Does Every Theme Park Ride Have to Be about a Fight?
Many great theme park attractions tell a story as a way to draw visitors into the attraction. Powerful narratives engage and excite visitors, amplifying the physical sensation of being on a ride, or the camaraderie of witnessing a show with hundreds of others.
But just as there are multiple systems to power rides, many ways of staging a show, a wide variety of approaches to decorating a land, there are countless narratives to drive stories in any medium — from books to movies to theme park attractions. So why are so many storytellers today focusing on the same type of narrative — a fight between fictional characters?
That's the question that I ask in my Orange County Register column this week: Do all theme park rides have to be battles with an evil empire?
We often joke here on Theme Park Insider about the common device on theme park rides that, at some point, something will go terribly wrong. As Universal Creative's Thierry Coup once told us, "It has to. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day."
But we can save the day by many different ways that jumping into the middle of a fight between "good guys" and "bad guys." Challenges abound in science, in history, and in the ongoing discovery of the natural world around and above us. Even in the world of fiction, strategy and guile can provide satisfying resolutions to conflicts, too. The answer doesn't always have to require a physical fight.
In my column, I look at the example of the changes Disney has made in transforming Space Mountain into Hyperspace Mountain for the Star Wars-themed Season of the Force at Disneyland. While I love Hyperspace Mountain, it illustrates the evolving nature of narrative in theme park attractions. What once was driven by a spirit of discovery now simply reflects another firefight between the good team and the bad one.
Sure, fight-drive narratives are fun. But in an industry that chasing record box office receipts and theme park revenue, couldn't there be more room for other types of narrative as well?
Read Robert's Column:
The "something gone wrong" narrative gotten old. Flying is old too. They need new ideas and concepts to encourage our imaginations.
I completely agree with you Robert. I am a 38 year old male, which is pretty much the target audience for Star Wars. Science, technology, and timeless exploration resonate with me far more than a fictional space battle. It all comes down to the question...At the end of the day, what are the experiences that people want to come back to? It's not war or fighting in spaceships. That gets old. High quality experiences that teach and inspire are the ones that people obsess over and come back to see time and time again.
Do you have other examples of attractions at Disney that use that 'caught in the battle' theme? I'm curious, my mind draws a blank for some reason. Maybe Fantasmic in a way, but the audience doesn't really feel part of the show. For Star Wars, specifically, I think the fans are expecting to see fights and space battles since the story is set during war time.
Pirates of the Caribbean comes to mind.
I think that the Greatest Themed Attraction Ever, Pirates of the Caribbean, proves Mr. Coup wrong. In it, we are neither the heroes nor the villains. Every time I ride the version in DL (my home resort), I marvel at how passive you are as a rider. You see some stuff, pirates storm a town, they mess around, and it all goes to hell in a hand basket. The end. And yet is completely absorbing. The atmosphere, detail, sounds, and lights transport you.
Mr. Niles writes: "While I love Hyperspace Mountain, it illustrates the evolving nature of narrative in theme park attractions. What once was driven by a spirit of discovery now simply reflects another firefight between the good team and the bad one."
I have to agree with the above here. Walt Disney World alone hosts Test Track, Mission Space, Rock n Rollercoaster, Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain. Even more if I go into dark rides that aren't thrill rides. These rides, particularly Mission Space and Test Track, ARE about the spirit of discovery. Splash Mountain tells a complete story that doesn't have anything to do with a battle. I felt overwhelmed with battles at Universal, I've never felt that way at Disney.
The reason the fight themed rides are prevalent are simply because it is easy for an emotional attachment due to conflict and is exciting. The classic example is Gringotts. It places you in the story and is fun. Universal uses this almost exclusively. Disney has mastered the notion of the rider as the observer. This exchanges the excitement of conflict with wonder. Haunted Mansion, Pirates, Space Mountain. Both are extremely fun, and I am not sure what I enjoy more, but both have good and valid places in theme parks. Also, both resorts use each method. I would hope Star Wars uses the fight motif due to the Wars in Star Wars, but the Hogwarts Express shows you can opt for the wonder in a conflict environment. It is my belief that the wonder method works very well at DL and MK due to the purpose of the parks. The fight method works at DHS and the Universal parks due to their purpose. I think the Mummy would be a much lesser ride if you weren't in the action, but Aerosmith is no less exciting for its story choices (and I disagree that Aerosmith is underrated).
Well...It is called Star WARS. Not Star Something-Goes-Terribly-Wrong (insert prequel joke here). By the nature of the narrative of the intellectual property, there's going to be battles between good and evil. And with everything being Star Wars for the next little while, it will be an theme for a little while.
The other extreme is the "cliff's notes" or "book report" attractions like Little Mermaid, which instead of really trying to bring you into the world do more to just show you a physical retelling of the same story, but in way too short of a time.
I think it's a reflection of the IP that's creeping into parks. Comic books movies, Star Wars, Harry Potter etc, they are all predicated on conflict between "people", and the rides reflect this.
Disney and Universal: SOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG OH NO.
Hulk, Ripsaw Falls, Blutos Bilge Rats, Jurassic Park River Ride, Pterodon Flyers, Cat in the Hat, Seuss Carousel, 1 fish, Seuss Trolley, even Dr Doom Fearfall, I don't really consider "fight" rides. And that is just one park at Universal. Take a look around folks. Fight rides are only mirroring what our society is becoming thirsty for and asking for.
Rides, by and large, intend to entertain riders via thrills. It could be argued that it is because thrills are such a base emotional response and easier to evoke from people that it is a "cheap" way to grab people; I get that. But also rides are also generally a crap story telling medium (1) and unless you're using characters which are already deeply familiar to the rider, it is unlikely that you'll be able to get any sort of really deep and complex emotional response from your patrons. The use of interpersonal good/evil conflict as a overarching theme for attractions then makes total sense. That's why it is the story basis for just about every summer blockbuster popcorn flick ever. The difference is that there really is no commercial market whatsoever for attractions that break the mold of either being a thrill machine or very base level positive reinforcement for young children. (2)
What are the Disney Tea Cups battling? or Aladdin magic carpet ride, or the Tree house....
hulk = man vs gamma radiation and his own anger problems
The then "something goes wrong" narrative is a storytelling device that works incredibly well which is why it is employed so often, not just in theme parks. And I don't think this is anything new. Disneyland's 1960's Adventure Thru Inner Space was probably the first time it was so blatantly part of the ride's story. But look at Disney's Radiator Springs Racers, one of their newest, most elaborate, and many say best modern rides. It doesn't use this device at all. As for the flight or fight augumemt. I don't know. Again Soarin Over California (soon to be the World) is about simple feel good discovey even more so than say Mission: Space where something does go wrong (and I'm not talking about the the simulated crash). As for Space Mountain. I never thought for a moment I was shooting out to the stars. So it didn't convey any sense of wonder or discovery to me. It was always just a space-themed coaster in the dark. So the Star Wars overlay doesn't bother me in the least.
Mr. MarkSharp writes: "And I don't think this is anything new. Disneyland's 1960's Adventure Thru Inner Space was probably the first time it was so blatantly part of the ride's story."
@TH Creative. Well maybe but I understand that originally the Jungle Cruise was played straight and the whole humorous speil wasn't added until later when the ride started to get stale. I don't know when that happened but it wasn't originaly intended to be part of the attraction. And I don't know if that bit was part of the attraction in the beginning.
Both TH and Mark are wrong. The original theme park battle was Dumbo and all his evil clones vs the large metal stick being jabbed into their sides, slowly killing them with each passing second.
I think this is a very interesting concept that really stands up. However, I think most recent rides is about fighting because the "big thrills" are found in "Fighting franchise".
Does every theme park ride have to be about a fight? Absolutely not, but I think there are several reasons why this has become a trend:
on the grounds of recent rides. this does hold true. especially for rides at universal studios. Tranformers, Spider-man, Men-in-Black and even the simpsons always has a villian or two we need to conquer in a short 2-3 min ride. or the usual something goes horribly wrong and we always have to escape the danger.
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