Stephen Sondheim, famed musical theatre composer, lyricist, genius, and a personal idol of mine recently passed away. His death has recently caused me to reexamine a thought I’ve had from time to time: that rides are akin to songs.
It might sound a bit strange at first to suggest that rides and songs are the most closely related storytelling mediums but consider their raw components. Music at its most basic level, stripped of lyrics, is a progression of sensations you feel. Rides at their most basic level, stripped of plot, are a progression of sensations that you feel. A simple unadorned coaster might be the equivalent of a single melodic line, one surrounded by scenery the equivalent of a full symphony: full of color, texture, and harmony. Both use these sensations to shape an arc of emotion within you — to tell stories. This is different than most movies, plays, books, and (many) games — which primarily use dialogue, plot, and prose. Those forms of storytelling speak to your mind. Music and experiences instead speak directly to your body.
I’m starting to think that “good” themed entertainment design is actually a combination of two distinct design philosophies that are actually separate, just tend to occur together.
One is like themed entertainment design “proper”. Perhaps Narrative Design is a good word? This is the art of imbuing narrative and story and values into the built world.
But there’s also the philosophy of experience design, though that term has been so co-opted by UX people I think I need to distinguish it as like “radical holistic experience design” or “emotion design” or something.
And when we think about traditional theme park/themed entertainment design we’re really talking about those two things combining together. A theme park is a place that has been designed to tell stories about the world and reflect a value system back at us, but also meticulously crafted to create as frictionless an experience as possible, with specific guest emotions and states of being in mind.
Sparkling lights, cheery music, the smell of popcorn, cotton candy, and crisp churros floating through the air — bright colors, immersive worlds, elaborate spectacles from dawn past dusk. This is the imagery that’s conjured up when theme parks and other immersive experiences are discussed: fun, frivolity, and above all a disconnection from the real world.
Some topics that probably don’t come to mind? Infrastructure, transportation policy, civic planning, technological development, history curriculums, gender politics, race relations, and a myriad of other issues normally reserved for some domed building far, far away.
There is a widespread belief that theme parks and related experiences are simply repositories of fun, devoid of politics. But that notion is simply not complete. Themed experiences are absolutely fun, entertaining places where people go to decompress. But they also play a gigantic role in shaping culture. These experiences are the physical repositories of our shared histories, mythologies, hopes and dreams. They are physical models that the world outside the berm looks to for inspiration.
This might not be my most eloquently prosed post, the final stretch of grad school is upon me and time is at a premium, but I have thoughts I want to share.
So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking into how to develop impactful and fun stories and attractions and I’ve think I’ve narrowed it down to 4 elements, from which the entire experience evolves.
The first two are often talked about by Joe Rohde. First you have,
Theme: the moral of the story or message of the storyteller.
Subject: the “actors” that illustrate the story. Not only characters, but also place.
Then there’s two more I’d like to add.
Experience: this is the core event you will witness or participate in. Only a few words. Think archetypes. This is similar to the aspirational quality that some theme park designers have talked about, but more importantly it is the lens through which the entire story will be framed.
Journey: the way we get there or specific premise. Think of it almost like a writing prompt. (Note: I debate whether journey belongs here because it’s somewhat determined by the other three)
You put the four together and the beginning of an attraction story begins to take place.
For example in Rise of the Resistance we can see that
Theme: Good Vs. Evil. Evil will lose.
Subject: Star Wars. Intergalactic Civilizations. Spaceships.
Experience: Prison Break
Journey: Recruited into a space army and captured.
Or The Haunted Mansion
Theme: Death is actually kinda funny.
Subject: A Haunted Mansion
Experience: Guided Tour
Journey: Deciding to visit that old creepy mansion
Of course there’s room for interpretation but with these four events you begin to see how any satisfying ride might be crafted. Even at random. Say you have.
Theme: Be careful what you wish for
Subject: Construction Equipment
Journey: stumble into an abandoned construction site at night.
One can start easily piecing together an attraction from this. Bob the Builder is tired of construction and wishes to do something more glamorous. We stumble upon him in a construction site right as he makes a wish for more excitement – causing the construction equipment to come alive. But it quickly grows dark as the construction equipment doesn’t like being unappreciated and chases us into the night sky on a whirlwind journey. Eventually it all comes to an end and Bob and us both realize that life is plenty exciting as is.
Where this framework gets really exciting is how it ties into narrative 5 act structure. You have your four pieces of framework. Now what? Well let’s look now at classic five act structure. You’ll remember it from English class. I’m no expert, but here’s my summary
Act 1: Exposition: the world is introduced
Act 2: Rising Action: the main character sets out on a journey
Act 3: Arrival: the character achieves their initial goal. But at the midpoint of this act something happens which changes the equation and sets them on a new journey
Act 4: Journey Home: character sets off on the final quest. The final confrontation occurs at the transition to act 5
Act 5: Resolution and Denouement
The key thing to remember is that each key moment in the story occurs at an act transition, with the third act split in two – the key reversal occurring there. (All of what I’m about to say could be mapped onto 3 act structure too, but I think 5 makes it easier to talk about).
So anyway…you’re building a ride. What goes where? Well I’d propose that nearly all attractions follow a simple rule. The Journey is everything that happens before the midpoint and the Core Experience is nearly everything that comes after. The theme and subject are what color each scene within and determine the ultimate outcome.
In modern attraction design it looks something like
Act 1: Entrance and early queue. The setting and world are introduced.
Act 2: Queue: the queue takes us on a journey into the world on our way to a promised experience (not always the core experience, but often). We learn about the world, and it’s rules, and why we’re there.
Act 3 Part One: Preshow: We arrive at the promised destination and new information is revealed that will set us on a new quest.
Act 3 Part Two: Load/secondary queue: The core experience (which follows its own three act structure) begins
Act 4: The Ride: We live out the meat of the core experience which leads us to one final climatic moment.
Act 5: Climax & Exit: We experience the climatic moment of the core experience, and the story quickly resolves itself as we exit the vehicle with a denouement then or shortly thereafter.
For example Indiana Jones and the temple of the forbidden eye:
Act 1: We come across an archeological dig at a temple
Act 2: We venture into the temple to see what’s up and learn this is a creepy place.
Act 3 Part 1 : we come across Sala and he tells us about quest expeditions we’ve somehow signed up for and the legend of the forbidden eye. Also we need to find Indy.
Act 3 Part 2: we decide to go on our own expedition (the core experience begins)
Act 4: The expedition throws up many obstacles of increasing threat level, preventing us from rescuing Indy until
Act 5: We nearly get crushed by a Boulder and narrowly escape. Indy lectures us since we were the ones that needed rescuing and we slowly make our way out of the scary temple.
Or Rise of the Resistance
Act 1: We find the rebel base
Act 2. We are tasked with a mission to space but something goes wrong
Act 3 Part 1: We’re captured and thrown in prison
Act 3 Part 2: We’re rescued and begin our prison break (core experience)
Act 4: We journey through the prison facing increasing obstacles trying to make our way home until
Act 5: a final climatic encounter and daring escape pod run. We’re told we did a good job and exit.
As long as queues are long, and rides are short I predict this is the specific way we’ll see the structure implemented. What’s interesting though is looking to the past to see how rides and attractions then still followed the same structure BUT implemented it differently.
For example, before queues were really designed as part of the experience, it was common for the ride to begin as early as the beginning of Act 2. Let’s reference Pirates of the Caribbean (California version)
Act 1: We are introduced to New Orleans square and the Blue Bayou.
Act 2: We begin a journey through the bayou and enter mysterious caves
Act 3 Part 1: We learn that pirates used to inhabit these caves
Act 3 Part 2: The pirates materialize and the core experience of seeing pirates do pirate things begins
Act 4: Pirates do pirate things until
Act 5: The town climatically burns down, they all drunkenly kill themselves, and we exit this fever dream and end up back where we started.
Now consider how Pirates was adapted when it moved to Florida and it adopted the new-fangled immersive queue. The immersive queue replaced The Journey portion of the ride leaving only the Core Experience. The overall structure of the story was preserved, but what specific elements achieved it changed.
There’s even a ride that has a more unusual implementation. Let’s look at The Living Seas. For starters
Theme: The ocean is majestic and cool
Subject: Seabase Alpha
Core Experience: Explore an Alien World (And/or aquarium)
Journey: Specialized technology takes us deep under the sea
Act 1: We’re introduced to the history of sea exploration in a museum and documentary
Act 2: We begin our journey under the sea via Hydrolator
Act 3 Part 1: We take sea cabs to further our journey
Act 3 Part 2: We arrive at Seabase Alpha
Act 4: We explore Seabase Alpha (core experience)
Act 5: We leave Seabase Alpha via Hydrolator
This is the only attraction I’m aware of that has used the ride as a journey rather than the core experience. It’s an unusual implementation but it just goes to show that any means can be used to achieve any part of the structure, as long as all parts of the structure are there, you get yourself a satisfying experience.
The more I think on it, the more I think nearly all attractions can be conceptualized in this framework, and better yet this framework provides a nice blueprint to develop new attractions. Does it apply to your favorite?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!!”