Tell me a story
Maintaining the attractiveness of the site by adding new attractions is a specificity that goes beyond even the financial health of theme parks. Exceptions to this rule invariably lead to loss of business after a few seasons.
Operators are therefore regularly faced with the challenge of selecting new attractions, a strategic decision that will bind the company for a long time. Errors in this domain can have disastrous consequences.
The common approach is to select a ride from a manufacturer’s catalogue. However, an amusement ride provides sensations, while visitors are also asking for emotions and feelings; they are looking for attractions that tell a real story.
By questioning people around you to find out what they consider as their favourite attraction, you will quickly realize that the names that frequently come up are not those of the more thrilling rides or experiences with high technological content, but the «classics» based on a powerful story. Very often, these are the ones that visitors would never miss, and are powerful re-visit catalysts.
Smaller venues tend to believe that the development of an original product based on a structured scenario is reserved for the large parks which have access to in-house creative resources.
In fact, the opposite is true. Designing (or adapting) a story is accessible to all, while the means available for implementing a major attraction is proportional to park attendance and investment capacity.
However, having a good idea is not enough. What is expected from the new attraction? Attracting a specific category of visitors? Significantly increasing the capacity of the park? Reinforcing a themed area? Increasing the food and merchandise figures? It is the answers to these questions and the scenario which will define the format of the attraction, and not vice versa.Indeed, adapting a story to a particular type of attraction may introduce technical constraints, irrelevant at this design phase, that can hamper creativity. And this leads to an invariably disappointing result. Countless attractions have had to be closed or seriously reworked after a couple of seasons, after failing to attract the audience and the financial success envisaged.
The only constraints that should be taken into account in the preliminary stages should be those related to zoning and masterplanning. Budget requirements should be analyzed in a second time, in the light of the success and longevity of the attraction, and its contribution to food and merchandise revenue.
At the design stage, nothing prevents the designer from thinking that everything is technically possible and that financial resources are unlimited. Constraints will manifest themselves soon enough.
Telling a story in an Attraction
Amusement parks offer unique challenges to writers: Telling a powerful story in a few minutes where the protagonists are probably unknown to an audience who is not in the mood to decode complex messages.
The challenge is quadfold:
Even if the attraction is aimed at a particular group, a thrill ride, for example, it will be built in the heart of a very mixed population, including groups of different origins, cultures and nationalities.
Attractions rides usually last a few minutes, rarely more than ten or fifteen, mainly for throughput reasons. This means that visitors have very little time to get acquainted with the protagonists (except in the case of famous characters) and the plot. Fortunately, the queue line and preshow are perfect ways to introduce the characters and set the scene.
The enclosed environment of a theme park gives visitors an exaggerated feeling of safety. Park employees can relate many stories of visitors behaving in a way they would not dream of doing in the ‘real’ world.
In addition, visitors spent part of the day under bright sun, their senses solicited by the park atmosphere. They are not in the same state of mind as a couple on its way to the opera. Families visiting a park are obviously not in the ideal state of mind to decode subtle symbols and unwind complicated intrigues.
A great attraction is an investment designed to last. This means that its design must exclude elements that may quickly become out of fashion, such as characters or events related to current news or fads, and references to present technology.
It is wise to follow the advice from novelist Adolphe Dennery:
"Take a smart theme, a topic not too trendy or too outdated or too common nor too original, so as not to shock or simple souls or refined minds"
These constraints, combined with the advantages inherent to the park environment provide opportunities to stimulate creativity. For example, a film director has no control over the venue, and must design a product that is compatible with all possible mediums, from the small display of a cell phone to the huge screen of a large movie theater. The attraction designer has none of those constraints. His medium is part of the script. Furthermore, he can interact directly with his visitors/actors throughout their journey along the set, from the queue line to the post show.
Structuring the plot
Once the theme and the format of the attraction is set, it is time to work on the structure of the script.
As we have discussed, audience attention makes complicated plots risky. Normally, the story is structured into a single "act", with clearly identifiable characters, a linear plot and a simple situation. Very generally, a demographic simple introduction / conflict / resolution structure will provide a solid base. Although it is not an absolute rule, subplots are rarely used in attractions scenarios.
Structurally, the result is probably simplistic compared to a novel, a short film or TV production. Again, the idea lies more in efficiency rather than shining among peer attraction designers.
The simplicity of the story, and situations, does not mean that the experience won’t be artistic or instructive, on the contrary.
In all cases, writing begins with structure and structure begins with the end of the story. This way of thinking, adopted by the most talented novel writers, helps clarify and adapt the characters motivations, making them credible and consistent.
As we mentioned, the good news is that the guest flow in the attraction is perfect for establishing and developing the narrative elements: the queue and preshow offer unique opportunities to set the scene, introduce characters and unfold the plot.
Although the conclusion comes at the end of the main show, the postshow can be an efficient way to finish the show, or give an extra clue such as the resolution of a subplot. It is also a powerful catalyst to drive «in the mood» visitors into the adjoining shops or restaurants.
Show, don’t tell
Anything that can be shown instead of explained must be. This remark makes perfect sense in a context where visitors do not all speak the same language. For example, a scene showing a skeleton surrounded by his treasure says more than a long explanation detailing how greed leads to isolation and decay.
Several days of infusion are needed before going back to the script and removing anything that is not meaningful to the story or indispensable to the action. On the contrary, any element that clarifies the action must not be omitted.
We tend to link the concept of story and scenario to film or stage shows, but any attraction format can be used in a narrative environment. The difference between the most popular dark rides and their copies lies not only in the quality of their construction, but in the lack of a linear plot.
Even if it does not seem obvious at first, by riding an attraction such as Phantom Manor time and time again, the existence of an underlying plot appears as new symbols are discovered on each new ride.
In other dark rides, the history is quite explicit. The same can be said for roller-coasters that can be «fast-speed dark rides» or experiences in which the ride portion will be the climax of a story started in the queue line and preshow area. A good example for this would be "Dragon Challenge" at Universal Studios.
All attractions formats can be used and combined to develop a unique experience, whose attractiveness cannot be compared with that of an isolated ride.
It is once the script and format are defined that technological (and budget) constraints come into play.
At Tejix, we know that technology is a good servant but a poor master. Technology must serve the story and not the opposite as is unfortunately sometimes the case.
It is likely that structural or artistic elements in the attraction script will have to be adjusted due to material constraints. Only the strength and clarity of the initial concept can transform these constraints into artistic opportunities.
Each time the use of technology is considered, the combination of the purchasing and maintenance costs compared to its usage life serve to evaluate its financial relevance. As for the remaining costs of design and construction, the amount to keep in mind is the cost per visitor, ie investment plus operating costs and maintenance divided by the number of visitors during the attraction lifespan.
In all cases, the technical options chosen should be durable and reliable. Technical design should be closer to industrial design rather than artistic experiment. A running attraction is a profitable tool, a broken one is a counterproductive one that must be paid for while it infuriates guests and damages the park reputation.
Successful attractions are based on simple stories that can be enjoyed by all. When thinking about a new attraction, starting with its storyline broadens the range of format options. The result will be a better return on investment, justifying re-visits and providing opportunities for additional income.
The sources of inspiration are many and varied. A lot can be learned from other parks, especially the best ones, without forgetting to analyze and understand failures: excellence is nourished by the study of its opposite.
But inspiration and originality can be found outside the parks: in all types of shows, art, music, nature ...
Beyond our role as experts in technology, Tejix’s “raison d’être” is participating in inspiring successes, which are the pride of their owners. For this reason we strive to share our experience and our vision and are able provide a wealth of information for everything related to attraction design.