Theme Park Musing #5

The more I think about it, the more I feel that if themed or experiential entertainment ever wants to be used to cover more serious subject matter or broaden the type of stories it can tell we’re going to have to see a return of the abstract to the medium.

For example, say you wanted to tell the story of a grieving widow and say something about the intense power of grief and how to eventually make piece with it. In a literal themed entertainment world, where everything has to have a justication, how can you tell this story? The impulse I think in a VR experience might be to put you in a first person POV to see the events that happen to her from that angle. If you were building a ride you might be put in a funeral carriage and see the funeral.

Do you see how these approaches are limiting? Dare I say inappropriate? A first person POV merely shows you what she saw, and strips you away of a character to empathize with. Gives you no idea how she felt. A funeral carriage ride is something out of a black comedy and would have difficulty telling the story through mere vignettes. And literal conventions might have the grim reaper start chasing after us. Which is again besides the point.

But what about a journey through memory and the landscapes of the grief-ridden mind? THAT could be powerful. The landscapes and creatures within could conjure up terror and compassion directly in the audience as they experience it themselves and memories playing within could create the story of the widow herself. But if we do this through current literal practices the impact might be wiped away. How do we get inside her mind? A new sophisticated shrinking ray? An inception like system to get into her dream world? Why do we need to burden ourselves with such conceits when they detract from the story we’re trying to tell? Instead of trying to make the experience literally real let it be an abstraction to let the emotional and metaphorical reality manifest.

Perhaps we enter her house and see that something is wrong. It’s a mess. No one has cleaned in weeks. We move into another room where photos are all gathered by a chair. All feature the same man. On the TV the same home video of a happy couple living their life loops.

We enter a black space. An excerpt of a diary is the only visual – projected on the wall is reads “Frank is dead”. A chain of unadorned black vehicles moves underneath it and we board.

We hear the sounds of a woman sobbing as we enter a cavern pouring with waterfalls. In the waterfalls one can see those home video images again. Perhaps in another scene we’re in a dark forest and terrifying animals chase us. And at the end, after seeing the funeral first hand, maybe we come across that TV near a window and it turns off. A sunrise is seen peaking from behind. Another black room and a excerpt from a diary appears “but I am alive”

Obviously this would be fleshed out farther – but the potential that the abstract gives us is immense – and is why I’m such a fan of presentational design. It lets you dive into the heart of a theme without being burdened by conceit. Is it always the right approach, probably not. The literal approaches have their own benefits to offer. But together I think is where magic can happen.

Theme Park Musing #4

Original Photo found here

I feel this is a good example of the approach to themed design that was taken in the early days of Disney and kept going in some form until the end of Presentationalism in the late 80s or early 90s.

Mermaids don’t literally belong in a land about the future of real life. And submarines don’t literally belong circling a lagoon at the base of the Matterhorn while a monorail circles over-head – unless you want to concoct some story about how this is deep in the future after nuclear wars and climate change have ravaged the earth. The oceans now are at the base of the Alps, civilization has returned, and humans’ mutated ocean dwelling descendants live peacefully with their still original type human breatheren. Not quite the same tone.

But no that’s not what’s going on here. Rather than a landscape formed by an explicit story, this a landscape that’s channeling more abstract, symbolic thinking – something Carl Jung I bet would have a lot to say about. The point isn’t to create a logical coherence, but an emotional right-brain one. This is something Walt was instinctively good at and occurred all over the park. Disneyland as a whole functioned as a landscape of the dream world and collective unconscious rather than the literal world. Environments and attractions weren’t based on necessarily how something is or should exist – but on how people imagine or expect to exist. It’s an environment built on mental associations. From the moment the body of water the submarines were to circle around was conceptualized as a crystal clear lagoon (another more symbolic reality than literal) it became obvious that mermaids should swim in it – because that’s what happens in the crystal clear blue lagoons of the mind. Disneyland conjures landscapes of the imagination and is better off for it. And while I immensely enjoy the insanely detailed literal and concrete (pun intended) hyper-real landscapes of the Rohde school – particularly because he and his team alone really seem to understand what is necessary to make that sort of approach work – I wish that themed entertainment designers would understand that that approach is not the only way, nor often the best way, and there are at least two other options just waiting to return to the stage if someone bothered to look (or was free to).

