When 'Things Go Terribly Wrong' Goes Terribly Wrong

May 11, 2020, 1:23 PM · Recently Theme Park Insider posted a slideshow from some old View-Master reels I had found in an antique store showing the very early days of Six Flags over Texas and Georgia. Robert made the appropriate decision to omit one of the images from the slideshow. It was a scene on the park’s La Salle's River adventure a guided boat ride along a dangerous river not unlike Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The scene depicted two captured soldiers who had been killed by hanging.

The Jean Ribault River Adventure at Six Flags over Georgia had a similar scene, but in this case, the unlucky animatronic figure was shown being burned at the stake. Both rides were based on the history of the area and conflict between indigenous people and warring settlers from England, France, Spain, and Mexico.

The idea of both scenes really got into my head. It made me think about how theme and amusement parks depict often gruesome or life threatening situations. There are many examples in theme parks where we see or hear horrible things taking place to either make us laugh, or create a sense of upcoming peril for ourselves as we experience the attraction. It’s schadenfreude in its purest state.

If your high school German is rusty or if you’ve never seen the musical Avenue Q, allow me explain. Translated directly from German, Schaden means harm and Freude is joy. The character Gary Coleman sums it up in Avenue Q stating, “Schadenfreude is happiness at the misfortune of others.” There is no English word or phrase that means exactly the same, but if you visit your favorite theme park, you will find the concept alive and well on a lot of rides and attractions.

Let’s consider some of the schadenfreude-like situations that have become common on attractions:

Let’s start by laughing at death. You and your friends are in the queue for Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Do you ever not pull on the rope? Of course you pull it. When you do, you get to hear an unseen anthropologist fall to his death at the bottom of a well... it’s hilarious! It’s schadenfreude.

We enjoy things like this because they're funny - especially because they're happening to someone else. But how can this sort of thing happen in The Happiest Place on Earth? It’s because as humans, we take great happiness at not being the ones to fall down a well to our death. We survive. We go on. We aren’t the ones about to meet the business end of a rhinoceros on the Jungle Cruise. The look of terror on their faces is hysterical! Better them than us, right?

But a falling scientist and a safari party up a tree are child’s play with when you consider the fates of poor Gordon, Reggie and the always “SUPER,” but quite dead, Kimberly Duncan over at Universal Studios Florida. And it’s been many years now since Gordon took that last boatload of passengers out for a scenic cruise around the Island onboard Amity Three.

Poor Gordon never stood a chance against that robot great white shark. Although we never meet him, we hear his screams of terror. We see his ship sinking. We know what has happened, and we are glad it didn’t happen to us - at least not yet.

We get more familiar with Crew Member Reggie at Revenge of The Mummy while watching the queue video. Later he has his soul sucked from his body attempting to stay safe on the set of the new Mummy film. The same goes for his coworker. She meets her doom at the (spoiler alert – fake) unload station during the ride.

Then there is Kimberly Duncan. She was murdered on stage at T2-3D dozens of times a day, and every time the audience would burst into cheers and applause. (Check out YouTube if you’ve forgotten.) I looked it up the German word for elation - it is "Begeisterung." The T2 3-D audience is full of BegisterungFreude.

So why confront tourists with all of this suffering and death? It’s good storytelling. It builds tension during our experience. It helps us see the danger in the environment so we are exhilarated when we conquer the threat. Sometimes to heighten the experience, we need to see what might happen if things go badly. Gordon and his passengers die, but our heroic captain saves the day for us.

We also want to see justice served. It puts things right when the villain gets what he or she deserves. Kimberly Duncan’s demise is greeted by cheers and applause because we do kind of despise her. If done poorly, though, this kind of violence and harm towards characters can damage the story. Sweet Skippy at the Magic Kingdom’s Alien Encounter was physically and mentally abused by S.I.R. and eventually transported into oblivion. S.I.R.’s actions create a feeling of dread for what may be coming for us, but worse S.I.R. is never made to pay for his actions.

