All Your Favorite Attractions Are Problematic

First, it was the rework of the Redhead in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Now, Disney has announced that they will be replacing Disneyland’s Splash Mountain with a Princess and the Frog themed attraction, which picks up after the end of the movie and weaves a new story (akin to the Frozen ride reskin of Maelstrom at EPCOT, versus the movie recap experience of Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure).

Red Head Pirate at Pirates of The Caribbean at Disneyland Resort

Obviously, no matter what warm, fuzzy memories we have of Splash Mountain, no matter how much Disney tried to round the edges of the overt racism, the reality is, it’s based on such a stupendously racist and white supremacist storyline that Disney refuses to air Song of the South and so boy howdy was it beyond time for it to go. One of the chief problems we encounter as creatives in location-based entertainment is this clash of memory, “that’s just how it was back then,” “it will cost so much/upset the fans to change it” versus the knowledge that it’s harmful and needs to change.

We get it. It’s an investment. A huge one. Just like any of a number of other resorts, rides, shows, and exhibitions around the U.S., not to mention the world. To give them their due, Disney also has amply demonstrated they know how to concede curatorial authority, as it were. Their intentionality around Expedition Everest as well as core elements of the original Animal Kingdom demonstrates it can be done. Joe Rohde, in his talk at the 2012 THEA awards by the Themed Entertainment Association spoke at length about the Aulani design process, how authenticity and respect were placed ahead of ease and preconceived notions, and actually how easy design decisions can be when they are strongly rooted in authentic, clear direction informed by the actual people and place and not one’s own hot take on the source material. 

Don’t get us wrong: we are, no matter how fond our memories are of Splash Mountain, heartened to see Disney take this step. Reworking Splash Mountain is also an absolute rabbit hole (pun not really intended) because once your eyes are opened to the ways – both subtle and categorically unsubtle – that racism pervades narrative tropes and beloved experiences, it’s overwhelming. The soft-focus memories of Dumbo crash up against the knowledge that the lead crow is quite literally named Jim Crow. As you eyeroll at the corny humor of your Jungle Cruise skipper, your boat bobs around a corner and to a horrifyingly racist vignette. It goes on and on: Peter Pan’s original source material was dizzyingly racist about Indigenous people and the ride does not shy away from it; the Enchanted Tiki Room falls into the trap of so much white-washed, culturally-appropriative Polynesia theming; the European children on It’s a Small World are white as can be (and there are Middle Eastern kids on flying carpets); the Africa outpost in Epcot reduces a vibrant swath of an entire continent to a beverage stop, trinket market, and a few drums. These experiences have always been harmful, and it’s an insidious outcome of white privilege to be blissfully unaware of it. Once you realize it, that bell can’t be ‘unrung’. You’re aware. And it’s now incumbent on you to not slip back into now willful complacency.

This isn’t just a Disney problem. This is an everywhere problem. Racism is everywhere. The normalization of racist tropes is everywhere, from what we collect and how we display it in museums to countless “Wild West” zones in amusement parks to big iconic experiences like Splash Mountain, and thousands of moments in between. We are guilty of it in our body of work, too – there are projects we’ve worked on that, in hindsight, we should have done a little differently. When it comes to what stories are told in our parks and our museums, a large part of that is who’s had a place at the table, for the majority of our industry’s history, to make creative decisions, to greenlight and fund projects, to decide what has value or make a team pause and take stock of what they’re really saying with the stories they’re telling and how they’re telling them. It’s affected by processes and policies, too. At Thinkwell, we’re keenly aware that no matter how good our intentions in the past, we have fallen short at times, and it’s on us to examine what we do and how we do it to ensure we don’t perpetuate racism in our work.

Splash Mountain Drop Down Into The Briar Patch at Disneyland Resort

The harmful experiences in location-based entertainment of the past 20-30 years that we cannot unsee weren’t done out of a ‘let’s be racist, it’ll be great!’ mentality. We’re not condemning the creative minds behind these places or experiences. It’s unlikely that the team behind Port Orleans Riverside, as they designed cast member costumes in time for its 1992 opening, thought through the ramifications of their choices in a resort designed to evoke the grand “big houses” of plantations in the Louisiana Bayou (in fact, the resort was initially named Dixie Landings). But the reality is, their ‘mousekeeping’ staff is largely BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and they’re wearing outfits evocative of enslaved people who were assigned to “the big house”’ on a plantation. If you want a real wake-up call moment, stand on one of the lovely, immaculately landscaped paths in the beautiful antebellum south themed resort at shift change, and watch the staff emerge from the stately, pillared houses.

The re-envisioning of Splash Mountain isn’t reactionary: it is another step in a major, beloved, respected company’s commitment to do better, even at the expense of angered fans and significant capital expenditure. In the current economic climate, spending money to redo existing things probably doesn’t sound like the best plan. But we are the makers of dreams. We are the creators of heroes and villains, we breathe life into whole new worlds and reinvigorate beloved places. Why shouldn’t we spend the time, effort, and yes money, making the places we already have welcoming and inclusive? Why shouldn’t we say ‘this is racist, and it’s wrong of us to keep putting it out there for the public as entertainment or something to aspire to, so we’re fixing it’?

Congratulations to Disney for acknowledging it’s time to change. We look forward to seeing what they – and the rest of the industry, ourselves included – tackle next.


 1. Except in Japan, as that park is not owned by Disney and thus they do not have direct control over its content to make a change such as this.

Virtual Reality & The New Compromise

A Vision, Compromised

For years, the promise of digital immersion and alternate realities permeated its way into the zeitgeist of popular futurism. Yet it wasn’t until American entrepreneur Palmer Luckey revived the VR industry with the release of the Oculus Rift in 2012, paving the way for a new standard in enterprise, education, and entertainment. Virtual reality promised a bold experience, an inclusive platform, and a seamless bridge connecting our world to the virtual one. Companies from around the world sprung up overnight, chasing trends and financial forecasts, hoping to take home a piece of the prize. Fast-forward to 2020, and while virtual reality continues to spark interest in enthusiasts and hard-core gamers, it remains stifled by a range of detractors such as cost, comfort, locomotion, and hygiene.

If ever there was a concern about the hygienic nature of virtual reality, COVID-19 has shattered consumer confidence and left owners and operators reticent in the face of future development. However, virtual reality will not end with COVID, but instead will find new opportunities in a post-pandemic world, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the technology as it evolves into its next chapter.

 

Lessons Learned

In 2019, Thinkwell Group opened the first of its kind, indoor, vertical theme park, Lionsgate Entertainment World, in Zhuhai, China. With three, purpose-built, virtual reality attractions, we learned a great deal from our in-field observations and guest reviews about the benefits and challenges of virtual reality.

Immersion is king. Yet, transportive environments are only a piece of the puzzle. True immersion stems from guest embodiment and real-world physics. Whether wielding a flashlight, steering a motorbike, or solving puzzles, every interaction must carry the burden of the real world or risk breaking the illusion. In addition, real-time media proved far more engaging than pre-rendered content, allowing guests the opportunity to take agency of their world and create a personalized and repeatable experience.

Conversely, we learned about some of the limitations and challenges from our creative partners and guests. Accessibility remains a constant goal for designers, ensuring that all guests can experience safe and comfortable moments together. However, due to the size, weight and form factor of many early generation headsets, guests with limited visual acuity or physical mobility found it challenging to maintain an optimal posture or retain a clear, focused, and immersive visual environment throughout the experience. Thankfully, there continues to be a wave of emerging technology that caters to guest accessibility. While many are still in their infancy, we know that these challenges are not insurmountable, but rather, they are stepping stones along the path to an optimal guest experience.

 

Looking Ahead

As we look ahead to a post-COVID world, there will undoubtedly be a shift in education, enterprise and entertainment. From visualization in the form of remote collaboration, to annotation in the form of real-time, remote instructions, to storytelling, and a new wave of haptic immersion; students, educators, and professionals are at the precipice of a new era in experiential engagement thanks to advances in emerging technologies.

When it’s time to untether and venture outside, additional emerging technologies can transform public spaces without the use or necessity of limiting hardware. Technologies such as mapped projection, mixed reality glasses, and digital characters or environments can enhance our physical surroundings without the use of single-serving, cumbersome devices. However, there remain three key takeaways for any activation or attraction to remain successful: friendly competition, inclusivity and immersion.

In the days, months and years to follow, social etiquette will shift, industries will evolve and technology will advance. We will remove our masks, we will interact, and together, we will smile. People are inherently social creatures and we at Thinkwell will continue to explore safe, effective, and memorable experiences to bring people together, wherever in the world life takes us.

The times they are a changin’

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen cultural touchstones undergo earthshaking change. From the announcement—quickly followed by the unveiling at Disneyland Paris — that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would no longer feature the “Bride Auction” scene to the undeniable diversity in the A Wrinkle in Time trailer to the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Dr Who, we’ve seen all manner of assumptions get toppled. And as is de rigueur these days for announcements of this type, we’ve seen an onslaught of reaction, both positive and negative, online. Much of the negative reaction, in all three cases, goes back to remarkably similar foundations: that it’s not how a given creative work was originally envisioned and that this is yet another example of political correctness taken too far.

At Thinkwell, we say: bring it on. We’re delighted to see more mindful and better representation in creative works. Storytelling, in our minds, is better when it’s not exclusionary or needlessly hurtful. Culture changes. Mindsets evolve. This isn’t a matter of being politically correct; it’s a matter of us, as a society, being more mindful, inclusive, and welcoming than we were when an intellectual property was initially developed decades prior. And thus, the things we have grown to love with the warm fuzzy halo of nostalgia may not look as fantastic in the clear light of day when we actually take a step back and think deeply about what these creative works tell people about our values and what’s acceptable.

It’s not how it was created to be, it’s not what Walt made. We get it. We love what we love, we cling to the good ol’ days, the touchstones of our youth. Some of us are still bitter about the removal of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from the Magic Kingdom in Florida, for instance. Pirates, however, is a great example of needing to change. It’s not a historical treatise on piracy in the Caribbean (if it were, it’s doing a really poor, whitewashed job of it), so the complaints that it’s somehow historically “accurate” to have a bride auction fall flat. It’s meant as escapism, as a created world, not a historical diorama. With the heightened unreality and stylization of the feature films—which prominently have female pirates in them—it’s a created world that Disney is inviting guests to be a part of. We see this beyond the ride and movies, too, from “Pirates in the Caribbean” on the cruise ships to the Pirates League makeover experience at Magic Kingdom to the Jake and the Never Land Pirates TV series. Disney wants guests to envision themselves as part of this world.

By that logic, of course the bride auction is overdue for reinvention. It’s emblematic of violence against women, a moment that many a parent has cringed at and distracted their children away from as, societally, we become more aware of just what this scene is telegraphing. There’s fat shaming, loss of agency, abuse, enslavement, all things that, again, we didn’t think twice about a couple of decades ago. Those things don’t belong in a creative world Disney is inviting everyone to be a part of. We know better now. And so, our experiences need to also be better.
We already see this push to “be better” in action in a variety of ways in other attractions and events at both Disney and Universal.

Disney has increased diversity and representation in its IP, from the casting choices in A Wrinkle in Time to the mixed ethnicity in Miles From Tomorrowland, Doc McStuffins embracing of a middle class African American family to the Latina Elena of Avalor. While the Harry Potter movies featured a white lead trio, the “world” of Harry Potter itself is diverse by design; Universal upholds this sense of being welcoming to all, “you can be a part of this world” strategy in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both park empires have become more forward thinking in their marketing and events, too: Universal particularly excels at appealing to the large Latinx market in southern California (even incorporating a maze based on the La Llorona legend into its Hollywood Horror Nights) and Disney has gone from appeasing offended heterosexual men who happened to be in the park on the unofficial “Gay Days” and distancing themselves from the event to embracing it entirely (down to rainbow-themed merch in the stores, of course). These are all great things, which continually expand the worlds of Universal and Disney to let more and more people be right there in the heart of the story, not just on the fringes. And we’re eager to see how this continues to play out, from Universal’s Nintendoland to the potential for full-on immersion in the Star Wars universe at various Disney Parks (especially given the increasing prominence of women and people of color in the IP).

So we see the upgrades—and let us be clear, we see these as upgrades, not changes—to Pirates of the Caribbean as the next step in this march toward being better and doing better. In a world where Disney is encouraging little girls to dream of being a princess, like Elena, or a pediatrician, like Doc McStuffins, or even dress up as a pirate themselves at the Pirates League experience, it only stands to reason that they’d elevate the representation of women from victim to victor, from princess to general. Long live the Redheaded Pirate, long may she reign.
Image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr