Vote of the week: Story vs. sensation?

August 31, 2012, 7:17 PM · Yesterday's conference call with Six Flags managers yielded one particularly fascinating moment for me. Another reporter observed that none of the attractions Six Flags announced were based on the DC Comics or other characters that Six Flags has licensed to use in its theme parks. Six Flags' Al Weber responded that absence wasn't due to Six Flags' backing off the use of such characters - it's just "how the cards played" this particular year. The reporter followed up by asking how Six Flags determines when and where to use theming in rides.


That's where things got interesting. Weber responded by asking a question of his own: whether the reporter meant theming or IP (which is industry shorthand for "intellectual property," the use of licensed characters and stories).

That question stunned me. I think it surprised the reporter, as well, because a beat passed before he responded with the same point I would have made: Aren't those pretty much the same thing?

Weber then explained his point of view: Theming is the application of physical texture and context on and around rides, where IP is the use of a licensed character.

And with that, I got a clearer understanding of Six Flags and its management. To me, what Weber described as "theming," I'd call decoration. A "themed" attraction, to me, is one that tells a story, arising from a specific place, time, and set of characters that are, collectively, the attraction's "theme."

A park's IP provides the cast of characters from which park designers can select themes for the park's attractions. So (in this world view, at least), no matter how a ride might be decorated, if there are no characters and no story, the ride is unthemed.

The exchanged helped me understand why fans, and even people in the industry, sometimes end up talking past one another when discussing theming in the parks. It's hard to have a productive conversation about theming if the people talking have different definitions of what theming means.

That's why I made a mental note to start using the terms "storytelling" and "decor" more often. Perhaps they get closer to the issues we're talking about when so many of us use the word "theme."

That said, the exchange also got me thinking about the importance of storytelling in theme park attractions, versus physical sensation and thrill. Obviously, Six Flags goes after consumers who want a heavy helping of physical sensation when they visit a park. You won't find nearly the amount of or level of storytelling that fans find at Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld parks. But Disney, Universal and SeaWorld park occupy the top 12 spots for the most-attended parks in America. People love storytelling, as well as physical thrills.

So which one do you prefer? That's our vote of the week.

I know that the ideal answer is "both!" But let me push you to pick one over the other here.

Let's think of it this way: Assume you've got a choice between two theme park rides. One tells an exciting story with engaging characters, but the ride's a total snore. You're moving - barely - but if it weren't for the story and setting, it'd be the most boring few minutes you've ever spent. The other ride is pure physical fun. It's not so extreme that it makes you feel sick, or even uncomfortable. But it definitely gets your blood moving and your senses singing. Story? Sorry. If you weren't riding, and were just looking around, well, it'd be most boring few minutes you've ever spent.

Tell us in the comments about your choice. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

Replies (26)

August 31, 2012 at 7:40 PM · As a theme park AND coaster enthusiast, I would say a balance between both, like rides at Universal and SeaWorld Ent. parks.
August 31, 2012 at 7:43 PM · Robert, I have to disagree with your definition. I will use one example: Asia at Disney's Animal Kingdom. This is a heavily themed land with some of the best and most complete story telling beginning with the view of the imposing mountain from places even outside the land, then gradually adding in hints of the yeti, blah blah blah you know the rest.

However this land (as far as I'm aware) use little to no intellectual property. It doesn't take intellectual property to make a good attraction, tell a good story, or be engaging.

August 31, 2012 at 7:49 PM · I love good storytelling & if the ride has a good story that carries from the wait line through the ride that to me makes a good ride. It also makes the wait time more enjoyable if you have something to focus on other then the fact you're standing in another line.
August 31, 2012 at 7:57 PM · I have to respectfully disagree with your definition of "theming." I believe that a ride/attraction can still be themed without a character or storyline -- i.e. Maverick at Cedar Point. This ride clearly exhibits a western theme, even though there are no story lines or characters.

I think the bigger distinction occurs with theming vs. full immersion. I would argue that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is both themed and immersive, unlike Maverick that is simply themed.

August 31, 2012 at 8:24 PM · It surprised me that you only thought that using a copy-writed character defines an entity as themed (putting it in my words). Then the whole idea of what is considered a "theme park" is negated. I always thought over-arching general similarities of rides/attractions "decor" and "story" created the "theme", not an Intellectual Property that someone owns and licences to someone else. Oh well, I'm not in the business, only a paying customer, so what do I know.
August 31, 2012 at 8:26 PM · I picked storytelling, but I'm really more interested in being immersed in a unique environment than being fed a story. Too much story, and the ride becomes annoying and loses re-ride-ability. The great rides to me have very loose story-lines and extremely detailed "decor". The atmosphere puts you in another world or another time, and the ride lets your imagination fill in the blanks of the story. I think this is why rides like Pirates and Haunted Mansion are such Classics. Take the latter. The story is pretty much that you are visiting a mansion. You are able to draw your own conclusions about what you see while inside. Your host simply introduces himself shows you around for a bit, then leaves you and your imagination to enjoy the rest of your time in the house. Great rides have no annoying preshow telling you what your mission-about-to-go-wrong is. I'd take no story at all over being beat in the head with one. So, I guess what I'm saying is I take decor over sensation and story.
August 31, 2012 at 8:58 PM · You've confused me. You spent a good deal of time convincing me that theming was really "storytelling", and that this involved intellectual property and characters.

But then you said the SeaWorld parks were big into storytelling.

And while I have always thought the Busch Garden's parks were well-themed, I can't for the life of me figure out what intellectual property Seaworld licenses, or how they tell a story. They have cool, quirky shows, and penguins and other animals, and an occasional ride scattered around that remind us of how they have animals.

August 31, 2012 at 10:20 PM · As Marty Sklar, a former international ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering, once said, "We're in the business of telling great stories, and great stories never grow old. In the end, a roller coaster is just a roller coaster."

Of course, in a perfect world, someone would build a great story-driven, 4-D coaster, with amazing animatronics, a 500 ft drop, a top speed of 200 mph, and 17 inversions. But who said this world is perfect? As long as it remains imperfect give me story, narrative, and immersion over decoration and thrills fo' sho'!!!

August 31, 2012 at 11:24 PM · If I owned a theme park now, I would most likely never use any sort of intellectual property. My park would be so heavily themed and immersive I wouldn't need that sort of thing. Also I do believe you can have a big ride with great storytelling as part of it.
September 1, 2012 at 12:02 AM · This is easy...story telling and themeing all the way! Imo the greatest ride Ever made is pirates of the Caribbean, especially when you account that it was done in 1967 and was about 40 years ahead of its time given that other Parks are barely starting to catch up(though I wouldn't say surpass) that level of themeing! The entire land is already immaculately themed to antebellum new Orleans(check out the US flag above the ride entrance with only 31 stars for a cool detail) and from the cue to the ride and then exiting into the backstreets of new Orleans it always amazes me the incredible high standard that Walt left us with his final ride that he personally oversaw. Its also tantalyzing to think what he would've done next because abviously with his final attractions he was aiming for epic scale, things never done before. So ya that's why I say storytelling is way more important if done right.

September 1, 2012 at 12:32 AM · In reply to Charles' SeaWorld comment-
SeaWorld has pretty much always been story focused. Sure their shows may be a little quirky- but most have always told a story. Sometimes that story has been more education or conservation based- however as a zoological park that should be expected. Even their thrill attractions have a narrative quality to them- namely Mission Bermuda Triangle, JTA, Wild Arctic, and the new Turtle Trek.

I would like to note that props, decor, and IP are not necessarily needed to tell a story. For example, the most successful unthemed roller coasters (no decor or IP) have dynamic layouts with a clear beginning, middle, and end that tells their story. Simular to a way that a symphony piece of music can tell a story without words, so can some thrill rides!

September 1, 2012 at 6:49 AM · I think what we want in a ride depends on our age.

3-10 years old - Theme - A good story mixed with the imagination of a child makes for a great experience.

11-25 - Thrills - Slap on a Batman logo on a coaster and that's all the theme needed. We just want to go fast, high, and upside-down.

