Ready when you are CB: A Primer on Editing Technique for Themed Entertainment

At first glance it may not seem like there is that much in common between film editing and theme park design – but it turns out there’s a lot in common.

Welcome aboard! My name is Kira, and I’ll be your guide here on this great movie diatribe. It’s the perfect job for me because I used to work in movies! But just between you and me this is no ordinary tour. Because here we’ll be taking a look a film editing techniques and seeing how they can be used to design theme parks and rides! Funky huh? Just please make sure to keep your hands, arms, and eyes in an ergonomic positions at all times.

Now that we’ve taken care of business. Let’s talk about me. Back before I started pursuing a career in themed entertainment design, I had another career ambition. For a very long time I wanted to be a film editor. (Yes ironic for a person who can’t cut anything out of a 7000 word article). I fell in love with the process of editing when I was a young teenager, went to film school, and had a fairly successful career working in all stages of the post production process – editing quite a number of short films, commercials, and a feature along the way. As such, I spent a lot of time studying editing theory and how, not to craft stories from scratch, but how to tell stories with existing pieces: spending a lot of time thinking about how to shape emotion through the use of pacing, perspective, music, etc. And as such I can’t help but approach the design of themed entertainment from within this framework. But it’s occurred to me that this might be a more novel perspective for many people interested in the discipline because while modern theme park design has its roots heavily planted in movie making – most current fans and people interested in designing it tend to have roots more in visual art, writing, technology, or general theme park fandom. 

And I know what you’re thinking. “Editing? How is there any editing happening in a theme park? It’s all just one continuous environment!” To which I’d reply, “Well, only sort of.” The rules and theories behind editing actually apply to any sort of art form that’s experienced over a period of time. Editing is the study of how to best tell a story. And when you look at themed attractions in particular, there’s actually a lot of tools being used in ways remarkably similar to cutting together film. So what do you say? Is everybody ready?

Continue reading “Ready when you are CB: A Primer on Editing Technique for Themed Entertainment”

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.”

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. 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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