Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Anyone Can Build a Theme Park

When I was a kid, we did not have cable T.V., so we only got five channels on a sunny day when we adjusted our bow tie reception-thingie just right. We didn’t subscribe to any magazines except Reader’s Digest, which I never read, and various Focus on the Family publications. My friends were not rich. And I lived in the Midwest, about as far from any ocean as possible.

Translation: We did not get the Disney Channel, our magazines never had ads for theme parks of any kind, very few of my friends ever took a vacation to Disney Land or Disney World, and we lived much too far away for billboards for these attractions to reach us.

But I still grew up knowing that an essential part of childhood was wanting to go to Disney World.

Before I actually visited myself for the first time when I was sixteen, I had a vague impression of what Disney World was. Those huge Dumbos flying in the air, and enormous teacups spinning you until you got sick. Little kids grinning as they hugged Mickey and various other impersonators. Overpriced souvenirs. Fireworks. A giant castle in the background.

Now, that may not seem like a detailed impression, but think about it for a second: I had virtually no contact with any kind of Disney advertisements, and yet I was able to construct a fairly accurate picture of what Disney World was like.

To this day I have no idea where I got those pictures. No idea. I’m sure I picked impressions up in snippets – part of a commercial while I got my teeth cleaned at the dentist, some kid at the airport wearing Mickey ears, news coverage of marathon for cancer that went through the Magic Kingdom. But it goes to show that Disney World has somehow managed to infiltrate our culture on a very basic level. How? I think I might just have figured it out.


That’s it. Think about it: the reason we smile when we see pictures of those kids hugging impersonators in costumes is because we recognize who they’re supposed to be, who the kids think they really are. Disney is responsible for a whole parade (literally) of cultural archetypes that are instantly recognizable, because they are a part of compelling stories that engage us from childhood on up.

Disney is also the only theme park that can get away with slogans like “Dreams Come True” and “Wish Upon a Star.” Really – have you ever wondered why adults don’t gag at all the cliché cheesiness that pervades the entire marketing campaign for that place? It’s because those fluff statements are tied to something that feels more real: a story. Sure, most of the stories are fantasies, but we give them a pass and believe in their messages because they speak to us in some way.

And, if you’ve ever been to Disney World, you know that the experience of the place itself is saturated with story. Here are some ways the rides reflect story:
  1. Everything has a plot. The roller coaster is not a roller coaster. It is a runaway mine car through an abandoned mine or an expedition to find the lost Yeti. Suddenly, the log ride is not about plunging several stories into water and getting soaked. It’s the climax of a musical journey with Brer Rabbit outwitting Brer Fox. Some rides are all story, with very little or no adrenaline-rush factor, such as Pirates of the Caribbean (when you can make a movie based on a theme park ride, you know story is important).
  2. The waiting area is half the fun. Funny tombstones outside the Haunted Mansion, dozens of oversized toys and board game pieces leading to Toy Story Mania, and command center type games leading to Space Mountain, to name a few. Once you step into an attraction, you get pulled into a world…even if it takes you an hour to get to the ride itself.
  3. The employees are not employees; they’re cast members. There’s a difference, from the costumes, to the way they are trained to respond to guests, drawing them into the story of whatever ride they are managing. I especially love the creepy deadpan of elevator operators at The Tower of Terror.

Other theme parks have tried to imitate this basic formula, but it never quite works, probably because their stories, for the most part, are pretty generic. Aliens attack. This is a Viking ship. Because we planted a few tulips and have foreign music playing, this is Holland. They just don’t have a deep enough repertoire of beloved stories to draw upon, and most are too timid to try to create a great, original story.

Anyone can build a theme park. Very few can create a world.

Transition: Anyone can write a story. Very few can create a world.

There’s a difference between story in a technical sense – a certain number of typed pages of fiction – and story in the sense that Disney uses it – a compelling and imaginative narrative that draws the reader in as part of the experience. To me, it’s the difference between mediocre writing and great writing.

Looking at the Disney World example, I’m inclined to think that the key is in the details. Do even the smallest bits of narrative create a colorful picture without detracting from the story? Does what the characters say sound real? Is there a deeper purpose to the story than just one thing happening, leading to another, leading to a resolution?

The depth of story is what makes Disney World great, not the height of their thrill rides (which, compared to most parks is small), or the great deal that the ticket prices are (cough, cough, extortion and commercial racket).

The World is fueled by story. As writers, we create worlds, and we should be able to say the same. It shouldn’t be about our elegant descriptions, thrilling action scenes, or killer sense of humor. At the end of the day, what matters most is, and always has been, story.