25-50 - Both - The escape from reality is part of a day at the parks for this age bracket. We want the adrenaline rush as well as theme that takes away from our every day life.

50+ - Theme - I can't speak for myself but I know when I go with my Dad to parks he points out all the little details that I've missed.

September 1, 2012 at 6:54 AM · The combination of both are the best. A great example is Splash Mountain. I've never seen the movie but I understand what is happening and during the ride some very exiting movements are combined with a slow moving boat ride. Another great one is the Tower of terror. That attraction is so much more than a regular drop tower and it doesn't matter how big or fast it is, it's about the story and the trill.
I don't care for the re telling of a story (like little mermaid). What is the use in telling me something I already know, why not tell a new story in that universe.
When a attraction only has movement (like a coaster) most of the time the first drop is great (like Hulk) but it's less exiting after that. The next coaster should always top the previous one to give me the same adrenalin rush. I think they are a bad investment because only a little demographic part can enjoy it and it gets old quick after the next best thing.
I like Transformers or Spiderman (both Universal Studios) better then a coaster. I feel the same thrill as a coaster like speed but I have an experience that is exiting from finish to start and the whole family can join into the fun.
September 1, 2012 at 7:20 AM · I think we need to go one step further and look at how the ride's story and or decor contributes to the park as a whole. Six Flags and even Disney itself fail by picking ride names, decor, intellectual property, or story that don't fit the themed area or even park as a whole. Most peole don't even know what Six Flags originally meant (at least in Texas, Georgia, and Missouri). The most telling statement was when the suit said something to the effect that the theme ie decor supports the ride, not that the ride supports the theme ie. the experience that is supposed to be developed in that themed area of the park. Traditional parks "themed" individual rides but theme parks were meant to be something more. Six Flags parks long ago ceased to be theme parks in the true sense of the word. Busch Gardens are the only ones that continue to exist at the regional or non-Disney level.
September 1, 2012 at 8:42 AM · Story wise is better. Disney and Universal have great storytelling and I wish other parks could have more of that.
September 1, 2012 at 10:13 AM · J. Rao said "someone would build a great story-driven, 4-D coaster, with amazing animatronics, a 500 ft drop, a top speed of 200 mph, and 17 inversions."

Someone already did. Then I woke up.

September 1, 2012 at 10:32 AM · ^Yeah, that's a great dream... until you realize it is a dream!
September 1, 2012 at 11:30 AM · I love both! But I think I'm in a minority in my preference to rides. For example, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey? I love the queue, but the ride is just meh. It feels like it can be a thrill ride, but it's really too tame to call it a thrill ride. So then I naturally think about how good its story is, but it's nothing. The ride then has little appeal to me. A similar thing happens with Dragon Challenge, it's a terrible invert, and the immersion is gone while riding. If a ride can come along with amazing thrills, immersion, and storytelling, I'll love it! Rides like Dinosaur, Expedition Everest, Mission: Space, Jurassic Park, Spiderman, Mystery Mine, Splash Mountain, and Tower of Terror are amazing because they do pretty well in all three categories (including immersion). Rides that do really well with two categories are also great (thunder Mt, Star Tours, Men in Black, Pirates). Even if a ride excels in just one category, I'll love it, and if I had to pick one, it would be Story Telling.
September 1, 2012 at 3:22 PM · Finally, someone who doesn't get the hype of FJ!
September 2, 2012 at 12:09 AM · I picked great movement because of the definitions of Mr Niles - and it is his poll. To wit:

For story, the ride's the most boring few minutes I've ever spent - and I'm trapped on the ride.

For physical, the ride's the most boring few, etc. - but I'm NOT on the ride and therefore free to pick another that is more to my liking.

And @ O T - you said you liked Splash Mountain and didn't like Little Mermaid (I assume you're talking about the one at DCA, but I guess it could apply to DHS as well) for the same reason - a retelling of the story. The only difference is that you've seen the Little Mermaid and haven't seen Song of the South. Doesn't quite compute.

