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How music helps make the magic in theme parks

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Published: June 30, 2013 at 2:23 PM

Imagine a beautiful, clear morning at Universal's Islands of Adventure. You've arrived early (because you read Theme Park Insider!), and, for some reason, you decide to walk around the park the long way to get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As you walk through Jurassic Park, you slow down. Even though the Jurassic Park River Adventure is not yet running, you are taken in by the beauty of the jungle landscape. You are nearly alone in this immersive place, and as music swells with a theme from Jurassic Park (called — no joke — Journey to the Island), you suddenly feel as though you are in the movie, a doe-eyed observer of this impossible new experience. At some point, you reluctantly realize that you'd still like to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey before the crowds descend. You've got to leave this theme-park Eden and cross the bridge into a different place. But, what a transition! As you start to cross, and are able to make out the shape of Hogwarts on your left and a Butterbeer cart in front of you, you become aware that the music is changing. You are suddenly in Harry's world, alive with all of the wonder and possibility that Harry experiences in the books and movies. Before you get on that Kuka robot arm, before you even step under the arch, the magic becomes real.


Start at the 16:55 mark for the bridge music.

As a musician, I probably spend more time in theme parks paying attention to the way the park sounds than most guests. The music, especially the "underscoring" (the background music playing all around you while you visit a themed environment), is often designed not as a focal point of its own, but as another layer of theming. In today's most immersive themed lands (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) the music does more than add theming, it actually creates the illusion that you are IN a movie. It's your life, only better, and with a soundtrack! It creates the kind of experience I described above.

On a recent trip to Orlando, I noticed that many of the most successful themed attractions share music by the same composer. I'm talking here about John Williams. He is responsible for the musical scores behind some of the biggest attraction properties in Orlando: Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, E.T., Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and, until very recently, Jaws (gone now, but with Diagon Alley taking its place, it's a zero net loss). You might notice that this list spans three parks and the two biggest theme park players, Disney and Universal. Very few others have reach like that (not coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is the other, and he produced or directed many of the movies on that list). Basically, as far as theme park attraction music goes, John Williams is the man. He wins Orlando.

John Williams
John Williams conducts the Orlando Philharmonic at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 16, 2010.

What makes his music, or the franchises connected with it, so successful? The answer is simple: he is very good at what he does. For many years, he has been considered the best in the business when it comes to scoring blockbuster films. Three things set him apart.

First, like any decent film composer, he has a great sense for the character of a movie and the mood at any moment in the film. There are certain things that sound like a John Williams score, but there are also big differences between the sound of, say, Jurassic Park, which has exciting, idealistic, slightly overconfident music, to reflect the idealism — and delusions — of the character who invents Jurassic Park; and Harry Potter, a musical score full of both joy and regret, reflecting Harry's discovery of a better, but scarier, world than the one he thought he lived in.

The second thing that sets John Williams apart — and this one has gotten him into some trouble with musicians: he is good at borrowing material. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the great pieces written for symphonic orchestra over the last 250 or so years, and of the history of music going much farther back than that. If there is a clever trick in the book for creating a certain sound, effect, or mood, he has studied it and used it. In many of his films, for example Star Wars Episode IV, someone with a knowledge of music history can go scene by scene and name these influences (The Dune Sea of Tatooine sounds just like the Introduction to Part 2 of Stravinky's Rite of Spring; Imperial Attack borrows freely from Mars, the Bringer of War from Gustav Holst's The Planets, etc). I don't disparage him for doing this, and I imagine that he would be the first to admit his influences. But his "stealing" drives some professional musicians, and non-movie composers, crazy, because they feel that he stands on the shoulders of masters and hasn't earned his fame. That's kind of absurd. For one thing, if you are going to be influenced by those that came before, as every artist is, at least Williams picks the right people to mimic. His already-mentioned sense for mood and pacing means that he picks his influences very carefully, and based on the dramatic action in the film. He also works in a field where creative borrowing is almost expected. Much of the architecture in the Harry Potter films and Universal attractions, for example, comes from well-known Medieval castles and artwork. Few fault the set designers for going back to those influences. John Williams is doing exactly the same thing with the music. But he certainly contributes more than just good copies of older music.

Which leads to his third strength: the guy can write a great melody. Think about it. You can hum the themes to all of the movies I listed above (well, in the case of Jaws you would have to kind of groan rhythmically). Being able to write a good tune is a surprisingly rare gift for a composer. Two other composers known for their skill in writing melodies are Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and they have also been slandered by other musicians jealous of their natural abilities in this regard.

