Does Every Theme Park Ride Have to Be about a Fight?

February 1, 2016, 7:12 PM · Many great theme park attractions tell a story as a way to draw visitors into the attraction. Powerful narratives engage and excite visitors, amplifying the physical sensation of being on a ride, or the camaraderie of witnessing a show with hundreds of others.

But just as there are multiple systems to power rides, many ways of staging a show, a wide variety of approaches to decorating a land, there are countless narratives to drive stories in any medium — from books to movies to theme park attractions. So why are so many storytellers today focusing on the same type of narrative — a fight between fictional characters?

That's the question that I ask in my Orange County Register column this week: Do all theme park rides have to be battles with an evil empire?

We often joke here on Theme Park Insider about the common device on theme park rides that, at some point, something will go terribly wrong. As Universal Creative's Thierry Coup once told us, "It has to. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day."

But we can save the day by many different ways that jumping into the middle of a fight between "good guys" and "bad guys." Challenges abound in science, in history, and in the ongoing discovery of the natural world around and above us. Even in the world of fiction, strategy and guile can provide satisfying resolutions to conflicts, too. The answer doesn't always have to require a physical fight.

In my column, I look at the example of the changes Disney has made in transforming Space Mountain into Hyperspace Mountain for the Star Wars-themed Season of the Force at Disneyland. While I love Hyperspace Mountain, it illustrates the evolving nature of narrative in theme park attractions. What once was driven by a spirit of discovery now simply reflects another firefight between the good team and the bad one.

Sure, fight-drive narratives are fun. But in an industry that chasing record box office receipts and theme park revenue, couldn't there be more room for other types of narrative as well?

Read Robert's Column:

Replies (23)

February 1, 2016 at 8:19 PM · The "something gone wrong" narrative gotten old. Flying is old too. They need new ideas and concepts to encourage our imaginations.

I enjoyed Terminator 3D when you feel like you're part of the action, but many people didn't like the break in the narrative. They just wanted to watch the 3D movie as if you're in the audience and away from the action. Oh well. What can you do? People are not that open to new ideas.

February 1, 2016 at 8:20 PM · I completely agree with you Robert. I am a 38 year old male, which is pretty much the target audience for Star Wars. Science, technology, and timeless exploration resonate with me far more than a fictional space battle. It all comes down to the question...At the end of the day, what are the experiences that people want to come back to? It's not war or fighting in spaceships. That gets old. High quality experiences that teach and inspire are the ones that people obsess over and come back to see time and time again.
February 1, 2016 at 8:45 PM · Do you have other examples of attractions at Disney that use that 'caught in the battle' theme? I'm curious, my mind draws a blank for some reason. Maybe Fantasmic in a way, but the audience doesn't really feel part of the show. For Star Wars, specifically, I think the fans are expecting to see fights and space battles since the story is set during war time.
February 1, 2016 at 9:31 PM · Pirates of the Caribbean comes to mind.
February 1, 2016 at 9:50 PM · I think that the Greatest Themed Attraction Ever, Pirates of the Caribbean, proves Mr. Coup wrong. In it, we are neither the heroes nor the villains. Every time I ride the version in DL (my home resort), I marvel at how passive you are as a rider. You see some stuff, pirates storm a town, they mess around, and it all goes to hell in a hand basket. The end. And yet is completely absorbing. The atmosphere, detail, sounds, and lights transport you.
Attractions really don't need a battle (though there's nothing wrong with those!); they need to be transport you, to create a world so mystical and foreign that you temporarily forget reality.
February 2, 2016 at 2:42 AM · Mr. Niles writes: "While I love Hyperspace Mountain, it illustrates the evolving nature of narrative in theme park attractions. What once was driven by a spirit of discovery now simply reflects another firefight between the good team and the bad one."

I Respond: More Disney bashing from TPI. Consider Universal Studios Florida. 'Terminator,' 'Men In Black: Alien Attack,' 'Escape from Gringotts,' 'Revenge of the Mummy,' Transformers. In other words a parade of battle scenes but once again TPI's critical eye turns toward Disney.


February 2, 2016 at 3:38 AM · I have to agree with the above here. Walt Disney World alone hosts Test Track, Mission Space, Rock n Rollercoaster, Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain. Even more if I go into dark rides that aren't thrill rides. These rides, particularly Mission Space and Test Track, ARE about the spirit of discovery. Splash Mountain tells a complete story that doesn't have anything to do with a battle. I felt overwhelmed with battles at Universal, I've never felt that way at Disney.
February 2, 2016 at 3:44 AM · The reason the fight themed rides are prevalent are simply because it is easy for an emotional attachment due to conflict and is exciting. The classic example is Gringotts. It places you in the story and is fun. Universal uses this almost exclusively. Disney has mastered the notion of the rider as the observer. This exchanges the excitement of conflict with wonder. Haunted Mansion, Pirates, Space Mountain. Both are extremely fun, and I am not sure what I enjoy more, but both have good and valid places in theme parks. Also, both resorts use each method. I would hope Star Wars uses the fight motif due to the Wars in Star Wars, but the Hogwarts Express shows you can opt for the wonder in a conflict environment. It is my belief that the wonder method works very well at DL and MK due to the purpose of the parks. The fight method works at DHS and the Universal parks due to their purpose. I think the Mummy would be a much lesser ride if you weren't in the action, but Aerosmith is no less exciting for its story choices (and I disagree that Aerosmith is underrated).
February 2, 2016 at 5:00 AM · Well...It is called Star WARS. Not Star Something-Goes-Terribly-Wrong (insert prequel joke here). By the nature of the narrative of the intellectual property, there's going to be battles between good and evil. And with everything being Star Wars for the next little while, it will be an theme for a little while.

I imagine Slinky Dog roller coaster and Frozen will be less battle hardened when they open.

February 2, 2016 at 5:16 AM · The other extreme is the "cliff's notes" or "book report" attractions like Little Mermaid, which instead of really trying to bring you into the world do more to just show you a physical retelling of the same story, but in way too short of a time.
February 2, 2016 at 5:46 AM · I think it's a reflection of the IP that's creeping into parks. Comic books movies, Star Wars, Harry Potter etc, they are all predicated on conflict between "people", and the rides reflect this.

Since Disney generally aims at a younger audience, the story in most of its rides doesn't depend on this as much, whereas Universal's does. Avatar doesn't have to rely on this as much, particularly since they seem to be planning to focus more on the "environment" of Pandora, rather than the people.

February 2, 2016 at 5:56 AM · Disney and Universal: SOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG OH NO.
Busch/Sea World: Nice themeing and landscaping.
Hershend: Country music? Okay...
Cedar Fair: Intimidator? Hope the license doesn't run out. Paramount? Hope the license doesn't... oh.
February 2, 2016 at 6:43 AM · Hulk, Ripsaw Falls, Blutos Bilge Rats, Jurassic Park River Ride, Pterodon Flyers, Cat in the Hat, Seuss Carousel, 1 fish, Seuss Trolley, even Dr Doom Fearfall, I don't really consider "fight" rides. And that is just one park at Universal. Take a look around folks. Fight rides are only mirroring what our society is becoming thirsty for and asking for.
February 2, 2016 at 6:38 AM · Rides, by and large, intend to entertain riders via thrills. It could be argued that it is because thrills are such a base emotional response and easier to evoke from people that it is a "cheap" way to grab people; I get that. But also rides are also generally a crap story telling medium (1) and unless you're using characters which are already deeply familiar to the rider, it is unlikely that you'll be able to get any sort of really deep and complex emotional response from your patrons. The use of interpersonal good/evil conflict as a overarching theme for attractions then makes total sense. That's why it is the story basis for just about every summer blockbuster popcorn flick ever. The difference is that there really is no commercial market whatsoever for attractions that break the mold of either being a thrill machine or very base level positive reinforcement for young children. (2)

(1) Marc Davis and Walt said this, and probably lots of people did before them (they didn't invent themed attractions) and lots of people did afterwards too. Even if you believe intrinsically that they could do more, theme parks are, in essence amusement parks (:GASP: :HORROR:) and people pay money to be entertained, not think about their own mortality or the problems of the world.

(2) The obvious retort most would provide is "WHUT BOUT EPCOT????" which I would cruelly dismiss as corporate shill/pap in place of substance even in its prime. The attractions of Future World, like classic Tomorrowland which is effectively was a duplication of, did nothing but suggest to us that we could change and fix the world by never changing a thing about our habits. Few greater lies have ever been told.

February 2, 2016 at 6:55 AM · What are the Disney Tea Cups battling? or Aladdin magic carpet ride, or the Tree house....

The only battle at Disney is for the dollars out of my pocket.... hahahhahaahaha...

February 2, 2016 at 7:37 AM · hulk = man vs gamma radiation and his own anger problems
Bluto = man vs kidnapping Bluto
Jurassic park = man vs bad dinos
pteranodon flyers = everyone who wants to ride but can't because it requires one adult and one child vs universal's rules lol
cat in the hat = children vs insane people who break into a house and destroy it and then lie about it to their mother
seuss trolly = sneech vs sneech
dr doom frearfall = doom vs fantastic 4
tea cups = man vs mental illness and dizziness
Aladdin magic carpet ride = man vs gravity?
tree house = man vs government and societal norms in a compelling tail of off the grid living
February 2, 2016 at 9:00 AM · The then "something goes wrong" narrative is a storytelling device that works incredibly well which is why it is employed so often, not just in theme parks. And I don't think this is anything new. Disneyland's 1960's Adventure Thru Inner Space was probably the first time it was so blatantly part of the ride's story. But look at Disney's Radiator Springs Racers, one of their newest, most elaborate, and many say best modern rides. It doesn't use this device at all. As for the flight or fight augumemt. I don't know. Again Soarin Over California (soon to be the World) is about simple feel good discovey even more so than say Mission: Space where something does go wrong (and I'm not talking about the the simulated crash). As for Space Mountain. I never thought for a moment I was shooting out to the stars. So it didn't convey any sense of wonder or discovery to me. It was always just a space-themed coaster in the dark. So the Star Wars overlay doesn't bother me in the least.
February 2, 2016 at 9:40 AM · Mr. MarkSharp writes: "And I don't think this is anything new. Disneyland's 1960's Adventure Thru Inner Space was probably the first time it was so blatantly part of the ride's story."

I Respond: Sixties-schmixties, the battle of skippers vs. hippos broke out a decade earlier.

February 2, 2016 at 10:20 AM · @TH Creative. Well maybe but I understand that originally the Jungle Cruise was played straight and the whole humorous speil wasn't added until later when the ride started to get stale. I don't know when that happened but it wasn't originaly intended to be part of the attraction. And I don't know if that bit was part of the attraction in the beginning.
February 2, 2016 at 5:17 PM · Both TH and Mark are wrong. The original theme park battle was Dumbo and all his evil clones vs the large metal stick being jabbed into their sides, slowly killing them with each passing second.
February 2, 2016 at 8:51 PM · I think this is a very interesting concept that really stands up. However, I think most recent rides is about fighting because the "big thrills" are found in "Fighting franchise".

The "something goes wrong" theory also quickly creates a story in a ride. Quite honestly, the only thrill ride that I can really think is not some kind of conflict is Rock N Rollercoaster

February 2, 2016 at 9:49 PM · Does every theme park ride have to be about a fight? Absolutely not, but I think there are several reasons why this has become a trend:

-IP. Most IP used for major attractions comes from an action franchise, and most action franchises are at least partially about combat.
-Rider Role. In a lot of older attractions, the rider is an observer, but many modern attractions portray the rider as a main character.
-Narrative Structure. This goes along with the point above. In a passive story (rider in the observer role), riders only need to see individual scenes and a continuous story is not critical, allowing for a collection of short stories with the same theme. In an active story, however, the attraction needs a setup, conflict, and resolution, and without these elements it will feel like something is missing.
-Thrill Factor. As technology has improved, the thrill level of attractions has risen. For a thrill-based attraction to work, some degree of action is required, and combat situations are an easy way to do this.
-Interactivity. Interactive attractions encourage combat as riders are usually armed with a blaster (or equivalent).
-3D Attractions. For the most part, action sequences are what get the benefit of 3D film, so it is no surprise combat is featured.

As for the classic "something goes terribly wrong," if you think about it almost every linear continuous story is about something going wrong. If something didn't go wrong, there wouldn't be a story. However, "something goes terribly wrong" does not require a fight to resolve. In fact, escapes are probably far more common among theme park rides than fights.

February 4, 2016 at 4:06 PM · on the grounds of recent rides. this does hold true. especially for rides at universal studios. Tranformers, Spider-man, Men-in-Black and even the simpsons always has a villian or two we need to conquer in a short 2-3 min ride. or the usual something goes horribly wrong and we always have to escape the danger.

I guess people today want Thrill rides and to do that without just sticking a 300 ft tall roller coaster with a large footprint, they create high tech dark rides with thrilling narratives.

The marvel of just being an observer rather than part of the action doesn't hold well with audiences today. sure us theme park fans would love another ride like pirates or Haunted Mansion but I guess those aren't what draw guests into the park and money always talks with theme park owners.

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