Spectatorship and Experientialism in Disneyland: Rethinking “Story”

Written by Cory Gross. Posted in Features

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Published on June 10, 2014 at 12:40 am with 54 Comments

The bread-and-butter of much discussion throughout the Disneysphere is the perceived decline of Imagineering and the attractions it creates. Many of these focus on the question of licensed works as opposed to original concepts, having observed a decided lack of modern classics in the vein of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion or Journey into Imagination. Most seem to be running statistical tallies on the number of thrill rides or E-tickets, shedding a tear over each new C-ticket attraction and Princess meet n’ greet. Despite the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World being the best-attended theme park in the world, beating out Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure by more than 10 million visitors in 2013, well-intentioned fans are frantic over the need for a “Potter-Swatter” or Disney’s need to step up to the plate when they already own the field. To put it in perspective, 10 million is a little more than the attendance of The Louvre in 2013, or the total number of visitors to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.

Oddly absent is debate over the single most important dialectic problem in Imagineering design today… The problem cutting to the very heart of what a Disney theme park experience is, regardless of whether it is a ride or a meet n’ greet, an E-Ticket or a nice bit of place-making, a true themed-park or simply an amusement park encrusted with diverse franchises. It is often mistaken for being the debate between “story” and “theme” but it runs even deeper than that. It reflects the very nature of how a guest subjectively determines the success or failure of an attraction. That problem is the issue of spectatorship versus experientialism.

A slow process throughout the Eighties and Nineties transformed the attitudes of Imagineering towards seeing theme parks as a storytelling medium rather than an immersive experience. Under the reign of Michael Eisner, the decree went out that “it’s all about story,” and the new generation of Imagineers attempted to force fit the medium of the theme park to it. According to The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland, even a setting like Main Street USA has a “story,” as did the original version of Pirates of the Caribbean.

spectatorship6

Where does THIS fit in the story?

It wasn’t always that way though. Marc Davis, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men and a chief designer on Pirates of the Caribbean, specifically contradicts it:

“[Walt Disney] didn’t like the idea of telling stories in this medium. It’s not a story telling medium. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates. You don’t see a story that starts at the beginning and ends with, ‘By golly, they got the dirty dog.’ It wasn’t that way.”

When the Imagineering Field Guide claims that Jack Sparrow, Barbossa and “these characters from the films were interwoven into the existing story, all the while ensuring that the spirit of the show remained intact,” (pg. 60) we can see the first problem. There was no existing story! Imposing a story about Jack Sparrow in and of itself violated the original spirit of the show.

This is not to say that these attractions did not have a motivating logic behind them. Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and their vintage did have a structure that unfolded according to the needs of the experience. Consider the Haunted Mansion: the guest is personally welcomed into the house by the Ghost Host, who explains that we are about to embark on a tour of strange sights. We catch fleeting glimpses of these things in the form of stretching and changing portraits, but the Ghost Host challenges our perceptions. Is it only our imaginations? After loading into our Doombuggy, we are assaulted by invisible spirits straining to cross over into our world. Sensing our sympathetic vibrations, Madame Leota calls them out of the aether, and we proceed to a swinging wake. The Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize, and in the end, a hitchhiker threatens to follow us home as a diminutive bride beckons us to hurry back.

spectatorship2a

The motivating logic of this “story” is not a narrative, but a set of experiences placing the guest at the centre of an adventure. It is the guest who is touring the Haunted Mansion, the guest whom the Ghost Host addresses, the guest whose sympathetic vibrations release the 999 Happy Haunts, and the guest that the Hitchhiking Ghosts want to escape with. Though Imagineers were conscientious of tying Constance to images in the Stretching Room, she still does not add a narrative element to the ride. Hers is little more than an extended gag that is very much in the spirit of the rest of the Mansion. The house itself provides the cohesion of the experience, moving us forward through doorways and passages rather than cuts and dissolves. At the core of it is the guest’s own adventure.

This tradition goes all the way back to the original dark rides, where the guest was cast in the role of Snow White, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad and Alice. Each one follows a structure comparable to the refined form in the Haunted Mansion: in Snow White’s Scary Adventure you are running through forests and dungeons, in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride you are careening through the streets of London, in Alice in Wonderland you tumble down the rabbit hole and in Peter Pan’s Flight you are flying over Neverland. In their original form, prior to their slight renovations in 1983,  guests did not watch Snow White or Peter Pan: they became Snow White and Peter Pan, assuming their roles in the adventure, sharing their experiences. They are all defined by the quality of being experiential.

Lest this be dismissed as nostalgia, one could point to numerous modern examples whose Imagineers understood this fundamental point. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye calls direct attention to the fact that every guest riding it is a tourist by making that the motivating logic of the ride. In it, you play a tourist visiting the temple when things go awry and Indy must come to save the day. In Tokyo Disneysea’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo has invited you to become a member of his crew and pilot one of his exploratory submarine pods. Star Tours casts you as a passenger on an express starliner, and in the newest version, one guest even turns out to be a Rebel spy. Lord Henry Mystic has invited guests to his Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland when little Albert opens the magical music box. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror articulates this whole principle most succinctly when a Rod Serling sound-alike states categorically “in tonight’s episode you are the star…”

spectatorship4

Sign me up, captain!

By contrast, the weakest Disney attractions in recent memory all place the guest as a spectator to a disjointed sequence of tableaux from someone else’s adventure. The three most recent Fantasyland-style darkrides – Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid – all share this problem. An ideal Little Mermaid ride would have had Ariel touring us around under the sea and rescuing us from having our own voices stolen by Ursula. Instead we merely sit in a cart to watch dimensional vignettes from the movie. Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sully to the Rescue has the same problem. The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage places us in a cramped submersible to watch cartoons. Phantom Manor takes the Haunted Mansion format and draws the guest out by making it about the conflict of The Phantom and Melanie Ravenswood. The story of Splash Mountain suffers terribly by being disjointed vignettes from a film that nobody in North America is legally allowed to watch.

