Why Imagineers Should Not Bash 'Book Reports'

January 8, 2021, 2:18 PM · One thing I hear frequently when themed entertainment designers discuss their work on theme park attractions is a stated desire to avoid creating a "book report." By that, the designers are implying that they do not wish to create an IP-based attraction that simply retells the major plot points from that IP's original medium.

That's a fair point about designing theme park attractions, and I will talk more about that in a bit. But every time I hear a designer talk about a "book report" when they mean "plot recitation," I feel the verbal lashing I got from my seventh-grade English teacher after the one and only time I handed in a book report that contained nothing more than that.

Even at the middle school level, a decent book report does not retell the plot of a book. It explores the characters, settings, language, and themes of the book, providing a perspective that helps the report reader better understand the original author's work. Far from being something to avoid in developing a theme park attraction, "doing a book report" on the source IP should be an essential initial step in that design.

Of course Imagineers and designers for other companies do this when taking on a new project. But the words that designers use when describing their work to fans and colleagues are just as important as the words designers use in the scripts of their attractions. Like with books or any other form of artistic expression, the meaning of theme park attractions ultimately are defined by social context. And like the author of a book report - or a critic - designers can help frame that context by how they describe their work.

So if designers want to roast a Cliff's Notes or SparkNotes plot summary (pick your generation there) when talking about IP attraction development, go ahead. But let's show a little more respect to book reports. For book reports create the deeper understanding of literature that we could use now for theme park attractions.

I started this website two decades ago in part because I was frustrated by the simplistic news coverage and public dismissal of the importance of theme parks and their attractions. But theme parks wield great economic and emotional power in our society. They are worthy of the same study that we give to literature and other forms of artistic expressions. Of course, that means that parks and their attractions should be subject to the same social and artistic standards by which we judge other works, as well.

Some elements of storytelling persist across media. But each medium offers unique opportunities to shape story in different and more engaging ways. That's part of the reason why we as a species developed different storytelling media, after all. Every year, directors create hundreds of films and television shows based on books. The best succeed not because those directors faithfully recreated the source material in a visual media but because they created a work of great visual media. The characters, settings, and themes from the original book provided a starting point for their creative process but they did not constrain it.

Now there is some economic safety in allowing source material to constrain an adaptive work. Just retell the story, and you probably can sell a lot of tickets to fans of the original work. But such constraints limit the editorial agency of a storyteller, limiting the added value they potentially could create for the public by telling the story in their own way.

Getting back to one of my posts from earlier this week, that limitation is one of my problems with Disney's Hall of Presidents. The attraction's concept inherently limits Imagineering's editorial agency with the attraction. If you have to put every U.S. President on stage, recite their names and give the current President a speech, then Imagineers can't tell the story of American history as effectively as they did in The American Adventure, where they could work from a blank slate. Shaking up the HOP format would at least give Disney more agency in doing something that would inspire rather than divide the audience.

Great IP-based attractions allow visitors to dive deeply into something interesting from that IP that fans could not explore or experience to their satisfaction in the original work. On a great theme park attraction, you can learn to fly through an avatar on the back of a Mountain Banshee. Or walk through the halls of Hogwarts Castle and learn to cast spells on the streets of Hogsmeade. Or go racing around Carburetor County with the cars from Cars.

With non-fiction source material, the original IP - if you will - is our own experience. Great non-fiction attractions take us someplace to do or see something we cannot - or do not - experience in our own lives. No one alive ever heard Abraham Lincoln speak, so that attraction is interesting. We can hear the current President, whoever that is, pretty much every day, so that is not. A great deal of the appeal of Epcot's World Showcase lies in granting us the ability to tour the world without the expense or hassle required to do that in real life. On the flip side, many fans hate seeing theme parks filled with same fast-food franchises and generic souvenirs they can find in any local shopping mall. Parks that do this are not taking us anywhere unique. The desire for unique experiences is why theme park fans clamor for immersively decorated, interactive environments, rather than the same screens they can see in a mall movie theater or, worse, at home.

Each of us is a storyteller, after all. We want new experiences that we can take back to share with our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We want to write book reports about the stories of our lives. And the more new stories that artists - including theme park designers - create for us, the more new "book reports" we have to tell.

So, designers, please keep pushing to tell original stories - or old stories in original ways. That unique storytelling helps make theme parks such compelling and commercially successful attractions.

Just please - in honor of my seventh-grade English teacher - stop bashing book reports when you do that.

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Replies (2)

January 10, 2021 at 12:59 AM

Interesting article. I immediately started thinking of the "book-report" attractions and those that told a different story. Most attractions tell their own story within a universe and that is truly a cool thing. Some of the few "book report" attractions I can think of are Monsters Inc at DCA and Finding Nemo (kinda) at Disneyland and Epcot. Can someone out there share how Song of the South and Splash Mountain correlate story wise? I mean no one born after 1990 has had a shot to see that film.

Man as for the Hall of Presidents. History is my thing. I can literally rattle off all 45 names of the presidents in order. It's a neat thing but I see your point of view for a shake up at that attraction and allowing for creative freedom for the imagineers.

January 10, 2021 at 6:50 PM

Because I never can resist an excuse to post this:

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