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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