Joshua Colover of Newport Beach-based Aperture Films, Ltd. to produce “Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder,” a magnificent 22-minute high-definition movie. The production features the history and geology of the canyon, with a focus on the location as a place of inspiration, deserving of our preservation and stewardship. Systems integrators Charlie and Andy White of AVDomotics of Sedona, AZ, were hired to design a theatrical video system to showcase the movie.

The National Park Service had a unique problem for AVDomotics to help solve: managing large crowds expected to visit the center and view the new film.

“We have about four and a half to five million visitors each year at the Canyon’s South Rim,” Bryan explains. “We expect to see 750,000 to one million of them at the theater.” 

Four key attributes

In Bryan’s opinion, a visitor’s center theater serving a venue as popular as the Grand Canyon should have four key attributes:

1. It needs to reflect the highest video and audio standards. Today that’s 1080p high definition video, with 5.1 to 7.1 surround sound, delivered at full bandwidth, from an all-digital signal path.

2. It needs to be fully automated. Budgets are tight so the system needs to be self-sufficient, requiring minimal staff management.

3. It needs to be reliable. System failures and delays are not an option when the venue hosts 3,000 to 4,000 visitors each day.

4. It should flexible enough to handle staff meetings and special events, avoiding the need to build or rent additional meeting spaces.

Building the theater

Bryan says the process of designing the theater went hand in hand with producing the video. “We started planning the film and the theater concurrently in 2007,” she says. Colover and his crew started shooting in 2009 and finished in 2010, but did not complete the editing process until April of this year.

By the fall of 2010, the theater was under construction and the AV system was in progress, but the general contractor was not happy with the system design. "The original AV contractor was not able to meet the design requests so AVDomotics stepped in. We looked at the designs and said, ‘you can do this much more efficiently and intelligently,’” says Charlie White, AVDomotics CTO.

AVDomotics recommended a new design using all of its key components from one manufacturer, Crestron Electronics of Rockleigh, NJ. Crucial to this design was an all-digital signal transport system based on the Crestron DigitalMedia™ product line.

“With Crestron integrated components, we were able to re-design the system with functionality and performance far greater than the original design at a lower overall cost,” White says.

The system handles audio and video signals. DigitalMedia accepts 1920 x 1080 (or higher) resolution video and high-definition 5.1 (or higher) surround sound from a hard-drive based media server. DigitalMedia transports the content to sources including the projector and sound system from an IP network using HDMI, twisted-pair or fiber with literally no degradation of signal quality. “The projected image looks every bit as good as the edited master Aperture produced in their studio,” White says.

A Crestron AV2 processor handles all of the system controls, including scheduling and automation, using a six-inch diagonal touch-sensitive panel for staff input or changes. AVDomotics also used Crestron PROCISE™ surround-sound processor, amplifiers and a Crestron programmable power supply in the equipment rack. “Because all this gear was designed to be used together, installation and programming was much easier and less expensive,” White says. “We were able to program the system to provide detailed feedback on every aspect of the system from power input monitoring to projector bulb life. ” Diagnostics are available to quickly and efficiently handle maintenance or troubleshooting.

The system design provided complete automated control of all systems, running the theater 365 days a year without the need for staff input other than any schedule changes.


Day to day use

With the Crestron systems in place, the theater virtually runs itself. Each morning, the system powers up, the lights turn on and a countdown timer outside the theater entrance begins. The system allows for the projector and sound system to warm up before the first viewing. When the film ends, the lights automatically turn on and the doors open. The process repeats itself 20 times each day (16 times in the winter) and after the last show, the system shuts down until the next morning.

AVDomotics tied the fire alarm system into the AV system. If an emergency occurs, the film stops, the lights turn on and the doors open automatically.

The system also includes assisted listening and open captioning for hearing impaired visitors, plus audio description for the blind and visually impaired. “We provide headphones that give visitors a descriptive audio interpretation of the film,” explains Bryan.

When the park hosts a meeting or special event, staff can override the automated system and project presentation visuals from a computer or Blu-ray® player, addressing the audience from wireless lavaliere or handheld microphones. The system accepts analog and digital inputs so anyone can connect to the system.

“We hosted a Star Party in the theater where astronomers provided a tutorial on the night sky for visitors, and they were able to easily connect their laptops to our system,” notes Bryan.

Bryan says the film and theater’s new design have been well-received by park visitors. “Word has spread about the new theater,” she says.

Bryan’s only concern now is whether the 230-seat theater is large enough for the amount of daily visits. “We have not been over capacity yet, but that could change in the coming years.”