Saturday, 15 April 2017

Theme vs. Decoration

One of the most pernicious arguments put forward to justify the change from The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout is that it's still the same ride, "only" the theme is changing. Serious comparisons are often made to Mickey's Fun Wheel or Silly Symphony Swings as examples of rides that are the same, but simply had a change in theme. And it is an argument riddled with fundamental errors and misconceptions about what a themed attraction even is, as opposed to merely a ride with some decoration. Sadly it is a misconception that has grown ever more pernicious as the fan community fractures ever more deeply into those who understand the concept of theme and those who obsess with a thrill ride's letter-grade.

Basically the same as Guardians of the Galaxy.

Put succinctly, a theme is not merely decoration. A theme is an entirely immersive environment of sights, sounds, textures, and smells designed to draw a guest into the experience of a unique world. Often, in Disney's case, that world is one originally created in a movie. Snow White's Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Alice in Wonderland, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh all use essentially the same ride system. The guest sits in a cart and follows along a track. The theming of each attraction set them part, however, and make them into fundamentally different rides. In one you are careening through the streets of London in a horseless carriage. In another you are shuddering through a spooky forest in a mine cart. In yet another you are Wonderland, and in another the Hundred Acre Wood. What makes these rides what they are is not the virtually identical ride system, but the immersive environment they create around you. The cart following a track is merely the delivery system for that experience. These would still be fantastic attractions even if they got rid of the carts and let you walk through them, because of the world they put you in.

An entire vocabulary has been developed (mostly by FoxxFur) around theming and how it works. Decor clearly plays a part, but it goes much further than merely what stuff you put in a space to make it resemble another place. Imagineers may use forced perspective, "false portals," "stratification," and "implied space" to make the world seem bigger than it actually is. "Stratification" is the layering of vistas to give the illusion of depth, and "false portals" are unused doorways to those other layers. For example, the burning city in Pirates of the Caribbean uses stratification and false portals, as does the London of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. "Implied Space" is used frequently throughout Disneyland, most notably in the "apartments" throughout Main Street, New Orleans Square, and Adventureland (not to mention the Jungle Cruise's rainforest). The sound emanating from these windows and balconies adds to the theme of these streets as living spaces filled with real people. Some fans of the Mission Breakout concept have expressed excitement over the Seventies pop soundtrack the ride promises, yet that misses the intentionality of soundscapes in themed design. Consider how the sounds and singers change throughout the Haunted Mansion as you pass through each room and past each ghost. All of these elements are coordinated in a comprehensive manner to convey an idea, experience, or "story." They have a motivating logic behind them oriented towards a narrative experience. It's not just a bunch of stuff. It's stuff that creates the setting of a haunted mansion. Theming often has less to do with the specific objects in a space as it does with the techniques to establish a world into which the guest is immersed.  

Decoration, as opposed to the "decor" described above, is different. The distinction is that in a ride that is merely decorated, no attempt is seriously being made to immerse a guest in the experience of a unique world. Instead, it is the mechanics of the ride that matter most and the decoration is just, well, decoration. It's a bit of paint, some motifs, maybe a soundtrack, which gives the ride a unique identity. Let's consider the two examples given above, being Mickey's Fun Wheel and the Silly Symphony Swings.

Mickey's Fun Wheel began life as the Sunwheel, emblazoned with the sun motif used as a logo for Paradise Pier. In 2008 the Sunwheel was closed down and in 2009 it was reopened as Mickey's Fun Wheel, as part of a billion-dollar renovation program meant to redress two of the biggest complaints about the California Adventure theme park. One complaint was a decided lack of theme, and the second was a lack of Disney characters. I'm fairly convinced that Mickey's Fun Wheel is actually a piece of satire at the expense of Disney fans, as I can't see any other intelligent way of understanding why Imagineering would respond to the latter complaint by just plastering a giant Mickey Mouse head on a ride. The sun motif actually worked better, so far as crafting the theme of a Victorian seaside amusement park. Nevertheless, complaints aside, the Ferris wheel at the heart of the changeover did not fundamentally change. All that changed was the  paint job and which giant head sat on it. Mickey's Fun Wheel does not now, suddenly, immerse you in the cartoon world of Mickey Mouse... That is what Toontown is for. It's just a Ferris wheel with a giant Mickey head on it, as decoration.

Likewise, the Silly Symphony Swings, which began life as the Orange Stinger and was altered in the same makeover. As the Orange Stinger, it was surrounded by a gigantic orange peel, had seats resembling bees, and had the scent of oranges piped in. But was it themed to an orange grove? Did it transport the guest into the world of California's orange-growing industry? No, it was Soarin' Over California that did that. Orange Stinger was a standard swing ride decorated with orange motifs as a tribute to Orange County, the orange grove that Disneyland bulldozed, and California's orange industry. It was designed to recall those things, but not immerse the guest in them. As the Silly Symphony Swings, the same ride is now decorated with motifs and music from the cartoon The Band Concert. Again, does painting characters from The Band Concert on the side of a swing ride immerse the guest in the world created by The Band Concert cartoon? No, it does not. It recalls the cartoon, but is still, at the end of the day, just a swing. It's even in the name.

Soarin' may be one of the most basic examples of this principle at work. The change from Soarin' Over California to Soarin' Around the World did the opposite of these other attractions, in that it changed the theme without changing the decoration! The ride buildings in California Adventure, Epcot, and Shanghai Disneyland are still the same as they were before. Nothing of their decoration has changed. California Adventure's interior is the same as it has always been, and the exterior is the same it's been since the end of the renovations. The change in the movie has changed everything, though. Soarin' Over California and Soarin' Around the World are fundamentally different experiences now because where one goes "soarin'" are different.

The all-important difference a theme makes becomes increasingly obvious when we look at more attractions with fundamentally identical ride systems. Consider The Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea vs. Dinosaur! in Animal Kingdom. These attractions use identical ride vehicles and have identical tracks, yet offer much different experiences. The Temple of the Forbidden Eye is not the same experience as the Late Cretaceous Period. Even Anaheim's Temple of the Forbidden Eye and Tokyo's Temple of the Crystal Skull are different from each other in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Matterhorn Bobsleds and Big Thunder Mountain are both tubular steel roller coasters set on artificial mountains. Yet the Matterhorn Bobsleds' Swiss alpine theme stalked by an Abominable Snowman is fundamentally different from an Old West mine gone haywire. They both offer different experiences, immerse guests into different worlds, despite both being tubular steel roller coasters. The Enchanted Tiki Room and the Country Bear Jamboree are both animatronic musical shows, but I hope it's clear how they are different without my having to explain it. Likewise, both Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World are float-through attractions, and are ever so slightly different in certain subtle, barely noticeable, ways.

Arguing that The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout are the same ride with a change of decoration is as bizarre as arguing that Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World are the same attraction because they're float-throughs, or that the Haunted Mansion and The Little Mermaid are the same attraction with some different decoration, since they both use omnimover systems. The omnimover is a delivery system for the experience of either visiting a haunted plantation house occupied by 999 ghosts or the undersea world of Ariel. In fact, the omnimover is itself little more than an advanced form of the cart used in Snow White's Scary Adventures, which was itself hardly any different from the carts used in carnival "ghost trains." The same ride system does not make the same ride.

Granted, the drop in Tower of Terror and Mission: Breakout play a more important part in the ride experience than the omnimover in Haunted Mansion does. There is undoubtedly a percentage, sadly even a majority, who could have cared less what the theme was either way and were only interested in the drop. It is small consolation to people who loved the theme that the drop is the only part staying. A spooky, haunted, abandoned old Hollywood hotel from the Twenties is creating a different experience and a different world than some space station thing from Guardians of the Galaxy. They can't even be compared. The argument should actually be turned on it's ear: it's not "only" the theme and decoration that's changing, it's only the drop that's being kept. 

Theme and decoration have their uses depending on the goal. There are cases where throwing a charming decoration onto an otherwise standard attraction works to great effect. This is essentially what has been done with Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Mad Tea Party, and Disney's Fantasyland carousel in whatever iteration. You're not really "entering the world" of Dumbo by siting in a cart that looks like Dumbo, attached by a stick to a rotating base. It's the same ride as the Astro-Orbiter, Magic Carpets of Aladdin, and TriceraTop Spin, which is why except for Dumbo we don't tend to make a point of riding them. The decoration sets it apart, and can help one imagine that they are flying on Dumbo's back (or his hollowed-out-carcass). A decorated attraction can add immeasurably to the theme of an overall area, as the double-Dumbos do in the Storybook Circus area of Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. They are not themselves themed attractions, however.

The use of themed attractions in themed spaces is really what sets Disney parks apart from amusement parks, carnivals, state fairs, and the so-called competition. If the concept of theme didn't make a quantitative and qualitative difference, then Disneyland would be no better than Six Flags. It makes no sense, in this context, to confuse theme and decoration, or treat theme like it isn't really relevant. Theme is what a theme park is built on. 


  1. Excellent, EXCELLENT post! I am immediately going to start using the theme vs. decoration distinction in my own discussions!

    Of course, we won't know how well Mission: BREAKOUT is themed until it opens and we either embarrass ourselves by going on it or watch someone's HD home video. It's possible that the ride itself will be plenty immersive...although re-dressing an existing building instead of building from scratch sorely limits the possibilities, and the mismatch with the location in DCA is always going to be a sticking point.

    But it's very troublesome to see people justify it on the basis of the ride system not changing. It suggests that not only do they care primarily about the kinetic experience of a thrill ride, but they may not even fully absorb proper theming when it's offered to them. I imagine the sort of people who run everywhere in the parks, in order to squeeze as many fast rides into a day as possible. But how can you appreciate a themed environment when you're fixated on getting through it as quickly as possible? These people are willingly paying Disney theme park prices but only allowing themselves a shallow, Six Flags-level experience.

    1. Thank you!

      I don't doubt that Mission: Breakout will be done well... As well as possible for a movie that had awful artistic design to begin with, which inevitably involves sitting in a cart watching the heroes do things. I imagine that it will immerse you in the world of Guardians of the Galaxy, though I wouldn't know because, literally, we're not going to DCA again now that the only ride that was worth going there for is gone. It's really the issue of theme vs. decoration I wanted to address.

      I agree completely about the really troubling implication beneath the inability to distinguish theme vs. decoration. Disney can increasingly get away with poor theming in rides and spaces because, hey, it's not like anybody except some Internet nerds are actually noticing. Nobody that matters is actually holding them to a high standard. And if you have standards? Well, you just hate change! You hater!

      I don't get the race to thrill rides either. Maybe if you live there and go all the time, but for me, Disney is totally about slowing down and enjoying the theme. I don't even like zipping back and forth between lands because it messes up my sense of immersion. My advice is pretty much the exact opposite of what you find on most advice videos and articles: DON'T just run back and forth between thrill rides. Take your sweet time, slow down, enjoy the immersive experience of each land, and if it means waiting in line for a bit, that's okay (P.S.: go during the shoulder season when most lines are rarely longer than 15 minutes). The idea of crashing through Disneyland to hit the fast rides in rapid succession makes no damn sense to me.

    2. Speaking as someone who lives there and goes all the time...for me there's LESS urgency to hit every ride in as short a span as possible. I'll be back soon enough. I can catch it then.

    3. Which totally makes sense to me, so now I'm even more at a loss!