Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sindbad's Storybook Voyage: The Art of Rider Involvement

Movies and theme park attractions are kind of an odd pairing when you think about it. True, movies have action, which can translate to physical space well, but they're also full of things that are non-translatable, at least not well. Characters, subplots, and individual scenes longer than a minute or two (AKA all the things that make movies, well, movies) generally can't be directly replicated in a confined physical space - not unless you want an incredibly long, expensive, and boring dark ride. But the job is even more difficult than that. Not only do you have to translate the film faithfully into physical space, but you must also make your audience feel like it's their story, too. While audiences need to relate to films for that medium to succeed, they don't need to feel like they're a part of the action the same way they do in a theme park attraction. It's not an impossible task to find this balance, but it is an arduous one, and at this point you see why so many more people go to film school instead of entertainment design programs. 

          Jokes aside, with this proverbial wrench (read: audience) thrown into your spanners, how do you make a good adapted dark ride? Fortunately there's been a few answers to that question over the years. You could substitute your riders for a main character, a la Snow White's Scary Adventures. You could make the ride vehicle bounce alongside a beloved striped stuffed animal, a la The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. You could even throw in a 50-foot drop into a briar patch to build and release the tension of the story, a la Splash Mountain. 

          But there's a simpler answer to all this, and one that requires far less effort than any of these examples. You don't have to send your guests on a secret mission or set up some elaborate backstory for why they are there, or even really involve your guests actively in the attraction in any way. You only have to make a guest feel like they are part of the action. If they feel they are part of the action, then they are, and this feeling can be established by one of the oldest tricks in the book: staging. If you stage a dark ride in just the right way, well, you can tell any story you damn well please. 

          Now staging dark rides is a tricky thing, as the medium has unique ways of both telling stories and interacting with its audience. You can certainly draw on classic techniques used in films and stagecraft, as Imagineers often do, but keep in mind that film and stage sets are designed for viewing from only a few angles. Dark rides, on the other hand, place their constantly-moving viewers inside the scenes themselves, and as such there must come moments where the only way forward in presentation are innovations designed specifically for the medium. The staging tool chest for dark rides is therefore much broader, and generally less conventional. 

          To see these ideas in motion, I want to examine Sinbad's Storybook Voyage, a dark ride in Tokyo DisneySea. Note that the ride is not based on any Disney film and inspiration instead comes from the myths and legends of the titular sailor. (Fun fact: aside from Marvel characters, Sindbad is the only character found in both Disney and Universal parks! Even weirder - neither is directly based on a film!) While not a film adaptation, Sindbad's Storybook Voyage (SSV for short) works as an intriguing example due to it both being an adapted story and a story that never directly acknowledges its audience. You might think it does - the ride is often regarded as a mix of "it's a small world" and Pirates of the Caribbean. Yet while those rides acknowledge the audience through their presentational mode and narration respectively, Sindbad never goes further than singing an 
irresistibly catchy song. Staging plays a pivotal role in shaping the story guests experience in SSV, and this setup makes the attraction invaluable as a case study in understanding how these techniques work. And seriously, listen to this song: 

           (The song - "Compass of Your Heart" by Alan Menken - is central to the attraction, and repeated throughout in various forms, but generally through Sindbad singing. It should be noted that the song is not actually about Sindbad's journey. The song instead focuses on finding what's important in life - helping others, not riches - and backs up the attraction's theme of optimism and generosity.)

         In Sindbad, the rider's connection to the story is forged through experiential and environmental cues, all made possible through clever staging techniques. Before we dive head-on into this, I'd recommend watching the video below to familiarize yourself with the general layout and progression of the attraction. That being said, I will also be using pictures throughout, and if you have not gone to Tokyo and would like to avoid spoilers prior to riding SSV for the first time, I advise you bookmark this post and come back later. Warning aside, here's the video

*Please note that the sound cuts out at times, but this video does have crystal-clear visuals and since we are looking exclusively at visual staging, this is not a major issue. 

The Ride

          Let's start at the very beginning of our Sindbad experience. Even before we've boarded the ride, involvement is already occurring. In the queue we meander through darkened alleyways filled with murals depicting Sindbad's adventures, heading deeper into what we can assume is the city center. Instead, we come to a small platform area home to several docked boats - boats that we will soon board to begin our journey. At this point we already know the ride is called Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, and we can presume the protagonist will be sailing somehow. In this regard, boats as the ride vehicles make perfect sense. It is understood that our own voyage will parallel and accompany Sindbad's. 

         The first thing we see upon boarding our boats in the queue area is a pastiche of an ancient Middle Eastern city. Our boat drifts forward, but it lingers here, giving us plenty of time to soak this image in and understand where we are. With music rising as we approach the next room, this is the beginning of our story, giving us a moment to ground ourselves within this fantastic setting. In this area and this area alone, we are the protagonists. Even though from the next room on it's Sindbad's story, this feeling of being the center of attention never really leaves us, and it will inform our reactions to the scenes to come. 

          We now enter the city marketplace to find the inhabitants singing while going about their daily business. Our first glimpse of Sindbad himself comes almost immediately, and he stands out from the crowd with a unique design, a tiger sidekick, and his positioning on a boat. Even if we'd never seen or heard of this guy before, we now know he's important and will be going forward. Our hero introduced, further world building will now commence throughout the rest of the scene. It whirls with motion and smaller vignettes happening within the larger hustle and bustle - a monkey performing feats of strength here, a flock of sheep there, a shadow puppet show and belly dancer further on. I'll note here that at this point in the scene there's no real plot point to seeing all of this marketplace action. We've already got Sindbad's introduction and are ready to begin the adventure proper. Instead, this elongated introduction allows us to soak in the environment and feel as if we are part of the scene. The longer it goes on, the more details we take in - that the town is one of modest means, and that the marketplace is a communal gathering spot for entertainment. And though the townspeople ignore us to focus on the entertainment themselves, we "join" them in being entertained by the various spectacles. Not only has the scene been staged to get its plot elements out of the way quickly, it has also left openings in the crowds for us to see as if we were part of them. Our perspective is similar to theirs as well, as guests sitting in the boats are approximately the same height as the townspeople. We do not really know any of these characters, but through effectively setting the scene, we are already able to identify with them. And what do the townspeople really want? To wish Sindbad luck on his voyage, as a banner at the exit of the room proclaims. And now that we identify with these people, we wish him luck, too. 

