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Vote of the week: Knowing the secrets of theme park design

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Published: August 26, 2011 at 12:13 PM

Yeah, I'm a geek about theme parks. I love learning the tricks of how attractions work. As editor of Theme Park Insider, I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with many theme park attraction designers over the years, including Walt Disney Imagineers and designers from Universal Creative and SeaWorld.

Scale model of the New Fantasyland
The scale model of the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, on display at the Disney Parks and Recreation "Carousel of Projects" pavilion presented by Walt Disney Imagineers at the D23 Expo in Anaheim this month.

Yet as curious as I am about the details of so many theme park attractions, I can't get these pros to give up their secrets. It's an extension of the magicians' code: They're not going to "break the magic" by telling you how its done.

But is that really necessary? Is it always true that if someone knows the secret of a trick, he's less impressed with it?

Personally, I don't think so. I've spent plenty of time backstage at the Magic Kingdom, and that experience didn't cause me to love theme parks any less. My work at Walt Disney World actually intensified my love of the parks. Seeing the inner workings of Audio Animatronics and ride systems didn't break the spell for me - they cast a spell that's led me to spend so much time visiting and reporting on theme parks.

I do know people who feel the opposite, though. They know don't want to know how things work; they just want to enjoy the show. So I thought this would make for a great Vote of the Week discussion.

Over the long term, do you think you'd like theme park attractions more, or less, if you knew more about the technology and tricks that made them work? Do the tech details turn you off, or turn you on - making you feel more connected to the ride or show and the people who produced it?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please, if you've been a long-time lurker and have an opinion on this, consider this your invitation to jump in and leave a comment. And, as always, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.

Readers' Opinions

From Eric Malone on August 26, 2011 at 12:21 PM
Personally, I think knowing the secrets and tricks of attractions and areas, makes me MORE impressed, because it gives me an idea of the kind of work put into the project by so many people. But I can understand why they'd hesitate to inform people about most of the bigger stuff.

It's easy to ask this question to theme park aficionados like ourselves, but ask someone who likes theme parks but isn't so crazy on details and you'll get a whole 'nother answer.

From Amanda Jenkins on August 26, 2011 at 12:27 PM
I also love finding out how they created the attractions. I was amazed, when watching a documentary on the Travel Channel on Disney, about how an imagineer used his son's building toys to create a model for Soarin during a Thanksgiving holiday. I mean...wow. To hear how they make the magic come to life is just as interesting to me as riding the ride itself.
From cynthia henisey on August 26, 2011 at 12:43 PM
It makes me have a more personal connection to the ride and to look for little things I might not have noticed before.
From E Ticket on August 26, 2011 at 1:13 PM
Apart from certain technological elements (new ride systems, the occasional new effects technology), there's no "big secret" to creative development of attractions beyond the obvious: it's about the process. There's no magic widget or technique that will make an attraction good, it's about the collaborative development process, and how that can bring a story or experience to life through the cause-and-effect, checks-and-balances of the *process* of design.

Which is a hard thing to summarize to someone :)

It's like when people ask me: "what software do you use to design theme parks?" -- the same software that every other design industry uses. It's not some "secret software" or magic elixer that solves problems -- it's the collaboration of numerous talented people in multiple disciplines, focused on the same goal, that solves problems and creates magic.

The most pertinent "secret" I've ever discovered about attraction design are Mickey's Ten Commandments -- which aren't a secret, and apply to EVERY project we do EVERY DAY, no matter what park or attraction or part of the world we're working in.

From Terry O'Neal on August 26, 2011 at 1:23 PM
I've got a Haunted Mansion blueprint at home, and it's still my all-time favorite.
From duncan henny on August 26, 2011 at 1:33 PM
i bought the imagineering book for my brothers birthday as we both love the attractions and rides it tells you lots about the design and how the attractions work along with ideas that never got made it never spoiled anything
From Andrew Mooney on August 26, 2011 at 1:50 PM
I feel that I am MORE likely to enjoy an attraction based on technical detail. Take Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey as an example. I've rated it my worst ride at IOA due to severe motion sickness I, and the rest of my family, received on the ride. However, I still admire and respect the attraction to a great extent because of the technology. Yes that is the principal reason why I was ill but I was able to get a glimpse at how the ride was meant to work and operate - giving guests the experience to fly.
From 170.200.64.1 on August 26, 2011 at 2:13 PM
I really like knowing how it was put together... this is something Walt understood and used to great effect for both his movies and his parks. Watch those old Walt segments of his TV show where you see him parading around models and sketches.

That said, what I don't want to know is the plot. So, I avoid "spoilers" until after I've experienced an attraction (or a movie, for that matter). Nor do I want to know every single effect. I want to say, "how'd they do that?," at least some of the time. For instance, I avoided recaps/previews of what was exactly on HP & the Forbidden Journey until I rode it. I knew some things, including that it uses a Kuka arm, but knew neither the plot nor exactly how the arm would be used (brilliantly, I might add). Basically, I like knowing how it's done, but just tease me at the beginning. I can always learn more after I've tried it.

From Sean Campbell on August 26, 2011 at 3:13 PM
why are you asking this question on a site about theme parks and how they work?
From Dominick D on August 26, 2011 at 4:10 PM
I like to learn more about a ride before I ride it, so I can know what to expect. Besides, sometimes you cant see anything on certain ride videos.
From 138.9.10.188 on August 27, 2011 at 4:07 PM
I personally love knowing any and all details about theme parks. It doesn't ruin the magic for me - it makes it more magical because I know the how behind the result. It also keeps well-loved attractions fresh, because you'll never know everything there is to know about an attraction. Spoilers don't bother me at all (even in movies!). Nothing beats the actual experience of the attraction, so no matter how much you read about it, you'll still have the emotional experience of being there when you see the real thing.
From Tyler Stover on August 29, 2011 at 12:50 PM
Knowing the secrets of how an attraction works doesn't ruin the ride for me, but having a moment of wondering how they pulled something off and not knowing certainly makes me appreciate an attraction more.
From Anon Mouse on August 30, 2011 at 7:23 AM
"I can't get these pros to give up their secrets"

Why do you need to know? It is the same thing with magicians in that once you know, the trick is ruined. I really don't need to know how the trick works. You probably already know the tricks for the smaller or older attractions. The newer attractions are a mystery, but probably not that hard to crack. This is an issue of money and how much a company is willing to pay to make it work.

The secret that even Disney seems to not figure out is how to make a better park than Disneyland. They keep missing the mark with the exception of DisneySeas. Every other park is a disappointment.

From Robert Tucker on August 31, 2011 at 8:33 AM
Trying to figure it out is one of my favorite activities when in an attraction. I can't really sit back and enjoy it until I have it pegged.

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