27 March 2018

Classic Stories

There are no two attractions that are the same. What I mean by that, and yes I am aware of clone attractions across the globe, is that at Walt Disney World there are no two attractions that went through the same design and creation process, there is no cookie cutter system for boat, omnimover, or rollercoaster attractions, and that it is their uniqueness which makes them special. However, the trend of shortening attractions, or creating attractions that have a shorter duration out of whole cloth, has become more prevalent over time. This is a trend that I wish we could move away from.

I understand that by creating shorter attractions, or shortening attractions current attractions, you can decrease the amount of time guests are waiting in line, at least in theory. The turn-around is better, which means less grumpy guests in the queue and guests that can experience more attractions throughout a day. When it comes to managing a theme park and meeting guest expectations, I can see where this strategy is advantageous.

In recent years there have been published news reports that humans, as a whole, are losing their attention span. A closer examination of those figures, however, shows that we don’t actually have a specific deficit when it comes to our attention spans, and we certainly do not have an attention span that holds for less time than a goldfish. Rather, our attention span is more accurately measured when it comes to taking part in a specific task and what expectation we bring to any given scenario. Returning back to the arena of Walt Disney World, this means that if we’re expecting to be engaged for 10-20 minutes and our minds are stimulated and interested in what the attraction is presenting to us, then our attention is held.

Ellen’s Energy Adventure is a great example of this theory. It was a 45-minute attraction prior to its close, and it was constantly shutting down due to guests climbing out of their ride vehicles, most often because they had a child who could not wait to go to the restroom any longer. While the length of the attraction was exceptionally long, it also didn’t hold everyone’s interest. The dinosaurs were great, but that was a relatively short section surrounded by longer film based entertainment that wasn’t as engaging to guests, especially 20 years after it had opened. Conversely, the captivating look at American history known as The American Adventure will keep guests in their seats for the entire 30-minute duration of the show. That may seem like comparing apples to carburetors, but it is all about connecting to guests through appropriate storytelling tools.

Sticking with shows for a moment, there are some shows that have manage to stick around through the years, but have, to use the television movie vernacular, been edited for time. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Country Bear Jamboree and the Enchanted Tiki Room. The original versions of both shows have runtimes that are approximately five minutes longer than their current iterations. While it keeps guest wait-times down, I can’t remember a time recently when I saw either show filled to capacity, and both shows meet the criteria we set above of being engaged for the entire time guests are in the respective theaters. While the material, i.e. the songs, performed in both shows may not be as recognizable as they once were, the use of effects and comedy in both is enough to hold the attention of even the most fidgety person I know.

A similar modification has been taking place on the waterways of Walt Disney World. Attractions such as it’s a small world, Splash Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean have experience times that fall between 8 to 15 minutes, and aside from the logjams that can occur at the exit of each attraction, guests are generally entertained and engaged throughout the entire journey and are left coveting more or wanting to jump right back on the ride. Although I will admit the inability to jump out of one of the boats like the ride vehicles of Ellen’s Energy Adventure is a fair deterrent to anyone wishing to cut their voyage short. Yet, the latest water adventure presented at Walt Disney World, the Na’vi River Journey, is a brief 5 minute tour. Given the reaction to the attraction in its first year of operation, I can’t imagine there is any guest who would bemoan a few more minutes of meandering down Kasvapan River. The problem with creating shorter water attractions is that the ability to lengthen them, even if Disney wanted to, is a logistical nightmare. Instead, guests are left wanting more and daydreaming about what could have been in perpetuity.

Our attention spans are not shrinking, nor are they shrinking in our children, but attractions continue to treat guests as if we can only handle the briefest of adventures. I don’t suspect that my solitary word is going to move them into the direction of creating longer attractions and shows, but this trend towards shorter experiences is something I have noticed becoming more prominent over the past decade, and it is something I wish would do a full-stop and reversal. The more time guests get to spend in a world, revealing the depth of its story, the more we want to invest of ourselves in that world and the more we engage our imaginations of what could be. I suppose, in the end, all I’m asking for is that guests not be talked down to and to be given a chance to engage longer, not shorter, narratives.

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