Oh There’s A Great Big Beautiful Assortment (of Reasons People Visit Everyday)

Recently, I was watching an episode of Super Carlin Brothers, a Youtube channel devoted to Disney, Harry Potter, fan-theories, and other miscellaneous pop-culture nerdom and was excited to see a video about their recent trip to Walt Disney World. Alas, the excitement quickly turned to dismay as criticism was turned to none other than Figment from Journey into Imagination. Who was this character, they asked, how dare he have a ride devoted to him when he doesn’t even have a movie or tv show? I felt a knife twist into my heart. No! How can you not understand the brilliance of having an attraction not based on pre-existing IP? Do you not understand the history of this character?

But wait, that’s not all. It wasn’t long after that I, in what seems to be a monthly occurrence,  was watching or reading some top ten list on a theme park blog and wincing as bare steel roller coasters or incoherent monstrosities appeared higher on the lists than classics like Thunder Mountain, Pirates, or new ground-breaking attractions such as Flight of Passage. What!?! How can you even think of comparing Millennium Force with Space Mountain?

But it gets even worse. Routinely I’m dragged into debates on internet forums and blogs about how Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is more groundbreaking than this or that because robot arms > everything, or how Evermore and Star Wars land are going to change the industry because they’re going to bring live action role-playing games to the industry and how immersive that is. Think of the stories. It goes on and on and on a spinning whirlwind as I scream into the abyss, “BUT WAIT THAT’S WHAT NOT THEME PARKS ARE FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!!!!”

For me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a breath. Continue reading “Oh There’s A Great Big Beautiful Assortment (of Reasons People Visit Everyday)”

Only You Guys are Going on This Special Mission

It seems there was a time during the 90s and 00s when no ride could open without us, the guest, being thrust on some mission we didn’t know we were there for. On Dinosaur we were co-opted into rescuing some rosetta stone of a reptile, on Spider-Man thrust into reporting on a man with a levitation-fetish, unwilling science experiments on the Hulk, Alien Rescuers in ET, substituting for crash test dummies on Test Track. Or else we were tourists. Touring an old hotel, touring the galaxy, touring a movie studio, touring some institute, touring an ancient temple – no not of the Forbidden Eye, of Poseidon, touring touring touring. (For a list of exhaustive tropes, including these check out Passport to Dreams). The goal here is admirable. The landscape of themed entertainment was changing bringing with it a new breed of attraction where the audience isn’t just an audience anymore but an active participant in the story. 

However there’s a problem with this and it centers around the concept of cognitive dissonance: when your mind has to hold two contradicting ideas as both true. When an experience asks you to role play, it asks you to put aside your own internal thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and substitute them with what it provides. Generally this doesn’t work out very well in any medium, but it’s particularly difficult in themed entertainment because your own internal thoughts, feelings, and experience are so central to the entire endeavor. Designers often made the mistake of telling stories about us instead of about the worlds we were in. And stories about ourselves that did not and could not mesh with the experiences they were providing.

Continue reading “Only You Guys are Going on This Special Mission”

Please Make Room for Those Needing Special Assistance

In the late 1960s a young army nurse, while trying to protect and restrain an out of control patient, was kicked in the spine and her life was forever changed. While she was spared paralysis, she was told that she would not be able to walk within a few years and would suffer from intense chronic pain the rest of her life. However she proved the doctors wrong and despite the pain, managed to live her life on crutches for the next 50 years and now in her 70s continues to push past more pain than she should ever have to, to try to experience a world that is not built for her as best she can. 

In 2009, the movie Avatar came out and burst box office records. The movie had special significance for this woman, and I imagine many disabled individuals around the country. The film centered around a disabled veteran, like herself, who gets a chance to leave the troubles and frustration of his body behind and experience the joy of being able to take his body for granted again through the Avatar program and use it to go on spectacular adventures. She fell in love with the story, watched it again and again, even had an illustration of Jake riding a banshee join her growing collection of tattoos. You can imagine the excitement she felt when she heard that Disney was going to build the world of Pandora just down the street from her house. She waited eagerly, for over half a decade, for the day to arrive that she too could experience the spectacular sights and journey of the film in real life.

Continue reading “Please Make Room for Those Needing Special Assistance”

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.

The Future is Truly in the Past

This has been something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It seems to me that some problems the themed entertainment industry is facing today could be solved by looking at the way things were done in the past.

For example, a problem that has always plagued theme parks from the beginning is queueing. No one likes it. And yet as parks get more and more popular, the queues grow with them. The problem has been exacerbated over time as the trend in experiences has been for rides to grow increasingly more intimate and ever shorter in duration. The thing is, problems of capacity have been addressed before in the past. Innovations at the 1939 and 64 World’s fairs were instrumental in developing ride systems built to handle enormous crowds. The Omnimover, the flume of boats, the traveling theater, the peoplemover, the carousel theater, even the parking lot tram all trace their roots to these events along with many others. A real priority was placed on moving people as efficiently and with as great a number as possible: On giving a great experience, including the experience of not wasting most of your day waiting for absurd lengths of time in line. Perhaps this was because people were paying for attractions individually, but it was a damn good lesson to learn.

