Building Better Rides: What Should Attraction Designers Focus On?

It’s no secret that Disney and Universal design some of the world’s most up-to-date rides and attractions, each striving to amaze guests more than the last. While theme park enthusiasts and thrill-seekers enjoy intense, airtime-filled coasters, others are more interested in the overall package of theming, thrills and a story all into one attraction. Before last winter, I had conditioned myself on the idea that a park’s collection of roller coasters was all that mattered. However, after trips to both Universal and Disney for the first time as an adult—and as an enthusiast and student in theme park design —I fell in love with the idea of fully immersive attractions that used a story and elaborate theming to create something more than just a bare-bones ride. As a parkgoer, I spent as much time as I could soak in the beautiful theming, captivating stories and unique thrills. However, as a theme park designer-in-training, I also spent time analyzing the various attractions at both resorts and asking myself, “What is missing? How can I go on to create better rides?”

So what makes a good theme park ride to begin with? When looking at attractions that are considered the best of the best, all of them work to incorporate a story, quality theming, and a unique ride. Animatronic characters, music, voices, screens and props are many of the ways ride creators bring the story to life. The architecture and theming are vital in establishing a setting, as well as communicating the story through visuals. It’s also important that an attraction’s theming extends beyond its queue and ride building and into its nearby area or “land”, which expands the attraction’s story into a larger world. Pirates of the Caribbean is a prime example of this, as the colonial-style set pieces on the ride and in the queue extend out into the nearby shops and food stalls.

The ride system is also very important, as many of the well-received attractions to open in recent years utilize interesting and thrilling ride systems. Sure, for some rides to be loved by the public, they don’t need to be thrilling–especially for the younger crowd and anyone with a fear of or sensitivity to extreme motion. But it seems that in this day, a standout attraction needs a standout ride system. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios Florida utilizes spinning coaster cars as well as tilting track and launch elements. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey uses large unique robotic arms to move guests on multiple axis’ and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance uses modern, trackless vehicles that can make maneuvers that most dark rides can’t. Though having an intense ride system will leave some guests out of the fun, a new, unique ride that can thrill guests is a large part of what makes a great attraction.

So how can these ride developers improve? With Coronavirus sparking several online courses dedicated to educating the masses of theme park design, such as Imagineering in a Box and Science of Universal Orlando, Disney and Universal have both showed their approaches to designing attractions. Though these companies create vastly different rides and attractions, their creative strategy isn’t all that different. According to Margaret Kerrison, a host of Imagineering in a Box, at the start of each project, Imagineers always ask, “What is the Story?”

While backstories are important for attractions and can help draw in guests, I think ride designers need to take a step back from focusing on the story. Some attractions rely heavily on story, using animatronics and screens to propel riders through the attractions. This, however, comes at the expense of a great ride, which as I previously mentioned, is needed to make for a great attraction.

A perfect example of a ride system being underutilized is in Under The Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid at the Magic Kingdom. The attraction was built in 2012, and I, unfortunately, have to say the entire ride was pretty underwhelming. It utilizes an “Omnimover” system, which slowly moves passengers along a set track while controlling their line of sight. The idea is to give guests a motion-picture-like view throughout the ride. It’s a very tame ride system, and isn’t very unique either, as it can be found on rides such as The Seas with Nemo and Friends and Spaceship Earth, both at Epcot. While the ride system was once revolutionary and paved the way for fan favorites like the Haunted Mansion, it is now outdated. The theming isn’t over the top either, at least not compared to other top-tier rides such as Flight of Passage or Escape from Gringotts.

A scene room from Journey of the Little Mermaid at the Magic Kingdom (Photo by Josh Hallett/ CC BY )

Where the “Little Mermaid” ride puts most of its creative effort is in the story. Animatronics, undersea set pieces and music are used to show different scenes from the Little Mermaid film. While I think some guests may enjoy the ride, it’s nowhere near as well-received as other rides built in the same era. Though many rides that suffer from this same flaw were built years ago, such as Peter Pan and E.T., there are new rides like the Little Mermaid that still use this design approach of emphasizing the story over the ride, like Navi River Journey and Fast and the Furious, both of which have received mixed reviews from fans and critics. This brings me to another point about using attractions to tell a story as the main goal of an attraction.

Navi River Journey (Photo © Disney Parks)

The term “storytelling” is often used in the creative world when developing theme park attractions. While, yes, guests enjoy being presented a story through live sets, are people really planning their summers around a week to come to parks and be told stories? There are plenty of platforms out there for telling a story such as books, movies, TV shows and video games. Not only are these platforms able to tell a compelling story over a period of time with plot and character development, but they can also be consumed from home on the couch. Theme parks can use so many impressive physical props to tell a story, but is that why people spend so much time and money to come to parks? If not, then what is?

My answer? Let the ride steal the show. What helps draw in those crowds to the Disney and Universal Parks? The rides that you just can’t miss out on. Fly on the back of a Banshee, take on the Incredible Hulk or ride on Hagrid’s motorcycle through the Forbidden Forest. It’s no doubt that the premise of the attraction can be told through their ride system alone, like dropping in an abandoned elevator shaft while on the Tower of Terror. To me, it sounds like the creators started these attractions by asking themselves, “What will this attraction do?” rather than, “What is the story?”

It seems like the current creative approach to an attraction is to deliver a story supported by a ride, but I believe attractions should create a ride supported by a story. Tower of Terror, arguably the most well-received ride in the entire Walt Disney World, does just this. For starters, the story is very straightforward and is presented mostly through the theme of an abandoned hotel. Though there is a preshow, it’s very easy for guests to understand that the attraction in front of them will take them on a thrilling and terrifying adventure through the old Hollywood Tower Hotel. To me, that’s all the story you need. From there, it’s a long, heart-pumping buildup until the moment you drop–and drop again–and again.

A group of riders enjoying the drop section of Tower of Terror (Photo © Disney Parks)

Expedition Everest is yet another amazing ride that demonstrates how a great attraction can let the story take a ride in the backseat. Again, there’s a lot of theming in the area to propel the story of the small town in Nepal whose residents believe in the legend of the Yeti. Just like Tower of Terror, this ride doesn’t utilize characters or screens to present the ride. Instead, the premise is simple — boarding a mine train that takes us to the peak of Everest in search of the Yeti. There are plenty of other great rides out there that prove that a great attraction is possible when paired with a simple, but interesting story.

Advanced rides systems could also have the opportunity of enhancing the story in future attraction, by truly making guests a part of the story. Universal and Disney creatives have expressed their goal of “making their guests play a role in the story,” as Josh Gorin put it. However, while both companies have done great with immersing guests into new worlds in most modern attractions, they fail to truly make guests have an impact on the story. For example, in Rise of the Resistance, which I will admit is a very nice ride, as I love the vastly different set pieces such as the rebel base and First Order cruiser. However, at no point do guests have an impact on the ride. While the animatronics and in-character cast members propel the story, the guests aren’t blasting at storm troopers or flying ships like the characters around them. Instead, they are just allowed to sit and watch. If an empty train was sent though, what would change?

With a ride like Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, guests playing a role in the story makes sense. While it seems others like myself thought that the ride itself could have been a little more interactive, I do love the approach Imagineers took with this attraction, as they handed control of the story to the guest and ride vehicle. With each passenger in charge of a different task, their actions can propel the story into several different scenarios, which can end differently. Universal’s Men in Black: Alien Attack accomplishes the same immersive task, and in a much simpler way. The M.I.B training course comes to life when a car of guests is sent through, activating all the animatronic targets throughout the course. Unlike Rise of the Resistance, the ride would look a whole lot different and lifeless if you sent through an empty train.

Interactive ride systems like these will be important in the future of attractions as the quality of theming continues to rise. In recent years, incredibly detailed areas such as Diagon Alley, Pandora and Galaxy’s Edge have opened, and I’m sure Universal’s upcoming Nintendo World will add to that list. It will be hard for tame ride systems like omnimovers or boat rides that rely on story and theming to make for great attractions, as walking around the nearby area of the attraction could be just as impressive as the ride itself. I felt this way on Navi River Journey, as walking through the land and seeing the amazing landscape was just as impressive as the slow boat ride that utilized the same quality of theming. Attractions will need to rely more on advanced ride systems to outshine the wonderful theming that won’t just be found in the attraction.

Stories are important and fun to experience on a ride, but it’s become apparent to me that an awesome ride system that takes center stage is what really makes a great attraction. Adding interactive elements can enhance both the ride and the story. COVID-19 has likely put a damper on the next few years of theme park productions. I hope the creators in the industry can take a step back and reshape their approach towards attractions and realize that people love theme parks for the rides that come with a story, not the other way around. Theme park design is a passion of mine and something I plan on pursuing in life, and I’ll keep this in mind if I have the chance to input my thoughts when creating a ride.