Themed Attraction Design, Part Three The Sixth Sense, the Story, and the Cliche`
In part one we explained how an immersive themed environment creates an envelope around the viewer with the intent to convince him that what he is experiencing is real. This is accomplished by designing an environment that influences all five sense. But how do we complete the task? How do we take a passive viewer and pull him from a relaxed realm as an observer into a realm of fantasy that truly seems real? Part of the answer is in what we like to call the sixth sense. In themed entertainment, this sixth sense is the imagination or the suspension of disbelief. Tapping the sixth sense is accomplished through the use of theming, storyline, and the creative use of story-reinforcing iconography. The first step in tapping into a guest’s sixth sense is to make sure that the themed attraction focuses on a story. I have toured quite a few theme parks in the last few years, and one of the biggest mistakes that nearly all of them still make is that they attempt to make their attractions themed by simply adding scenery and props to it. I think part of the problem is that many ride manufacturers want to get in on the “theming thing” just like everyone else. They make a cool looking ride that a gets management excited. But unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense with the theme of the area, nor does it help tell an immersive story.
For example, if you were to ride a Ferris wheel named “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, where each car was shaped like a submarine, would you leave the ride feeling like you had actually experienced a Jules Verne novel? Probably not. In this case, a Ferris wheel painted bright yellow would give you an identical ride experience, because there is no emotion and no story attached to the attraction. This sort of attraction is what may be considered a poor themed experience, as simply adding expensive props to a set adds nothing of value to the guest experience. A Ferris wheel can hardly evoke too much emotion because there is no story involved.
Along the same lines let us take the Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera as an example. Phantom of the Opera is an excellent Broadway show, combining beautiful imagery, striking special effects, and hauntingly exciting music. It is a compelling story of a brilliant, yet grotesquely deformed man and his love affair with a woman. Now suppose we were to remove the story from Phantom. If all the special effects and pyrotechnics were set off, if a few nice props were on the set, and if once in a while someone would come out and sing a song or two; would we, the guest still have the same experience? It would be more of a talent show than a Broadway show, correct? Story is one of the keys to stirring the guests’ emotion. So in creating a truly memorable theme park experience, every themed attraction should have a story just as every Broadway musical has a story.
Now let us imagine another theme park attraction. The theme is still “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”* This time we will try to influence all five senses, and our aforementioned sixth sense. Of course, the story comes first: Imagine being inside the dimly lit control room of The Nautilus. Captain Nemo is there, calmly giving out orders to his highly trained crew. All seems well as the crew carries their duties with a characteristic din. The sonar pings rhythmically, and Nemo seems truly at ease, though astute in the command chair as his vessel slips silently through the water several fathoms below the surface. The chamber smells of freshly oiled machinery with an occasional whiff of diesel. You are aboard a well-maintained machine. The chamber glows red with the interior submarine working lights.
Suddenly, the sonar begins to make not one, but two pings every few seconds.
“We have a contact, Captain!” the young sonar operator reports.
“Can you tell what it is?” Nemo asks.
“I’m not sure sir, but it is big, and it is approaching at 20 knots. It is intercepting us!”
“Full left rudder! Brace for impact,” Nemo commands.
And just then the entire room shudders, and you are jolted by the impact. One of the young ensigns is thrown from his chair. The sound of collision is terribly loud – a cacophony of reverberating steel.
“Damage reports! Battle Stations!” Nemo shouts as nozzles begin to burst in various places throughout the room.
As the salty spray hits your arms and face, you begin to feel like this will not be the serene voyage you thought it would be.
This is a short story that I made up based on the Jules Verne novel, but this is the sort of story one might expect for this sort of theme, and, given the proper ride system, this could be a truly memorable guest experience. Don’t you agree? What have I done differently than the Ferris wheel? Answer: I have placed you not as an observer of the action, but as a crew member inside the submarine. There is something at stake for you just as much as there is for Nemo. You are in a closed environmental envelope. This story not only places you inside the fantasy environment, but it attempts to influence all five senses to convince you that what you are seeing is actually real (as mentioned in Part One).
1. Sight….You see that you are sitting inside The Nautilus. The characters necessary to advance the plot are present.
2. Hearing…You hear the sonar, the engine, the crew, the impact and Captain Nemo talk.
3. Touch… You not only feel the submarine, but you are very aware that something important has happened as you are nearly thrown from your seat. At the end of this scene, you feel the ocean water hit your face. The effect of spray on your face drives home the point that the submarine you are in is in grave danger.
4. Smell… You can smell both the grease from the engine and the diesel fumes. It is evident that this is not just a dressed up room you are sitting in…
5. Taste… Some of the salt water will reach your face, and with luck . . . your taste buds. Ones’ naturally curious tongue will help this effect.
6. I suppose you are wondering where the sixth sense comes in, aren’t you?
This attraction will influence a guest’s sixth sense for a couple reasons; first because most people already know a whole lot about the novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” It is easier to imagine something that we have a pre-conceived notion about. So in this way, we have tapped into your sense of nostalgia. Second, and more importantly, this particular attraction forces you, the guest, to imagine the unseen object outside the submarine. To drive home the point, let me ask this question; Do you know what attacked the Nautilus? It should be obvious to most readers that it was a giant squid. Without even mentioning what the creature actually was, most people knew that a classic undersea battle is about to take place. When a designer can get his audience to start imagining, his work is done. If a design is successful, it gets the ball rolling enough that the visitor’s imagination takes over where reality leaves off. What the viewer actually sees no longer matters as much because his imagination naturally fills in the blanks for him. Once this is done, Walla! We have just created a memorable guest experience. And that’s your sixth sense at work. You used it just by reading the story, without even riding this attraction! In this way, a theme park designer plays on the sixth sense of the visitor. As a further example of how your “sixth sense” may be influenced, take this example from Christian Mikunda, in his book, (translated) The Art of Business Entertainment. This example describes a television commercial as opposed to a themed attraction, but the mental processes are identical in both mediums.
“In a commercial for Club Mediterranee`, someone strikes a golf ball out of a villa sadly dripping in the rain. The ball flies over a whole hemisphere and comes to land on a South Sea Island, just a centimetre from the hole. But: the ball’s flight is not actually shown. Instead, you see people following something in the sky with pointed fingers. Never was a flying object so immediately present as this one you can not even see. So, to tell a story successfully don’t say everything, don’t show everything. The consumer should be encouraged to complete the picture. To do it, he or she will of course need a script – the instructions – which help to easily fill the strategic gaps. A motto for professional marketing stories could go like this: A clear storyline with courage to breach detail.”
Mikunda refers to this process as “brain scripting,” which the same as our sixth sense. In this example, a commercial uses a viewer’s sixth sense to effectively fill in the gaps of a storyline. Tapping the sixth sense also involves the creative use of cliche` icons in order to tap our sixth sense. A while ago a successful attractions designer told me that in theme attraction design, we, “Never avoid the cliche`” He explained, “The reason cliche`s are called cliche`s is because they work. We often intentionally add cliche` icons to our attractions because they are just what the attraction needs to help the visitor make the connection with what’s happening.” How does this work? When a person enters an environment and looks at the scenic elements, he immediately asks himself or herself, “What is the relevance of what I am seeing?” Adding a cliche` icon helps relate to the guest their location, where they are, and what is about to happen. It helps set the scene and fire emotions. A typical movie cliche`, for example (and one of my favorites) is from the horror movies. It never fails in that scary moment when you know the villain is about to strike, a cat always jumps out at you. Inevitably, the real killer is very nearby. That is what makes the cat a cliche` icon. If we were designing a haunted attraction, what better way to set the mood of the scene than by having a cat jump out at the guests? Combine this with other cliche` icons like ghostly fog effects, a full moon on a cyclorama (a sky-like backdrop), thunderclaps with strobe lightning, a classic weather-beaten Victorian haunted house on a hill, a graveyard, a howling dog; and every guest will know exactly what sort of environment he is in. He will know exactly what sort of story to expect, because it is already in his mind. As a further example: If a viewer enters a show scene in a boat and sees the back end of the ship rising above him, it tells him nothing. But if the letters “T I T A N I C” are emblazoned on the back of the ship, the viewer might immediately say to himself, “Oh yes, now I know where I am, and I have a good idea about what’s going to happen! It is a very exciting moment when that connection is made. The moment the light bulb goes on is the very moment we strive for when we design an attraction. That’s the sixth sense, when the imagination turns on and reality starts to matter less. Once the guest’s sixth sense starts working, the storytelling (now enhanced by a viewer’s imagination) can truly begin.
In short. . . A Cliche` sometimes helps the architecture tell a better story
So in essence, it’s not enough just to add sights and sounds to an attraction. The attraction should be a creative blend of sights, sounds, and storytelling devices used to stir the emotion and imagination of a guest. With the proper use of all of the elements we have talked about so far it is very possible to create a guest experience exciting enough to keep guests coming back time and again.