I’m not asking for a return of mermaids to the lagoon – the whole situation kind of was drenched in 1950s misogyny – but god I want the freedom of that sort of abstract and free-associative thinking to be allowed to make a comeback. Granted as long as we’re in the IP age that seems hard to do.

Theme Park Musing #3

You know it’s ironic…modern ride systems give you the ability to time vehicle movement and scene interaction to the microsecond giving a supremely individual experience and yet…

This ability is actually a trade off. The more control you exert over the specific Movement of the ride vehicle and scene elements the less control you have over the actual amount of time spent in any one scene.

Think of it like this: in an omnimover, or freefloating boat ride the vehicles are essentially a chain moving at a constant speed. Because of this the scenes play on loop – meaning that it doesn’t matter when a vehicle enters or leaves the scene. A scene can be as long or as short as you wish because nothing has to reset for the next vehicle.

Now look a ride with individual cars and scenes that are specifically triggered for each vehicle. While it’s an oversimplification, essentially each scene is limited to being exactly the duration of the dispatch interval between vehicles – because the vehicle has to leave whatever scene element in time for it to reset and be triggered by the next vehicle.

So even though in the latter case I can control exactly when the thing will trigger, and can control exactly where the vehicle is, what I can’t do is really have any control of how long the scene is.

Now my background is as an editor – telling stories with pictures and audio over time. And one of the most crucial storytelling tools is the proper use of pacing – imagine how handicapping it would be if every shot or every scene in a movie had to be the exact same length – that really affects your ability to use rhythm and pacing to affect the audience – instead resorting to how fast the shots move or how many things happen within a certain amount of time.

It’s a well known criticism in the theme park community I think that many modern attractions really struggle when it comes to pacing – things often continue to get thrown in your face one after another with no downtime. More attention should be paid to it….and while that can be done without going completely back to looping scenes, I do wonder if perhaps the reason that so many of the old grand attractions resonated so well is they were at great liberty to vary the pacing, vary the size and duration of scenes to their hearts content – much more able to tell the story with the use of space itself. I’m not sure, but I’m leaning towards yes.

Of course, then the question becomes, how do you get the best of both worlds? How do you get precise control of vehicle speed, position, and triggering of effects but retain the ability to make scenes as long or as short as you wish? I think there are probably ways to do it, and perhaps we’re starting to see it in small places, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

Actually, this is probably why the omnimover is such a great ride system – you get full control over the duration, and scale of scenes by having looping scenes but also get precision storytelling through the use of triggered audio and narration within the vehicle.

Note: this is really more a discussion about triggered scenes and events, vs. non-triggered scenes than it is ride-systems. And a discussion about whether you’re aware of other riders and becoming aware of their perspective of the show or not. They just tend to be related.

Theme Park Musing #2

What’s your take on the frozen ride at epcot?

I actually like the Frozen ride at Epcot, especially considering they had to adapt an existing ride track to a completely different kind of story. The animatronics are jaw-dropping, it does a good job at capturing some of the feelings and emotions and beats of the movie (and songs) while still being original enough to offer some novelty. In short, it gets right pretty much everything Mermaid gets wrong. There are some bits of weirdness since its an overlay. The backwards portion, and final drop are somewhat unmotivated and the lift hill being the “climb” to the mountain is a good idea that feels a little forced. And a viking longboat is probably not the vehicle you’d have chosen if you were designing from scratch. But those are pretty minor issues, what they deliver in a fun experience overshadows their lack of narrative necessity – perhaps largely because the bones of the previous ride layout beats were well constructed to begin with. And I love that they combined load and unload to give 2 new scenes, and that new scene post drop. Definitely a stroke of brilliance there. In short, it’s probably one of the best D tickets around.

My issues with the attraction all come from a more aerial perspective. For starters it was downright idiotic to give a property as popular as Frozen to a ride with as limited a capacity and small a queue space as Maelstrom. That ride was designed as like a D ticket in the freaking 80s. Frozen could easily eat up the capacity of Universe of Energy and Flight of Passage combined for the next decade. So that was a dumb, shortsighted move presumably motivated by a desire to make it happen as fast and cheap as possible. Or perhaps it was brilliant move, factoring in what Epcot will look like in 2030. I don’t know if I want to give the company that much credit though.

