What Makes a Great Theme Park Attraction?

Great storytelling is one of the steps in the recipe for crafting an enduring classic.

Written by
Published: January 19, 2005 at 11:24 AM

When I was reviewing theme park attractions for the L.A. Times I once was asked by an exasperated theme park employee just what it was I was looking for in a theme park attraction. After all, I hadn't found much to like in the attractions I was panning, including Disney's "A Bug's Land" and Universal's "Spider-Man Rocks."

It's a fair question.

To answer, I didn't reflect upon my personal tastes, or the criteria writers use to critique other forms of entertainment, such as movies and plays. Instead, I look back upon the best qualities of the attractions that have proven themselves as great entertainment over the years. Gather the best elements from all these attractions, and, to me, the recipe for an attraction that deserves a rave review becomes clear.

Unfortunately, in the rush to beat the competition with bigger, wilder thrill rides, too many theme parks seem to have forgotten the qualities that made theme parks one of the world's most popular forms of out-of-home entertainment. Disneyland did not revolutionize the industry by building stomach-tossing roller coasters. SeaWorld and Universal Studios did not establish themselves in the annual Top 10 for theme park attendance by ignoring little kids and adults too far along to chase big airtime.

No restrictions

So that is where the recipe starts: inclusiveness. Don't limit your market by building an attraction that a significant percentage of your customers cannot ride. Enduring classics like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Universal's Backlot Tour have no height restrictions. Nor do they play upon terrifying phobias, like the ailing Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, that leave certain visitors scarred, swearing never to return.

Impossible settings

Great attractions take an audience someplace that they cannot otherwise go. What's the point in visiting a faux Hollywood Boulevard at Disney's California Adventure, when the real one lies just an hour away? Or walking through a food court with a McDonald's, Subway or KFC when you can find the same fare at the local shopping mall? Neither park will entice visitors to return again and again. Only those parks that take people to places and eras and puts them in situations that they cannot possibly experience will do that.

Take me to a medieval castle. Float me down Mark Twain's Mississippi. Show me the Hollywood of Chaplin, Fairbanks and Valentino. Put me in the middle of a pirate battle. I'm paying fifty-plus bucks a day to escape my everyday life. Not to re-live it.

Great storytelling

The essence of all great entertainment lies in storytelling. The writer Jon Franklin suggested that all great storytelling comes down to setting up a conflict, then revealing its resolution. Think of your favorite movies, and it won't take long for you to recognize the conflict and resolution that drives each one. The model holds even for non-narrative entertainment. The best symphonies use musical themes and concepts to set up conflicts and then offer resolutions. Theme park attractions are no different.

The Haunted Mansion traps up within and implores us to find a way out. Pirates of the Caribbean (in California, at least) reveals to us a cursed treasure and challenges us to survive the battle to tell our tale. Men in Black: Alien Attack employs the familiar twist of a humble "training exercise" gone horribly wrong -- forcing us to shoot our way out to safety. (Make it a river voyage with tropical animals and you've got Disney's Jungle Cruise.)

A song you'll be humming

Movie directors long ago recognized that a great piece of music can heighten the drama of any critical moment in their films. Music engages the ear and heart, amplifying the emotion of a conflict and the thrill of a resolution. Stand outside the exit to Pirates of the Caribbean sometime and count the number of folks you see exiting while humming "Yo Ho." How long did it take you to get the song "Golden Dreams" out of your head the first time you saw Epcot's "American Adventure?"

And how many of you will curse me for the rest of the day for putting this song back in your head?

It's a world of laughter, a world a tears
It's a world of hope and a world of fears....

Music seals the deal in a theme park attraction. It provides the best possible mnemonic, allowing a visitor to relive the moment in his mind's eye -- establishing a craving to come back to the park and ride again.

Engage all the senses

But why stop with the ear? Great theme park attractions engage all of a rider's senses. Feel the heat of the fireball exploding in front of you. Squint at the blast of light. The only thing my daughter remembered from the otherwise forgettable Bug's Land at California Adventure was the smells of treats on Heimlich's Chew-Chew Train.

The goal is not to overwhelm, and certainly not to terrify the visitor. That's why gross-out 4D attractions aren't packing theaters anymore. If a park wants to build an enduring attraction that will draw visitors for decades, it will use stimulate riders' sense in a way that enlivens their experience and that makes them more receptive to what is happening around them -- creating more vivid memories to lure them back. It won't assault those riders' senses -- prompting them to shut down their senses and try to forget their theme park trip.


Once the human body tastes a little of its own adrenaline, it wants more. That's why coaster fans drive across the country to ride the tallest, fastest, newest thrill. But if a park needs to limit the physical thrills in an attraction to make it available to the widest possible audience, how else will it provide an adrenal fix for its riders?

Through competition. Let visitors compete with one another for their thrills. Video game-inspired attractions like Buzz Lightyear and Men in Black inspire near-addictive levels of passion among many theme park visitors. When I worked crowd control for the evening parades at Disney World's Magic Kingdom, we knew that the easiest way to fire up a tired crowd for the show was to engage each side of the street in a cheering contest.

Of course, many family visitors are looking for a bonding experience in their vacation, not another opportunity for everyone in the family to turn on one another. That's why the very best competitive attractions require cooperation, too. In Legoland's Fun Town Fire Academy, a family must work together as a team if they are to beat other families to the finish line.

Not the same ride every time

Even the most dedicated fans will grow tired of an attraction if it never changes. Disney's extended the life of its Country Bear Jamboree in Florida by swapping out different versions of the show over the years. Florida's Tower of Terror rewards frequent riders with random drop sequences. And riders run from the exit straight back to the entrance of Universal's Men in Black to try to improve their score with a better shooting.

