Friday, January 29, 2010

The Problem With Plot Part 2 (or, How I Couldn't Come Up With A Clever Title)

In the last entry, I skimmed upon the topic of plot in Disney attractions. The most important aspect of immersion is what story you have to tell; obviously no one wants to ride a roller coaster based on "Barton Fink". When Disneyland first opened, the rides there weren't rides, they were shows. All of the standards of film making - pacing, action, plot, performances, etc. - were present in these attractions. The concept of sailing into the port of a town under siege by ruthless pirates wouldn't be as exhilarating if none of them were yelling and firing off rounds. The thing that separates Disney from any run-of-the-mill amusement park is the careful attention to detail in the plot.

One of the oldest and most important (to me) aspects of telling these tales is what you see while you're waiting for the actual thing. Most parks (Six Flags, for example) have more of a "cold-open" feel, in that you wait in a line that literally tells you nothing about the experience to come. Contrarily, Disney (among other parks) has a highly detailed pre-show area for nearly every attraction. The queue area is what hooks the audience, immersing them in the world they've just entered. One of the best examples of a pre-show area is "Pirates of the Caribbean". The highly detailed walk through a Spanish prison heightens a mood of foreboding, especially evident through the lighting and sound effects in the distance.

Jumping ahead into the 80's, attractions like "Star Tours" and "Big Thunder Mountain" carry on this tradition, with the former giving a brief video presentation toward the start of the ride. The queue for "Star Tours" is a wet dream for any fan of the series, and it's here where the careful attention to detail and mood make the experience much more memorable. Everything, from the crates passing overhead to the subtle silhouettes flashing on the window, is done to make you genuinely feel like you're no longer in an everyday theme park. "Big Thunder", like "Pirates" or "The Haunted Mansion", utilizes a much subtler method, allowing the guest to discover plot points on their own (while the stretching elevator in "Haunted Mansion" is a little more straightforward, there is much more story to be found in the setpieces themselves).

The 90's brought two of the most popular attractions at Disney World, with some of the most memorable pre-show elements. "Splash Mountain" recreated the home of Br'er Rabbit, tucking away special elements in a fashion that suggests that the designers wanted people to find them, not have them shoved in their face. "Tower of Terror" recreates the lobby/boiler room of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, and even goes so far as to creating a dead-on "Twilight Zone" opener. This show is where a visitor can find some of the greatest executions of atmosphere in a theme park. From the cobwebs on the suitcases to the appropriate look of the freight elevators, you can tell a lot of research and hard work went into this area - and it pays off.

So what's the state of the pre-show now? Let's look at a more recent addition to EPCOT, "Mission: SPACE".

As you can tell from these images (courtesy of, everything here seems a little.... big. And by "big", I mean "fucking huge". There isn't much subtelty here, is there? Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the queue, but it seems like there's a distinct lack of small detail present. Even the clever reference to "Horizons" seems to be up in your face, like it was put there for a 6-year-old to find. The problem is a 6-year-old will have no idea what that means. Also, there are FAR too many pre-shows here. We have the outer area, then the 1st waiting area (with the gravity wheel), then the area where you're waiting to be put in the next waiting area (where you see Mission Control -- the only part of the queue with any sort of nuance), then the area where they show the pre-show film, and then the area where you wait to get in the vehicle itself. That's four separate queue areas. Then we have the post-show, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Another attraction, "Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin" (which, by the way, just recently celebrated eleven years of operation -- eleven!), doesn't give you much to look at while you wait. The atmosphere itself is fairly cold and dark, and it seems as though most of the attention was spent on the giant animatronic Buzz figure standing in your way, spouting 3 different sentences every two minutes.

While the "'Mission: SPACE' Rule of Making Your Pre-Show Huge" effect is indeed becoming more evident, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Shows like "Midway Mania" certainly make it work; you are a toy's size, after all. There's also no shortage of eye candy to look at while you're in the (never-ending) line.

Subtlety isn't dead, however. There are some shows that effectively allow you to draw your own conclusions about the story. A prime example is "Expedition: Everest", where the pre-show is a carefully detailed replica of a small Asian town, complete with a Yeti Museum. The attention to detail here is almost unparalleled; while you wait in line, you're free to draw your own conclusions as to what this journey is, why you're here, and what could possibly be so bad about the Forbidden Mountain's "guardian". The queue alone makes this worth riding more than once.

Alongside the pre-show element of storytelling, there's also the way the show wraps itself up. Traditionally, the story ends on the actual ride portion, and you're whisked into a gift shop where you can see your onboard photo. There are some attractions that try to add in a little more to that experience, through the post-show. The earliest post-show is found in "The Haunted Mansion", where - after you've walked outside - you can still find visual clues concerning the story of Master Gracey and his lovely ladies. Similarly, there are more tidbits of story exposed after riders disembark on "Dinosaur" (was the Iguanadon in the car with us?), as well as "Mickey's PhilharMagic", and " MuppetVision 3D". Some preshows, however, are a little lazy - or worse, corporate shills. Take "Mission: SPACE", for instance. When you leave your X2 simulator, after a harrowing landing on the surface of Mars, you are given the most underwhelming and anticlimactic post-show imaginable. A solid-white hallway that sometimes never ends (depending on which pod you were in). Add to this a song that sounds suspiciously like something you'd hear over the end credits of "Con Air", and you have the post-show's beginning.

Sound interesting? No? Well, wait 'til you see where the hallway leads! After walking for several minutes (hours?), you are launched into what can easily be perceived as the arcade that the Foot Clan owned in the first "Ninja Turtles" film. There's a giant screen with a group of tourists playing against each other something, and various other pointless space-themed junk. Guess who has their branding slapped all over it? HP!

We also have the post-show to "Test Track", which is like being dropped into the set of a Michael Bay movie. General Motors owns this area, which serves as a show floor for cars we'll either a)never be able to own, or b)never see on the market. More corporate whoring! At least that dreaded OnStar "Dream Chasers" shit isn't there anymore...

I understand that companies put a lot of money into these attractions, and expect to have some sort of profit returned through advertising. However, that doesn't mean that all originality and creativity can be stripped when creating these areas. It not only looks tacky, but it completely shatters the illusion that people have painstakingly worked on to create.

Some may perceive the lack of creativity in pre-shows for more current attractions as a sign that the company is losing faith in their ability to tell stories through these shows, but as long as we have the likes of "Expedition: Everest", maybe we can see that as a sign of pre-shows shifting back into the more detail-driven waiting areas we had years back.

What are your thoughts, humble readers? Do you have a favorite or despised pre-show?

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