What Makes a Great Theme Park Attraction?
Great storytelling is one of the steps in the recipe for crafting an enduring classic.
Written by Robert Niles
When I was reviewing theme park attractions for the L.A. Times I once was asked by an exasperated theme park employee just what it was I was looking for in a theme park attraction. After all, I hadn't found much to like in the attractions I was panning, including Disney's "A Bug's Land" and Universal's "Spider-Man Rocks."Tweet
It's a fair question.
To answer, I didn't reflect upon my personal tastes, or the criteria writers use to critique other forms of entertainment, such as movies and plays. Instead, I look back upon the best qualities of the attractions that have proven themselves as great entertainment over the years. Gather the best elements from all these attractions, and, to me, the recipe for an attraction that deserves a rave review becomes clear.
Unfortunately, in the rush to beat the competition with bigger, wilder thrill rides, too many theme parks seem to have forgotten the qualities that made theme parks one of the world's most popular forms of out-of-home entertainment. Disneyland did not revolutionize the industry by building stomach-tossing roller coasters. SeaWorld and Universal Studios did not establish themselves in the annual Top 10 for theme park attendance by ignoring little kids and adults too far along to chase big airtime.
So that is where the recipe starts: inclusiveness. Don't limit your market by building an attraction that a significant percentage of your customers cannot ride. Enduring classics like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Universal's Backlot Tour have no height restrictions. Nor do they play upon terrifying phobias, like the ailing Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, that leave certain visitors scarred, swearing never to return.
Great attractions take an audience someplace that they cannot otherwise go. What's the point in visiting a faux Hollywood Boulevard at Disney's California Adventure, when the real one lies just an hour away? Or walking through a food court with a McDonald's, Subway or KFC when you can find the same fare at the local shopping mall? Neither park will entice visitors to return again and again. Only those parks that take people to places and eras and puts them in situations that they cannot possibly experience will do that.
Take me to a medieval castle. Float me down Mark Twain's Mississippi. Show me the Hollywood of Chaplin, Fairbanks and Valentino. Put me in the middle of a pirate battle. I'm paying fifty-plus bucks a day to escape my everyday life. Not to re-live it.
The essence of all great entertainment lies in storytelling. The writer Jon Franklin suggested that all great storytelling comes down to setting up a conflict, then revealing its resolution. Think of your favorite movies, and it won't take long for you to recognize the conflict and resolution that drives each one. The model holds even for non-narrative entertainment. The best symphonies use musical themes and concepts to set up conflicts and then offer resolutions. Theme park attractions are no different.
The Haunted Mansion traps up within and implores us to find a way out. Pirates of the Caribbean (in California, at least) reveals to us a cursed treasure and challenges us to survive the battle to tell our tale. Men in Black: Alien Attack employs the familiar twist of a humble "training exercise" gone horribly wrong -- forcing us to shoot our way out to safety. (Make it a river voyage with tropical animals and you've got Disney's Jungle Cruise.)
Movie directors long ago recognized that a great piece of music can heighten the drama of any critical moment in their films. Music engages the ear and heart, amplifying the emotion of a conflict and the thrill of a resolution. Stand outside the exit to Pirates of the Caribbean sometime and count the number of folks you see exiting while humming "Yo Ho." How long did it take you to get the song "Golden Dreams" out of your head the first time you saw Epcot's "American Adventure?"
And how many of you will curse me for the rest of the day for putting this song back in your head?
It's a world of laughter, a world a tears
Music seals the deal in a theme park attraction. It provides the best possible mnemonic, allowing a visitor to relive the moment in his mind's eye -- establishing a craving to come back to the park and ride again.
Engage all the senses
But why stop with the ear? Great theme park attractions engage all of a rider's senses. Feel the heat of the fireball exploding in front of you. Squint at the blast of light. The only thing my daughter remembered from the otherwise forgettable Bug's Land at California Adventure was the smells of treats on Heimlich's Chew-Chew Train.
The goal is not to overwhelm, and certainly not to terrify the visitor. That's why gross-out 4D attractions aren't packing theaters anymore. If a park wants to build an enduring attraction that will draw visitors for decades, it will use stimulate riders' sense in a way that enlivens their experience and that makes them more receptive to what is happening around them -- creating more vivid memories to lure them back. It won't assault those riders' senses -- prompting them to shut down their senses and try to forget their theme park trip.
Once the human body tastes a little of its own adrenaline, it wants more. That's why coaster fans drive across the country to ride the tallest, fastest, newest thrill. But if a park needs to limit the physical thrills in an attraction to make it available to the widest possible audience, how else will it provide an adrenal fix for its riders?
Through competition. Let visitors compete with one another for their thrills. Video game-inspired attractions like Buzz Lightyear and Men in Black inspire near-addictive levels of passion among many theme park visitors. When I worked crowd control for the evening parades at Disney World's Magic Kingdom, we knew that the easiest way to fire up a tired crowd for the show was to engage each side of the street in a cheering contest.
Of course, many family visitors are looking for a bonding experience in their vacation, not another opportunity for everyone in the family to turn on one another. That's why the very best competitive attractions require cooperation, too. In Legoland's Fun Town Fire Academy, a family must work together as a team if they are to beat other families to the finish line.
Not the same ride every time
Even the most dedicated fans will grow tired of an attraction if it never changes. Disney's extended the life of its Country Bear Jamboree in Florida by swapping out different versions of the show over the years. Florida's Tower of Terror rewards frequent riders with random drop sequences. And riders run from the exit straight back to the entrance of Universal's Men in Black to try to improve their score with a better shooting.
Meanwhile, so many of those unthemed roller coasters, with no fantastic setting, no music, no story and no changing thrills, draw fewer and fewer riders with each passing year.
So... with all this in mind, what is the perfect theme park attraction? Well, in my opinion, it doesn't exist yet. No theme park ha put together an attraction that reflects all of these qualities. But the one that is willing to spend the money to do it will be rewarded not just with positive reviews from around the Internet, but with a loyal fan base that will pay top dollar to experience that attraction -- and that will return year and year. The opportunity is waiting for a company whose management has the vision dedicate its parks to the principles that make theme parks great.
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