Over the last decade, a somewhat obscure legal term has entered the public lexicon becoming the source of extensive discussion while simultaneously determining the fate of theme park design for the foreseeable future. Intellectual Property (IP) or more specifically its use has all but dominated the industry excluding one major force which was founded on creating highly unique experiences setting them apart from all others . . . that is . . . until now.
Objectively, IP has been in use since the opening of Disneyland and it will always be a vital resource for themed experiences. For one thing, it’s cheaper to adapt a film’s preexisting production design thus saving time on expensive development costs. It utilizes established characters and story thus eliminating the need for exposition. And lastly, successful IP comes with its own lucrative market.
However, the inevitable comparison between the designer’s fantastic movie sets and ADA compliant reality might not work in your favor. The character’s behavior might not be consistent with the film. The complexities and grandeur of a 90+ minute story arc most likely will be lost in translation. And most importantly, the more successful the IP the bigger the expectations and the more likely you are to underwhelm your audience, especially in an era when even the opening of well-themed restrooms come with their own social media hype. So before designing a new attraction or retrofitting an existing one based on your latest box office hit, there are a few factors that should be considered…
Unidirectional Creation Constriction
It’s no secret that the Disney Empire has experienced dramatic changes in the last decade. Companies that were once considered competition are now community property. From Dumbo to Darth Vader, Captain Nemo to Carl Fredricksen and Magneto to Mickey Mouse, for anyone older than 12 it’s truly a (Dr.) strange world after all.
In order to recuperate the cost of these acquisitions all efforts have been directed towards maximizing their potential profit. The most noticeable of which has been to utilize these “new” properties in the Parks as much as possible.
To this end, and as confirmed by many insiders, current management has just one guiding directive for Disney Parks. Put simply: Franchise or Forget It! Or, more precisely, if it doesn’t come from a pre-existing IP we’re not interested.
This directive implies that the motion picture divisions are the only ones capable of creating original content. There are a couple holes in this logic. The first of which is that Walt Disney Imagineering is no longer able to develop its own properties. Insinuating that over 60 years of relative success in the creation of memorable and profitable environments is no longer relevant. Secondly, that the motion picture divisions are actually making constrictive creative decisions with future theme park applications in mind. Thirdly, that those same creative decisions are somehow miraculously in service to both the film as well as the parks which may or may not host a future attraction. And finally, that any of these assumptions would work for two extraordinarily different mediums.
The Dysfunctional Form
While it is well known that all narrative forms have different requirements, what is probably less discussed is to what extent they succeed. The most successful ballets feature performers with atom-sized personalities, a literary masterpiece requires no accompanying music and yet if the mediums were reversed, a ballet without a score or a novel with zero character development would be an abysmal failure. In much the same way, theme park attractions and motion picture’s succeed on entirely different elements. And while it is true that one grew out from the other and they are developed using similar production methods and terminology they are in no way identical. For even entirely film-based attractions, come with their own artistic and technical specifications.
Film succeeds primarily on people-centric elements such as character, plot and story. Put in the most simplistic of terms, Humans doing Human things, with other Humans to achieve Human objectives. Whether its Scarlet O’Hara struggling to survive the destruction of the Old South, four funny guys savin’ the day through paranormal eliminations or star-crossed lovers meeting on an ill-fated ocean liner these movies largely succeed because of the interactions of its characters coupled with our ability to identify with them.
In contrast, films focused on design-centric elements such as environment, setting, or effects, may achieve notoriety, but in most cases are not initially successful. Walt Disney’s beautifully boring Sleeping Beauty, the excellently emotionless TRON, or the mysteriously magnificent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea comes to mind. All wonderful worlds but don’t exactly deliver the most attractive financial figures for the studio’s bottom line.
However, if one were to examine the most successful theme park attractions the exact opposite would be true. The Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Mountain are universally recognized and yet when pressed to come up with a list of characters even the most avid of fans would be hard-pressed to name more than three. This is because no matter how active or passive they are in the experience the Guests themselves are always the main character in any attraction.
Therein lies the problem. Only wildly successful character-centric films get the Green Light for theme park translation. By those standards, Gone with the Wind‘s war-torn 1860’s Atlanta, Ghostbusters’ crime-ridden 1980s New York, and Titanic’s fatally frigid sinking ship are all perfect candidates for themed entertainment. While the Eyvind Earle elegance of Sleeping Beauty, the glowing grid of TRON, or the watery world of 20,000 Leagues would likely never be explored in the New World Order. And yet, Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, TRON Power Run, and Mysterious Island have all been realized and are counted among the most beloved environments in Disney Parks to spite their one time lack-luster theatrical reception.
Aesthetic vs. Thematic Compatibility
When given the choice of any Disney Animation or Pixar film with which to populate Tomorrowland, what would it be? Treasure Planet? Wall-E? Or even something as on the nose as Meet the Robinsons? Well, as we’ve already discussed, none of those futuristic films would even come close to approval. But one of the titular characters of Lilo & Stitch is an alien, Buzz Lightyear is a Space Ranger, and Mike & Sully are really just Monster-like aliens from another dimension. Never mind, that Lilo & Stitch is set in modern day Hawaii or (as Woody likes to point-out) Buzz is, in fact, just a toy that never goes on a single space mission, and that Monsters Inc. justification was something I just made-up.
