Why is Pirates so Good?

Theme park fans are an interesting bunch of people. We consist of everything from blue collar vacationers, hipster theatre auteurs, oh-so-serious designers, cosplaying character seekers, internet attached reporters, teenage thrill seekers, retired day-trippers, and every combination in between. And in this diverse group debates rage on pretty often  around themes of what themed entertainment should be, who it should target, and what its ambitions should be. Entertainment? Thrills? Inspiration? Escape? Community? Fun? It’s interesting that in a world that caters itself to so many different niches of preference, that one attraction comes up again and again as a shining example of common ambition. Seemingly almost everyone continually agrees that the original Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is one of, if not the, best themed attractions ever built. So what makes Pirates so great? Why does it work so well? 

Well, of course no discussion about the excellence of Pirates would be complete without taking a moment to state an obvious reason; the ride is a showcase of technical and artistic perfection. The set and lighting design is wonderful and detailed, the sculpture worthy of galleries, the sound design multilayered, the building comfortably cool, and the acoustics better than even many attractions and theaters built today. Those features are foundational to creating any truly great entertainment experience. It’s tempting to say that that is the reason Pirates always stands out: the scale of the sets, and quantity of animatronics, duration of the ride, effectiveness of the effects, and the overall detail create an immersive environment that just really excels. And while all of that certainly plays a role, I think the idea that lavishness alone creates amazing attractions is a bit of a myopic conclusion: one that seems to be playing an increasing role in the design of new attractions and even more in their publicity. The idea that absurdly grand environments and obsessively detailed story are what make something immersive is true, but is also a limited understanding of the word ‘immersion’.

  See, ‘immersion’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in the popular lexicon – being used to describe everything from the upcoming Star Wars land and groundbreaking theatrical experiments to cell phones screens and restaurant menus. Even in the theme park world, the word can be overused and find generic meaning. Even when it is used to describe experiences that genuinely transport, this is often achieved narratively, architecturally, or with details, props, and backstory. And while there is no doubt that those techniques are crucial they also only get Pirates halfway to being the flagship that it is. So much more comes from the design of the attraction structure itself and the way it immerses the rider into those environments and story. Pirates chooses to immerse you viscerally and emotionally in the way the experience unfolds. It uses the physical space and the progression of that space to affect techniques of hypnosis and patterns of dreams to immerse experientially, not just thematically. And that focus on the experiential story of the audience itself is what makes all the difference.

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Pandora: The World of Avatar Review

One of the great benefits about the intersection between having a summer birthday, being an only child, and belonging to a family that lives in Orlando is there’s always ample reason to come down and visit the brand new attractions that open every summer. And that’s how I got to experience Pandora this past weekend.

Where to begin. As about a million bloggers have already stated, the land is fantastic. It’s detailed, beautiful, and pretty much defines what a modern immersive environment should be. It’s flaws are relatively minor and easily overlooked. My only regret of visiting was that I didn’t have more time to more fully absorb it and experience it at night.  I’m going to break the land down into its individual parts and address each. So let’s get started.  Continue reading “Pandora: The World of Avatar Review”

On theme and the future

Before today’s Presentation gets underway I just want to throw out some thoughts about Epcot.

Future World was never about the future or technology or science fiction but about Humanity, our interactions with each other and the world, and the history and future history of ourselves.

World showcase was never just about being a world tour of architecture and food. It was about Humanity and our cultures – a giant expansion of the premise in It’s a Small World, outlining a hope for respect, celebration, and curiosity regarding our differences.

The reason the combination of what had been designed as two separate parks worked so well is that together the two halves functioned as a singular thesis detailing the history of ourselves and where we hoped to go.

Joe Rohde has a quote about theme parks fundamentally needing to have a theme in the literary sense – a moral or idea to explore that’s at the center of all the experiences. And I think much of what we’ve seen in the theme park world in recent years, specifically Disney has been a loss or modification of that principle – whether it’s because Disney has lost sight of it or because we’re in a huge period of transition remains to be seen. I honestly think this is what made most Disney parks unique from other parks even if the company didn’t realize they were doing it.

The magic kingdom/Disneyland is about childhood and the shared myths of a country that has influenced much of the dreams of the world. Epcot was about Humanity and our interactions with each other and place in it. Animal Kingdom is about Nature and Humans relationship with it. These deep themes give the parks resonance. It’s revealing that the one park in Florida that only had a subject (movies) but no real theme, is the park that has suffered the most over the years.

The parks in Florida by all accounts have been and are heading into one of the biggest periods of change in the resort’s history, and the parks worldwide and industry have been seeing large shifts in the business model, what attractions consist of, etc. I’m not inherently opposed to change. Change is often difficult, especially when it involves the destruction of something you have fond memories of, but it can also be exciting and an opportunity. There is a trend amongst Disney fans on the internet that become aghast at almost any change and that’s not what this essay is about. As long as theme parks are viewed primarily as entertainment and not art by the public, and as long as their business model relies on people coming back, parks will always have to keep themselves fresh, deliver new experiences, and change to accommodate culture. And frankly the most interesting parks are the ones that have been around the longest and seen these changes mold their landscape over time – a completely artificial reality somehow becoming just as rich of a place as any other.

My only concern is that in this particular period of change there does seem to be the potential for that guiding principle of theme in that literary sense to be forgotten. Change in theme would be hard but forgivable and maybe even beneficial in the long term but a loss of theme results in a fundamentally different experience – a day long experience where all experiences inform each other becomes a day long hodge-podge of corporate branding and it is literally only the presence of that underlying theme, story, whatever you want to call it, that prevents that from happening.

I really am excited about the upcoming announcements and am largely confident about the future of the parks around the world. The beauty of time and history is that even when a pendulum swings too far it tends to swing back. But nevertheless these worries do run in my mind. I worry about the public perception of the company and how that ripples across generations. I worry about how certain trends in themed entertainment design create dogma that excludes other types of experiences from being created – experiences or styles that used to be central to the medium and still have utility. And I worry about the park naive enough to theme itself to all of Humanity and by so doing became a park with the most potential to do something meaningful with the tools of themed entertainment besides just entertain – that it might decide to abandon that potential in favor of an easier end.

The movies we enjoy most are those that tell us something about ourselves – that do more than than just offer fuzzy, funny characters and action sequences. If you can deliver the fuzzy, funny, the frenetic AND the deep meaning, or theme, then you have the worldwide hit. And Disney gets this. They churn out movies with that formula all the time. Here’s hoping they use it again.

In Praise of Traditionalism

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Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is probably the pinnacle of traditional design.

Okay, since I constantly seem to get sidetracked by this issue any time I try to write anything about theme parks, I might as well talk about it now.

First some quick definitions. David Younger in his fantastic book aptly titled “Theme Park Design” (add link) outlines a few different design styles that have been applied to theme parks in their relatively short history. Here they are along with their (paraphrased) definitions.

Traditional: the classic form of design that originated with Disneyland that seeks to immerse you in environments. Characteristics include almagations of different kinds of spatial entertainment (not just rides), a trend towards experiential vs explicit story, loose theming. Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion.

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The Trend Towards (new) Immersion

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter undoubtably set in motion a new immersion standard.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter undoubtably set in motion a new immersion standard.

Alrighty, a big topic to start off with lol. Just as a warning, this post doesn’t exactly have a thesis – there’s a lot of ground to cover, more it’s a bunch of half developed observations. Take it as fair warning that my biggest flaw as a writer is keeping myself focused.

Has anyone else noticed just how prevalent the terms “immersive” or “immersion” have become in the themed entertainment world? It seems I can’t even read a press release for a  new merry-go-round without coming across a sentence like,

“this ground-breaking new attraction featuring a brand new type of rotating mechanism immerses the rider into the world of wooden horses and carousels of old like never before.”

Hyperbole and the focus on ride system aside (topics for another day) there’s that damn word again: a concept encompassing perhaps the absolute pinnacle of themed design being reduced to a buzzword completely devoid of any of it’s original meaning. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is immersive. Radiator Springs is immersive. The Rivers of America is immersive (I can hear some shouts about that last one coming my way already – I’ll get to it). The Simpsons land at Universal Orlando is not immersive. Nor is the despicable me attraction. Nor is a lot of the theme park world. But that’s not a bad thing, especially when the focus on immersion in the modern era seems ever so more emphasized not on the concept of immersion itself, but on a particular subtype of it. Continue reading “The Trend Towards (new) Immersion”