And speaking of that other elephant in the room, there’s the question of whether the ride belongs in Epcot at all. While the course of events that led to its placement in Epcot sort of make sense (it was the park most in need of a new addition at the time, and MK-the logical choice, needs an attendance boost like Joe Rohde needs a bigger earring.) from a creative standpoint it’s definitely problematic. I honestly don’t know where I stand. Thematically, it doesn’t belong in the Epcot of 1982. That was a park focused on adults, on the world, on real life, on culture, on humanity, on education and high-brow entertainment. But Disney has been running away from that Epcot since 1982, arguably even since Walt died, resulting in the schizophrenic park we have today. If Disney has recognized it doesn’t have the desire, or courage, to pursue that (which I think it finally has – the alternatives to reinforce the Disney brand as it stands today are just too tempting to the underlying business) then perhaps it has realized it’s better if Epcot was something different altogether. The Disney of today is a different company than of yesterday, focused much more on cultivating its brand through the use of specific properties and sub-brands rather than more vague ethereal notions of a certain type and quality of experience. Epcot transitions from being about the real world and the places within to the Disney world and the things that happen there. The countries within World Showcase are the backdrop for your own adventures with the characters that reside there or near there instead of being about the countries themselves. And futureworld instead of being about humanity’s optimism about the future and the faith in our ingenuity to solve the problems of the world, is again turned more into a backdrop of just “the future, technology, and such”. The structure of the park, once deeply embedded with its meaning becomes more of a plot device to tell the stories they want to tell. In some respects, perhaps this a better option, considering that the ideals of the original Epcot were always tainted by the pressures of the corporate influence that were necessary to get it built and stay operating. Although, ironically Disney is probably now better positioned than at any time in its past to create that original vision without need of corporate sponsors. And Disney’s current target audience is likely not nearly as interesting in edutainment, learning on vacation, or having a high-brow experience. I am, but I’m also the person that listens to a couple dozen hours of NPR a week and is currently reading Carl Jung. I’d argue that Disney (and theme parks in general) are shooting themselves in the foot in the long run by narrowing the audience they target to such a narrow range, are narrowing the world-changing potential of what themed entertainment can be, but god that is a discussion for another day. Anyway….

Frozen absolutely fits in that Epcot, the new one that is being developed before our eyes. With Ratatouille in France, Poppins in the UK, Aladdin in Morocco, Guardians of the Galaxy and Mission:Space in Futureworld – yes it totally fits. For better or worse, it’s the direction Epcot has been unconsciously headed in for a long, long time from the moment characters started meeting and greeting there. And given that it’s been happening unconsciously already, I’d much rather them start consciously shaping it that way so it’ll at least have the hand of a unifying voice again.

So yeah that’s a lot more than you asked, but you asked me.

Theme Park Musing (#1?)

Occasionally I write some thoughts about design but not fully fleshed out enough to be an essay. Going to try to post those  here more often then just on the tumblr. I’ve written quite a few, but I think this is the first one here  so I’m gonna call it #1 

