Bob Rogers: Theme Park Storytellingby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
With a good friend, I attended the last day of the IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) Attractions Expo in Orlando, Fla., in mid-November at the Orange County Convention Center. IAAPA is the top trade association for museums, heritage attractions, corporate visitor centers, amusement parks and more. Once a year IAAPA holds a huge trade show and convention where companies show off their latest wares for potential buyers.
Oddly, Disney does not have an exhibit at the event, but, reportedly, Disney representatives do prowl the halls and several of the vendors have done work for recent Disney attractions. Some of these exhibitors will be supplying the thrill rides for the new all-thrill ride park announced for Orlando in 2012.
One of the unexpected treats for me was running into Bob Rogers and spending almost an hour trying unsuccessfully to convince him to write a book about his experiences and philosophies, especially his time working for Disney.
“Disney fired me three times and each time said they would never re-hire me. This last time they have made it stick so far,” said Rogers with a smile. He tried to claim that he really didn’t have anything to say that people would be interested in reading.
He emphasized: “No, I can’t write a book because I really don’t know the stories. I phone up Marty [Sklar] and check with him about a story and he says ‘That’s a great story, Bob, but unfortunately it’s not true’ and I go ‘I’ve been telling that story for years…’” (Sklar is supposedly in the process of writing a book himself.)
However, I did get Rogers to admit that, despite all the books out there, that there is always room for another good one.
He said, “The story of Abraham Lincoln is just a series of facts and dates so there should be only three books about him. However, there are at least 16,000 books about Lincoln because every generation takes those facts and dates and reinterprets them from their own perspective and understanding.”
Who is Bob Rogers and why would I love to read a book written by him?
Bob Rogers founded BRC Imagination Arts about 29 years ago. BRC describe themselves as “experience designers” for museums like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; commercial attractions, including theme parks like the Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Studios; visitor centers; pavilions at World’s Fairs and more.
Rogers began his involvement in themed entertainment in 1968 with the Walt Disney Company, as a magician in the Magic Shop at Disneyland.
He produced the five-screen movie Impressions de France for EPCOT Center when it opened in 1982. It is still running at Epcot today, the last unchanged movie in the park.
He was also responsible for the post-show of the World of Motion attraction, the fondly remembered “The Bird and the Robot”. That clever bird is still on working display at Rogers’ Burbank office.
Among many other projects, Rogers and his team created the original "Magic of Disney Animation" show at the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Walt Disney World (and highly praised the voice work of Corey Burton as Captain Hook in the film…revealing that Burton also did an imitation of Walter Cronkite that Cronkite greatly enjoyed), the post-ride Assembly Experience and Driving Technologies Laboratory at Epcot's Test Track, the Shuttle Launch Experience at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Mystery Lodge at Knott's Berry Farm.
In 2010, Rogers was inducted into the Hall of Fame of IAAPA. Previous inductees include Walt and Roy Disney, as well as Marty Sklar. The award was added to Rogers' 275 international awards including 17 Themed Entertainment Association “THEA” awards for “Outstanding Achievement in Themed Entertainment” as well as the THEA Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Rogers is a hugely popular and opinionated speaker. In the past, he has shared these observations: "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 (Third Man on the Mountain) the Disneyland Matterhorn was based on? But it doesn't matter because a great ride is a great ride, with or without an intellectual property.”
Here are some brief excerpts from that casual conversation I enjoyed with Rogers late that afternoon on Friday. I was particularly interested in talking with him about the concept of story and how even though the word “story” is tossed around so freely these days, that people don’t fully understand the concept. I think the readers will agree that Rogers needs to write a book, or several books:
“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.
“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.
“Adding Jack Sparrow (to the attraction) reverses the story. Now the story is that Sparrow stole the treasure from his fellow pirates and they are raiding the town trying to track him down and recover the treasure. He is hiding so they can’t find him. The final scene is Sparrow sitting there with all the treasure. So now the story is it is okay to steal and you will end up with the treasure. What was happening in the world when this was all installed? Wall Street was riding high. Greed is good. You had Bernie Madoff. All of that influenced the attraction. Most people think it was just Disney trying to capitalize on the films but the way Sparrow was added is connected to what was going on in the rest of the world.
“Pirates follows the Jungian process of how you know you are in a dream. There are three ways: through a forest, by a body of water, or underground. So all three of these are being utilized. At Disneyland, you have that forest, and then the water and going down the waterfall you are going underground. The pirates are all dead. They aren’t moving. Then as you move along, there is some slight movement but it can be explained by other things like wind and then you go through this long dark tunnel that narrows and then opens up into this huge picture of the ship attacking the town and because you have just come through this dark tunnel like a birth canal, it seems larger than it actually is. You are literally in the pirate’s dream.”
Since Rogers was working for Disney when Pleasure Island and Typhoon Lagoon opened with elaborate storylines, I specifically asked him about the story of those two areas.
“I suppose there is a sentence or two in the official story of Typhoon Lagoon that I might be able to use if I were to design something. But the storyline of Pleasure Island was too much information. 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, I would be able to figure most of it out pretty easily riding the ride.
“With my generation, when we approach a video game what is the first thing we do? We read all the instructions before we put in the quarter to play. What do young people do? They don’t read anything and they immediately put in their quarter and start playing thinking they will figure it out as they play. And if they don’t get it, then they quit and walk away.”
Rogers is a huge advocate for Disney theme parks. Why? He feels that theme parks are the last general audience experience where everyone can enjoy it together if it is done right. More and more the world has become a niche market. He used the example that once upon a time, every household had a subscription to Saturday Evening Post that was a magazine designed with elements to appeal to everyone in the family. Today, the focus is on specific audiences with magazines like Cigar Aficionado. Bob felt that today people even choose their television newscasts based on their political ideology.
I mentioned that Disney seems to be struggling with the concept of story in their new projects.
“Why doesn’t Disney ‘get it” today? Walt. They are missing Walt. The history of companies is generally a dare-taker followed by caretaker and finally an undertaker. Walt was obviously a good dare-taker for the Disney Company. He was followed by Ron [Miller, who was Walt’s son-in-law] who was a caretaker. Then Disney was headed for the undertaker. People were going to take over the Company and cut it up into pieces. Then Frank Wells and Michael Eisner came in. It turned out that Michael eventually became toxic for the Company but in the beginning he was another caretaker and saved Disney from the undertaker. Now, we are in the mode of another caretaker but things are different.
“Those who are involved with Disney design were excited by Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter because it became the No. 1 attraction. The Spider-man ride is No. 2. You can argue what No. 3 is. Is it Everest? But it is clear what No.1 and No. 2 are and they are not Disney. So the designers went to their management and said, ‘Look at this. Harry Potter is No. 1. Spider-man is No 2. Disney is no longer No. 1. We need to do something.’ And they were told, ‘What are you talking about? Huge crowds are coming to see Harry Potter and we get the overflow into our hotels. Let Universal spend billions but we will reap the benefits.”
Rogers emphasized that companies like Disney need a entrepreneurial type, someone with show business in his [or her] blood, to snap the whip and bring a company back to the dare-taker stage.
Finally, I asked Rogers what he thought made Walt stand out.
“Walt was highly intuitive,” he replied. “He was not able to say why something was right but he was able to see when something was right.”
Those insights are just a few of the reasons why during our conversation I kept asking Rogers to consider writing a book so that these perspectives are not lost for future generations.