Complicated Fun: Are Theme Parks Going Geeky?

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Craig Hanna, Thinkwell’s Chief Creative Officer, gives his thoughts on storytelling and guest experience in theme parks.

Boasting obscure characters and detailed story lines, several new attractions opened at theme parks this summer in Central Florida. The new rides and areas are much different from those just a generation ago, when Dumbo the Flying Elephant was considered high tech.

These days, a ride involving a simple, blue elephant just won’t cut it. Take World of Chima at Legoland, for instance. The attraction is based on a Lego building block play set and Cartoon Network show about eight animal tribes, a crocodile king, magical vehicles called Speedorz and a life force called Chi. There are epic battles over the Ancient Pool of Chi, set in a lushly landscaped tropical world.

Or look at Universal’s Transformers ride. It isn’t just inspired by the toy and the movie — it’s a detailed, 3-D, “interactive battle” between the Autobots and Decepticons that has its own website. Even the straightforward-sounding Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin ride at SeaWorld Orlando is about a penguin hatchling who grows up, leaves his mom, is chased by a leopard seal through a psychedelic-looking world and then reunited with his tribe of fellow birds. Real, live penguins appear at the end of the ride.

When did fun become so complicated?

Theme park consultants say attractions need to be more detailed in the age of video games, smartphones and 3-D TVs. And of course, parks aren’t just competing with home entertainment; they’re competing against each other for guests’ time and money, especially in the I-4 corridor, a busy highway that runs through the Orlando area. The rise of the Internet means everyone is a critic — several theme park fan blogs are devoted to dissecting the geeky details of each new attraction.
“In the 1970s we could do quite a bit in theme parks,” said John Gerner, the managing director of Leisure Business Advisors LLC. “Nowadays, it’s hard to provide a typical music show. There just isn’t that much of a thrill anymore.” Attraction designers have a difficult job: They must present a story to guests of all ages, from all walks of life.

“It’s got to be layered and it’s got to work on a number of different levels,” said Phil Hettema, a California-based theme park designer. “It’s got to work on the kids, the adults. It’s pretty tricky. You’re trying to convey a lot for those who don’t know it. You have to give the newcomer enough clues.”
With an established story like Transformers, many people have seen the 1980s TV cartoon, and many more the movie franchise. So even if Universal’s intense, dark ride involves a new story or is incredibly detailed, most people can follow the narrative.

Same with Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Many of the visitors are familiar with the story, either through J.K Rowling’s books or the blockbuster movies. Yet familiarity also has its pitfalls for theme park designers: Rabid fans know when a detail is out of place.

Scott Thomas, Cartoon Network’s vice president of consumer marketing, says he’s gotten emails from the under-10 set about inconsistencies and questions in the storyline for the Chima cartoon. “Kids today have very high expectations,” he said. “And the storylines are very complex in kids’ media today.”
Legoland worked with Cartoon Network writers and animators on the Chima attraction to sync details and distill the complex cartoon into basic elements. But they also recognized that not all guests have heard of Chima, said Candy Holland, senior creative director for the Legoland parent company Merlin Entertainment. So, for the uninitiated, designers used the queue line to tell the Chima story so people could be brought up to speed before boarding the water ride.

“It’s a balance,” Holland said. “There are some people who may not yet be familiar with the Chima theme. Some people come to Legoland, maybe haven’t even played with Legos yet. And it’s a great opportunity for the parents to understand why their kids are living in, and obsessed with, the World of Chima.”

SeaWorld Orlando’s Antarctica is a rarity in the attractions world: It’s an entirely new story, not based on any movie, show, book or toy. “It can be done if there are some other innate aspects to the story,” said Gerner. “Penguins as animal have innate appeal.”

Smaller and regional parks often have attractions with simpler concepts, but internationally, large parks are also going for the complicated narratives popping up in big parks here. Universal’s Transformers ride opened in Singapore before hitting the U.S., and a dark ride that opened in July at Lotte World, an enormous mall and entertainment complex in South Korea, revolves around a pack of dragons that descend on a castle. Riders must “seek them out and encourage them to leave,” said Hettema, who worked on the ride.

It all comes down to narrative, theme park experts agree.

“As storytellers, we have to always be advocates for the guest,” said Craig Hanna, owner and chief creative officer at the Burbank, Calif.-based Thinkwell Group. “We have to make sure that whatever story we’re telling is easy for the guest to consume.” Hanna, who worked on several attractions for Universal, including the Men in Black ride, said attraction designers put a lot of thought into plot and character. Attractions must be detailed and true to the story, he said, but not so detailed that they’re confusing.

Theron Skees, who works in Orlando for Disney’s creative corps, known as the “imagineers,” said the new and richly detailed themed areas in parks today are actually in line with what Walt Disney himself envisioned some six decades ago. “Storytelling has to be relevant to the culture,” he said.
Imagineers at Disney create a backstory when they first develop a themed area, complete with a hierarchical narrative. No detail is too small to explore or discuss: lighting, architecture, sound, landscaping, costumes — all in hopes of creating an emotional connection with the guest. Often, that backstory stays backstage, and guests never see or hear about the creative process.

When Disney theme parks first opened in California in 1955, Western themed-stories were popular, and so was the resulting Frontierland attraction. These days, Skees said, people are well-traveled and knowledgeable about worldwide trends — American kids are into Japanese anime, for instance — and the parks reflect this. “We’re dealing with a more sophisticated audience who are more globally aware of storytelling and genres,” he said.