How to create an original story for a top theme park attraction

November 26, 2018, 10:22 PM · When we talk about building the world's best theme parks, that usually means working with some wildly popular IP. But you can build great attractions from original ideas, too. Working with an established franchise does give developers a head start in that audiences already will know and love its characters and settings. But starting from scratch gives designers the freedom to establish that emotional relationship - to create a space that will endure as the heart and focus of fans' enthusiasm, instead of just being an extension of that.

So who's making major attractions based on original concepts these days? Actually, Universal Studios just did it. With Volcano Bay, Universal created an entire park without using a single one of its many owned or licensed franchises. And it's been a hit, with attendance in its first, partial year of operation on pace to make Volcano Bay the most popular water park in America this year.

How did Universal do it? I sat down with Dale Mason, Vice President and Executive Art Director at Universal Creative, to find out. Dale talked about how he and his team developed the story, characters and concepts that helped define Volcano Bay and convince Universal management to build this park. He also addressed the challenge of staying on the right side of the divide between cultural inspiration and appropriation when designing attractions.

And Dale and I talked about the importance of crafting a backstory to ensure the authenticity of any theme park or attraction. So let's get to it, and welcome Dale to the latest episode of our "Building the World's Best Theme Parks" podcast.

Want more about Volcano Bay? Enjoy our walking tour of the park, from its opening week.

Getting back to the topic at hand, though, what are some of our favorite original stories in well-themed parks and attractions? And what kind of original stories would you like to see a major park develop someday?

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Replies (7)

November 27, 2018 at 10:57 AM

I know UC touts that Volcano Bay has this detailed backstory, but what guest could really tell you what that is from just visiting the water park? The bottom line is that Volcano Bay is gorgeous in its setting and has a large diversity of attractions that guests want to experience. The "story" of the water park has very little to do with its success. I know the creative types want to think it does, but the reality is that VB has better attractions and is newer than the other water parks in Orlando, so guests looking to splash the day away are gravitating to the new kid in town. Aquatica saw a similar level of success when it debuted, and it has no backstory.

November 27, 2018 at 1:08 PM

We get to this in the podcast, and it echoes what Dave Cobb said in the Warner Bros. episode - having a backstory is essential in developing a place that will feel authentic to the audience, even if the audience never learns all the details of the backstory. The backstory directs you as a designer to make decisions about placement, decoration and attractions that will work together to maintain the logical coherence of the backstory.

And that's part of the reason why VB has been beating Aquatica on attendance, IMHO.

November 27, 2018 at 1:11 PM

Also, I wanted to thank Universal Orlando not only for making Dale available for this interview, but for hosting the interview in Universal Studios' radio production facility. (It's located next to the Brown Derby in USF.) It's always fun to explore a nook in a park that you haven't seen before!

November 27, 2018 at 2:15 PM

I can see that, but are those decisions about placement really driven by "story" or convenience, logic, and common sense? I could see the choice to have a "swim-up" bar driven by a story that the place was once a beach-side retreat, but was flooded by a great storm, but in the end, it's just a swim-up bar that still needs to be easy and efficient for guests to use and access.

Are we really talking about a story driving design or instead looking at necessity and design choices driving a narrative? I think it's much more of the latter, and for as much as UC wants to say they came up with all these backstories before designing VB, I'll bet a lot of these came about after they selected an attraction and tried to weave a story around it to coalesce with the rest of the park.

UC can say decisions are made based on backstory, but in reality, they're made by engineers and years of experience of what guests want and expect (as well as laws and regulations, particularly when it comes to water safety).

VB has been beating Aquatica in attendance because it's new and connected to a more popular resort. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach both saw notable attendance declines in 2017, just as Aquatica did, yet they both have elaborate backstories (the Drones would say even more developed than what UC did with VB). The VB success has far more to do with the newness and uniqueness of its offerings compared to the competition, and that's borne out in the declines from the other Orlando water parks that contributed to the attendance at VB. I don't think storytelling is relevant for a water park (theming yes, but not storytelling), at least I haven't seen an example where it makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience.

Don't get me wrong, Volcano Bay is an amazing water park, but I think UC is a bit full of themselves thinking that all these elaborate stories are a primary reason for its success, just as they are at calling it the resort's 3rd theme park.

November 27, 2018 at 4:53 PM

I personally don't go to Florida to visit water parks.
So what made VB look enticing was indeed it's location.
Universal Resorts are just so convenient, you can actually relax & walk to everything nearby unlike Disney World where you're kind of by a thing or two.

Cabana Bay is a serious bang for it's buck & I was surprised that VB was only a 5 min walk from my room. I ended up walking into VB nearly everyday of my visit even if just for a drink. I don't see me every visiting Disney's waterparks until I can afford to stay on property cause it's just not worth the hassle to me. Oh & that volcano is awesome from all angles IMO, dose it's job of taking me away.

November 27, 2018 at 5:35 PM

Volcano Bay looks like an awesome themed water park and would love to visit sometime. That being said apart from that Disney overwhelmingly dominates with original IP in the parks. Most of its parks contain some form of original IP attractions or even lands in some cases. The biggest that come to mind are of course the original lands in Disneyland (and the many copies and iterations), as well as large parts of Epcot, Animal Kingdom and CA adventure. As far as I know the only original IP that Universal had was in IOA, but that has been taken over by Harry Potter. Efteling is the other major original IP theme park and I wish they would come to florida as well.

November 28, 2018 at 2:44 PM

Wet 'n Wild didn't need a backstory, or theme, to consistently rank as the #1 waterpark in the country for nearly 40 years. I think the theming at VB is cool, but is it offering a better experience than WnW did? That remains to be seen.

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Top 10 Attendance

  1. Magic Kingdom
  2. Disneyland
  3. Tokyo Disneyland
  4. Universal Studios Japan
  5. Tokyo DisneySea
  6. Disney's Animal Kingdom
  7. Epcot
  8. Shanghai Disneyland
  9. Disney's Hollywood Studios
  10. Universal Studios Florida