Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Leonardo da Vinci: the Genius in Milan” documentary review

DaVinciGrab your passport and prepare to be whisked away to Leonardo’s Milan. Arts & Architecture in Cinema (AAIC) and Fathom events present a remarkable look into the  genius of Milan. Experience the works and legacy of Leonardo da Vinci like never before–that is, unless you have had the privilege of traveling to Leonardo’s Milan, Florence, Rome, and France. Go beyond the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and witness a rare 4K glimpse into the life and times of the world’s most famous Renaissance man. Combining interviews with Da Vinci scholars along with actors portraying Leonardo’s subjects, pupils, and contemporaries, this film will open your eyes to the Leonardo that you never knew. Although there clearly lacks a story in the traditional or cinematic narrative sense, there IS definitely a story here. Like with art itself, the story is left up to interpretation by the viewer. Perhaps your story interpretation will be one of inspiration or maybe a new clairvoyance into yours or someone else’s life. Either way, there is something for any art or architecture lover.

The first element of the documentary film that I noticed was simply the fact that the entire film is in Italian; albeit apropos, it definitely served as a minor distraction from my ability to concentrate on the stunning visuals in the documentary. Never having traveled abroad before, I was very excited to feel this close to such renown works as The Mona LisaThe Last Supper, and more. The beautiful imagery outshines the highest resolution coffee table art books. That is largely in part due to the giant screen and 4K cameras that were used in this production. Now, I am not accustomed to watching foreign films, so it is entirely possible that what I found to be a distraction is not as distracting for those who watch foreign films. However, it would have been greatly beneficial for the distribution company to have dubbed the the film in English. Granted, it would have lost a degree of authenticity in the true Milan experience, but I would have probably learned a little more than I did. That being said, I still found the documentary film to be full of fascinating information and insight into Leonardo.

One of the predominant themes in the film was the reoccurring message (sometimes direct and other times indirect) that Leonardo did not consider himself a painter; paining is what he did to “pay the bills,” so to speak. Not unlike aspiring visual and performing artists of today, it appears that Leonardo had a day job in order to support his love of dreaming, designing, science, research, and architecture. Yes, even Leonardo was at times sloppy, lazy, and lacked interest in painting. Some of his most famous sketches and paintings are unfinished because he decided to move on. He loved science and engineering more than anything else; and although his flying machine and other inventions have been found to be impossible or impractical, it doesn’t take away from his genius. While we may have referred to Leonardo (as well as many of his contemporaries in the arts and sciences) as a man of the future, the scholars in the film point out that he was a man of the now. However, due to his nearly unparalleled level of curiosity, he indirectly inspired countless artists and scientists to pursue what they love and find interesting.

A man of the present, future, and a man of mystery. Leonardo loved mysteries, enigmas, and puzzles. And no, I am not referring to his code. Just like he was intrigued and mesmerized by natural mysteries or breaking barriers of gravity or even the celestial realm, he left mysteries behind. True, it is due to his reputation as a man of mystery that author Dan Brown developed his Angels and Demons and Da Vinci Code. But it goes way beyond the creative fictitious codes Brown attributed to the Renaissance man. Leonardo wanted to make sure that no one could copy his work. In fact, he kept a very small staff of pupils around him in order to have control over his visions of paintings, frescos, architecture, and engineering. According to the scholars and his contemporaries in the documentary, Leonardo found the inspiration for his enigmas and mirror writing from nature itself. The inclusion of actors portraying historic individuals from Leonardo’s day was an brilliant element in the film. Speaking from a historic point of view but including information from today, the characters were able to help bridge the gap between the world of Leonardo and ours. It added a fantastic dimension to the documentary that greatly enhanced the experiential factor.

Ordinarily, this is where I point out what may prompt you to see the film, but this documentary was a one-night event. That being the case, it is likely that you may have to wait for it to be released on Netflix, RedBox, or on BluRay. But, if you enjoy history, art, and architecture, I encourage you to remain on the lookout for this title to appear in your queue.

On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 1)

My BookDo you love learning about the magic of movies and theme parks? So do I! Living in Tampa, I am surrounded by some of the world’s top destination white sand beaches and exciting theme parks just up the road. As a passholder to Disney World, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld, I frequent the parks nearly as often as I go the cinema. Having spent a great deal of time working in independent film, working for three years at Disney World, and now as a cinema and theme park critic, I have a great deal of passion for both storytelling mediums. And the amazing thing is that there is such a fantastic and symbiotic relationship between the two. Hence why I spent my Master’s program at the University of South Florida studying the place at which both converge. Specifically, I researched the elements of narrative, spectacle, pleasure, character, setting and more in terms of how they correspond with one another. Whether that is taking a movie and developing it into an attraction or taking an attraction (or entire section of a park) and developing it into a movie. Both are powerful means of conveying a story or message. I delve into what it takes for a movie to be a successful attraction or vice versa.