The most egregious offense was perpetrated on Pirates of the Caribbean. In the original, as Marc Davis said, the guest experiences the idea of pirates. The structural arc of the attraction begins with the guest falling into a cavern of skeletonized pirates and their dusty treasure trove. A disembodied voice – now long-gone – warns that we’ve seen too much and know where the cursed treasure be hidden. We emerge from those caverns to have our own lives put at risk in a town being sacked by pirates who are becoming increasingly inebriated and immoderate. Eventually, their excess spells their own doom, and possibly our own if we stay trapped with them. Our last glimpse is of a pair of skeletons, the last remains of the last two pirates who killed each other for treasure. Through the harrowing ordeal we come to realize that the peril was not merely to our bodies but to our souls, for the cursed treasure was not a treasure that was cursed. No… It is treasure itself that is cursed. We get to enjoy the swashbuckling idea of piracy on the Spanish Main as well as a powerful moral message (that conveniently justifies the puerile vicarious excitement of enjoying a good pirate attack). In the current version, guests are reduced to mere spectators sitting in a boat to watch the antics of Jack Sparrow, and they don’t even get to see the good parts. He just pops up periodically to remind guests that he’s the focal point of this adventure, in case they missed how everyone else is constantly talking about him. In the end, instead of the poetry of this morality play, we see that Jack Sparrow got away with it and piracy is okay (I suspect that wouldn’t hold up in the event of a piracy lawsuit from Disney). It is now Jack Sparrow’s adventure, not our own. And nothing is more satisfying than watching the adventures of fictional characters whose lives are more interesting than our own, right? Isn’t that the whole point of Disneyland? Or is it?

In lieu of the immersive experience that places the guest at the centre of their own adventure, we see an increasing reliance on cheap tricks to retain our attention. Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlasters is a giant dimensional video game. Toy Story Midway Mania is not even that: it is literally a video game you can buy for Nintendo Wii. Reportedly, the MagicBand/MyMagic+ initiative will give affluent parents the option to purchase an animatronic character wishing their child a happy birthday. I would not be overly surprised if we start to see an increasing number of smartphone apps that serve similar purposes, say, a Haunted Mansion “ghost hunting” app that posts your in-ride photos to an online leaderboard (and Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). On the other hand, things like A Pirate’s Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas and Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom are at least done right. In the latter, Merlin enlists your help, and you take an active role by casting spells that stop the villains.

The situation is honestly not doom and gloom. As evidenced by my list of positive examples, this dialectic problem is still producing numerous attractions in both styles. Nor are all attractions of either necessarily all good or all bad. Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage is a wonderful, brilliant, and charming attraction at Tokyo DisneySea that is very much on the spectatorship side of the ledger. To give credit where it is due, this is neither an exclusively Disney issue. Something Universal did well to figure out is that people are fans of Harry Potter because they like the idea of being a student at Hogwarts, and they are more than happy to sell you the ephemera to pretend you are. Fans want robes, scarves, and $50 wands, not a tschotcke with Mickey dressed as Harry.

spectatorship5

Case in point.

This tug-of-war will probably continue for many years – perhaps indefinitely – with certain types of franchises taking up certain sides. For example, the arrival of Marvel attractions will necessarily involve watching The Avengers do heroic things, while more original concepts may furnish guests with the opportunity to do heroic things. I hope, however, that it eventually settles for fostering engaging experiences over passive spectatorship.

About Cory Gross

Cory Gross is a professional educator in the museums and heritage field, sharing his passion for history, science and art in his home of Calgary, Canada. He is also the creator of Voyages Extraordinaires, a blog dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Futurism, which can be found at http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com.

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  • C. Andrew Nelson

    You’ve hit the nail on the head! Brilliant observations.

    • michael darling

      ^entirely agree. Corey, I enjoy your descriptive writing, especially how you synopsize attractions.

    • Algernon

      That’s exactly what I was going to say. Now I realize that I always felt like I had walked into the films and could explore the world the characters lived in, and, every now and then, catch a glimpse of them going about their daily lives. I could never figure out what it was about Pinocchio and Winnie the Pooh that made them so bland–I even like the music and artwork from Pinocchio. But I tend to forget that either ride even exists, especially Winnie the Pooh. And for Nemo–I wish I could forget it even exists!!!

  • Kiba

    Reportedly, guests sometimes requested characters who did not appear in dark rides with their names on them, so there is that. But I gotta say, as a kid, I pulled the sword out of the stone at Disneyland and it does make me a little sad that when I went last time, I took a picture there with my niece and nephews knowing full well they wouldn’t have the chance to pull it out themselves.

    • ayalexander

      I have a question about that, if anyone can answer it: Why can’t you pull the sword out of the stone anymore?

      • HollywoodF1

        It has only ever been possible during the Sword in the Stone Ceremony hosted by Merlin. It was built for the purpose of that show, and was never set on a randomizer, as many people believe (mainly due to the Disneyland commercials making it appear that it was random).

        -Spoiler Alert-
        No one can pull it out– not even during the show (which hasn’t run in years)– because it is motorized. It pushes itself up from the anvil, and it doesn’t matter if anyone is holding onto it. I’ve even seen it carry a kid off the ground.

  • LoveStallion

    Great article. Well written and cogent.

    Per Kiba, yes, guests were initially confused about the notion of “becoming” the character ont he dark rides. They just didn’t get it. Everyone asked, “Where’s Snow White?” on her own ride. Call it a narrative/experiential flaw, but that one clear came at the request of guests. And really, for the dark rides, I’ve never felt the need to BE the character (and I’ve only been alive long enough to know a post-1983 Fantasyland, btw).

    You’ve really made me think about the overall guest experience. I’ve certainly had my gripes with the ongoing franchise-related ride theming at Disney parks, and I cried with many of you when the Jack Sparrow overlay hit Pirates, but I guess in the case of that, it wasn’t because we were establishing a narrative when one wasn’t there, but rather, because Disney was basically selling out and trying to retcon their rides to sell more merchandise and movie tickets, and that was bothersome. I’m grateful Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion flick was such a bomb, otherwise I can all but guarantee Mr. Murphy would appear somewhere in the Mansion today.

    But now I see how so many rides have taken the guest out of the experience and turned us into observers rather than participants. Ariel was a prime opportunity for us to have an adventure under the sea, but instead it’s “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure.” Nope, we just get to watch.

    • Cory Gross

      I wouldn’t even have minded having Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, Will and Elizabeth, and the rest of the cast added to the ride, if it were done in an intelligent way… Say, as animatronics based on the Marc Davis/Blaine Gibson look, standing more towards the back, looking like they always were a part of the ride but you just never noticed them before.

      Instead, you get this story imposed on it that makes “Captain” Jack Sparrow the focus of all attention. As I said, you don’t even get to see the good parts; he just pops up occasionally to remind you that you’re watching his adventure. When he’s not on stage, everyone is talking about him. The story they imposed makes no sense (why is the town protecting him when he wants to steal their treasure too?) and the constant reference to him as “Captain” even contradicts its own source material. The whole running gag of the first movie (and a PLOT POINT of the second) was that Jack was the only person to call himself “Captain.” There is no way Barbossa would do it. While the technology of the Jack animatronic is stunning and the look is realistic, that is actually a problem when contrasted against the original animatronics. The audio quality of the new dialogue is distractingly different from the audio quality of the original content, and that blip of the movie theme comes from nowhere. Then ON TOP of all that, they throw in a projection effect of a squid monster in a ride with no other projection effects or squid monsters (by contrast, Constance and her portraits were improvements on effects and characters that already had precedent earlier in the ride). That squid in turn explicitly contradicts the original “Dead Men Tell No Tales” theme (“Ahh but they do, so says I, Cthulhu!”), as does the new ending in which Jack gets away with it. In fact, the new end makes the entire part with skeleton pirates utterly pointless. Instead of having a moral significance that is revealed by the end, it’s just sorta’ there.

      I can’t describe what happened to Pirates in any way other than “vandalism.” Thank God that Disneyland Paris still has something close to the original attraction. I literally almost started tearing up… I had forgotten how much I USED to love Pirates of the Caribbean.

      • MyFriendtheAtom

        +!

      • ayalexander

        Cory, the new movie additions to the attraction wouldn’t have been so out-of-place and stiking if the imagineers weren’t put up to the difficult task and had die-hard fans on their backs about “Don’t change the ride in any way significant” -They did what they could with what they were given, They were allowed to put in new characters but weren’t allowed to change much of the attraction to allow the new characters to fit in well. We can’t just blame imagineering. If the fans weren’t so against change, imagineering could have tied it in better like in the way you described.

    • Algernon

      I don’t like Jack Sparrow, either. The two types of artwork don’t match. He looks real and the pirates seem cartoonish in comparison.

  • Disneymike

    Someone should send this article to WDI and Tom Staggs.

  • indianajack

    One of the best articles I’ve read on MiceAge ever. Brilliant observations about guests wanting to be a part of the story, and not passive observers. Your description of a Little Mermaid ride with us as a part of the narrative sounds perfect; that’s what the ride should have been. My only differing opinion is that I think Pinocchio works well telling the movie’s story in such a short time and space. The ending with the iconic Wish fulfillment song and Blue Fairy gives me chills every time. I’m thankful for that part of the film’s story being in the ride.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking essay.

    • Cory Gross

      Thanks! and Thanks to everyone so far for the replies!

      I’m a little bit harder on Pinocchio than perhaps it deserves, because it is a transitional attraction. It was moving from experientialism to spectatorship, a devolutionary missing link. The emphasis on watching Pinocchio is more subtle than, say, watching Ariel or Jack Sparrow, which means it still fits in better with the classic Fantasyland attractions (it’s just the “least best”). The standout scene in it for me is Pleasure Island, where it really hits the “you are there” experientialism. The end scene is great as well, I just wish the appearance of the Blue Fairy wasn’t so brief. I honestly did miss it on my first trip to Disneyland. It was on my second trip that I knew to look for it.

  • solarnole

    Men in black at Universal is my favorite ride in Orlando because you are in control and the ending changes every time you ride based on your score verses the other car.

    The passive native of studio parks has made them the weakest theme parks. No one wants to learn how movies are made they would rather make their own YouTube video. People don’t want fake sets like Star Tours they want realistic Harry Potter theming.

    • AaroniusPolonius

      I actually don’t mind the “studio/Hollywood” theme of the studio parks, but I wish that they’d follow the narrative if they are to employ that theme.

      To put this another way, Star Tours in Disneyland totally works, as you’re taking a flight through the Star Wars universe. Star Tours at DHS is still a great ride, but the narrative doesn’t work for its location: you’re not “on set” at a Star Wars film, even though the ride is located in a “set.” Once you’re inside, you’re “on a flight through the Star Wars universe,” not “on a movie set creating a flight through the Star Wars universe.”

  • mey

    Why no discussion of Radiator Spring Racers? It’s a recent effort by Imagineering that puts guests in the middle of the experience, plus has thrills and a little bit of story.

    • Conconhead

      Good point! You’re not the main character – you’re interacting with them, you’re getting a story similar to but not exactly the film… and your experience is no less for it. I love the Dark Ride portion (but wish the race was longer!) and I didn’t feel confused as to what story they were telling us.

  • soundhound

    Excellent article; this is something I’ve thought about for a few years. The whole “backstory” concept certainly goes over my head when I only wish to EXPERIENCE a ride, not try to figure out some obscure story!

    The focus of Disney on moving away from the traditional way of letting guests experience an attraction, and the insane focus (for me at least) on “characters” intended mostly for the kids (and extracting money from the parents of those kids), has changed the Disneyland experience forever for me, and not for the good.

    That, the ever present ticket price hikes, and the feeling that they constantly want to have their hand in my wallet, is the main reason why I don’t go to Disneyland anymore. Its truly sad – I loved Disneyland. I grew up with it. I worked there for years, going all the way back to the days when they were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays!

    Like the passing of a lifelong friend. Sad, but life goes on.

    • Cory Gross

      Sometimes a backstory or a meta-narrative can enrich the ride experience. One of my favourite things Disney has ever done was the meta-narrative about Atlantis that runs through much of Tokyo Disneysea. You pick up bits and pieces of it as you walk through Mediterranean Harbor, see a mural about its destruction in Fortress Explorations, and find out its final fate in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It’s brilliant and draws you into a great experience as you become an active participant in solving this mystery.

      Other times… meh… I think one of the silliest is the Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical Café. If it were just a old timey café “like Walt would have experienced” that is cutely named for Three Little Pigs, that would be fine. But a contrived fictional story about how Walt was inspired to do Three Little Pigs by them actually pulls me out of the theme, because I know that didn’t happen.

  • disneylike

    In addition let’s not forget how important the approach to the show building is in creating an immersive experience. Seeing a fully themed show building in the distance and walking towards it builds the anticipation of what is to come, think; Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder, Small World, Splash Mountain, etc. With Ariel’s Undersea Adventure if you approach it from Condor Flats all you get is the sparsely themed side of the building before you step in line. By contrast, you can approach Big Thunder from it’s back and there are enough sights and sounds that build your anticipation by the time you get to it’s front.

    I understand that they had to deal with a pre-existing building but I always felt it should have been where the beer gardens now stand and use that show building for an attraction that fits more closely with Grizzly River Run. In the beer garden location it would have allowed you some anticipation as you walk towards it as well as lending to the overall vista of that area of DCA.

    Much like when the ‘speed ramp’ was removed from Space Mountain (focusing you directly towards the show building) in favor of an un-themed, confusing side route that is mingled with Capt. EO and the Pizza Port, I feel that there are some very poor choices being made.

  • SpoonCM

    Forbidden Journey is a horrible ride – when it comes to story. Universal tried to include the guest in everything from the movies but threw out Potter canon in a story that just makes no sense. It’s an excellent ride if you just don’t pay attention to what Universal is cramming down your throats. Hopefully Gringotts doesn’t suffer the same fate.

  • tooncity

    A very interesting take. When riding these attractions, I never saw them as having an Experience
    or just observing someone else’s story. But I do see it now, once it’s been pointed out.
    Once attraction that was left out was the Submarine Voyage. Built during Walt’s version of WED, 1959. That attraction seemed to be less of an experience and more like something Imagineering would design today, A vehicle full of tourist and then something goes wrong, kind of story. The rider doesn’t take the position of the character.

    Also, many of the WDI project that were never built had more of a first person experience. example would have been The Baby Herman Buggy Ride, where you are on a crazy out of control Rollercoaster. I think is was a simulator/film attraction.

    Cory, I think you hit the nail on the head with the newer Dark Rides. Your version of Mermaid would have been so much more fun. Ariel helping you to save your voice.

    But maybe that’s the real reason why so many people complain/grip about Disney. They could do so much more and be so much better then what they’re producing (or lack of producing). Fans see potential from the resources Disney has; and instead they get watered down, stripped out, what’s the least we can do type of effort.

    Or fast construction, lots of detail and effort on ONLY the projects that are clear revenue sources. Everything else just gets pushed down the list. Way down the list.

    It just makes you wonder if the Bass Bros had actually broken up the Walt Disney Company back in 1984. Sold off the studio and theme parks. Would the Parks be in better shape today? Then they are now. Even though I would have hated to see it happen, I think the Parks would be better since private owners would have to develop and build NEW, Experience attractions as Walt did, in order to hang onto it legacy. Current Disney has no interest in legacy. Walt’s died, deal with it. Baby boomers are moving out of the market, and Disney needs to accommodate the current ME generation.

  • Sifferz

    This is an amazingly well-written article that articulates the core issues at imagineering today with both eloquence and intelligence. Bravo, sir. The one thing that bears mentioning is how well Radiator Springs Racers actually does handle this issue, but the more I think about it the more I realize this really does lend itself well as a core criticism of the current imagineering approach to attractions.

    Hopefully it’s a rut they escape in the near future, and they begin to bring some of those brilliant minds working overseas on original attractions to come up with some new things stateside too. Hopefully.

  • Algernon

    So is Disneyworld beating out Universal, in spite of Harry Potter?

    • Cory Gross

      And then some. TEA released their report on 2013 attraction attendance earlier this month: http://www.teaconnect.org/tea-blog

      I know there’s a segment of the readership that gets hypersensitive about me calling Universal an also-ran, but there is no greater evidence than IOA plateauing at 10 million fewer visitors per year than MK. One might be able to say that Universal is equal to Disney on some attractions from a creative perspective – I will totally give them due credit on things like Harry Potter – but clearly it hasn’t been enough to put them in serious competition with Disney.

      My reading of what has happened is this: only about 5 million people a year cared enough about what Universal offered to bother going. My pet theory is that your average person doesn’t really care about theme parks. What they want is to connect to something that has emotional meaning for them… Like, say, the entire Disney brand. Harry Potter gave people a reason to go to Universal AT ALL. It was something they wanted to connect to, which Universal has played that very well and given those people a very satisfying experience. The problem is, that number of people is exactly 3 million. Attendance surged from 5 million to 8 million, but that’s where it has plateaued. Now what Universal is trying to do is leverage that attendance. Diagon Alley, for instance, isn’t about bringing more people to Universal. Everybody who cares about Harry Potter is already coming now. They’re trying to spread out those numbers between the two parks, by forcing all those Potter fans to buy parkhoppers just to see all the Potter stuff. I suspect that the net outcome of the expansion is to see USO’s numbers jump up closer to IOA’s.