Looking at the production design of a film and finding its closest architectural relative in the confines of a park might save on production cost, but will ultimately cost you in cohesiveness. For what do wayward clown fish have to do with a real-life ocean exploration pavilion? And what could mechanically spinning magic carpets possibly contribute to the exotic atmosphere of Adventureland? Whether consciously addressed or subconsciously felt we humans have a strong desire for consistency and a profound distaste for incongruence therefore knowing the difference between Aesthetic and Thematic compatibility is an important tool in creating harmoniously enjoyable environments.
Pandora, a fictitious planet and Animal Kingdom a tribute to real Planet Earth is not aesthetically compatible neither is the borderline psychedelic Three Caballeros simpatico with a Mesoamerican boat ride nor is The Muppets in 1700s Liberty Square. Yet, Avatar’s theme of ecology, Donald’s trip through authentic Mexico, and the Muppets profoundly patriotic parody of history are all prime examples of Thematic Compatibility.
As with all businesses, ROI (or Return on Investment) is usually a paramount concern and yet when a new film is breaking box office records maximizing ROI seems to be all but abandoned. Riding on the wave of the latest hot commodity in order to ring-out every possible dime before the crest falls is an understandably human trait, but just like most others it is far from perfect and carries its own consequences. In fact, the results of this phenomenon are almost universal — quickly producing an oversaturated market. Anyone who wished we would all just “Let it Go” by mid-2015 knows exactly what I’m talking about. Frozen is a beautiful film with exquisite production design and some remarkably inspiring themes. However, very few people really care today because it was continuously exploited cross multiple media to the point when DCA’s winter version of World of Color — Season of Light debuted reviewers cheered because it did NOT contain a Frozen section. Let that sink-in for a moment. A winter-centric IP was not included in a winter anthology presentation and people were overjoyed by its exclusion. It’s the Law of Diminishing Returns at work.
Acclaimed Writer/Director Nicholas Meyer once said, “film is largely a product of the time in which it was created.” No matter how timeless they attempt to be, most films will fail to completely transcend the era in which they were produced. FANTASIA is an entirely Art Deco film, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in spite of its 18th century setting will always be associated with the 1970s and while this might seem like a pedestrian principle it appears to be so easily forgotten.
In sharp contrast to a film, which can be easily pinned down to a specific year and in some cases like Jaws’ “Summer of ’75” an exact season. Most unique attractions are much harder for the general public to discern. Only the most historically minded individuals are able to pin-point the 60s base guitar of Grim Grinning Ghosts or the punnly named Doombuggies as the only truly dated elements of The Haunted Mansion. And this same phenomenon exists with classics like The Jungle Cruise, Space Mountain, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Spaceship Earth, the Hightower Hotel, Mystic Manor, and the list goes on and on — Timeless attractions that require minimum investment with extremely high ROI.
This is not to say that IP attractions don’t have the potential to be long-term perennials as the Indiana Jones Adventure, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Star Tours & Splash Mountain can attest to this. But in all cases those IPs were well established for a decade or more before they made the transition from film to theme park. Also these highly-successful attractions are adaptions of the original media. None of these were “Book Reports” of the events found in the source material. These attractions are the gold standard of IP use — taking years to mature and transcending the inspiration.
This may be difficult to process in an ADHD technology obsessed society but theme parks do not change as quickly as your social media feed or even the marquee at your nearest theater. As hard as it is to accept, theme parks take years to change and decades to evolve, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! They’re extremely expensive and when executed correctly develop profoundly intense emotional bonds with (and strong cash flows from) their audience that literally lasts for a lifetime.
Conversely, the emerging trend of subverting the parks to becoming nothing more than extraordinarily well-themed multiplexes will only prove to become more problematic as quickly installed IPs will most often fall out of popularity. Therefore facilitating the need to replace them with significantly higher frequency than any company (even Disney) is financially capable of supporting. And it doesn’t stop there, for as they age and fall-out of favor these lands and attractions will slowly eat away at the brand’s reputation, as well as escalate maintenance costs on structures that do nothing for the park’s integrity and overall capacity.
You might have noticed that this thesis is decidedly “monochromatic” in its references all of which stem from a single company. Among the many reasons for this is that for decades Disney has monopolized the themed entertainment industry — an industry it created and an industry in which it has continuously proven its quality. Although the reasons are varied and complex, the biggest of all Disney’s differentials from their closest competitors is their IP independence. Universal simply does not have that option. By their very nature, they must work to adapt their films into attractions, very few of which manage to attain maximum longevity and must be continuously updated or replaced costing them Continuity: which in many ways is the “X Factor” that has allowed Disney to defy the invisible hand of economics for over half a century. To spite, larger than proportional ticket price inflation, technological faux pas, and supply stagnation demand has only continued to rise.
It is my firm belief that the primary explanation for this phenomenon of nearly irrational brand loyalty is Disney’s ability to Think UP or create Unique Properties. Instead of Intellectual Properties that more often than not fade from popularity, Unique Properties are specifically designed to transcend generations — providing people with the possibility of a perpetually shared experience. One that you can share with your children and children’s children without the need for historical context or a pre-existing frame of reference. One that simply cannot be satisfied by watching a screen at home, but an experience that must be lived through and found in only a small handful of locations and nowhere else in the world.
There are many in the industry that believe IP use is the way, the only way, of the future. And while that might be true in the short-term, I can’t help but notice that this obviously restrictive philosophy is an extraordinarily dangerous trend and if we are not careful one in which it might take decades to reverse.
Optimistically, I take solace in something legendary Imagineer Marty Sklar once said: