Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Myth of Story



The entertainment industry seems a slippery business to Wall Street. It’s difficult to explain in words why one entertainment property succeeds while another fails. Communicating with Wall Street and other influential laymen may very well be the most difficult part of an Entertainment CEO’s job. How does one quantify intangibles? How does a CEO convince investors and the public that his or her company has the winning formula? For Michael Eisner in the mid-1980s, the solution included an easy-to-remember sound byte: “It’s all about story.”

These four words were sent out to all corners of the Disney empire like a royal decree. At Walt Disney Imagineering, the decree arrived at a pivotal moment in its history. The old guard (Walt’s guys and gals) were retiring and the new generation was stepping up. They were young and eager to make their mark. Like their counterparts in the motion picture industry, they were looking for a standard against which to judge new ideas--a litmus test for creative ideas. And it wouldn’t hurt if they could find a way to curry favor with their new boss in the process. The answer dropped right in their laps.

The phrase, “What’s the story?” became a ubiquitous part of the Imagineering lexicon. Nothing marked the transition from WED to Imagineering better than the arrival of the new dogma of story. Attraction concepts were killed for lacking it, careers were made for those who embraced it, and destroyed for those who denied it. Screenwriters were hired and visual artists were laid off (ironically, some of these artists would have been called “story artists” had they worked in animation). Imagineering was transformed and the message went out to the world. Every Imagineer who sat down for an on-camera interview repeated Eisner’s mantra, “it’s all about story.” Imagineers literally began to believe their own press as a sound byte (originally designed to simply differentiate Disneyland from Six Flags for laymen) became doctrine. New Imagineers, laymen themselves, were indoctrinated into this new culture of story and a revisionist history was born.

Some claim the story culture began long before the mid-1980s--that it started with Walt. This is hard to prove and still harder to disprove (statements made by different Walt-era Imagineers contradict each other). Certainly "Story" was Walt's most-repeated mantra for the success of animation and live-action films. But in the context of theme park attractions, this was not the case. It is undeniable that during the mid-1980s linear storytelling was embraced by Walt Disney Imagineering with an unbridled enthusiasm never seen in Walt’s day.

Think about some of the classic Disneyland attractions--Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Matterhorn Bobsleds and “it’s a small world.” How would they fare against the story litmus test? Do they have a beginning, middle and end? A clear antagonist or protagonist? Would they be better if they had a clearly defined inciting incident, conflict and resolution? Without these things an attraction has no story, and therefore is no good--according to the current dogma.


So, has the injection of story in recent years improved the quality of theme park attractions? Well, sometimes. The immersive backstory created for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror adds layers of depth to the experience--heightening the sense that the guests are visiting a real place with a real history. However, in Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a tacked-on story about a baby elephant makes the experience seem less credible, more contrived and altogether artificial. It disrupts an otherwise beautiful and realistic experience.


Unfortunately, it seems that in recent years the trend has been toward story at the expense of all else. Simple easy-to-read sight gags like those found in Pirates of the Caribbean (three guys in jail with a bone and a little dog outside holding the keys) have given way to traditional three-act structure with an inciting incident, conflict and resolution. Complicated and overly talky premises dominate attractions such as “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience,” Journey Into Imagination (versions 2 and 3), Dinosaur, Sounds Dangerous, and Stitch’s Great Escape.

Spending time and money obsessing over how to communicate story details at the expense of creating a unique immersive experience may seem blatantly foolish, but that’s what comes from close adherence to an unquestionable dogma. Like any dogma, it exists to serve the ruling faction. If you consider the fact that a handful of “creative executives” at Imagineering have built their careers on the myth of story, it becomes apparent that the true audience for these carefully-crafted stories are not the millions of paying guests who visit Disney theme parks every year, but the executives who constantly ask, “What’s the story?”

Marc Davis’ quote at the top of the page (from “What Can You Learn From Disney’s Work,” Sales Meeting Magazine, July 1969) speaks of a series of experiences building to a climax--these are the trappings of story, as are setting, character, dialogue, action and reaction. Disney attractions have story elements, but they are not literal stories (it may seem like splitting hairs, but this is an important distinction). In other words, the story mantra is not wrong so much as it is imprecise. Failure to use precise language is not a crime, but deliberately manipulating language to suit a selfish political agenda is, at best, questionable. And anyone who suggests that Walt insisted on “story” as the central element to all of his attractions, is presenting a potentially damaging revisionist history.

The word ‘story’ like the word ‘art’ means something different to everyone and can not be used as a litmus test for creativity. Nothing can. Walt-era imagineers inherently understood how to entertain people. They understood the effects of story so well, they knew when not to use it. They were chosen by Walt personally because he recognized that they “got it.” No litmus test required. No artificial formula.

Just hire people who get it.

47 comments:

Geoff said...

You raise a very valid point...

having just returned from a Disney vacation i can say that you are correct on the baby elephant story, it was a nice safari ride until it all of a sudden became a race to the end. also the dinoland U.S.A. area in animal kingdom seems to suffer as well from too much story, so much so that its hard to tellwhats the story and whats not..

For the Magic Kingdom it seems to be continuing to suffer from ingestions of Eisner era ideas of sticking movies into theme park rides. the "new" Pirates is very difficult to follow and even at times confusing, to follow the story line. it too suffers from too much story, though I will admit that the Jack Sparrow audio animitron as well as the Yeti Audio-Animatron were quite impressive in their realism..

and as for EPCOT some of the world showcase pavilions are starting to get much needed repairs, and as for Mission Space, well their warnings about getting sick were much worse and did more to scare me than the ride itself, though i will admit that the ride was awesome, and no one i saw was sick(this was right after I ate a huge breakfast btw)...

I think we need to weed out some of this major story layering debauckle and use the money that would have been spent developing story on sprucing up(but not changing(to add more movie charatcers)) old attractions and show sets

Anonymous said...

Nice to finally see another article on here after that last one which was terrific. That one was going to be hard to beat and I have to admit that this is a weak one. I don't see the point, and definitely no argument.

I think you have to realize first that "story" does not have to mean the same thing as plot. In terms of Disney attractions, story refers to back story. Meaning, everything has to be the way it is for a reason, and that reason comes from a back story.

The examples you cite as having "complicated and overly talky premises" are the weakest examples: Honey I Shrunk the Audience is basically a movie, so it inherently has a plotline, if it didn't there would be no point; JIYI does not really have a plotline actually, more of an organized lecture, plus this ride has other issues that make it a terrible ride; Dinosaur has a terrific plotline and I would argue that this ride would not work without it, the idea of travelling through time is a great one and I just don't see how this can be used as an example of a ride with a needless story because the story helps the attraction; Sounds Dangerous is again basically a movie; Stitch is another example like Dinosaur that needs some sort of storyline for it to make any sense. The examples chosen do not reflect any kind of argument.

Classic attractions like Space Mountain and the Jungle Cruise have stories, but they don't need to have plotlines because they work well with simple premise.

The only recent rides that come to mind with defined plotlines are Rock n Roller Coaster, Mission Space (again, basically a movie), Winnie the Pooh and Dinosaur. It seems like you are trying to argue that Disney spends too much time on developing storylines which detract from a good ride but that is simply not true. The ONLY example I can think of where a convoluted story seems to get in the way is Kali River Rapids, where it is obviously an off the shelf rapids ride like in every other theme park, but slapped with a poachers/evil loggers storyline.

So while I appreciate the info on Eisner and his introduction of the "story" dogma, I just don't see this as a justifiable way of complaining about the way that WDI does it's business.

Story is what seperates Superman: The Ride and Rock n Roller Coaster - One is a bare track with a logo and the other is the exact same track inside a story. I consider one a roller coaster ride and the other an attraction. The story is key because it is what seperates Disney from other theme parks and in this Eisner was right, Walt Disney did not have Universal and Six flags breathing down his neck in competition.

I feel like this article is offended at being told a story and would rather just sit on a roller coaster with pretty scenery floating past. In that case skip the preshow to Rock n Roller coaster and enjoy flying through a donut and the Hollywood sign.

Each Disney ride relies on backstory or some kind of theme to allow for easier decisions regarding everything from designs and details to music and marketing and each attraction concept or idea will be different. The point of an attraction like Test Track is to show you how cars are tested for safety before they are sold to customers, so they don't need a complicated storyline. On the other hand a great technology was available for Mission: Space and a great storyline/plot was devised for the attraction and the movie on the actual ride. In that case the technology came first and then a fitting storyline was formed, not crammed in.

So in a way, I think I agree with your article title - story really is a myth, my belief has always been that the most important element to a ride or attraction's concept and design was the establishment of some sort of back story or premise in order to then have something to focus the development of the project, it makes decisions easier and keeps the details unified and more interesting to the guest. This to me, is and was a major MAJOR advancement and revolution in theme park design.

ian
http://scholarlywdi.blogspot.com

Mr Banks said...

Huh?

Anonymous said...

What do you mean, "huh"? The article claims that all rides must have stories or be dammed, but they always have been based on stories or plotlines or premises. Just because the Matterhorn doesn't have a storyline doesn't make it better than a ride that "needs" one or uses one, like Dinosaur.

I can't tell if this article is denouncing the use of storylines or simply feels that too much energy goes into worrying about making sure a ride has one. Either way, the examples chosen did not help to clarify the point of the article.

Mr. Dawes Sr. said...

This was so incredibly right on that I'm sincerely afraid that I may have ghost-written it in my sleep (I'm checking my ambien supply). Tongaroa, thank you for doing it for me, but please know that the "what's the story" dogma is perpetuated not so much by rank and file imagineers as it is the MBA-trained "business unit" culture who are constantly demanding a rationale for what is essentially a commerce built on irrational experiences and feelings such as wonder, awe, surprise, reassurance, and glee.

Josh said...

The new Pirates experience is...lacking...because they tried to add a story/plot to something you used to have to imagine for yourself.

The mood was set with the cave/grotto, then was really kicked into gear when you saw the pirate skeletons lying on the beach. Then things got twisted and creepy when the skeleton pilot is standing on the deck, wind blowing all around, steering his ship through the storm. You had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

Then there was the pirate 'battle,' ship versus town, and the pirates sacking the city. Rather than a single story all tied together, it was a collection of short stories, all connected, but each scene having its own sub-plot. Again, you had to fill in the blanks for yourself.

When I was a kid, I LOVED POC for that very reason. Same thing with the Haunted Mansion and the Jungle Cruise.

I agree that the tacked on poaching story on Kilimanjaro Safari detracts from the overall experience; it insults the intelligence of anyone with half a brain that Disney felt they had to not just spoon-feed, but force-feed this story to guests.

Merlin Jones said...

>>Honey I Shrunk the Audience is basically a movie, so it inherently has a plotline, if it didn't there would be no point<<

That's a debatable point in itself.

The original "Magic Journeys" 3-D film had no plot, but just music and imagery - - and for that reason I found it more appropriate and enjoyable for repeat viewing in a theme park context. It was more guest experience than passive viewing.

Merlin Jones said...

>>The new Pirates experience is...lacking...because they tried to add a story/plot to something you used to have to imagine for yourself.<<

I'll have to agree here - - the addition of the movie characters and a running subplot change it from a first person experience to more a third-person passive viewing.

Especially odd is the store-window-like set of Jack Sparrow at the very end of the ride, stuck-into the show as a square window-box coda/epilogue, not even part of the natural caverns/themed area in which all the other action takes place. Why is this enclosed tableau separate from the entirety of the natural ride? Very contrived - - and it threatens the succesful ambience of the attraction. Even the previous hauling of treasure up the ramp was better - at least it fit the area.

Anonymous said...

ian

While I agree with you that linear plots improve some attractions, and that some attractions would be nonsensical without them (see: Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye), I think the point of the article is that trying to shoehorn an actual plot into an attraction concept isn't always the right choice. The dominance of "what's the story" has, I suspect, killed a great many Mansion or PotC-type attractions that would have been brilliant additions to any Disney park in favor of sub-par attractions (like Stitch's Great Suck-Fest) that have nothing going for them but plot. I think that's what Tangaroa's talking about.

It seems there has been some confusion between the Walt-era and the Eisner-era Imagineers as to exactly what an attraction's "story" actually meant. Pirates and Mansion, for example, have no coherent plot or story being told to the audience, but there is a sort of "backstory" that enforces coherence of place and concept. The story of "what has come before" informs what the guest actually sees at the moment, from the broken-hearted bride in the attic to how all those pirates ended up as skeletons, even though those stories are not explicitly told to the audience during the course of the attraction. The Eisner-era brought a more literal, cinematic interpretation of story, meaning plot as the sequence of events that happens directly in view of the audience. A seemingly small difference that makes all the difference in the world.

CoffeeJedi said...

I'm with Ian. "story" is not a bad thing, but "plot" potentially is.
The Haunted Mansion has a GREAT story. You're a guest at an old mansion (why? that's up to you to decide), a ghostly voice gives you a tour, you see strange things and evidence of ghosts, you meet the ghost of a fortune teller who calls the spirits for you based on your "sypathetic vibrations", and then the ghosts appear and you party with them! In the end, one of them comes home with you. That, along with the elaboratly implied (but never revealed) history of the mansion and the ghosts themselves, is a story.

However, i must agree with Tongaroa, that in today's climate, there would be a forced "plot" with an elaborate pre-show setup (probably using video of live actors) about an evil ghost or demon, or unscrupulous ghost-catcher kidnapping someone (probably someone marketable and cute) and the Ghost Host "needs your help" in rescuing them; your "help" of course involves sitting passively in a Doom Buggy while you hear brilliant "immersive" dialogue like "there he goes! after him!"

Immersive theming and implied backstories generally trump conflict-driven 3-act "plots" in dark rides.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Whether the attraction makes clear sense on paper is tangential. That is, story isn't always irrelevant, but an attraction with a well defined story still succeeds or fails based on the feeling that you (the guest) get from it.

pariartspaul said...

Welcome Tongaroa and thanks for this excellent post. I agree 100 percent. It’s true that after most of the original Imagineers retired in the 80’s, the tradition of visual storytelling started to die out. Yes, Imagineers are storytellers, duh, but they are storytellers in a specific medium.

So what is the medium? As I see it, the medium is the art of convincingly taking the guests (kids as well as adults) to another time and/or place in a dimensional environment. That’s what’s exciting, and that’s what people remember most. (DCA failed on this number one basic rule). Disney succeeded with Disneyland because he took this art to a level never seen before.

Why do people line up for the Jungle Cruise? To be in the jungle. Why do they line up to go on Pirates of the Caribbean? To see Johny Depp? Nope, to be in the Caribbean in the 1800’s. Why do they line up to go on It’s a Small World? To be in a child’s fantasy world. And so on….

The dimensional environment needs to be the first priority in design, with the story supporting it, not the other way around.

Marc, Claude and the others that retired in the 80’s knew what they were doing. They learned from their days in animation, and then from their Disneyland experience, the best ways to tell a story – to fit the medium. I love your reference to the Pirates jail scene. What a perfect little example of Imagineering story telling at its best. One look is all you need to get it. Simple, elegant, funny and satisfying. No need for a pre-show film explaining what the pirates did to get themselves in that predicament.

The concept of ‘story above all’ has degraded the original Imagineering concepts so much over the years, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see an ‘attraction’ as a plain white room with a film in it soon. Ha! Wait a minute…. haven’t we seen that already?!

Wouldn’t it have been great to see the techniques of Marc and Claude be expanded and evolved over the years? Hmmm… just imagine….

I have to add a footnote here. Mr.DawesSr.’s comment above is right on. And because telling a story (instead of taking the guest to another time or place) became the driving factor in designing attractions for so long, the managerial/design strategy at Imagineering evolved into, “Tell the story in the cheapest way possible”. So managers would work with the designers, scrubbing attractions clean, looking at every little detail. “Do you really need this prop over here? Does it really serve the STORY?”. I’ve seen this done time and time again.

And anonymous above…wow, mass confusion.

Josh said...

I'm not sure what the point is the author is trying to make. I completely agree with Ian that story is what separates a bland roller coaster from an attraction. Are you trying to argue that Disney should move away from back story? Are you saying that they shouldn't have a story without a plot? Would Disneyland and Disney World be the same if each attraction wasn't themed around a story? I believe it would be Six Flags or Great America at that point. Further, the level and depth they take the story is what creates the Disney Magic.

Mr Banks said...

Seems downright crystal clear to me. The best of the Disney attractions are clearly informed by visual storytellers, not by plotting and narrative. Disney guests want to be wrapped up in a cleverly choreographed experience rather than have to take notes on boundless pre-show exposition or rescue yet another baby dinosaur, baby elephant, baby girl or baby clownfish. We go to the movies for plot, we go to Disneyland for experiences.

Anonymous said...

To me it's very simple. Story elements remain interesting ride after ride (Pirates, Haunted Mansion, to name a few).

A ride that tells a story quickly loses one's interest - once you know the story, everything else is window dressing (Kilamanjaro Safaris, for example).

I'd love to see Disney do an experiment and drop the story from Kilamanjaro. Then again, that's pretty close to Jungle Cruise - I think I made my point!

JiminyCricketFan said...

I agree with the article completely. Story is not the distinctive of Disney rides. I believe that Walt did not look for stories as much as a fun experiences. He innately knew what was fun. I believe he based it on what HE thought would be fun to do.

If he thought it would be fun to ride a magic carpet, he would try to build a ride. It would not need a story. He just thought it would be fun. He thought it would be fun to ride a Monorail or see a mechanical man talk. Story COULD be part of it to make the experience better, but it was not the essential element.

I would describe the essential element as the ability to bringing fantasy to life. What to ride Dumbo through the air? You can do that. What to fly over the street of London as Peter Pan? Want to race a bobsled down a mountain? Want to experience the future today? As a kid, didn't you want to drive your own car? You can do all that at Disney. Walt was about fulfilling wishes and dreams. These attractions do not need a story. It does not take a story to make Autopia fun.

Imagineers today have forgotten to think like a kid, making childhood fantasies a reality. That way both kids and adults can have fun together.

Now about getting that flying carpet...

Tongaroa said...

It seems a few readers didn’t get the article. I thought that might happen. I’d try to represent the idea in different words but Merlin, parisartspaul, Mr. Banks, bratstarman, coffeejedi, and jiminycricketfan have already done such a good job, I don’t see the point. Please take a look at their posts if you need clarification.

I particularly enjoyed coffeejedi’s description of the Haunted Mansion envisioned using the contemporary mindset. Hysterical and dead on.

2ndrodeo said...

Pardon me for repeating my post from "The Magic Door" article, but it seems to be appropriate here, too.

"Some comments about story not being what it is all about aren't completely accurate. It has always been about story - with an emphasis on immersion. Walt knew from the start that he wanted to embrace this new medium of storytelling, by putting us into the story. The three-dimension aspect instead of just watching on a screen was an exciting thing. It definitely should be experienced from the start (queue) to finish."

The other added comments do clarify the meaning very well. This article and the comments that got it were well put.
It is about the experience that comes through the immersion (that comes from the story, not necessarily an overdone plot.)
Also, story DOES mean different things to different people.
So how can this be explained to the accountaneers?

Anonymous said...

Well I think I understand now where this article is coming from. Walt and his cronies wouldn't rely so heavily on a story but rather on the creation of a terrific environment where your imagination could run free. I agree with this, I mean Haunted Mansion is really just an open house with a narrator telling you about the place, there is no plot that we must follow. Some of my favourite places in WDW are not even rides, but lands and environments such as Main Street.

My problem however is the incessant, careless attack on WDI for not being what it was when Walt was around, or how it is somehow losing it's way. Sure, I agree that the Safari could be better without the rescue storyline and that Pirates is better off as it was, but I also think that the introduction of storylines in theme park attractions was innovative and progressive.

Not every ride deserves a plotline (like pirates), but some do. Dinosaur for example gets it's drama and excitement from a pre-show and a plot about travelling back in time to bring back a dino before the meteor hits. This is much more exciting than just roaming around in in the bushes for no good reason with some random dinos.

Mr Banks makes a sweeping generalization about all audiences when he states that "Disney guests want to be wrapped up in a cleverly choreographed experience rather than have to take notes on boundless pre-show exposition...[They] go to the movies for plot, [and] go to Disneyland for experiences." While it's true that we go to Disneyland for experiences, I don't see the evil in a ride that requires the rider to listen and think a little bit. The use of plotlines is more engaging in places where it is most effective (RnR).

There is a trend that I do not like which is bashing WDI and constantly comparing everything they do with Walt and the fathers of theme park design. No credit is given to current WDIers for their progress made and their efforts to evolve and make more engaging, interesting attractions.

ian
http://scholarlywdi.blogspot.com

Cheshirekatz said...

Well, yeah, hello, people are bashing WDI because THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH IT. People do not go to all the effort to make blogs and websites because they are just bored and have nothing else to do. The parks are a vastly different experience from what they were and the changes are not good. The fact is that a ride that has an excessively complicated plotline is not fun. It is work and, as far I am concerned, an excuse not to put more effort and money into the attraction. Audiences need to just lean back and enjoy the experience.

Ted said...

If the point is not EVERY attraction needs a "story" then I will agree. And if this is the new mantra than how do you explain most of DCA (including Soarin')?
Some attractions don't have a story and need one. Take Pooh. At present it is more of an acid trip or some kind of bad dream and makes absolutely NO sense and is a TERRIBLE ride because of it.
Some rides have no "story" and don't need one. The jungle cruise.
My point being, every attraction should be approached differently. Not every attraction is (or should be) the same concept.

Erik said...

I gotta say I disagree. Yes. HM and Pirates and Small World have minimal plots (though Small World clearly is a traveloge finishing up in the grand "we are the world" finale). But rides like Star Tours Peter Pan and Splash have story-like elements. Much of Epcot's Futureworld also has narrative. Indy, a ride almost EVERYONE agrees at the time was cutting edge has a strong storyline and plot.

Anonymous said...

Chesirekatz, so you are saying that audiences should not be given the respect that they can actually think and put in some mental effort to follow a storyline? Audiences just want a dumbed down experience? Do you not think that audiences have changed in the last 50 years?

Obviously you are a traditionalist, but i'm sure you still spend lots of money going to the Disney parks and buying all their merch and at the end of the day that is what Disney sees from you, not your blog efforts.

I can also point out things that are "wrong" with new rides - that is easy. But I can also point out things that were wrong with old classic rides too.

Does the fact that the Safari has a "rescue" plotline REALLY take away from all the fun you are having at WDW?? really? is it really the end of the world? is it REALLY the worst thing that could happen to a ride like that? Don't you realize that the point to the safari is to teach people about the dangers of poaching? They want you to care about these animals, not just look at them.

I can't see how Winnie the Pooh is a terrible ride, Ted. It doesn't have a storyline, per se but it has a linear progression that even a 5 year old can follow. It's a fun and silly ride and that is what it should be, sure a more obvious storyline might help a brain like yours follow along, but until then you'll just have to ride it with a frown.

There are too many harsh critics that just say things for the sake of saying them. This stubborn attitude towards every new ride is getting old. If Winnie the Pooh sucks so much, or if WDI sucks so much then what are your ideas to change it? What are you doing about it? Are YOU working towards becoming an Imagineer? Or are you just going to complain on the internet?

This article raises some interesting points for sure, and I think all sides have some good arguments for sure, but the whole WDI today vs WDI yesterday is getting old and I have yet to see a really strong argument that proves WDI is going down the tubes, everything has been trivial opinions from obsessed supergeeks.

-Jason

Anonymous said...

Chesirekatz, so you are saying that audiences should not be given the respect that they can actually think and put in some mental effort to follow a storyline? Audiences just want a dumbed down experience? Do you not think that audiences have changed in the last 50 years?

Obviously you are a traditionalist, but i'm sure you still spend lots of money going to the Disney parks and buying all their merch and at the end of the day that is what Disney sees from you, not your blog efforts.

I can also point out things that are "wrong" with new rides - that is easy. But I can also point out things that were wrong with old classic rides too.

Does the fact that the Safari has a "rescue" plotline REALLY take away from all the fun you are having at WDW?? really? is it really the end of the world? is it REALLY the worst thing that could happen to a ride like that? Don't you realize that the point to the safari is to teach people about the dangers of poaching? They want you to care about these animals, not just look at them.

I can't see how Winnie the Pooh is a terrible ride, Ted. It doesn't have a storyline, per se but it has a linear progression that even a 5 year old can follow. It's a fun and silly ride and that is what it should be, sure a more obvious storyline might help a brain like yours follow along, but until then you'll just have to ride it with a frown.

There are too many harsh critics that just say things for the sake of saying them. This stubborn attitude towards every new ride is getting old. If Winnie the Pooh sucks so much, or if WDI sucks so much then what are your ideas to change it? What are you doing about it? Are YOU working towards becoming an Imagineer? Or are you just going to complain on the internet?

This article raises some interesting points for sure, and I think all sides have some good arguments for sure, but the whole WDI today vs WDI yesterday is getting old and I have yet to see a really strong argument that proves WDI is going down the tubes, everything has been trivial opinions from obsessed supergeeks.

-Jason

Mr Banks said...

Wow, Jason! You bring up so many points that are so ripe for rebuttal that I don't even know where to begin.

So I won't begin.

If you delight in the new Winnie the Pooh attraction at Disneyland and squeel with glee when you realize the baby elephant is safe after your African Safari then more power to you.

For the rest of us fighting for a more empowered WDI, time to get back to work.

Tongaroa said...

Ted said: “And if this is the new mantra than how do you explain most of DCA (including Soarin')?”

An excellent and fair question. I’ll do my best to answer. WDI has many factions within it. The literal-story faction was born in the mid-1980s and has been steadily growing in power since. Their influence could be seen at DCA in Superstar Limo and Golden Dreams.

The massive layoffs of 2001 and 2002 solidified the group’s authority (these layoffs eliminated many of the key Imagineers who contributed to the very visual Tokyo Disney Seas). The layoffs swept away the last holdouts from the visual era and coincided with a few key promotions.

I’m sorry for being a little vague here, but that’s the best I can do with out committing libel. If you do a little research on the internet you can confirm this for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Mr B - This is a terrific blog and I love that you are "fighting for WDI" or whatever, and that's great, but this particular post just rubs me the wrong way. I guess i'll bow down to your almighty Pixar-ness sword and declare defeat. By all means, I'd love to hear your rebuttle. I just don't see Winnie the Pooh as a glaring example of why we all have to "fight" for a better WDI. They are doing a pretty damn good job of entertaining millions of people and things like this get a little too trivial for my liking.

I am just sick of people pointing out what is so terribly wrong with Disney's newer rides when it is obvious that WDI trying to evolve and stay fresh, no matter how much say the pencil pushers have.

All of the latest attractions and shows have been superb, innovative and well put together. Complaining that the safari has a "gleeful" storyline just seems like a trivial thing to complain about. I don't know how bitter someone has to be to not enjoy Winnie the Pooh, it's easy to be critical I guess.

-Jason

medallionhome said...

Imagineering, like any true art form, is not a tangible definable thing, with hard and fast rules. Consequently it's difficult to say "this is how you do it" or "don't do this". Perhaps that's been my problem with a lot of articles on this blog; it's interesting to make broad generalizations or ask philosophical questions about past decisions, but you can never truly say "this was the only way for this attraction to be done" or "this is how things must be designed". No two Imagineers would do something the same way. So this article kinda falls in the same category- trying to nail down one of those semi essential rules.

Going on the previously established definitions of story and plot, I'm finding that while story can make for a fun attraction, it gets older faster. Now for the average guest that may take 5 or 10 years. For a frequent park guest (AP) an attraction can lose it's luster in 2 or 3 years. I absolutely loved the Indiana Jones attraction when it first opened- it was the future of Attractions as far as I was concerned. Now, I could care less about it. I find myself getting agitated just thinking going about it and I've discovered it's all the story elements that bother me. I find myself wishing that the queue was less elaborate, and that there was no filmstrip. The ride itself is fun, but I find that I just want the experience. I want to ride in the jeep and go through the temple but I don't want to think about the plot. It sounds rediculous and mind you I'm only concious of it after much much introspection. But it's like after seeing the same movie over and over again (even if it's your favorite movie) you just can't stand to watch it again. you like it, but your brain just doesn't want that input anymore because it's saturated. Whereas attractions like the Haunted Mansion are less proactive with input. Stuff is certainly there for you to absorb and being slower it's much easier to take in scenery etc...but you are not force fed information and there's nothing to keep track of. You simply take in what you choose to take in. How many times have we heard that you can ride pirates and HM 20 times and still find something new. Not necessarily a new figure or a new prop, but certainly you come to appreciate overall design or color or whatever as your observations evolve. With Indy and obviously the filmed attractions (Muppets, HISTA, and even Star Tours) there's only so much to take in. Once you've seen it, tehre's nothing else to get. That doesn't mean they are bad attractions, they just don't affect guests the same way.

So basically I guess my point is, the story attractions are very rigid, they leave less room for your own interpretation. The plot (I almost want to say "theme") attractions put you into the environment and stuff is happening around you, but you get to choose what you focus on.

If I were less tired I'd write a really lengthy comparison of the Domestic Haunted mansions vs. Phantom Manor...

Merlin Jones said...

>>If Winnie the Pooh sucks so much, or if WDI sucks so much then what are your ideas to change it?<<

Well, there is perfectly good example of a cool Winnie-the-Pooh ride in Tokyo VS Anaheim, so you could start with that.

But if you were to take the Disneyland version alone, here are some ideas to improve it right off the top, since you asked: 1) Vehicles that make some sense in the environment or have an element of the plausible impossible - not just the impossible (or in this case, ridiculous). 2) A more immersive, clear, intruguing and clever visual layout. 3) Better effects that truly bring the moments to life and surprise and bring wonder to the rider - that fully transport one to the 100 Acre Wood of popular imagination. 3) Full motion characters instead of statues - characters that express personality and life. 4) Better art direction that refelects the early films and books. 5) More charm and whimsy and imagination. 6) A tone that delights all ages, not just the tiniest of tots.

There are plenty of people with great ideas out there... but you need a management that appreciates the difference and is prepared to empower that vision. Bottom-line thinking gets you DCA and Winnie-the-Pooh. It doesn't matter who has the jobs if no one in management will help them to succeed.

>>Do you not think that audiences have changed in the last 50 years? Obviously you are a traditionalist, but i'm sure you still spend lots of money going to the Disney parks and buying all their merch and at the end of the day that is what Disney sees from you, not your blog efforts.<<

It always amuses me that the biggest insult WDC management apologists can muster is to use reductive terms like "Traditionalist," "Purist," "Fan," "Disneyana Fan," or "Geek" or "Dweeb" in their tired attempts at facillitation for stale corporate thinking. By now I think people like this would have noticed that most "geeks" in and out of the Company who have a passion for the works of Walt Disney could care less about these silly labels - some even wear them proudly. They care about the ideas and the art, not just the politics. And these are the types of people who have always created magic at Pixar, WDFA and WDI. Still do.

It's never been about "old" and "new." It doesn't matter how old the thing is, but how it plays with the guests. By and large, Walt's stuff still plays better and lasts longer. What can we learn from that rich tradition that we can enhance, apply and take forward with new technology and fresh ideas and themes? That's the WED challenge.

Stale is stale, boring is boring, fun is fun - and inspiration is timeless. With or without a plot, backstory, wisecracks or secret language.

Mr Banks said...

To Merlin Jones:

AMEN. You said it better than I could.

In addition, let's not forget that Winnie the Pooh, an English bear from the English countryside, belongs in Frontierland as much as a statue of Michael Eisner belongs in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle.

And let us not forget that the Winnie the Pooh ride is yet another trend to replace older E-Ticket attractions with C attractions.

And let us not forget that Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland was driven by marketing and accounting rather than the out-of-the-box think tank that is WDI at its best.

To be fair, Disneyland's Winnie the Pooh ride would have made for fabulous window displays along main street.

Now, back to being a proud 'traditionalist dweeb geek'. With Merlin at the fore, I'm in great company.

Anonymous said...

a statue of Michael Eisner belongs in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle.

Thanks, Mr. Banks, that was an image I didn't need.

The last time I rode Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland, I thought the loud music and loud, clashing colors would likely frighten its target audience. I certainly came out of it with a headache both times I rode. The little bee tiles at the edge of the load/unload area are the most charming thing about the whole attraction.

Winnie the Pooh at WDW, on the other hand, was a nice little C-ticket I enjoyed very much. Other than softening the music and the colors, I'm not quite sure what the explicit changes were, but I found the overall ride experience had been much improved in the cloning process. Now, if we can just get rid of that awful little playground across the way...

Anonymous said...

It's the difference between being told a story and dreaming it.

Merlin Jones said...

I didn't think the WDW version was very good either - - but it had the bouncing Tigger cars gimmick and it was in Fantasyland, anyway. Otherwise another flat cheapie ride by. But since WDW is full of that sort of iffy attaction, it feels more at home...

The original Disneyland deserves Tokyo's plush Pooh - - in Fantasyland, please.

Floyd Norman said...

Just for the record, we were scolded by Walt in a "Jungle Book" story meeting back in 1966.

Can you guess what Walt said? "You guys worry too much about the story!"

StrangeVoices said...

It's not so much a matter of whether or not a story exists, but how it works in a medium such as a dark ride. Traditional media, such as TV or movies, are essentially linear, 2 dimensional stories. You need a very structured story line to hold it together. You also need it to hold the audience's focus - after all there is no surrounding environment.

Rides are very different in that respect. Instead of being a third person watching the movie, you are a character within the world the story has created. The best rides are those that are most able to immerse yourself in that world. In some ways this explains why the TTA in Walt Disney World is still so loved even though there is nothing to it - it immerses the guest into a world of the future.

The difference between a ride with too much story versus a good back story is the storyline itself. If the storyline is too structured, then the guest becomes passive - they are observing, and not part of that environment. Again, some of the best rides don't have that element to them - they provide a story outline, they provide a basic plot structure and key points in that plot, but they leave the storyline open enough that the guest is now involved in that setting. Ultimately they are deciding how they participate in that environment, as a character, as an observer, etc.

A great example is the new Pirates in WDW (I have not seen the California version). The old Pirates was an environment. Once you went down the drop, you ended up in a world where Pirates were attacking a village. The storyline was light, and as a guest you could connect with that world. You may have thought you were one of the pirrates having a good time, perhaps an villager esacaping. Or maybe just an innocent bystander. But you got to choose your focus. There were things around you, you were immersed.

The new ride dropped the level of the background music and sounds. Just the very simple addition of the few Sparrow animatronics suddenly put a focus on a specific storyline. You no longer were participating, you were watching. Your attention had to focus on the story - you lost that control. Sure some of the effects hit you at a deeper level physically - they create more immediate and intenese reactions, but they change your involvement in the ride to one of reaction, and not involvement.

Not every ride has hit this point yet. But they slowly seem to be heading in that direction. What I am worried about most is how this may play out in the non-ride areas - if infact the urge to create storyline overlays might start expressing itself in some of the World Showcase countries, perhaps, changing them from a place of exploration to one of passiv viewership.


As an aside, addressing the why people have to be critical of what WDW is doing, I guess I see it quite differently. I think that by just accepting what is wrong is the very same as promotig regression. As you see it as negative, many of us see it as an attempt to focus on improvement and how to do things even better.

I, for one, don't believe that Disney is as strong as it was at one point, and don't believe that it has the same reputation - or interest - as it once did. How many of us have heard a friend or collegue express that Disney is for kids, or is too pushy, or too fake? While our first reaction is to dismiss those people as unimaginative or critical, we should really try to understand why they feel the way they do. Ultimately Disney doesn't make it's money just on fans - it makes it's money by drawing everyone to it's gates. We need to lok at how we can better attract a wide range of audiences, and not just fans.

Geoff said...

How right you are Strangevoices..

whereas I know I am not old enough to have some of the life experiences that have provided some people with their inherent wisdom, heck i didn't even know what "e-ticket, c-ticket, etc." was until a few days ago, but what I lack in life experience, i hope i make up in wisdom..

Two major things I see with the parks as they are now,
1)theres not a whole lot of new rides for the Parents and children to enjoy together..take "It's tough to be a Bug" when I saw that two weeks ago there was alot of crying kids being carried out of the theatre because they were scared (thats not fun)
the Pooh ride is mainly only fun (I'm discussing the WDW version)

2)The whole "Fastpass" system. Now i know we aren't discussing this directly, but this system for some rides is pointless, and for other rides, it is not only annoying but also tends to make the ride que longer. For Instance, Dinosaur in Animal Kingdom, is one ride where this systme has gone wrong, the ride's regular que wasn't terribley long so we decided in that over the fastpass, by the time they finished continuously letting the fastpassers in(they have a set wait time for letting them in and then stopping them) the ride que went from what would have been maybe a 30 minute wait to a 2 hour wait...thats ridiculous, and theres things that don't necessarily need the fastpass, "Spaceship Earth" for instance does not require this fastpass system, because the line is contantly moving, and never is a long wait even at the worst of times...

Now where these are not the worst things wrong with the parks, they are some things that need to be fixed over time or the quality of entertainment at the parks will continue to decline.

to the topic at hand however, Plot and story are necessary, like someone said on Dinosaur it adds to the suspense of the ride, Mission Space it adds to the intreague(sp?) of the "mission" but on other rides PoC for instance it has gone too far and has destroyed the rides, original premise, I'm waiting for them to add a Eddie Murphy Audio-Animatron to The Haunted Mansion, at the rate that Disney's going, that might not be too far off. Though i will admit i did sword dance with a cast member in front of PoC (hey I'm still only 22, so I can still play like the big kid I am :-P )

Though I want to continue to enjoy the Disney Parks, I wonder if I will continue to enjoy them, when I am my parents age and I'm taking my kids to see WDW..

Anonymous said...

This thread has made me think very deeply, and I thank you all for the very insightful comments. I'd like to make two more points if I could.

One is, when you think back in your memories, what means more to you - stories or immersive environment? For example, when I think of stories of my grandmother, they are almost in black and white - I remember the events, but they have no depth. But when I think of something immersive (like the smells and sights in her pantry) I get a glorious world of feelings and emotions a simple story would never stir up in me.

Two is that stories are cheap (you can put one in a paperback novel), but immersive environments are difficult and expensive. So it's not surprising that the accountants push story - it's a cheap way to fill a ride - you can do it with cardboard cutouts and statues instead of full motion animatronics and great scenic design.

A great example of this is the original Imagination Ride in Epcot (fully immersive - a truly wondrous environment) - and the latest incarnation - (it tells a story, but is a shadow of it's former self).

I remember a giant book of horror stories being pushed open by something unseen, with puffs of smoke and eerie lights behind the cover. Now all we get are metal doors with geeky-sounding names painted on them - maybe good for a chuckle the first time you see them, but clearly devoid of any feeling.

I go to Disney parks because of how they make me feel. Get rid of the skunk - I want to smell the roses again...

The Polsons said...

Ian: "Walt and his cronies" followed by a defense of poor widdle WDI getting "attacked." Okay, guess we know where you stand then.

Ted: "how do you explain most of DCA?" I explain it by saying it SUCKS, in part because of ham-handed and unnecessary "storytelling."

Jason: "I just don't see Winnie the Pooh as a glaring example of why we all have to "fight" for a better WDI. They are doing a pretty damn good job of entertaining millions of people and things like this get a little too trivial for my liking." Yeah, I know, just look at those huge lines outside Pooh! And boy they sure did need Fastpass for that, right?

"I am just sick of people pointing out what is so terribly wrong with Disney's newer rides." Then perhaps you belong on a different blog? Say, one that isn't devoted to an honest evaluation of how WDI is messing up and how to make it better? If you want rose-colored glasses, you've come to the wrong place.

Merlin: "Bottom-line thinking gets you DCA and Winnie-the-Pooh." EXACTLY. Thank you.

Floyd: "Just for the record, we were scolded by Walt in a "Jungle Book" story meeting back in 1966. Can you guess what Walt said? "You guys worry too much about the story!" ::genuflects:: Thank you for this input here, truly.

Strangevoices: "Just the very simple addition of the few Sparrow animatronics suddenly put a focus on a specific storyline. You no longer were participating, you were watching. Your attention had to focus on the story - you lost that control."

You said it perfectly.

People seem to be confusing the point of the post: Story ELEMENTS are great... an overdone STORY being told AT the audience takes it from a first-person immersion to a third-person passive role. THAT is the difference. And that is where WDI is messing up.


Geoff: "I'm waiting for them to add a Eddie Murphy Audio-Animatron to The Haunted Mansion" Yeah, I'm actually surprised they didn't...

"Theres not a whole lot of new rides for the Parents and children to enjoy together." Which, IIRC, is the entire POINT of Disneyland and why the park was created -- the ultimate FAMILY experience, designed to keep the family together throughout the park, with something for everyone to enjoy on all the rides.

Starman: "stories are cheap (you can put one in a paperback novel), but immersive environments are difficult and expensive. So it's not surprising that the accountants push story - it's a cheap way to fill a ride - you can do it with cardboard cutouts and statues instead of full motion animatronics and great scenic design" Ohhhhh did you hit on something here! Brilliant!!

Okay, that's long enough. 8-)

Ted said...

To the poisons: DCA doesn't story-tell AT ALL. With the exception of the movies (two 3D and one standard), Monsters Inc, and MAYBE Tower of Terror, it doesn't tell any stories. Because DCA is more of a clean AMUSEMENT park and NOT a THEME park. It was built as a reaction to Magic Mountain and Knott's move toward thrills.
Although, I believe that DCA has GREAT potential, IF they would invest the money.

captain schnemo said...

I'm coming late to this party, and strangevoices has already made most of the points I wanted to, but I just wanted to throw my support behind the gist of this article.

As has been mentioned, Pirates and the Mansion have such incredible repeat value because your attention is not being grabbed by any specific element. You are free to look in all directions and be entertained. This also prevents the Imagineers from being lazy...if the experience needs to be viable when looking in any direction, it means the environment has to be completely fleshed out.

When your attention is being drawn to specific elements, it actually encourages the Imagineers to tone down the rest of the set, in the interest of focusing attention. It actually discourages the creation of full, immersive sets.

The worst sort of forced story elements are those that involve the dreaded "oh my, something has gone wrong!" plots which are interesting once and only once.

To use an example from this thread, Magic Journeys provided a full on adventure, whereas in HISTA it's explained that all the fun is actually an accident.

This basic problem of immersion is also evident when you compare the original Figment Imagination ride (which encourages you to use your own brain because it's fun and it advances society) with the new versions, in which the premise is that imagination is something to be inflicted upon the guest without any effort on their part.

The showstopper of the Energy pavilion is not Ellen's annoying yapping or the linear story which is boring upon repeat viewings, but the dinosaur environment, which is there for no other reason than to create an experience.

Anonymous said...

Instead of "All about the story," it should be "all about the fun."

Anonymous said...

A very interesting article, but as much as I agree that the plot lines in some attractions are over the top or perhaps even insulting (Kilimanjaro Safari, Kali River) they work just fine in others (Everest, Spalsh Mountain).

I like the TTA in WDW not because its a great experience, but its an amuzing way to kill time while waiting for my FastPass time on Space Mountain or Buzz. Plus on a hot day, its great to be on an attraction where you get a breeze.

I hate to say it, but the best thing I like about Its a Small World at Disneyland is 13 minutes of air conditioning on a very hot day in a park that has few spaces to sit down and cool off.

If you ran the original Jungle Cruise today, I think the lines would be very short. I go back not because of plastic hippos and butterflys but because I love the spiel of the skipper and the occasional surprise of a new joke or exceptional delivery.

Space Mountain has a thin story (rocket trip to outer space), the Rockin' Roller Coaster has much more story and I like both attractions. I frankly didn't like the Paris edition of the Rockin' Roller Coaster which chopped the story and just went with a bunch of show lighting and no scenery. I think the Anahiem version of Space is a better coaster because the sound track provides for a more immersive experience. Spiderman over at Universal is both immersive and thrilling with a plot and has incredible return value. I could do without the horrible lead-in plot of being sent out in the "Scoop" though.

For all of you who don't like story attractions, I assume you'd rip out most of the Fanstasyland dark rides which are generally retelling the story of the movie. Most of these were created on Walt's watch. I would have preferred the Toyko Pooh ride in both US parks, but frankly I think Pooh had a little more going for it than Mr. Toad's 100% plywood scenery.

So yes, I like immersive experiences, and I like stories both in Disney attractions. I dislike preachy or non-sensical story lines (let's see, we'll help chase the desperate poachers who are armed with machine guns and we're armed with SLR cameras). Superstar limo has a stupid plot and dialog. DCA's Paradise Pier neither immerses you in a new world, nor has much of any story. The cheesy Dinosaur carnival at AK has the same problem. I can go to a cheesy carnival about an hour from home for $20. I don't need to fly to WDW and pay $60-70 for the same experience.

So an attraction can be good with or without a specific plot. A bad or boring plot, horrible dialog or a non-immersive environment produces a really bad ride not worthy of being in a Disney park.

dan_steinberg said...

I know I'm coming into this discussion way late, but I wanted to add my 2 cents...

I'll just first say that I've always disliked the term "story rides" since it didn't quite fit PotC and HM. I started calling them "experience rides" about 10 years ago - I don't think I had every seen Marc Davis' quote, but it's kind of cool to know we were on the same wavelength there...

Anyway, my first point here is that I think the change is not so much "Walt's Guys vs. Eisner's Guys". I think it is more the retirement of Walt's Guys and hiring of the "professional" imagineers to replace them. Walt's guys were pretty much ex-animators - and short-subject animators at that. They knew how to make entertaining 5 to 10 minute films, and thus knew how to make entertaining 5 to 10 minute rides. The newer "professional" imagineers are engineers or screenwriters or whatever, but they don't have that same short-story-telling experience that Marc and company had.

(Oh, and BTW, films don't automatically tell stories either - they can be just experiences too. Anyone remember the old CGI "Mind's Eye" films from the early 90's. All graphics, no plot at all , but fascinating all the same.)

My other point is that a good story takes a reasonable amount of time to put together and tell. Every wonder why there aren't any 30 minute drama shows on TV? It's hard to tell a good, engrossing story in less than an hour - even if we already know the characters! Now, try to cram that in a 20-minute or even 10-minute theme park ride. It might work if you have characters everyone knows (which is why Indy works better than Dinosaur, for example) and even then you need a pre-show.

So IMHO telling a real "story" is very difficult in a short theme park ride, but doing a good short-subject is a better approach.

SarahD said...

I also agree regarding the story on the safari "ride". The fakery of the elephant story was in direct contrast to the efforts taken to create a real safari environment and authentic surroundings for the animals. The wonder of seeing them was enough, and the "story" pulled me so far out of what I'd been enjoying, it was actually quite upsetting. I'd rather take Dinosaur, knowing that it's 100% fake, rather than the safari with a made-up story-- it feels like it's meant to cut the ride short.

Tim said...

This is completely contradictory to something posted elsewhere on here. That classic attractions were simply themed and lacked that three part story. The two signature classic Disney attractions are Pirates and Haunted Mansion. A previous article effectively outlined this contradiction. Pirates is a 3 part plot like many of the newer attractions ending in the climactic burning of the city. Haunted Mansion is another 3 part plot where the presence of the ghosts is felt at the beginning, the begin to materialize in the middle, and then they're in full force in the graveyard. I do think that some of the new rides concentrate too much on the story where something subtler (like Expedition Everest) is more routed in classic Disney, but to say that older attractions lacked "story" is simply not true.

Mr Banks said...

Hey Tim,

Not contradictory at all but complementary! The classic Disney attractions were informed by some of the best visual storytellers on the planet, thus a very beautifully choreographed VISUAL story unfolded before your eyes; a story we ourselves write as opposed to have thrust on us.

But the early E-tickets were also NOT narratives in the classic sense where, say, a Pirate, a fish, a little girl, a dinosaur or an alien, goes missing and you're tasked with the job of finding them.

These early veterans of visual story telling were smart enough to know when to dispense with the burden of plodding narrative and instead immerse the audience in a series of cleverly unfolding personal experiences.

DaveCobb said...

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

I have said for years -- both as a fan, and professionally, that telling a LINEAR story in the often limited timeline of a theme park attraction is IMPOSSIBLE.

Plot INFORMS DESIGN in attractions, but doesn't DRIVE it. Context and character is much more important. Story brands that people already know -- from movies, cartoons, books, whatever -- are very useful in creating an emotional jumping-off point that can be explored in NON-NARRATIVE, EXPERIENTIAL WAYS at an attraction.

That's the whole purpose of an attraction, after all -- to give you an experience that's NOT a movie or a cartoon. It's inherantly about *breaking* that format and creating emotion through tactile and environmental means. The art of story and cinematic/theatrical language certainly come into play, but the constraints of linear narrative can actually work against you in most cases.