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.
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!!!!”
Perhaps it’s time to take a breath. Continue reading “Oh There’s A Great Big Beautiful Assortment (of Reasons People Visit Everyday)”
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.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that if themed or experiential entertainment ever wants to be used to cover more serious subject matter or broaden the type of stories it can tell we’re going to have to see a return of the abstract to the medium.
For example, say you wanted to tell the story of a grieving widow and say something about the intense power of grief and how to eventually make piece with it. In a literal themed entertainment world, where everything has to have a justication, how can you tell this story? The impulse I think in a VR experience might be to put you in a first person POV to see the events that happen to her from that angle. If you were building a ride you might be put in a funeral carriage and see the funeral.
Do you see how these approaches are limiting? Dare I say inappropriate? A first person POV merely shows you what she saw, and strips you away of a character to empathize with. Gives you no idea how she felt. A funeral carriage ride is something out of a black comedy and would have difficulty telling the story through mere vignettes. And literal conventions might have the grim reaper start chasing after us. Which is again besides the point.
But what about a journey through memory and the landscapes of the grief-ridden mind? THAT could be powerful. The landscapes and creatures within could conjure up terror and compassion directly in the audience as they experience it themselves and memories playing within could create the story of the widow herself. But if we do this through current literal practices the impact might be wiped away. How do we get inside her mind? A new sophisticated shrinking ray? An inception like system to get into her dream world? Why do we need to burden ourselves with such conceits when they detract from the story we’re trying to tell? Instead of trying to make the experience literally real let it be an abstraction to let the emotional and metaphorical reality manifest.
Perhaps we enter her house and see that something is wrong. It’s a mess. No one has cleaned in weeks. We move into another room where photos are all gathered by a chair. All feature the same man. On the TV the same home video of a happy couple living their life loops.
We enter a black space. An excerpt of a diary is the only visual – projected on the wall is reads “Frank is dead”. A chain of unadorned black vehicles moves underneath it and we board.
We hear the sounds of a woman sobbing as we enter a cavern pouring with waterfalls. In the waterfalls one can see those home video images again. Perhaps in another scene we’re in a dark forest and terrifying animals chase us. And at the end, after seeing the funeral first hand, maybe we come across that TV near a window and it turns off. A sunrise is seen peaking from behind. Another black room and a excerpt from a diary appears “but I am alive”
Obviously this would be fleshed out farther – but the potential that the abstract gives us is immense – and is why I’m such a fan of presentational design. It lets you dive into the heart of a theme without being burdened by conceit. Is it always the right approach, probably not. The literal approaches have their own benefits to offer. But together I think is where magic can happen.
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.