      Like everybody else, I would love to see Disney build more amazing rides just for the heck of it. I would much rather see Mysterious Island and Mystic Point added to Animal Kingdom than Avatar. But from a purely business perspective, the best, most economical response Disney could make to Harry Potter is to offer moderately-priced transportation to Universal for people with 4+ day Magic Your Way tickets and hotel room packages.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        Cory, it’s probably safe to say that Potter offers Universal an initial attendance leap of 25-30% in the first year, 10% in the next and 2% from there on out.

        USF’s attendance surge last year had nothing to do with Potter and everything to do with a new attraction (Transformers,) and that was worth about 15% in the initial year of opening.

        So, while I agree that Potter is Universal’s ace in the hole, it’s not the only card they have to play. What is certain is that WDW can and does gain in attendance with or without investment, while UO has no choice BUT to invest expensively in rides and attractions to keep their attendance on the rise.

        Part of this has to do with Universal having a fairly dismal historic reputation as a brand in the theme park space (I grew up in Florida, and the lack of reliability didn’t exactly encourage visitation,) and Disney having a historically beloved brand in pretty much every space. It may take them awhile to overcome that legacy and build their brand.

        In a way, they’re a lot like Hyundai. That car company had to spend years and billions to overcome the Excel introduction to the American market. And look at them now. So…it may not happen overnight, or it may not happen at all, but Universal is a much more serious, much more challenging racer at the track. It will be fascinating to watch it all play out.

      • Park Hopper

        The problem with this is that Universal is not done. Diagon Alley is just the beginning. From what I hear they have a plethora of new mind blowing attractions in the works based on several Intellectual properties that people will want to connect with.

        And the way Universal works… it’s not beloved Disney IPs vs. Universal IPs. Universal knows they wouldn’t win that one. But they are not afraid to license, so they can pick and choose the best IPs that are out there. So, basically, it’s beloved Disney IPs Vs, everybody else. Now you have something to work with. And Universal is definitely doing just that.

        Now Disney has the Marvel IP, which is very valuable, but apparently that’s off the table for the US parks for the foreseeable future. And everything else in the US parks has been postponed due to their obsession with My Magic+.
        So, it appears Disney is handing Universal a golden opportunity and it equally appears that Universal is going to take full advantage of it. Disney may be the undisputed Orlando Theme Park King today in 2014, but let’s wait and see what the picture looks like in 2024. If things keep going the way they’re going it could be very different.

      • Cory Gross

        Disney vs. everybody else might be closer to a fair fight.

        Promisory notes of future conquest aside – since those are, in my opinion, ad hoc rationalizations for why most people still prefer Disney – the reality is that Universal has to keep investing to retain status as an also-ran. They have to keep adding new rides and attractions just to keep themselves open as an option for people on their day away from Disney. As someone else noted, they’re not competitive with MK… or even DAK or DHS. They’re competitive with Sea World and the Kennedy Space Centre. I honestly don’t think that Peter Jackson’s bloated, indulgent, forgettable version of King Kong is the ticket to raise attendance by another 3 million, let alone 10 million. It’ll be more a case of “okay, so we’re going to Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, Epcot on Thursday, Animal Kingdom on Friday and Hollywood Studios on Saturday, then we’ll just relax and go to the water parks on Sunday, maybe pop into Epcot again for the fireworks, and do Magic Kingdom again on Tuesday. So what do you want to do on Monday? It looks like Universal has some new rides… should we check that out? Eh, sure.”

      • Park Hopper

        Yeah, Universal does have a long way to go, but they have definitely started the trip. King Kong is just the next step. There is a lot more to come. They seem to be getting quite tight with Warner Bros..

        Maybe Disney should revisit their old Silly Symphonies, because right now they appear to be playing the role of the Hare, in the Tortoise and the Hare. And to be honest your reply sounds like it might have come from Fiddler and Fifer Pig, themselves.

        Disney is too complacent. They think nothing can touch them and you appear to agree with them. Historically, that kind of attitude comes right before a fall.

        Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want Disney to fall. I want them to wake up and build that brick house!

  • Mondo Mouse

    Excellent article! It’s great to have someone articulate the difference between the two types of attraction, and point out that Disney would do well to stick to its original formula.

  • Big D

    Really good article, one of the best I’ve ever read here. You nailed it, that is exactly the difference between the classic rides and some of the newer rides. I actually didn’t know that the original intent was more experiential. I had always thought that the rides were about telling a story. But after reading your article I totally see what you are talking about, and what the difference is between something like the Haunted Mansion and something like The Little Mermaid.

  • Showoffca

    Excellent observations – I have often thought the exact same thing of most of the new rides coming out from Disney and what they have done to PoC … I hate the Jack Sparrow overlay – all I hear is “Jack Sparrow” – which is annoying.

    The lack of transitions in Ariel’s Adventure – or as I call it – “A lot of rock”, is awful. It is what kills the ride for me – as I see too many missed opportunities for little to no money to have made a better attraction.

  • indiginerd

    Such an interesting and informative article. Thank you so much!

  • Ravjay12

    What the TEA attendance thing tells me is that its pure demographics. There are more rides for children and grandparents at the Magic Kingdom so more people go there. Universal seems to have targeted that demographic in between. IOA has far superior attractions than Magic Kingdom, its just that at IOA, they don’t enjoy that “nostalgia” or museum feeling people get at Magic Kingdom. Our family spent far less time in MK than any of other parks at WDW simply because its boring. We love Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disneyland Paris more than IOA and I believe these two are a better comparison to IOA than MK. The fact that you keep bringing up and criticizing Harry Potter tells me that Universal is gaining ground on MK. It’s a little hard to believe you wrote this article if that’s really you in the picture enjoying a day at IOA. IOA must not have been all that bad!

