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The Next Generation of Theming

Written by
Published: February 28, 2012 at 1:09 PM

The last time I was at Orlando, visiting both Walt Disney World and the then-brand-new Universal Studios Florida, was in 1991, when I was the tender age of 12. My grand return to the theme park capital of the world wasn’t until this past month, when I took my wife to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for her 30th birthday. Needless to say, a lot had changed.

When walking the corridors of Hogwarts Castle, however, becoming immersed in the architectural detail and the bickering of the talking portraits and the gentle swell of John Williams’s score, a slow, small realization began working its way through me, gnawing at my periphery before gradually blossoming as something of an epiphany right in front of my mind’s eye: not nearly enough had changed.

Portrait Hall in Universal's Hogwarts Castle

There has been a remarkable trend towards heightening immersion – and, in a close corollary, reinforcing narrative – at literally every turn in an attraction, specifically, and in its home park, generally. Coupled with the technical acumen of imagineers in the form of, say, making enchanted benches fly, themed rides have become quite adept at painting a pervasive experience… except, of course, for those scattered, subtle elements that don’t help add towards a sum that is greater than its whole. As the general evolutionary tug has pulled more and more details into one overarching atmosphere (the physical topography of the abstract story), think of these items as anachronistic remnants of a narrative prehistory.

The biggest and most flagrant of these incongruities? Railings. They are, of course, a necessity in terms of crowd control, but no other single element jarred me out of the experience of truly believing I had been transported to Hogsmeade (or Jurassic Park or wherever it is that Marvel Super Hero Island is supposed to be located) more. If such great pains had been taken to include nearly every last detail in, say, the Defense against the Dark Arts classroom, if (nearly) no expense had been spared to incorporate the films’ actors into the set, then why not go the last two or three inches it takes to cross the finish line and find an organic way of building line boundaries into the environment? Especially considering the incredibly easy out that being in a wizarding world provides – Professors Dumbledore or McGonagall could easily have conjured the railings for the express purpose of corralling all those noisy, messy Muggles – the lack of an explanation is mystifying, to say the least.

(An even better example: the Poseidon’s Fury queue area contains beautifully painted murals and quite atmospheric torch lighting, but the effect is greatly undermined by the presence of Universal security cameras. Establishing that the excavation team has set these up to monitor the dig site and stay in contact with one another would require very little in the way of extra set dressing or [less ideally] exposition in dialogue; another, fake camera could be positioned next to one of the doors, or a television screen showing one or two archaeologists going about their business in a different chamber.)

Smaller but no less ruinous is the presence of other, legally-mandated items, such as exit signs, fire extinguishers, or modern lighting. (Looking up in the Gryffindor common room and seeing giant light bulbs shining down upon you somehow does not make for a magical, immersive moment – nor does seeing a semi-hidden exit sign right in the middle of the Forbidden Forest.) Incorporating these naturally into the themed environment is substantially more difficult, particularly as it relates to all relevant state or federal laws, but it is no less important to the cohesion or integrity of the illusion. If all elements don’t help reinforce the others to create a seamless world, to truly recreate Hogwarts Castle, then the theme is just a cheap and tacked-on veneer. It is the difference between a theme park and Cracker Barrel.

Then there’s the final frontier of theming, the one sensory boundary that has yet to be breached: touch. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey may have high-definition video projectors filled with flashy visual effects, precision-controlled ride movements, and Williams’s beautiful music, but when you touch one of Hogwarts’s walls, it still feels like warm plaster instead of the cold stone that the imagineers worked so assiduously at making you think it was. It’s an admittedly tiny detail, but it is, arguably, one of the most important – the day that either Disney or Universal can make you think you’re several miles under the ocean’s surface or several thousand miles up in the stratosphere or in a millennium-old magical castle by just a casual brush against a wall or a table is the day they have complete mastery over their audiences. Every sensory input will be sending one consistent message instead of providing contradictory messages, thus further allaying the suspension of disbelief.

Put altogether, Hogwarts Castle would still function nearly identically to the version that Universal Creative has provided, but the scant differences are dramatically and remarkably telling. Imagine a queue through the castle that featured ornately carved stone barriers – cold and hard to the touch – that channeled visitors down the correct path. Once outside, in the greenhouse, excited conversations between students and staff could be overheard about the imminent arrival of the Muggles and how Dumbledore has had to install special new (and quite temporary) precautions for their visit, such as something called “guardrails.” Once in the castle’s upper reaches, flickering torches and suspended candles between all of the talking portraits provide plenty of illumination, and a “Muggle exit” sign that continually writes itself, with just the right flourish, in a magical script floats off in the corner.

There is not one element out of place, not one detail overlooked, not one item incongruous with all of the others.

This is what the next generation of theme parks will look like.

Readers' Opinions

From Brandon Mendoza on February 28, 2012 at 2:47 PM
Excellent assessment of what is missing in this generation of theming. Make us forget that we're not really in a recently built castle! Make us think that we're really not touching a plaster wall. Yes!
From Anon Mouse on February 28, 2012 at 2:59 PM
"This is what the next generation of theme parks will look like."

Huh? That's it? Even more attention to detail by way of exit signs. That's nothing more than a wish list of more money to be spent on inconsequential stuff.

From Mike Shirley Jr on February 28, 2012 at 4:06 PM
You can't force an immersive experience. A jaded eye is a critical one and if a sign, light, or railing lessened your experience, then it's only because you allowed it to do so.
From 124.168.250.56 on February 28, 2012 at 4:42 PM
And I have told you before Marc, go to Tokyo DisneySea(you had the chance, having lived in Nipponland for two years but for some odd reason, did not go!). THERE you will see a TRUE "next gen" park.

Funny that you mentioned cold, hard stone castle walls because my first thought was the Explorer's fortress in Mediterranean Harbour, with its winding stone passage staircase. Hopefully one day you will get to see a truely immersive Disney theme park that blows away even the BEST parks in the US.

Everyone knows WDW is marketed towards those east of the Mississippi and, like government, the yokels, rednecks and bubbas get the theme parks they deserve. At least in the case of Disney, it's watered down experiences, more princess meet 'n' greets, bad show in Splash Mountain with most of the AAs not working and "thrill" rides replacing the grand, sweeping omnimover people eaters of 1980's Epcot Centre.

The theme parks for true connoisseurs are in Japan.

From Bob Liebe on February 28, 2012 at 5:07 PM
That was a well thought out article Marc K! I like your thoughts on the exit signs, railings, and especially on the security cameras, but I would have to agree with Mike Jr. on this one. Every experience on a themed ride is a faked experience to some extent. If I really wanted to be a stickler I could tear apart a lot more than just those elements. The projection screens in general are enough to take me out the story and put me back into reality if I really wanted to!

The ride and the theming are what you make of them. If small details ruin the entire experience for you, then a theme park is only going to be able to disappoint. Like you said, due to laws and regulations, certain safety precautions have to be taken. I like the themed exit signs, but if you theme them too well, they might be mistaken for ride elements and not an actual exit.

I agree that it would be nice to be able to explain away or hide certain elements, but it doesn't take away from the overall experience for me!

From Robert Niles on February 28, 2012 at 5:22 PM
One the reasons why I always loved the queue at WDW's Pirates was its use of themed channels instead of serpentine, "handrail" queues. As much as the handrails in Hogwarts bother me, too, I must admit that I was thankful to have something to lean against - other than the wall - when I was stuck in the castle for an hour during a breakdown. Perhaps the next generation of themed queue also should include more well-themed places to sit, for when the line slows or stops?

There are tricks that can help with things such as exit signs, too. Just put a dogleg or twist in the queue so that guests are facing away from an exit sign, for one. (And when the guests instinctively turn around, toward the entrance, during an evacuation, then they'll see the exit signs.) But that's a first-gen trick. I think it's worth questioning whether it can be done better.

When was talked with Sam Gennawey about theme park design late last year, materials were a big issue - how the use of high-quality materials helps establish a theme. But for as well as Disney does this, and Universal with Harry Potter, parks could do even better. How then, to make that affordable enough to be implemented? That's a challenge for designers of the next generation of themed environments to address, too.

I love the issues this post brings up. There's much here for fans who love detail to debate. Thanks for posting.

From Mike Gallagher on February 28, 2012 at 5:49 PM
So, exit signs and fire extinguishers ruin the theme, huh? I can think of 8 patrons at Great Adventure who might disagree with you...if they hadn't died in a haunted house fire many years ago. Technology may have improved a thosandfold, but safety measures must still be taken.
From James Koehl on February 28, 2012 at 6:00 PM
Hey Anonymous 124.168.250.56, who y'all think you are makin' trash talk about us who are blessed to live East of the Misssi...uh, Missipp..uh, Iowa. Why, I ought get the tires back on the pick-up, get my bruthers Yokel, Redneck and Bubba and drive over to whatever prissy gated community you hid in and show you some real IMMERSION- in a tub of moonshine and hog manure!
From 68.59.125.56 on February 28, 2012 at 8:45 PM
cool story bro. tell it again.
From Tyler C on February 28, 2012 at 11:44 PM
Those pesky exit signs annoy me as well. I've never given a second thought about railings or cameras, but those dang exit signs....grrr. The worst offending ride with them in my opinion is The Mummy in Orlando. I notice those bad boys everywhere.

The way I see it, while the ride is in motion there really is no need for exit signs. If the ride stops for whatever reason then the signs should become illuminated. It's not like we need them while we are securely strapped into the vehicle. And if the ride is operating then no park personnel should be in the ride area anyway.

I was starring at Rip Ride Rockit the other day and I realized how awfully intrusive and ugly the stairs and platform at the top of the lift are. I think something needs to be done about those bad boys, and other coasters. For example, removing those ultra wide stairs on Wild Eagle could enhance the sense of freedom and flight while ascending the lift. Sheikra and Griffons extra wide cars could also benefit greatly from removing all the stairs, walkways and railings that surround the upper turnaround of the lift. Not to mention all those unsightly electrical boxes that get in the way of the view.

I applaud Intamin for having smaller, less obtrusive stairs and railings on their lifts. On top of that Intamin only does the stairs on one side of the lift, except on Skyrush.

Wouldn't life be grand without all the little things getting in the way!!

From Sylvain Comeau on February 29, 2012 at 12:22 AM
All the verbiage in this article/essay amounts to nitpicking. One of the greatest queues ever designed is hardly ruined by guard rails. Get a grip, Marc.
From Todd Donahue on February 29, 2012 at 7:42 AM
So you took your wife for her 30 birthday to a theme park and all you can write about is the negatives about the park? Good luck when she reads the article. Also who uses "ruinous" when they talk? I thought I'd see Hemmingway or Lord Byron in your references but you're a video game editor. Robert Niles, where did you find this guy?
From Skipper Adam on February 29, 2012 at 9:07 AM
Never thought about guard rails. But the the switchbacks on the wall-less "Green house" that lacked a lot of plants bothered me. The fact that from the line you can see bits of the white show building. That we see Harry, Ron and Hermione tells us fifteen times about these bizarre flying benches bother me and the constant switching to screens and projectors on the ride bother me.

As cool as SOME parts of the queue are, I'm not a huge fan of it like everyone else. However, it's because of other gross oversights than exit signs.

I'm with Robert, Pirates probably has the best styled queue to convince guest that they are somewhere else (minus the icky and low black ceiling). Anytime a line is split, I think that help. The winding halls with small chambers with curious objects works well. Heavy chains seem to fit nicely and if the kids are bored (and I don't recommend this) they can touch and climb around the giant barrels.

Another Queue, perhaps because of it's simplicity, works well is the Tower of Terror queue. The Garden section with the music, while not crazily detailed really works well, and flows well into the very well themed interior.

My final queue shout out is the Everest queue. As authentic looking as other queues may be, this one is authentic. 98% of the items, including the hand maid Yeti temple, are from Asia. The queue has no ropes or chains. It never really has a switchback. It has interesting buildings that look real that subtly build up the story and educate you. I'm not judging based on what it's based (I'm indifferent to HP) but by the thoroughness, and I'd have to say Everest may be that next generation queue, and hardly anyone notices.

From David Brown on February 29, 2012 at 11:26 AM
Got to agree about the queue (I thought you US guys said 'line'?) for Expedition Everest - the next generation is already here....
From Mark Fairleigh on February 29, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Yup and if we could all ride unicorns and have cotton candy dreams come true. Appreciate the wish list, but I choose to see the glass half-full on this and marvel at what they have accomplished. Doesn't mean I'm not expecting greater things in the future, but I'm glad I can love the forest queue in E.T.'s Adventure, for example, without getting worked up over the fact that the trees only go so high and are cut off at the top. Seeing a fake robotic-alien-wise-man slowly rise up enshrouded in "fog" and laser lights still warms my heart and gets me giddy. It's all about mindset and how willing you are to let yourself be a child and be marveled at the smallest things...go in with critical eyes and you'll always find something wrong and, therefore, always be disappointed.
From Mike Gallagher on February 29, 2012 at 1:57 PM
Yeah, David..it's interesting. I ALWAYS used the word line. But since I started posting on another forum back in '05-'06, I've realized that "queue" is just as (if not more so) accepted when it comes to amusement park LINES (oops!) So I use it about half the time now on this and other fora, but I DON'T use it at all in everyday conversation. Odd, that.
From O T on February 29, 2012 at 6:06 PM
I guess you get used and kind of bored with the standard the parks in Orlando give you theire entertainment. But I´m from the Netherlands and most themeparks look horrible and are dirty. And the best non disney park in the EU is Efteling and that park has a far way to go to meet the standard shown by Orlando parks.
So get over it and enjoy all the wondefull theming, awesome one of a kind attractions and beautifull gardens.

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