Halloween events revive the great theme park IP debate

September 19, 2017, 4:22 PM · The "IP vs. original theme" debate has been raging for years within the theme park fan community and probably won't fade anytime soon. Part of what can make this debate so heated is that individual parks open major new attractions so infrequently. That means the "original theme vs. IP" debate is driven more by hypothetical arguments than a steady stream of new attractions of both types that fans can judge, side-by-side.

...Except for Halloween. In my Orange County Register column this week, I write about my trip last week to Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights and how it provided a welcomed opportunity to judge how designers handle a bunch of original and IP attractions at once.

If you read my review of HHN27, you might remember that two of my top three houses at the event were based on original themes. Five of this year's Halloween Horror Nights houses in Orlando are based on IP, while four are based on original themes.

For me, too much IP actually can hurt an attraction. I knocked two of the IP-based houses at Halloween Horror Nights — The Horrors of Blumhouse and American Horror Story — for each cramming three different productions into one house. For me, that made going through those houses feel more like watching movie trailers than experiencing an actual film.

Part of what makes a theme park attraction unique in entertainment — and powerful — is the opportunity it provides visitors to immerse themselves in a physical environment that recreates a theme. Whipping us along from one theme to another undermines that immersion (even if the experiences are from the same "brand.") We need time to appreciate each experience.

I am encouraged to see that the source of a particular theme doesn't matter as much as the execution of the idea in elevating an attraction to top levels of quality. Great IP can inspire great attractions. Original themes can inspire great attractions. Heck, even crap IP can inspire great attractions. (Quick: Who did the better job in going above and beyond with an IP: Universal with Waterworld or Disney with Avatar? Discuss.)

This year's new Halloween houses remind us that talented themed entertainment designers can create engaging attractions based on original ideas, as well as on IP. So, to me, the answer to the original themes vs. IP debate remains... "it all depends upon what you do with it."

Read Robert's column:

Replies (16)

September 19, 2017 at 4:46 PM · Originals.... every time. Don't get me wrong -- USF has done some great things with IPs over the years. They knocked Halloween out of the park a couple of years ago, not to mention their incredible treatment of American Werewolf in London. But, overall, I think the original ideas work better as houses. As I've mentioned before, HHN 21's Nightingales was the best house I've ever been in, no question.
September 19, 2017 at 4:52 PM · This is a hard one.

Generally speaking, if the park is building a long term attraction you probably want to go with something thats either so old its proven to be evergreen, or can be moved to "generic" without much thought - DIsney's "True Life Adventures" and "Davey Crockett" aren't in the public's mind, but ADventureland and Frontierland stand on their own as the generic theming is so good.

But on the other hand, The Simpsons RIde we can get right into the action because we know who Sideshow bob is, and we know what beef he has with the other characters.

September 19, 2017 at 5:09 PM · It's also worth noting Halloween Horror Nights has done an excellent job with mazes based on terrible IP in the past (I could make a long list of great houses based on awful films). Having not been to this year's event yet, I've got nothing to add on this year's group of mazes, but I'll say I've been happy with some of the "remix" houses in past years (Saw especially benefits from this approach). I think it just depends on the IP and the approach.

Like everything else (and I know you're not saying anything different) it just depends on the attraction and the execution. I'm all for a great original attraction/maze (La Llorona is one of the best mazes Horror Nights has ever done), and I love a great IP maze (The Exorcist was phenomenal last year). I think this is a fun discussion point, obviously, but getting too wrapped up in it can make it tough to appreciate what each attraction has to offer.

September 19, 2017 at 5:27 PM · Jacob is right - La Llorna was another great one. I remembered the house, just couldn't remember the name :-)

And he's also right about HHN's ability to make great houses out of questionable IPs.... One year they had house based on re-boots of both Dracula and Frankenstein. The movies sorta sucked, but the houses were awesome!

September 19, 2017 at 5:38 PM · I like a mix of IP and original. Keeps things interesting by creating environments you are familiar with whilst leaving room for creativity with original stuff.
September 19, 2017 at 8:00 PM · The debate for theme parks in general is silly. People want to see familiar characters in rides and attractions, thus DISNEY in the name of a theme park suggest familiar themes. Halloween is an entirely different situation. How scary will it be to relive the exact scenes you already seen? They have to be extra creative to work around overdone scenes. The debate is over since the biggest markets for these attractions continue to have record attendance. USH focus on IP while Knott's has original haunts. Pick your poison.
September 19, 2017 at 8:13 PM · It's also worth noting that Knott's has "original haunts" that are... you know, not THAT original. These might not be based on hit movies, but they are exceptionally familiar concepts. So... let's keep in mind, that even at Universal we're looking at tropes and ideas we've seen time and again.
September 19, 2017 at 8:16 PM · >>>People want to see familiar characters in rides and attractions, thus DISNEY in the name of a theme park suggest familiar themes

Except a lot of classic Disney rides have no "Disney" characters - The original Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Tiki Hut, pretty much all of pre-modern Tomorrowworld...

