As dreamers and builders of themed experiences all over the world, we know how important the use of story is to bring these venues to life. In two of my blog posts, I describe how story is used as a structure to assist businesses and markets reach their audiences in more meaningful ways. For “Storytelling: Is it as Important to Theme Parks, as it is to Film?” I explored the background of storytelling and the different mediums used to deliver a story to an audience. Specifically, that the use of story is even more important for themed experiences than they are for film because guests go through these venues at their own pace and create their own story based on the elements we provide. In the other post, “Dimensionalizing Brand”, I demonstrated how story has become the vehicle to deliver dimensional, corporate brand experiences for many different businesses, products, and services in various markets for the last 20 years! It’s a testament to the lasting value of storytelling that a method pioneered by Walt Disney and the original Imagineers 65 years ago could become the delivery mechanism of most major brands today. But do you know how a story is developed and what elements are used to assemble it?
The same requirements exist whether developing a story for books, film, television, games, live performances or themed experiences. Each requires a place and time period where the story exists, characters that occupy that story as well as an action or theme that represents the reason for telling it! Finally, themed experiences require one more element and that is to invite the audience to participate in the story. In addition, every story creates a point of view for the audience to observe from and this is where themed experiences can really make a departure from the others. Since theme parks are choreographed experiences from beginning to end, they provide an environment that allows for many different types of storytelling to be represented usually under one, over-arching story. Using these “building blocks” and combining them with the various types of delivery technologies, many experiences can be created for an equally wide range of guests.
For example, at Disney’s Magic Kingdom park, the Peter Pan attraction mirrors the film story as guests travel through the scenes reliving the journey of the characters from the film. The source story, from the book written by J.M. Barrie, inspired Walt Disney to bring it to the big screen in the 1953 animated film of the same title. Then, in 1955, ‘Peter Pan’ came to life as a dimensional attraction at the opening of Disneyland. This process of a single story taken from a book, made into a film then created as a physical place showcases the genesis of many themed experiences and shows the great flexibility of story. As audience members, guests are transported directly into the journey with the characters they already know and love from the book and the film. They are welcomed, however, in the “third person” point of view since they don’t affect the story in any way and are not recognized by any of the characters; this is staying true to both the book and film POV’s.
There are many examples of themed experiences that do not re-tell a book or movie but have been specifically developed for the theme park medium of story delivery. At Epcot Center in Walt Disney World, guests are invited by Patrick Warburton to go ‘Soarin’ Around the World’ on a large hand glider. He meets the audience and speaks directly to them personally guiding them to start the experience. The elements of the story are simplified and linear since the audience are the only characters immersed in the story and it is occurring in the present. This attraction also represents a commonly used but hybrid point of view: starting in the second person then transitioning into a first person story method. The use of motion simulation technology, 270 degree projected film, surround sound audio and even scent enhances the story to a high degree of realism.
Another example of a themed experience that leverages a hybrid type of storytelling is ‘Midway Mania’ at the The Disney Hollywood Studios. Guests are invited to participate with their favorite toys (at their size!) in a first person, immersive experience where they interact directly with characters from the animated film, ‘Toy Story’. This linear experience takes place in the world of the film and its characters, but gives the guests true interactivity. As the vehicles move into two dimensional scenes they compete in a gamified experience where the guests interact directly with digital characters and elements just as if they were in the film. The scenery, interactivity and even the subject matter of the story experience exactly matches what the audience already knows from the film. In fact, as guests, we are ushered into the experience by the toys and therefore completely accept that we are their size. The entire attraction experience takes place “under” Andy’s bed as if it were a play set constructed just for this purpose. Unlike Peter Pan or Soarin’, guests are not just participating in an observatory fashion, they are immersively interacting within the story and affecting a portion of the story’s outcome.
As a final example, the Star Wars Galaxies Edge land at the Disney Hollywood Studios puts the audience directly into the world of Star Wars but in a place never represented in the film lexicon before. In this dimensional experience, guests are in the first person throughout every aspect of the venue and all of its attractions. In fact, the Cast Members actually treat you like you are a character in the story! In the Rise of the Resistance attraction, guests are recruited as members of the resistance to fight the First Order. Every element of the storyline unfolds with the audience members as active participants. How guests perform in The Smuggler’s Run attraction in the same land can affect the rest of your time in the land as the other characters seem to know how you performed flying The Millennium Falcon. These venues represent the effort to completely immerse guests in the story having them “suspend their disbelief” while being drawn deeper into the story.
