Here's the Next Adventure We Need from Disney

July 1, 2020, 7:55 PM · Do original concepts have any future in Disney's theme parks?

When Disney announced that it would retheme Splash Mountain to The Princess and the Frog, that got some fans thinking about the future of other Disney theme park attractions. Putting aside, for a moment, issues of exploitation and social justice, there remains the question of Disney's business strategy with its theme parks.

For years, it's been clear that Disney sees itself as a lifestyle brand. Former CEO Bob Iger made clear that the company is looking for franchises - IP that can work in all the company's businesses: in theaters, in stores, and in theme parks. Splash Mountain failed as a theme because Disney could not leverage it on screen as its source material, Song of the South, was too socially toxic due to its association with minstrelsy. But what about other attractions that don't have movie or TV tie-ins? Is there any space for original concepts anymore in Disney's theme parks?

Disney would love to have each of its original theme park concepts become multimedia franchises, following the model of Pirates of the Caribbean. The next attraction to get its shot will be Jungle Cruise — one of the more troubling Disney theme park attractions for racial imagery, alongside Splash Mountain and Peter Pan. If the new Emily Blunt/Dwayne Johnson movie hits at the box office (whenever it gets the chance), look for those Jungle Cruise rides to get a post-movie makeover. But if the movie flops, I wouldn't be surprised to see Jungle Cruise get rethemed to another Disney property... or maybe even eliminated.

In my Orange County Register column this week, I write about the issue of original IP attractions at Disney, in light of the Splash Mountain decision. [Here's another link, in case the first does not work for you.] I suggest that Disney has an original IP concept in its parks that would be perfect for this moment in history — and that Disney ought to seize this opportunity to lean into it.

If you've read much of what I've had to say over the years, you probably could guess that I'm writing again about my favorite original theme park IP — the Society of Explorers and Adventurers.

As I mention in the column, the idea of leaning into a franchise that's seems rooted in Western colonialism might appear absurd at this moment. But Disney's Imagineers have crafted a wonderful tension in the SEA story — one that mirrors the social conflict happening in America right now.

There's a concept in physics called the "observer effect," which suggests that the mere act of observing something inevitably changes it. That's played out countless times in natural history and anthropology — and that conflict drives many of the SEA attractions, most notably Tokyo DisneySea's Tower of Terror. What happens when one community encounters another? Can both endure and thrive? Or will one inevitably try to subjugate the other?

The double whammy of the coronavirus and the George Floyd murder has re-exposed several of America's long-standing social conflicts. Face masks and Black Lives Matter have become projective Rorschach tests for many Americans — symbols that bring forward a lot of the anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration that many of us have kept hidden away over the years.

But unlike the inkblots of a Rorschach test, these symbols are not without meaning. They matter. And they matter so much for some that they have become the issues over which people now are arguing. That's not an accident, of course. If you want to divide a society, get people arguing about symbols, and they'll never come to a consensus about the real issues challenging them.

Recasting a story in fiction allows an artist to pull an audience past that Rorschach test - to move beyond those emotionally-charged symbols and identities to discover the story underneath. I taught my children about race relations by reading them Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches and Other Stories." Take "Black" and "White" off the table and talk about "Star Bellies" instead, and now people might listen for a bit.

Disney could do the same with so many issues through its SEA franchise. Race, class, culture - it's all there. Disney has built a storytelling platform that could engage a new generation to think about issues that might otherwise be drowned within America's symbol-driven culture wars.

Theme parks can be art, as well as entertainment. They can deliver profound moments that shape our lives. They need not be momentary distractions from more important things. They can be those important things.

Disney has an amazing opportunity here — thanks to the work of some of its artists at WDI. Yes, countless families are staying home as the virus rages through communities across the country. Parks are laying off employees, cutting capital spending and delaying new projects. But we never will stop needing to hear stories. And Disney has some great ones to tell.

Here's hoping that Disney chooses not to step away from original storytelling in its parks at this moment. It's time to hear more from the SEA.

