Part Four with Eddie Sotto: Fear Minus Death = Fun!

Eddie Sotto is a thinker, a visionary and a Disney Imagineer. As one of the world’s most respected creative consultants and theme park attraction designers, Eddie is CEO of Sotto Studios in Los Angeles. Join us now for part four of our latest interview with Eddie Sotto.

“Passion is the “secret weapon” of design. It separates art from technique. It drives the details, takes us beyond ourselves, and is the fire that refines great ideas to their essence. The power within something executed from obsession is practically divine as the guest never sees the effort, only the final perfected result. Passion “detonates” when the details come together seamlessly and the years of sweat become condensed into a stunning instant when the guest emotionally experiences the work. The fallout is addictive.  If we succeed, they’ll tell their friends it’s “magic”.  – Eddie Sotto

NN: On your company web site for Sotto Studios, you use the phrase “Fear Minus Death Equals Fun.” Explain this phrase?

Eddie Sotto: Fear minus death equals fun is a formula for experiential design in roller coasters and thrill rides. The idea is that people don’t just want to survive, they want to thrive!

Let’s take the Matterhorn Bobsled ride at Disneyland as an example. When you start out on a roller coaster going up the first hill, you may think to yourself that you’re not going to make it. You tell yourself, “Gee did I make the right decision? I’m going up this first hill and it’s going to be terrifying.” Even though you see people get off the ride safely, you subconsciously have that anxiety that we create in someone. In the end it’s very pleasurable because you survived. People reward themselves this way. Fear minus death equals fun is the rewarding experience you get when you feel like you’re pushing your own limits.

When we were doing the music for Disneyland’s Space Mountain ride, we used the Dick Dale soundtrack in order to build fear and anticipation on the first lift hill. (see example of this) It was about creating an ominous “Uh-oh, what-did-get myself into” sense. That anticipation creates anxiety which enhances the rush you get when you are actually on the ride. If there was no anticipation, I don’t think it would be nearly as exciting. We intentionally build anxiety as you go up the hill, and then we release that anxiety and emotion as you go down the hill.

John Hench is the author of that philosophy for many attractions. At the Matterhorn Bobsled ride at Disneyland, for example, first you bury and theme the tracks so that people can people can ride what looks like a bobsled without having to train all their lives, like Olympians must. Then we make the mountain look as tall as possible so it really looks like you did something when you’re finished. And of course you have fun and you survive it.

As a little boy you can look up and say, “Daddy, I went to the top of that mountain and I did that and I made it!” We make the experience of riding a bobsled look easy.

For teenagers, roller coasters are rites of passage. The thinking for a teenager is, “I am old enough now that I am not going to be scared. I can do that ride, that I can handle it.”

This is what we do. We create things that look ominous and terrifying and scary by their forced perspective and but it really does equal fun. People want to survive. Even on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride you go to what looks like hell, but you emerge out the other door unscathed. If you look at the Indiana Jones ride, all these attractions are about you narrowly escaping your demise of one kind or another.

I thought that “Fear Minus Death Equals Fun” was a good way of expressing this idea. We were in a brainstorming meeting where that phrase came out. I can’t remember if I actually coined that phrase but I certainly popularized it. We used it as a slogan on the design project called, “The E Ticket”. We made tee-shirts that said, “Fear minus death equals fun”. I think I want to make some more of those!

NN: You knew this question was coming: What is the future of themed entertainment?

Eddie Sotto: I was always hoping that the Tokyo Disneyland Pooh “trackless” ride vehicles would grow in popularity and use. That ride system is simply awesome and there are so many useful applications for them. I hear Walt Disney Imagineering is using them in a new attraction now, but we will have to wait and see.

The innovative trackless ride vehicle at Pooh’s Hunny Hunt ride at Tokyo Disneyland.

As I mentioned before, it is become harder and harder to reproduce what you see in the movie the ride is based on. As a result, Disney is now importing the movie media straight into the immersive attraction environment like in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

The danger is the temptation to retell the story in the movie and end up with a book-report-like synopsis of the movie that comes off like watching a trailer on a motion base.

NN: What do you think about the traditional wait time / ride as the future of entertainment?

Eddie Sotto: I think the whole wait-in-line for an hour, only to experience a two minute ride is getting really old for many guests. At Legoland for example, my 6 year old kids now look at the lines first and make a value judgment as to whether the line is worth the wait. A.D.D. does not help theme parks and threatens the whole idea of what makes for a great vacation. Real experiences seem to be gaining ground.

The next level in themed entertainment seems to be happening everywhere except the theme park. The multi-user online “Everquest” is one of many persistent and immersive virtual worlds, and many film properties are building online worlds from their stories. So to me, it’s how real and virtual worlds collide in a seamless, more compelling way. It’s not there yet at all, but that’s the good part! The future of themed entertainment may not appear in a park, it could be at home, in a restaurant or in Dubai. That is why we at Sotto Studios are working in those alternative fields.

NN: Theme parks like Disney and Universal have come up with Fast Pass as a way to cut down on wait times. Do you like Fast Pass? Why or why not?

Eddie Sotto: I do not like fast pass, I just don’t like it. I see what it is valuable for, but I am not a fan of it on any level. Maybe it’s because of my age, but I like the idea of going to Disneyland and having it be a sense of discovery and more of a random experience.

When Disneyland first opened and park ticket books were around, you were an editor. You had only so many tickets to use unless you were going to buy extra ones. You had to make careful choices. You wouldn’t burn out on the attractions because when you visited the park, you might see an attraction twice but only if you really loved it. It made Disneyland an incredibly special experience. Also, in order to get rid of all of your tickets, you had incentive you to try other things — lesser attractions like Casey Jr. for example.

Later, in the 1980’s they got rid of ticket books. The paradigm changed for the average paying guest at Disneyland. When you got in there after having paid so much to get in, the meter was running. It’s was buffet! The paradigm became, how fast can you eat the buffet?

Then with Fast pass you create still another paradigm. The passport situation or “fast pass” gives you incentive to use the park in a way that you haven’t used it before. It is almost like a hamster trail to run through to get fast passes, then go to another attraction, only to return later. Guests spend time looking at their watches instead of enjoying the park. I think it creates a whole different psychology. Most guests will say they love the fast pass. They will say, “Hey I didn’t have to wait in that horrible line!” So I guess it comes down to, how painful is the line?

Some queues don’t have any show. Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is an example of this. But Indiana Jones was designed in a different era where the queue was very much a part of the attraction. The queue was all about exploring the caves and making it past things. I’ve heard people who say they like the queue more than the actual ride! I would say that attractions that were not designed for a fast pass, like Indiana Jones, are a victim of the fastpass. I think it does hurt some attractions.

I also don’t like the VIP thing of haves and have-nots. Disneyland is founded upon the notion that, “Every guest is a VIP.” I know cast members don’t like to be at the control point because they get spit on. Guests get very irritated by seeing other guests pass them by. I don’t know that Fast pass is the best cultural thing for Disneyland. So I would say I don’t really like it. But there are people who do like it. I see its value.

It is interesting how fast pass has been removed in many parks. What happens is that the parks using fast pass can’t handle the roaming guests in interstitial areas. Fast pass hurts the instantaneous capacity of the rides because you need to collect people in the queues. Queues absorb the public, and without people in them it makes the park too crowded. The park can’t handle the capacity!

NN: Do you still visit Disneyland?

Eddie Sotto: Absolutely. If I’m there on my own, I love to bring the old 1956 Disneyland USA footage on an iPod and compare it to the location for which it was shot. Very geeky. We have 9 year old twins and seeing the park through their eyes keeps me from taking things too seriously.

The Tiki room, then and now. Eddie Sotto appreciates the nostalgia of Disneyland with his kids.

At age 9, they are fast becoming the jaded ones. It’s scary how savvy kids are now as to how the so-called “special effects” are done. My son says Pirates of the Caribbean is “too boring” and refuses to go on. Imagine a 9 year old saying that, even with Johnny Depp! He likes The Indiana Jones ride. My daughter only wants to ride Pirates of the Caribbean looking backwards. We counted the infrared lights. I guess Annual Passports can have that effect, but they still love the park overall.

As I get older, it’s hard to separate what’s artistically timeless about the park from what is just plain nostalgic. I think the guest satisfaction level is so high because it is a place that has literally stayed the same since childhood and was so beloved at the time. Just look at the furor over attraction updates like with the updates to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Pirates of the Caribbean.

NN: What, in your opinion are the best attractions to be developed in the last 5 years?

Eddie Sotto: I think the industry on the whole has been pretty stagnant. Both of my favorite technologies, Tokyo Disneyland Pooh’s Hunny hunt and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure Spiderman are more than 5 years old. It is getting tough out there with all the litigation driven design, ADA legislation and the movies themselves so hard to emulate in an attraction. So the trend has been to merge the movie with the attraction as AA’s often don’t meet expectation.

The interactivity of Walt Disney Imagineering’s “Turtle Talk” and the new “Finding Nemo Submarine” attraction are making great strides in finding common ground between immersion, media and the audience. It is a very fine line, in that too much media can transform immersion into a placid viewing experience. The motion based “Soarin'” at EPCOT and California Adventure has great potential as well.

The Sea World premium swim / meet / touch experiences like Discovery Cove are great too because they satisfy the desire for authenticity.

NN: You mention authenticity. What are some great examples of attractions that are popular and authentic versus a typical 2-4 minute theme park ride.  What are some good examples of these? 

Eddie Sotto: Authentic experiences are the dolphin encounters and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Real experiences are authentic like going to the Alamo, going to real museums. But we enhance them with digital technology which makes history come alive. That is the future, taking the world that we live in and make it more making it more interesting. Television has gone to reality where it is less scripted and more real. I think that attractions that have more reality to them in one way or another with a fantasy feel with be cool.

Disney is doing these things where they are building hotels that add a historic enhancement to a given city. Like a Disney hotel in New Orleans or a Disney Hotel in Hawaii. They are adding something that will that has a Disney wrapper to an authentic to an authentic area like Hawaii.

Even so, I can’t wait to see what the future holds!

NN: Eddie, thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience with us!

Eddie: You’re welcome Nate, any time!

Fear Minus Death = Fun!

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