Vote of the week: Story vs. sensation?
Written by Robert Niles
Yesterday's conference call with Six Flags managers yielded one particularly fascinating moment for me. Another reporter observed that none of the attractions Six Flags announced were based on the DC Comics or other characters that Six Flags has licensed to use in its theme parks. Six Flags' Al Weber responded that absence wasn't due to Six Flags' backing off the use of such characters - it's just "how the cards played" this particular year. The reporter followed up by asking how Six Flags determines when and where to use theming in rides.Tweet
That's where things got interesting. Weber responded by asking a question of his own: whether the reporter meant theming or IP (which is industry shorthand for "intellectual property," the use of licensed characters and stories).
That question stunned me. I think it surprised the reporter, as well, because a beat passed before he responded with the same point I would have made: Aren't those pretty much the same thing?
Weber then explained his point of view: Theming is the application of physical texture and context on and around rides, where IP is the use of a licensed character.
And with that, I got a clearer understanding of Six Flags and its management. To me, what Weber described as "theming," I'd call decoration. A "themed" attraction, to me, is one that tells a story, arising from a specific place, time, and set of characters that are, collectively, the attraction's "theme."
A park's IP provides the cast of characters from which park designers can select themes for the park's attractions. So (in this world view, at least), no matter how a ride might be decorated, if there are no characters and no story, the ride is unthemed.
The exchanged helped me understand why fans, and even people in the industry, sometimes end up talking past one another when discussing theming in the parks. It's hard to have a productive conversation about theming if the people talking have different definitions of what theming means.
That's why I made a mental note to start using the terms "storytelling" and "decor" more often. Perhaps they get closer to the issues we're talking about when so many of us use the word "theme."
That said, the exchange also got me thinking about the importance of storytelling in theme park attractions, versus physical sensation and thrill. Obviously, Six Flags goes after consumers who want a heavy helping of physical sensation when they visit a park. You won't find nearly the amount of or level of storytelling that fans find at Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld parks. But Disney, Universal and SeaWorld park occupy the top 12 spots for the most-attended parks in America. People love storytelling, as well as physical thrills.
So which one do you prefer? That's our vote of the week.
I know that the ideal answer is "both!" But let me push you to pick one over the other here.
Let's think of it this way: Assume you've got a choice between two theme park rides. One tells an exciting story with engaging characters, but the ride's a total snore. You're moving - barely - but if it weren't for the story and setting, it'd be the most boring few minutes you've ever spent. The other ride is pure physical fun. It's not so extreme that it makes you feel sick, or even uncomfortable. But it definitely gets your blood moving and your senses singing. Story? Sorry. If you weren't riding, and were just looking around, well, it'd be most boring few minutes you've ever spent.
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