Should visitors become characters in a theme park attraction's storyline?

November 20, 2017, 1:57 PM · What is your role in a theme park attraction?

Hang with me for a moment here, because this question is not as obvious as it first might appear. Sure, your role as a theme park visitor is to be the person who sits there and rides, or watches. But there is a widespread belief among top theme park attraction designers (and many fans!) that visitors ought not be limited to such passive functions — that great theme park attractions create an active narrative role for their guests in the attraction's story.

But what is that role? And what does creating a role for guests in an IP-based attraction mean for the roles of the established characters in that franchise when it becomes a theme park attraction? Can those established roles co-exist and make way for the "characters" played by the guests? Or must established characters move aside in a theme park installation so that the guests can assume the starring roles?

Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde touched on this issue in last week's Legends panel at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. Rohde argued the second, "hit the highway," position, declaring that fans know that there is no role for them in a franchise's established narrative, so designers must create a new narrative for those guests — without the presence of established characters that would undermine that narrative by shifting fans' attention back to the established characters' stories.

Rohde pointed out that Pandora: The World of Avatar in Disney's Animal Kingdom, which he oversaw, included no characters or even settings from the James Cameron film. "Pandora is a place where you can go make a movie, but this is not where that movie was made," he said. "This is another place on Pandora, where these [attractions] are happening."

Rohde's colleague Scott Trowbridge, who is overseeing the development of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, also was on the panel. With its Star Wars land, Disney is taking a similar, though not as extreme, approach as it did with Avatar. Galaxy's Edge is set on a new planet that has not appeared in the films (at least not yet). Many major characters from the films will not appear on this new planet, Batuu. Fans are clearly the stars and actors in the land's narrative, which Disney promises will be its most interactive attraction yet.

But one of the attractions in the land will be set on the iconic Millennium Falcon spaceship, and Disney has hinted that Kylo Ren, R2D2 and C-3PO might appear in the land, so Galaxy's Edge will not be as dismissive of its franchise's characters and settings as Pandora was.

The work of the third panel participant, Universal Creative's Thierry Coup, reflects yet another approach to empowering guests in an IP-driven attraction. In attractions such as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Transformers: The Ride 3D, Fast & Furious: Supercharged, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the narrative action is driven by familiar characters from these franchises. Yet in all but one case, Coup and his teams at Universal have crafted an entirely new story for each attraction that gives fans a role to play. You are spending time with the characters you know and love, but you are not re-living familiar stories from their films and books. It's another step away from Rohde's standard, but Coup's approach maintains the ideal that all three panel participants shared, that great attractions should not simply rehash old stories.

I mentioned one exception — and I think it might be the most ingenious use of IP in a theme park attraction to date. In Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Coup and Universal Creative did not create an entirely new narrative for the ride, as it did with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Instead, Universal grafted the Gringotts adventure on to an existing moment from the Harry Potter canon — the lead trio's break-in to Bellatrix Lestrange's vault to steal the Hufflepuff Cup horcrux.

"We had to go back to [J.K. Rowling] and tell her that maybe a few pages fell out of the book. We are in the same place and the same time, but we are seeing it from a different camera angle," Coup said. "It expands and makes the story richer and deeper."

I love what Coup and Universal did with Gringotts because it allows Harry Potter fans to imagine that there is a place for them in J.K. Rowling's story. A few pages just "fell out of the book," which is why we hadn't seen our role before. The Gringotts approach allows fans to feel even closer to their beloved heroes and villains — we don't just share the same universe, or planet, or village. We can share a beloved, established moment in time with them as well. We can have it both ways — an active narrative role for fans that does not dismiss, or diminish, the established narrative story of the franchise.

Not that I would judge one approach superior to another. In each case, the designers had to make a call based upon the IP, its assets, and its public appeal. Avatar didn't exactly bring widely-beloved characters to the table. The themes and the spectacle of Pandora were what resonated from that franchise — and what worked best within the context of Disney's Animal Kingdom — so it makes sense that Rohde took that project in the direction that he did.

Star Wars offers multiple sets of characters across its three trilogies, not to mention countless locations on various planets and starships across the galaxy. If Trowbridge and his team were not to engage us in some temporal scramble, they had to pick one trilogy and leave the other two — and its characters and settings — out of the project. Add the franchise's propensity for blowing up its iconic planets and space stations and setting Galaxy's Edge on a new, neutral planet also makes sense.

Finally, Harry Potter offers a much more limited set of locations than either Star Wars or Avatar. (And bonus, they all are on Earth!) It's far more character-focused, as well. Heck, the lead character's name is the name of the franchise. QED. So fans would have demanded the presence of those iconic locations and beloved characters had Universal not provided them. Again, what Coup and Universal did with Potter was a good call for the situation.

What role do you want to play in an IP-based theme park attraction, and how would that change based upon the IP?

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Replies (12)

November 20, 2017 at 4:45 PM · I love what Universal did with Transformers. It should be so obvious that a Transformers ride would feature your ride vehicle as an active character in the narrative, but it's such a genius move to put Evac - and thus the rider - in the starring role. Evac's journey from simply running away from Megatron and the Decepticons to taking fate into his own hands at the end of the ride feels like it matters because you're riding along with him, and his decisions are somehow your decisions. You're fighting alongside Optimus Prime and Megatron, but it's Evac who eventually enters the existing narrative and takes control of it. It's what takes Transformers ahead of Spider-Man and the Harry Potter attractions as my favorite at Universal.

I am hopeful that the rumored Ministry of Magic attraction coming to the Fear Factor Live site will follow in that tradition and really place guests in the starring role of the attraction. There's absolutely a place for both.

November 21, 2017 at 5:18 AM · Spiderman, the Potter rides, Transformers, and most other Universal rides acknowledge the guest being there and taking part in the action. They also tell an alternative story. I like that a lot.

Disney, for the longest time, moved ride vehicles between elaborat stages where snapshots of the story of a known movie are presented in about 4 minutes. It's watching a play you watched before many times. It's passive and redundant and when it's a non ip ride not involved.
The new direction Disney is taking is more towards Universal but without iconic locations form the ip. Those ip's don't lend themselves very well to know locations is what Robert is saying but I will argue that I'd love to visit one or two locations I know rather than a collage of "inspired by" buildings. It's like Universal would build the village next to Hogsmeade no one ever heard of or build another castle that is not Hogwart. Also the rides at Avatar still have that spectators quality in it's story line. Most blatant the boat ride but also the flight tells you you are hooked up to a simulator (albeit an awesome on) and not actually there. It cheapens the experience and goes against the pompous claims Joe Rohde made.

November 21, 2017 at 5:23 AM · The classic formula, where you are invited into someone's world as a guest and things go horribly wrong, is what I grew up with and still adore to this very day. Maybe it's driven by nostalgia, but being an "active" participant doesn't thrill me. I don't want to shoot at targets and I don't want to push fake buttons that don't actually do anything to save the world. Yet on that same note, I don't want to just watch the retelling of a story I already know.

Flik makes us honorary bugs. Jose invites us to a world where the birds all sing and the flowers croon. The Muppets let us tour Muppet Labs. Our check-in to the Hollywood Tower Hotel builds anticipation. We are trained to contain Experiment 626 (OMG, did I just reference that!? My apologies!) And yet I don't mind attractions where things DO NOT go wrong. All of original Epcot is a great example of that. We tour places we've never seen and are unfamiliar with. It's not Peter Pan's Flight where we relive moments from the movie and exit the ride. Attractions geared at children shouldn't have an adrenaline rush (ie. Frozen). So this is when story retelling is acceptable.

The great news is that there are attractions for every taste and style to appease what each of us is craving. Being part of a character's world is immersive. But I personally don't need a staring role. That comes when I drop my tray at McDonalds and my soda breaks open all over the floor and the entire restaurant stops and looks...and sometimes even applauds! Just give me the thrill without the attention. ^_^

November 21, 2017 at 5:27 AM · Pandora is a very colorful world, but the Na'vi River ride lacks a story. When you ride Pirates, you understand what's going on. But the river ride with all the colorful surroundings makes me wonder what I'm looking at. For many people the movie world isn't familiar. maybe when the next movies come out it will be different.

Flight of Passage is an awesome ride and the queue gives you some of the backstory.

November 21, 2017 at 6:44 AM · I wonder if they will allow guests to simply opt out. This would also introduce some awkward moments. Will those guests simply be ignored? Will their participation be neutral? I like the idea of immersive worlds, but those in my traveling group vary. Regardless,looking forward to 2019.
November 21, 2017 at 3:37 PM · By necessity, Pandora HAD to ignore the characters from the first movie. number one, as virtually everyone here and other sites said (when Disney shelled out the licensing fee), the characters are NOT very memorable.

Second. they absolutely could not just use the storyline, from the first movie. It's politically controversial and divisive. You offend half of your audience.
So. they did the capitalistic, most marketable thing. They kept the beautiful scenery, and ditched the politics that was front and center in your face, in the movie.

However. Robert and everyone. Don't we have this sneaky suspicion, that the flight of passage and river journey characters (the one great one at the end) will appear in the new movie. I do.

November 21, 2017 at 9:32 PM · I think the idea that Disney has only just now started making these rides with the first being involved in the story is misleading. Tower of terror, Star Tours and Indiana Jones are all examples of this which predate Spiderman, and all have proved that you don't need a known location from the source material to be a successful attraction.

November 22, 2017 at 7:00 AM · You're right about the pre-dating part Grant, but I think you're missing the point. Rohde contends that attractions and lands devoid of a defining story and characters should be the path forward, which is not the case for the attractions you've described. Tower of Terror puts guests in a custom episode of the Twilight Zone. It even says "you are the star", and wraps guests around a very tight story reliving the events you see during the preshow. Same with Star Tours, especially The Adventures Continue, and Indiana Jones.

All three of those attractions are very different from Pandora, where guests are expected to create their own stories from the lush landscape. I would argue that Pandora is lazy, and further supports my opinion that the IP is weak and was not a great candidate to be adapted to a theme park. It does recapture the same wonder and awe that the original film did, but more from an admiration and awe-inspiring, technical aspect, not from an emotional, "I really feel connected to this place" point of view. You won't see people shedding tears when they cross the bridge into PtWoA like you did from guests seeing Hogsmeade for the first time. The WWoHP gives you the tingles that makes you feel like you've been transported to a place that couldn't possibly exist, while PtWoA drops your jaw and makes you wonder how did they do it. While both inspire awe and are worthy of praise, there are two different connections and emotions involved.

Forcing guests to write their own stories in a land that people are not necessarily connected to doesn't work, and because of that, I felt PtWoA, while an amazing technical achievement, left me cold and wondering if the same will happen to Star Wars. I think there's hope for Star Wars because there is so much more enthusiasm and knowledge surrounding the IP that guests can indeed write their own stories on the blank canvas that Galaxy's Edge looks to be, because they're so much closer to the characters and other worlds (even if you don't actually see them in the land). However, I think Disney is really copping out by not giving guests what they want, which is a recreation of familiar places with real characters inhabiting the land, similar to what UC did with WWoHP.

November 22, 2017 at 1:08 PM · Hi Russell. My post was more a response to the above anonymous post suggesting that only now was Disney involving guests in a new story as opposed to recreating snapshots of a movie.

Comparing HP to Pandora is always hard, because other than in Hometree Wisconsin ( no one is really that invested in Avatar, not to the extent of Harry Potter. I don't think the IP is necessarily weak, as you're suggesting, just underdeveloped and without the following. With more films to come out, I would expect that to change to a degree.

I think universal had no choice but to recreate those iconic places from HP, mostly because they tie into people's emotional attachment to the world (just as much as the characters do). As is previously suggested, they couldn't simply create a new area in the HP universe and have people as attached. I do believe that HP is the perfect IP for a theme park, and Universal's done an almost perfect job of adapting it.

Star Wars is a little more complicated. Older Star Wars fans would probably like nothing more than recreating a Tattoine setting, complete with the Mos Eisley Cantina. My brother in law likes the prequel trilogy (shudder), so maybe he would want Naboo or the Jedi temple on Coruscant. Younger kids may associate more with Rey and Finn and think Max Kanakas outpost would be great. That's the difficulty with an IP that spans many generations, both in its story and its fans.

Any of these options could be great and appeal to different Star Wars fans, but at its core, Star Wars is about good vs evil in the form of rebellion (resistance) has the empire (first order), with some iconic characters and themes (IE Jedi, space ships and blasters) mixed in. I guess Disney want to recreate that in a more timeless way.

