“Over the years Disney repeated to his animators: “Make it read!” Meaning, make the action distinct and recognizable. No contradictions, no ambiguities.” – Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original
You, the audience, make your way through the Temple of the Crystal Skull. You know Dr. Jones has been here – he’s set up his base camp, disarmed booby traps, and his name is on the attraction marquee. But now he’s vanished inside the temple, and his faithful assistant Paco, who can’t operate a tripod, decides to send you directly into certain death!
….Hold on, back up here. Let’s take this from the top.
We’re all taught in Western storytelling that nothing can happen without conflict. There just can’t be a story of renewal or growth without somebody running into some kind of obstacle, or antagonist. Many people think the antagonists are more interesting than the heroes who fight them. Even a cursory glance at a single scene from most major Hollywood movies and you’ll see it’s mainly a checklist of characters developing or resolving conflicts. Sometimes, when the conflict building isn’t adequately disguised inside the narrative spine – as in the recent Hobbit movies – audiences rebel.
In contrast, theme parks seem to operate in an entirely different register, despite otherwise seeming to be a direct outgrowth of traditional Western art forms like theater and filmmaking. And while we conflate the effects of multiple art forms – think of those who consider an especially visually appealing area to be “painterly” – the fact is, theme parks construct their meanings quite differently than other narrative modes like cinema.
Although they’ve been the dominant narrative mode for most of the last 110 years, films have limitations. Film scholar Tom Gunning notes that “Whereas literature is never directly iconic, film, as a series of photographic representational signs, is. […] In film, the excess of [surface detail] over meaning appears automatically with the photographic image.” Films can depict dreams, but they can’t really convey thoughts; they are full of surface details, but audiences must know which details in-frame are relevant. We begin to realize the unique difficulties of storytelling in the themed space when we realize that filmic limitations apply to spaces such as Disneyland, but the difficulties are multiplied!
Unlike in a film, a themed space can be experienced in any order, and at any speed desired. Unlike a film, images may be examined from multiple perspectives, and linged over or rushed past as the viewer desires. And unlike film, the gaze cannot entirely be fully directed, although a truly exceptional themed space can “drag” the eye through it in controllable ways. Themed space shares the visual limitations of films, but without the benefits of editing!
This means that if you want to tell a story in a theme park with an identifiable bad guy, there can be no cut “back at the ranch” while the villains hatch their scheme, no leisurely unfolding of information through a first act. Themed spaces tell stories that hardly ever break down in acts; it’s all action, as if you had to tell an entire film’s narrative in the context of one huge action scene. Given these limitations, it’s amazing that any theme park stories work at all!
So what’s the solution? Theme parks tell stories that boil down to morsel size “storylets” with lots, and lots, of conflict.
On one end of the spectrum, we can look at an attraction like Alien Encounter, which had so many various conflicts going on at once it was confusing. There was the conflict of the X-S Tech Corporation wanting to demonstrate its very poorly tested teleporter technology, the conflict of Chairman Clench wanting to teleport into the theater but being unable to, the conflict of an alien bug wanting to eat the audience, and an extra layer of conflict of the XS Tech technicians trying to figure out how to get the bug out of the theater. If Western narrative wisdom about conflict were applied here, this would seem like a winner, and perhaps it would have been – in a feature length film! In the practice of an 8 minute theater show, with an excess of telling instead of showing, it all came across as a lot of shouting.
Another attraction where there’s simply too much going on to be digestible at the fast pace required of a park attraction is Dinosaur – in this one two characters even get into an argument in the safety film! We think we’re entering an ordinary museum, but surprise! We’re going to be sent into the past in a time machine they built in their weird basement secret lab. Once on the ride we’re required to keep track of multiple story threads simultaneously: we’re supposed to be looking for and capturing a highly specific dinosaur, while also being pursued by another highly specific dinosaur, while also somehow getting out alive before a meteor hits – three jobs nobody associates with bounding around in the dark with dinosaurs. While Dinosaur checks the boxes of being a thrill ride, most guests forget one or two of these plot points while actually going through the darn thing, and the payoffs never register as well as they should.
