Why Backstories Matter on Theme Park Attractions

August 1, 2022, 6:49 PM · Dollywood is inviting fans to explore the backstory of its new attraction - before the official announcement of what that attraction will be.

As we reported earlier, Dollywood is building a major new attraction - the "largest single attraction investment" in the park's history - next to its Wildwood Grove land. Speculation points to some form of roller coaster, and official word will be coming from the park on Friday.

But until then, Dollywood is teasing the new attraction by revealing some of its backstory. In a post on the park's official blog, Dollywood spins a tale about a "so-called 'Big Bear'" that lives just beyond Wildwood Grove - a fearsome 20-foot creature blamed for "just about anything that goes haywire in the Grove."

Ned Oakley, the caretaker of Wildwood Grove's much-more-friendly Benjamin Bear, is keen to solve the mystery of the Big Bear, and now Dollywood is helping him build a "Smoky Mountain Adventure Outpost" from his great-great-great Grandfather’s old logging bunkhouse and "turn it into a home base for his Big Bear operation."

"News" from Dollywood

Dollywood does not need to provide any advance explanation for what it is building next to Wildwood Grove. Plenty of parks would be happy to just make an announcement of a new coaster while encouraging fans to buy their tickets or passes to ride it the next season.

But, as many Theme Park Insider reader know, story matters in great theme park attractions. A nice backstory can help enrich a visitor's appreciation for any ride experience. Great attractions engage the imagination as they trigger the physical senses, and a backstory, well told in a queue or preshow - or, these days, even a blog or social media post - can help tune the imagination for the experience to come.

It seems to me that Dollywood is setting up its new attraction as some form of "bear hunt," in which guests will take a wild ride through the wilderness in pursuit of the elusive Big Bear. (Hmmm... I can hear the PA now. "Paging Isaac McCaslin. Paging Mr. Isaac McCaslin." And if you get that reference, please know that I love you. But not in a Yoknapatawapha County way, of course.)

Even if a Dollywood visitor hears not one word of this new attraction's backstory, its presence still may help that visitor have a better experience on the ride. When a designer is tasked with creating a backstory for an attraction, that requirement influences their decision-making process. It's no longer enough to slap a load station on some available piece of land. With a backstory, the location, style, and design of that load station must make some narrative sense.

Maybe that doesn't lead to much of a change from just building the ride without a backstory to explain it. But even a subtle change in design can help something feel more authentic, more logical, and more engaging to a visitor. Through Kanso, Feng Shui, and Vastu Shastra, people have been striving for centuries to create a vocabulary for harmonic design. Themed entertainment design provides another example, another tool, in that effort.

Ultimately, fans will judge Dollywood's new roller coaster for the quality of ride that it provides. But the way that Dollywood frames riders' expectations surely will have some affect upon their judgment of the experience - even if it's just the subconscious framing that happens from effective placemaking and narrative design in the attraction's surroundings.

We won't know how effective Dollywood's efforts in crafting a backstory for this unnamed bear hunt roller coaster will be until we ride it. But good on Dollywood for making the extra effort to try. This is what distinguishes theme parks from amusement parks and is the latest example of the extra efforts that have helped to make Dollywood such a beloved destination among theme park fans.

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Replies (6)

August 2, 2022 at 4:49 AM

Dollywood continues to do a great job of theming itself to itself. Other parks have started to follow suit, but Dollywood seems to do it the best in the US.

August 2, 2022 at 11:08 AM

Dollywood poached the giant bear that was supposed to be on Grizzly River Rapids.

August 2, 2022 at 11:26 AM

I’ve always loved the detailed clue-laden queue for Everest to provide some good narrative heft. Especially considering it’s in reality a 2-minute coaster.

And of course, special shout out to the many glorious and ghoulish myths, urban legends and Imagineering nuggets stuffed into the Haunted Mansion.

August 2, 2022 at 12:12 PM

I do miss a good old-fashioned story behind stuff from the history of Typhoon Lagoon or Pleasure Island to the mythology of Dueling Dragons. Made some of these so much more fun.

August 2, 2022 at 4:58 PM

The thing is that it doesn't take that much more effort to create these backstories. Also, by allowing designers and creative type to spend time thinking about the backstory and mythology behind the attractions, they take more ownership of the development, which I feel increases the overall quality of the ride. I've always noted the enthusiasm and passion from design teams that are involved in the entire process, and that rubs off on the guests as well.

A small but significant investment in this area can make a HUGE difference not only in the quality but the longevity of attractions.

August 2, 2022 at 9:28 PM

@MikeW: good call on Dueling Dragons. It’s been so long since that coaster was operating in its original iteration that it’s easy to forget how richly detailed the setup to the ride was

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