Theme Park Musing #8 – Disneyland’s Theme

People tend to analyze Disneyland as a thematic treatment of America and American mythology – which is definitely an accurate reading – and the optimistic point of view is often characterized more as like a tone or even a flaw. But sitting here this morning listening to Put on your Sunday clothes (a song that plays on Main Street and about relentless aspiration) it’s occurring to me that perhaps even more than American mythology optimism itself IS the theme of Disneyland. It runs through every land and every attraction and is reflected back at us through various lenses (namely American, white, upper middle class lenses). In fact I think the general critique so often heard might be exactly backward: that the theme of Disneyland isn’t about America with an overly optimistic lens it’s about optimism with an overly American lens. And that its flaws (if they are to be considered flaws) come from that.

Each land in the park reflects a distinct period of either history or culture where optimism and hope for a better tomorrow are at its zenith, at least from that lens. That IS the common thread. We enter Main Street USA right at the turn of the century – a period before the depression and before the World Wars where the marvels of technology are making life better on what seems a daily basis. Where steam trains carry us off onto exciting destinies, where everything is colorful and rosy, architecture is over the top, and people wear their Sunday best every day. People in this sleepy town coming into its own dream of the people they’ll be one day, the things they will achieve, the wondrous things that await them, and whadaya know at the far end of the street a shimmering castle beckons them forward towards their dreams – a symbol of things to come.

At the hub a series of adventures await us – each a microcosm of the same story. In Adventureland a “untamed” jungle is awaiting man to conquer it, unveil it’s riches and/or unveil itself as the tropical paradise it was always meant to be. A similar story awaits in Frontierland where the promise of manifest destiny is new, gold awaits, and the horizon is limitless. In New Orleans Square it’s a party all the time and a reflection of the promise of the west, both a realization and one of the last stepping off points before the frontier. In Walt Disney World this theme is even better reflected as Liberty Square and revolutionary America is swapped in – another era in which fears and darkness are cast off in favor of a new vision of what a better tomorrow could look like. On the other side of the hub, a literal vision of tomorrow, Tomorrowland reflects what Main Street might look like in hundreds of years: technology has fulfilled it’s promise, no one wants for anything, the world and universe are at peace, convenience and leisure are everywhere, and all sorts of transportation are waiting to whisk you off to literally anywhere you please. And finally Fantasyland, usually the hardest land to fit into the “americana” interpretation, fits perhaps most with the optimistic and hopeful theme and is fittingly at the heart of the park. Here we see a land inhabited by characters with often terrible pasts, overcome them and achieve their dreams. Snow White and Dumbo overcome abuse and trauma. Peter Pan teaches children to fly, an archetypal metaphor, and hold onto their childhood.  Mr. Toad has crazy fun with friends, Pinocchio and Geppetto get their wish and overcome heartache and fear and loneliness. Alice escapes the doldrums of victorian life, etc, etc. And off in the back corner of the park, which I’m sure if it had been designed from day one, would have laid straight back from the castle: the end of the yellow brick road as it were,  lies a monument towards optimism, cooperation, and a better tomorrow again in the form of “it’s a small world.” It’s telling us that to achieve the dreams of the future it will take all of us uniting together.

Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom therefore are really embodiments  of the Disney ethos of their time: a strong conviction that the world is an exciting amazing place and no matter how bad things might have been or look to you now, a great big beautiful tomorrow lies just a dream away. And notably, that it’s up to us as a whole to take us there. The lands not only celebrate optimism but human achievements in realizing that optimism  – whether it’s man conquering the jungle or frontier, the creation of a modern democracy, or characters escaping their haunting pasts. The park even tells us that death isn’t to be feared but enjoyed! (The haunted mansion). Perhaps it’s no surprise that these parks are more popular than ever before, given the world we find ourselves living in at the moment. 

The flaws in the park’s treatment then, aren’t the optimism itself, but rather the somewhat outdated, very white, very American, very classed stories it chooses to tell – particularly on the western side of the park (and perhaps with its historic coziness with monopolistic corporations as well) that were only optimistic and pleasant for the people who wrote the history. For the time they might have been appropriate given the audience they were designed for, but today some of the implications can make you a bit uneasy. I’d still hold that the bones are good, that those settings can still reflect themes of optimism while becoming more aware and inclusive, and indeed over time we’ve seen very slow changes to that effect. For example, Thunder Mountain – while initially perhaps a glorification of gold mining has over time with various story changes become more and more of a morality play about what happens to those who are reckless in their pursuit of profit – something a certain company might take a lesson from. I for one, as perhaps one of the more obvious examples,  would love to see what a Disneyland would look like with stories of the immigrant experience of the same time period paralleling those on Main Street. At any rate, like America, Disneyland is flawed, but it’s themes are solid. Optimism, hope for the future, and the responsibility to foster that future, are the themes that lie at the heart of the stories it tells and why people keep coming back.

P.S. This again reinforces the idea that I think Joe Rohde first articulated: that theme parks NEED themes in the literary sense to achieve their full potential and be effective: that that is what separates the good from the bad park executions, and Disneyland in particularly is a great example of what occurs when nearly every element of the experience serves to reinforce and drive home a particular message.

Interactivity and Immersion and Storytelling.

There has been a lot of talk about Evermore in the theme park community as of late. For those that aren’t aware it’s a new breed of theme park that’s just opened up in Utah; it has no rides and instead focuses on extremely immersive interactive storytelling with actors and detailed settings. It’s really less a theme park and more of a role playing game come to life – though with settings as detailed as anything in Animal Kingdom. At least that’s what the hype is. I confess I haven’t visited Evermore yet. It’s inaugural event was a halloween themed festivity and those of you that know me know I don’t have any interest in experiencing anything that even hints that it might be of the horror persuasion. So I want to make very clear that the thoughts below aren’t a review of Evermore – I haven’t experienced it, and overall I’m as excited as anyone to see how the park evolves over time and how some of it’s ideas might be implemented elsewhere.

Continue reading “Interactivity and Immersion and Storytelling.”

Theme Park Musing #7 – Accessibility

Those of you that follow the blog know that accessibility to as many guests as possible is something I care a lot about as I wrote before in this article. The following was part of a late night tumblr post series.

Based on some quick research:

  • 20% of America has some sort of disability.
  • 20% of Americans are over 60.
  • 20% have anxiety disorders
  • 20% have chronic pain
  • 5% is dependent on some sort of mobility device
  • About 5% of women are pregnant at any time
  • 30-60% of the population is in a body that a park might deem “too large”

Theme parks are for everyone, and if you’re not designing for this huge segment of the population then who the hell are you designing for? Everyone deserves to be able to have fun and do cool things. Doing the math – and assuming there’s significant overlap in the categories that means on any given day there are 40-70 THOUSAND people at Walt Disney World and maybe 15-24 THOUSAND people at Universal Studios that are probably not able to experience at least one, and likely more than one, attraction (assuming they don’t self select out and choose not to visit – which assuredly happens).

And a followup:

Yes there is always room for nuance but I have trouble with being the nuanced voice in the room on this topic because there are too many people, nearly all people, who will reply “but what about X, they just CANT be accommodated that’s impossible, that’s too much effort, that’s too small of a need” and when you keep following that logic that’s when you get a ride like like flight of passage which somehow got built without one stationary seat, or Potter which somehow got built while forgetting that tall people and people with 40 inch waists exist.

Yes it’s probably not safe to put a wheelchair on a rollercoaster but I’m also not sure there really has been much effort to try. Yes some rides inherently are very full of motion which might rule them out for some guests – but at the same time parks haven’t put much effort into making motion free versions – whether that’s alternate programming, or a walking path through a ride, before or after park hour tours of attractions, virtual reality recordings, etc.

For instance – tower of terror could easily be programmed for the drop sequence to be essentially just like a normal elevator – letting people who can’t tolerate drops, or have prosthetic limbs, etc experience the show scenes within. Just having this option say, once an hour, would be a huge improvement. Motion base rides like Indiana Jones and Dinosaur could easily have the motion base deactivated – will the ride be suitable for everyone then? No. But probably more suitable for more people if such an option was available.

And there’s room for priorities – there’s always going to be some condition, some edge case, that is impossible to foresee, or would just cost so much money as to make impossible. But the problem is now much of the time theme parks act as if there are no conditions or edge cases at all. And frankly if you’re gonna spend a billion dollars on an attraction and you pride yourself on doing the impossible it’s hard to find any excuse for not making sure there’s room for everyone. Yet, often the attitude seems to be: If you don’t fit the mold of a plastic dummy that describes an average human that no longer exists tough shit. Yes focus on the most common accessibility needs first, but that doesn’t mean stop at item 1.

I know too many people for whom almost nothing at a theme park is open to them – they pay the same price of admission as anyone else but with a quarter or less of the experiences available. I’ve seen too many people get so excited about seeing something only to be crushed when they find out the park didn’t think about them – didn’t consider the fact they existed. I’ve personally experienced the shame and humiliation of barely fitting in a seat and being forced into it. I know too many people with disabilities who’ve been left out entirely. I can’t in good consciousness gush about how amazing theme parks are to my friends when I know that so much of what I gush about they can’t experience. And it’s hard to find much room for nuance in those moments.

Theme Park Musing #6 – IP

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.

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)”

You made it! I Knew You Would

Imagine for a moment that you’re going on a vacation to Paris. It’s your first time visiting the city of light. What do you want to do? You want to see the Louvre of course! To get lost in the boulevards, to gorge yourself on pastries, drink wine, eat cheese, explore opulent palaces, climb through Notre Dame, tour the catacombs, detour to Disneyland Paris! (If you’re the kind of person that reads this blog anyway). You want to embark on all these adventures and you don’t want a rainstorm, or natural disaster, or renegade mime to get in your way: all the things that might otherwise make an interesting story if the someone visiting Paris wasn’t you. The ideal Paris trip is the one where nothing goes wrong, you encounter pleasant surprises, and the activities increasingly become more magical leading up to the last day of the trip when you have a moonlit dinner on top of the Eiffel tower, forever moved by the beauty of the city. At which point you return home on a high of wonderful memories.

Now imagine, instead, there’s a new movie out in the cinema: Paris Vacation. The trailers have been purposefully vague, no one knows quite what to expect. You buy tickets and go to the opening night midnight screening. The previews end, the lights dim. And for the next two hours you watch some rich guy’s slick video of the same exact vacation described above. No heist that needs to happen, no bloodline of Jesus to follow, no chance for the power of culinary arts to save someone’s soul, no stolen bread, no one falls in love, everything goes just as expected. Unless you’re a film critic you’d walk out wondering what the hell the point was, severely disappointed you paid $20 to see someone else’s home video.

Herein lies the difference in story construction between traditional and experiential forms.

Traditional stories are about characters who want something and are antagonized along the road towards getting it. That’s the core of any traditional story – whether it be play, movie, or novel. What people pay for is to see someone confront an obstacle and (usually) overcome it. This basic structure has been analyzed ad nauseam from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell to your 3rd grade English teacher. Beginning, middle, end. Boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl back. The key to any good story is in the struggles the characters face and how those struggles change them.

But what is the audience’s roll in this? The audience goes to the theatre, reads the book to see the character get their due. And in any good story, and good entertainment (read satisfying experience) the audience gets what they want. If they don’t they tend to throw tomatoes.

So what happens when the audience is part of the story? When they play a role in the narrative? Think about your own life for a moment: the story you live every day. Do you want to be antagonized? No, not really. It’s not fun when something stands in the way between you and what you want. People struggle their entire lives to escape their personal antagonists. In many ways that’s what life is. And sure we might grow from our struggles but the process is never fun. Entertainment is the quest to escape that. Art is the quest to observe it from afar.

And so you arrive at the inherent conflict between stories and experiences. The perfect story needs antagonism. The perfect experience needs the absence of antagonism. The trick is in combining them to create experiential stories.

