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?”

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.

Continue reading “Why is Pirates so Good?”

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.

Fox Hunt – Process

Lot’s of people always seem interested in process, I certainly know I am, and I’m continually told that as an aspiring theme park designer it’s what people who are in the hiring (or grad school admissions) positions really want to see. And while that’s very much one of the purposes of this site, I think perhaps it’s useful to dive in deeper when I have opportunities to do it. And this is one of those cases. Continue reading “Fox Hunt – Process”

Jolly Holiday Storyboards!

I’ve started working on some story boards for Jolly Holiday. They’re kind of crap but it’s nice to have something. I’ve gotten up to the carousel scene. (You can see how the quality drops as I got tired and started to speed up lol). Let me know what you think!

For more information on this attraction check out this page.

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”