Theme Park of the Day: Tokyo Disneyland

Why do theme parks make so many rides based on movies and books?

August 25, 2016, 10:32 AM · If you're running a theme park and spending anywhere between $20-200 million on a new attraction — and you only build a new one every few years — you cannot afford for that attraction to be anything other than a big hit with fans. That is why so many theme parks these days are looking to established IP [intellectual property] to theme their new attractions.

By building on an existing franchise, parks can appeal to that franchises' fan base while avoid the hard work of introducing and building affinity for a new set of characters. Working with an existing IP gives a theme park a "head start" on making all-important emotional connections with their audience, to help ensure those visitors not only will want to experience a new ride or land, but to come back and experience it again and again.

This isn't unique to theme parks, of course. Movie studios and other entertainment companies have learned this lesson, too, which is why we get so many sequels and reboots across all entertainment media these days. The drive for guaranteed profits makes business risk-averse, leading them to fall back upon proven creatives rather than taking the risk of trying something new... that might fail.

This isn't anything new in the theme park industry, either. Synergy — as the managers who spend more time with spreadsheets than walking the parks like to call it — has been part of this business ever since Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955. In my Orange County Register column this week, I look at the long history of cross-overs between movies and theme parks, starting with the opening of Disneyland itself.

Universal's amazing success with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has brought a lot of media attention back to the connection between movies and theme parks, but that connection's always been there. In fact, I'd argue that it's not just the Harry Potter movies that's driving the success of Universal's Wizarding World lands, it's Universal's ability to tap into the rich detail J.K. Rowling crafted into her books that's helped make those lands so successful, as well.

Theme parks have been mining books for inspiration for decades, too. Think of Universal's Seuss Landing. Or, going way back, Disney's Tom Sawyer Island. Yes, there were movies and TV shows attached to those franchises. But it's from the books that theme park visitors best know these properties, and it's against the standard of those books that they judge these attractions.

In some ways, books provide an even more ideal source of inspiration for theme park attractions than movies. Yes, a few directors craft work that demands the audience remain actively involved while watching, but so much of what comes out of Hollywood can be consumed passively — just watch the screen and soak in the filmmakers' vision. Reading books is different. It typically demands more active participation from the reader, to create a mental image and landscape to support the narrative on the page. That makes the reading experience a perfect complement for the more immersive and interactive attractions that theme parks are working to develop.

With Rowling's mastery of detail and backstory, Harry Potter might be the most theme park-friendly entertainment franchise ever conceived. But plenty of other books would make great theme park franchises, too. (And this is where I pause for thousands of you to say, "Lord of the Rings"....) I'd love to see someone try to create an interactive experience based upon Sherlock Holmes. When I was a kid, I would have held someone hostage for the chance to visit a Richard Scarry land. And, for heaven's sake, what's it going to take to get a Stephen King-themed year at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights?

I guess the lesson is... nothing's really new, and the "trends" we read and hear about in the theme park business are usually just a new spin on something we've been doing forever. But that doesn't mean those new spins around the same block can't be just as wonderful and fun as the first go-around. Which entertainment franchises would you like to see parks take on next?

Read Robert's column:

Replies (8)

August 25, 2016 at 10:48 AM · Richard Scarry Land..... LOVE!!! You made my day with that idea, Robert... and instantly brought back great memories.

I personally think a theme park could have tons of fun with Steve Alten's MEG series -- heck, one of the books is even called "Hell's Aquarium". But I doubt the books are popular enough... and it would really just be a JAWS re-boot on steroids.... Not that I'd mind that :-)

August 25, 2016 at 11:13 AM · Hey Robert how about when an Attraction becomes a Movie like POTC? See what I did there, I reversed the logic..

I have been waiting for "24" The Jack Bauer Experience. And music for this attraction by REM - It's the end of the world.

August 25, 2016 at 11:45 AM · You touched on a relevant topic. Books should be tapped for theme park attractions so familiar settings and characters could be revealed in surprising ways and seem wholly original. It might be even better than original attractions. The issue is Disney seems to be one note in this regard. How many times did it refer to Jules Verne for it's Steam Punk creations? Discovery Land, 20K Leagues, and New Tomorrowland 1998 comes to mind. Tokyo DisneySea still has "Journey to the Centre of the Earth". Disney takes much inspiration from Jules Verne's "From Earth to the Moon" "The Mysterious Island" "Around the World in 80 Days". You got to mine something else.

Disney went overboard with "Alice in Wonderland" in movies and the public has shown it's distaste. The new "BFG" adaption was a failure. I can't say I love the new Young Adult movie adaptions. Teenager angst wrapped in heroism in a despotic world.

August 25, 2016 at 5:05 PM · Victorian London and Sherlock Holmes would make for a great theme park land. People love mysteries and puzzles, hence the current craze for escape rooms. I guess one thing holding back the great detective from the theme park is the tangled IP rights to the character with half the canon being public domain and the other half still claimed by the Doyle estate. Still would love to see a Holmes dark ride where guests try to solve the mystery in a race with the detective with a queue that winds its way through 221 B Baker St.
August 26, 2016 at 12:49 AM · I would love to see a Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy themed land. NOT based on the awful movie but based on the books.
August 26, 2016 at 9:47 AM · Book World - The next gate in Orlando.

Visit Victorian London Land, and take a ride on Moriarty's Mystery Spinner, or wander through Scrooge's haunted house.

Right next door is Jules Verne land, where you can take a journey to the moon, the bottom of the oceans, or to the center of the earth itself.

Don't forget to visit the Pequod boat ride, and join Captain Ahab on a lovely whale watching tour...until something goes terribly wrong.

Also remember to visit the future, where Isaac Asomov's three-rule safe robots dream of Phillip K Dick's electric sheep. And if you don't have enough time to create wonderful memories yourself, don't worry, they can remember it for you, wholesale - as you exit through the gift shop.

You can also take the time to enjoy the modern tranquility of Stephen King's Maine. Just step under the dome, and enjoy the friendly streets of small town America. Take a trip on Christine's Wild Ride. Just watch out for the sewer clowns and invasive vampires. And don't pet the dogs.

And for the more adventurous, romp across the hills of Middle-Earth and Narnia, joined together for the first time. Enjoy the hospitality of the Shire, and be sure to stop by the ice queen's Turkish delight shop. Three times daily, have the opportunity to watch an all out battle extravaganza; see who would win in the battle between Aslan and Sauron; Gollum Vs Tumnus; Smaug Vs Reepicheep; and many, many more during the battle of the fantasies musical stage show.

I've actually lost track of whether I'm being facetious, or starting to think this is a great idea.

August 26, 2016 at 9:50 AM ·
August 28, 2016 at 3:12 AM · That TREND to tap into existing IP, for new theme park rides, or lands/sections, however Robert, is about a completely different level of "tapping" then the high level tradition with Disney and Universal (and in Europe-Benelux : Efteling, Plopsa).
I think you miss a point. Over the past 5-7 years, IP-based developments became epidemic amongst the minor parks, without any remarkable result ! That's the actual topic, about the novel trend.
It became a hype, it seems mainly through IAAPA seminar brainwashings (over those past 5-7 years) about the easy IP-jackpot myth. It's false. An attraction will never be better then the INTERPRETATION job done by the creative people who are behind the development process. In the far majority of cases with minor parks, it's about a false belief that paying IP-rights to who-ever, to DECORATE part of your park, will bring in the customers in the same way as it goes with Disney (etc, that top list) It's not working. ALL hurays on the expected cashflows, are pré opening marketing/PR messages. After that, business is 'flat-as-usual' over the classic 2 year measuring period for the effect of a new attraction. Whether or not there would have been (expensive) IP-rights involved, will not change the attendance bubbles, when compared to the creative investment AS SUCH. One thing is sure: WITH IP-rights, there is an annual fixed cash flow leaving the park, without IP-rights, that is not the case...
Other viewpoint : Still +90% of the whole amusement sector is based on thrill in all degrees possible. Less then 10% is based on storytelling (+ displays of beauty, + edutainment, + artist work) Disney covers the majority of that sector, worldwide.
IP-rights will NEVER help hard-ride based amusement parks to make a difference, because they don't use it for real storytelling, they use it for superficial decoration of basic off the shelf thrill rides. It's thrown away investment capital and operational money. Thrill rides parks, always are measured against each other, on the PLAIN thrills they offer, regardless of decoration. Second matter seems to be the classic customer reception set of qualities : "cleanliness, friendliness, food quality". Many park surveys turn out the same point : the 'theming' is a minor factor in customer attraction, with HARD RIDES parks..
The storytelling, is a completely different business sector.
So, whatever we fancy from film or books, will be a themepark hit ONLY with a very intensive and creative interpretation job being done for real storytelling. Decoration use (including the silly-lost character meetings) amongst roller coasters ? Forget it ! ...
And, by the way : quite some short lived yet still expensive IP-based investments (failing on the short/mid-long term, like 4 years, 5, 6, 7..), are just as common as the so called risky full-in-house developments that succeed in long term success ! (even extreme long term ...25 years ...40, 50, 60 !?..)
Did PoTC fail ? Did HM fail ? Did CoP fail? Did Droomvlucht (Efteling) fail ? Did Fata Morgana (Efteling) fail ? Did Lavenlaar (Efteling) fail ? .. none, those were and are top productions. All in house. All with spinn off FROM the original attraction, instead of the other way around.
Food for thought !

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