If we want to look at a more successful example, we could look at the Indiana Jones Adventure, where we are asked to keep track of a missing person narrative about Indiana Jones, a not very fully thought out danger situation involving an angry Indian god, and finally our own desire to survive the ride. I think where Indiana Jones Adventure succeeds whereas Dinosaur fails, is because the first two conflict threads or storylets pretty much resolve immediately; they’re only really there to keep us engaged while we’re waiting in line, and manage to sneak in a safety film sideways without seeming abstruse. Pretty much right away Mara decides to kill us and Indiana Jones is recovered; with those resolved, the only remaining pressing concern is to survive the temple.
Indiana Jones Adventure and especially Dinosaur spend an inordinate amount of time checking the boxes of classical story structure, to really no discernible good end – ask anybody coming off either ride to identify what the main conflict in the ride is, and they won’t. Or, more accurately, they’ll fall back on descriptions of things that happened to them – we dodged the Carnotaurus, we avoided the rolling boulder, with no consideration whatever for the elaborate conflicts and storylets laid out inside the narrative for them. With such complicated considerations, the harried theme park designer starts to long for the simple life.
I consider these three attractions to be just about the most convoluted experiential narratives ever devised in the industry, and really only one of them works to any degree it was intended to, so let’s back away from the double (or triple, or quadruple) conflict narratives and look at some middle-ground examples.
Let’s consider Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as an example. Yes, there have been various layers of narrative complication added to the attraction over the years, mostly in the form of queue area entertainments, but when you get right down to it, the basic conflict of Big Thunder Mountain – the one you actually experience between getting on and off the ride – is that you decided to ride a runaway mine train, and now you are on a runaway mine train. Various things, little “storylets”, happen to you while you’re on the train, and each is more exciting than the last, until you arrive safely back at the station.
Or, to take another famous example, there are many opinions and rumors as to what the “story” of the Haunted Mansion is, but in reality the story is simplicity in and of itself – you, played by you, decide to enter a haunted house and you live to tell the tale. That’s it. The ride implies universes of characters, connections, and backstories, but in the end it’s really just the story of you spending a night in a haunted house. Does it really need to be anything more?
Perhaps the pioneering narrative conflict told in themed spaces is what we may call “Dodge The Witch“, in which you avoid various dangers and make it out okay. Under the guise of “man vs. nature”, The Jungle Cruise is basically a Dodge the Witch ride. Grizzly River Rapids is an very good Dodge the Witch – it may not have a grizzly bear, but it does have plenty of dangers and surprises. Even Disneyland’s Matterhorn is an exceptionally carefully modulated Dodge the Witch, in which there’s nearly nothing doing the storytelling except some steel track and an abominable snowman.
Yet aren’t Indiana Jones Adventure and Dinosaur also Dodge the Witch rides, to some degree? Is there perhaps something to the fact that most riders blithely ignore all of the carefully modulated narrative information and conflict setup in these attractions and gleefully report that they did indeed Dodge the Witch?
|Laff in the Dark, Early 1930s|
Here, then, is one crucial distinction in the way theme parks tell stories and the way everyone else tells stories. A novel, or a film, or a play, must engage in a lengthy setup in which character are introduced, a situation is outlined, a conflict identified, and then pass through an inciting incident which sets the rest of the narrative in motion. Theme parks don’t need to do this.
Why? The reason is because the only characters that really matter in theme parks are the spectators. That’s the reason people visit, after all – we sail over London, we encounter some dinosaurs along the Disneyland Railroad, we ride the Hogwarts Express. This is what themed spaces can do that nobody else can, and it’s the blend of passive and active participation that makes the places resonant. There doesn’t need to be an inciting incident because it already happened when we entered the park.
There is conflict (or at least drama) baked into everything that we do at a theme park, because by their very nature theme parks are places of the exotic and strange. The unspoken contract that exists between the themed space and the public is that we will agree to be mildly inconvenienced while entering an attraction in exchange for being excited inside it – this is why it’s disappointing, sometimes enough to make news headlines, when the ride breaks down and the excitement is ended prematurely. Themed spaces are orderly areas of pictorial effects which break down in irrational and chaotic images, briefly glimpsed, once we hop into that Mr. Toad car.
This is why the attractions that really matter, that really last, tie up the conflict with the theme of the attraction in a way that’s seamless: we decide to enter the jungle, board our jungle steamship, and are guided through the various dangers. That situation doesn’t need anything more than to be present to be understandable, it uses very clear, very understandable visual cues to work. Everybody knows that giant snakes and cannibals are bad news, and – uh oh – now it’s happening to us!
This is also why a ride like Space Mountain can work across time and cultures in a way that the Delta Dreamflights of the world could not. Just as with Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain really offers amazingly little information about what we are doing or why – we’re going into space, and space is weird. The drama is right there in the attraction name, and as far as theming goes, all that’s really required is that the vehicles look like rockets and we’re off. Again, riders bring more drama to the experience than the designers need to supply, because themed spaces work differently.
This also points towards one feature of themed spaces which the rules say would seem impossible in other media: the low, or no, conflict experience. There’s the Enchanted Tiki Room, which 50 years on still enraptures audiences by doing nothing more than slowly coming to life. Consider also the Skyway, which requires severe interpretive methods to find any conflict in it. Or It’s A Small World, where the entire darn point of it is that it’s conflict free. Through the 70s, Disney repeatedly attempted to make a Small World movie, and repeatedly failed because to introduce conflict into that experience defeats the whole reason it exists in the first place.
During the construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney repeatedly instructed his designers just to “build something people will like”. In theme park analysis circles we like to say that areas need a mix of A, C, and E tickets to be successful – a shorthand to refer to the “levels” of the attractions that are needed to flesh out any themed space. But it may be just as well to refer to these ticketing levels in terms of levels on conflict – this is why Tomorrowland doesn’t feel complete without a Peoplemover, because the Peoplemover fulfills the role of the Mark Twain steamboat in Frontierland – a relaxed scenic experience with no plot or conflict to speak of. The low conflict attractions round out the day with a variety of low-stakes experiences that are “safer spaces” than the Jungle Cruises or Space Mountains. Every child implicitly understands this unspoken dynamic.
This mass of data seems to suggest, more than anything, that there is in fact a diversity of ways to build a successful theme park attraction’s story – there may be plenty of bad examples that hog the spotlight, but for every three unsuccessful, obvious examples, there’s at least one where the thing works just fine.
What can be said is that conflict in theme parks can be implied in such a way to require almost no special treatment, or indeed even be a component of creating a compelling experience. The aesthetics of theme parks, and the unspoken contract between themed spaces and spectators, is such that there can be narrative inherent in simple visual designs and enveloping environments that can supplant the need for a formalized conflict. In this sense, themed spaces have a power to suggest narratives in a way nearer to the way that fine art like painting or sculpture can: through the deployment of such features as colors or shapes.
Although themed spaces are absolutely the nearest to cinema in terms of logic and effect, the theme park has a secret power that cinema does not: it can be iconic without needing to be abstract. Every so often, somebody comes along and tries to make a film that is played out entirely from one character’s point of view, replacing the “I” tense in traditional novelistic storytelling with the filmed camera. This never ever works; it’s easier for audiences to invest in screen characters depicted on the screen rather than as the screen.
Theme parks are films that happen to you, and they happen with no signposting or role playing. Think of the Disneyland Railroad: imagine if you made a film out of those events. You’d have an avant-garde film; mass audiences would say that it makes no sense, that it’s outside their comfort zone. But millions ride the Disneyland Railroad every year and take its bizarre mix of nostalgia, sightseeing, and time travel totally at face value. That’s the secret power of themed spaces, the power to compel without the need for a formalized narrative or even narrative logic.
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