Any individual person never wants things to go wrong. We seek out stories to see other people be antagonized and to escape our own troubles: to feel like there is control and order in the world. We go to stories to see people overcome obstacles. And once you’re inside a story that doesn’t change. And I hear you saying, “but wait of course people want to be antagonized – they want to be chased by the shark, or get caught in an earthquake, get caught in the evil villain’s clutches.”

To which I say, yes and no. People want less to have these experiences, and more to have these fantasies. They want to experience a massive earthquake while experiencing no actual danger. They want to experience fighting a villain, but only if they win and aren’t seriously hurt. And often they just want to experience pure joy, beauty, and peace of the kind so rarely found in the everyday world.

In addition, any antagonism you want by definition can’t be antagonism. Antagonism is what stands between you and what you want. And you’re the person that waited an hour to get on a boat that you knew was going to be attacked by a shark. You knew you were going to be chased by dinosaurs on the time rover or get trapped in a mystical temple full of booby traps in that jeep transport, and that the Yeti was coming. You knew there were going to be swarms of Pirates and you knew there was a giant scary drop coming at the end of Splash Mountain. That’s the whole damn point. The only real antagonist in any experiential storytelling is the damn queue – and we know how much people love those. The worst experiences are the ones that make promises and then something gets in the way. Think about the game level you can’t beat despite trying 50 times, the ride that breaks down right as you’re about to get on, the beautiful restaurant with the microwaved meatballs. The core of experiential entertainment isn’t story it’s wish fulfillment!

The key with the antagonism in experiential storytelling is that other characters may be antagonized. But us? We get exactly what we want and the process to get there is deliberately designed to increase and prolong the pleasure as much as possible. Other characters are antagonized. We are teased. Other characters might grow or change through the diegetic struggle. We grow or change through empathy,  the emotional journey we take, and the ways we’ve be primed by the story to construct meaning in the experience.

Story therefore still plays a crucial role in the process, helping to shape the form the experience takes and create theme. Theme adds meaning and context to the core experience. The wish might be to experience flight. The story gives that flight an arc. It brings people into the world, takes them into the air on a journey and back. It can take what would be a rather static experience of a standard helicopter tour and vary the pace, sights, and stakes to shape the emotionality into a dynamic, orchestrated flow in which feelings are heightened through an intersection of classical and pseudo-musical forms of storytelling technique that create a constant play of tension and release. The story too helps create theme which gives the experience extra meaning and significance to an outside truth. In an ideal scenario all three of these perfectly rhyme with each other and create transcendent experiences.

This is storytelling of a very different sort, as the experience of a traditional spectator and traditional characters are merged into the same world. The audience member, who now also plays a role in the story, must get what they’re looking for and ideally more than they’re looking for.  And I worry that it’s too easy to oversimplify this idea from “Give the audience what they want” to “Give the audience what they expect”. Hell, even the idea of giving the audience what they want is problematic and limiting if read too literally. Perhaps a more accurate framing is to think carefully about what you want the audience to experience. What you want them to feel. Engineer the experience around that and set the audiences’ expectations appropriately. This is a process that must occur first. The story must be constructed around the experience not the other way around. You have to think about what the environment will be like, how it feels, how the guest moves, what they see, who they interact with, what they can do, before an appropriate story can be attached. In traditional narratology the world building fleshes out the story, but in experiential entertainment, in a sense, it’s the story that fleshes out the world building. This is how you can have evocative experiences with very simple, relatively uninteresting stories create such memorable attractions (a la Monsieur Toad) and evocative stories with simple, uninteresting experiences create such duds (a la Mermaid). Or you end up with interesting stories and experiences that nevertheless don’t quite line up properly. Say like an experience designed for suspense with a story designed for a jam session (a la Guardians).

Antagonism you want for yourself isn’t antagonism at all. It’s a catalyst. It brings you closer to what you want and is the key to great experiences. And this is a key difference between telling traditional stories and ones in which the audience is a character. Characters in traditional narratives are almost always unwilling participants in the events of the plot. What stands between them and what they want is a source of suffering. But we, the audience, have decided to be there and can expect a satisfying outcome. That is the contract audiences make with storytellers. And as such anything that comes between us and the payoff, when done right, makes the payoff all the more satisfying. And crucially, the experience doesn’t necessarily need anything coming in between at all. But stories require meaning, and without the ability of us, as a character in the story to experience true struggle, the meaning must come from outside – in the world. Hence the importance of the construction of that world and the experiences within. The story of the world we’re in and the characters in it can imbue our own experience with that meaning, which is why it’s so critical that the story and experience reflect and reinforce each other. When it all comes together you get some of the most effective storytelling out there…stories that form deep and personal connections with the audience. Guests get to experience fantasies made real and with any luck, go home feeling inspired and with more insight than before. 

 

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”

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.

A Pagemaster Pitch

There was a prompt on the PureImagineering blog to create a pitch for a ride based on non-Disney animated movie. That inspired this.

We enter an old, dusty, seemingly abandoned Library and queue around it for a while as a storm continually gets worse outside. We hear a voice of an elderly librarian reminiscent of Olivander calling us back to a research room. When we enter the room no one is there (aside from a helpful but aloof “assistant” that directs us to board a Library Cart and hands us our Library Card with some ominous warning about keeping it handy – for the Library is always there for people that need it. They leave us in the room alone where we sit, unsure for a moment what is about to happen when we hear the voice of the Librarian calling to us once again speaking of the wonder of books. A bookcase on the opposite wall of the room we entered slides open and golden light pours into the room and our library cart moves towards it down a row of bookcases as the voice of the Librarian speaks to us. The storm rages outside. “Ah”, he says”, “the storm is frightening but the worlds of stories can help us learn to fight the fears within: – Horror, Fantasy, Adventure: they’re waiting for you.”

With a grand musical flourish we enter the grand rotunda of the Library flooded with light from the sconces but the storm rages outside in the dark night of the skylights above.  Just then we look above at the gigantic mural on the ceiling. It starts to drip paint onto us and around us. The paint pours off the ceiling and turns into a technicolor ocean around us! Books are falling all around us: the subjects of their contents coming to life. A giant squid swirls out of 20,000 leagues under the sea and threatens to crush us in its grasp before the book slams against a shelf and closes. To our surprise there is a rustling in our cart as we’re swirling down the rapids and the books Horror, Fantasy, and Adventure pop out and tell us, “Not to worry, We’ll get you out of this”. They’re riding on the front of our cart, but alas it’s too late.  We’re spinning all around as the waves morph into a terrifying paint dragon in the middle of the rotunda. It rears on its hind legs towering above us – then lunges and swallows us whole.

Darkness. All is quite for a moment and then in the distance we see it – like a beacon shining out to us through the fog. The exit. A neon green sign floating in midair. Horror, Fantasy, and Adventure exclaim “The exit! That’s how we get out of here! This way!”

Portals open and Each book takes us through their world and the pages of Horror, Fantasy, and Adventure come to life. We briefly enter a decrepit mansion: Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Pirates at sea and and Moby Dick, before we hear a deep rumble. “Oh no, we’re still in the belly of the beast! We’ve been in the world of Fantasy this whole time!” Fantasy casts a spell and we shoot out of the dragon’s mouth with fire chasing us. The exit sign is floating above a mountain in the distance. We’re almost there! We fly towards it as the dragon chases us left and right. We’re not going to make it. We hear the page masters voice “The library is always there for people who need it!”. Of course! The books tell us to pick up our library cards and as we do they start glowing. There’s a blast of air and laser light as books rise up all around and the characters we’ve met reappear to fight the battle and with one last roar the dragon is vanquished! A portal opens up and we’re all thrown spinning into the tornado. Until all comes to a quiet stop. We’re in a dark room, the exit sign is glowing in front of us. The page master materializes in front of us in full merlin garb (he’s the librarian!)- we’re at the legendary round table of the Arthurian legend. He tells us we’ve done well. We’ve fought our fears and our forever changed. That is the power of books. He disappears and the room around us transforms into the research room we started in. The exit sign continues to glow in front of us, where it was the whole time – we just didn’t pay attention on the way in. The panel beneath it slides open and we walk out underneath its reassuring glow….

…into the book gift shop.

Stay tuned to this…if I have some spare time I might develop this further.