I think when designing attractions it’s essential to remember that they do not tell stories in the way that we’re used to. They have more in common with dance or music than movies or books.
Movies, books, and plays tell stories through the use of characters, dialogue, and their interactions. They all essentially rely on the written or spoken word to create their story.
Dance and music are different. To say a ballet gets it’s meaning through the synopsis in the program is ludicrous. It’s a useful tool that gives the dance clarity and context, but the actual story is told primarily through movement.
I think the danger we face when trying to create attractions, especially as time goes on and we try to imbue more meaning and complex, multidimensional stories into them, is that we focus too much on the characters, dialogue, backstory, and story in the traditional, written, sense rather than using the medium at hand. We’re at danger of giving immense attention to songs’ lyrics while giving only marginal attention to the music itself. Lyrics give clarity and specificity to music, but truly good music conveys the essence of that story with just the melody and harmony itself.
@pureimagineering defines Story as someone wanting something badly and something getting in the way. (Paraphrased). I think I’d broaden that definition though and say the essence of Story, and really theme as well is a progression of emotions generally involving conflict and release, that is shared between the storyteller and audience. We usually channel that emotional progression into metaphors of characters, events, circumstances, and themes. Most types of storytelling require the storyteller to assign all or most of these for the audience. Written and spoken language require specific abstraction to relate ideas and meaning. But music and dance don’t. It can help make sure everyone is on the same page but doesn’t really affect the outcome. A truly well written song will convey its story and meaning with or without lyrics. Lyrics just take a song about grief and give nuance about the death of a specific person and guide the audience in interpretation. However it’s worth noting that audiences often strip away details that they have difficulty empathizing with or are irrelevant to their life and insert their own experiences instead. See the popularity of “part of your world”. I’d dare say most people can relate to being a mermaid wanting to be in the human world. In fact, these days, most people probably wish to be AWAY from the human world. The written story of the song acts as a way to give specificity to a broader musical statement about longing and wanting to be part of something. Surely the song wouldn’t function as well without that attached cipher, but I’d argue any similar lyrical statement would work just as well. And the lyrics without the music, or attached to the tune of Yankee Doodle would largely be a footnote in history. Indeed, in musical theatre (and Alan Menken’s work in particular) the “I want” song is a classic staple – often the most popular song of any show, and they tend to have very similar musical features. The same story is being told musically, again and again.
And if audiences are bound to insert their own specifics into a story, then it’s up to us to craft the larger framework of emotion that will direct what experiences they choose so they arrive at the intended meaning.
Anyway, this is all to say, that themed entertainment is a storytelling medium where stories are told through ENVIRONMENTS, spaces, objects, and the progression of those locations. Yes there are characters and setups that can help clarify and direct the intended meaning, but they should merely be channeling the story that’s already around them. It’s insanely important for designers to remember this. To not use the medium at hand is akin to writing lyrics for a song and then slapping them on the first melody that syllabically fits.

I think the comparison in storytelling between books/movies/theatre and music and how that relates to themed entertainment is interesting for another reason too.

Books/movies/plays tend to have a bias towards very dramatic arcs in emotion whereas songs tend to have a bias towards relishing in one particular emotion with a much subtler arc.

In part I think this is due to length. The most popular manifestations of the written word mediums are novels, feature films/long form television, and 2 hr plays. Music’s most popular form is the song. When compared to a full album, opera, movement, or symphony (or to the short story, an episode of a serialized tv show, chapter, or scene)you start to see similar ranges.

But the question then becomes what are the equivalents in themed entertainment? Is a park equivalent to a play or symphony and each attraction is merely a scene or movement? Or is each attraction an entire movie unto itself and the park is more of a library? Or is an entire attraction just a part of a scene, or just a song relishing in one feeling, the land the scene, and the park the whole work?

I don’t really think there’s an answer yet and maybe the beauty of themed entertainment is that we won’t be bogged down by presiding notions of how much time and space a story warrants. Disneyland might function more as a library of self contained adventures that are only broadly related while Animal Kingdom is a much more carefully crafted overall story with each land providing supporting scenes. And they’re both great!

I think it’s safe to say in general that as time has gone on the scope of Story has changed from individual attraction, to land, and it’s leaning towards park now.
I certainly think the ambition though among those of us that see the potential of themed entertainment is to see a truly fractal park. Where the park is a masterwork of Story/theme and each contributing smaller portion echoes that theme and adds to it. And hell in my ideal WDW fantasy the entire resort still creates an overarching idea. (Humanity And Hope for the Future).
But it’s worth noting that this is only one approach, even if most of it see it a bit like the holy grail. A library approach is legitimate too – and when done well (aka organized) might even be a more satisfying experience. I think the interesting thing about Disneyland is the diversity of experiences it offers-not only in themes, but in the arcs of attractions. Some attractions are entire play-like stories. And others are much more song-like. And scale and duration don’t necessarily determine which is which.

So yeah the medium is new and there’s a lot that hasn’t been conventionalized. I would add though, that if the norm becomes attractions that take 2-3 hours from the moment you enter the queue to the moment you exit then we should really be thinking hard about the kind of stories being told in those attractions. In the past an attraction being equivalent to a song, scene, or movement has worked well – but I’m not sure anyone wants to listen to the same song for 2 hours unless it’s more like an opera.