The Trendy Theme Park Industry

by Mike Scopa
AllEars® Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the May 10, 2011 Issue #607 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Mike ScopaThe theme park industry has been around for more than 50 years and, like any other industry, it has evolved through the years to help guests escape from real life, if not for a few hours, at least for a few moments on its attractions.

Attractions. The Walt Disney Company has always made it a point to call its theme park offerings "attractions" for the simple reason that the word "ride" does not always fit. Every ride is an attraction, but not every attraction is a ride. Sure there were, and are, themed rides like Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, but we still need to call them attractions.

As the theme park industry grew and matured so did its clientele. The challenge for companies like Disney, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens was to discover that next generation of attractions, and, in many cases, whenever that key idea surfaced, it started a trend.

There have been many trends over the years.

First there was the classic dark ride, such as Snow White's Scary Adventures, Peter Pan's Flight, and "it's a small world." All theme parks offer the obligatory dark rides for several reasons, one of which is that for so long those types of attractions were their bread and butter. Even today many young theme park customers are raised on those rides.

Universal Studios wondered what it would be like to put their customers in classic films. They created attractions that gave their customers thrills that brought back memories of such classic films as "King Kong," "Earthquake," and more recently "The Mummy" and "Men in Black."

As the decades went by, theme park operators began to realize that it was not just thrills that would keep bringing back their customers — applying themes to their attractions would help as well. Sure, you could build the fastest roller coaster, but if you added a theme or story to it then you added a dimension to the attraction that made it unique. Putting a personality to a roller coaster ride thus became a trend that still holds today — witness Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Expedition Everest at Walt Disney World.

Themes and storytelling at times became blurred, and for a while it seemed they were one and the same. It's an accepted fact that the Walt Disney Company was the first kid on the block to apply themes to attractions. With Disney's storytelling craft very much honed to perfection, it's no surprise that Disney became the model against which other theme parks were measured in this regard.

Storytelling was not the only measuring stick. As mentioned earlier, the maturity of theme park customers over the years required theme parks to reach down deep to appease their sophisticated clientele. And this clientele noticed everything. For instance, in the '90s when Universal Studios Florida opened an attraction based on the movie "ET: The Extraterrestrial," it was very welcomed, especially as each person who rode that attraction was personally spoken to by that cuddly alien. Many guests noticed, however, that when they rode through ET's forest they could see the ceiling of the building that housed the attraction, taking away from the fantasy. Those same guests remembered that while riding through Walt Disney World's Splash Mountain, they saw nothing but leaves when they looked up at the ceiling, reinforcing the theme and story around which the attraction was built.

One of the trends that caught on was the acknowledgement that guests could easily become bored with an attraction or a theme park. To many people boredom is related to predictability. Many guests loved the anticipation of experiencing a favorite moment in an attraction, but there was always that need for adventure that would creep in as well. Enter Horizons at Epcot. For those of you who were fortunate enough to experience Horizons, you may remember that there were options given to guests regarding how the attraction would end. Horizons was very popular for many reasons and I believe that alternative endings was right at the top of the list.

The alternative or multi-dimensional aspect of an attraction was soon seen as a key factor in keeping theme park guests interested in coming back. Walt Disney World added an assortment of wrinkles to some of its attractions to allow guests a chance to enjoy this form of diversity. Attractions that come to mind are:

  • The Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios, in which guests could request the Gangster or the Western scene.
  • The Sum of All Thrills at Epcot, which allows guests to design their own thrill ride; offering a multitude of options.
  • Turtle Talk with Crush, which also offers a different experience because of the diversification of human interaction that comes with each show.
  • Spaceship Earth, whose recent renovation allows its riders to choose options on a video screen regarding their future.
  • Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor at Disney's Magic Kingdom, which brings in the guest interaction element to make each performance just a bit different than all the rest.
  • The Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom, which owes its longevity to its many different skippers and their own unique comedic delivery during the journey.
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios' The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, with its randomly generated drop sequence — guests never know what they are in for.
  • The American Idol Experience at Disney's Hollywood Studios, which never offers the same exact experience to the guests due to different performers and outcomes each show.

There are others, but by now you understand where I'm going with this. Each of these attractions offers guests a chance to experience something different every time they visit.

And now as May 2011 has arrived, so has the latest attraction to embrace this multi-dimensional experience for its guests. I'm talking of course about the approaching debut of Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. If everything goes according to schedule this attraction will open on May 20 at Walt Disney World and will bring with it some characteristics that represent the hottest trends in theme park attractions today.

We've been led to believe that this attraction will offer its guests a number of different ride experiences — experiences that will make the guest come back for more. Although the details are obviously being kept strictly secret (perhaps in a sealed glass jar on someone's back porch), we do know that there are different destinations and different characters awaiting us on every journey.

The Imagineers who designed this attraction understood the need to excite and, yes, tease the guest to come back for more. Guests will enjoy an interesting ride profile when they experience Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. There have been rumors that the height requirement has changed for the attraction and that there are more than 50 different ride experiences, which means you would have to ride the attraction at least that many times to see each one just once. You could say that it's possible that you will never be able to experience all of them. I don't think I could remember more than 20 myself.

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue also throws in another trendy element. The attraction will not only offer numerous ride experiences, but it will also entertain its guests in 3D.

Where do all these trends stop? They don't. There's an idea out there somewhere waiting to become a trend. Trends will continue to come and go, and those who are in control of designing attractions of the future will find ways to combine trends in one attraction.

When that happens we all know that we are not only in for a good ride but that be it today, tomorrow, next week, or even next year… we know that our own adventures will continue.

So you might say that becoming trendy has become, well, a tradition for theme parks.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World, and has served as keynote speaker for MagicMeets. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net:

In addition, Mike is co-captain of Team AllEars® — the AllEars.Net Running Team that participates in the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.