Do theme parks need outside IP to build great rides and shows?

January 19, 2017, 1:09 PM · Why are so many major new theme park attractions based on movies? Can't Disney and other big theme park companies build rides based on original stories anymore? That's the ongoing fan debate that I write about in my Orange County Register column this week.

I think a lot of fans suspect that park's apparent obsession with IP [intellectual property] is something new. But parks have relied on outside media for inspiration ever since Disneyland opened in 1955. Remember, "Disneyland" was a TV show before it was a theme park. Walt himself used his show to introduce fans across the country to many of the supposedly original IP that he would feature in the park, including Pirates of the Caribbean and the Enchanted Tiki Room. And the park's Fantasyland's always has provided a collection of Disney Animation IP.

When movies, TV shows, and theme parks all reference the same franchise — promoting each iteration of the same IP — they help create and reinforce popular demand that allows the studios that produce the franchise to spend many millions of dollars on it than the studio could afford if that work existed in a single medium. Basing a franchise on outside IP gives designers a "head start," allowing them to tap into relationships and emotional states that fans bring to an IP ride or show, and to build on those from there, deepening the experience for visitors. Without that, we'd enter a ride or show cold, waiting for introductions and scene setting that would delay the emotional payoff for everyone.

Of course, this only works for people who know a franchise. That's not much of an obstacle for Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Marvel, with their billions of fans worldwide. But it can be for less popular, not-as-well-established franchises. I saw a lot of people last month walk out of Motiongate Dubai's Hotel Transylvania ride with blank looks. If you didn't know the movie, you had no idea what was happening on that ride, as it didn't get the job done of setting up its story for people who hadn't seen the film.

IP is just another source of inspiration. Ultimately, great IP can't distinguish a mediocre ride. Do all those DC Comics brands slapped on Six Flags' coasters and carnival spinners really make a difference in our enjoyment of them? But a mediocre IP can inspire a wonderful theme park attraction. Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld stunt show has entertained far more fans than ever saw the Kevin Coster film that inspired it. And Disney's Splash Mountain is far more beloved that the often cringe-worthy South of the South that Disney has buried in its vault.

Still, popular IP comes with risk to theme parks. A great IP raises the expectation for a theme park attraction, putting the pressure on designers (and the people who control their budget) to deliver. Millions of fans would have booked trips to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, no matter what Universal did with that franchise. But if Universal Creative hadn't delivered the amazing immersive experience that it did, the blowback from disappointed fans could have sunk the theme park chain, given its state back when the first land debuted.

Sure, I'd love to see Disney do more with its Society of Explorers and Adventurers, and I can't wait to see Rivers of Light. But I'm looking forward to Avatar, Star Wars, and Nintendo Land, too. I don't care where theme park designers find their inspiration (or their funding). Like many fans, I just want them to create great rides, shows, and environments for us to enjoy. If it takes outside IP to do that these days, then I'm fine with it.

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Replies (19)

January 19, 2017 at 2:10 PM · There are a lot of reasons, but I would guess that the primary one is the following: it can cost upwards of $100 million to build a new ride, and half a billion or more to build a new land. It seems a lot safer to base it on an existing franchise.
January 19, 2017 at 2:06 PM · No. Theme parks do not need the IP to make rides. But as you mention the "headstart" is a huge advantage. A modern ride or atracttion is expensive to make and takes a while to fully develop. So it does make a lot of sense to have a theme that's already building a fan base. You will need something that will hold on his own for years. Few IP has that legend status. It saves the designer some time, because some parts of the story telling are done, and the fan fills the blanks. There is always a place for new original rides, but the tendency, I fear, will be to favor the established ip and that all important emotional connection ( and the avid fans dollars).
January 19, 2017 at 2:14 PM · I understand the use of IP -- heck, everything at Universal is IP (with the exception of parts of the Lost Continent at IOA). But what I absolutely can't STAND is replacing a perfectly good original concept with an IP (Maelstrom to Frozen) or making sad efforts to add an IP to an existing ride (looking at you, Living Seas).
January 19, 2017 at 2:15 PM · NO! If that was all that was needed then parks like Dollywood along lots of others like Lake Compounce, Knobels, Silver Dollar City, Arnolds Amusement Park Iowa, Rye Playland NY, Fun Spot Orlando-Kissimmee. They all exsist without IP exposure.
January 19, 2017 at 2:37 PM · Maelstrom is not a perfectly good original concept. It is highly unpopular with short wait time and a equally short ride time. The Frozen update is a quality addition and it has a much better queue. They doubled the size of Norway with a meet and greet for Elsa and Anna.

Living Seas wasn't bad, but the Nemo addition is much better.

Epcot has enough original concepts still keeping the park boring as heck.

January 19, 2017 at 3:31 PM · Do theme parks need outside IP? No, absolutely not. Can theme parks benefit from the usage of outside IP? Most definitely. Can IP hurt a park as well if used improperly? You bet.

When it comes to IP-based attractions, one of the big questions is whether the ride supports the IP or whether the IP supports the ride. If you could strip the IP from a ride and end up with something comparable in quality and popularity, the ride merely supports the IP and doesn't require it. If, on the other hand, the ride wouldn't work without the IP being present, it is supported by the IP.

Using IP on rides that support it is a very smart strategy, as it enhances the popularity of the ride and runs little risk of the attraction becoming irrelevant in the future. Creating IP supported attractions, however, is where the problems lie. A park full of these attractions runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if the IP loses popularity, and except for the biggest franchises IP will limit a park's audience if used in this way.

There is nothing wrong with using IP if it is used properly, but I do question the sustainability of some of the attractions currently being developed. Star Wars, unless Disney winds up killing it, is a pretty safe bet, and Harry Potter isn't likely to die anytime soon, but will Marvel, Avatar, Nintendo, or any of the smaller projects being developed still be a big draw in 10-15 years? If those franchises are used to prop up otherwise lackluster attractions, it could lead to significant trouble down the road.

January 19, 2017 at 4:24 PM · It's the same reason all the blockbusters and TV series now are remakes, reboots or sequels - entertainment execs are too scared to spend loads of money on original ideas. It's a bit depressing, really - especially as it's mostly working!
January 19, 2017 at 4:51 PM · No, Efteling is doing fine without IP's but there are 2 "good" reasons financially.
First of all, looking at the original Journey into Imagination. It was a long ride (much longer then the current one with the "Honey I Shrunk The Kids" IP slapped on it. The reason was it needed a lengthy introduction of the characters and the setup for the story. If everyone knows the characters there is no need for that and because of that cheaper to make a shorter ride.
Secondly, IP merchandise does sell better and a ride for a known IP is an easier sell for the advertising people who need to promote the new investment for the park, except if the IP is Avatar (I think).

In the end it's what you do with the IP. Disney often rehashes the plot of the movie and it's songs in a short condensed version. In my eyes a lazy way to build a ride. Universal takes the characters and movies and adds to the story to expand on it or does something unique or unexpected with it. Personally I like that better.

January 19, 2017 at 5:34 PM · In Sam Genneways' new book JayBangs, Jay Stein, the father of Universal Orlando, says he preferred using well known IP's since it was actually less expensive to pay the IP rights fees, then to spend large sums of money trying to market and promote an attraction whose theme people were unfamiliar with. So, generally he went the well known IP route. More bang for your buck.
January 19, 2017 at 5:58 PM · If I hear the term IP ever again I'll vomit!
January 19, 2017 at 6:13 PM · O T is right in the sense that merchandise is the driver for many IP choices these days. Will people enjoy rides like Soarin' and Expedition Everest, that don't carry an IP? Absolutely. However, Disney and Universal are far more interested in getting people to buy the overpriced toys and t-shirts at the gift shop at the end of a ride.
January 19, 2017 at 6:22 PM · Technically, an IP isn't needed to build a great attraction, but it works for marketing & promotion purposes.......and merchandising.

In terms of the actual enjoyment of the attraction itself, it's certainly not a requirement. Haunted mansion & pirates (pre films) are still considered favorites & rank above many "IP" based attractions.

If an attraction is great (and better yet, new) people will ride it. Admission prices these day are pretty high for theme parks, so most people, will try to ride any & everything they can.

Using a popular IP, makes it easier to market to those fan bases, & give the general public a familiarity with the attraction, and helps to sell gear / food, but it's not needed.

January 20, 2017 at 6:32 AM · I don't object to IP in theory, but I do have a problem with the parks being used as advertising slates to support IP being currently developing on the market. I think Frozen at Norway is a great improvement using a proven IP. The 27,000 Frozen shows and promos and events in the two years following the original release made me gag. Same with the Epcot death star event.
January 20, 2017 at 8:37 AM · In 20 years of seeing this debate, I've yet to see a single reason that it Matters. Unless it's an IP that I can't stand, I don't care about the attraction's inspiration. I only care if it's any goid.
January 20, 2017 at 8:37 AM · In 20 years of seeing this debate, I've yet to see a single reason that it Matters. Unless it's an IP that I can't stand, I don't care about the attraction's inspiration. I only care if it's any goid.
January 20, 2017 at 10:36 AM · I work at Walt Disney Imagineering and this article misses a lot. First off, every themed attraction is based on IP: sometimes the IP is brought in from the outside (e.g. Carsland), sometimes it's created in-house (e.g. Mystic Manor), and sometimes it's a combo (e.g. Tower of Terror). In the past, outside-IP was used, but quite sparingly, and certainly not as the basis for a whole land. Walt - and Imagineering until a few years ago - designed lands based on general concepts - Adventure, the Wild West, Tomorrow - that could evolve and change over time. Within those lands, attractions combining all types of IP - external and internal - could live side by side. This is a far more successful concept for long term growth and change. For example, despite the popularity of Davy Crockett in 1955, I'm sure glad Walt created "Frontierland", able to adapt and change for decades, and not "Davy Crockett Land", which would have become irrelevant long ago. Bulldozing entire lands every decade is insanely expensive, and is contrary to the way Disneyland has evolved, where parents introduce the next generation of children to experiences they had as a child. Yes, Disneyland will continue to grow and evolve, but the general and nostalgic familiarity of the park from inception until today is one of its strongest selling points.
January 20, 2017 at 10:45 AM · How about when this works in reverse!? Your non-IP attraction is so popular it BECOMES a franchise!! Pirates reached out to an audience who never visited a Disney park and brought a few of them inside the gates.

But sometimes using known IP works differently than it was intended. For example, I don't watch The Tonight Show nor had I watched Jimmy Fallon. But bring it into a theme park and it suddenly gets my attention. So I research and learn more about him. I find out I was missing a pretty great comedian. So while the IP was intended to bring his fans to the park, it brought a park fan to him. :)

January 21, 2017 at 11:38 PM · Totally agree with Disney Imagineer .. Its about the story.. Every themed attraction is based on IP: Most ALL love to immersed in the stories taking Brand promise to becoming Brand "truth".. And it can work in reversal where an attraction becomes a brand. Take a look at Disney's Haunted Mansion. What I am waiting to see is SixFlags ride attraction in ATL GA, "Monster Mansion" becoming a movie and IP.. LOL
January 22, 2017 at 11:47 AM · "Do theme park attractions need IP?"

I think it ultimately comes down to what type of Park it is. If it's a Disneyland/MK Park, where the points is that you're entering the magical world of Disney, then I P is absolutely necessary. If it's a studio park like universal or DHS, where you're entering a movie studio, then of coarse it should feature IP. No questions asked. If it's a park like IOA or Tokyo DisneySea, where the point is that you're visiting different fantastical "islands" or "Ports," but it's connected to a popular movie studio, then you can have some IP-based attractions and some that aren't. If you're a Six Flags Cedar Fair or Busch Gardens Park, where people really only go for adrenaline fueled coasters and not to be immersed in another world, then some IP-based attractions would be a nice little addition, but wouldn't really be all that necessary.

The true outliers here are Epcot and DAK.

The main purpose of these parks is to educate people. ( and I just want to make a quick little comments to Anon Mouse that Epcot has provided me with a much more fun and exciting educational experience than any school I've been to) so IP wouldn't really be their main focus. However they just so happen to belong to the single most influential film studio of all time. And, as such, many fans would probably feel a little disappointed if the entire parks were completely stripped of IP. So naturally they added some IP. However, they still have plenty of attractions not based on IP. DAK has Kilimanjaro Safari's and Expedition Everest. Epcot has too many to count. And usually whenever they make an IEP based attraction it helps to serve the educational value. For example, you have the Nemo ride which teaches you about the aquatic life in the ocean, the Donald duck ride which takes you on a tour of Mexico, bugs life teaches you all about bugs, ( go figure ) and sends avatar is all about environmental awareness you can bats that it will be a dominant theme in its new land. But then there are some IP that is just a little out of place. I still really want to try out the frozen ride, I heard that it's really great, but it's just not Epcot. Granted, I haven't written it yet, so maybe it's does teach you about Norway. But nothing I've heard so far indicates that. Again, it sounds like it belongs in fantasyland in stead.

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