Theme Park Musing #6

The problem when you only want to use IP, is that you really start to narrow the scope of your offerings and everything starts becoming a bit homogenized. How many nighttime spectaculars can you have that feature the same dozen or two films? The same ones that all the rides you went on were based on, and the shows, and the food, and shops, and merchandise, and supplementary experiences, etc.

Don’t get me wrong I think the use of IP can be great, and Disney – for example – certainly has a lot of good ones. But still a family visiting the resort for the week in  the world of a nonstop barrage of princesses and Pixar is going to be overloaded. And the target audience becomes smaller as well – only people who want to be overloaded with Mickey and friends. The beauty of WDW as it was for a long time, and still a bit to this day is the breadth of what is offered. Each park gives a different experience, a different tone, etc. Unique one of a kind of experiences like Hoop Dee Doo, La Nouba, the Safari, World Showcase, etc all are products worthy of a Disney name – but they’re Disney because they’re family oriented and they’re quality, not because they fit in with a tightly vertically integrated set of brands.

And this IP issue applies to all parks, not just Disney. Why limit yourself to a narrow catalog of flavors that have been hashed and rehashed and arguably no one wants in the first place? You risk turning your parks from interesting one of a kind experiences into just another manifestation of the toy section at Walmart.

It’s really a push to commoditize – to turn everything into a franchise; and frankly theme parks have historically served to get us away from the mass francisization of the rest of our world – places full of unique individuality. Instead, today they’re becoming prime examples of that process – shopping malls mercilessly cut into distinct marketing verticals.

There’s room for some of this to happen, room for a lot of it to happen without ruining what is there – but that room isn’t endless and the trends are worrying. Theme parks, like any form of art, need to be able to stand on their own, not just be an elaborate merchandising and advertising branch of their parent company. People can sense that and sure they’ll visit because they’re interested- but people visit World of Coke or the Hershey Factory once or twice. They don’t form emotional bonds with them – and if you want your guests to keep coming back – like the current crop of guests you’re relying on – you need to create those emotional bonds which means you need to create something that actually says and means something and isn’t hollow. That’s why the current crop of guests is so loyal – because of the decades of attachment and experiences that have preceded.

And furthermore for theme parks to be successful,memorable, impactful – they need to be cohesive, they need to have a point of view, they need to have themes in the narrative sense – not in the Birthday party sense. Otherwise they’re forgettable and trivial. This is obvious to anyone who has been to a castle park, Animal Kingdom, old Epcot, Disney Sea, and even Islands Of Adventure to a degree. And yet it’s continually ignored by people in charge.

Anyway this rant has gone on long enough – and I am optimistic, the people at the top might not have their priorities in great places but the people in creative positions do. The people that work at Pixar and Disney animation have worked out a nice balance of being able to tell great meaningful stories while still balancing the needs of the corporate overlords and that leaves me hopeful that the same can happen in the theme park world as well. And I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot of underutilized IP that should have been turned into attractions ages ago – what we see these days is in no small part a reaction to that. And maybe one day, almost certainly one day, new unique experiences will again be a priority – breadth, variety, and novelty will be the new vertical integration as business strategies constantly shift. But at any rate it’s still frustrating, and worrying, and we’ll just have to see what happens.

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.