Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Welcome to Expedition Isles!

Disneyland and its sister parks offer a variety of fantastic lands for guests to visit, each mostly self-contained and immersive within its own universe. Fantasyland never interferes with Tomorrowland, which never really touches Adventureland, and so on. As a result, all of these different experiences have very little to do with each other, and that's great! Everyone has their favorite area of the park or favorite ride, and it (mostly) all works. The park structure facilitates these different adventures and let's the guest choose their experience from these varied, independent attractions. 

          DisneySea eschewed this approach and tried something new, forgoing the fully independent lands by offering the connective tissue of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers as a background for multiple lands in the park. You can explore the original SEA headquarters, a Renaissance fortress, in Mediterranean Harbor and then go to American Waterfront and experience a 20th century hotel mystery based around a member of SEA, then go to Lost River Delta to see artifacts being packed to send back to the Waterfront. Overall, a pretty cool conceit, especially so for the detail-oriented. Since it's inception, the society has spread to virtually every Disney Resort, becoming an unwieldy web of connections for park guests to decipher. Putting more recent SEA work aside, it's undeniable that the idea of connecting lands is a fun one for designers and guests alike, giving them extra incentive to explore everything DisneySea has to offer. Even in this park where connections are fairly common, however, they are surprisingly light - more of a motif than a true story. These connections are put to good use, but can they go further? Or, to put it another way...

Could you create an entire theme park where every land, every ride, and every detail come together to form one cohesive narrative? Can you base an entire theme park around one story?

That's the question I intend to answer with my newest little experiment: Expedition Isles!


          The idea came to me that if I want to understand a lot of the decisions made in designing a theme park, then I should, logically, design a theme park myself. Not just attractions, but the lands, the layout, the cast members, the logistics - everything! In this realm of my creation, I want to take the idea of an inter-connected theme park to its limit, examining its potential advantages, shortcomings, and whether it can tell a story that's any good. I also aim to incorporate my personal philosophy that parks should challenge their guests and push them beyond their comfort zone, to help them learn and grow while they are having fun and being thrilled along the way. 

           Before we begin, a quick word - this project is open to input from you - yes, you! If you have ideas to share or want to collaborate with art, ideas, or anything else, please feel free to reach out! It'll be much more fun to design something together, don't you agree?

Now, here's the basics!


          Set in the early 20th century era of pulp adventure, Expedition Isles is a glimpse into a world obsessed with exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. But it's not just the world that's obsessed - you are, too, as you take on the role of the newest recruits of the Global exPloration Society, or GPS (thanks to a curious typo). Starting from HQ, you'll journey to six different regions around the globe to solve the mysteries that lie within. Along the way you're bound to encounter curious characters, alluring environments, and daring escapades. Not to worry - as a member of GPS, you're surely prepared for even the worst situations that might befall you! Part theme park, part escape room, and part video game, Expedition Isles is an adventure unlike any other. So what are you waiting for? The expedition awaits!

Q and A

Why this theme in particular?

          Simple! There's a number of reasons that some theme parks succeed over others, and a big one is setting. Ideally, their settings have to be set away from our modern world, whether through time, space, or alternate reality. They have to feel different, yet familiar enough for us to want to explore them. Furthermore, theme parks succeed when their authors understand the source material. For me, pulp adventure has always been a huge interest of mine, and it has proven to be quite fruitful as a framework for thematic design and construction (see Adventureland, S.E.A., etc.). Pulp adventure as a topic has proven itself to be a deep well, but it also hasn't been fully tapped, often remaining set in a jungle environment without much outside of that setting. It's scope in theme parks has been arbitrarily limited, and there is so much more to draw from. Plus I want to design something that excites me and, well, this does the trick!

But won't audiences get tired of the same theme throughout the entire park?

I don't think so. I think there's enough variance within the genre to sustain audience interest while at the same time meeting various audience demands. Depending on where you draw from there's easy leeway to incorporate adventure, romance, comedy, horror, mystery elements, and even dinosaurs. The variance in theme, combined with the variation in settings and a myriad of (hopefully) engaging story lines should keep the audience entertained. If anything, the unifying theme should help with cohesion and audience immersion. 

Given the time period of the genre's creation, won't it be problematic to incorporate certain elements or ideas into the park?

In a word, yes. I don't want to fully ignore problematic ideas, as I feel it's better to address them head-on, but I also think it's silly to ignore the fact that I'm designing this park in 2018. Discretion is key. If something seems extremely problematic and there's no reason to use it, then I won't. If there's an opportunity to learn from our collective past and lead to a collective benefit, then we'll see. Racism, sexism, and discrimination of any kind have no place here, but worker's rights and economic issues could play an interesting role. 

So this park isn't going to be set completely in the realm of fantasy?

No. Fantasy is good for escapism, and I think that's something that Disney and Universal do quite well. I know my limits and there's not a chance in the world I'm going to beat them at their own game. But I also think it's silly to have escapism as the only design philosophy for theme parks, so let's tread new ground and try something different. 

Sounds good! So when is it opening?

Ha! You're funny.

General Design Notes

Expedition Isles is intended to put guests in an immersive role playing experience and push the boundaries of thematic design. While some norms of theme parks remain - many will be thrown out the window. Some examples:

  • Since this is primarly a Disney blog, we'll go ahead and say all Disney IP is on the table for use, though the focus here will be largely - nay, almost exclusively original theme park stories
  • Traditional theme park maps and signage do not exist. No sign posts either. The theme of this park is exploration, and we're sticking to it. (Absolutely necessary signage i.e. bathrooms are still present, though themed appropriately)
  • Maps will instead be collected piece by piece at stations as guests explore the park. Think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to get a general idea of how map hunting works (and no, guests don't have to climb towers) 
  • No matter the attraction, guests always have the base context of being a GPS member. This base membership can be altered to fit particular attractions, but this underlying context should run throughout the entire park
  • All lands are part of the same universe, meaning characters and attractions can reoccur through multiple regions/lands and acknowledge each other freely without breaking the fourth wall
  • Speaking of characters, I think it's a shame the modern theme park character is solely there for photos and autographs when they could do so much more in adding texture and nuance to a land. So we aren't doing that, and we definitely aren't hiding them behind queues. Most will be walk around or placed in proper settings, able to have free discussions with guests as they go about their adventure.  
  • No major parades. Nighttime spectacular is not a certainty at this time. If it does exist, it will look very different. 
  • The line between cast member and character is heavily blurred, and many may double as a denizen of their region. 
  • Oh, and did I mention there's also secret attractions? While major attractions will be marked as locations on maps present in each region, smaller ones will not be, and can only be discovered through exploration or talking to "residents" of the region. 

And that's just a small sampling of the changes that we'll be making!

Another key aspect of the park will be interactive quests, similar to those already present in the Florida parks (i.e. Animal Kingdom's Wilderness Explorers). Knowledge gained from walkthrough attractions, shows, and interactions can be used to find secret attractions, or be turned in for special meet n' greets and awards (i.e. turning in a quest in the city area may get you a Key to the City from the mayor).

The themes of the lands are already determined and include but are not limited to: 

  • A dense jungle setting similar to classic Adventureland
  • A desolate mountain pass home to both friendly villagers and hidden peril
  • A royal academy in it's golden age
  • A lost canyon full of ancient secrets

And more to be revealed in future posts, which will also go in-depth into the attractions and other features of each region! I think it's safe to say the expedition is just beginning!

And one final reminder: as much as this project is about building a theme park as realistically as possible, the focus is going to be as much on analysis of the creative process as it is on the park itself. I'm sure there will be plenty of mistakes made, but ultimately these are going to be learning opportunities and for that reason I look forward to making them! If articles about existing theme parks and/or Disney are more your cup of tea, don't worry, I'll be keeping up with those as well! 

Thoughts? Comments? Have ideas to share? Let me know below!

Title Photo Credit

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Explorers Adrift on a Troubled S.E.A.

If you've spent much time in the Disney Parks community, you've certainly heard about the Society of Explorers and Adventurers - or S.E.A. for short. What started as a park-wide storyline in Tokyo DisneySea has now spread to nearly every Disney resort, with references and story elements being folded into restaurants, rides, and even water parks. There's been discussion about whether the swell of the S.E.A. is a good thing or not for the parks, but this discussion has masked a different question that needs to be asked:

Is S.E.A. a good organization? 

          I think the presumed answer, by both fans and Disney itself, is yes. Guests generally take things in the park at face value and if something is cool, it's generally considered "good". So too, S.E.A. has been hyped up by Disney as a marketing tool and generally cool group. Looking at the context of S.E.A. and its attractions across the parks, however, I think there's a fair amount of evidence within S.E.A.'s history to suggest that the organization is more murky than it might first appear. Let's see what we can dig up on this fabled adventure society. 

Like all good non-supervillianous organizations, S.E.A. had its humble origins in a fortress at the base of a volcano. 

          First - its ethos. S.E.A., if you trace its history back, was first founded in Renaissance times, and was based on goals of exploring the world through science. The size of the organization in this time period is unknown, though we do know the group was based in a seaside fortress and counted Magellan and Da Vinci amongst its members. Because there's no other attractions focused around this time period, we don't have a whole lot of other information about this period in S.E.A.'s history, (though to speculate, Tokyo's upcoming Soarin' attraction may add something to the lore). We can't even say for sure whether the later 19th and 20th century organization is actually a continuation of the same S.E.A. seen in Fortress Explorations, or if it's a completely new iteration. Nevertheless, everything we do know about this period in S.E.A.'s history suggests they are fairly ideologically pure. 

          If the two organizations are one and the same, then S.E.A.'s purpose has changed a bit in the intervening centuries, as the explorers seem to have given way to the adventurers. This is the period we are more familiar with - the S.E.A. of the pulp adventure era, of characters like Harrison Hightower III and Lord Henry Mystic. It's also the era in which we begin to see some questionable morality. 

          Pictured here is the totality of S.E.A. membership in 1899. Eight members who look ready for explorations into the unknown. But beyond their penchant for exploration, what do we really know about these people? As it turns out, we know a few of them quite well. 

          Harrison Hightower III (on the end of the group photo and pictured above) is a wealthy real estate tycoon who also happens to be a world famous explorer. He's also a pretentious fellow, believing himself to be above others, and even further above the natives of the far-flung lands he travels to. He also hoards the treasures he collects in secret storage in his hotel, refusing to share them with the public despite having a large space in which to do so. Eventually his ego is his undoing at the hands of a cursed idol. A prominent member of S.E.A.? Certainly! A great human being? Not so much

          The fine fellow is none other than Lord Henry Mystic, here accompanied by mischievous monkey companion Albert. Like Harrison Hightower, he's a ranking member of S.E.A. with a penchant for collecting rare antiquities. Unlike Harry, he's a bit more benevolent, opening up his house for tours of his collection. More evidence of his kindly disposition: his rescue and adoption of Albert the Monkey. For all his kindness, though, Lord Henry is a bit foolish. Often he stumbles close to great discoveries before his monkey Albert actually discovers them. While Henry doesn't totally buy into the supernatural, he is a bit more respectful of it, taking care not to touch dangerous magical artifacts. Still, leaving cursed objects lying around endangers his guests (read: us) with him none the wiser. That's at least a little irresponsible. 

          Finally, we come to the lone lady of the bunch: Mary Oceaneer. Though a sea (S.E.A.?) captain by trade, she's more of an old-fashioned treasure hunter at heart. Not only does she have pet parrots, but she also occasionally hosts "pirate nights" onboard her vessel. Mary possesses an ability to roll with whatever situation befalls her, and she's also the only known member of S.E.A. to use a laboratory on her adventures. Ironically (given her piratical tendencies), if anyone embodies the original S.E.A. ethos in this group, it's Mary Oceaneer. 

          Between these three characters, we see that S.E.A. members can range from egotistical to a fault, to benevolent yet irresponsible, to idealistic and adventurous. Make no mistake - as characters the members of S.E.A. are well fleshed out and interesting, especially so for theme park characters. But what exactly do they tell us about S.E.A. as a whole?

          Looking at the commonalities of this membership, we can derive a few truths. First, the original S.E.A. ethos of scientific exploration has mostly been abandoned in favor of the pursuit of riches. While some members, such as Captain Oceaneer, still give some weight to science, other members have appeared to turn towards myth. In actuality, the members of S.E.A. don't really seem to take even myth seriously. One member has met a fate worse than death, while another has recklessly endangered his guests thanks to blatant disregard of his own discovery. Members are certainly interested in acquiring rare artifacts, but there seems a curious lack of interest in actually understanding them. When you look at their experiences, it makes a certain sort of sense. The members of S.E.A. are rich, they've traveled, and they think they've seen everything. Why should anything be able to touch them?*

          Of course, we know better, though it is doubtful the members would actually listen to us. With such a small membership consisting of some few wealthy elite, S.E.A. is exclusionary. Consider this: though there are a wide variety of S.E.A. attractions throughout Disney parks, none of them place us in the role of S.E.A. members. In most we are simply visitors who have been allowed into spaces we normally would never get to see through some fluke or stroke of luck. While Mary Oceaneer is perhaps the most welcoming and willing to host us in various settings, it is also an interesting subtext that she is the only woman in the group. The others? Much more of an old boys' club. Were the proprietors of Skipper Canteen not so obsessed with stealing a fast buck, we would never have seen the group's secret boardroom tucked away in the back. 

          I think much of this boys' club/secret society vibe is intentional, and is actually used to great effect in shaping atmosphere across the S.E.A. attractions. These are places we aren't meant to be, which adds something to their mystique. It's good themed design, and a great way to flesh out adventure-themed areas by covering tropes the lands originally never touched. But is it good that a society that thinks it knows what's best for the world's antiquities (but clearly doesn't) isn't open to new members (us) or new ideas?

          Later in the S.E.A. storyline, more members are admitted, including Jock Lindsay - Indiana Jones' friend  and pilot, who is overcome when he finds the very touristy "Fountain of Youth". The organization's inclusion of members like him, as well as collaboration with the owners of the dubiously credentialed Jungle Cruise in S.E.A.'s later years have led some on here to suggest S.E.A. declines fairly early in the 20th century, and I'm inclined to agree. However, I believe the decline starts here - in S.E.A.'s "Golden Age" - when ideology is pushed aside for the cultural and fiscal enrichment of various members. By failing to adhere to S.E.A.'s founding principles - of disciple, curiosity, and inclusion - the 1899 Society of Explorers and Adventurers has already begun to falter. 

          I cannot help but wonder if Disney is prescient to the implications of this storyline. I sense they know that S.E.A. as a society is flawed, and I actually think that's great for telling stories. S.E.A.'s existence in a morally grey area allows for much more interesting subtext in attractions, as well as some small degree of historical accuracy, if not to the actual time period then to the pulp era of serial fiction. S.E.A. is an exploration of pulp adventure in virtually every way, and to ignore the themes and conflicts of its source fiction would leave it naught but a hollow tribute . 

          Still, if this narrative holds true, S.E.A. does have one major issue that goes beyond the story: it's exclusion of guests from the society. We may visit S.E.A. buildings and characters, but we are forever locked into an outsider's perspective when it comes to their stories. Of course, if S.E.A. is not quite a purely good organization, perhaps it's better to not let your guests join in, lest you lump them in with S.E.A.'s issues. Still, an outsider's perspective has limits, especially when you're cutting off people from truly becoming an "Explorer/Adventurer" in a park where dreams are supposed to come true. 

          I sense the Imagineers understand this issue, which is why they've already taken steps to address it by creating a new society that is everything S.E.A. is not: the League of Adventurers. Located in Adventure Isle in Shanghai Disneyland, the League is one of the driving forces of the entire land. The League is inclusive - not only featuring a diverse membership from around the world, but also recruiting all guests - both Chinese and international -  as members on the quest to find the source of Roaring Mountain's namesake and explore the Isle. What's more, none of the members are eccentric millionaires. Most are specialized scientists with a healthy smattering of cultural researchers mixed in. Speaking of cultural research, the League's scientists study the Arbori - the tribal people of the land, but never deride or condescend to them, instead choosing to work in collaboration (a sharp contrast to the disdain of Hightower or the clumsiness of Mystic). If S.E.A. represents an age of exploration past, then the League** represents its future. All this despite the two organizations being largely contemporaries of each other. 

          I bring up the League of Adventurers not to disparage S.E.A., but to point out that S.E.A.'s design is both largely intentional and largely recognized. All too often in Disney theme parks the past is idealized to an extreme degree. After all, Disney prides itself on being an escape from the real world. Main Street is devoid of any racial or economic tensions from the time, and Frontierland takes no issue with Manifest Destiny. One could easily chalk this difference in design ethos to a generational gap, but even newer iterations on the formula - Animal Kingdom's Asia and Africa for instance - still view the past and even present with rose-tinted glasses - removal of the poaching references in Kilimanjaro and complete omission of political and social strife in Asia are but a few examples. 

Kali River Rapids has this logging segment, but its promptly forgotten as soon as you get soaked.  

          But the S.E.A. storyline is different. With this through-line, Disney is working on creating a themed past that isn't necessarily rosy or quite as idealized, one where not everything is black and white. This is a narrative that actively portrays certain S.E.A. members as immoral, yet still features them as protagonists. Cultural issues, bigotry and elitism not only exist, but are acknowledged. What's more, by allowing guests to see S.E.A. in different time periods, we're also able to understand that these issues have consequences in the fictional world, just as they do in the real one. This is theming that goes beyond simple facades or a basic ride storyline, and it's very ambitious to say the least. It's not quite a Westworld park storyline that will redefine your whole conception of reality, but its certainly enough to start guests thinking about the problems of the past and how they might affect the world today. And its certainly more thought-provoking than most modern park additions. 

          S.E.A. is intentionally flawed an an organization, yes, but it is generally strong themed design, and as such gets to ask much more interesting questions than theme parks traditionally ask. For that reason, I'm excited to see where the story goes from here, though I'm even more excited for the possibilities this story structure could allow with other, original plot lines. Could we get a more developed storyline in Frontierland? How about some interesting setup for Tomorrowland? Should Disney ever turn back to less-IP driven content, such ideas could become a possibility, and they have a strong model from which to work. 

          Though S.E.A. is clearly an experiment and has had its share of failure, it still possesses some wonderful attributes. The storyline itself instills a belief that wonders exist in world beyond our wildest dreams, that adventure lurks around even the most unlikely of corners. So too, it inspires the potential for stronger, more immersive themed environments that challenge guests. It's ambitious, vast, and deep. But then, what did you expect? It's the S.E.A., and I couldn't think of a better place to embark for grander adventures then we've yet known. 

*In case you may not think this theme is intentional, the motif of hubris within the organization is reinforced with the tale of Big Thunder Mountain's S.E.A. members. Member Jason Chandler writes to member Barnabas T. Bullion, warning him of going too far and risking Big Thunder's wrath. Bullion, a member in the mold of Hightower, fails to listen. 

**Interestingly, the two organizations have not officially interacted as of yet, with Adventure Isle only indirectly referencing S.E.A. thru a brief mention of Tokyo's Indiana Jones Adventure. As for what the future holds, I can't be certain, though I suspect S.E.A. will continue to spread while the League will stay in its small pocket of the Disney universe. 

Title Photo Credit