The Art of Disney Theming

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Over a two-week period in January, I had the opportunity to instruct both a group of diverse students from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake City, Iowa, and a group of Dutch students who were planning to be event managers, and it was their first visit to the United States, in addition to their first visit to Walt Disney World.

Both groups wanted to better understand the immersive storytelling that Disney showcases in its three-dimensional venues, like theme parks, resorts and cruise ships. This aspect is usually referred to as "theming." They were interested in how Disney does it in order to try to translate the same concepts to their specific areas of interest.

We often toss around words like "theming" when discussing Disney without always fully understanding the concept behind it. Most people assume that a theme is just a story.

Storytelling is just one element of theming. Theming is not just the story itself, but how that story is being told. Theming is immersive. It is the details that are integrated into the environment and make you part of the story. There are no contradictions to the story being told.

A themed environment is designed in such a way that all five of your senses are being manipulated to convince you that you are part of a living narrative. Imagineer John Hench referred to this concept as "the language of vision" and I heard him discuss it several times later in his life.

On Main Street U.S.A., everything reinforces the illusion of America during 1890-1910. The sounds, like the bell on the train to the putt-putt of the vehicles to the clip clop of the horses to the background music (which while it no longer features just turn-of-the-century tunes, includes songs meant to be from that era like those from the musical The Music Man) , all reference that particular time period. The smell of the popcorn and the bakery (assisted by smellitzers, a term coined by Hench) builds on all of that. The taste of those foods that you can purchase on Main Street, including hot dogs, ice cream and bakery items align with thoughts of Main Street.

The touch of things in the area that seem real not artificial or "modern" add to the overall illusion. The Imagineering rule of thumb was that in areas that guests could touch it needed to be real, but, in areas out of their touch, it only needed to look real. A good example is Disney's Wilderness Lodge lobby where there are real lodge poles from standing dead forests in that magnificent lobby, but once they extend beyond the guests' touch they are steel and concrete to help support the building.

The look of the architecture, the cast members, even the trash cans, and more, tells people constantly that they are in the turn of the last century. That's why Walt didn't want a spaceman walking across Main Street.

Walt Disney didn't just tell a story, he made you believe you were inside that story, such as on the Storybook Land Canal Boats in Fantasyland.

Even though Disneyland's theme of Main Street has survived for more than 60 years, all it would take to destroy that carefully constructed atmosphere would be to play a song by Lady Gaga or Kanye West and, within seconds, the entire illusion is completely destroyed.

Then isn't having a castle at the end of Main Street a contradiction?

It is a secured reference point. It is the anchor that helps acclimate a person. A castle doesn't belong on Main Street, but it does belong at the end of a vista like Main Street. The old cities clustered around a strong point, whether it was a castle or a fort or a massive train station or whatever and then spread out from there. So, while it seems a contradiction, emotionally it is exactly right and offers a sense of reassurance.

Some have even argued that the castle is a physical representation of the dreams that a small-town boy like Walt would have had and so, as you move up the street, you are moving towards the fulfillment of your dreams. In any case, it has never jolted any guest out of thinking he is not on Main Street U.S.A.

Hench once told me that he did a slide show once for the young Imagineers to demonstrate the need for a consistency in theming concept. He took a picture of a magnificent Gothic church tower that was at the corner of Franklin Street and Highland Avenue in Los Angeles and, right in front of it, was a gas station's big gasoline logo sign. It was clearly contradictory. They are unrelated.

The emotional image and the feelings it evokes of that beautiful Gothic tower is destroyed by that mundane sign and, quite frankly, the tower doesn't do the gasoline station any good either. It certainly doesn't help sell gasoline. The story is confused and so people will respond differently because the setting is no longer "real" or coherent.

People used to behave differently in a Disney theme park because there was a sense of harmony and control and being part of that story.

We tend to forget how innovative it was to create a coherent theme park experience that was so unlike the chaotic, unsatisfying, discomforting, and dangerous misadventures at an amusement park or a carnival.

