I shrugged and shook my head. “I don’t know…” The two of us had just come out of the Little Mermaid attraction in Disney’s California Adventure and were pretty disappointed. Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is an elaborate, expensive retelling of the animated film and, like the very similar Monsters Inc. attraction Mike and Sulley to the Rescue, was installed in an attempt to save Disneyland’s sister park from itself.
California Adventure had opened with alot of fanfare and not much else, and Disney fans complained that the park had a distinct lack of Disney. The company set out to fix this and has been very successful, adding nighttime shows, rethemed areas and the spectacular Cars Land, but they also created the Little Mermaid and Monsters Inc. rides. They called them “classic Disney dark rides,” but most people were less than enthusiastic. The rides are pretty, have lots of music and they take you slowly past colorful audioanimatronics like so many other Disney attractions, but they just lack that certain something.
It was Easter Sunday. My wife and I were expecting big crowds and lots of lines during our first trip to California Adventure, but neither Monsters Inc. nor the Little Mermaid had any lines whatsoever. They each had enormous space blocked off for people to wait, but the queues were deserted. After riding each attraction we understood why. Shrug. We thought about heading back over to Disneyland to ride Pirates of the Caribbean again.
On episode #206 of the popular themepark podcast The Season Pass, Disney Imagineering legend Bob Gurr joined the hosts to talk about the themed entertainment industry, his book and whatever else popped into the sharp witted engineer’s brain. Bob was with Walt Disney from the beginning of Disneyland so any story he tells (and he has alot to tell) is golden.
During the interview, the hosts began to talk about the classic Disneyland attractions Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. They noted that modern rides are just new technology built on top of Bob’s old techniques but continued off into a little “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mini-tangent, suggesting Ariel’s Undersea Adventure as an example of a particularly poor ride. Bob Gurr, a good man from a different time, didn’t want to run down the new crop of attractions, but he did offer one observation—
The strength of Pirates and the Haunted Mansion comes from the storytelling, plain and simple.
Well, ok. I’ve heard that plenty and I get it. He went on to say, though, that those attractions get their message across quickly and clearly, without the need for words. The “no words” thing, ironically enough, got me listening to the words he was saying. Someone ridding through a town being sacked by a marauding band of pirates or a house being overrun by restless ghosts has no trouble understanding what is going on. When they say “storytelling” they don’t just mean story, they mean a story being told in the way that it was meant to be told. Storytelling. It’s a story made for this ride and that’s why it works.
It makes perfect sense.
To look at why one ride works makes it plainly obvious why another does not. The stories of the Little Mermaid (as we now know it) and Monsters Inc. were created for film, not for themed rides. They are very complex and have alot of things that need to be communicated so the audience can understand what is going on. This requires a heap of words. Even in the Little Mermaid film, there was alot of verbal backstory and buildup required for Ariel’s loss of her voice to be effective.
Both attractions attempt to retell their films from start to finish, impossible to do in the span of a few minutes and a few more feet of ride track.
Even rides like Snow White and Peter Pan, which these newer attractions try to emulate, have very weak spots that are the result of trying to tell the story of the film. The best part of the Snow White attraction is running through the spooky forrest, but it gets a little mixed up when it tries to tie up the movie’s plot. The best part of the Peter Pan attraction is flying out the window and over London, but it suffers the same when it dips too literally into the film. Both running through the spooky forrest and flying over London are experiences that are easily understood and these are the moments that make the attractions memorable. Whether you have seen the movie or not, you can understand what is being conveyed.
The classic attractions are great when they tell the small story of an emotional experience. The classic attractions slip up when they try to stick too closely to the films. Unfortunately Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and Mike and Sulley to the Rescue are mostly all of the latter and almost none of the former.
My wife and I continued our wanderings through California Adventure. She was particularly excited to go on the Monsters Inc. ride since it’s her favorite Pixar film. Unfortunately we were both pretty disappointed by what we got. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Either that, or they are trying too hard to do just that. Too bad they decided to make the ride a “classic” instead of just making it “good.”