What does all of this mean for a theme park fan? Well, it's no surprise that some of the top-grossing IP [intellectual property] in all of film history has music written by the most successful popular film composer. But in the case of John Williams, the music may have really contributed to the success of these films. Can you imagine Star Wars without the music swelling as the binary sun sets on Tatooine? Or E.T. without the main theme blaring as E.T. helps the kids fly their bikes over the city? Or how about if we didn't have Hedwig's Theme to evoke quickly the entire film world of Harry Potter? These are iconic moments in film, and music, history, and they elevate their entire franchises, and the theme park attractions built off of them, to a different level.

Which leads me back to the bridge connecting Jurassic Park to Harry Potter at IOA. After my recent visit, I decided that bridge is my favorite musical "moment" in a theme park. I like many other spots, too, present and past: the old Imagination pavilion music at EPCOT by the Sherman Brothers, Danny Elfman's new ride soundtrack to Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland (the decision to commission and record a ride soundtrack of that magnitude makes me wonder if a film is in the works), and even the entrance plaza music at Islands of Adventure, which shifts brilliantly over the course of the day. But the bridge from Jurassic Park to WWoHP takes the cake for me, because the music is really well-integrated with the theme, and having two great Williams scores set off next to each other like that is just plain fun.

How about you? What's your favorite music, or musical location, in a theme park?

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Readers' Opinions

From Robert Niles on June 30, 2013 at 2:32 PM
Spot-on commentary there, Jonah. Thank you!

In addition to what you've mentioned, I love Alan Menken's theme song for the Sindbad's Storybook Voyage at Tokyo DisneySea. Robert Moline's "Golden Dream" never fails to get me, too, and the entire soundtrack of Impressions de France remains an international treasure.

From Tim Chatlos on June 30, 2013 at 2:43 PM
I've always thought the way the music through Comic Strip Lane at Islands of Adventure subtly shifts between the characters as you walk down the street is rather brilliant. It's a little like parade music except the scenery stays put and the guests float by at their own pace.
From Chris S on June 30, 2013 at 3:01 PM
Just as music is vital to setting the mood in a film, music is equally vital when we ourselves are in the middle of a story in a theme park. Mentioned above are plenty of favorite music moments of mine, particularly music that is used in Islands of Adventure. Of course, Disney has always done an exceptional job of creating music for its attractions, whether it's catchy songs like "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" or sweeping, inspiring orchestral melodies, like the "Illuminations" soundtrack. I once heard a commentator say that a good movie score can stand on its own, without the help of the visuals of the film. I think the same goes for good theme park music.
From Eric Olivero on June 30, 2013 at 3:20 PM
One of my favorite background/attraction soundtrack is Ellen's Energy Adventure.

This article reminds me of a presentation I did in college about John Williams in a room of mostly non-musicians, and I played parts of different movie soundtracks for the students to identify which movie it was from. The idea was to show them how music plays an important role in making us remember situations and events, in this case a movie.

From M. Ryan Traylor on June 30, 2013 at 3:29 PM
I'm a big fan of Condor Flats, Soarin's queue, and of course Soarin' itself. That area is filled with great cues from "Dave", "Air Force One", "Rocketeer", "The American President" and more.
From Jorge Arnoldson on June 30, 2013 at 3:41 PM
I love the queue music for Dollywood's Wild Eagle. It sets everyone up for a majestic flight on a steel eagle over the park's hills.
From Jonah Sirota on June 30, 2013 at 3:45 PM
"It's a little like parade music except the scenery stays put and the guests float by at their own pace."

Yes, I think this is a mark of good sound design in a park. It's almost like being on an omnimover ride. The park itself is another E-ticket.

From Tracy Bates on June 30, 2013 at 4:59 PM
Universal also uses the speakers throughout the park to full effect for special events. If you come to Halloween Horror Nights, for instance, the speakers are playing the sounds of people being disemboweled in the bushes, so it makes the friendly park seem menacing at night.
From N B on June 30, 2013 at 7:00 PM
It's funny you mentioned the music at IOA. I have all three variations of the CD they released years ago. They go for over $100 on eBay.
From Rob Pastor on June 30, 2013 at 7:37 PM
This is an excellent article. THANK YOU!
From Eric G on June 30, 2013 at 8:21 PM
Very nice article. Universal's Islands of Adventure is certainly the champ when it comes to theme park soundtracks and the audio system.
From Andrew Swanson on June 30, 2013 at 8:28 PM
The opening act of Tokyo DisneySEA is beautiful.
The area outside the entrance plaza as you walk from the monorail past the ticket booths (because you already bought your ticket) transitions into the Aquasphere plaza, which then transitions into the Mediterranean Harbor loop.
From Tim Chatlos on June 30, 2013 at 8:46 PM
Was the music from Comic Strip Lane ever released on CD or elsewhere? The only tracks I've heard come from the official soundtrack and those don't seem to be the same as what plays in that section of the park, particularly the lack of the character vocals.
From Bryce McGibeny on June 30, 2013 at 8:57 PM
Universal's Islands of Adventure Port of Entry music takes the cake for me! The way it shifts from the gates, to the main street, then to the plaza in front of the lagoon. It is perfection.

I also love Epcot's entry music, and of course, the JP theme in Islands of Adventure.

I think just the music in general around Epcot and Islands of Adventure is pretty darn good. It's funny because those are my two favorite parks.

From Robert Niles on June 30, 2013 at 9:53 PM
Every theme park that makes the effort to create a soundtrack for the park ought to release that soundtrack for sale to fans. Surely there are ways to make that happen.


From Jonah Sirota on July 1, 2013 at 4:55 AM
"Every theme park that makes the effort to create a soundtrack for the park ought to release that soundtrack for sale to fans."
Hear, hear!!! This isn't quite the same thing, but my sister and I used to wear out a tape called 'Walt Disney World's Greatest Hits.' It had the Pirates of the Caribbean song, the Haunted Mansion song, and Baroque Hoedown from the Main Street Electrical Parade. I miss that tape, and there's nothing like that now, unless I'm willing to spend serious $$$ on eBay.
From Duncan Henny on July 1, 2013 at 5:44 AM
@N B I too own all three versions of the islands soundtracks
I wouldn't have paid $100 though I managed to track them down online
I love all the theme park music I have most of the seaworld tracks as well I do wish they would release them on cd again though because I have noticed some different versions played at islands that are not on the three CDs that they did
From Russell Meyer on July 1, 2013 at 6:57 AM
I was a huge fan of the soundtrack at Hard Rock Park, which was conceived by some of the same creative people that designed IOA. The soundtrack used well-know music, but put a spin on the songs by remixing them to match the theme of each land. A country-western banjo-pickin' version of "Crazy Train" elicited a chuckle every time. The music was so well synchronized that you could walk between lands and listen to the music transition from one style to another.

Some of the best original theme park music I've heard typically comes from shows, perhpas because it's more noticeable than background music in the parks. I'm always grabbed by the soundtrack to Sea World's Blue Horizons, and I've loved the old Electric Light Parade music and remember listening to it on vinyl back in the day.

I do enjoy the Fantasmic! music, and find myself humming it for hours after the show ends much like I used to do following the original Illuminations soundtrack, not so much with the newer Illuminations music though.

From travis traymoore on July 1, 2013 at 3:34 PM
Go on YouTube and type in "epcot earworm". It's the music between the innoventio s and by far the catchiest theme park music I've ever heard
From Aaron McMahon on July 1, 2013 at 7:59 PM
IOA's Port of Entry music is great. It really makes you feel like you are about to enter a magical and other worldly place.

The music in the front square of Epcot's Future World is brings a lot of the optimistic modernism that defines the park.

Top Thrill Dragster using the 90's Brit Pop song Ready to Go to pump ump riders in the station.

From Anon Mouse on July 2, 2013 at 9:36 AM
Good artists borrow (copy). Great artists steal. I think John Williams is the latter.
From Brandon Townsend on July 2, 2013 at 12:10 PM
Great article. I have always loved the background music in theme parks and it's even better when movie scores are integrated into the theming at parks. (I can't wait to hear the theme to Star Wars at the new parks at Disney.) And I agree with several other comments that amusement park music should be more readily available on iTunes or CD. And Robert is right about Impressions de France. My family and I love that music and listening to it or Soarin' is so evocative it makes us feel that we are right there in the park. Listening to some Disney or Epcot background music makes me feel like a child again.

Check out Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 soundtrack for some great amusement park themes.

From E Ticket on July 2, 2013 at 2:32 PM
I also love transitional moments, like the twinkling chimes leading from Seuss into Lost Continent, or the rock guitars literally pouring out of the steam-grates in the streets in Marvel Superhero Island.

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