Of course, there is no reason to accept anything I say about all this, because I am not an Imagineer or an architect. At best, I am just a Disney historian who has researched and studied what Disney has done and sometimes why they chose to do it that way.

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity over the years to talk about all this with intelligent creative people who were Imagineers and here is what they told me.

Former Imagineer Bob Rogers, founder of BRC Imagination Arts, explained it to me in 2011 at an IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) conference:

"If theme means story and a park is a place, then a theme park is, at its heart, a story place. We consider [theme parks] an art, as well as a science, as well as an enterprise. Many of the companies running theme parks today are so big, and making so much money that the bean counters get to make the decisions.

"Walt's Disneyland has been the most influential new idea development to hit entertainment since electricity. Everything taking place in our industry for the last half-century have been echoes of the Disneyland revolution.

"Does anybody remember or care what Disney movie the Disneyland Matterhorn was based on? [Korkis note: It was Third Man on the Mountain, 1959] But it doesn't matter because a great ride is a great ride, with or without an intellectual property.

"A story is a sentence. 'Flowers' is not a sentence but a subject. Flowers are beautiful. That is a theme. Flowers can change the world. That is a theme. Today, people can't tell the difference between a story or a plot or a building or whatever.

"People here [exhibitors at IAAPA] are using the word 'story' to describe a gasket. 'This will help you tell your story.' Then they go on and on about how the gasket works and throw in the word 'story' three or four more times. That has nothing to do with story.

"If a story is invisible, if you can't immediately sense it, then you don't have a story at all. Even if I didn't know any of the story of Pirates of the Caribbean, I would be able to figure most of it out pretty easily riding the ride.

"Some attractions tell cautionary tales. For instance, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was a cautionary tale. It basically said that if you were reckless as a driver, you were going to Hell. It was that simple.

"Pirates [of the Caribbean] is a cautionary tale. It told the story that these pirates attack the town, steal the treasure, rape the women, and then they are finally punished for it. The last scene is the pirates shooting at each other in an ammunition dump. They are all going to die in the fire and the explosion. There are consequences for their actions.

"Why doesn't Disney 'get it' today? Walt. They are missing Walt. Walt was highly intuitive. He was not able to say why something was right but he was able to see when something was right."

BRC describe themselves as "experience designers" for museums like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; commercial attractions, including theme parks like Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Studios; visitor centers; pavilions at World's Fairs and more. Rogers utilizes the concepts he learned as an Imagineer and I personally find him a man of integrity, good humor, and vision, and I hope he writes a book some day so that others can learn from him.

Imagineer Joe Rohde is the creative executive for the new Pandora: The World of AVATAR at Disney Animal Kingdom Park, just as he was for the development of the rest of the park. At a presentation for the opening team of DAK on June 14, 1998, Rohde took time to explain what makes the WDW parks different:

"Most classic Disney parks offer guests a very particular type of experience: an idealized, fantasy world where guests escape for a while into a world of narrative order, visual harmony, and physical and emotional delight.

"What does it mean to be a theme park and not an amusement park? Theme parks are a relatively new thing in the world if you think of Disneyland as being the first theme park. There are things that pre-existed Disneyland that are in a category that might be called a theme park. They are utterly different than what we think of when we think of a theme park today.

"The theme park's job is transportation. It is to mentally transport you, to remove you, to sweep you away from here, from everything you think about in an every day situation, from your worries, your concerns, from you very perception that you are in the world you are in.

"An amusement park is a form of indulgence. It is a form of hyper immediacy. You get on a vehicle that goes very fast. It seems dangerous and by traveling quickly and seeming dangerous, it reminds you in a very, very profound way that you are here right now. "I am here right now, upside down, traveling at 120 miles per hour on a piece of steel. This is my life. It is happening to me at this instant."

"That's the opposite of 'I am in the Middle Ages surrounded by castles and knights.' This cannot be possible. It doesn't seem like the real world."

"We do that second thing. That is why people pay so much money to go to theme parks. It is to be swept away. That is why the ergonomics, the human factor of theme parks are so important. Because every inconvenience, everything mundane that could remind you that you are still back in the world, needs to be erased.

"Lines can't be too long, because now you are thinking about the line and the line is full of people and the people are just like you and now you are back again. Everything needs to flow and flow smoothly just like butter, so that your mind stays in the artificially created narrative conceit that sweeps you away into another story.

"Like a great movie, like a great book, like a good piece of music takes you out of your life for some period of time and puts you some place else. Everybody has some aspect of this art that does this for them whether it is music, whether it is dance, whether is watching a movie or reading a book.

"Theme parks are a very popular form of this type of entertainment. Obviously theme parks are popular because each year we ram millions of people through them. So that is the goal and the goal is peculiar because it brings with it astounding constraints.

"All sorts of choices that are available to us in the mundane world that surrounds us as we deal with every day things are not available to us in a theme park. It is because their very existence calls attention to the fact we are not where we want to be. We're back in the real world.

"This boils down to stanchions. It boils down to the most miniscule of details. Like there is a movie called Somewhere in Time (1980) where this guy finds a penny in his pocket and it is 'game over.' He thinks he's in the turn of the century and falls in love with this woman. Maybe he is back in time. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out of a penny from 1979 and it is all over. He's back in his real world.

"When you start to design a theme park, you are facing this daunting challenge that the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing can pull people out of the experience. It is a challenge that frankly kills most projects. Our success rate for things that we work on that actually gets done is less than 10 percent.

"That is really not unusual nor it is a detriment to the talents and skills of those designers. The number of factors that can shoot down a park are outstanding. That's a whole 'nother tale.

"Our job is to create something new and different, something innovative, something that is not out there. There is a whole other branch of the company whose job is to analyze the potential profitability of that thing. They analyze by comparison.

"Is there anything wrong with this picture? It is almost impossible to do because we are doing something that can't be compared because nothing else like it exists. If it does already exist and does what it does well, there is no reason for us to be doing it."

When Rohde was asked about "Hidden Mickeys" at DAK, he was adamant about how he disliked having Hidden Mickeys and definitely letting guests know that they exist, because it removes the guest from the immersive experience. He felt that guests spent so much time hunting for the images that they did not allow themselves to be fully involved in the area.

However, some have argued that Hidden Mickeys might actually be part of the immersive experience, because it reminds the guest about being in a Disney location.

Rohde, like many other Imagineers, dislikes Fastpass, as well, because it diverts the guests from the queue where the pre-show is going on to prepare them for the ride experience. If they miss the set-up, then it is merely another short roller-coaster ride rather than a unique experience.

At SIGGRAPH '94, John Lasseter, who is now a chief executive for Pixar, Disney Animation Studios, and Imagineering, talked about how immersive storytelling is an important element in animation, as well:

"Ask yourself why? Why is this here? Does it further the story? Does it support the whole? The world of your story should feel perfectly natural to the audience. As soon as something looks wrong or out of place, your audience will pop out of your story and think about how weird that looked and you've lost them.

"The goal is to create a storyline that will suck your audience in and keep them entertained for the length of your film. When a film achieves this goal, the audience will lose track of time and forget about all their worldly cares. For all that any audience truly wants is to be entertained."

From what little I have seen of Pandora: The World of AVATAR, it seems like it will be a wonderfully themed immersive experience that should succeed, despite whatever the fate is of the movie sequels. When Disney does something right, nobody does it better despite budget and deadline restrictions.

One of the things where Disney used to be the undisputed king was in creating an immersive experience in an entertainment venue. Today, other enterprises have learned from what Disney did, and have created an experience as good or better, in particular, Universal Studios Florida, which constantly surprises fans of theme parks.

Walt Disney instinctively knew how to create an immersive environment and, in so doing, changed the world forever.

As Hench once told me, "Walt did it through instinct. We do it through experience."



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