Meanwhile, so many of those unthemed roller coasters, with no fantastic setting, no music, no story and no changing thrills, draw fewer and fewer riders with each passing year.

So... with all this in mind, what is the perfect theme park attraction? Well, in my opinion, it doesn't exist yet. No theme park ha put together an attraction that reflects all of these qualities. But the one that is willing to spend the money to do it will be rewarded not just with positive reviews from around the Internet, but with a loyal fan base that will pay top dollar to experience that attraction -- and that will return year and year. The opportunity is waiting for a company whose management has the vision dedicate its parks to the principles that make theme parks great.

Readers' Opinions

From Robert OGrosky on January 19, 2005 at 2:23 PM
For me what makes a great theme park attraction is the story telling involved and the theming that sells the story being told.
I would disagree about height restrictions being a major factor, though it would have some impact if the limit was 54" like that found on major roller coasters.
A great ride should have the story telling and theming which will make it re-rideable which again makes for a great themed attraction.
And putting all these elements together is why rides as diverse as POTC/HM and Indiana Jones/Spiderman are great themed attractions
From James Adams on January 19, 2005 at 2:37 PM
You make some great points with this metaphor of storytelling. This storytelling needs to start even before the ride in the queue area such as the spooky graveyard complete with an animated tomstone. Or the research rooms of Spider-Man following villains. One of the most memorable scenes in any queue are is the knights frozen on the ceiling in Dueling Dragons.

No movie or bovel would begin with the climax, there must be a building of story and suspense, THEN the climax, and even a conclusion or wrap up (i.e., seeing that you are bringing a ghost home with you at the END of the Haunted Mansion is one of the most memorable moments in any ride). These are things that the "line up and ride" type rides (a la Six Flags) just are lacking in.


From Robert Niles on January 19, 2005 at 3:54 PM
Actually, there's "Memento." But as that movie begins with an ending, and moves backward throughout, the conflict becomes internal within the reader's mind -- to piece together this narrative jigsaw puzzle as its pieces are laid in front of you. The crucial piece comes at the end of the film, allowing the puzzle to at last come together and the resolution to be revealed.

So the narrative does not have to be linear. Heck, in a great theme park attraction it probably wouldn't be. But you have to a have a conflict and a resolution somewhere.

From Russell Meyer on January 19, 2005 at 9:49 PM
I think what makes a theme park attraction great can be summed up in one word, nuance. An experience that presents a great story and great thrill does not become classic unless it has nuance. The intricacy of the attraction is what brings people back for more. Not even multiple endings, guest participation, and competition can make up for an attraction that has simplistic themeing. Everyone hates standing in line, but the lines are innevidible, and a "classic" attraction draws the guest into the story in the queue with intricate details that introduce the story. When the guest finally gets on the ride, the intricacy must remain high as to not let the guest down, and the attraction must flood the senses so much that the guest MUST ride it again to sort everything out. Just like a great movie that you want to see again and again, it's the fine details and nuance that bring guests back time and time again to ride the classics.
From Jayson Myers on January 20, 2005 at 9:03 AM
This the best article I've read on this site.

I feel Spiderman is one ride that has a lot of what you spoke on. Even though it is "high-tech", I believe it will survive like a POTC, b/c it is not cheap thrills. I think rides the entire family can ride are what drive a park to success.

From James Adams on January 20, 2005 at 11:56 AM
A ride patterned after Memento would be a really neat idea, in which the rided begins with the climax and then reveals the storyline FOLLOWING the ride in a post-ride area. In this way, the riders can have the same effect that we had in Memento of saying "i want to go back and watch for that stuff." Does anyone know of any rides that do this sort of thing?


From Robert Niles on January 20, 2005 at 12:58 PM
The closest to that I can recall was the Norway pavilion in Epcot, where for years they showed what should have been the pre-show movie *after* the ride. Do they still do that? (I haven't bothered with Maelstrom in years....)
From Ben Mills on January 20, 2005 at 1:11 PM
Yup, although they at least give you the chance to pass through before it begins. Which is almost a shame, as the film is far more interesting than the ride that precedes it.
From Jason Lester on January 21, 2005 at 4:02 PM
Roller coasters can also be incredible rides. All they need is great theming. This is the reason indoor coasters work well, excluding Rockin' Roller Coaster. Dark rides however, will always have a special place in my heart. They are themed well and most tell stories. The great ones are The Haunted Mansion, POTC (Disneyland's), and Spiderman. Rides like Splash Mountain and Space Mountain also have good reride value and follow in the footsteps of great dark rides. Who knows how great the new Space Mountain will be, but we can hope that it wasn't ruined. If you love dark rides check out www.laffinthedark.com for a tribute to the old carnival/boardwalk ones.
From mark walker on February 14, 2005 at 2:38 AM
Spider-man is the best ride in the world right now. A reason it still is is because:
It's got the latest technology
Great New York theming
Brilliant storyline
Nearly eveyone can ride it and
Other rides are trying to take it's place at the top (though it might not ever happen).

Also I think that Dueling Dragons has the best storyline and theming for a ride.

From Anthony Murphy on February 20, 2005 at 1:34 PM
Excellent column Robert! All theme parks should read this because it will get more people to come. I think what you basically described was Disney's recipie for sucess and the reason why they stayed on the top until Universal challenged them to their own game with IOA. This sums up everything the theme parks should be like and why Disney did so well! The Spiderman Ride proves that this recipie works! I can see Disney and Universal pushing the envelope with their rides! They are the theme parks that all others should follow!

Buy Tickets

Plan a Trip

Weekly Newsletter