Where's the human element in theme park attractions?

September 25, 2013, 4:51 PM · What's your favorite element of a theme park attraction? Is it the music, the lightning, the scenery? The ride, the animatronics, the special effects? This question comes to mind around this time of the year as theme parks debut their annual Halloween events. Why does Halloween elicit questions about attraction elements? Because theme parks' Halloween events overwhelmingly rely on an element that's often missing from theme park attractions — people.

We're not talking about people on a ride or in a show theater. There's always plenty of them! We're talking about the use of people — live actors or operations personnel — in a theme park attractions.

Curse of Chucky Scarezone at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights

Haunted houses, mazes, and scare zones work or fail based on the efforts of the scareactors who populate them. For events so focused on themes of death, Halloween events actually provide some of the liveliest evenings of the year at parks. Hundreds of scareactors play with thousands of guests, in a massive display of live, interactive theater. You'll never find that experience at home watching television or playing video games. You won't find it in a movie theater. Even watching a live stage show, you're separated from the actors by the stage itself, and won't experience the up-close interaction found every single night in a theme park Halloween event. That's one of the reasons why so many fans adore these events. It's a rush to become part of a production like this.

Why shouldn't theme parks make more use of the people throughout the year, and not just in September and October? A few attractions do. Disney's Jungle Cruise might be the most popular example. And again, it's developed a passionate fan base that appreciates the unique interplay between a skipper and his (and now, these days, sometimes her) "crew." Sure, not every trip goes the same. Audiences and skippers are different, and sometimes they don't "click." But that variability can be part of an attraction's appeal.

Theme parks have spent millions trying to create attractions with a high "re-ride" factor, experiences that reward visitors who return to ride again and again. But you don't need high-tech computer systems to power that. When theme park personnel is well-trained and experienced, they can deliver unique experiences that are consistent only in their high quality. That's the aim of park entertainment departments, who train and manage actors, musicians and character performers in their parks. The best moments in theme park entertainment happen when performers break through that "fourth wall" to make enduring connections with park guests. Want an example? Just try to read this story without breaking up.

Yet often in parks, there's an institutional division between entertainment and attractions design and operations. That separation robs parks of opportunities to create unique hybrid attractions that blend human performance with more traditional park amusements -- the fun sort of walk-throughs and ride experiences that Halloween fans enjoy at this time of the year.

The bean-counter/sharp-pencil crowd often tries to silence this talk with objections about labor costs. But people are cheap compared with multi-million dollar ride systems. The successful parks of the 21st century will be ones that find ways to break operational walls to create unique immersive experiences. It's not about stage shows, and rides, and restaurants, and shops. It's about bringing them all together into one, continuous show that engages visitors in multiple media throughout the day. And live performance with park actors and employees must become an ever-present element of that.

So let's bring more people into theme park attractions. No, they won't be an appropriate element in every new attraction. But parks would do well to think about throwing them into the mix more often. The fun of participating in massive, live-action scrum of interactive theater shouldn't just come once a year.

Replies (20)

September 25, 2013 at 5:10 PM · I think a big problem that the parks have is the labor pool in their areas. I like your idea of bringing more people into work on the attractions as kind of streetmosphere or the Jungle Cruise Skippers example...but how big a percentage of the labor pool in Florida is really capable of performing like that as a Skipper? I sure couldn't do it! I get tonguge-tied and I could never remember all the jokes and I am not good speaking in front of people.

It's a pretty rare talent to be great at things like this.

Also, let's be real about what the theme park workers' wages would be and think about who would be vying for these jobs. Sometimes I think Disney has a very hard time filling Skipper slots just because only about 80% of the Skippers have been good or excellent. There is about 20% who have been just okay (and out of that, maybe half of that 20 have been bad and should have been in other positions).

All the people hired to do the Halloween stuff are seasonal hires...and I believe a lot of them are college kids or even high schoolers with work permits. My husband worked at a Haunted House in Indiana in high school and was one of the people who jumped out in a rubber mask. He's probably had 12 jobs since then, but that's his favorite to this day. I bet it always will be.

It's been my experience that people working in the theme parks are about 70% people who are THRILLED to have a job in a theme park and are literally doing their all because it's memory-making for them and they know it's such a cool place to work. The other 30% are people who grumble about low pay and obsess over when their break is going to be or complain constantly about having to walk so many feet to the cafeteria or whatever for lunch. If the labor pool in the Orlando area really and truly could support more "human element" streetmosphere or interaction then I don't think that 30% of grumblers would be hired in the first place (or keep their jobs if they became disenchanted after being hired).

I think if they created 200 new positions providing "human element" in attractions as suggested what would happen is that 200 great current employees would be moved off their current stations and reassigned to "human element". And then 200 people who didn't make the cut in the past to be cast members would be brought in to fill those vacated positions. The unintended effect would be that people who loved their jobs would be swapped out for new folks who are only working there for the job (and begrudgingly at that) and service overall would diminish.

I think trying to add a little more razzle dazzle over on this side of the stage would make what's already there on the other side suffer unintentionally. Orlando's finite labor pool of qualified and enthusiastic people put a limit on this.

September 25, 2013 at 5:19 PM · Workers compensation cases. Labor costs. And at many parks, unions. Too many variables to worry about.
September 25, 2013 at 5:30 PM · The Movie Ride at DHS is another example of human element.
September 25, 2013 at 5:39 PM · I agree that having live humans in theme park attractions elevate them immensely. Can anyone imagine Jungle Cruise with an automated spiel instead of a live skipper? The Great Movie Ride is another great example of the use of the human element in a ride. Without the humans, it is a slow moving dark ride through old movies (which I would still love btw), but with the actors, it is one of the most unique rides in the industry, combining a ride with a theatrical experience. It made me really sad that Disney replaced the human narrators on Living with the Land and the Backlot Tour. Those rides suffered with the loss of the human element. Jaws at Universal is sorely missed, and that's just as much for the entertaining skippers as the animatronic shark.

Halloween events are my favorite of all special events at theme parks. The scare actors really make the event. I prefer Howl-O-Scream to Halloween Horror Nights in Florida. Almost everyone I've talked to tends to enjoy their Howl-O-Scream experience more than HHN. Halloween Horror Nights has the much better themed houses, Universal has more money and has access to Hollywood directors. However, Howl-O-Scream has better actors and a higher quantity, making it the better experience imo. More proof that the human element wins out.

September 25, 2013 at 6:56 PM · In response to the anonymous comment: And those don't apply to the thousands of other, current employees in a park? Ridiculous that would keep employees from working in an attraction when those things don't keep parks from hiring thousands of employees in other areas.
September 25, 2013 at 7:51 PM · I have been in that theme park, The Pharonic village in Giza, Egypt, it was horrible. I felt it was degrading for the people working there. You could argue Egypt is a poor country and people should be happy to have a job but portraying a scene like a human AA was just painful to watch. Below you find the links to the site of the theme park and a video of pictures from the park.

Yes I think the human element is very important. I wish Main street in DHS had more streetmosphere and that means getting rid of the hat and the loud stage in front of it.
And I love shows and parks like IOA could use some and DHS could use some new ones. I think staff working the HM at MK or HTH at DHS do a great job and why don't they do that with more rides? But I'm fine keeping humans mostly out of the attractions. Yes I think the Jungle cruise is degrading for people. I think if you are a great actor you deserve a good script and a stage. Yes this ride would be lame without the skipper because it is. But it also could be better if every skipper was allowed to mix things up a bit, improvise like a stand up comedian and not do a spiel over and over and over again.

September 25, 2013 at 8:30 PM · A couple things regarding the idea that Jungle Cruise skippers should get to improvise and come up with their own scripts. For one, Jungle Cruise skippers are regular Attraction Cast Members, not Entertainment Cast Members. Many skippers may not have the improv skills of a trained stand up comedian, and it would be unfair to them to force them to come up with their own material. So Disney keeps things consistent by having everyone follow a script. There are numerous versions of the script, with multiple jokes for each animal or location. So skippers do have freedom to mix up their cruises, and Guests do get very different experiences, but everything follows script. If you give Cast Members free reign to improvise, you are bound to have some skippers let slip some inappropriate jokes, which could ruin the Disney experience for Guests aboard, especially those with young children.
September 25, 2013 at 11:23 PM · Hello!!! That's the whole point if World Showcase at Epcot! As an ex-cultural rep at the UK I know it's all about the interaction with park guest. You the guest need to invest a bit of time to interact with the cast to make the magic happen. Lots if guests just didn't get that. It's why Disney do it they are the attraction.
September 26, 2013 at 12:41 AM · But to some extent the human element is already there. When I walk around any of the Disney parks there seems to be a never ending array of 'street theatre' scenes being played out. Then there's the parades and the shows, all of which are 'live action'. Realistically there are few actual attractions that could incorporate live human-atronics and it's clear to me that the quality of interaction would swiftly drop as repetition took its toll.

We live in an age where people demand consistency above almost anything else and humans don't provide that. The variation in the Jungle Cruise is, admittedly, part of the charm but you know what - I'd actually prefer a version of the ride that managed without the skipper. I know I'm a heretic but it's cheesy and cringe-worthy and it just doesn't feel up to Disney's quality most of the time.

September 26, 2013 at 4:45 AM · The human element is brilliant when it works but I have rarely gotten a great Cast Member on The Great Movie Ride and without it, that experience falls short. I think of the biggest reason they don't incorporate more human elements is the lack of consistency. Putting on that level of performance that frequently can be really exhausting and next to impossible to maintain in the long run.
September 26, 2013 at 5:24 AM · The Great Movie Ride at DHS is a perfect example, to me, why this would be difficult to consistantly pull off. Unlike the Jungle Cruise, the script the drivers of the Great Movie Ride seems to be locked in - the same every time. And you can tell when the actors are suffering from boredom/fatigue from doing the script over-and-over-and-over.

Some trips through are fine. Others feel painfully forced, or completely uneven as the cowboy or gangster who "takes over" the tram is on a completely different energy level than the driver.

I don't blame the performers. I can only guess how tiring it must be to repeatedly tell people that Busby Berkley's Footlight Parade is one of their favorite movies (and how does Disney find so many twenty year olds with such love for 1930s musical cinema), before being hijacked, and then burning a member of organized crime on a ancient temple.

Telling a variety of corney jokes on something light like the Jungle Cruise, or scaring people for a couple of months with Halloween Horror Nights, is probably far more effective, than making a consistant experience using live actors in any other kind of ride. After all, anamatronics never get bored.

September 26, 2013 at 6:14 AM · I agree the human element can really make or break the experience.

When we went to Disney in California for the first time and watched the jedi academy, the greatest thing wasn't what was happening on the stage. There was a little kid in a wheelchair with a lightsaber who wanted to be on stage, but couldn't. (I don't know if it was the wheelchair stopping him or if the parents just didn't get him signed up in time.) Either way, though, the actor who played Darth Maul and was entertaining the crowd would duel with this kid every time he came to that end of the stage (and he spent more time over there than anywhere else.) The look on that kids face was wonderful. he was so excited to be a jedi and fighting Darth Maul.

September 26, 2013 at 6:26 AM · The old Hitchcock experience at Universal Studios Florida was a good example. I still miss it to this day.
September 26, 2013 at 7:54 AM · Disney's best human element is its character meet and greets. No one does it better than Disney and they surpassed their previous efforts with the new Princesses halls. Other parks don't have as much. Knott's is pretty good with Snoopy and the Peanuts gang, but they don't come out as much as I like. SeaWorld has increasingly done much more, but I don't remember those characters. Universal's Simpsons, Shrek, Minions, classic horror characters, Beettlejuice, Spongebob, and many others are very good. I hope Shrek won't go away.

Again, I think Knott's can benefit from a year round haunt attraction. They need a family version with safe scares and a separate entrance adult version in the evenings. If you don't report on Knott's yearly haunt fest, I wouldn't know that they have very talented designers who put on the show. Knott's needs this talent on a year round basis.

September 26, 2013 at 7:58 AM · In 1986, I took a meeting with a couple of operations supervisors who were following up on a suggestion ("I Have An Idea") I made as a cast member to create a process where skippers could propose new material. They indicated that it would have to be signed-off by WDI and expressed concerns based upon "The Camel's Nose" scenario.

When I was at the Magic Kingdom this past Saturday, I spoke with a couple of skippers regarding an approval process for new material. There were two skippers manning the construction fence (the attraction is being rehabbed). They claimed such a process was under consideration. We all noted the irony that WDI head honcho Jon Lasseter was once a skipper and in a You Tube clip where he discusses his favorite adlib ... and it's an unapproved adlib.


I will say this -- as the industry continues to embrace the "park-as-a-platform" philosophy, the "human element" certainly goes beyond the attractions. I was razzed a bit when in my short history of the MK I mentioned CM and guest interaction was an improvement in the park experience. My wife and I experienced the park on my birthday (thanks for all the cards by the way). We had some newbies tag along and they were fairly charmed by the way my b-day button attracted so much attention.

September 26, 2013 at 8:27 AM · I find that the human element, when incorporated effectively, can make for some of the most memorable trips to a theme park. But when a performer doesn't hit his or her mark, that can really ruin the experience of a ride. For those of us to have the privilege of returning to these attractions and experiencing them more than one time, the idea of variety is nice. But then there are the majority of theme park goers who will only experience that attraction one time, and so parks only have one shot to create that once-in-a-lifetime experience. As an executive, would you rather leave that shot up to chance with an employee, or would you rather rely on a much more reliable technology element that can recreate an experience every time at the highest level?

It's an unfortunate reality of the theme park experience, but consistency is probably the most valuable asset to an attraction at a theme park in my opinion.

September 26, 2013 at 9:21 AM · I touched upon something similar in a recent blog post discussing why Festival of the Lion King is my favorite Disney attraction: http://www.fairestrunofall.com/2013/09/in-which-jenn-chooses-her-very-favorite.html

And basically it all comes down to the people, who change the experience every time.

September 26, 2013 at 1:06 PM · Great piece, Robert. It's an excellent point to make, and one I hope that theme park execs notice. I'm still sad about Jaws being gone from Universal Studios Orlando, and to me the cheesy human captain factor on that ride was a big part of the fun. They had a script to stick to, but hearing their quick ad libs or seeing how into their roles some would get was always a highlight for me.
September 26, 2013 at 2:43 PM · Perhaps a best, real world scenario of a recent attraction using the human element would be Enchanted Tales With Belle. A compromise between an attraction and entertainment venue (literally, the mirror and the wardrobe are attractions and the library is entertainment and photopass- all operating the show together), Belle is a sample of a new direction of the human element.

It's not just a ahow where the audience is passive. It has a broader script than the Jungle Cruise in some senses. In the progress of the show, you meet a mix of animatronics and humans, and not at once. The constant rotation of the different CMs at different parts keep things fresh.

While moving a decent number of guest through, it also provides important private moments for the guest, and to boot, providing a meet and greet and even a free souvineer.

September 27, 2013 at 6:33 PM · One of my most memorable Disney World trips was back in 1985. As a teen on a family vacation with Grandparents along as well I was not having a great time because I wanted to explore and chase girls and y style was being cramped by mom, dad , younger sister and grandma (mainly). So anyways we as a group are going to ride on one of the main street cars (which I have not seen since 1985 by the way and have been there many times with Girl friends and eventually my own family. Anyways I digress. Back to my point. We got into I think it was the taxi cab. The driver was so much fun. He started out by jumping up on to the cage and making a joke about it protecting us from him. And then proceeded with a string of jokes and chatter all the way down main street. I will always remember his comment about the horse droppings from the trolley horses and that they were free souvenirs called "Horse NUM NUMS". My mother and Father and sister still get a laugh about that when ever we see horse droppings on the roads. It was all because of the Human element.
Further to Roberts blog here. I have worked Ren Faires in my 20s and found that the reason people return to them is because of the interaction one experiences with being part of the show.

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