Theme parks in the era of narrative
Written by Robert NilesIt's spring, which means new attraction openings - and the big media outlets paying their annual glance at the theme park business. The New York Times framed this year's openings as a battle between Disney and Universal, which it certainly is. But I think there's a more useful angle from which to look at what's happening in the world of theme parks.
Published: May 22, 2012 at 10:03 AM
It's a race to win market share, and theme park companies are aiming at you.
(And before I go too far down this path, allow me to point out another take on this issue from the Boston Globe, which happens to quote a pretty good source, too.)
Here it is: Narrative washes over our lives. Books led to movies then to radio, then to television, then to video games, and then to the Internet. Now, all have converged, and with mobile devices we can immerse ourselves in narrative 24/7, anywhere there's a WiFi or cellular data connection around the globe.
Yet we don't consume narrative as passive readers, listeners, or viewers any longer, either. Video games opened the door, and the Internet carried us through it. Now, we create narratives even as we consume them, mashing them up, riffing on them, and even collaborating with them to spread them virally across our communities, both physical and virtual.
A decade ago, amusement parks were engaged in a Coaster War, ever-building taller and faster roller coasters in pursuit of world records for height, speed, length and intensity. But in that battle, parks discovered the limits both of practical engineering and human endurance. Parks were spending tens of millions of dollars on roller coasters that kept breaking down under the strain of all that height and speed. And too many people were blacking out, or clutching their heads and stomachs in pain, vowing never to ride these rides again.
So the industry shifted. The focus changed from bigger and faster to more creative and unique. Record-seeking gave way to innovate design, and parks began promoting things like wing seating over raw track specs. Millions of fans learned a new vocabulary, writing online about cobra rolls, dive loops, and Immelmanns. People started talking about the progression of elements on roller coasters as if they, too, were a narrative, leading riders along a physical "story" of flight.
Parks continue to take the next step, too, further blurring the decaying lines between roller coasters and dark rides by adding show scenes to their coasters, as Busch Gardens Williamsburg has this year with Verbolten and SeaWorld San Diego with its version of Manta.
In other words, narrative won out over simple physical thrills.
So the "battle" in the theme park industry, if there is one, is not simply a contest between companies. It's better described as a race to imbue more (and more engaging) narrative into the experience of visiting a theme park. In this race, Disney and Universal start with huge leads, thanks to their decades of developing and acquiring rights to popular entertainment franchises. Iron parks and carnival rides alone no longer can compete in a narrative-laden entertainment world.
But people are looking for more than the same old theme park dark rides, too. To attract and engage today's media-soaked consumers, theme park attractions need to offer characters who inhabit alluring worlds, rich with narrative possibilities. It helps parks to start with franchises that have proven themselves in other media, such as Harry Potter, Transformers, and Pixar's Cars.
The successful theme parks in the 2010s and beyond will be the ones that fully develop these franchises into engaging experiences, filling rides with so many details that visitors will need to ride and ride again to catch them all. Parks also will do well to allow their visitors to shape and to own their own versions of the narratives that the parks present. Interactive games such as Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom build upon the shoot-'em-up rides of recent years, such as Buzz Lightyear and Men in Black, giving visitors the opportunity to create new and unique experiences on every visit.
This is a race to extend narrative from individual rides into every facet of the park experience, where visitors have the chance to become actors in their own adventure, not just consuming, but mashing up, riffing on and collaborating with the master storytellers behind the parks' franchises, in creating truly awesome, live entertainment experiences that staying home surfing the Internet can never match.
But to win this race, you need those master storytellers. You need the rights to blockbuster entertainment franchises. And you need the ride designers and creative leaders who can bring engaging characters and worlds to life in an interactive theme park environment.
This isn't just Disney versus Universal. Or anyone versus anyone else. It's about writing a new narrative for out-of-home interactive entertainment. And when someone gets that right, theme park fans win.
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