Monday, July 11, 2016

My Rules for IPs in Theme Parks; or Why Guardians in EPCOT is a Bad Idea

In the last few weeks, there have been a lot of online rumors about some future attractions and experiences at theme parks based on film properties as well as some notable recent openings, all of which are based on IPs.

IPs in theme parks are controversial and lead to fierce disagreements about if they belong, how they should be used, and what deserves representation. These new rumors and openings are no different. The specific things I am talking about are the opening of Frozen Ever After, the rumor of a Muppets show in Liberty Square, and the rumor of Guardians of the Galaxy in EPCOT.

Reading these rumors and the online fury that accompanied them led me to really analyze my opinions on how IPs should be used in the parks, and I decided to formulate my views into some guidelines that I want to share here.

In my view, the thing that separates the ok parks from the great parks is the rules of organization that define the themed environment. This was one of the many innovations of Disneyland compared to previous amusement parks, and is now a defining characteristic of the theme park mode. Usually. Each land has a setting with a purpose and a meaning that expresses itself to the guests through the selection of attractions and design elements. These chosen elements must work together as a unit to immerse the guest in the foreign, but completely believable and comfortable environment.

The organization of what makes up the themed environment is something that may not be obviously important to the regular guests, but its value is clear when compared to less rigidly structure parks, like Universal Hollywood of the last decade, the regional parks like Six Flags, and, to an extent, Disney Studios Paris and original California Adventure. If the lands are not allowed to properly express their identity and are forced to blend together and absorb foreign elements, the land looses its power and its point.

This is both the power and the threat of IPs. If properly used, they can immediately strengthen the identity of the environment. But similarly, they can immediately destroy the cohesive meaning of the environment.

So to attempt to find how to properly incorporate IPs, I have set up my personal three rules to decide if the placement of an IP is appropriate. All three should be met for it to be a successful themed attraction the builds up a themed environment.

  1. The property needs to have staying power, an emotional impact, and/or cultural relevancy. For the amount of investment (money, valuable space, and resources) a modern attraction requires, the property needs to be able to draw a crowd now and for the long term. This rule is usually always followed.
  2. The setting of the property needs to be consistent with the land it is to be placed in, by the physical location or environment, the time period, and the visual/architectural/thematic language. The property needs to belong to that land and not obviously stick out. This is mostly followed, but there are some notable issues.
  3. Finally, the property and the story the property tells must have consistency with the intention, character, and meaning of the land. This is the most challenging and is often ignored, but helps to make the overall land more coherent with a single unified thematic philosophy. 
I think these are simple rules. They literally break down to questions about if the property is popular, is it located in the same place as the land, and does it have the same meaning as the land.

Also, notice that these rules don't even go so far as to say that an IP can never belong in a certain land. That is the opinion of many, and something I have said before, but I think that is too oppressive of a statement. Some say IPs should only belong in Fantasyland for instance, but that would prevent the Indiana Jones Adventure, which I think is the absolute perfect implementation of an IP that strengthens the surrounding themed environment.

Plus, I think it would be physically and thematically impossible to limit IPs to a certain land or park. With a realistic view of how theme parks work now, that is just impossible.

Overall, I think these rules are not overly difficult and in fact are met by the majority of attractions. 

Now to analyze the recent rumors, openings, and some other examples to see how well they meet these rules. 

Indiana Jones Adventure

I am starting with this successful attraction as an example of my application of my three rules. 

First, Indiana Jones definitely has cultural relevancy. A financially and critically successful franchise that is still being talked about and may be continuing with another movie. It's popularity, sense of adventure and mystery, and period setting make it an obvious theme park choice.

Second, Indiana Jones as a franchise is lucky enough to have many settings and many time periods, so it really can fit into many settings. Actually, it could likely fit equally well in Adventureland as Frontierland, just with a change of setting and story. In actuality, it fits perfect into the jungles of Adventureland and much effort was put into melding it with the surrounding area, making it seem like its always been there. 

And third, Adventureland is obviously a land that celebrates adventure and the unknown, manifested as the depths of the tropical jungle. The Indiana Jones Adventure absolutely supports this adventure. The land and the IP share their core identity, so its a perfect fit. 

Frozen Ever After 

Now a more controversial attraction. 

First, Frozen has the cultural significance and impact to warrant a full size, newly imagined attraction. It definitely deserves more than it got. So this is not the problem.

Second rule. Frozen is not set in Norway. It's good enough for most guests though. Visually, it actually probably passes, because the style is very close and many guests will never know the geographic technicality that Arendelle is not a real place in Norway. So this is a slight issue with the IP placement, but is not the deal breaker.

The third rule is the problem. The purpose of world showcase is to educate and celebrate the unique cultures of the world. Fundamentally, the Norway pavilion should reflect Norway, and the Frozen attraction does not attempt to do that.

To an extent, this attraction could fit if the total idea of World Showcase is changed, to a international Fantasyland, which I think is unfortunately happening. Each country gets an IP, and suddenly, the World Showcase has a completely different character.

Muppets in Liberty Square

Here's the first rumor, which is strongly supported on WDWMagic forums. The idea is that Muppet characters, possibly Sam the Eagle, will be appearing in upper windows to interact with guests below, and possibly teach some American history. 

First, the popularity of the Muppets could be debated. I think they are extremely significant and worth the inclusion, but the failures of the recent movie and tv show paired with their age give an argument that they are losing cultural impact. Still, for just an entertainment experience, they are definitely popular enough. 

Second, the setting is more difficult because it is a less intrusive entertainment addition, and because the Muppets kindof don't have a defined setting. They have successfully transformed themselves through settings and time periods to provide family friendly entertainment. It would be easy to image them fitting into colonial America with no problem. Plus, because this would apparently be entertainment, not an attraction, it does not have the same kind of visual impact on the land. Attractions come with architecture, graphics, costuming, and other major intrusions into the visual language of the land. Muppets in the windows of the existing architecture is not nearly as intrusive, so I do not think this is a problem based on what we know now. That may change once it actually debuts. 

And third, the Muppets entertainment could possibly be able to align with the identity of Liberty Square, which is a realistic representation of Colonial America. If the entertainment is truthfully based on the ideas of colonial life and is educational, then I believe it could work. There is a good possibility that it will not though, so we will have to wait and see. 

Finding Nemo at Tokyo Disney Seas

Jumping resorts for a second, this attraction is a retheme of StormRider, an original simulator in the Port Discovery land of Tokyo Disney Sea, to some kind of Finding Nemo attraction. 

First, yes, Nemo is popular, though I do not know much about its success in the Asian box office. I assume though that it did just as well there as here. 

Second, the setting is a little difficult. The Finding Nemo universe is set in the ocean. There is realistic potential that the simulator will take us into the ocean, which is even visible from the public space of the land. So this could maybe work. It all depends on the logistics of the story, or how we travel from the land to the ocean. Plus, I imagine that the building will be nearly unchanged on the exterior, so the visual compatibility is no issue.

The third rule once again may be a problem. The Port Discovery land is a technological and scientific research station that studies weather. It is based in retro futurism, and therefore has an optimistic tecnhological philosophy where the attractions should be fantasy takes on real scientific ideas, like the current attractions. Finding Nemo does not have this same spirit of scientific discovery. However, the attraction could easily feature a storyline about oceanographic research that happens to feature Nemo. That might work, but is a bit of a stretch by applying a new scientific meaning to the overall Nemo property. So this is again something that will really depend on the finished project.

These last two, Finding Nemo and the Muppets, bring up an interesting trend and story concept where IPs are potentially used as a method to teach about the core meaning of the land. This has been done before in educational like settings (basically EPCOT), like the Seas with Nemo and Friends, Ellen's Energy Adventure (maybe a stretch to call Ellen an IP, but same process and result), alot of Innoventions, and the Three Caballeros boat ride in Mexico. Each to a different extent uses the IP overlay to describe the bigger concept of the land. Some I would say are successful, some not. It depends, to me, on the extent of the overlay and which element, the characters or the land, is the real priority. The Seas with Nemo I think is too far, because it is so heavily Nemo, while rest hit the balance pretty well, as long as the rules are still followed. Though a version that is IP free would be preferable, this strategy can be ok. 

Secret Life of Pets

Here's another rumored attraction in a different resort, this time at Universal Orlando. There are strong rumors online about a dark ride based on this animated film that will be constructed somewhere in the resort very soon. There is some question about where, and recent rumors suggest it will go in Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure, instead of the New York area of Universal Studios. 

First, we can't really know the popularity, but based on reviews and hype, it looks promising. Plus same studio as Minions, so they can likely build this up just as well.

Second, the location, which is the baffling part to me. The movie is clearly set in New York City. There is a land in the Studios park that is New York City. There is room for an attraction in this land (end of the main street, library facade area.) But the rumors say it will go in Toon Lagoon, an area set in the world of Comic Strips. This is the clearest example so far of inconsistency in setting. The visual language of comics and the visual language of animated New York do not match, so the attraction is going to stick out of place.

To be honest, this is a problem that Universal has with many new attractions. Transformers, Minions, and Skull Island do not match their settings at all. The two in the studios park attempt to get by with the movie studio premise and Kong is impressive enough and in enough jungle that it at least somewhat relates to Jurassic Park, but all have strong visual language inconsistencies that draws us out of the themed environment. However, the upcoming Jimmy Fallon ride and Fast and Furios do appear to better fit in their surroundings, but we have to wait and see. Hopefully, things will change and Secret Life of Pets will also find its proper home in the New York area of the park.

The third rule is harder to comment on at this time. Plus, in my view, the lands at Universal Parks are a bit less defined with their identity, instead just being a strict location or collection of properties. There is less interpretation past just the physical location. If the attraction ends up in Toon Lagoon, well it does not fit the identity of immersing guests in the world of comic strips. If it goes in New York, then it does succesfully take guests into the world of a movie set in New York. So this rule is basically tied to the second rule.

Star Wars

Now a big one. I am specifically talking about Disneyland with these comments.

First, it is obviously popular enough. No issue here.

The second rule has to applied differently here since it is existing as its own land and does not really have to fit in with something existing. With a new land, the visual contradictions between new and old are removed, at least should be. We will have to wait until construction is over to see if the borders are really as clean as they appear and should be. This would have been a major issue if the land had been built into Tomorrowland like many believed it would. That would have caused major visual clashes.

Rule three is also different because it is its own land. I believe that since it is a new land, the responsibility to fit the thematic philosophy is upgraded to fit the meaning of the entire park. This definitely could be debated, but I see Disneyland's identity as the realization of childhood dreams of adventure and fantasy. It is honestly a very loose organization guideline, but it works. Just like the old west and being a pirate was (and still is) a fantasy for so many, the world of Star Wars is now an ultimate fantasy and a world that people want to explore and have adventures in. This overall park meaning requires that the lands are realistic and highly immersive, as opposed lands in other parks that do not create the illusion that you are actually transported (Hollywood Studios). There is more discussion that could happen here, and some could definitely disagree with my view that it fits. But I want to keep this short and just say that I believe Star Wars land fits with the identity of Disneyland.

Guardians of the Galaxy

And last, the rumor that really started me thinking about this. If you have not heard, strong rumors say that a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction will replace the Energy Pavilion in EPCOT. This is the most distressing rumor in a while.

First, Guardians of the Galaxy probably has the popularity for an attraction, but that is not a definite. It did well financially and commercially, but as the Marvel Universe grows and evolves. there's no way to know how this one story will be remembered. But still, good odds to deserve an attraction right now.

Second, the setting does not match at all. EPCOT's Future World is modeled on a Worlds Fair and should be based on a pavilion model, each focusing on an idea or industry. As the rumor leads me to believe, this attraction would be set in space and themed to the world of the film. It is possible that the property could be used in some kind of space pavilion setting, paired up with Mission: Space, but this seems like a disappointing resolution to the development of EPCOT.

Third is where I have the main problem. The traditional purpose of EPCOT and Future World requires it's contents to be elevated above just productions of IP worlds. The individual elements of EPCOT each must reflect and inform some element of the progress of humanity. The pavilions should be like pavilions of a Worlds Fair, each with a clear identity that teaches some concept that is important to social progress. The existing Future World pavilions each have this clear identity, but this addition of Guardians of the Galaxy undermines the entire existing organization. This is the most drastic example of a compatibility issue with the identity of the land and the IP. Obviously, I sincerely hope this does not end up happening but fear it will.

There is one question that remains as a result of the application of my rules. What happens if there is no land or location for a property to satisfy rules two and three?

Well there is no easy answer here. If the rules are to be used, they really must be followed as strict as possible, so there may be times that there is just no solution. Just by scanning a list of all Disney movie, I picked out Hercules, Mulan, Zootopia, Mary Poppins, Aladdin, Pocahantas, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, UP, Monsters. Inc, The Princess and the Frog, Wreck it Ralph, Inside Out, and the upcoming Moana as properties that could maybe warrant place in a park but do not have an obvious location.

Interestingly, it seems that the list is majority animated films and the majority newer films. This may be a reflection of the quality of the Disney's live action films outside of Star Wars and Marvel, which do have place (Star Wars Land and a future Marvel Land). It also is a reflection of the recent diversity in setting and theme for Disney films, going away from the traditional European fairy tale style, which fits very well in Fantasyland (where films like Frozen and Tangled would go). So many recent Disney and Pixar animated films have explored new worlds that are just not as cleanly compatible with the existing parks.

There are ways to fix this with new additional lands and reworkings of current themes, but it is not perfect. I have proposed some possible solutions here in the past and have some new thoughts:

Animal Kingdom should be expanded to have lands based on all continents so that any film related to nature or animals would have a correct setting. For instance, UP and Pocahantas could fit here well, and Hercules would have been perfect in a mythology based section. Even Zootopia could work if a new land is properly developed.

Hollywood Studios and Disney Studios Paris should expand on a studio or genre model, so that attractions and properties could be included on the merit of being a film instead of the merit of location. For instance, the expansions should have developed a Pixar Studios land, allowing for any Pixar film regardless of setting to be grouped together, instead of a single property land.

The Magic Kingdom and Disneyland style parks should continue to expand its Fantasyland to allow for more future properties and potentially diversify the setting away from European forest to allow for different IPs, like Princess and the Frog, Mary Poppins, and Moana.

Those parks that have a Critter Country should also open that up to more IP attractions, since it is a fairly animated based land already. Again, many properties based on animals could work here.

Other secondary parks in each resort, like Tokyo Disney Sea and California Adventure, should carefully and calculatedly expand to include specific areas that best align with properties that will have the most success. TDS appears to be doing that with a Frozen port.

Last, the inevitable third gate to Disneyland and all other future parks world wide should also be carefully developed to include a variety of settings that are completely unlike those in existing neighbor parks. These expansions would be an opportunity to diversify the future potential of applicable attractions while still staying in the rules.

Some of these will happen, some of them I know will not. But I think it could work, especially in conjunction with the proper application of the rules I have developed.

So what do you think about my suggested rules for IP placement? What are your rules?

And can you think of any other attractions that fail them or any other deserving properties that do not have a place?

Leave a comment with your thoughts and I will get back to you soon to discuss your ideas!


  1. Great essay and totally agree with all of your points. I will say though, I could accept an international Fantasyland, or at least adding IP's in the World Showcase countries, like Mulan in China or Belle in France.

    1. Thanks. The future of EPCOT and IPs in World Showcase is definitely a topic that has fans on both sides and I can understand both sides to an extent. Personally, I just fear the point where World Showcase is indistinguishable from Fantasyland and Future World is indistinguishable from Tomorrowland, and then whats they point of having two parks if they are just going to have the same identity. Not that that would be the guaranteed result, but it would be an easy action. If IPs could properly reflect the identity of the countries and the international spirit of the parks, then I could accept it.

  2. I think the solution to some IP's is eassier to find than it could really appear. For example Adventureland can be the place for more IPs just by making tiny changes, DLP Adventureland has an Arabian, a Jungle/Asian and a Caribbean part, and they work very well together. Also it could happend in Frontierland. In Paris the west end is theme to a Redwood Forest where Pocahontas fits. Personally, I think that the areas are more flexible and can gather together more IP's than they actually do

    1. Good point about the lands of Disneyland Paris. That park really has the blessing of size that allows it to have varied sublands in the main lands. That strategy of multi setting lands is a little harder to do in many of the current parks, which have much smaller lands, like the American Adventurelands. It is definitely a successful strategy when it is possible and what future parks should try to emulate to an extent.

      Thanks for leaving a comment!

  3. I love coming to your blog because we both share a lot of the same ideas yet I find that sometimes we don't (Which is always cool to see into someone else's mind and point of view!)

    I like to think that, if used correctly and thematically (like you stated in your rules) IPs could work in some areas of EPCOT Center. I always toyed with the idea of tossing 20,000 leagues under the sea, which is *technically* and IP, into the Finding Nemo area (And kicking Nemo Almost entirely out) and adding a roller coaster themed to the squid attack that uses the same ride type as Escape from Gringott's (But no 3D).

    I could also see a copy of Tron from SDL being placed in between Test Track and the Communicore Complex (Replacing the sad Odyssey building...).
    I'd like to think that, because there is now a comic of Dreamfinder and Figment. they could be considered IPs and return to the Imagination pavilion; also, including a Fantasia Show in the Magic Eye theater that uses new segments...

    I agree entirely that little, if any at all, IPs should be located in World Showcase, however... Perhaps Character Meets in new indoor buildings ATTACHED to their respective countries (*cough cough* Frozen) so that they don't clash with the realistic pavilions.

    That's just me though...

    1. You know I really don't disagree with any of your ideas, I think they could work if done right to relate back to EPCOT.

      I think 20,000 Leagues Under the sea is a perfect property for theme parks, I think I've put it in two or three parks so far. I could see it working for the Living Seas. Its a story about exploring the ocean, told with a scientific background. That fits.

      TRON has potential to fit in EPCOT and definitely a unique visual style that should be used somewhere. I don't know if you are a long time reader, but the very first EPCOT plan I had years ago replaced Wonders of Life with a Tron Pavilion that focused on computer technology. So again, if it is used to reflect the scientific mission of EPCOT, I think it could be perfect. Its a large attraction, so would probably have to replace Wonders of Life or Energy.

      I consider theme park originated IP a completely different and completely acceptable thing, so I am absolutely for Dreamfinder and Figment back. I mean they defined the setting and character of the pavilion, so its only right that they can come back.

      Meet and Greets are ok with me. They support the setting instead of taking over the identity of the pavilion.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.