We should also take a look at live entertainment as another storytelling medium. In the world of themed entertainment, live performances take several forms. Stage shows are created in a theater venue where an audience watch a story unfold live on stage. In this form, the audience is in the third person, watching the action. For some shows, the performers actually spill into the audience increasing the sense of immersion. Another form of live entertainment is the parade. This is a linear experience that usually winds its way through a themed venue where the audience is viewing the performance from the sides, typically along a pathway. In recent years, parade performances have become very sophisticated adding acrobatics, mechanically moving elements, lighting and special effects; almost like a moving attraction! These parades also stop along their path and “unfold” the performance into the area along the route and interact with the audience. This is definitely an immersive form of storytelling! Finally, live entertainment performers also bring our favorite characters to the lands in which they live, giving these dimensional environments life.
Combining all of these story building blocks with different delivery technologies in a variety of ways can create numerous experiences for guests. These experiences can be designed at many different investment levels to accomplish the broadest possible demographic reach.
A common misconception exists with some who are starting out in themed entertainment: Story is used as a creative, visioning tool for the purposes of designing and building experiences that resonate with guests. Although this is true, this isn’t all story is used for! Understanding that the industry is a “business” and that each project will be invested in and owned by a “client” who operates the venue where the project will be located is a critical perspective (especially for Creatives). As Woody Allen famously quotes, “Show business without the business is just show show!”
Every venue in the themed entertainment world is a business at heart, therefore, we should think of story as the framework and the vehicle to deliver theses business objectives. Here’s how:
First, each of these clients have a brand, and these brands have specific audiences. The next element to be considered is the client's business objectives for the particular project under development. The most successful teams will immerse themselves fully in the brand’s essence to understand its primary attributes and “identity”. That team will also collect and digest all of the demographic information of the audience that engages with this particular brand. These two exercises will provide the team with an enormous amount of criteria that will be essential to creating an “experience product” that will build brand equity and engage specific audiences. Finally, the team must have a clear understanding of the client’s business objectives for this specific project investment. In most cases, it is either adding more content to already successful venues in an effort to expand and accommodate higher capacity. In some cases, it is creating brand new content to achieve the same result. Sometimes, the investment might be to expand a specific audience demographic. For example, adding a thrill attraction to draw teens and young adults or specific IP characters to draw a younger audience.
Just like the story building blocks have flexibility, so does the brand, audience and business filters; all giving the team an immense range to custom design experiences with specific delivery objectives.
“Story” then becomes the tool that uniquely and specifically weaves the results of these three criteria filters into a cohesive framework that the whole project will align with through the process. The client then approves the story conceit because it becomes the method of delivering an experience that is designed to draw in their audience, build brand equity in a targeted way as well as achieve the client’s stated business objectives. Therefore, it is especially important for the creative team members to participate before the project actually begins. They will participate in the early engagement with the client, gather this pre-development work and establish the conceptual story conceit to lay the ground work for what will become the visioning for the entire project.
This development methodology is critical to this particular field. The more one understands how story can be the vehicle for delivering brand and business objectives to a specific audience, the more successful the individual project as well as the team who delivers it.
Themed experience design is very different from other design fields in that everything we design is in the form of a story-driven experience, which has to emotionally connect with the audience. Not every design field has this requirement. When was the last time you purchased a toaster or an oven because you had an emotional attachment to it? A car, maybe; Your smart phone? Possibly. It’s one of the only industries in existence who’s products (experiences) must be created leveraging all 5 of the human senses and delivered in a story form that resonates within a specific culture (the industry is global) and must generate an emotional connection with it’s “consumers”. Following this method is one of the best ways to insure this is achieved and can be applied in every project type: Attractions, Hotel, Casino, Water Park, Retail, Dining, Theme Parks, Cruise Ships and RD&E venues.
Although story is expressed in the form of books, movies and TV, the themed entertainment industry by far delivers the most tangible, memorable story experiences of all. Environments that allow guests to physically participate in a fantasy world, imagining, escaping and playing create powerful memories that are locked in with emotional and sensory experiences. As professionals in this industry, we are all responsible to shepherd these stories with care, dreaming and building for the next generation.
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