I guess I'm ambivalent to Disney's plan, and why I suggested it was more about the execution than the setting. I'd love a Tattoine setting with the original Cantina, maybe Jabbas palace and a ride through beggars canyon. But that's my Star Wars (and most of the people on this site). My kid's Star Wars is probably the new trilogy, and my idiot brother in law's Star Wars is different still. I guess a fresh canvas is a way for each individual to project their own story onto the park. If they involve some sort of LARP activity into her area like they had with Legends of Frontierland, with first order vs resistance, or could be great with a level of involvement previously unseen in theme parks.

Unfortunately I think such an activity would be unlikely (at least in the short term) due to crowding issues

November 23, 2017 at 11:00 PM · Just have a jumble of thoughts, which may not be coherent:

1) I believe most of the Disney Fantasyland dark rides were designed for the visitor to be the main character of the movie. Thus the Snow White character originally did not appear on the Snow White ride, you did not see Peter Pan on the Peter Pan ride because the rider was supposed to be that character. It was only because enough visitors complained about the lack of those characters on the ride that Disney Imagineering ended up adding those characters onto those attractions.

Which seems on one hand like the rides had to be dumbed down because audiences didn't understand that they were supposed to be the main character, instead of passively sitting and watching the story take place in front of them.

2) Our favorite immersive themed "land" based on an IP is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Personally I enjoy walking around Hogsmeade Village with the shops, restaurants, etc as if you were actually in Hogsmeade (not the way that Disney handled Star Wars in Tomorrowland (Disneyland) during the Seasons of the Force promotion when there were "Star Wars-inspired" food items, but not something a Star Wars character would actually eat.

Having said that, I wouldn't want to see Universal park employees/ actors walking around playing Harry Potter, Professor Snape, or Aberforth Dumbledore in Hogsmeade. It would be a distraction, like seeing Krusty the Klown or Sideshow Bob walking around in the Simpsons area. Having the immersive world of Hogsmeade by itself should be enough (and technically, anyone wearing a Hogsmeade robe should not be any older than about 17, in my opinion!).


November 23, 2017 at 11:29 PM · (continued)

3) I don't understand the point of using an intellectual property that you either own or have licensed to build a theme park attraction, and not use either the settings or characters from the films/books/etc. I would argue that in order to market to general audiences a land based on Avatar or the Star Wars movies, the attraction will not be successful if you market it a certain way, and don't deliver something familiar when the audience shows up.

If you build something called the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a recreation of the Hogwarts castle with a motion simulator ride and the ride does not include the familiar characters from the movies, audiences will walk out disappointed and angry.

Continuity does not count for a lot in the logical world of the intellectual property. I was pulled into a discussion last week about Star Tours 1.0 requiring that the Death Star destroyed in the ride be a third Death Star (not the ones destroyed in Star Wars or Return of the Jedi), and I don't think 99% of the audiences even thinks about stuff like that.

They just see the Endor moon, space battles reminiscent of the original trilogy, and an attack on the Death Star reminiscent of the original Star Wars movie, and don't think, [wait, R2-D2 was on Luke's X-wing in this movie, and R2-D2 is piloting this tourist craft, and can't be in two places at the same time, so] this must be a different Death Star.


November 23, 2017 at 11:35 PM · (continued)

4) I had the chance to participate in the Ghost Town Alive at Knott's Berry Farm the past two summers, and found it pretty engaging, although part of what didn't work as well as it could have was that the main storyline involved something like bringing in a criminal into town, where he would be tried by a large jury and possibly sent to jail. Everyone who wanted to participate walked with the actors between various points, or met later at specific times. You might have 15 people participating in the main story that day, or you might have 75 people, based on how crowded it was.

What Disney is proposing to do with Star Wars, that your performance on the Millennium Falcon ride (either good or bad) will affect how the Star Wars characters treat you afterwards in the land-- I just don't see how you could work something with so many visitors (because the Millennium Falcon ride is supposed to churn out a high output of visitors to keep lines from becoming unbearable) with individualized attention to each group.

I think the rides will be very successful and the attendance will be massive, but I am skeptical of the interactive storytelling aspect of the land.

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