    • Cory Gross

      “The fact that you keep bringing up and criticizing Harry Potter tells me that Universal is gaining ground on MK.”

      That’s just it: they’re not.

      Universal’s attendance rose by 3 million when they opened Harry Potter, but it didn’t negatively impact WDW’s attendance. Between 2010 and 2011, IOA’s attendance rose from 5.9M to 7.6M. That same year, MK rose from 16.9M to 17.1M. Harry Potter brought in people who either weren’t going to WDW anyways or more likely who were going to WDW already but not bothering with IOA. IOA since plateaued, with 7.9M in 2012 and 8.1M in 2013. MK got 17.5M in 2012 and 18.5M in 2013. So from 2011-2013, IOA rose by 500K and MK rose by 1.4M (in other words, New Fantasyland worked). Given that Epcot is hovering around 11M and DAK and DHS are hovering around 10M, what I suspect is happening is that on an average vacation, people are going to MK for 2-3 days, Epcot for 1-2 days, and DAK, DHS and IOA for a day each (which is EXACTLY what I have planned for my honeymoon to WDW). So it’s not even that Disney fans HATE Universal. That’s just an ad hoc rationalization by rabid Universal fans… Disney fans ARE going to Universal, finally, for a day, extending their vacation, because they like Harry Potter. Universal is an also-ran, something that people are ALSO doing on their WDW vacation.

      The underperformance of Universal Florida compared to Walt Disney World seems to be a real problem for dedicated Universal fans to come to grips with. Universal fans seem really invested in the idea that Universal offers a superior product and scramble for excuses as to why the numbers don’t reflect that (i.e.: it’s demographic distortion, Disney fans are morally flawed and intellectually inferior, Universal will conquer Disney “some day” just wait and see, Disney fans just irrationally hate Universal for being better, etc.). They seem unable to accept that maybe they have a lot of affection for a fine product that most people just don’t care enough about, and that’s okay. Not everyone has to like the same things you do. You don’t need to have your life choices validated by others. If you like Universal more, go forth with my blessing and don’t worry about Disney fans. I’d just ask that you in turn allow Disney fans to like Disney without you bashing them all the time.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        While I don’t know the visitation patterns in Orlando’s theme parks, Cory is 100% at the core: as of today, the paradigm regarding visitation hasn’t changed, which is to say that people go to Orlando to visit the Magic Kingdom and then someplace else.

        What’s more, the “someplace else” that roughly 2/3 of the visitors choose after the Magic Kingdom is “another Disney park.” However one feels about Disney’s product, focus and brand or Universal’s product and brand doesn’t really matter when one gets down to math.

        Math doesn’t lie. It’s not subjective. Ascendant Universal is getting less visitors than the other non-MK parks (by 2-3 million, roughly,) and once the goose of new attractions wears off, the attendance increases drop to nearly identical growth percentages (but, of course, lesser numerical counts) to the ‘tired’ WDW parks.

        Now, Universal Orlando seems to have digested this undeniable fact, and is clearly, plainly and obviously going to attempt to keep goosing up the attendance numbers via continual investment in rides and attractions (last year, USF leapt dramatically forward in attendance on the basis of the Transformers ride and perhaps an expansion of “Springfield,”; next year they’re opening up a Kong Island in IOA and so on.)

        Disney World, to date, has yet to have to do that because the visitation paradigm hasn’t changed. Now, that may very well change in the future; nothing is written in stone. But, to date, it hasn’t changed yet.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        Sorry: the distortion of data gets me more than anything else. One can look at WDW’s lack of investment with scorn and “wish” that would affect attendance…and then one can look at the numbers and see that it doesn’t. For whatever reason…for many reasons…or for no damned reason at all, people still keep on keeping on at WDW.

        (It’s also pretty fascinating that a forum derided half-complete New Fantasyland dropped more than a million visitors into MK last year. Goes to show you the power of Disney.)

      • Ravjay12

        I’m not bashing Disney fans. I’m one myself. Disneyland was the reason I got into theme parks and was a cast member for 10 years. I love Disney parks as much as anyone on here. I’ve told you I love Animal kingdom and Epcot better than Universal and IOA, I just think IOA is better than MK. MK is a cheap, cheap larger copy of Disneyland with less attractions. That is mine and my families opinion. MK does have some great attractions but they are not as good as the surrounding parks. My favorite theme park is Disneyland Paris because I think they fixed a lot of the issues with Disneyland and MK. Again that’s my opinion. I was completely blown away in 1999 by my first visit to IOA because it was completely different from what I’ve seen from Disney, and was delighted to know that former Imagineers actually designed the park.

        I love what you said in your article about the differences in following the story and being part of the story in the attractions, I just don’t get the bashing of Universal in the beginning. Is your article about spectatorship and experimentalism, or how Universal isn’t in the same league as Disney?

        Disney is scrambling to counter Harry Potter with Avatar and Star Wars franchises because of the success of Harry Potter like it or not. Franchise movies are what make attractions popular. I’m one of the few people who are actually looking forward to the Avatar expansion, and I think it will be really great for Disney. Any attendance boost for Universal great or small takes away from MK attendance, and that’s a threat.

      • Cory Gross

        “I just don’t get the bashing of Universal in the beginning. Is your article about spectatorship and experimentalism, or how Universal isn’t in the same league as Disney?”

        My comments about Universal were to set the stage that a lot of the things that people complain about and debate about aren’t really THAT significant when considering theme parks as an artistic medium.