September 19, 2017 at 8:44 PM · HHN ROCKS because they have BOTH!
September 19, 2017 at 9:45 PM · Pretty much these classics are changing with the times. Jack Sparrow in Pirates, Nightmare before Christmas in Haunted Mansion, and Moana is rumored to be added to DisneyWorld's Tiki Room. Small World in Disneyland already have Disney characters insert in some scenes. Space Mountain had Star Wars. Jungle Cruise getting movie tie-ins? That's what Dwayne Johnson The Rock said.
September 20, 2017 at 12:07 AM · For haunts I prefer IP's as I want to be part of a movie/ show for an evening. Original ones can still be scary but tend to mostly be derivative of familiar IP's.

But for theme park attractions, all I want is an immersive experience.

September 20, 2017 at 2:59 AM · There is something about walking through the scene's of your favourit movies. But only if it's done like being in that movie (not like Star Wars Land or Avatar is done by Disney).
An original setting doesn't need to represent the known world from the movie.
I have no favourit as long as it's done well, and in case of the ip it doesn't retell the story from the movie. I want a know location with a fresh story.
September 20, 2017 at 4:37 AM · My love of theme parks started with original content. Figment from Journey Into Imagination at Epcot is the sole reason I fell in love with Disney back in the early 80s. Henry Mystic and Albert from Mystic Manor, The TimeKeeper, Cranium Command, The Tiki Room...none of them existed outside the park before their premiers and that's what I loved about Disney. Of course I understand that times and demands change to remain competitive and that's progress. My heart will always bind to original characters that I meet face to face for the first time instead of my local theater.
September 20, 2017 at 12:18 PM · I'd say that it's even difficult to compare for haunted attractions. So many mazes and haunted houses use recognizable conceits, that while they may not be referencing a specific IP, they're still presenting the familiar. Dead Waters, considered one of the best HHN mazes this year, is a rehash of a scare zone from previous events, and pulls from known myths and legends. Universal didn't have to pay a writer, producer, or film/TV company to present it, but it's still showing guests something they've probably seen before - so does that actually make it original??? Same goes for the "generic" theming we see at theme parks around the world. We all know what a "Western/Frontier" area should look like, and while a park may not cite Tombstone, Wild Wild West, or The Good The Bad and The Ugly, guests know what such a land should look like and what to expect. The same goes for the alien world of Avatar. Certainly, there are some cues the Imagineers used from Cameron's film, but they could have just as easily came up some similar generic concepts and presented it as "Panschnizzle, the Wizzle of Fizzle", with pretty much the same result.

In the end, the IP is only needed for marketing and to get guests in the gate. The WWoHP could have been themed around generic kid wizards living in London, and people would have been just as amazed by the level of detail in the theming. However, it would have taken much longer for guests to catch on, and obviously tapping into a fanatical base of guests that may not have considered a theme park vacation before the WWoHP existed, certainly enhanced the success (Star Wars will do the same, though I think PtWoA will stand more as a generic IP unless the sequels further develop that fanbase). When you're talking about projects that approach the billion dollar price tag, you can't simply hope that people are amazed and tell their friends. It's got to be a hit right out of the box, and linking attractions and expansions to well known IPs with built in fanbases that don't necessarily overlap with your typical theme park audience guarantees some level of initial success (even if the additions are complete rubbish). Original concepts can be just as successful, but take longer to germinate, and in this era of instant satisfaction and short attention spans, most theme parks are not willing to take that risk, and instead put their money in bankable IPs (just like movie companies have been doing for nearly 100 years now).

September 20, 2017 at 10:39 AM · I would like to suggest a different angle. Because we are talking about original content vs IP what about original "concept?" I have grown tired of the maze, conga line concept. Years ago Howl O Scream created something called the Alone House. Does anyone remember that? You paid separately for the opportunity to go through a haunted attraction alone or with 3 friends. The actors focused their entire attention on you! I went and thought it was great. We need USF & Busch Gardens to do MORE "conceptually" driven experiences. I suggest creating a few of these in addition to the mazes and you can service the big crowds and those who really need something extra. I visited an attraction in Atlanta a few yrs back called the Zombie Apocalypse. It was an entire Motel turned into a fright fest. There are youtube videos. This was a million percent better than anything the big parks have. If USF & BG are serious about scaring folks they will find a way to think outside the "box."
September 20, 2017 at 2:58 PM · There's an integral place for both, unquestionably. I love the IPs as there is an instant connection - AHS, Texas Chainsaw, Halloween & Halloween II were unbelievable but I have also loved The Body Collectors appearances and the most unnerving of them all, Dollhouse of the Damned from 2014. It has only been since 2012 that Universal has incorporated a strong proportion of IPs so the emphasis of IPs is a very recent one. The reality is that the IPs sell! AHS and The Shining this year are an advertising dream. From the reports I have read to date, the originals seem to be the strongest set Universal has created for a while so I am especially looking forward to Scarecrow and Dead Waters as they have been "universally" applauded in every review.

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