September 3, 2012 at 8:21 PM · I've always thought of themes as an appearance which lends itself either the appearance of the ride or its experience. Storytelling on a ride is a fairly abstract idea because it depends on the person, their motives, and their interpretation. Rides with decor aren't always storytellers, but they provide a way for riders to be dropped into a different world...or sometimes they just look nicer.

The reason why Six Flags doesn't deck out their rides is fairly Stories and decor have to be done right and maintained over time, and if the initial concept is bad or done half heartedly with the penny pinching mindset, it's a waste from the start. In short, all the extras cost a lot, and parks who don't charge a hundred bucks at the gate generally don't have the resources to design build and create 100 million dollar attractions. That doesn't mean that they should ignore decor though. The coaster on a concrete pad concept always puzzled me. If you have 25 million to build a coaster, why not an extra few hundred thousand to do something to make it look good...or at least landscape the thing if nothing else. It's kind of like buying the big flat screen 3D TV and then not spending the money on the proper cables or the cable service to maximize its performance.

September 2, 2012 at 4:08 AM · I am so glad (and a little relieved it's not all me) that I am not the only person who thinks the queue for FJ is better than the ride. I think the queue tells a great story and is so detailed and well crafted and from the moment I board the actual ride I feel as if way too many things are thrown at me at once and I just don't get the chance to "digest" that part of the story and then the ride is over.

I think the perfect ride is Story AND Sensation. Splash Mountain to me is a perfect example. We get a story that evolves and the mood of the ride noticeably changes as our rabbit friend gets deeper into hot water...then BOOM! Sensation...upbeat ending...scene.

An example of the opposite for me would be SFGA's BATMAN The Ride. Here's a coaster with some similar Batman color scheming and a Batman logo. That's really it and although it seemed pretty cool when it first went into operation, it really is nothing more than a mediocre coaster with a trademarked logo.

Pure thrill rides tell stories all their own in a different way. Just look at the people exiting the ride....

September 2, 2012 at 4:01 PM · "It's hard to have a productive conversation about theming if the people talking have different definitions of what theming means."

Huh? This is a huh question.

Clearly, the Six Flags executive discussed IP from the beginning. The reporter decided to change the question to be about theming rather than the issue of IP.

Six Flags seems to have problems with both (1) the lack of theming, and (2) not using IP to the fullest extent.

Their rides uses the bare minimum of theming and their use of comic book theming is barely there like slap on some color, use some decor, and call it a Batman ride.

September 2, 2012 at 7:55 PM · I think the assumption that themeing and intelectual property is the same thing is dangerous! Its something that disney has dove headfirst into doing lately and its sad because some of the best themeing disney has ever done has used absolutely no intellectual property! Expedition everest, countdown to extinction, soarin, all of main street usa, alien encounter, the haunted mansion, runaway mine train, the original pirates of the caribbean, its a small world. Whats SAD is the thought that IP = themeing and like I said disney has been diving head first i to this sad pit. Changing alien encounter to stitch's great escape, changing the pirates of the caribbean and cou tdown to extinction to dinosaur. Rather than creating a whole new Disney themed land for animal kingdom they turned to james cameron to get the rites to use avatar which is going to completely ruin the theme of the entire animal kingdom park....avatar doesnt fit there! Sure you can say to me neither does the yeti or the oroginal plans to put dragons before Universal stole the idea for dueling dragons fron disney. But you fail to recognize that dragons and yhe yeti have true historical significance in our past when civilizations truly believed they existed, in fact there are many civilizations in Nepal that still believe the Yeti truly does exist! Avatar is a conpletely fictional story about some blue alien beings that was completely made up from someones holds no true significance in the planets history and none-so fits in animal kingdom. But disney sees its the highest grossing movie of all time so to them that IP = the best themeing they can put in.....someone needs to go slap some sense into the current imagineers theyve been missing the point lately and I see its worn off on you as well. IP absolutely DOES NOT = theme!
September 2, 2012 at 9:30 PM · It's a ride, so there has to be some movement component. it's a small world is a good example of what I consider the minimum amount of motion before a ride becomes more of a show. I enjoy pretty much any type of ride regardless of the theming quality, but I usually find all but the best shows uninteresting, so I voted for motion.

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