Countless books, movies, plays, and even theme park attractions tell the story of the hero's journey — the classic trope in which a nobody from nowhere is called to a seemingly impossible quest to save a life/a community/a cause/the world.
We watch because these stories inspire hope. They reward a faith that our lives and our worlds can become better — and that better future lies just one hero's effort away.
So many of us find theme park attractions especially compelling because they don't just let us watch a hero's journey. They allow us to participate in it. We can walk into the hero's land and go on that journey ourselves. Yes, something might go terribly wrong. But it has to, because only from that challenge will we have the opportunity to become the hero and to save the day.
Who wouldn't want to do that on vacation?
If you want to design theme park attractions, you must not only understand the structure of the hero's journey, you must be able to create a convincing environment and narrative that make visitors believe that they have embarked upon one. As visitors, maybe we are the sidekick. Maybe we are the one being rescued. Or maybe we are the heroes themselves. Ultimately, our role within the journey does not matter as much as our ability to feel that we are present within it.
Make no mistake. One way or another, we are #TeamHero.
And that — more than the loss of free beer, high-flying trainers, or a PR campaign waged by anti-animal-captivity extremists — is the reason why SeaWorld's theme parks have been struggling since 2009. In my Orange County Register column this week, I wrote about the narrative challenge SeaWorld is facing and how the chain's laudable pro-environment message might be hurting its appeal.
It's not that people don't care about protecting the environment and saving animal habitat. It's just that, in this story, we are not collectively #TeamHero anymore. We are the bad guys.
"We are ones polluting the oceans. We are ones destroying habitat for development. We are the ones choking the atmosphere with pollutants and carbon dioxide, driving global climate change," I wrote.
"No one wants a guilt trip on their vacation."
Is there hope for SeaWorld? Can the chain maintain a commitment to rescuing and protecting the world's marine animals while also reclaiming its position as a challenger to Disney and Universal? Or must SeaWorld settle for becoming the next Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, a carnival ride-filled amusement park with some animal exhibits and shows?
So now we come to SeaWorld's "hero's journey." It's the story of how a team of theme park designers and managers find a way to transport visitors into the amazing environments of the world's oceans. And, within those environments, they challenge those visitors to go on a series of seemingly impossible quests to save the ocean, its animals, its people... and ultimately, the world.
They will not do this with cheap-looking "submarine" rides on elevated tracks. Or with dark rides through a lava lamp. Or with outdoor roller coasters. Nor will they do this with lectures appended to animal shows or placards attached to 20th-century modernist aquariums.
So how will SeaWorld do this, then? I do not know. For I am not that hero. But, like many theme park fans, I stand ready to follow those heroes on their quest... just as soon as they are ready to bring us along.Tweet
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