Although there have been peer-reviewed articles and books written on cinema, there definitely lacked empirical research on the theme park side. Furthermore, most peer-reviewed articles and books are so incredibly boring and pretentious to read. My goal was to break down both and write about them in such a way that it is fun to read about. Movies and theme parks are FUN! So, reading about the relationship between the two should be equally fun and interesting. Starting with the history of how cinema influenced the modern theme park design and finishing with some of what to expect in the future, this book has it all! Although I would prefer that you buy my book (on Amazon), I have selected excerpts from it that I will publish over the next few weeks as I work on my next theme park piece. I hope you enjoy!


 

WDW CastleIn today’s world of entertainment, where some media conglomerates own both film studios and theme parks, successful films sometimes bridge these two media to create the basis for new theme park attractions. The following research study seeks to define the elements that a film needs in order to be successfully translated to a live themed entertainment experience, thus eliciting the desired emotional response from the guests; and also the necessary elements that a theme park attraction needs in order to convey both spectacle and narrative regarding the film upon which it is based.  Although there are tools currently available to studio executives and creative staff at entertainment companies, this study will serve as a model using the ideas, theories, supporting evidences, and streamlining them into one study—a consolidation of tools, if you will.

As media companies grow, and both cinema and theme parks adapt to changing needs and desires of movie patrons and park guests, the leadership at these companies needs to have the appropriate information at their fingertips to create effective and memorable stories for the screen and park. This study highlights what the potential park guests or movie patrons are looking for in terms of what drives them to spend money on themed entertainment or the cinema. Condensing this complex set of desires into a simplified answer: in terms of cinema-based attractions, the audience is searching for attractions and rides that immerse themselves into a participatory environment in which they make a difference in the story and encounter the unique characters, settings, and plots from the movie.—they want to be viscerally engaged and transported into a world of fantasy or adventure.

Universal HollywoodEver since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audiences from around the world have been drawn to the temple of the height of the visual and performing arts, the cinema. In many ways, the early days regarded the cinema as an attraction, an amusement. In fact, many of the first silent films were shown in carnivals. Nickelodeons dotted the landscape in drug stores and clubs. Elaborate and ornate movie palaces housed some of the first big screens, and orchestras played along with the narrative (Gunning, 1986). Over the last century, cinema has gone from existing in sideshows to being a dominant mass communication source that has evolved into the very rollercoaster to which many critics and lay people compare it; and, not only metaphorically.

From starting in carnivals to now being the inspiration for the most visited theme parks in the world, cinema has gone full circle and is now instrumental in an unparalleled synergy with themed entertainment. Over the decades, there has been a strong convergence between cinema and theme parks. Studio executives, filmmakers, and theme park designers are working together in ways that serve to support both the movies and the parks that have rides based on the movies. More than ever, filmmakers and attraction designers need to know what the cinema patron and park guest both want in order to create a synergistic and dynamic entertainment experience based on a single narrative.

Hitchcock AttractionTwo of the greatest forces in media and entertainment are the cinema and theme parks; and for the latter part of the 20th Century and continuing strong into the 21st, the convergence between the cinema and theme park is becoming clear. Additionally, within the last several years, theme park attractions have inspired movies (e.g. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion). The relationship between the movies and theme parks is a strong one, but why is that so? Can one exist without the other? Or, is it a co-dependent relationship that benefits both entities? Perhaps it is all of the above. But, not every successful movie makes an equally successful theme park attraction. Often times, it is the Horror and Action genres that are used as the inspiration for successful attractions (e.g. ET-The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, The Bates House and Motel, and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies).

As technology advances, the cinema and theme parks have adapted and evolved over the years to include the technology to both impress audiences and save money. Still building off the success of the cinema, theme parks have evolved their rides and attractions to go from the magic behind the movies to immersing the audience or guests into the movie itself. Likewise, studios and production companies are producing movies that act as attractions themselves. But, central to this study are the questions: why is it essential for the cinema to continue this synergy with the theme park industry, and what does it take for a movie to be a successful theme park attraction?

(Continue to Part 2)