Where's the human element in theme park attractions?
Written by Robert Niles
What's your favorite element of a theme park attraction? Is it the music, the lightning, the scenery? The ride, the animatronics, the special effects? This question comes to mind around this time of the year as theme parks debut their annual Halloween events. Why does Halloween elicit questions about attraction elements? Because theme parks' Halloween events overwhelmingly rely on an element that's often missing from theme park attractions — people.Tweet
We're not talking about people on a ride or in a show theater. There's always plenty of them! We're talking about the use of people — live actors or operations personnel — in a theme park attractions.
Haunted houses, mazes, and scare zones work or fail based on the efforts of the scareactors who populate them. For events so focused on themes of death, Halloween events actually provide some of the liveliest evenings of the year at parks. Hundreds of scareactors play with thousands of guests, in a massive display of live, interactive theater. You'll never find that experience at home watching television or playing video games. You won't find it in a movie theater. Even watching a live stage show, you're separated from the actors by the stage itself, and won't experience the up-close interaction found every single night in a theme park Halloween event. That's one of the reasons why so many fans adore these events. It's a rush to become part of a production like this.
Why shouldn't theme parks make more use of the people throughout the year, and not just in September and October? A few attractions do. Disney's Jungle Cruise might be the most popular example. And again, it's developed a passionate fan base that appreciates the unique interplay between a skipper and his (and now, these days, sometimes her) "crew." Sure, not every trip goes the same. Audiences and skippers are different, and sometimes they don't "click." But that variability can be part of an attraction's appeal.
Theme parks have spent millions trying to create attractions with a high "re-ride" factor, experiences that reward visitors who return to ride again and again. But you don't need high-tech computer systems to power that. When theme park personnel is well-trained and experienced, they can deliver unique experiences that are consistent only in their high quality. That's the aim of park entertainment departments, who train and manage actors, musicians and character performers in their parks. The best moments in theme park entertainment happen when performers break through that "fourth wall" to make enduring connections with park guests. Want an example? Just try to read this story without breaking up.
Yet often in parks, there's an institutional division between entertainment and attractions design and operations. That separation robs parks of opportunities to create unique hybrid attractions that blend human performance with more traditional park amusements -- the fun sort of walk-throughs and ride experiences that Halloween fans enjoy at this time of the year.
The bean-counter/sharp-pencil crowd often tries to silence this talk with objections about labor costs. But people are cheap compared with multi-million dollar ride systems. The successful parks of the 21st century will be ones that find ways to break operational walls to create unique immersive experiences. It's not about stage shows, and rides, and restaurants, and shops. It's about bringing them all together into one, continuous show that engages visitors in multiple media throughout the day. And live performance with park actors and employees must become an ever-present element of that.
So let's bring more people into theme park attractions. No, they won't be an appropriate element in every new attraction. But parks would do well to think about throwing them into the mix more often. The fun of participating in massive, live-action scrum of interactive theater shouldn't just come once a year.
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