This people-moving philosophy was taken back to Disneyland – new attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion / Inner Space along with the World’s Fair imports moved people in numbers that hadn’t been seen at Disneyland before: multiple thousands per hour. And this philosophy migrated to Florida as well where everything was bigger in 1971 with THRC’s at a minimum of 2000 people an hour for most attractions. And Disney went even bigger again when they built Epcot. A park truly built for massive crowds – where nearly every major ride was a people-swallowing next-gen omnimover. These were attractions that were built to minimize waiting on one hand and to hold on to crowds for long periods of time on the other: pavilions designed that could easily hold guests for multiple hours, rides that might hold on to them for almost as long. World of Motion had a mind-shattering capacity of over 3200 people per hour, a ride length of 15 minutes, and a post show that could take someone a good half hour to walk through.

The designers of Epcot knew how important it was to keep lines moving, to keep them as short as possible, to keep as many people off the streets as possible and inside attractions, restaurants, etc. The larger the ratio of experience time to queue time the better the perceived value becomes, the lower the perceived wait becomes. The less crowded people feel, the more relaxed and happier they feel – more likely to spend more time and more money. This approach continued until the end of the 1980s at Walt Disney World – the last major people eaters probably being The Great Movie Ride and Backlot Tour but the approach continued and was expanded a few miles north at a new competitor.

If Disney was the first to embrace handling large crowds, Universal was the one to really take it in a new direction. Up until that point Disney had mainly addressed the problem by building omnimover and theater after theater after omnimover – but Universal thought of some clever additions to fit their own story style – approaches that I find quite precient given the state of things today.

Universal’s story style has never been passive. While Disney attractions largely have their roots in guests playing a passive bystander or fly on the wall, Universal has always been about thrusting you into the middle of the action: A strategy that doesn’t work terribly well with the features of the traditional ominmover or a theater. Universal instead experimented with ride vehicles that were both agile and large. Perhaps because of the inspiration of their tram tour, rides like Jaws, Earthquake, and Kong sat massive amounts of people within a single vehicle and yet managed to move within detailed and expansive sets in ways that added to the story and still felt intimate. Maybe this has to do with the outsize action common to their early attractions – making the massive vehicles seem miniscule by comparison. 

Another technique that I truly think was brilliant and so far ahead of its time was seen with Earthquake and later Disaster! and also to a lesser extent E.T. These are the first attractions I’m aware of that really sought to integrate the majority of the queueing process into the overall experience – turning a relatively short ride into a much longer attraction. Earthquake by far did this best, and in a way that has still really yet to be seen again, though I’d predict is the key to solving the queueing problem once and for all in the future. Earthquake turned the queue into a multi-stage show. After waiting for a few minutes outside guests were brought inside to see several effects demonstrations, a recorded presentation, participate in a full mock filming of a scene, and only after all of that were shown to their vehicle. It was a Universe of Energy approach where instead of the theaters moving, the guests did. All the elements of what were presented tied together with the final climatic ride. While essentially just multiple elaborate pre shows the effect was to create an attraction with a length closer to 30 minutes and a line of 15 rather than what it really was: a line of 40 minutes and a ride of 5. 

And then sometime in the 90s it seems moving guests quickly, efficiently, and with as little perceived waiting as possible somehow lost its priority. New technologies ushered in an ability to specifically time and craft rides that operated on very intimate levels. Attractions got both shorter and handled fewer people. The 12 person vehicle became popular, then the 6, then the 4. At the same time theme parks got more popular. In the midst of all this the idea was struck that technology could eliminate the queuing problem once and for all. Systems like Fastpass and Universal Express were introduced that in theory would redistribute crowds and make use of underutilized capacity (and push guests into stores and restaurants). In reality, they’ve served to increase the waits of nearly all attractions and overcrowd stores, restaurants, and paths. What’s worse: parks are pursuing these strategies full steam ahead with Universal debuting it’s Tapu bands and virtual queueing for all attractions. This is a mistake unless a fundamental rethink of how a park is designed occurs. Where exactly are the all the people who are not waiting in line going to go? What are they going to do? Only so many meals can be eaten and gift shops visited. Thousands of extra people are now walking the paths of your park with nothing to do – bored and making the park seem infinitely more crowded than it needs to seem.  And while attendance is at all time highs, new E-ticket attractions are routinely built with THRCs less than that of opening day attractions in 1971. Less than that of attractions built in the 1960s. The 2 and 3 hour wait have become expected standards to work off in the design phase – with attractions like Flight of Passage being specifically designed to accommodate that many people or more within their queue walls. 

Flight of Passage has a terrific queue, possibly the best queue ever designed, but yet I can’t help but feel that it’s kind of solving the wrong problem. We shouldn’t be solving how to accommodate three hours worth of standing, grumpy, sweaty tourists in a way that they’ll still feel like riding an attraction at the end and not self-immolating. The problem should be solving how to ensure guests aren’t standing in a line for 3 hours. It’s ridiculous that we’ve reached a point where the building of one of the largest and longest dark rides ever built (Universe of Energy: THRC 2432, 45 minutes long) – a dramatic people eater, is only big enough to hold the queue for what is rumored to be a 3 minute ride. 

How are guests supposed to have a great experience when they’re spending most of their day standing in lines? How are guests supposed to have a relaxing vacation or day out when all their time is spent worrying about meeting their schedule, assigned times, darting back and forth, and whether they’ll be able to do everything on their list and whether they can ever afford to come back? As experience designers, the job is not only to design the amazing experiences within an attraction or park, but it should also be to design the experiences guests have throughout their visit. A trip to a theme park should be relaxing, energizing, an escape from the over-scheduled hustle and bustle and nickel and diming of the real world – a better alternative, not a microcosm.

The whole thesis of this article is that we can look to the past to find ways to help address this problem now. So what solutions can we find? First, capacity targets of attractions have to be increased. It cannot be acceptable for attractions at the most visited parks on earth to handle less than 2000 people an hour . Every effort should be undertaken to find and develop ride systems that can handle 3000 and approach 4000. While these systems may not be practical in all use cases – one has to think they would work in at least some. The pursuit alone would be beneficial. More important than individual capacity is collective capacity – how many total things there are to do in the park and how high each of their capacities are. It wasn’t just that the attractions of opening day Epcot had high capacities, it was that there were many attractions that all had those capacities and could hang on to those people for a long period of time.

Second, find ways to integrate the necessary queuing fully into the experience. Queuing surpassed the days of the simple switchback to the nicely decorated labyrinth long ago and now it needs to graduate from that. Queues must become an integral part of the show. An Act One or Two. This can take creative forms, a queue no longer has to be people standing in line. It can be a room with activities, it can have live entertainment, it can be a show, it can be a form of high-capacity ride. To their credit designers are exploring some of these options now with attractions like Gringotts and some upcoming rides at Disney but it needs to be taken to the extreme. If three hour waits aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, then we need to be creating experiences that fill at least one of those hours. 

Finally, I’d say beware of purely technological fixes to problems. Shuffling guests around can alleviate stress around the edges but it will not be the answer. The people are still there.

This is just one of the many ways that looking to the past of themed entertainment design can help us when looking towards the future. There’s a wealth of novel solutions to problems that are just sitting there forgotten or overlooked. Older modes and styles of design and story could potentially show a way to tame ever-increasing budgets, ways of stocking merchandise and approaches to revenue generation may lead the way to increasing guests sense of value. There’s a wealth of strategies that are just sitting there, that while maybe most have outlived their prime (perhaps precooking all food in a central kitchen days in advance wasn’t a good plan), just a few could save the day.

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.

But it’s all FAKE!

In the Back to the Future sequels there’s this motif of scenes that occurs. Inevitably, events will be moving right along and then someone will say to Marty, “What? Are you chicken?”

Time stops, brakes squeal. Marty is halted in his tracks as the words send an electric shock through his body.

That’s how I feel every time someone says, (cue exasperated valley girl accent) “Ugh but theme parks are so fake!”

Forgive me, but, what is your point?

Seriously, what is your point? Are you offended that Caesar isn’t actually stabbed on stage? Is it a problem for you that Oz was built on a soundstage? Will you not go see The David because it’s made of marble and not a rotting corpse? Please tell me, what are you trying to communicate when you feel the need to point out that there’s speakers in the trees, that the castle isn’t real stone, as if real [read worthy] entertainment is dependent on silent compressed dirt. When you feel the need to point out that we’re not really in Hogsmeade were you somehow under the impression that ever was the goal?

For the love of Walt people, OF COURSE IT’S FAKE.

Continue reading “But it’s all FAKE!”

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.

Why is Mermaid so Bad?

In the last major essay on this blog I discussed an attraction that is commonly held to be one of the best dark rides ever made, Pirates of the Caribbean, and examined some of the techniques used that make it work so well. Today, I’d like to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and look at one of the more ‘meh’ examples of dark ride design in the Disney library.

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and in California, The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure are the long awaited ride adaptations of the classic 1989 animated musical that debuted as part of Florida’s new Fantasyland in 2012 and the revamped California Adventure in 2011. From here on I’ll just refer to them as ‘Mermaid’. For the purposes of this analysis I’ll be focusing mostly on the ride portion of the experiences as these are nearly identical between both coasts. The rides debuted to much fanfare from the Disney PR machine but have had a decidedly negative to, at best, ambivalent reaction among the fan and theme park community. To be clear, the rides are still of high quality and feature some dazzlingly technology, especially when compared to competitors, and many guests still find the experience enjoyable enough. But, I think it is fair to say that for a movie as iconic and beloved as The Little Mermaid the attraction that resulted, even for a ‘C’ or ‘D’ ticket experience as intended, feels underwhelming, and moreover, just off. Even simple dark rides like Peter Pan and Mr. Toad give better experiences. What is it?

Continue reading “Why is Mermaid so Bad?”

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”