Joe Lanzisero and the Secrets of Original Theme Park Storytelling

August 16, 2020, 10:16 PM · Disney fills its theme parks with beloved characters and franchises. But not every great Disney attraction starts as a movie or TV show.

The principles that drive compelling attractions remain the same for original stories as established IP. And Joe Lanzisero knows perhaps better than anyone how to develop a great theme park attraction based upon original IP. I spoke with Lanzisero last month about his work on two attractions themed to characters in Disney's Society of Explorers and Adventurers: Tower of Terror at Tokyo DisneySea and Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland.

The SEA is one of my favorite theme park franchises, so I encourage you to check out my video on the society and my posts, Here's the Next Adventure We Need from Disney and How Well Do You Know Disney's Secret Society of Theme Park Characters? if you're not up to speed on this original concept from Disney.

"It's a deep, deep history, you know," Lanzisero said of the SEA. "There's a lot of layers in there. It just shows the potential of taking a single small idea and how far you can go with it."

"It's not an established IP where the rules of the universe are pretty well spelled out by the movie. This is kind of open ended. There's a core story idea, and I love that it can be expanded on and twisted and built and turned in whatever way they want."

Joe Lanzisero and company
Joe Lanzisero, right, with Mark Schirmer and Albert, talking about Mystic Manor at the 2013 D23 Expo.

"A little bit history of Tokyo DisneySea — it always wanted to be the adult counterpart to Tokyo Disneyland, and that was one of the filters we always uses when we were developing projects there. We preferred not to use established Disney characters or established IP, because the park had already established itself with it with its own unique identity — with its original stories, or taking a spin on stories in a way that hadn't been looked at before, like with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Center of the Earth. So it was just kind of natural that we kind of zoomed out and took a bigger look at what that park was all about and what we were trying to do to differentiate it from Tokyo Disneyland."

"The first thing I did [there] was the Tower of Terror. Oriental Land Co. [the owner of the Tokyo Disney Resort] wanted to do a Tower of Terror."

"The Japanese had no history with The Twilight Zone, which was a 1950s and 60s television show. So we were trying to find something true to the theme of the area in the park where the attraction was going to live. That was the American Waterfront, so we wanted to have a story that made sense in that context. Because already we had this large presence for the SEA in Magellan's and in the Fortress Explorations, it just made sense to build that story."

As an aside, Lanzisero said that The Twilight Zone almost didn't become the theme for the original tower at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, either.

"Initially they weren't looking at just The Twilight Zone. There were a number of other stories — one was going to be a Mel Brooks story based on Young Frankenstein, which was originally just going to be a walkthrough."

Alas, "Young Frankenstein" did not come to life for Disney in Tokyo, either. But Lanzisero and his team found another larger-than-life monster for the ride's theme — Harrison Hightower.

"We start playing around with ideas. We came up with this this explorer — who is based on Joe Rohde, who, of course, absolutely loved that we were using him. He really is kind of a member of the SEA, since he does travel the world does have all these crazy adventures. So he was immediately on board with the whole idea.

"One guy in particular, Chuck Ballew — who's one of those unsung heroes of a bunch of attractions and you don't always hear his name mentioned — he did a lot of work for us in Tokyo, and he was one of those who loves to go deep, deep, deep into the backstory. I remember he actually made a little comic book that told the whole backstory of Harrison Hightower. That work was kind of our Bible for guiding our design choices."

"Creating your own backstory, you're handicapped because your audience doesn't come in pre-wired with the knowledge of it all. So then it's up to you, as a designer, to make sure you're clearly communicating through whatever devices you can put that backstory's about."

"The core story was explorers and adventurers, so those who became two keywords - where did they explore and what kind of adventures were they on? In the movies, you know who the characters are — their character arc and what they've been through — and that in turn helps you understand how, in a movie, they're going to react. In designing a theme park, it helps you to understand how to think about the design elements that you're going to use to help represent them."

"It goes back to when I was working on Toontown, and they asked us to design the houses where the characters live. We were surprised to find out that in all those early cartoons, there was never an establishing shot where you see the houses that the character lived in. There was no established Mickey house. There was no established Goofy's house. So what we defaulted to is just understanding the characters. We watched a bunch of cartoons, and we just talked about the characters and through that, we got deep into their heads to understand who they were.

"Mickey was everyman. And so we picked a Pasadena bungalow style because it is warm and friendly and welcoming. It's all the things, architecturally, when you look at it make you say, I want to go in there. It speaks to who Mickey would be.

