The story of the Disneyland Jungle Cruise boat house: When designing theme park attractions, designers will put together a guest experience narrative to describe the background of the environment guests are to enter. In 1993 when the Jungle Cruise boat house was rebuilt in order to make room for Indiana Jones, several key changes took…
Stages in Show Writing
The stages in the process of writing an attraction tend to vary from project to project depending on the specific requirements, but you are correct in assuming there is a general pattern to the process. However, the “Guest Experience” is not necessarily the first of the stages leading up to the script draft. There are, in fact, several documents that are generally produced before we reach that point, although those preliminary stages may not necessarily be submitted to the client.
The usual pattern is similar to the process you’d take if you were composing a feature film screenplay, though the nomenclature occasionally deviates. The basic idea is that you start out very brief and general in your descriptions, investing as little time as possible in the process. You present it to the powers that be and if they say “no,” then you go back to the drawing board, knowing that you haven’t wasted a lot of time, energy, and money on a rejected approach. When you finally get a go-ahead, you go on to the next stage, which is more elaborate and time consuming. And so it goes, step by step, progressively moving from the simplest expression of the idea (a “high concept”) to the fullest, most complete version (a finished script). Each step has to be approved, and if you follow the procedure, you shouldn’t have to backtrack very often.
Here are the usual steps in the process (at least the way we do it at ITEC):
1.) High Concept – This is the basic idea, the show premise, boiled down to the fewest number of words possible. A “1-liner,” if you will. If you can get the basic thrust of the story/attraction across in one short line, then chances are you have a strong concept. For example, here’s the high concept I came up with for The Saint Michael Mystery, an attraction ITEC created in Prague, Czech Republic: “An unsettling walking tour through the tortured imagination of the Czech writer Franz Kafka.”
2.) Conceptual Overview – A slightly longer description of the attraction, boiled down to a single paragraph. Expanding slightly on the high concept, you try to get across some idea of what the attraction is ABOUT in fairly general terms (but not necessarily WHAT HAPPENS). It can contain some reference to methodology, but few, if any, specifics. Again, an example from The St. Michael Mystery: “Guests embark on an impressive walking tour that takes them through a series of atmospheric set pieces inspired by the life and stories of Franz Kafka. Such ‘Kafkaesque’ themes as alienation, bureaucratic neglect, and existential angst are brought to life in a sequence of environments enhanced by disconcerting special effects, eerie lighting, and evocative music and sound effects.”
3.) Guest Experience Outline – Just like the outlines you used to compose for school term papers. Basically, a list of everything that the audience will see, hear, touch, taste, smell, whatever, from beginning to end. The big emphasis here is the major story points and how you will get them across. But it’s just a framework, very skeletal, with few if any details. The goal here is to establish and verify the STRUCTURE of the guest experience in a manner that allows everyone involved to see the big picture before you move on to the next stage.
4.) Guest Experience – Once you have an approved outline, you can start fleshing it out as a complete Guest Experience, “connecting the dots” of the major points. This is a lot like a motion picture “treatment.” In essence, it’s a description of the attraction from the point of view of the guest, describing everything he or she experiences. Written in present tense to give it a sense of immediacy. (From the outline, you can write a sketchier version of the guest experience before you tackle the full guest experience, if that helps.)
5.) Script Outline – Not every attraction requires an actual script. Some attractions have no dialogue. In others, say a roller coaster for instance, the only script might be for the load spiel, or maybe a short pre-show video. A few attractions, on the other hand, are ALL spiel (a few years ago I wrote about half an hour’s worth of new recorded narration for the scenic railway that circles Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta, Georgia; it was an existing ride, so my narration script essentially became the entire show.) If there are several key points to be made in the script, you might as well compose a script outline to help you get it all straight and assure that you don’t miss any important items.
6.) Show Script – Okay, NOW it’s time to write the actual script. How much goes into that script beyond narration, dialogue, music cues, audio effects cues, and special effects cues will depend on the project. Yes, sometimes you will be asked to include text (“display copy”) to go onto specific props, signage, and scenic elements (I was once hired to compose fake “headlines” for dozens of newspapers as part of a newsstand set). Other times, such tasks will fall to the art director or some other member of the design team. So it really depends on the client and the project.
Again, different projects have different requirements, so the above sequence doesn’t always apply. There may be additional steps or fewer. But the general direction is always the same: start with the simplest expression of the experience and then, as you move through the approval stages, progressively flesh it out until you have your finished script or guest experience.
I hope this clarifies the issue for you, Will. Good luck!
Writer / ITEC Entertainment Corporation
The Disney Jungle Cruise Spiel: We have made this list in an effort to preserve the many hundreds of witty jokes that have been “spieled” on Disney’s Jungle Cruise for the last 60+ years since Disneyland opened. Many of the very best lines are lost over time as even the official Disney scripts change every…
Confessions of a Freelance Attraction Show Writer In response to your excellent questions about getting into the business of becoming a freelance themed attraction writer, I can only refer to my own experiences. As you know, I worked as a freelance writer in the themed attraction design business for several years before ITEC Productions finally…