During the main presentation, a Disney Cast Member is killed (eaten?) by the escaped Alien. Alien Encounter’s harm towards Skippy the unnamed Human up in the catwalks is handled differently than what happens at Cyberdyne Systems. The Cast Member’s death adds to a feeling of dread, but even though the alien dies, it’s not a very satisfying end because it’s not at the hand of a hero. In fact, the Alien is kind of a victim here too. It really hasn’t done anything to put itself into this position. XS-Tech beamed her to Tomorrowland by mistake. I think this is a big reason why the attraction failed. Not because it was too scary. It failed because the discomfort and fear didn’t build to a hero’s victory. We leave feeling unsatisfied and conflicted. As such, death and mayhem are OK as long as they serve to make us feel heroic in the end. That element was missing at Alien Encounter.

Next, let’s consider when society changes and old cultural norms and behaviors become unacceptable. More than once, Disney has updated its Pirates of the Caribbean to make scenes more acceptable to modern audiences. It began with changing the chase scene. Originally it was the women themselves being pursued; now platters of food and wine entice the swashbucklers. More recently the auction scene was changed from auctioning away the town’s women to auctioning valuable items. Say what you will, but a representation of human trafficking as being light-hearted fun for bad-boy pirates was leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths. The change was needed. Sadly, what it was replaced with just does not make a lot of sense. Why would pirates take place in an auction to buy a Grandfather Clock? A pirate would steal it - not buy it.

Where Disney has really had to face up to its past has not been in the parks, but on Disney+. In addition to the usual G or PG ratings, additional warnings alert viewers to specific examples of what they will be exposed to in some classic films. Dumbo has cigar-smoking crows lead by one named Jim discussing laws about segregation in the south. Asians get unflattering representations in The Aristocats and Lady and the Tramp.

These are only a couple of examples. Disney continues to show these classic films in unedited form, but they state up front that there is content that may be inappropriate for today’s audiences. Yet it's highly unlikely that the most controversial of all of Disney’s films, Song of the South, will ever be seen again, at least in the US. It is ironic that one of the most popular attractions at Disney’s castle parks is Splash Mountain, based on that film. It makes me wonder if Disney+ had come around prior to the first renovation of content at Pirates, if there may have simply been a warning sign posted at the entrance. Perhaps it would state that there are scenes depicted during the ride that reflect behavior by unsavory pirates which appropriate to the time being portrayed and that the behavior of Pirates is unlawful and not condoned by the Walt Disney Company. It’s interesting that they are willing to give warnings for their films but choose to alter their theme park attractions.

With parks soon to reopen in the era of Covid-19, we are anticipating there to be many changes to the guest (and staff) theme park experience. Beyond vehicle capacity, seating arrangements, and entrance requirements, however, how will our new reality impact how we relate to existing rides and shows? Just as modern attitudes created a need to alter show scenes in The Pirates of the Caribbean, how might the post-pandemic sensibility change how new stories are told?

We all squealed in delight at the end of Honey, I Shrunk the Audience when the dog sneezed all over everyone. How would you feel about that effect if the show were to open today? We know that it's not really dog snot, but it's not always logic that drives us. There are many other examples of show effects where water or scents are sprayed on viewers. Will the post Covid-19 audience find that fun or frightening? I know from my experience on the job that the 3-D glasses are thoroughly cleaned between uses, but how comfortable will we feel putting them on our faces now? 3-D has been falling out of popularity in the park environment; will this be the last nail in the coffin?

My guess is that most people never really give much thought to the amount of violence displayed either directly or passively on our favorite attractions. The painting of the decaying corpse in the foyer at the Haunted Mansion at The Magic Kingdom always has just... been. He's like an old friend. The images inside the stretch room are comical, but presumably tragic. Then lightning strikes and above we see our host hung by his neck in the attic. While I'm just now referencing The Haunted Mansion, is there another attraction that blends the morbid with the lighthearted fun quite so well?

And let's not forget all the violence depicted during Halloween events. Those hard-ticket events take the presentation of all things violent and against social norms up to a whole new level, and people love it, but that's a whole other story for the post-Corona era.

Replies (9)

May 11, 2020 at 1:43 PM

This is interesting as I've seen this talked of at scores of entertainment blogs, how will they adjust:

* Can medical dramas be as compelling after a real-life event (even Grey's Anatomy wouldn't dare do a fake "superflu virus" ep now).

* How does the standard "workplace comedy" handle the coming economic crunch?

* Can folks get back into TV shows set in flashy New York cities of folks packing in parties and clubs?

* How can horror movies adapt when just being around people is made out to be so scary?

Those are just a few examples as while many are willing to get back to "normal," the majority recognize this was a huge shift to the status quo and the effects are going to be felt for quite a long while to come. It will be interesting to see how entertainment in so many formats adapts to a new world.

May 11, 2020 at 2:36 PM

Interesting article here with a lot of good points. Those Haunted Mansion stretch room paintings always caused uneasiness with me especially as a young boy. Those people are about to die! Just weird but now its just kind of a thing and adds atmosphere to the classic attraction. That Pirates scene with the red head auction was soooo outdated. Heck I even struggle to accept that in the sixties, which I was not around to experience, it was ok to display human trafficking in a light hearted way.

May 11, 2020 at 3:02 PM

Can we please also remove all the swords from POTC, I find it unacceptable that it be suggested that pirates were violent.
I'm also offended by the woman chasing the pirate with a rolling pin, as I feel it trivialises domestic violence.
Why do we insist on pandering to people by rewriting history and removing the parts which we no longer find acceptable? Pirates sold and traded slaves and women. They did not carry out auctions for things that they found in their grandmother's attic.

May 11, 2020 at 4:01 PM

This all reminds me of what would have been a major thing against the fabled Western River Expedition. Just imagine how Native Americans with literally red skins, huge noses, doing rain dances and scalpings would play in the 1990s....

I get it, different eras and all and I agree that trying to judge past standards by today can be too much yet some cases are clear when you have to make some changes.

May 11, 2020 at 4:08 PM

It's funny, we've been watching a lot of the Simpsons on Disney+ since the lockdown started, and I've got to say it covers all the bases for inappropriate, offensive, stereotypes. Personally I feel like Pirates falls directly into this same style of humor. And for whatever reason over the last couple decades, this style of humor wasn't considered appropriate for Disney, so we saw it chipped away at. Because honestly, as offensive and sick as sex trafficking is, it's still possible to find humor in pirates being offensive 100 years ago. Whether it's appropriate for a "family" branded theme park is a more personal call. But in my opinion, if the Simpsons can make the cut as a Disney brand, those awful pirates should too.

I've thought a lot about the hanging scene in Haunted Mansion as we've had a couple family friends commit suicide in the same manner. I imagine if I had never been to Disneyland and went there for the first time, right after someone I knew had died by hanging it would be traumatic, but at this point having gone on the ride hundreds of times and seen worse at various halloween events, I'm pretty numb to the scene. Knowing it's there, I sometimes choose to avoid that ride depending on who I'm visiting with.

May 11, 2020 at 5:15 PM

One of the attractions that sucked me into my theme park addiction was the Alien Encounter, which I think was wonderful. It was scary, yes, but I also grew up going to those cheap spook houses also. I know it was a shock to the Disney moms that ignored the warning signs and took little Timmy on it anyway, but I hate that it is gone. I giggled with glee the first time I went on that.

May 14, 2020 at 8:40 AM

I’ve never been to a Disney park yet. But it was a mistake to totally remove the auction scene. Its not the Gentlemen of the Caribbean. Although that does sound like an interesting spoof. They needed to at least find a way to keep the redhead line. It was too iconic to totally remove it. I think some more changes will occur to attractions as our sensibilities change in part thanks to the pandemic, but it will be gradual and over time, much like our opinions of some older films.

I would be surprised if Universal has horror nights this year, or for other parks have similar Halloween themed events. Obviously the parks want to make money, but maybe this year they just want steady attendance, but nothing to attract people besides local passholders. They probably don’t want to get too close to their reduced maximum capacity. The parks don’t want to be a source of a new outbreak, or for people to feel so uncomfortable they don’t want to come back even when this is over.

May 12, 2020 at 10:29 AM

My favorite was always the floating Mickey Mouse ears amongst the carnage of Jurassic Park Hollywood with the name “Michael” engraved. An amusing swipe at Mr. Eisner.

May 12, 2020 at 6:16 PM

I can not believe I forgot to include my favorite reference to horrible violence, and it came in a song:
"Momma don't whoop little Buford,
Momma don't pound on his head.
Momma don't whoop little Buford,
I think you should shoot him instead."

From the Country Bear Jamboree.

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