        In that introductory paragraph, I singled out three views that I think are actually red herrings. The first was bemoaning licenced attractions vs. original concepts. The second was bemoaning the construction of any attraction that is not an E-ticket. The third was bemoaning the lack of a “Potter Swatter.” All three, I think, distract from the question of whether or not an attraction is actually any good. Okay, it’s licenced… but is it good? Okay, it’s a D-ticket… but is it good? Okay, it’s not Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey… but is it good?

        Besides distracting discussion ABOUT Disney, I think it can even lead to faulty decisions BY Disney. Given how long it’s taken to get anything going and the lack of passion with which they speak of it, I have a sneaking suspicion that getting the Avatar licence was a regrettable knee-jerk reaction to Harry Potter that turned out to be totally unnecessary. I don’t know what they would have come up with had they sat it out and thought more soberly (Mystic Point?), but that ship has sailed now they’re stuck with this albatross around their necks.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        “Any attendance boost for Universal great or small takes away from MK attendance, and that’s a threat.”

        …and yet, at present, it hasn’t remotely been a threat. If IOA jumped by three million in attendance over the last three years or so, and MK jumped 1.4 million people in one year ALONE, clearly, obviously, at present, MK isn’t losing visitors while Universal gains visitors.

        The threat to Disney is two-fold, and one of them has nothing to do with attendance.

        The first threat is a possible perception shift where people start viewing Universal as the theme park innovator and thought leader, whether or not they beat Disney attendance numbers or not. That’s been the Apple position in the world of technology for most of its history, whether or not they were the market leader or not.

        Should they gain that perception (en masse, not in the realm of MiceAge boards and posts,) that will lead to brand elevation and a wider spread of free attention to the parks and resorts. They’ll get early adopters and then followers to the parks, which will boost attendance, which…even then…may not be enough to beat Disney numbers even as they enjoy a thought leadership position. To equate this to cars, Honda has enjoyed a pretty stellar reputation even though they don’t sell the most cars, no? Long story short, there’s more than one way to be a leader.

        (Indeed, this may already be happening, although like peak oil, we’ll only be able to identify that moment from the vantage of a rear view mirror.)

        The second involves WDW’s business model itself. Thus far, the paradigm has remained the same: Orlando visitors go to MK and some other park, 2/3rds of the time that park being another WDW park (roughly.) Thus far, WDW park attendance has remained steady with growth, with MK notably posting record attendance this year and last, and the other three growing at around 1.5-2%.

        That’s because the paradigm is the same. Should Universal start to garner two days or so off of most visitors, that will indicate a paradigm shift in visitation. You’ll see it in five places: increased attendance numbers for both Universal parks, and dramatic drops in attendance at the three non-MK WDW parks. MK’s numbers should remain stable (and even grow,) because that paradigm (going to Orlando and going to the MK) seems quite ingrained and generational, but the “2/3rds choosing to go to another Disney park” aspect will have changed, with Universal taking those visitors.

        To date, however, and however one wishes it to be, that hasn’t happened or changed. Between 9.5-11 million people STILL go to the non-MK WDW parks, even WITH Universal’s attendance rising over the past few years (from, it must be said, the toilet.) Between 17.5-18.5 million people STILL go to the MK, even with Potter up the street. That’s just math.

        If anything, it demonstrates the strength of the WDW resort with regards to vacation options and opportunities for both the company and the consumer…even in the face of increased competition. If anything, it’s been SeaWorld’s properties in Florida who have lost their competitive status as “another day after Disney, Disney, probably Disney and somewhere else that’s not Disney,” with Universal taking over that day (and notably going after the “probably Disney” day as well with the Potter 2.0 expansion.) [SeaWorld’s attendance numbers have been dropping for a couple of years now.]

        So…the first threat, the subjective threat of “who is the best in theme park leadership” is going on right now (which, props to Universal, marks the first time in basically ever that Disney’s had even a competitor that’s merited a discussion regarding that. And props to Disney for basically being awesome for a really long time.) Whether or not Universal beats Disney in attendance is irrelevant to that leadership threat in perspective. They can “win” without winning.

        The second threat, which is the idea that Universal’s Orlando parks start to get serious traction and garner a standard, en masse multi-day visitation pattern in the Orlando theme park market, is a threat to the WDW business model, and should it play out as such, will show dramatic, massive drops in attendance for all non-MK parks. It will indicate a paradigm shift. That will, indeed, be an “earthquake” should it happen, and will be felt across the theme park industry, the Disney corporation and even the Disney brand itself.

        But, as the numbers show, that has yet to happen. WDW is still the market leader, still posting attendance gains, and still rocking the visitation paradigm. Wishing ain’t being. Math is math.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        “Disney is scrambling to counter Harry Potter with Avatar and Star Wars franchises because of the success of Harry Potter like it or not.”

        Errr…I’d hardly consider the measured, many year approach to Avatar opening and Star Wars (still a mere rumor,) as Disney “scrambling.” If anything, the complaint from fans and detractors of Disney alike is that they move waaaaaaay tooooooooo sssssssssllllllllllllllllloooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.

  • Slightly

    Really, really good read! There’s a lot here I agree with and a lot I never really stopped to think about. Thanks for your insight, Cory!

  • Darth Goofy

    Definitely great analysis on what seems like an apparent deterioration of good show in newer developed attractions. At the end of the day as long as Disney keeps packing their parks, there will never be a new Haunted Mansion or Pirates quality themed attraction ever to be designed at that level of immersion in any of the state side parks.

    However for the family experience it will always be the go-to park whether or not new detailed and immersive attractions ever get built due to the experiences that children get.

    Tokyo, however will still get quality attractions in their resort thanks to the management of the OLC.

    It seems the the trend is invest as little as possible and profit as much as “DysCorp” can.

    Yes Disney invested in DCA, with nice theming of the latest expansion of Cars Land, but it was the failed concept of DCA 1.0 that drove the need and they knew they had to invest in attractions to plus up the $$$ profit.

    .

  • AaroniusPolonius

    Cory, we may not always agree, but this is a brilliantly written article. Well said and well done.

  • TDSTOM

    Well that was a lot about nothing.
    sigh.

  • Uncle Bob

    This is a great article, it’s something that I talk about all the time, “The Myth of Story.” It’s something that you can read virtually every early Imagineer talk about extensively, but somehow it escapes a lot of people. The beauty of experience attractions is that there is no explanation needed. You know that you’re riding a mine train, flying in a rocket, or in a haunted mansion, and there’s nothing that really needs to be explained. Backstories are useful for the designers because they help develop design concepts that can help give an added level of realness to the experience. But it should never be necessary to understand or know any story, be it a movie or a backstory, in order to enjoy an attraction.

    I also enjoyed the comments about the recent attempts to bring interactivity to the parks. There is some kind of irony that they continue this push of interactivity while not recognizing that their success all along has been based on the best type of interactivity, experiences. Not as you say, adding video game type attractions. Which I think can have a place in the park, as sometimes more narrative attractions can as well. But in general, the focus needs to be on experience and not on story.

  • tahoe9813

    Good article. One correction, though: the voice of Rod Serling at the Tower of Terror is Rod Serling’s actual voice. Disney obtained approval from the Serling estate to compile several voice clips to get to what is heard at the attraction today.

  • mbyrd

    Perhaps I am too young. I don’t remember Pirates (pre-Captain Jack final scene) ending with skeletons as you say (“Our last glimpse is of a pair of skeletons, the last remains of the last two pirates who killed each other for treasure”). I remember two pirates struggling with the big treasure chest covered with a pirate flag, trying to lift it. Has that final scene changed three times? Even on this video I found on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fri2z-PD0dQ) I couldn’t see the scene you’re referring to. I remember the skeletons at the beginning with the krabs and gulls, was that what you were thinking of?

    • Conconhead

      They’re on the reverse waterfall ramp as you’re hauled up. One has a treasure chest, and the other is stabbing him. It’s the last thing you really see before you hit the upper bay and go around the show Marquee with the map and parrot.

  • Polo33

    Great article and I hope the ” C” level Disney executives read it. Disney has done a great job spending billions of dollars acquiring other franchises BUT they absolutely need and original eTicket attraction at both California and Florida parks. Would love to see some sort of a high speed ride with amazing technology. There certainly is no shortage of brainpower at the Disney organization they just need to ” let it go”

  • waltopia

    Fascinating thoughts on the different approaches to ride experiences, thanks. Helps me understand a bit of why I maybe the only person who is not so impressed with Radiator Springs Racers in Carsland. IMHO – From a very few certain angles the concrete work is nice enough at depicting a dull but detailed landscape, but it’s incomplete from many more perspectives, destroying any actual theme-park believability. (The Matterhorn in contrast doesn’t ever ruin it’s illusion from any vantage point; nor does Big Thunder. Space Mountain used to work in the round, before they junked it up with speakers and such, so now it’s just a pointy building tucked back on top of a strip mall-like structure, not to mention filthy for years – hardly a soaring image from a gleaming future any longer). I think the positioning and queue layout of the Carsland ride is really awkward, but it’s the actual ride that leaves me more baffled than amazed. The decision to repeat the town of Radiator Springs inside the ride building after you just walked through another version of the same thing to get there, completely destroys the effect of the beautifully built “real” town outside. The shift into night makes it impossible to think you are in the same place. Pointless and poorly executed special effects do not pull the experience together either. While not quite repeating the story from the movie, it does not build upon it either. We experience too much of the same scenes from the film, and way too many tellings of the same jokes from it. It seemed like a sure thing to me, that we as visitors would queue up inside the (air conditioned) courthouse and then slip out the back door to join McQueen and Sally for a joy ride throughout the desert, to visit the fabled WagonWheel Inn, discovering “natural” wonders along the way. We would be joining them in being in love, experiencing the freedom and thrill of sharing the landscape together. Fun and flirtation would lead to a friendly race back home, back to that “real” town so spectacularly wrought outside, where the other Car friends live, in their actual logical locations. So why we start in a cave, then journey into night and back to a small version of the town before before returning to briefly see the sights inside the same cave is just stupefying to me. Neither story nor pure experience. Leaves me flat. Thanks again for helping me understand why.

  • Fukai

    The Fantasyland dark rides were changed precisely because guests didn’t understand they they were supposed to be the main character. The rides were changed for the better in my opinion.

    Also, unless I missed it, conveniently left out of the article are any mention of the two most popular rides at Tokyo Disneyland, and certainly among WDI’s best recent work along with Radiator Springs Racers, “Pooh’s Hunny Hunt” and “Monster’s Inc. Hide and Go Seek.” In both of those rides, you are a spectator to the adventures of the characters and there is a narrative flow to the event. I would venture to say that “Pooh’s Hunny Hunt” is one of the finest rides WDI has ever created, and you are a passive spectator to the action.

    As for adding Jack Sparrow, et al., to Pirates of the Caribbean, you can take the intellectual position that this somehow distances guests from the “experience” of the ride, but I don’t believe it. The simple fact is that the lines at all versions of this ride have grown much longer with the additions of the new characters and people enjoy the ride more. Far from being distanced from the immersion, the average guest feels more involved because there’s a character they like and can identify with.

    As for The Little Mermaid, that ride is just a mess. It’s ill conceived and under budgeted, but its failure has nothing to do with your main argument, which is that you are a passive spectator. The ride fails because it does not enchant, or excite, or make you want to go on it a second time to see things you missed the first. With a line-wire ride system (the so-called “trackless” vehicles) and double the budget for the AA figures, it could have been a huge winner. Instead it’s just a mess, and it will always be a mess no matter how they alter the physical lighting and paint.

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