Convert 2D IP into a Themed Attraction, Show, or Park

As a former Walt Disney Imagineer, I’ve been asked on occasion how Disney theme parks and park attractions are born. Specifically, where do the ideas come from? This post illuminates my observations across a decade within Imagineering, and more than two decades since.

Two-dimensional intellectual property (IP), such as books and motion picture media, are often the source of themed shows, ride-through attractions, plus lands and parks themselves. What’s particularly interesting is the process of adaptation, since novels, feature films, and television series contain extensive detail. Constructing a physical experience from written pages, or media frames presents the challenge of editing complete stories into bite-sized elements which convey the story in an efficient, dramatic manner.

What follows are twenty components a designer can apply toward the conversion of 2D IP into three-dimensional themed entertainment – most commonly found in theme parks. However, story-based themed architecture can be found in stand-alone restaurants and retail as well, so while this list directs focus on themed entertainment, keep an open mind to consider other areas of daily life, including residential spaces.

Illustrations of the ancient story of Chinese warrior Hua Mulan adapted into an early live action film, then into an animated feature, then into a theme park float. In the second half of 2020, Disney’s live-action feature, Mulan, leaps onto screens around the world. ©Disney

For clarity, I’ll use the term ‘audience’ to refer to those watching a movie or television program. I’ll use the term ‘guest’ to refer to those experiencing theme parks and attractions – derived from Walt Disney himself, commenting how Cast Members (not employees) invite guests, not customers, into Disneyland.

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Stories are an important part of modern life. Most everything we do relates to a story path, down to a single sentence. The creative application of art, technology, architecture and other disciplines bring imaginative meaning to many facets of our daily adventure.

I begin with the most direct story correlations revealing relationships between today’s physically themed entertainment, contemporary media, and an ancient Greek play…

1. Theme Park as the Ultimate Stage Play

A theme park is 2D IP (often a feature length motion picture, or a TV show) manifested in physical form. A theme park also resembles live theater, allowing the guests a walk-around experience as well as a geographical exploration, in a form sometimes following familiar structures developed by the ancient Greeks some 2,500 years ago. The most successful theme parks link their multiple lands together, just as successful movies and stage plays progress from one act to another. The key is how the 2D IP is edited (condensed) into a physical form. The process takes time, and must be revised many times prior to the drawing of construction sheets.

Within a theme park, endless exploration becomes accessible to every guest at every moment. Resolution is infinite. However, unlike a feature film, stage play, or television series, a theme park entertainment, also referred to as themed entertainment, invites guests to physically step into a story to explore details at their own pace, along their own individual path, cleverly guided by you… the designer. No two experiences are the same — and therein lives the magic!

2. The Story World

Theme park guests relish exploring storied places where characters have been directly referred, and even hinted to exist. Human curiosity is an important part of a story journey, so be sure to provide intriguing nooks, crannies and exploration rewards via guest discoveries. Allow explorers to pretend they’ve become the characters they’ve read about, or seen on the 2D screen.

3. Think Like A Filmmaker

Consider the unlimited audience viewpoints within a three-dimensional space – in contrast to the single viewpoint of a movie, television program, still photograph, painting, etching, or illustration. Understand where you want the audience to generally gravitate their attention based on locations of primary, secondary, and tertiary elements and characters within the physical space.

4. Forced Perspective

An architectural/painted technique of length, distance, or depth (or in reverse as shallowness) can be applied to horizontal passageways to make them appear longer or shorter, and to vertical architecture to make elements appear taller or shorter than they really are. Theme parks apply this technique to enhance IP story impressions.

5. Illustration to Mural

It’s quite common to see large theatrical murals within theme park attractions of all sizes, both in queue areas and within show scenes. The inspiration for murals often derives from key production art illustrations, where characters in primary scenes are depicted in the midst of shaping their exciting journey. Applying forced perspective, murals effectively blend with physical sets. Sometimes, motion projection elements are an integral part of mural art.

6. Story Characters

Robotics have developed to a level of sophistication where highly lifelike physical motions and nuances can be created and endlessly repeated with precision. ’Animatronics’ (a term initiated by Walt Disney as ‘Audio Animatronics‘) bring static characters into full physical reality, as well crafted and executed lighting completes the magic.

7. Interactivity

An audience member watches media. A guest participates within a theme park environment. As technologies evolve, both audience members and guests interactively merge with their experiences. Consider dimensional experience interactions within an attraction or land area, perhaps blending a 2D media experience from home with a dimensional participation within an attraction.

