Form vs. function, or, why Disney's doing it wrong trying to copy Universal's Butterbeer
Written by Robert Niles
Earlier this week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, attraction designer Dave Cobb talked about the knock-off culture in the theme park industry, and how parks that copy others often don't distinguish between the form and function of an attraction.Tweet
It's not just the Chinese theme parks we discussed that do this. Even Disney itself has ripped off others' attractions in the past — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Few would argue that Disney's Splash Mountain didn't improve on Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride, the original log flume mountain attraction that Disney's Imagineers have conceded "inspired" their attraction. Heck, that "inspiration" flows both ways, as Knott's just dropped more than a million bucks on new animatronics and show scenery for its Log Ride, to make it more "Disney"-like.
But Disney blows it on occasion, too. Consider Disney's current obsession with rolling out a variety of foam-topped sweet drinks in its theme parks.
The impostor: Red's Apple Freeze from California Adventure's Cars Land. (Also known as Le Fou's Brew in Walt Disney World's New Fantasyland.)
Clearly, Disney's trying to capture the success that Universal's had with Butterbeer in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
And the original: Universal Orlando's Butterbeer
But in copying the form — a sweet drink topped with a flavored foam — Disney missed the essential function of Universal's Butterbeer. Harry Potter fans didn't love Butterbeer just because it's a tasty drink that leaves a silly foam mustache on your face when you drink it. They've order millions of these drinks over the past three years because it provides one more physical connection between them and the world of Harry Potter and his friends.
As the other attractions in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter engage visitors through sight, sound, and touch, Butterbeer allows visitors to connect with the world of Harry Potter books and movies through taste and smell — two senses too often overlooked in the creation of themed entertainment experiences. It's not the drink itself that provides the appeal (though it's certainly tasty!), it's the fact this is a convincing recreation of something from the books and movies that Harry, Ron and Hermione drank, too. You're not just standing in Hogsmead where your beloved characters stood. You're drinking the same drink they drank, too. That's an active connection with beloved characters, beyond the passive connection one gets from watching a film or riding a ride.
Obviously, if Butterbeer tasted terrible, it wouldn't have the same appeal. (Which is why Universal didn't make the Krusty Burgers in Universal Studios Florida's Springfield USA the foul creations referenced in so many Simpsons TV episodes.) But the ginger/butterscotch flavor and foamy top on are secondary forms to Butterbeer's essential function of actively connecting visitors to the characters of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. To get way too deeply metaphorical here, Butterbeer serves an almost "communion"-like role in bringing visitors into the Wizarding World.
All the foam-topped drink variations in the world won't allow Disney to recreate that, because Disney lacks the context that makes Butterbeer so special. What would Butterbeer be like without Harry Potter? It's be Le Fou's Brew. And who would care?
But here's the irony. Disney does have a food-and-beverage product available to it that could serve the same function in its parks for fans of one of its movies that Butterbeer serves in Universal parks for Harry Potter fans.
It's "The Grey Stuff" from Beauty and the Beast. When Lumiere sang "try the grey stuff, it's delicious," in "Be Our Guest," millions of Disney fans became curious about what "the grey stuff" might be and just how delicious it might taste. When Disney announced its plan to build a "Be Our Guest" restaurant in its New Fantasyland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the first question many Disney fans asked was: "Will they have 'The Grey Stuff'?"
Yes, Disney does serve The Grey Stuff at Be Our Guest. But rather than embrace it as a Butterbeer-like attraction in itself, Disney's hidden the dessert off the menu, making available only to selected visitors celebrating a special event at dinner.
What a missed opportunity! How many Beauty and the Beast fans would queue to buy The Grey Stuff it Disney made it widely available? Conversely, how much less popular would Butterbeer be if Universal had hidden it as exclusively as Disney has The Grey Stuff? Would the Wizarding World of Harry Potter been as intense a hit without widely-available Butterbeer?
When Disney tried to copy the form of Butterbeer while ignoring its function, it falls into the same trap as those cheap Chinese theme parks that roll out creepy knock-off versions of It's a Small World. It's not what something looks, feels or tastes like that matters in the theme park world. It's how it makes us feel that matters, and how that feeling connects us with a beloved world we long to visit.
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