This is the first in an occasional series on highlights of attraction Imagineering
I’ve been reading a large format book called “Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Scenes Look at Making More Magic Real”. I’m fascinated by the all aspects of the work Imagineers do to heighten our theme park enjoyment. It’s a very long title for a book that doesn’t actually require very much reading. The book is broken down in to sections of 2-4 pages, each focused on a specific element of the visible or behind the scenes work that goes into the creation of a Disney theme park attraction or park element, like signage, plants, colors, etc. For theme park geeks aficionados, like myself, the numerous pictures, drawing, paintings and photos may be worth the price of the book. The book covers aspects of all the parks including the recent Shanghai Disney from major attractions like Space Mountain to buildings like those on Main St. USA or the various Castles around the world.
The book has a section on how theme park attractions are storyboarded long before any plans are drawn up. This approach to story was, of course, pioneered by Walt for movie making and has been adopted by the Imagineers. This inspired me to think about the attractions I think Imagineers have used story, a topic I’ve covered before in “Why Writers Matter”, to enhance our ride experience, from the moment we approach the attraction entrance. My personal experience is with Disney World and Disneyland, so I’m going to limit my opinions to only those parks. And, since Imagineered story telling begins as soon as we approach the attraction I want to focus on appearances and queues, rather than the ride portion which receives a lot of attention.
In this post, I want to look at 2 of my favorite story telling attraction that are in both parks. While some of the physical approaches are different, I think they are excellent examples of the Imagineer’s work.
Pirates of the Caribbean
In an earlier post, “The Pirates Paradox” I discussed the continued success of the last attraction for which Walt had direct input. Approaching the attraction, the differences in the story are immediate. In Disneyland, Pirates is part of New Orleans Square. So, the building architecture reflects the antebellum style and takes us to the Gulf of Mexico, where Pirates surely must have made use of that great port.
The leisurely, winding queue with a large tree and evocative lantern lights, gives us time to admire the facade and finally brings us up on the porch as a guest of the house.
Once inside, we hear the parrot, we see the skull and cross bones and the treasure map right away the pirate and water themes begins to take shape.
I did say I wasn’t going to discuss the ride itself, but in this case, I think, due to Disneyland space limitations, the Imagineers continued the story telling prologue as our boats glide silently through the Bayou, complete with fireflies, the songs of toads and the lazy strumming of a banjo. By the time we make it to the first waterfall, we are completely immersed in the sensual language of the Bayou’s sights and sounds and the smell of water, in a time when Caribbean pirates terrorized coastal cities and enjoyed the spoils of their plunder.
In WDW, the entrance evokes the Spanish built forts that dotted the islands of the Caribbean. The reddish, clay, Spanish roof tiles are very prominent as are the Moorish, arched doorways, the yellow, stuccoed, exterior walls and the tower.
The arched doorways beckon us forward, inside the darker and damp interior of the fort. Just above the large wooden doors with wrought iron handles the familiar PotC skull and crossbones and just a snippet of the song we’ll hear throughout most of the boat ride written above.
On the other side of the turnstile, we see heavy chains and large, wrought iron lanterns, and the airy high ceilings give way to a closer feeling of stone walls and lower arched hallways. Wooden barrels, a crow’s nest and other tall, ship items are found around every corner as the hallway narrows and gets darker. Ominous background music is heard, and voices echo as we pass cannon and cannonballs, and skeletal remains of pirates, until we reach the loading area.
Both versions maintain the kind of cinematic feel with which Walt so carefully crafted into most of his successful Disneyland attractions. Those of you who have seen a written screenplay, can see how either description above could be the opening camera shots of a movie. If you’ve never seen a screenplay, here’s an example of the opening to “The Empire Strikes Back”, which, like Disney theme park attractions, sets the scene with no need for dialogue.
EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – HELICOPTER SHOT – DAY
A white snowscape races toward camera … the MAIN
TITLE quickly recedes, followed by a roll-up.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK …
After the destruction of its
most feared battle station, the
Empire has declared martial law
throughout the galaxy.
A million worlds have felt the
oppressive hand of the Emperor
as He attempts to crush the
As the Imperial grip of tyranny
tightens, Princess Leia and the
small band of freedom fighters
search for a more secure base of
The roll-up disappears into the black horizon.
EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – HELICOPTER SHOT – DAY
The camera tilts down bringing into view a small
figure galloping across the windswept ice slope.
EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – DAY
A closer panning shot reveals a bundled rider on a
large gray snow lizard, called a TAUNTAUN. Curving
plumes of snow rise from beneath the speeding paws
of the two-legged beast
EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – SLOPE – DAY
The rider gallops up a slope and reins his lizard to
EXT PLAINS OF HOTH – SLOPE – DAY
He pulls off his protective goggles. It is LUKE
SKYWALKER. He notices something in the sky and takes
a pair of electro-binoculars from his utility belt.
EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – LUKE’S POV – DAY
From LUKE’S POV, we follow a bright object as it falls
to the ground. On the distant horizon, an explosion
marks the point of impact.
The queues are very different in each Park. In Florida the Imagineers had the luxury of more space to let us wander the inside of the “fort” and get a feel for how long the Pirates have been gone. In Disneyland, they focused on the journey the Pirates would have taken over water. It’s hard for me to pick one I prefer over the other so I’ll let their merits speak for themselves.
One of my other favorite story intros is the Jungle Cruise. In both parks, Imagineers were given limited space to set the stage. The queue areas help us understand a number of important story elements. First, and foremost is time and place.
As we progress through the winding queue of offices and storage areas, there’s a variety of travel posters, camping and safari equipment, shipping boxes as well as period furniture. Almost everything looks old, worn, dusty and rusty.
In the Disney World Jungle Cruise queue there are jokes and puns everywhere.The soundtrack is a jazzy music set of tunes that is not always recognizable, with many interruptions from the music announcer “Albert Awol”. The announcements focus on the ineptness of the tour company with pleas for new skippers and many safety warnings. The overall impression is slightly slick, kind of professional radio station.
Since this version is a “copy” of the original in Disneyland, I think there was a charm sacrifice with more attention paid to the humorous side of the attraction.
In Disneyland, the building looks like something out of an old movie serial about safaris in Africa.
The signage sets the stage for the touring company story, including this very cinematic looking title card.
There are less jokes overall in the original attraction. The focus when Walt created it was to take guests on a “realistic” boat trip to far off exotic lands.
In Disneyland, during the queue walk, the sound of a 1930s radio station plays period, popular music interspersed with a DJ providing humorous announcements on the Global Broadcasting System “The Voice of Civilization”. The messages play up the “dangers” that lie ahead. The announcements, which are fewer in number, are actually coming attractions (foreshadowing) of what guests will see and encounter on the ride itself. The overall feeling of the background soundtrack is more of an amateur short-wave radio broadcast.
Both queues are contained within the tour company offices and storage areas. Once in the queue I find I forget that just a short distance away is a paved road and lots of other activity. The sounds of boat engines and the calls of the skippers pulls our attention toward the water like a director’s camera pulling us into the story. As you inch closer (depending on the crowd) you get glimpses of the boats with their familiar design and name plates. Both soundtracks make jokes about the weather being hot and humid, which, in Florida, is exactly what it feels like at certain time of the year.
Both Jungle Cruises use cinematic techniques, required by Walt in many of the original Disneyland attractions, to set the stage for the actual attraction ride. In typical Imagineering fashion, they don’t skimp on giving us a treat for our sense of sight and sound to provide the story introductions. These are the elements of storytelling that continue to set Disney theme park attractions apart from its competitors. It’s why, like Pirates, even though the basic technology of the attractions still dates to the 50s, I and many others continue to enjoy the experience over and over.
What are some of your favorite theme park, attraction stories the Imagineers have told?
Keep an eye out for the next in this series.