The Next Generation of Theming
Written by Marc Kleinhenz
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.Tweet
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.
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.
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