Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Theme Park Trope List

(Updated April 8, 2015 with three new tropes)

Theme Parks have been at it for a long time now. Technically for about 60 years, but theme park-style experiences go back even further, to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and Coney Island, and on. There was even an early chain of amusement park attractions - Hale's Tours - that were pretty similar, in concept, to rides like Back to the Future and the Hogwarts Express. And, once you take into consideration the unique style that Universal Creative has cultivated since the 1980s, and the way the WED house style, and WDI house style, and the Universal house style have cross-pollinated and informed each other, there's a pretty rich history of traditions to draw on.

Or, to put it another way, there's a whole history of rhetorical devices, narrative conceits, motifs, and cliches that theme park attractions draw on to communicate with us strongly and basically visually. We can call these tropes. And no, I'm not going to pull a TV Tropes here and catalog every single device or theme that's been used in the history of human endeavor. I'm after most or all of the big ones, however. So no, you wont see "Exit Thru the Gift Shop" here because they're as much formal expectations at this point as they are narrative cliches, which to me would be like calling editing in films a "Trope". For this same reason you won't see things like a Themed Queue or Ride Vehicle. I want to dig into the deeper predictable patterns of the experience.

So myself and my friend Brandon (@DCAlover on Twitter) put our heads together and came up with a pretty extensive list of the various reasons and ways rides have been dropping us down waterfalls, spinning us in circles, and running us over with trains (or garbage trucks piloted by Stan Lee) for generations.

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Invisibility Cloak On - A classic of WED design. In Pirates of the Caribbean, we're expected to be concerned about getting exploded or shot in the face, but the pirates don't seem to see us - are we really there or not? Often results in a weirdly voyeur-like experience.
Examples: Pirates of the Caribbean, Horizons, World of Motion, Primeval World, Swiss Family Treehouse

Harold Isn't Going To Like This - a.k.a. The Fourth Wall Won't Save You, and the opposite of Invisibility Cloak On. Often used in scary or intense attractions to "imperil" riders, especially Universal shows, although Disney pioneered the form by killing guests with a train! It's any time a dangerous or villainous character notices and/or pursues the riders.
Namer: Matterhorn Bobsleds
Examples: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Revenge of the Mummy, The Haunted Mansion, Jaws, Indiana Jones Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Captain Rex Day - Every day is Captain Rex Day, because every day is your guide's first day of doing something highly dangerous! You're nearly guaranteed to hear this if your theme park experience includes a live actor.
Namer: Star Tours
Examples: Jungle Cruise, Poseidon's Fury, Cranium Command

The Nickel Tour - Arguably the foundation conceit of most theme park attractions, this trope claims that the attraction is actually a tour of an imaginary, specific indoor facility or location. It's the next logical evolution away from the "themed scenery" mode of attractions like Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland or Jungle Cruise, which often include multiple, abstract locations.
Examples: The Haunted Mansion, The Living Seas, Back to the Future, The Disney-MGM Backlot Studio Tour

Not a Tape - There's many reasons why that recorded narration you're hearing isn't meant to be that recorded narration you're hearing. It could be... spooky ghosts! Or the invisible crew of your tiny submarine! Or the thoughts of Paul Frees suspended in inner space! How about a radio transmission?? Please don't think about this too thoroughly.
Examples: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Indiana Jones Adventure, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Space Mountain

Three Hour Tour - Happens every time a narrated ride, often a leisurely one, claims that those ten minutes you just spent looking at fiberglass critters in relative comfort constituted days or weeks of your life. There is never any apology or rationale given for this timeslip. You are now old.
Examples: Disneyland Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Mike Fink Keelboats, Sailing Ship Columbia, Kilimanjaro Safaris

Easy On The Curves - Wouldn't you know it, it's the darn finicky cutting edge / patched together / shopworn technology going and breaking down and/or messing everything up! I never could have anticipated this happening in a theme park. Your Uncle who only buys products from The Vermont Country Store and writes with a typewriter was right all along.
Namer: Indiana Jones Adventure
Examples: Alien Encounter, Honey I Shrunk the Audience, Stitch's Great Escape, Dinosaur, Timekeeper, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem!

Eisner Institute - You know what's boring? Going somewhere and having something amazing and impossible happen. Wouldn't you much rather go to an institute or research center where there's drywall and doors with names on them and then have something whimsically unexpected go horribly wrong once you're there? Wouldn't that be so much better?
Namer: Michael Eisner, the patron saint of institutions
Examples: Test Track, Journey Into Your Imagination, Body Wars, Back to the Future, Mission: Space, Dinosaur, Alien Encounter, Honey I Shrunk the Audience...

We Have To Save Elroy - A normal theme park demonstration is interrupted when - oh no! - a plot device occurs! Being the red-blooded Americans that we are, the entire audience is enlisted to help. "Elroy" can also be a macguffin (the gift in Despicable Me) or a red herring.
Namer: The Funtastic World of Hannah-Barbera
Examples: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers the Ride 4D, Ghostbusters Spooktacular, ET Adventure, Kilimanjaro Safaris

Little Red is OK - Corollary to We Have To Save Elroy, where of course "Elroy" is always OK at the end. Sometimes other trams/boats full of people will be shown to have perished, but the nearest any theme park ever got to actually doing off a supporting character was the unlucky submarine 13, crushed by a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Namer: Kilimanjaro Safaris

Torturing the Recruits - At Imagineering in the 90s and early naughts, if you weren't going to an institute you were always some kind of recruit. You apparently got drafted by walking in the door. What could be more lighthearted??
Namer: Stitch's Great Escape
Examples: Alien Encounter, Men in Black: Alien Attack, Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, Mission: Space, Body Wars, Ghostbusters Spooktacular

Background Action - Mostly-Universal-Specific Corollary to Torturing the Recruits, where you're supposed to be playing extras in a film shoot of some sort. Unlike real movie extras, you don't get a free lunch out of it.
Examples: Earthquake: The Big One, Revenge of the Mummy, Backdraft, Disaster!, Twister: Ride It Out!, Catastrophe Canyon

Sherrie Wants To Kill You - Sherrie may look pleasant sitting at that desk near Bill McKim, but she actually wants to murder you by driving you into a wall. Sometimes an innocent-looking secondary character, sometimes the main antagonist.
Namer: Test Track
Examples: Snow White's Scary Adventures, Revenge of the Mummy, Alien Encounter, Tower of Terror (TDL), Indiana Jones Adventure

You Die At The End - Especially if you go to hell.
Examples: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Snow White's Adventures, Fata Morgana (maybe), Men in Black: Alien Attack (maybe)

I Got Some In My Mouth - Nothing could possibly make any ride more cutting edge and intense than spritzing the audience with water, right? Nobody's ever done that before! Bonus points if the water is supposed to be dripping blood, as in Revenge of the Mummy (Hollywood).
Namer: Alien Encounter
Examples: Mickey's Philharmagic, Jurassic Park, Stitch's Great Escape, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Toy Story Midway Mania, Revenge of the Mummy, Muppet-Vision 3D, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Captain EO

Beware of Glass - Inexplicable Universal-only subset of I Got Some In My Mouth, where being spritzed with water can also represent glass shattering nearby.
Examples: Terminator 2 3D, Revenge of the Mummy, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

EllenBot - It's a bad idea to cast a recognizable person in your attraction because their audio-animatronic incarnation will probably look nothing like them. Is that Tim Allen or a Country Bear??
Namer: Ellen's Energy Adventure
Examples: The Hall of Presidents, Superstar Limo

The Book Report Ride - An attraction which shows exactly the same events which occurred in the source film in the same order. You know these well.
Examples: Peter Pan's Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Seas With Nemo and Friends

Ride the Movies - This is what happened after that movie you saw probably recently! Sometimes, the theme park attraction is the proper direct sequel to a film, but represents an alternate universe if the source movie got another sequel, as in the case of Terminator 2. Or, the story can be dropped into a specific point in a movie chronology rather than being set "after" the main events of the story.
Namer: Universal Studios Florida
Examples: Back to the Future, E.T. Adventure, Indiana Jones Adventure, Men in Black: Alien Attack, Star Tours, Jaws, Stitch's Great Escape, Revenge of the Mummy, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, Jurassic Park The Ride

It's Not About Finding Hot Tubs - Subset of Ride the Movies, and differentiated from the Book Report, where an attraction specifically tells you that the events depicted therein take place after the movie -- but everything that happens is just something that happened in the movie.
Namer: Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
Examples: Radiator Springs Racers, Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy

The Enchanted Tales Razor - The rule that states that no explanation is sometimes better. Named for Enchanted Tales with Belle, where a straightforward character meet and greet is burdened with an absurd time travel conceit which not only makes no sense, but conveniently vanishes after it's no longer needed.
Examples: Enchanted Tales with Belle, Mission: Space

Why Did It Have to be Tourists - "You're sending a bunch of wet behind the ears tourists out in the SCOOP?" Or: any time a beleaguered hero has to save your miserable ass because you were a bunch of dumb tourists. You are lower than dirt.
Namer: Indiana Jones Adventure
Examples: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Star Tours, Transformers the Ride 4D, Dinosaur

Where Have You Been?! - A Harry Potter-specific subset of Why Did It Have to be Tourists. Harry Potter is constantly saving your ass. There's no moment when he isn't. Dementors? Voldemort? Whomping Willow? Harry Potter saved your ass. Theme Park Harry Potter is more competent than movie Harry Potter, book Harry Potter, and fanfic Harry Potter rolled into one. That time you nearly fell trying to buy a carton of milk in Target? He saved your ass that time too. Harry Potter is the hardest working guy in theme parks. He hates you so much.
Namer: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Examples: Hogwarts Express, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Harry Potter and You In Line For Butterbeer, Harry Potter and the........

I'm Bill Paxton - Most commonly used in Universal attractions where an actor appears on a screen to address you before the main experience; also snuck into Disney rides in the 90s.
Namer: Bill Paxton in Twister: Ride It Out!
Examples: Steven Spielberg in E.T. Adventure, Angela Lansbury in Murder: She Wrote Mystery Production Theater, Ron Howard in Backdraft, John Michael Higgins in Test Track, Wallace Langham in Countdown to Extinction / Dinosaur, Gary Sinise in Mission: SPACE, Jeffrey Jones in Alien Encounter, Patrick Warburton in Soarin Over California

The Hunky Tuna Tostada - Corollary to I'm Bill Paxton. Any time a highly recognizable celebrity or entertainer pops up unexpectedly in the middle of an attraction experience for a cameo, it's always going to take the audience out of the experience, even if it's intended strictly as a joke.
Namer: Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management
Examples: The Timekeeper, Disaster, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Revenge of the Mummy, Superstar Limo

Mission: Tortilla - OK, listen, maybe you didn't like all those institutes or research centers,  but Eisner sure loves industrial tours, because that's where people who actually have to work for a living are! Fascinating! Bonus if you get a free food sample for showing up.
Name: Mission Tortilla Factory
Examples: Universal Studios Tram Tour, Boudin Bread Factory, Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tour

Expiration Date - In an effort to show how not-lame and with-it a theme park institution is, a new attraction opens featuring the latest music, or cool visual style, or hottest sitcom stars. Inevitably, it's absurdly dated within five years. The defining example was probably the "fountain of fashion" at the exit of Adventure Thru Inner Space, but this was also less of a problem before the 90s, when sponsors and Disney replaced attactions pretty regularly. Interestingly, supposedly Universal designs their studio park attractions to have a shelf life of ten years.
Examples: America Sings, Innoventions, Wonders of Life, DisneyQuest, Food Rocks
(Suggested by 'Judah Ben-Hur')

After These Messages - is practically an extinct park trope, but it was once the norm. Enough sponsorship money being thrown around can result in, for a price, your very own ride-through corporate advertisement, complete with a catchy theme song. Probably the best example is the rotating furniture showroom known as the Carousel of Progress, but plenty of other attractions toed the corporate line, dispensing approved nuggets about microwaves, textiles, and agriculture. Interestingly, one of the last of these - Horizons - subverted the trope by being lavishly funded by General Electric but presenting no overt product placement.
Examples: Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame, Monsanto Home of Future Living, Adventures Thru Inner Space, Listen to the Land, Universe of Energy

Parkception - Universal has been up to a lot of this lately, but it's actually Disney that started the whole current boom. More than an attraction that's aware it's an attraction, it's a miniature amusement park, often depicted of being below theme park quality, inside a theme park. The first one, of course, was Jurassic Park, but it's Disney that set the template with their kitsch tributes Chester and Hester's Dino-rama and Paradise Pier. Lately, miniature amusement parks have sprung up around The Simpsons Ride and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.
Examples: Dino-rama, Paradise Pier, Krustyland, Super Silly Fun Land
(Suggested by Hastin)

Feel free to propose any we may have missed in the comments! If I like one, I may add it to the article!

20 comments:

Hastin said...

A couple of other tropes:

Theme Park Ride trope. The idea that you are on a theme park ride (meta), or about to get on one before something happens.

Star Trek: The Experience - The basis was that you we're going to get on a cheesy Star Trek simulator ride before transported to the ship. Would then be referenced by the 'janitor' at the end about "the great part of the ride where William Shatner sings".

Mummy: Florida - During the ride, there's a false 'ending' that parodies an exit platform and a cast member giving a safety spiel.

Jurassic Park - Boarding a theme park ride inside another theme park Jurassic Park.

Simpsons Ride - Krustyland is testing a new Theme Park Ride complete with teenage dispatcher.

A Chosen One seems to be a trope that's lightly used for experiences. The idea that the reason what's happening is because a guest is unwillingly part of the plot.

Star Trek: The Experience - Picard just so happens to be a descendant of a guest in the group.

Star Tours - Rebel spy just so happens to be in our already-going-wrong flight.

On the flipside there's The Plant - used heavily in stage shows. A planted "guest" becomes part of the show. Bonus for tacky hawaiian shirt.

Cirque de la Mer (Seaworld San Diego) - "Guest" that wins a showoff contest becomes part of the plot.

Indy Stunt Spectacular - A "guest" that's chosen to be part of the extras group is actually a stunt actor.

Bert Kuypers said...

Great list! In the categorie 'You die at the end' you listed Fata Morgana.. what ride is this?

cupcakesandcoasters said...

I do adore the use of tropes to 'explain' why I'm riding as I feel that it adds to the experience. That said, especially with me being British, it can feel a bit forced and corny, definitely when you're in Orlando or wherever and you're forced to LIVE THE MAGIC. LIVE IT! Like, maybe I just, you know, accept the fact that I'm in a theme park, I EXPECT there to be rides and mishaps and adventures, I don't need their presence explained to me because it's a given that these things are going to happen, because hey I'm at Disney World and if they didn't happen you can be damn sure I'd be asking for my money back!

I love the point you make about the random unexplained time travel for no reason. I often find that when these tropes are used they're sort of...fairly OK at convincing you why you're there and why this is happening, but it's almost as if by the end they kind of give up and never have a properly narratively conclusive ending, so in that sense wasn't putting so much effort into it all a bit of a waste of time?

Berimon said...

The new Little Mermaid ride in MK is a total book report (and boring to boot).

Thanks for an interesting perspective on the attractions!

Scott Rogers said...

Fun article. Allow me to add two more tropes.

First Person Ride - An attraction where the rider is meant to be the ride's titular character - hence the character never actually appears in the ride. Once predominant in Disneyland but changed when confused audiences didn't get it.

Examples: Peter Pan's Flight, Snow White's Scary Adventure, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Learn Damn it - An attraction whose primary focus is education. Thrill/humor are added to make it more palatable or as an afterthought.

Examples: Adventures thru Inner Space, Jungle Cruise, Pretty much every attraction at Epcot

HBG2 said...

Well, there's "Preach it, Brother," the kind that has a very specific, very overt message that they want to drill into your head. Rarely used, because if the message is too important and too specific, it may turn off those who disagree, but if it's broad enough for everyone to agree with, it's going to be bland. Nevertheless, I can think of two successful examples: Small World and Carousel of Progress.

"It's Art!" You break through the fourth wall and actually live and move and have your being within a piece of modern art. (Mickey's Toontown and Small World)

James said...

"Harold Isn't Going To Like This"

Also, Expedition Everest. But it was better before the Yeti broke.

Scott Rogers said...

I thought of one other trope:

The Morality Play - an attraction whose message is "be good or something bad will happen to you." This can be the by-product of the story (see Book Report) or the genre.

Examples: Pirate of the Caribbean (pre-Jack Sparrow), Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Pinocchio's Daring Journey

chayward said...

"Mission: Tortilla" BWAAAhahahahahaaa! I'm dying over here!

Rook Wilder said...

I very much enjoyed that. Well, it made me cry a little, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The "Why Did It Have To Be Tourists?" and "Where Have You Been?!" combo really hit me hardest in the humor department.
Well done.

Josh Roseman said...

For what it's worth, I still like Ellen's Energy Adventure.

Seth Kubersky said...

Brilliant work!
Although to nitpick, Transformers belongs under Tourturing the Recruits instead of Why Did It Have to be Tourists, since riders are new recruits to the NEST military force.
Also, Terminator 2 could fall under both Nickel Tour and Eisner Institue...

Holly said...

I predict a tropes scavenger hunt in my family's future. The winner will get all props necessary to recreate a Disney marketing still from the 90's.

I never realized it before, but the "Three Hour Tour" always left me with a great sense of accomplishment over doing absolutely nothing. I suppose that's the whole idea. "Yes! I just covered Pangea in a steam train in 22 min. I am a wise and talented traveler."

Also, "You are now old." kills me. I think I ended a game of Oregon Trail with that message.

Judah Ben-Hur said...

' The Future is Here!'- surprise your in the future! Isn't it grand?

Examples: Carousel of Progress, Spaceship Earth, Horizons, Men in Black (though tongue in cheek)

'Carphones and Laserdisks!'- this attraction showcases a future or present that has looong past. Yet doesn't seem to ever close or update.

Examples:Carousel of Progress, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Inovations (depending when you think about it),the 'Norway' film, Wonders of Life pavilion.

'POP! Art'- this attraction used that hip n rad design style that will immediately date it.

Examples:Wonders of Life, House of the Future, Disney Quest, Videopolis, Adventures of Inner Space post show.

'Brand Unity'-- Disney owns characters, and dont you blasted forget it. Random introduction of IP into already existing ride for little reason but brand identity and possible bad taste.

Examples: Tiki Room:Under NeW Management, Small World (Disneyland), Pirates of the Caribbean, Nemo Submarine Voyage, Living Seas with Nemo, Pirate Lair at Tom Sawyer Island, Tarzan's Tree house.

Griffin Calhoun said...

"I'm Bill Paxton"

Ha, this is great! That line is still an in-joke between me and my dad, in fact we imitated him saying "I'm Bill Paxton" over and over while waiting in line for The Mummy like two loons lol

Melissa said...

I loved the Mission Tortilla Factory. Yes, I'm a weirdo.

Melissa said...

Also loved the After These Messages classic that was "If You Had Wings."

Does the classic/current Tiki Room still count as a Tuna Tostada een though the celebrity voices are impersonated and are now obscure to modern audiences?

MyLifeInFormation said...

Love these. The one that has been becoming more prominent in my perception would have to be:

"Thanks For Travelling With Us"

An attraction where it's all about the journey rather than the destination. Travellers embark from a travel port or station with a fictional travel company. They may be in for a smooth flight or a bumpy ride.

EXAMPLES: Soarin', Space Mountain, Star Tours, Hogwarts Express,

Harry Thornton said...

It's always funny (For me) to see rides that are based on classic movies like Star Wars, Peter Pan and (Formally) Back to the Future in the same parks where rides featuring/based on mostly forgotten movies, such as Pearl Harbour's promotion in the last version of the Backlot Tour, Twister: Ride it Out or Waterworld. I'm not saying these rides are bad, just that it's interesting seeing their source material vanish from the public eye.

Galen Gallimore said...

Questor, at Busch Gardens, Tampa. Long extinct simulator ride, but one of my favorites. Part 'Easy on the Curves', as the ship didn't work as planned, part 'Eisner institute', but in a cool, steampunk-before-it-was-cool sort of way, and part 'We have to save Elroy' as we went chasing after the Jurbilium Crystal.

Great tropes - thanks for sharing. Oh, and Horizons lost the GE sponsorship after a few years, and so dropped the blinding GE symbol from the tunnel just prior to the vehicle exit platform. The theme, 'we bring good things to life (light)' was also part of the post-ride exit music. I'm sure there are other things peppered throughout the ride, but yeah, it wasn't obvious except for the big glowing GE at the end.