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Theme parks in the era of narrative

Written by
Published: May 22, 2012 at 10:03 AM

It'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.

Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios
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.

Readers' Opinions

From Melissa Donahue on May 22, 2012 at 10:14 AM
Well said, Mr. Niles, well said! You've hit the nail on the head.
From Dave Stroem on May 22, 2012 at 10:48 AM
I completely agree. IMO this should also be carried out on regular coasters as well.

I know that I was somewhat disappointed with Intimidator coasters at both KD and CW when it came to theming. Imagine having some wrecked cars scattered though out the ride or on the final break run having pit signs etc.

Of course some will say those are amusement parks and not theme parks. In today's market, you have to tell a better story.

From Dominick D on May 22, 2012 at 10:58 AM
-Slowly claps- Well said Mr. Niles. -Claps faster- BRAVO!!!!! Oh, and cant forget the hippos :)
From Anon Mouse on May 22, 2012 at 1:42 PM
Based on the new price increases, Disney stands alone.
From Sylvain Comeau on May 22, 2012 at 2:13 PM
Interactivity is part of it, but mostly in the queue. I would say immersiveness is much more important, and using technology and creativity to design rides, lands and environments that place you in another world.

In other words, things really haven't changed that much. The main difference today is that the stakes have increased, and the level of theming has been raised by technology.

From José María Sandoval on May 22, 2012 at 7:43 PM
Great!!!
From Curtis Young on May 22, 2012 at 10:59 PM
You've hit the nail on the head. As someone who's studied both theatre directing and Storytelling at the graduate level, youve explained why a great coaster at Six Flags just doesn't do it for me anymore. I look at a park like Holiday World or Dollywood, though,and I'm caught up not in the narratives of the individual rides and attractions, but rather in the mythos of the parks as a whole. The allure IS in the details. Theming is a medium, and the medium is the message.
From TH Creative on May 23, 2012 at 8:34 AM
Robert writes: "But to win this race ... 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."

I Respond: And this is why the Disney parks will lead the way. Robert writes about the "need" to acquire "rights to blockbuster entertainment franchises." It's interesting to note that Disney’s "kingdom parks" (WDWMK, DL, TDL, et al) are divided into individual lands that are themselves autonomous entertainment franchises. Indeed, TPI recently reported about WDI's plans to add interactive "gags" in public areas throughout Adventureland. In doing so, WDI adapts a VERY POPULAR entertainment franchise (Adventureland) and enriches its narrative.

After Adventureland, interactive effects in public areas will no doubt appear in Tomorrowland, Frontierland, etc.

In this way WDI's "ride designers and creative leaders" will "bring engaging characters and worlds to life in an interactive theme park environment."

From Tom Rigg on May 23, 2012 at 10:27 AM
This is brilliant. I'm pretty sure you should convince a University to give you a Doctorate in Themparkology.


I will raise one point: I don't think it is necessary for the parks to buy franchises for their characters. Disney successfully created several franchises inside the parks: Pirates, The Haunted Mansion, Figment. While it may be easier to buy characters, it's not necessary.

From Todd Houts on May 23, 2012 at 10:29 AM
Robert it is compelling articles like this that first made me take notice of TPI and what keeps me coming back. Sure the inside or breaking information is great, but I love it when your journalist background shines and you link pieces of information most would see but not connect and create a compelling story out of them. As others have said: Bravo!
From Robert Niles on May 23, 2012 at 10:55 AM
Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

To TH's point, I should have written 'acquire or create' blockbuster franchises. And as Pirates has shown, the ride sometimes can be the first property in the franchise. It doesn't always have to be the final piece.

From Brandon Townsend on May 23, 2012 at 11:20 AM
I go to Disney World knowing beforehand it's a "theme" park and not a "thrill" park. If I want thrills I go to Cedar Point. They are two totally different experiences in my opinion.
Disney has made attempts to incorporate both with Expedition Everest and Splash Mountain (both rides I love) but they pale in comparison to the visceral excitement of rides such as Top Thrill Dragster, Millennium Force, or Skyhawk. I believe Universal has done a better job merging the thrills and themes with The Hulk.
I hope amusement parks continue to use narrative and theme elements in new rides. I also hope ride designers continue to strive for bigger and faster thrill rides.
From Doug Jenkins on May 23, 2012 at 2:13 PM
It's not between Disney and Universal? Maybe not but they are about the only ones with the resources and know how to do rides like that.
From Anon Mouse on May 23, 2012 at 2:25 PM
"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."

They are still engaged in doing this. There's a reason Six Flags and Cedar Fair exist. They are there to provide roller coasters to the fans.

"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."

We don't know where it actually shifted. There was always Universal and Disney and hardly anyone in between. Its just that Universal hit it out of the ballpark with the Wizarding World. Besides the fact that they were first with Spiderman, Universal was never directly competitive with Disney until most recently. And even then, Disney still stands alone in how it can command the outrageous prices.

However, I think that the theme park market has pretty much left Disney alone and went on its merry way in distinguishing itself in niche markets like Sea World, Legoland, Busch Gardens, and the coaster parks like Six Flags and Cedar Fair. Disney tried new things too like Animal Kingdom and Disney Studios, but their efforts at being different made its offering more of the same. Nothing that Disney has done could not easily be installed in a Disneyland park.

From Robert Niles on May 23, 2012 at 2:35 PM
Anon Mouse, I'm writing specifically about roller coasters in those sentences. And, yes, Six Flags and Cedar Fair have given up on the 'tallest' and 'fastest' record-chasing. Let the non-US parks waste money on those White Elephants. I think it's significant that even among coaster parks the focus has shifted from raw specs to finding a creative blending of engaging elements.
From 69.108.114.245 on May 23, 2012 at 3:03 PM
I've always loved big tall and fast roller coaster, but when I noticed that they were losing charm and just becoming machines, I was loosing interest. I don't truly care about the coaster race, and I honestly felt that the theme park industries were gearing those rides to the wrong crowd. It was the crowd that would go on them, love them, and not going back constantly. The true theme park fans that go back to the parks constantly want (as far as it seems) diversity in their riding experience throughout the day. It's why Disney is such a huge success. They understand the concept of variety within your day. In the early 2000s I noticed the coaster war and was a little disappointed. It wasn't about the enjoyment of the ride or even the ride itself, it was about the label for the park to have. Then the theme park recession happened with Six Flags parks closing and others being threatened of that, while Disney was always staying top dog. I love Six Flags and I love Disney, but if I were to pick, I'd always go with Disney. Hopefully now theme parks realize it's not about the craziest ride, but unique, original, and transporting. I think the new theme park wars is gonna be a good one.

I can only fear that technology will become too much of a focus and a genuine and 'classic' ride experience will be thrown away if they take this too far. There has to be a balance lol.

From TH Creative on May 23, 2012 at 4:06 PM
How ironic is it that the importance of themed immersion has become the principal objective? Theme parks as genuine theater. Robert and I are decidedly old school WDW CMs. We remember the priority placed on the term "good show."
From TH Creative on May 23, 2012 at 4:08 PM
Very exciting.
From Brandon Mendoza on May 24, 2012 at 10:31 AM
Just like in the movies, flashy special effects, world records, and tacked on 3D can't make a movie's story better if it's terrible. Only people that care if your coaster is the highest or fastest are the same people impressed with someone's 500 sq ft. closet, or their 100" TV.

Disney's not perfect, but they've been doing this forever. Doesn't mean they didn't mess up, like with DCA's original generic rides. And Universal blew everyone away with Spider-Man and Harry Potter.

The direction of parks as a whole is definitely in full immersion in another world like Hogwarts or Carsland. The original Disneyland already transported you to another "land" as you couldn't see outside of it. WDW really feels like "A Whole New World" (pun intended) with the scale and distance between parks. And Hogwarts IS real.

I just hope that attractions don't all become like King Kong, Transformers, or Toy Story. But I also hope that Coaster Parks realize that you can't just slap a "fastest coaster West of the Mississippi!" label and call it a day.

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