Replies (13)

July 1, 2020 at 9:44 PM

I'd just love to have the old Adventurers Club back....

July 1, 2020 at 11:09 PM

When strangers can crowd around tables in bars again, I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a revival of that!

July 1, 2020 at 11:44 PM

I've worked hard enough to be able to visit both Hong Kong and Tokyo Disneyland recently and have been on both the Tower of Terror (DisneySea) and Mystic Manor. They are fantastic rides and full proof that Disney doesn't need an IP to carry an attraction. I agree with the article we need more SEA, especially stateside!

July 1, 2020 at 11:48 PM

@Manny Barron: Well, a key reason for TOT having a fresh storyline is that the Twilight Zone was never popular in Japan so they didn't have the built-in appeal it does in the States.

July 2, 2020 at 12:38 AM

The Tower of Terror in Tokyo is not only the best version of this ride but my favorite attraction at any Disney Park.

I love the lore that has been crafted by Disney with SEA. I would eagerly consume any film or television content they created from this IP. As well as any rides they brought to the US parks.

July 2, 2020 at 2:56 AM

Thank you, Robert, for this article, and thanks to those providing additional examples where, when, and why such originality works so well.
Many articles and posts indicate why Disney and Universal “will only do Blockbuster IP attractions going forward,” and perhaps for this phase of parks that’s mostly true. However, the first time I saw 18mm films of Disneyland in elementary school (attached to Disney science reels, if memory serves), it was that beautifully imagineered mix of stories I recognized and fantastical experiences never seen before that formulated pure magic; it’s lasted a lifetime! Stories of artistic expression that inspire us to rethink what is possible, including for societies and this planet, engage us long after any science reel, cinematic or theme park experience - changing the very concept of what is true, what might be, let alone who each of us may become. What better use of the hyper-reality simulacrum than to engage us within original concepts that expand “lore” to immerse us within new possibilities, beyond our wildest of imaginations? THAT is the Disney Magic too often gone missing when reduced to the flaneur within a fully-realized blockbuster IP, let alone “riding movies.”
Thanks again; have a safe and happy holiday, everyone.

July 2, 2020 at 5:43 AM

"If you want to divide a society, get people arguing about symbols, and they'll never come to a consensus about the real issues challenging them."

Wow, that explains a lot about the times, doesn't it?

July 2, 2020 at 7:05 PM

I don't recall any adventure's club. Was it solely a Magic Kingdom in Florida attraction?

July 2, 2020 at 10:57 PM

It was a Pleasure Island bar. That area was transformed into part of Disney Springs.

July 3, 2020 at 2:50 PM

@lisajey: Look up videos on You Tube, absolutely beautiful place where it was always 1936 and the actors having a grand time living it up as wacky characters. Just beautiful experience.

July 4, 2020 at 10:40 AM

I love the idea! I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of SEA information in the Mystic Manor queue and went through it over and over again just to have another look at all the great details everywhere.

July 4, 2020 at 12:39 PM

I'd love more SEA at the parks. And what an opportunity for cross promotion! With multiple characters and stories already existing in the parks a Disney+ series or film franchise would be a no brainer. Heck, if successful then it could even become the SEA Cinematic Universe.

July 7, 2020 at 3:57 AM

I'm certainly okay with movies spawning attractions. The characters from that movie are an integral part and have to be included.
However I have reservations when a movie is based on an attraction and the characters from that movie are introduced into the attraction.
POTC is an example. My love for this ride was earned on it's own merit. I liked the movies too ( not all ).
What I'm not so sure about is the introduction of Jack Sparrow and Barbosa into the attraction. Initially there was an extra impetus given to the ride but now we can't divorce ride from movie. If Disney overplay things with yet another movie and it fails what effect will that have on the original ride ? Both Universal and Disney react to dwindling interest and re-theme or, worse, ditch attractions. BTTF comes to mind.
I'd hate to see rides lose popularity because the movie franchise loses it's appeal. If left as a separate entity a ride will live or die by it's own popularity.

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