8. Projected Environments

Digital projection applied through ‘image mapping’ allows instantly changeable environments to materialize without the safety risk and cost of physical rigging. Subtle, if not imperceptible shifting scenic elements occurring right in front of an audience are also possible. Across time, an entire scene can change without anyone seeing the change actually occur.

9. Water and Fog Screens

Lighting effects and projected motion pictures can appear to float in midair when the target is aerated water being sprayed upward or downward. Fog or a vaporized liquid (aka: fog juice) can achieve the same result. Both techniques require experimentation to ensure adequate results based on ambient illumination.

10. Parade Float

As hydraulic, lighting, fiber optics, and projection technologies advance, rolling theatrical stages (floats) bring an IP moment directly to the audience. Audio and show control signals can be wirelessly transmitted to onboard receivers, allowing unique show sequences to occur along a parade route, adding nuance to each trip along a parade path.

11. The Weenie

A well crafted photograph provides a focal point to attract attention and communicate a specific point. Most Disney parks feature a fantasy castle ‘weenie,’ a term coined by Walt Disney. A weenie is an object, or architectural element which attracts the viewer out of curiosity, or through a desire to get closer to the object because it’s so darned interesting. Provide a ‘weenie’ for park explorers to approach as a journey goal, while enhancing dramatic impact with each step closer to it as dimensional angles and viewpoints change.

Find the weenies in this early Fun Map of Disneyland…

12. The Tunnel

A still image can emotionally invite an observer to move further into it. A dimensional experience (‘tunnel’) allows such action as well, via progressive scenic presentations. Whether walking, or being transported on a ride vehicle, a guest is dramatically pulled forward and in to a story as it evolves through sight, sound, scent, vibration, temperature, etc.

13. Pause Time

A theme park allows guests to have time-out moments, similar to an audience member pausing streaming media. The most memorable theme park experiences have moments of quiet between the action. Plan physical locations where pause opportunities become an integral part of the show, enhancing dramatic peaks.

14. Sound Stories

People hear as they see, and can’t easily shut their ears. Aural environments can be as powerful, if not more, than visual sights. IP is both picture and sound, so apply audio content where a story can be presented via triggers of imagination. Allow visual stimulation to take a back seat as often as possible – and be amazed at the show impact. 

15. Live Stage Show

A staple of early amusement parks, and a requirement within today’s theme parks, live shows bring a book, movie or TV series to real life with actual actors. Though edited in their IP scope, such presentations generally play longer than an attraction: 45-60 minutes vs. 5-10 minutes, while illuminating several rounds of dramatic peaks and calmer moments. Guests enjoy the energy shared with performers.

16. Physics In Action

An attraction can place a guest in a physical situation where gravity, temperature, and centrifugal forces add to the visceral IP experience. 2D can suggest motion, while a theme park attraction can fully deliver true acceleration. Consider how a physical feeling can help tell the story, apart from sights, lights, sounds and other surprises.

17. Pre and Post Shows

As with an IP (book) Introduction and Conclusion, an attraction pre-show and post-show establish and settle a story. For guests to truly absorb IP details, it’s important to bookend a show experience with place making nuggets. Place making is literally the ‘creation, manifesting (making) of’ a unique physical place or space. In some cases, such can be accomplished with 2D media, as with Disney park ‘Indiana Jones’ attractions integrating an old scratchy movie in the pre-show queue line.

18. Abstractions

Often, a stylized, or otherwise reinterpreted version of IP is successful. Avoid placing copied, unmodified IP into an attraction, since it may appear redundant. Use the essence of 2D media to bring IP into a physically experienced realm, where the guest mingles within the story, rather than merely watching it from afar.

19. Cuisine

Dining with friends and family can become an olfactory experience – from a clever menu design to themed food on a themed plate. Rather than read or watch characters munch a delicacy, a guest can taste for themselves what IP could only suggest – in an atmosphere of architecture, lighting, settings and physical characters servers. Think The Blue Bayou restaurant at Disneyland.

12. Land Transitions

An important, yet subtle theme park element is how architecture, music and soundscapes transition from one themed area into another. Written IP simply jumps from chapter to chapter, however a theme park must physically materialize details between character acts. Transition zones provide side journeys to a main IP thread, such as where a character lives, or occasionally disappears to – adding depth and intrigue to the experience.

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