"So it was the same as we were developing these characters — Harrison Hightower and Lord Henry Mystic [from Mystic Manor and the Mystic Point land that houses the attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland]. We spent a lot of time thinking about these characters and who they were, and the places that they've been. They were alike, but very different. Yes, they were world travelers. Yes, they were world collectors. But one guy was evil, and one guy was good."

"The first point is storytelling is when people walk up and look at the building. So it should immediately start talking about the crazy guy that built this. It's a reflection of his personality and his world travels and the things he saw and how that influenced all the various artifacts and things he might have found along the way.

"You know, it was mostly through some unscrupulous means. We have in the lobby this kind of altar from a Cambodian temple. And the backstory is basically he stole the whole thing. Harrison Hightower either stole things or negotiated for them in a not-so-honest way. So that really becomes a great kind of a filter. Once you know these characters and you talk a lot about the characters, then it guides you.

"Harrison Hightower was an egomaniac. I think you could draw some parallels between him and Trump in terms of, it's got to be big; it's got to be gold; it's got to be bombastic."

Lanzisero agreed that the juxtaposition of both evil and good characters within the SEA helps give the franchise more opportunities and complexities than if the entire cast were heroes.

"The best films are those where you see the complexity and flaws in characters. Having a flawed character reminds us that we're all human, and nobody's perfect. That that always makes me an interesting fodder to build a character around."

"The reality is — and I remember this from animation — a lot of the old animators said the villains are a lot more fun to animate. They're more complicated. If you compare the two characters — Hightower and Mystic — we had more time and space to develop Harrison Hightower, but the bad guys have more psyche to explore. In terms of the two, he's a little more interesting."

"Harrison Hightower's ego was much bigger than Lord Henry Mystic. The reality is, of course, we had a much larger budget for the Tower of Terror in Tokyo. But even if we even if we had a larger budget for Mystic Point, just because of the character that we had developed and his personality, it had to be a little more modest."

"In Tokyo DisneySea, we were always thinking about this as the adult counterpart to Tokyo Disneyland, but Mystic Point was in a Magic Kingdom park. So it had to be more fanciful, and more family friendly and kid friendly. I mean, it didn't have to be, but I think to feel right in the Magic Kingdom park, it had to have a little softer edge to it."

For Mystic Manor, Lanzisero said the team found architectural design inspiration from California's Carson Mansion and Winchester Mystery House.

"And then of course we again use the story the backstory that [Mystic] has traveled around the world, and that he wanted to have all these small architectural influences represented from the places that he has visited."

Since conflict drives stories, Mystic Manor needed someone to stir the pot in a way that nice guy Henry Mystic could not. Enter Alfred the monkey.

"In eastern literature, the Journey to the West has the Monkey King character who has to learn lessons through his follies. We used that as a little bit of the understory, the subtext, for [Alfred]. You're not supposed to open the box — he opened the box. So he became our surrogate. We couldn't have people being put into peril, but it's truly important to have empathy with the characters and to feel for them in some ways and we wanted to build that empathy."

"I mean, for me, that is always key to understanding the character. With Henry Mystic and Hightower, you felt differently about them. But you want to have some kind of emotional connection or some kind of emotional response. That's what established IP does for you, because you already know who Harry Potter is and what his journey was all about. And so when you go in there, you immediately have some emotional connection.

"So with these characters, when we're developing them, we want to make sure that we establish you know who the character is, and that we put them in some situation that gives you in the audience a point of view and some kind of feeling towards them — either, I like them, or don't like them, or I'm neutral but I'm going to see where this thing's going to go."

"It's like with anything, when you put an extra effort into it — if you scratch below the surface and you do your homework and find out a little bit more about it — it's a lot more rewarding experience than just blindly walking through the world and just taking things on the way it comes down on the surface.

"When we are designing these rides, we always say that there are floaters, swimmers, and divers. It has to work for all three. If you choose not to scratch below the surface, it's still going to be fun and entertaining. If you don't take the time to really understand who Lord Henry Mystic is and who the monkey is, it still works. This guy is getting in trouble and you're getting caught in the middle of all of it, and then he redeemed himself... that still should be entertaining. And it should be satisfying on some level, but I think the difference between satisfying and rewarding is a very interesting point. If you take the time to dig a little deeper you, get you more reward from it."

One of Lanzisero's deep dives in Hong Kong Disneyland is available across the park from Mystic Point, in Tomorrowland.

"I was leading the design for the Iron Man Experience, and I remember that early conversations about introducing Marvel into a Magic Kingdom park and the challenges with that — we have fantasy worlds, and they [Marvel] are so real-world based.

"We built the backstory that said that Howard Stark knew Walt Disney. They met each other, and Howard created the first Stark Expo to show off his technology, just the same way that Walt in 1955 created Tomorrowland. So it was Tony Stark carrying on the tradition of his father and bringing this permanent World's Fair-like idea into a Disney park" — a concept that Walt Disney Imagineering is now expanding into Avengers Campus at Hong Kong, Walt Disney Studios Paris, and Disney California Adventure.

So... are Howard and Tony Stark in the modern-day SEA? Maybe.

On Mystic Manor, Lanzisero and his team not only extended the SEA franchise by adding a thematic counter to Tokyo Disney's Harrison Hightower, they also created a 21st century update to Disney's "grand illusion show" — the Haunted Mansion.

"I still marvel at the Haunted Mansion, the Grand [Ballroom] Pepper's ghost — I can still remember back when I was a kid going through that the first time and just, what going did I just see? How did they do that? Simple things like the long hallway with the chandelier floating in the back. It's just a mirror gag, but those guys were brilliant. Yale Gracey, he was a real genius. The stuff they did using simple magic effects and then taking them to grand scale.

"But we have things like laser projectors and projection mapping, so we were able to do a lot more, but it was also the same end effect. It was a grand illusion show, which basically is what the Haunted Mansion is.

"I was watching the closing ceremonies to the Olympics, I think it was Vancouver that year, I can't remember. They were combining projection with physical elements as part of the closing ceremony. I knew it was projection, by they did a really great job of blurring the line between the two. The next day I went in and we were talking about the kinds of effects and things we wanted to do in Mystic Manor, and I said, you know what, I never want to be aware that I'm looking at a projector or a projected effect. We have to always blend them in a way with something real or physical, or do the projection in context with something else, so that you're never aware that you're looking at something projected.

"The team really rose to that mandate, and when you go to that ride, I think there are very few things when you look at them, you go, oh, that's purely projection. There's a mosaic of Medusa that starts out as just the woman's face then it turns into Medusa, and we could have just done that was just projection, but then we have parts of the actual mosaics that pop out, so it becomes a three-dimensional thing.

"Same with the Egyptian mummy. Part of it is projected, part of it is painted, part of it is dimensional. The same with the final scene where the wall gets blasted out. Half of that room is painted; half of that's real. I mean, we really thought about creating an environment that was believable, even though there was projection in there. But the projection wasn't *the thing* that you were looking at."

For U.S. theme park fans who haven't had the chance to visit Hong Kong Disneyland, you can see get a taste of some of Mystic Manor's visual effects in Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway at Disney's Hollywood Studios, which Lanzisero also worked on before leaving the company.

"Projection and video are everywhere. We've got it in our pocket. We watch movies from TV on our phones. You're not tricking anybody when they know that they're looking at a screen or you're projecting on something on some surface. So that's what excites me, when I see things like Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway and the Shanghai Pirates, where they keep the projection thing to a level where it blurs the line between what's real and what's not real.

"I mean Spider-Man was really the first one to do it, but it was still 3D glasses and you knew it was all film. But they played with your perception and was really smart and clever about how they did it."

"For me, I've been away from Disney, but to know that things that you worked on, things that you touched, little seeds that you planted, are going to live on way beyond you, that is great."

"It's nice to know that you were a part of something that's going to live on, and that every day you're not there, it's still going, and it's still entertaining people, and people are laughing and crying and thinking and having some kind of emotional experience based on something that you got to touch. That is a really great honor and a rare opportunity in this world."

"The greatest part of this whole SEA story is that it is established, but it's not. Everybody now that's taking it and running with it is able to take that form and expand on it and add to it, and that's really, really exciting."

Replies (3)

August 17, 2020 at 12:25 AM

A major highlight of the Imagineering doc on Disney plus was them talking about the major differences of Tokyo Seas getting great Imagineering stuff while other Imagineers were being ignored. Amazing how well it worked and showed the magic that the company was great for.

August 17, 2020 at 12:15 PM

I really appreciate his thought process behind the need to blend any projection with something practical or physical. It’s a philosophy that in my opinion works on older attractions as well, notably the refurb that was done to Alice in Wonderland at Disneyland. The new “refreshed” effects on that attraction only enhance and elevate what is already there, rather than overpower the existing effects. Great article. Thanks Robert for yet another layer of theme park onion peeled back for us.

August 19, 2020 at 8:33 PM

Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai, used to be on my bucket list...until China messed up the entire planet this year. I still might go to Tokyo Disney one day, though.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive