Comedy has long had a place in theme parks and other visitor attractions across the world; although many of the most famous examples come from various Disney parks, the majority of well-known regional and destination parks seem to have family-friendly gags and laughs as the central focus of many of their dark rides and shows. Most of the 4-D theatre attractions I’ve experienced over the years quickly descend into excuses to squirt water, air or faintly foul smells into the faces of guests, regardless of whether the setting is a pirate ship, space, or an IP-based adventure.
Given the vast, seemingly universal popularity of sketch comedy, here’s a thought experiment to mull on — could some of the better known characters or skits from television ever be brought into a theme park attraction?
The closest examples that come to mind, though not strictly sketch-based, are Universal Studios Florida’s Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor in the Magic Kingdom; both 3D/4D theatre format attractions using pre-recorded content, though the latter has a semi-improvised, live element with voice actors and digital puppeteers behind the screen enabling characters to interact with guests, responding and adjusting the show accordingly in real time.
The Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island in Downtown Disney, Orlando — one of several fan favourite entertainment offerings which closed or changed as part of the area’s transition to Disney Springs — started off with a self-parodying show called ‘Forbidden Disney’ before eventually becoming the home of an improv group. In his book, Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career, Kevin Rafferty goes into some depth about the process of working with two comedy writers to the create the original show.
Looking the other way through the lens, theme and amusement parks have made their way into various television comedy shows throughout the years; Saturday Night Live performers have found themselves at Disneyland, Universal Studios, and on a variety of rides hosted by the recurring Merryville Brothers audio-animatronic characters, played by a rotating cast which has included Jim Carrey, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, and Bill Hader (usually on the triangle). As recently as February 2021, Mikey Day, Dan Levy and the cast performed a skit set on the Universal Studios Hollywood Tram Tour. Andrew Stilwell at Coaster 101 compiled an interesting list of 12 Times SNL Visited A Theme Park.
Though comedy already touches many elements of theme parks and resorts, with puns aplenty to be found on signage, theming and show scripts, there’s a good chance the reason a more specifically sketch comedy-oriented ride or attraction doesn’t currently exist is because it just wouldn’t work, whether due to lack of mass appeal or the format simply not being a fit for the theme park setting. Although SNL is still vastly popular — having premiered in 1975 and just wrapped its 46th season, the show frequently draws anywhere between 3–7 million viewers — its largely topical, satirical and politically-oriented themes may prove a difficult fit for a family setting aiming to entertain a broad spectrum of views and backgrounds. But with a rich variety of other options out there, let’s go with the approach that no idea is a bad idea, and for a few minutes, explore what a sketch-comedy based theme park attraction might look like.
The obvious approach would be the seated theatre show, but it’s hard to see how some of the better-known actors, recurring sketches and characters would translate successfully to a live stage setting. As great as the performers might be, would casting lookalike stand-ins for Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen and expecting them to recreate the Portlandia duo’s chemistry and comedic timing be funny? Unfortunately, probably not.
Moving on to a media-based pre-recorded show seems like the next best thing, and a way to guarantee an appearance from an original show’s cast, whoever that might be, whether through existing footage or a specially filmed episode for the park’s use, with interactive or 4-D show elements included to bring it to life in the setting. If the IP is well known enough, we’re immediately left with an attraction which could be replicated for different locations, and translated into a variety of languages.
Something still doesn’t seem quite right with this approach though. Comedy is very personal, and our response to it — laughter, hopefully — can’t always be timed to the second to suit this kind of format.
While there are still numerous options to explore — many of us come off a great rollercoaster having laughed most of the way round, usually thanks to the thrill rather than the theming — there’s something intriguing about the idea of bringing hilarity to a dark ride. For one thing, dark rides often have the most potential to get weird. Really weird, at times. Guests could be less reliant on language in this setting, relying more on visual gags, and in a well-structured attraction there could be potential for individual parts of the story or show to get different responses, and for the audience to connect with each cue in their own time.
So — putting aside the idea that one solution might, of course, be an original story with park-specific characters — if we’re building a dark ride based on an existing comedy IP, where do we look for inspiration?
Many of the most popular sketch-based late night television shows such as SNL are NBC properties, so it seems an obvious fit for Universal parks; particularly given that those locations are generally aimed at a slightly older target audience than Disney or LEGOLAND. With that said, shows that prove popular internationally on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime are often first broadcast on channels like IFC or Comedy Central, and there’s a good chance — though I’m willing to be proven wrong — that no marketing executive in their head offices have given much thought to licensing the theme park rights.
Along with Portlandia, shows like I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, Documentary Now!, and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! are finding global audiences through streaming services, with short clips or single sketches on YouTube funnelling fans to find the full series on their platform of choice. And for similar reasons, viewers are reviving the popularity of programmes that were perhaps just a few years ahead of their time and didn’t survive on the networks long-term, like Chappelle’s Show, The Ben Stiller Show, and more. This brings to mind another consideration — we know it’s popular in the West, but is there a market for this style of comedy in places where themed entertainment destinations are being built at a rapid pace, like the Middle East and China?
Perhaps a focus on those which have proven to be timeless over the decades would prove to be the strongest basis for an attraction; aside from SNL, many examples that seem to resonate globally seem to have begun life this side of the pond; Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Mighty Boosh, and The Fast Show among their number. It’s hard to quantify the popularity of a show that’s not currently airing, but in meetings with friends and colleagues in the U.S., Monty Python is mentioned as often as The Beatles as a primary example of legendary British cultural output.
The challenge with bringing existing characters into the park is that the story has to be good enough to stand on its own two feet, even for those guests not yet familiar, and a version of it will have to be relevant enough to be enjoyed for decades to come. But on balance, compared with the aforementioned idea of creating a completely original show concept with no IP attached, my feeling is that the upside of building something based on an extremely well-known, well-loved sketch show would be the way to go.
Overall, this is probably among the stranger ideas out there, particularly when applied to a dark ride setting rather than a live, theatrical performance, but some of the most enjoyable moments in theme park history have arguably come from ideas that probably shouldn’t work on paper (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride; Hex at Alton Towers, UK; and even the Tower of Terror might be included among their number).
Some of the funniest sketches tick a lot of the same boxes as great theme park attractions: great storytelling; wildly unpredictable plots; loveable, relatable characters; and all done within the space of just a few minutes. So once we’ve found our pick of a series that‘s young enough to be relevant while already showing signs of standing the test of time, lets bring in the stars, the writers, and let them create an immersive ‘episode’ for their fans to live in, that they can only experience in the attraction.
(Design vector created by pikisuperstar — www.freepik.com)