Transformers, Radiator Springs Racers, and the role of conflict in theme park narratives

July 4, 2012, 8:55 AM · The timing of their debuts will forever link Universal's Transformers and Disney's Radiator Springs Racers. But while these two attractions also both illustrate the excellence in immersive theming that designers can create when they're turned loose with a big budget, they provide one of the industry's clearest contrasts on the issue of conflict in theme park narratives.

Transformers: The Ride entrance
Transformers: The Ride in Universal Studios Singapore

In journalism school, one of my professors assigned me to read Jon Franklin's book "Writing for Story." Franklin describes what he called the "conflict/resolution" model for storytelling, suggesting that all great stories - fiction or nonfiction - describe a conflict and the quest for a resolution. We see this most clearly in theme parks with that beloved cliche, "and something goes terribly wrong", whether that be dinos running wild through Jurassic Park or Imperial troops interrupting our Star Tours.

Universal Creative designer Thierry Coup told me last December that such conflict drive the narratives that captivate audience. "It has to [go wrong]. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day."

Transformers in Hollywood
Transformers at Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal's Transformers: The Ride embraces conflict from before we even board the ride. The evil Decepticons have found and attacked the NEST base we're visiting. They're after the Allspark that powers the Transformers, and it's up to us to help the good Autobot EVAC take it away to safety.

EVAC, our ride in Transformers

Unfortunately, "escape from the bad guys" is perhaps the hoariest cliche in theme park rides. I've lost count of the minimally decorated Six Flags roller coasters that use this conceit as their only acknowledgement of theme. It's especially weak when the ride upon which we're supposedly escaping unloads on the same platform where we board.

If attempted escape was all that Transformers: The Ride had offered, it likely wouldn't be resonating with visitors the way it is - winning our 2012 Theme Park Insider Award as the world's Best New Theme Park Attraction of the year. But Coup and his team at Universal Creative added a second conflict element to Transformers: The Ride, one that helped elevate the attraction to elite status.

After a wild romp through the battle between the Decepticons and Autobots, our host - EVAC - decides that he's had enough. When the Decepticon leader, Megatron, mocks us ("Cowards run. Heroes fight."), EVAC abandons our mission, breaks his orders and chooses to face Megatron instead. It's the classic "fight or flight" conflict, and as EVAC's passengers, we're in the middle of it. Thrust into battle as EVAC's accomplices, we resolve the second conflict by refusing the first. We refuse to escape and choose instead to fight back, defeating Megatron and returning to NEST as heroes.

Radiator Springs Racers
Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land at Disney California Advneture

While Transformers: The Ride relies on conflict to establish emotional stakes for its riders, Disney's Radiator Springs Racers takes the opposite approach. This might be the most emotionally comforting thrill ride ever created. It's the ride where nothing goes wrong. There's no substantial conflict here - just a good-natured race between cars at the end of the ride. But the ride's main characters, Lightning McQueen and Mater, reject the notion of that race as conflict by telling us as we leave that "everyone won" the race, "because we made friends."

Lightning McQueen and Mater
Lightning McQueen and Mater congratulate us at the end of Radiator Springs Racers

Radiator Springs Racers' purpose is not to challenge us to become heroes, as on Transformers: The Ride. It's to reassure us - to provide a gentle, welcoming space where we can feel comfort and confidence making new friends. While Transformers ultimately makes us feel good by telling us we have within us the heroism to overcome life's challenges, Radiators Springs Racers makes us feel good by letting us spend a few moments in a life without challenges. It's the theme park equivalent of Mommy hugging us, telling us it's going to be all right, and setting up a playdate with a good friend.

And I love them both.

Together, Transformers: The Ride and Radiator Springs Racers illustrate the narrative range that theme park designers can inhabit in a mere few minutes of our time. Whether we want a complex, multi-level, conflict-drive narrative, or a character-driven experience that triggers our emotions, Universal's and Disney's designers have shown that theme parks can deliver an ever-widening variety of narrative experiences for their visitors.

Replies (10)

July 4, 2012 at 9:07 AM · "Nothing going wrong" in Radiator Springs Racers? What about the big, evil tractor chasing the riders and Mater?
July 4, 2012 at 9:15 AM · It's a misconception to think all rides must have a conflict. Some great rides are about atmosphere and experiencing a land and time gone by. Some rides have great conflicts but aren't really so great.

Cars Land is all about celebrating Route 66 and experiencing something that is so American and yet still exotic. On another note, look how many people love Nascar and racing and going fast. None of those have narratives but are still thrilling nonetheless.

On a last note, racing is a conflict. Granted, nothing is at stake. But the reality is when someone goes on a ride, they always know that nothing is ever really at stake. People ride Transformers to see them in action, to experience motion and stunning visuals. Who they are fighting and what they are fighting are not of consequence to most people.

It's kind of like why so many people love Main Street. It's engorssing, detialed, a tangible experience. But there is no conflict, so do that make it any less valid in the escapism of the theme park world?

The conflicts in the Cars movies are internal conflicts involving self exploration and growth. Anyone who has seen the movie has seen that conflict and knows that everyone in Radiator Springs is in a happy place. The idea is to visit that happy place. Any other conflict forced into the ride would have seem forced, out of nowhere and tacky. It doesn't need an external conflict.

The downside of constantly using the idea of something going wrong is perhaps getting a little redundant. With so many rides, it's become predictable.

July 4, 2012 at 10:00 AM · To start with it's shocking how wonderfull the building of the Singapore version of Transformers looks and how awefull the US version looks. Lets hope the Florida one is going to look awesome.
The only real conclusion of this article should be that talking cars are awesome and make wonderfull attractions.
If it's a Universal attraction it will be in a awefull building and if it's Disney it'll be covered in an big concrete mountain.
July 4, 2012 at 10:11 AM · From Twitter follower @Keunyoun: "Transformers may be a Trojan battle that evokes the hero; Racers is more an escape to Elysium with the 'gods'(sic)"
July 4, 2012 at 10:53 AM · Great article as usual Robert! In response to Jorge, you can never tractor tip and not wake up or get caught by Frank.
July 4, 2012 at 11:00 AM · Well several Disney rides have no conflict and some are rather iconic: The mark Twain river boat, small world, immediately comes to mind and so does toy story mania. I think some rides are simply for the purpose of escaping reality and its actually the absence of conflict that makes those rides so enjoyable because you forget the problems of the outside world. I think its that feeling that makes Disneyland so special to people. But if the whole park was like that it'd be boring eventually so rides with conflict become necessary because ultimately they are the more entertaining and thrilling of the two, and I think Disney has found a good balance between the two.

Could it be that all this just shows that humans need conflict in our
lives to remain satisfied and feel like we have purpose...wait a minute that's way too deep for a theme park discussion haha

July 4, 2012 at 11:32 AM · If I want conflict, I get married.
July 4, 2012 at 2:25 PM · I agree with the previous anonymous comment about Disney's stand on the whole "something goes wrong." They use it occasionally while more often than not, Universal uses it on just about all attractions. Take a look at both companies two most recent rides.

For Disney, nothing goes wrong on Radiator Springs Racers while our flight on Star Tours is interrupted when we must safely escort a Rebel Spy.

For Universal, *spoilers ahead*, our minion training on Despicable Me is cut short when we need to help Agnes get Gru's present back while on Transformers, Decepticons arrive to the headquarters to take the Allspark.

Overall, I believe with Disney, either something's already wrong or it isn't. Take the Tower of Terror for example. Walking towards it, you just have an eerie feeling that something's not right about this hotel. On board, nothing actually GOES wrong, it just is wrong and you're a part of it. Likewise, nothing goes wrong on Soarin because there's just no reason to.

On a more political note, where's Robert's usual 4th of July post? ;)

July 5, 2012 at 9:23 PM · Disney's ride conflict comes from going "101"
July 9, 2012 at 9:42 AM · I'd have to agree that not every ride/ attraction has to have conflict to be entertaining. Knowing when and why to do something is just as important as to how you do something in story telling. Cowboys and Aliens and John Carter are examples of what not to do when it comes to storytelling, advertising, etc. For example I'd say John Carter (should have kept "from Mars") could have been better if it was advertised as a sci fi movie. Anyway, I love the fact that TF isn't just a "run away!!!" type of ride. But I also love the "light hearted fun" feel of RSR & the rest of Carsland.

AND I love the comparison of Transformers and RSR on that tweet!

I actually feel sorry for people that HAVE to have conflict in their lives to feel "alive" but I won't get into the psychological reasoning for that. True, it's too deep of a discussion for here.

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