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What is the perfect theme park attraction?

December 30, 2017, 3:41 PM · Here is a thought experiment for the holiday weekend: What would be the perfect theme park attraction?

By this, I am asking you to decide all the various elements that you believe ought to be included in a theme park attraction in order for it to achieve perfection. Let's start with a blank slate and work from there, rather than picking some favorite ride and deconstructing it. I hope that the process of trying to decide what is — or is not — essential to a "perfect" theme park attraction can inspire some interesting debate about the elements that lead us to like or dislike existing theme park rides and shows.

I'll take the lead here and talk you through what I believe to the required elements of a perfect theme park ride. And, yes, the first is that it be a ride. A perfect theme park attraction, to me, is a form of entertainment that cannot exist elsewhere. It is not a movie that you could watch at home or a show you could see in any other theater. Installing shakers and a wiggle wire under the seats isn't enough to elevate a theme park theater show to perfection, either.

So a ride it is. Next, it must be accessible to all to be perfect, IMHO. That means no height requirement. The ride system must accommodate visitors who cannot transfer from a wheelchair, and the seats must be able to handle the full range of human heights and sizes. To accommodate people with strabismus or amblyopia, there would be no 3D glasses, either.

The ride's audio track and tactile elements would be enough to communicate the ride's narrative and entertain a visually-impaired rider, while the visual elements would inform and entertain someone with a hearing disability. Lighting and the introduction of new elements would be designed to avoid triggering riders who are not neurotypical. And the narration must be such that it would remain accessible to riders who speak languages other than the dominant language in the park's home community.

That's a lot of requirements. And we're only to questions of accessibility. We've not yet considered qualities of theming, setting, storytelling, or ride experience. Is perfection an unattainable standard?

Let's not give up yet. I believe that a strong musical score can address many of the accessibility challenges I just described. Music can establish mood, setting, and the progression of narrative without language and while managing emotional triggers. So let's include original music (or music from the ride's IP theme) as a requirement for a perfect theme park attraction.

Ah yes, IP. Does a perfect theme park ride need to be themed to an outside intellectual property? Using an IP franchise gives a ride a head start in establishing an emotional connection with fans. Many already will have fallen in love with these characters and be motivated to seek every detail of their ride. But I do not believe that outside IP is a requirement for a perfect theme park attraction. An introduction can provide a perfect moment in an emotional relationship, too.

What is essential, to me, is that a perfect theme park ride will inspire visitors to want to ride it again. And again and again and again.

This is a really tough requirement once you start to drill into it. The ride has to satisfy you enough to please, while leaving you wanting more enough to want to go through the queue to ride again... but not leaving you wanting to the point where you are dissatisfied by the original experience. That's a really narrow target to hit.

Do you flood the ride with detail, so much that no one could take it all in with a single ride? Or do you introduce multiple ride paths to make each experience unique? What about game elements that give riders not just a unique experience but also a sense of control of the narrative?

Anyone of these approaches could work, so I am not ready to declare any of them a requirement for a perfect theme park ride. But I think the last element there — the game element — does raise an issue that I do believe should be a requirement for the perfect ride.

There needs to be some stakes. The ride should have some purpose beyond simply getting to unload: victory, escape, survival, enlightenment — I don't care what the stakes are. I simply don't want a ride to waste my time for no larger purpose.

Do we need to be the winner of these stakes? I am not sure of that. I think that a "dark" dark ride, if you will, could be a perfect theme attraction. I love rides such as Efteling's Fata Morgana, Singapore's Revenge of the Mummy, and Disneyland's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, where things do not end well (at least, narratively) for the rider. So "winning" the narrative is not a requirement for perfection. The hero's journey can fail and remain worth taking.

What about physical thrills? Our accessibility requirements have eliminated almost all of the current ride systems that would provide the physical thrills that many people associate with theme parks. But to be perfect, I think a ride must include some physical thrill since people have come to expect that from theme parks. It can be relatively mild and probably will have to be. But if it doesn't move enough to put a smile on your face, the ride system hasn't achieved perfection. For the perfect theme park ride must never, ever bore you.

Can any ride meet all these standards? Has anyone in the theme park industry achieved perfection? I don't think so, but I haven't ridden all the world's theme park attractions yet. (Life goals!) Disneyland's original Pirates of the Caribbean ticks many of these boxes, though, as does the Shanghai reimagining of that attraction. Efteling's Symbolica does well by many of these standards, too. But none of these get everything.

While some attractions might be (heck, certainly are!) perfect for a particular set of individuals, I think we haven't yet achieved that one attraction experience that is perfect for everyone. Perhaps we never will, or never can. But I still think it is fun to think about, to talk about, and most importantly, to imagine.

So, it's your turn, in the comments. What would be your perfect theme park attraction?

Replies (22)

December 30, 2017 at 4:13 PM · Hard to reach all your criteria with no age or height limit.
One ride that was excellent and was sadly changed to much inferior rides was the 'original' imagination ride with 'Figment'. It was just a total pleasure to ride on for all ages.
Soarin is/was also an excellent ride (sorry, haven't seen the new version, so my comments are for the original Sorin over California.

Pirates and the Haunted house were/are both excellent to fit into your criteria.

Spiderman (although I believe it does have size restrictions) is also an excellent example of near perfection.

I've personally always like 'living with the land'. No thrills here, but an over all great ride and learning experience.

I'm sure there are others (most probably long gone), but my mind is drawing a blank.

Perfection reached, no, not yet. But some have come pretty darn close.

December 30, 2017 at 4:33 PM · I believe the two closest are Tower of Terror (DHS) and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
December 30, 2017 at 5:09 PM · I'm going with some sort of non-IP based, water-coaster, dark ride concept -- POC meets the Mummy meets Gringotts meets Sinbad's Storybook Voyage... with a little Haunted Mansion and Efteling magic thrown in.

Hey, a girl can dream, can't she? :-)

December 30, 2017 at 5:27 PM · What dark ride is pictured on this article? Where is this ride?
December 30, 2017 at 5:30 PM · And a ride must have a fear factor before entering. That moment when you see the tower (ToT) or that huge lift hill or know that it will be intense (Space). Major part of the 1st experience
December 30, 2017 at 5:43 PM · A Star Tours/Forbidden Journey quality stand-by line. Make me not care that I am waiting, and WANT to look at everything

Haunted Mansion level special effects. Wow me with practical effects. Screens are okay, but don't make the ride a series of movie clips.

Pirates of the Caribbean standards of immersiveness. All points of view should make you think you are in the actual place, and all efforts should be made to extend those views as far as possible.

Splash Mountain level thrills. A great drop is fine. A perfect climax at the end of the adventure - but the ride isn't all about the fall.

IP or original doesn't matter. The journey should be thrilling, regardless of the outcome. Just make sure I exit through the gift shop with a smile on my face.

December 30, 2017 at 9:23 PM · So, De Vliegende Hollander with a little more dark ride at the start?
December 31, 2017 at 1:31 AM · The perfect attraction begins before you even get in line. Rides with great facades like Haunted Mansion, Forbidden Journey, and Tower of Terror draw you towards them, beckoning you to come see what story lies within.
December 31, 2017 at 8:39 AM · Haunted Mansion

As iconic, enjoyable and relevant today as in 1971. No gimmicks, en-vogue IP or marketing overkill..... just the perfect experience from entering the queue line under the arch to leaving it and walking back into Liberty Square. And it can be enjoyed by ALL. It really has no equal and fits your criteria perfectly, Robert.

December 31, 2017 at 8:02 AM · A perfect theme park attraction must have an emotional edge. Any attraction that tries to please everyone won't sustain interest over the long run. The attractions closest to perfection: Pirates (before the politically correct nonsense), Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain (at Disneyland).

Great attractions start with a powerful emotion and create themselves from the inside out. Soarin Over California was a great attraction because it was a love affair with California. Soarin Around the World lost that emotional edge. A perfect example of how Disney's vanilla marketing machine can kill a great attraction. Another example: Guradians of the Galaxy shoehorned into Twilight Zone. Marketing brilliance celebrated over the destruction of a great attraction. Maybe Twilight Zone California lacked all of the bells and whistles of Florida but the view out the window was spectacular. Now that view has been replaced mostly with screens.

An excessive reliance on screens, computers and marketing is toxic to everything that makes life worth living. The reason things keep getting worse is because nobody thinks for themselves nowadays. People have been programmed to believe marketing lies that are beaten into their heads everyday. "If you repeat a lie enough times, people will believe it."

December 31, 2017 at 9:03 AM · To me, the magic begins before you even get to the attraction. Walking into Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley or Pandora, for example, set the stage for the experience. They bring you into the world to make the ride itself more believable. Then, you have the queue -- it has to bring you deeper into the world that you will experience in the attraction. A perfect attraction would leave you with some emotion at the end -- hope, fear, whimsey -- so that you can feel the after effects of having participated.

I wonder if we might see some perfection in the new Mario World from Universal? It looks like you'll clearly be stepping into a multi-layered world that will support riders of all ages and yet be visceral, high-tech, and exciting.

December 31, 2017 at 9:42 AM · The ride can be different every time, it has decent length, it extends to the outside environment, and can be tailored for more or less thrill depending on the guests. Waiting for a popular ride is just as taxing as the ride itself. Make the whole thing an event.

With that in mind, I expect Star Wars Land to fulfill 90% of the ultimate attraction.

December 31, 2017 at 12:35 PM · While you can say...

NO MORE SCREENS

NO MORE STATIONARY THEATRES

NO MORE SIMULATORS

You can also point out where such attractions exceed expectations. It’s not about the ride system, it’s about the overall experience.

Look at the continual mention of Disney’s Haunted Mansion and how it delivers a great overall experience. Now consider just how old/antiquated that ride system is!

December 31, 2017 at 2:18 PM · I know this won't be a popular opinion among some here including likely Robert, but I believe the perfect theme park attraction should not be based on existing intellectual property from the movies, tv, etc.

Timelessness should be a quality of a perfect theme park attraction, and when you look at non-outside IP attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Timber Mountain Log Ride, or Space Mountain, these attractions will hold up decades later when the IP is no longer popular. Or you can take an attraction like Splash Mountain, where most of the visitors have never seen the film that the ride is based on, nor is having ever seen the movie important to enjoy the ride.

December 31, 2017 at 2:16 PM · @ Robert -- yep, that would do it! Dang... I have GOT to get to Efteling some day.....
December 31, 2017 at 3:20 PM · I wish Efteling could build a park in the US. Disney has had a monopoly on European fairy tales for far too long.
December 31, 2017 at 3:24 PM · I think that Soarin' Around the World(Disney Epcot) is another great attraction worth mentioning
December 31, 2017 at 5:58 PM · @Daniel You would think that it would be a good idea to port Efteling to the US but it would feel out of place, no cultural connexion. It's like Disneyland Paris, it (at least for me) looks completely out of place. Of Course I can visit every single day of the year cause I'm loving close by.

My ride is having an experience that I can get nowhere else and live that experience. Not like a spectator but as a part of the story.

January 2, 2018 at 6:35 AM · Robert, it sounds to me like you just described Mystic Manor. What is it missing from your list?
January 3, 2018 at 7:01 PM · Steel Vengence at Cedar Point.
January 4, 2018 at 10:10 AM · For me, its all about total immersion. complete theming for the entire environment, hiding the technical (I shouldn't be able to lookup and see a grid or lighting fixtures ruining the illusion).

Also, some level of interactivity, especially in a ride queue (I'm thinking of Indiana Jones) that allows me to feel like I am a part of the adventure, not just an observer.

recognizable IP doesn't matter one little bit to me, but the character and story should be introduced, even if its a so-called well-known IP. I have never seen Frozen, and seeing the movie shouldn't be a requirement for understanding what's happening on any related rides.

January 5, 2018 at 10:42 AM · Except for issues with accessibility for those in wheelchairs, the classic late 1960s rides at Disneyland/WDW (Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion) seem to fit all categories. You can't really blame the Imagineers of the time for not including accommodations for disabled visitors, but IMHO it's great that rides like Harry Potter FJ can make accommodations for wheelchair transfers (I was accidentally routed there as a single rider at the end of my ride, and it was very interesting to see how they accomplished it).

Robert Niles, do you know if the late Daniel Etcheberry had a list of perfect rides, or attractions he really wanted to ride but could not because they could not accommodate him?

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