The future is more immersive, more experiential, and more storytelling! The creed of our profession today – but the stories we tell are seldom other than those of happiness or fear.
I was born in 1987. Reborn in 1994. Disney’s The Lion King was such a life changing moment for many of us 90’s kids. The pitch-black darkness of Mufasa’s death and Scar’s unforgivable betrayal, subjected me to feelings I had never felt before in my tiny seven-year-old life. I was distraught – but couldn’t stop watching. And just as salt make sugar so much sweeter, that very darkness made the light moments so much lighter. The colors so much brighter and the funny moments so much funnier. To this very day, I still tear up when hearing those first notes from The Circle of Life.
A few years ago, I created a children’s IP for a client. As we were finalizing the design of our colorful monsters, I got feedback that one of the characters looked sad and another one looked angry. We were instructed to redesign them to make sure they were all happy and kids appropriate. This really perplexed me. Life is not an endless sugar rush, it’s a roller coaster.
We love characters for their flaws, and I know that your favorite stories are riddled with struggle. When the creators of The Lion King dared to not sugarcoat life’s hardships, just because it was aimed towards a family audience, it payed off. So why do we so often leave these emotions out of family-oriented theme parks – when we speak so much about creating transformative immersive experiences through storytelling?
CHRONIC DEPRESSION – The Vertical Drop Coaster. Or LONELINESS – The Multi Sensory Dark Ride.
Before you get ahead of yourself, I want to clarify that my conclusion is not suggesting that the next e-ticket attractions should be CHRONIC DEPRESSION – The Vertical Drop Coaster. Or LONELINESS – The Multi Sensory Dark Ride. Nor that we should overcomplicate experiences that aren’t meant to be overcomplicated. Moments of pure fun, thrills and scare will always be at the core of theme parks. But what if we added just a teaspoon of salt to some of the stories we tell. Then maybe, just maybe, our guests will leave a little more transformed and a little more emotionally connected to our stories. And maybe that grain of salt will resonate with some kid sitting in the seat of their omnimover, feeling the same struggle the characters of our stories are feeling.
We evolve when we let go of ourselves and experience the stories of others. And I think sometimes we get confused that moments of happiness (especially in family-oriented settings) only can be achieved by removing all negative feelings. What if allowing the whole emotional spectrum is the next step towards full spatial immersion?
As a spatial experience designer, my day job is creating the future of experiential retail and my evening passion conceptualizing the themed experiences of tomorrow. And the question of emotional depth is one that keeps popping up in my head. It’s easy to talk – harder to walk. The theme park medium is not the same as movies or theater. And we need to keep other factors in mind, such as attention span, re-rideability and non-linear storytelling. Perhaps making laughs and thrills a more accessible route.
However, I would love to see more rides and shows aimed towards families, that not only thrill and entertain but also dare to bring up topics of losing a loved one, feeling lonely, or being worried about the future.
Will theme parks ever be ready for stories that cater to the full emotional spectrum of the human experience? I think so – and wouldn’t it be fun, sad, maddening, frustrating and embarrassing to find out?