          Other staging tricks here - the action here occurs on all sides and is too much to take in all at once. If we were only to look forward, we would miss large swaths of the scene, and so you are forced to pan in order to see everything going on much in the way a camera would. That you cannot see everything at once is intentional, and convinces guests of the epic scale of both the marketplace and adventure. You always get the sense that something is happening just out of frame, that the adventure is simply too big to take it all at once. ("it's a small world" uses a similar idea, particularly in it's finale, and I think it's one of the reasons the two rides are oft compared to each other.)

          As we head into the next room, the transition is immediate, violent and visceral. We proceed into darkness, unable to see what's ahead, when suddenly we are hit with water just as the boat comes around to see lightning in the distance. The combination of temporary blindness and rain puts us in a momentary danger mentality, which is heightened by rain to one side and shipwrecks everywhere, but fades a bit as we see Sindbad up ahead singing. Though we understand he has been in the storm via minor damage to his vessel, it is we who have experienced the full force of it. All of the action is front-loaded in this scene, and it has happened not to Sinbad, but to us. This final bit of the scene suggests a certain intimacy - in a massive room, Sindbad, the sirens, and the guests are never more than a few feet from each other, furthering guest connections and feelings of friendliness. 

Sinbad's boat is just to the left of frame, and the close-knit grouping of animatronics and guests almost form a triangle.
          Sindbad's appearance with the sirens near the end of the scene also establishes his adventurous spirit and serves as a sort of reward for us for getting past the danger.  Risk-reward staging will be used several times throughout the ride, and in this case manages to push the plot forward even while still involving the audience. Importantly, Sindbad is on equal footing with the guests here, and will be for most of the journey. It's still his story, but this hints that he and his journey are never more important that the audience and theirs. Furthermore, the ride really wants us to learn this lesson, because all of the action is on Sindbad's side of the boat here. The scene is tight, focused - a moment of clarity and peace before the next scene. 

          And it's a good thing, as the next scene is much more chaotic. Bandits have arrived on the scene, and they're trying to steal precious giant eggs! How can we tell? The first thing we see here is a small pirate boat, followed by the bandit in question, who is then followed by another pirate boat. So far, boats have been used to symbolize our journey and to help us identify with Sindbad, who has been seen twice on his boat. Now we are confronted with pirate boats in the water near us, and we know instinctively these new characters are bad people. Aside from the staging of these boats, this scene also features Sindbad defeating the bandits from the high ground - depicted below:

It's over, bandits...I have the COMPASS OF YOUR HEEEEEAAAART!

         Any danger posed by the threatening pirate boats is now dispelled as we see another implementation of risk-reward come to pass. Sindbad's positioning is indicative of his power over the bandits (still on our level), and implies his status as our protector - a hero! Pretty archetypal Hollywood imagery and staging, yadda yadda yadda... at least until we come fully around the corner. 

           We are confronted now with what is an absolute monster of a bird. This should come as a bit of a shock to us: thus far in the scene the bird has been hidden from view by both a wall and a set of well-placed palm trees. The bird's positioning helps to bring us into the scene in a new way. Whereas the marketplace featured action on either side, the action there is naturally interrupted by the ride's boat canal. Here, the action has uninterrupted continuity and makes us feel like we are a part of the battle at hand, thus shifting our role from that of mostly unconnected viewers to battlefield participants. Before we leave this scene, I'll point out that Sindbad's boat is missing here, and will be from the next scene as well, as all three rooms have a mini-story arc of their own. The lack of a boat means keeps the actions focused on this current adventure, and we aren't worried yet about what comes next. 

          From the battle on the beach we move into a large cave filled with treasure. Sindbad pays no attention to this and is at the far end of the cave, trying to open a door to release some sort of giant. The bandits who previously got away are here as well, though they have been undone by Chandu. The way this is staged, however, makes it seem as if they have been defeated by the treasure and their love of it, as one is half-buried in it and the other is literally blinded by treasure stuck on his head. It's not only a humorous sight but a reinforcement of the themes established by the ever-present theme song. Sindbad having his back to the treasure also supports the theme, but also refocuses our attention on the giant, already the weenie at the end of the room:

          This room is much more a transitory space than a full scene, and it's one of the spaces where there's really not much done to involve the audience other than the bandit gags. The staging is more focused on theme and plot, but the gold still serves as a reward following the bird encounter, and there's a fair amount of space given to let the audience take in the environment before the important plot point comes at the end of the cave. 

           The next room makes up for this slower section, however, as we come to a room dominated by the now freed giant and Sindbad across from him on the far side of our boat canal. The bandits' saga is now completed, as they are tied up and utterly defeated. They're also the first thing we see in this room, which makes sense given that they're the least important, and we want to get their story out of the way as fast as possible to move on to the main event:

          Take a good hard look at that picture for a minute. Finished? Good. Let's break it down. First - the giant. He's absolutely massive, yes, but his placement in the scene directly adjacent to the canal serves to exaggerate his size even further. His placement also determines the line of sight between the giant and Sindbad on the far side of the canal. In order to view Sindbad from where he sits, the giant must look down at a steep angle, putting us right in the middle of the two characters' sight lines. Here is a duet between man and giant that not only carries the plot forward, but makes the audience feel we are being sung to directly. Look back up at that picture again. There is a decent amount of room surrounding the giant figure, and Sindbad's boat, by contrast, must essentially be flush with the wall in order to fit the minuscule space afforded to it. It likely would have been much easier to place the figures together on the giant's side singing to each other, and this staging would have captured the audience's undivided attention. But that would be a staging technique focused solely on advancing the plot, which is not what's happening here. The resulting effect of the current staging* - that despite all evidence to the contrary, we are at the center of this story, we are the ones who must carry its message forward - is not only majestic in its execution, but pivotal to the story as a whole. This message reverberates throughout the rest of the attraction, but here, in this small scene, lies the epicenter. This makes a great deal of sense when you consider this is the approximate midway point of the ride (scene 5 of 9). In order for the ride to bring its themes to their natural conclusion, the scene simply must be staged this way. It must keep the audience invested in this tale, and putting them quite literally in the middle of the story works remarkably well. 

          While the duet room takes an unorthodox staging approach, the next returns to a fairly conventional structure. We see Sindbad's boat immediately on our right as we enter, packed with treasures from our previous adventure, and that sight paired with the elephants on either side indicate we have entered a new locale. Of course, the rest of the room backs up this assertion, but these two items are the ones in our immediate line of sight, and so seem intended to serve as transition pieces. Following that, we have Sindbad learning to drum from the king, putting a key plot point at the center of the room, and finally Chandu bouncing on a large drum as the last major part of the scene. Not much in the way of experiential staging here, but there doesn't really have to be. The scene is the start of a new mini-arc within the ride, and needs to set that arc up so that the rest of it can work well. That the emphasis is on plot here is reinforced by staging the entire main scene on the side of the canal that falls within our natural sight line straight ahead. 

Though hilariously, all of the people in this official marketing image are ignoring it. 
One last note - the placement of Chandu near the exit actually helps move the plot forward as well, foreshadowing the monkeys drumming in the next room. Were he placed elsewhere in the scene, the transition would not be quite as smooth. 

          The transition continues into the next room with one monkey on a rocky ledge directly up ahead before our boat turns and we get to see the main scene of Sindbad rocking out with a band of monkeys. While this scene is joyous, it also feels somewhat unnerving due to the lack of our ever-present theme song and what is happening on the other side of the canal. While the monkeys on Sindbad's side are just above our level and in the presence of a familiar element, the monkeys on the left continue to escalate in height, standing upon taller and taller rocks. While the effect isn't quite threatening (as was the original intent)**, it does cause a sense of claustrophobia with us caught between an ever-growing cliff side and a wall of percussion music. To resolve this tension, risk-reward staging steps in once again. For braving this strange land of vaguely-unnerving simians, we are rewarded with an adorable scene of Chandu in Sindbad's boat, peeking out from an absolutely massive pile of bananas. 

Incidentally, here's your reward for reading this far!

          The next scene divides itself in two, and utilizes another unique effect, having us first see a giant fish and Sindbad's boat from afar, and then presenting them together full size right next to us. While a fairly simplistic scene - there's no major staging elements present besides the fish and what's on it - this simulated quick travel is one not previously seen in the attraction, and it again features we, the audience, travelling, not Sindbad. Though we are both taking the long voyage home, the experience is given to us thanks to a brief silhouette of what's to come. Once we do see the fish in all it's glory, we get a little more insight from the scene, but not much. The chunks of earth upon the fish's back make him more visually exciting, and the fish himself elevates Sindbad, Chandu, and their boat, making the whole scene more impressive and giving us a sense of scale. It's a visually impressive scene, but there's more going on with art direction than staging here. 

          At last, we come to our final scene, and we are back where we've begun, and the final room very much echoes the opening scene. Once again we see Sindbad's boat first thing, indicating his safe return with dozens of fabulous treasures aboard. This wraps up the plot, and the rest of the scene again moves on to an environment we can soak in and enjoy before leaving this magical world. This time, however, as we move through the city, the villagers are not on our level, but often depicted above us. Additionally, there are bridges overhead, each featuring townsfolk or treasures being spread throughout the town. The entire town is literally elevated from when we saw it last, all of the citizens standing a little taller, the buildings looking a little nicer, and fireworks blazing overhead in the night sky. Previously in the attraction, looking up has meant there is something intimidating up above us, but here, gazing upward is done in admiration. Thanks to Sindbad's journey, the town has become wealthy both in goods and in spirit, and that they have literally risen up since we last saw them drives this point home. The reflections of the ride's first town scene continue in the action occurring on all sides of the boat, further allowing the scene to have the grandeur it wants to convey. And while there are dozens more reflections and similarities between the scenes, the coda we see just before the unloading dock is actually a difference. Sindbad now appears at the end of the scene, elevated like rest of the town, viewing a new chart as he readies to embark on a new adventure. There are no distractions from the vignette, as it is placed all by itself as the very last thing in the room. The ride wants us to know that the adventure is not over, and that our adventures will continue throughout the rest of the park. 

Lessons Learned

          If it isn't obvious by now, staging is instrumental in not only telling the story of Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, but in getting the audience to care about Sindbad's story in the first place. Now that we've done a scene-by-scene breakdown of the ride's staging techniques, I want to examine their broad strokes, and see why they're so effective. The goal here is to codify these techniques so that they can be utilized in the creation (or refurbishment) of any dark ride, regardless of source material. Some key takeaways: 

Have a Goal in Mind - This should be obvious, but ensure that all of your staging work guides the audience toward a certain type of interaction. In SSV's case, the goal is getting the audience emotionally invested in a fun journey of exploration, and nearly all of it's staging elements reflect that goal. Other goals might include making the audience feel uneasy or scared (Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror), or empowering them to feel authoritative and in-charge (Mission: SPACE, the upcoming Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run). 

Clarity - The story of Sindbad is made easy to follow, even if we have no prior familiarity with the character or can't understand Japanese. This is done through delineating scene changes clearly, but also through ensuring each room is well-organized. Plot elements are often given placement away from any distracting elements***, and usually set a fair distance from any environmental or experiential scenes. Additionally, key plot elements are consistently placed in hard-to-miss areas - at the beginning (first bazaar, duet room) or ends (final bazaar, storm room) of the scene. If not found here, scenes are generally placed in corners directly in guests' natural line of sight (bird/egg room, India room). Plot and experiential scenes generally do not interrupt each other - and they shouldn't, lest this cause confusion. 

Minimize Plot, Maximize Experience - The square footage given to plot beats in SSV is generally kept to a minimum, often not extending more than a couple of feet on either side of Sindbad. The rest of the space in these scenes is left for the audience to experience them in some form. Consider especially the first two rooms, in which the large bazaar scene and the storm take up the majority of the available space. Plot-adjacent elements can be and are distributed throughout the space (the large bird, villagers), though generally in a way the audience can engage with (bird being about the canal, villagers being on our eye-level). If you get the staging ratio of these elements correct, the story will reveal itself largely through guests' experiences (storm, whale rooms) When in doubt, remember, a ride's story can exist with no plot beats (it's a small world), but can't exist with nothing for the guests to experience (Mermaid, essentially). 

Stage Your Audience - If the show rooms are your stages, then your guests are your actors, and blocking them is just as important as the rest of your staging. Consider your placement of the ride's track and riders' eye-levels in order to maximize their experiences in each scene, such as making transitions easier (whale room - track turns) or having them drift directly into the action (duet room). Your blocking should be planned in conjunction with your staging, as you should always be designing the attraction around your audience's point of view. (And while we're talking about blocking your audience, place them in a vehicle that supports the ride experience.) 

Make Guests Identify with Your Characters - Staging of each scene needs to create a relationship between the audience and the characters, and there are a variety of ways in which to achieve this. For instance, Sindbad is almost always staged to be in or near his boat. The audience spends the entire ride in a boat. Why, look at that! The audience already have a connection to the protagonist of the story. I've mentioned character sight lines and elevations in the breakdown above, but they're worth mentioning here as they are part of this technique as well. 

Risk-Reward Principle - If you put your guests in a harrowing situation or some sort of danger, follow that up with a less intense scene, generally something pleasing or funny. The way scenes are staged here generally allows you to see your reward up ahead, providing a carrot for you to go on ahead through the "danger", feeling safer and more secure as you get closer to your prize.There should be a rhythm in the staging here that reflects the rhythm of your story. Sindbad is not a particularly intense story, so each dangerous encounter is followed by a scene that releases the tension (storm followed by mermaids, monkeys by banana gag, etc.). On the other hand, Indiana Jones Adventure is a much more intense story, so it has more fewer instances of rewards (Indy showing up at the end). 

Embrace Implied Action - We never actually see Sindbad sail through the storm, but given the state of his sails we know that he did. Likewise, we don't actually see Sindbad's boat travel between ports, but because his boat appears in each scene filled with more and more treasures, we understand the continuity of these adventures. A scene itself can only cover so much ground, but adding background details can really flesh the scene out and place it in the larger context of the story. 

Abstraction Isn't a Bad Thing - This goes for art-style - Sindbad's characters aren't full-size people - but also goes for actions. The ride works on the principle that we the audience can identify with Sindbad, and it's easier when he's close to our height and isn't a full six feet tall and looming over us. So too, we don't actually need to go super fast or rock back and forth during the storm or whale sequences to get the feeling we're in stormy waters or the open ocean. Large cardboard waves and a little wind go a long way, and it's these little elements in creating scenes that shouldn't be overlooked.  

          All of these design principles are intended to be general guidelines rather than be-all-end-all rules. Nevertheless, in nearly all cases, I will contend that the staging techniques seen in Sindbad's Storybook Voyage are quite effective and useful to have at our disposal. On the other hand, there are things you don't see in Sindbad's Storybook Voyage. Now, Sindbad is not a perfect ride - merely a very effective one, and just because it is lacking certain elements does not mean those elements are bad. With that being said, the following elements are not necessary and can actually get in the way of experiential storytelling, as evidenced by their application elsewhere. 

Too Much Dialogue - The original iteration of Sindbad** featured very chatty characters, who were done away with in the new version because that dialogue simply complicated things and made the story harder to follow. There is certainly a place for dialogue in dark rides, and perhaps room for a bit more in any lacking musical accompaniment. But dark rides aren't films or television shows that have time to create masterful speeches. Their storytelling prowess lies in their ability to let you experience the story, and straight-up telling you what it is doesn't really work. Staging-wise, this can cause issues if you need to have multiple characters all near each other in order to realistically have a conversation, and may prevent you from being more creative in your positioning if you need a more advanced animatronic to give a speech. Bottom line - don't do it.  

Going Meta - Given that this was Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, it would have been very easy to add a meta-element on to it, a la Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. But adding such an element would take away from SSV's themes and attempts to apply it's message directly to our lives. We need to be in Sindbad's world, with no caveats or asterisks, for this to come across clearly. Involve your audience in your world however you want - be it passively or actively. But when it comes to commentary on the ride itself, the attraction should leave that aspect to the audience and the audience along. Sindbad does this, which, I think, is a good thing. Build your stage, fill it with all the story you deem necessary, and let that story tell itself. Again, not strictly a hard and fast rule, but a general guideline. 


          Ultimately, there's no one way to tell a dark ride story. There's some absolute fantastic rides out there, each different from the last in style. In substance, however, they all come across the same - emotionally fulfilling. We find these rides enjoyable because they mean something to us, and in codifying the design principles behind such successes, I certainly hope we can build even better and more fulfilling experiences in the future. And I'm sure we will, as long as we follow......Chandu! I mean, just look at that face! The guy's adorable!

What? What did you think I was going say?

Did you find this article helpful? Have a thought on something you agree or disagree with, or just thoughts in general? Feel free to comment and start a conversation below!

*Though I'm focused here on physical staging, the audio design here is also quite clever, keeping the two vocal tracks separate and hitting the audience from both sides, emphasizing the separation of the figures. 

**Sindbad's Storybook Voyage is actually the second iteration of the ride. The first was a much darker take on Sindbad's story that didn't play well with guests, so it was changed to something happier. While the sets remained mostly intact, much of the staging was altered or tweaked to better suit the new version, and the fabulous song was added. Video of the original here. Fair warning: it is everything the newer is version is not. 

***You can keep your heroes in the midst of the action, but in that case there needs to be a clear delineation of their role. Note in the bird room Sindbad is placed on a tall rock so he can be the focus, and while in the monkey room he is on the same level as the other animatronics, he is the only human-looking one and as such naturally stands out. Another prominent example of this delineation in a crowded space is Pirates of the Caribbean's Auctioneer figure. 


Believe it or not, there's actually not a whole lot of resources out there in regards to dark ride and theme park staging. Nevertheless, here's some resources to get you started related to this post if you want to learn more.

Disney Tourist Blog - Great plot summary and tons of in-depth photo coverage of Sindbad's Storybook Voyage.

The Exhibition As Theatre - On the Staging of Museum Objects - A good article by Marc Maure explaining the basic principles of bringing various meaning to museum objects through clever staging. It's not exactly theme park related, but the principles and definitions here are quite helpful.

Outside of these, I was tipped off by Theme Park Concepts that In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch has tips on film staging that can be applied to theme parks as well, and I believe David Younger's Theme Park Design and The Art of Themed Entertainment features a section on it, or lacking that, dark rides in general, that I unfortunately have yet to read. Soon!

Title Photo Credit

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Expedition Isles: The Old Stomping "Grounds"

At long last, we're off!

          Welcome to the second installment of my series of essays in which I charge brazenly onward toward my goal of creating a new theme park. The first blog entry can be found here. This time around, we're going to be discussing the park's entry land - SOCIETY GROUNDS

          In my last post, I delved into the various type of park entrances, what makes them work, and how they benefit the park as a whole. Here, I will be applying that analysis and the lessons learned to try and make a first land that not only stands well on its own, but also surmises the themes and motifs guests should know going into the park. So let's get started!

The Story

          Society Grounds serves as the headquarters and transportation hub for members of the Global exPloration Society, or G.P.S. This multiracial, multicultural campus is positively buzzing with activity, as explorers present their latest findings to a rapt audience, newsies shout out the latest  discoveries that have come in hot off the presses, and the music of an age gone by drifts down from open windows. While the architecture takes inspiration largely from Europe, it's hard to place exactly where these grounds might actually be located. Guests are welcomed into the land as the latest Society recruits, out to make a name for themselves as famous explorers and treasure hunters - this is a role guests will play to varying degrees for the entirety of their park experience. Guests will shape their own story as they go forth, but there are certain storylines set in place for them to follow, several of which begin in Society Grounds: 

  • Cartography Challenge - Because I'm not calling it MapQuest! Guests will check-in at the Royal Hall of Geography to begin their quest to map the entire park. Here, guests will be given pieces of the map G.P.S. has managed to gather (Society Grounds and one more land chosen at random), and must visit other lands to find the other pieces of the map. Finding all pieces will reward guests with not only a completed map, but also grant access to the second floor of the Royal Hall, where they might enjoy tea and listen as cartographers past regale them with stories of distant lands. 
  • Mysteries of the Museum - The things found in the G.P.S. Museum of Mysteries could never really exist...could they? Bring back photographic evidence for the curators and you may be rewarded! (Guests will be rewarded with a commemorative pin with the G.P.S. motto).  
  • Field Research - Explorers looking to further their knowledge of the world around them are looking for assistants! Guests may answer trivia about the park or real-world history to earn gold coins - 5 of which can be traded in at the Bazaar for a small trinket. (Sample question: What do the flags about The Galley mean?)
  • Harkhuf Brigade - A splinter faction of the G.P.S. who explore only for profit, and care not for knowledge. The seeds of this storyline are subtly placed in this land, and its not really a quest so much as something that guests need to figure out on their own. The Brigade's nefarious goals play into several attractions and a nighttime show. Brigade members are also included around the park disguised as ordinary G.P.S. members (think SHIELD/Hydra, but with cast members) and discovering their identity may lead to amusing interactions or minor rewards. (Fun fact: The name Harkhuf is taken from an early Egyptian explorer who's expedition was entirely focused on trade. He's not evil though, and is actually just a really interesting historical figure!)

The Setting

It wouldn't be any fun if I just told you what the Society Grounds is like without showing you, so let's explore the setting together! A disclaimer: all art below is mine unless stated otherwise, and though I have tried to visualize my ideas as best I can, I am not a professional artist. Just a heads up! Regardless, I hope that the ideas behind the art come through clearly, but if not I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have!

We'll start with an overview (click to enhance): 

This diagram shows the general layout of the land from a bird's eye view. Please note that everything is roughly to scale. By looking at the points of interest, you can gain a sense of the land's flow, but I'll go a bit more into their individual stories below. 

  • G.P.S. Museum of Mystery - The park's entrance building, similar to Disneyland's train station. Rather than a waiting area, the second floor houses a museum dedicated to the mythological and items of a mystical nature. Sort of like a more serious and period version of Gravity Falls' Mystery Shack. Of course, the current curators are dismissive of such outlandish poppycock, though younger staff seem to believe. (This is part of a generation gap that can be noted around the land). 
  • The Royal Hall of Geography - A deliberate homage to the Royal Geographical Society, this building serves as the City Hall/Guest Relations of the land and park, and is also the hub for the Cartographer's Challenge. Records of the society's history are kept here as well. The entire building is not featured in the concept art below, but it would look something like this
Fun Fact: The official name of the building is Lowther Lodge. 
  • Bizarre Bazaar - A shop set up for expedition and general goods by some younger explorers looking to retire early. Aside from their inability to spell, the shopkeepers are good folks who have some real bargains. All merchandise here - and within the rest of the park - is themed appropriately (though things like umbrellas are still available). Guests looking for non-themed merchandise will have to find it in a gift shop outside the park. 
  • Society Station - The Society Grounds' train station greets trains ready to take you further into the park. While they do provide transportation, the train ride here will be a full-themed ride taking loose inspiration from Murder on the Orient Express. Trains themselves will be designed to replicate the luxurious passenger liners of the early 20th century, including some variance in train car design. I'll be making posts about individual attractions later and I'll go into more detail then. 
  • Adventure Tower - A clock tower with a lookout post on the roof that provides grand vistas of the park. Guests can gain access to this tower from it's south side. 
  • Fount of Knowledge - A fountain featuring a globe at it's apex and celebrating the pursuit of knowledge around the world. Some of the older explorers here refer to it as the Fountain of Youth, on account of the fact that travel keeps them feeling young. A photo spot and rest area. 
  • Around the World in 80 Days Ride - A ride loosely based on Jules Verne's classic novel. Guests will board balloons and travel from the Society Grounds to a bustling city, seeing some of the grandest sights the world has to offer along the way. If the show building looks a bit small, it's because the building actually extends into the next land over, but the onstage part in Society Grounds does not. This ride will have two separate tracks and two separate experiences - one leaving from Society Grounds heading into the city area, and one leaving from the city area returning to society grounds. Like with the trains, I'll be making a longer post going into more detail about this one. 
    • Phileas Fogg Meeting Spot - A balloon parked next to the ride entrance is the meeting area for Mr. Fogg, the protagonist of the novel. A bit older, wiser, and now brimming with good stories, Fogg will make appearances here throughout the day. Any time he is not present, the balloon will be open as a photo spot. Fogg will look something like this

Charming, no?

  • The Galley - A restaurant and snack area, The Galley is run by a former G.P.S. sea cook by the name of John Gully (Making it Gully's Galley, really). Since settling on dry land, Gully has added some non-seafood items to his repertoire, though seafood is still his specialty. While most find his food to be top-notch, some detractors have hung sailing flags outside the entrance that basically translate to "Danger! Steer clear!" The interior is decorated to celebrate the maritime explorers of the past, and there's a group that comes around singing traditional sea shanties every couple hours. 
  • Box Corridor Restrooms and Lockers - This one is pretty straight forward, but the corridor to get to the restrooms and lockers is one straight out of Indiana Jones, with boxes and crates piled high from past expeditions. There's an Ark of the Covenant Easter egg, but this isn't some warehouse - this is the shipping and receiving area for the Grounds, or where all of the artifacts from recent expeditions are located until a more suitable home for them is found. All the same, some crates have been here a very long time. Take a look!: 

          With the general overview of the area out of the way, let's move into the visualization of these areas. Upon entering the park, you'll find yourself in the gardens of the Society Grounds, which take the shape of a dense rainforest. Columns from all sorts of past civilization can be seen buried deep in this jungle. The jungle paths lead up to a singular building - the Museum of Mystery, through which guests enter to the rest of the Grounds. The park entrance will look something like this: 

           A few more details to point out here - between the two entrances lies a fountain, taking the form of a waterfall split by an arm thrusting a torch forward. The arm and torch are stone, but the flame is real. Above this, the G.P.S. motto in Latin appears. It reads: Semper et deinceps, Stulta tamen intrepidus, or in English - "Always forward, foolish yet fearless." (My Latin is courtesy of an online translator, so if anyone knows a more accurate translation, please let me know!) The fountain tries to embody that sentiment. This first area is meant to be a transitory space in which the guests willingly enter, subconsciously putting them in the mindset of an explorer before they have entered the park proper. The varying origins of the presented columns and flora also try to make this space a coming together of cultures, reflecting guests' various places of origins and hopefully preparing them for the experience ahead. Finally, the design of the Museum of Mystery building is largely taken from Oxford's Museum of Natural History:

           I tried to keep the Museum of Mystery similar enough to maintain the museum motif, but I also wanted to try to add a temple-like quality of reverence to it, as the entrance plaza is intended to be a place of peace and reflection. 

Moving through the building, we come to the main thoroughfare of the Society Grounds:

          Here we see the facades of the buildings listed in the land layout diagram, and the general thrust of the walking areas. The facades are given a warm, generally reddish hue to signify how warm and inviting this land is, though the splashes of deep red hint at the danger that lurks outside the Grounds. In general, the grounds should feel familiar, both in terms of guests' own lives (much like how Main Street evokes a sense of home), but also meta-textually. The land plays off guest expectations for a theme park, and is overall fairly traditional. There's a dark ride, a train, a gift shop, and a weenie. All the essentials are there to make the guest feel at ease. Other lands will play this meta-relationship a bit differently, if everything goes according to plan. 

          Items of interest in this concept include the corner of the Royal Hall of Geography, the canvas banners marking the bazaar, and the cardinal-direction clock faces on Adventure Tower, as well as the crow's nest lookout point. Other notable items - the entrance to the Around the World in 80 Days ride is a building with a sign reading "Fogg's Landing", and the design of the building is taken from a early 20th century rail station, mirroring the actual train station on the far side. The balloon's color scheme is taken from the covers of several reprinted editions of the novel, as well as the 1956 film.

          The sailing flags were noted for their humorous warning above, but they also serve a dual purpose, as do many of the elements depicted here. The crow's nest, the balloon, the flags, the luggage, and more are intended to give guest's a feeling of a land on the move. The Society Grounds are constantly in motion, with people moving in and out and heading to new lands frequently. Though this land is a base for much of what guests can do, this design is intended to keep them from staying too long and remind them that there is so much else to see within the park. It's a base of operations for guests, but not necessarily the main focus of their visit. Indeed, in this concept we can see city buildings and mountains in the distance, hinting that there are plenty more places to explore. 

And, of course, there's the airship.

In my design, Expedition Isles has a closed curtain-style entrance and a hub-and-spoke style park layout. At it's center lies Expedition Plaza, and anchored smack dab in the middle is our park icon - the Spirit of Adventure! 

A very early version of the concept, but hopefully it gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm going for.  

           While Expedition Plaza isn't technically part of the Society Grounds, as the hub is it's own area, the Spirit of Adventure has a presence over the Grounds that can't be ignored. Unlike Cinderella Castle's juxtaposition with Main Street in Magic Kingdom, the Spirit of Adventure is a fulfillment of what Society Grounds has to offer, and should not look out of place sitting at the end of the land. Instead, it continues the transportation motif established in the Grounds, and serves as a gateway both literally and metaphorically into the unknown - or at least the other lands of the park. 

          General plans for the Spirit of Adventure include a restaurant in the rafters, complete with splendid views and vintage news reels and serials projected on the interior walls, and a walk through Explorer Hall of Fame in the passenger area. This Hall of Fame would pay tribute to real explorers throughout history with a focus on the courageous men and women of the late 19th and early 20th century. While Expedition Plaza in this rendering is designed to look like a large compass, I have relegated that role to Adventure Tower and the plaza will instead have a large world map motif. Occasionally, when someone walks on certain points, a red line will follow them to their next destination on the motif, a la the classic transitions of Raiders of the Lost Ark

          And that's a wrap for just about everything Society Grounds has to offer! It's an entrance land that sets up our guests as explorers, invites them to participate in the fun, and gets them ready to get going to see what the rest of the park has to offer. It does all of this while providing some history to the land and park as a whole. Or, at least, I hope it does! 

So what do you think? Does the land stand on it's own well enough? Is there anything you would add or remove? Let me know in the comments! 

Oh, and thanks for reading!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Starting at the Entrance

          They say first impressions are often wrong. "Don't judge a book by it's cover", you know, that sort of thing. There are a myriad of reasons for this disconnect between books and their covers. Perhaps it's a new edition looking to differentiate itself, or perhaps there was some publisher interference that prevented the author from realizing their vision. Going further, maybe the author's vision for what the book is can't be visualized well, or maybe the author simply doesn't understand their own work. At the end of the day, however, the reasons for the disparity matter little. The reader feels they have been misled, and the visual thesis of the book was flat out wrong. Of course, the reader then proceeds to spend hours reading said literature and may come back around to liking or even loving it after their initial confusion or disappointment. 

          Theme parks, existing as a physical art form, have much less leeway when it comes to these initial moments. True, guests will go on to ride their favorite rides, eat their favorite food and see their favorite shows. But at the end of the day, they'll go on back through that entrance gate, and if it's somehow disappointing, that's going to taint their experience. In other words, if you're going to build a theme park, you better make damn sure the entrance counts for something. A park entrance is essentially the thesis statement for the park itself, and it should encapsulate the experience in a nutshell. So, without further ado, let's examine how parks approach this cornerstone of their narrative framework. 

          For starters, let's look at the original - one of the most imitated and popular entrance styles of all - Disneyland

          For what comes after you pass under it's archways, Disneyland's entrance is surprisingly understated: a single, small train station sitting  on a hill, with a flower bed featuring a Mickey Mouse design resting in front of it. There are tunnels on either side of the flower bed that lead to Main Street and feature those classic attraction posters, but if you're standing outside, you won't see those yet. Trees block our line of sight to anything beyond, such as the Matterhorn or the castle. Overall, there's nothing here that immediately portends the fun that you're about to have. It's not overly fantastical - and you could likely find a similar station or building somewhere in small town America. The flowerbed is again nicely kept, but still would not be out of place in some downtown display, though the Mickey design might change to something else; there's only a hint here at what awaits you beyond. So what makes this entrance so special, so iconic?

           There's a few factors. First, the symbolism. A train station is a transitory space, and when you enter Disneyland, you're traveling from the mundane, ordinary world to a realm of fantasy where anything can happen. Sure, there's the plaque that tells you that, but you don't need to read it for you to inherently understand this idea when you walk through the tunnel and see the castle at the end of the street. By designing the entrance around a form of transportation, the Imagineers utilize your subconscious to transport you further into their world. All without saying a word. 

           Second, the somewhat ordinary-looking entrance preserves the big reveal. The combination of station, berm, and trees prevent you from seeing what comes next, and builds anticipation. As you wait to enter the park, your mind runs wild with possibilities of what could be just beyond the gates. When you finally do get through and finally see Main Street, the castle, and everything else, there's a moment of wonder at the sight of it all. Were there no train station and you could simply see the castle directly, all of that anticipation and wonder would dissipate much faster as you wait in line to enter. By taking the form of a transitory space and withholding the most fantastical aspects of the park, the Disneyland entrance let's your brain work in it's favor, allowing you to excite yourself about the day to come and ride that excitement throughout the rest of the day. Let's call this entrance style the closed curtain, as it serves a similar purpose to and likely drew inspiration from a theater curtain. 

          In most cases, the castle parks tend to copy the closed curtain concept quite faithfully, with a few variations. Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris forego the subtle transition from ordinary to fantastic, instead opting for showcases of grandeur - WDW doing so by having you cross a lake to get to the entrance, further removing you from your reality, and Paris doing so by placing a grand Victorian hotel in front of the station, accomplishing much the same. Shanghai Disneyland follows the original concept but bleeds a bit more into the fantastical, having a Mickey-themed train station (with no train) at it's gate. Tokyo Disneyland has the largest departure, having no train station at all, instead replacing it with a large building that is a mix of a theater and a marketplace. The theater motif is used for a different type of transitory space, and the closed curtain style is still adhered to:

The incorporation of a marketplace motif in Tokyo's entrance probably makes it the the most honest of them all!

As for Hong Kong Disneyland? Why, that's up in the title image. It's virtually identical to Anaheim's entrance. 

          The more interesting variations come with the non-castle parks. Several of them continue to use the closed curtain style of entrance, while others are much more experimental and forego it in favor of completely new styles. Though some secondary parks use the closed curtain style, they aren't really focusing on the transition from the ordinary to the magical (though that is an element) as they are on establishing their thematic bend. Consider Walt Disney Studios in Paris:

          Yes, it is a fairly ordinary space by Disney standards, and yes it is a closed curtain-style entrance, as it obscures what lies beyond it, but this entrance plaza is much more about establishing the film focus of the park. Does it work? Absolutely! Does it reach us on as subliminal a level? Not really. This entrance is much more overt in its intentions. We don't have to imagine what we're about to experience because the park tells us straight up. We may imagine what lies in store for us, but our mental wanderings will be limited to the world of film, rather than our wildest fantasies. 

          (Hollywood Studios has a similar idea, except with an open curtain. We're able to see the Chinese Theater at the end of the street from the moment we enter the park. Rather than creating it's own thesis, the entrance relies on the park icon to make the statement for it. In this case, the statement is essentially the same between the two studio parks, but the execution is different.)

One more to consider before we move on to other styles - the entrance to Tokyo DisneySEA

And another view here:

          Here we have another closed curtain-style entrance, only by the time we enter this park we have been completely transported from Tokyo to Renaissance-era Italy. This jump establishes the theme of exploration and travel immediately by displacing us, forcing us to become explorers ourselves! The themes are reinforced by the moon phase plaza complete with spinning globe upon the fountain. This entrance is again much more direct in it's intentions than that of a castle-park, but still preserves both that feeling of anticipation and the idea that anything can happen, as we have no idea where this park is going to take us. DisneySEA's entrance is likely the closest to the castle parks in terms of thematic thrust, but takes a very different approach in making such a statement. 

And that's a wrap for closed curtain parks! From here we move on to more experimental styles. We'll move from the fairly mundane to the more bizarre.

           After closed curtain style, the next most popular style seems to be open curtain. Rather than creating a thesis statement for guests to absorb prior to them entering the park, this style of entrance lets the park speak for itself. If your park has a strong sense of cohesion, especially in it's opening areas, this approach can work rather well. If not, your park can seem slapdash and a bit disjointed. Let's compare two parks that utilize this style to see it's pros and cons. 

          Here we see Disney's Hollywood Studios. As mentioned above, this entrance lets the Chinese Theater do most of the talking, though it's important to note the cohesion of the entrance avenue as a whole. The entire street supports the idea of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and while the rest of the park has shifted away from this idea, guests still get a good sense that the park is about great cinema. Hollywood Studios substitutes immediate excitement for the closed curtain's anticipation, and most open curtain entrances do as well. However, this one in particular maintains a bit of that anticipation due to the guests not knowing what else the park may hold, as well as the unified style and the lack of immediately apparent attractions. There's a mystique to the park that's not always preserved well with this entrance style, but Hollywood Studios manages it nicely. 

And here we have Universal Studios Florida. Well the left side anyway. What you see on your right once you've entered the park is this:

Of course before all this there's the famous Universal archway and globe, but those aren't technically part of the park itself. For posterity's sake, though, here's what you see before you reach the ticket stands and turnstiles: 

           Universal Studios Florida is an interesting case in that the idea of this park and of DHS are largely the same, and this even stretches to their park entrances. Both are largely open vistas beyond their turnstiles, though Universal goes against the grain of having a themed main corridor and instead elects to throw as much intellectual property and as many attractions as possible at you as soon as it can. This may be due to the relatively small footprint the park has, but what's odd about this decision is that Universal does indeed have it's own stretch of themed Hollywood streets, and they're quite well done. For my money, they'd make a significantly better opening stretch of the park. While the entrance plaza definitely tells you you're at a movie-based theme park, it does so bluntly, and as a result fails to capture the tantalizing anticipation or sense of magic that DHS's entrance manages elegantly. 

          Now, open curtains generally open up to some sort of view of a central plaza or park icon. However, there's no hard and fast rule that the entrance areas have to open up to anything in particular, only that they have to lead to the rest of the park. While we're talking about Universal, their second park is a good example of this third type of entrance, in which you enter the park to be totally immersed in the first land you come across with little hint of what's to come. We'll call this style, fittingly, "Port of Entry". 

          Universal's Islands of Adventure park forgoes the traditional hub structure and elects to go with a ring style park, and as such, no other lands are really visible at all from the entrance. Instead, you're greeted with the above, their entrance land, which greets you with a generic adventure theme. What really differentiates this type of entrance is not so much what it does so much as was it doesn't do. There is no icon to see, no preview of the park, no grand overture of things to come. Your first impressions of the park rely solely on the contents of this land and this land alone. In Islands of Adventure, then, this first land is used to try to solidify the adventure motif on it's own. In doing so the land heavily favors it's conceptual architecture over the physical. Consider that the land itself is purposely vague, not carrying too many signs of any one real culture and instead treading lightly into fantasy. This is by design. In the Port of Entry style, the first land is the overture, and unless the theme park is themed around a physical space, they must skew more conceptual to establish the themes of the park early on. 

Buena Vista Street is maybe the only Port of Entry that can really get away with focusing more on the physical architecture.

          Other parks with this entrance style seem to follow this idea of conceptual lands as entrances. Animal Kingdom is perhaps the most successful of these, with it's Port of Entry being "The Oasis", a land that is nothing but dense forest, walking paths, and a few animal exhibits. With just these few elements, the land is able to convey it's themes of nature, exploration, and education quite nicely. Of course, this style of entrance is one that had already been implemented by dozens of zoos around the country, but the execution here is still great. 

Adventure awaits...

          And finally, we come to our fourth and final entrance type, which is a bit of an oddball. I speak, of course, of the entrance to Epcot

          Epcot has, to my knowledge, one of the most unique park designs in that it combines a loop design in one half with a hub in the other half. On top of that, it's one of the only parks to front load it's icon. There's no need to go into the park to see it, as it's just on the other side of the turnstiles. So does that make this Open curtain-style? Closed curtain? It's not exactly Port of Entry. 

          I'm putting Epcot in it's own category. The closed curtain style has the entrance itself give the park's thesis statement. The open curtain style has the park make it's own thesis statement. Port of Entry has the first land make the park's thesis statement. But only Epcot has a ride make the park's thesis statement. 

          Sure, you don't have to go on Spaceship Earth when you first come into Epcot, but the way the park is designed it's practically begging you to do so. And why shouldn't it? The ride is a showcase for everything you'll see around the park. It's got technology, science, history, culture, and the ever important goal of making the future brighter through shared human progress. And it's continuously loading to boot! Though the ride has changed over the years, it's one of the few parts of the park that still has a tenuous grasp on the ethos of EPCOT Center. Everything you need to know about the park is in that ride. It's like it was designed that way or something. Let's call this style of entrance "Welcome Wagon" (because it welcomes you and you ride it...that makes sense right? Does that work?)

           So there you have it! The four categories of park entrances I've found - Closed Curtain, Open Curtain, Port of Entry, and Welcome Wagon. All with distinct styles, advantages, and disadvantages. Have any thoughts on this topic? Agree or disagree with my analysis? Let me know in the comments? Oh, and thanks for reading!

P.S. Also, I will be making a follow-up post to this soon regarding Expedition Isles - no, I haven't forgotten that project! Just been a bit busy. 
Title Photo Source