Theme parks are constantly seeking new and innovative ways of theming their attractions. But is a ride based upon a popular TV show or film always the right way forward?
Theme parks are places where the impossible becomes possible. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred as children and adults alike become locked in a world of fantasy and adventure. Stories are told through amusements and rides. With this comes a new level of creativity and imagination that is keeping guests coming through the gates season upon season.
Fast forward to present day, has this level of creativity and adventure within designers' minds vanished in a puff of smoke? Do theme park fans now live in a world that has virtually no magic or originality, bombarded by television shows and popular culture? This thought is perhaps almost becoming a reality.
Riding the movies in Orlando
In 1990, Universal Studios began its theme park residency in the sunshine state of Florida. The Orlando resort would eventually be home to some of the most advanced thrill rides and theme park attractions on the planet; with the majority of these thrills drawing inspiration from classic Universal titles.
Never before have the likes of King Kong, Jaws and Terminator 2 been available to experience in one theme park. With legendary director Steven Spielberg at the helm, Universal set itself high expectations as it began its theme park journey that got off to a catastrophic start. Fine-tuning its craft over the first few seasons of operation, the park has been transformed into a movie and theme park resort haven that is proving to be one of the biggest anchors within the industry today. As Universal Studios Florida opened its gates, leading television cable network Nickelodeon moved house to one of the park’s colossal soundstages. The resort was not only becoming one of the top tourist attractions in the world but was also slowly evolving into the epicenter of children’s television and movie production.
A sensational creative edge
Despite theming the majority of its attractions to some of the most iconic film titles of all time, creativity and originality thrive within Universal’s blood. The famous Incredible Hulk character, which was first devised by Marvel Comics, quickly became somewhat of a cult figure. It was decided that a new flagship roller coaster for the resort was to open in 1999 to coincide with the opening of the new Island’ of Adventure development. But rather than selecting a generic ride system for their latest project, Universal took a more original approach. The end result was a multi-inversion roller coaster, which made use of a signature, dramatic acceleration sequence out of a cannon. Catapulting the coaster trains to 40mph aiming to recreate the feeling of Dr Bruce Banner as he transformed into the fictional green monster. The Incredible Hulk Coaster remains one of the biggest draws at the resort today.
But in 2010, the park took its most daring step by introducing one of the most spectacular theme park attractions in the world. As part of the ambitious Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion, the biggest draw in the area would be a revolutionary dark ride using a new ride system developed by Kuka Engineering. Using a robotic arm, moving screens and animatronics, the latest attraction at the resort broke new ground. Aiming to encapsulate a day in Harry Potter’s life in Hogwarts, Forbidden Journey marries together all the elements of the hit movies and books to create one of the most awe-inspiring rides of the past decade.
A creative catastrophe in the UK and USA?
Being creative is one thing, but a lack pure imagination or originality is another. And that could not be more evident if you find yourself visiting some of the UK's top theme parks. Travel across the pond and it is not hard to see standards are slipping with the creative flame needed to maintain the magic of an amusement park showing signs it is struggling to burn. Merlin-owned Thorpe Park, one of the UK’s flagship theme parks located just miles from central London, prides itself on being ‘The Nation's Thrill Capital”. Complete within an outrageously, yet unintentionally hilarious branding (there was at one point an innocent thrill seeker throwing up on the park’s map), the edgy and hideous marketing has lead to surprisingly good success; cornering the thrill seeking 16-24 year old market within the UK.
Despite claiming to have one of only roller coasters to eclipse the 200ft barrier in the country with Stealth along with first 10 inversion roller coaster with Colossus, 2009 saw bosses make perhaps a rather uninspiring and rather dull choice when it came to their next E-ticket thrill ride.
Coaster experts Intamin and Bolliger and Mabillard, who were responsible for the initial success of Thorpe Park’s major attractions, were left on the scrapheap in favour for Gerstlauer. The German company was selected to build a roller coaster that promised to be ‘more terrifying than ever’ boasting a signature, beyond vertical 100-foot plummet to the ground along with both indoors and outdoor segments.
All looked promising for Merlin’s latest thrill machine, which, as a theme park operator, already has a proven track record for creative rides and attractions across its arsenal of theme parks around the world. But in 2009, Merlin took a new approach by theming its latest attraction to the horror franchise. Encouraging the producers of the highly successful yet insanely gory Saw films, Thorpe Park’s latest roller coaster would gain the original title of ‘Saw: The Ride’. It would feature authentic pops to help recreate the illusion riders are being flung through one of the many death traps belonging to the movie’s protagonist Jigsaw.
Despite Saw: The Ride’s commercial success for Thorpe Park, was the ride actually creative enough to live up to its bold claims? Perhaps not. Combining a unique vertical drop with indoor and outdoor roller elements is surely unique but in the growing thrill ride market, could the ride experience lose its dramatic impact in a few seasons to come? And what about the genre? Surely a horror film franchise will go out of fashion in the dynamic movie market.
There is perhaps evidence that Saw has almost had its day at the Surrey park. In response to the success of the original ride, Thorpe exhausted the franchise once more by opening a year round scare maze dubbed Saw: Alive. The live action horror experience combines some of the most iconic scenes from the films with a walkthrough attraction. Despite heavy promotion from the park, Saw: Alive lasted just two seasons and now operates exclusively as part of the Fright Nights event in October. Perhaps thrill seeking teens are drifting away from the defunct Saw films which ceased shooting in 2010. Or is two attractions in one park themed to a movie simply too much to sustain the interest of guests?
Some fans may say constructing a popular roller coaster and theming it elaborately to one of the most graphic films ever to grace the big screen is a worthwhile investment. Despite numerous ‘technical hitches’ throughout its opening period, Saw catapulted the park to success; ranking from the 14th most visited theme park to the 12th in Europe during its debut year.
While the stats may impress, unlike the big daddy of the amusement park world Universal, Thorpe’s efforts perhaps lack that sparkle that the UK has become famous for. The Euro Fighter coaster is thrilling, the horror theme is unique, but why and kill it with a recognisable brand? Surely people go to theme parks to escape the reality of everyday life and into an immersive world of fantasy. Boarding a roller coaster and coming close to death is hardly a thrilling when you can experience a similar sensation in front of the big screen.
A movie time saver
In some cases, an attraction themed to a figure within popular culture may also be a park’s way of developing a new style of attraction to meet very close deadlines. Leading theme park chain Six Flags, who operate a plethora of attractions across America and Mexico use this trick on a frequent basis.
Arguably home to some of the most intense rides on earth, Six Flags Magic Mountain wanted to grow its coaster arsenal even further 2011. The 17th coaster for the Californian theme park giant came in the form of Green Lantern: First Flight. Following in the footsteps of their Superman and Batman themed rides, the fictional superhero made an appearance at not one, but two theme parks owned by Six Flags within the same year. The second was the recycled Chang roller coaster, which previously resided at the former Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, which was shuttered by the operator in 2010. The coaster was relocated to New Jersey where it reopened in its new guise as Green Lantern.
Both rides could be described as unique. Chang, one of the largest stand-up roller coasters built by Swiss pioneers Bolliger and Mabillard has already proven to be a success with thrill seeking teens at its native park in Kentucky. However, in California, Green lantern: First Flight would be first Zac Spin Coaster to arrive in The States. Built by Intamin, the unique 4D roller coaster allows the ride cars to move freely as it navigates the compact layout.
Both coasters opened to relatively positive reviews. Perhaps as the Six Flags corporation prides itself as an amusement rather than a ‘theme’ park. Elaborate and beautiful attention to detail is therefore somewhat non-existant. Look around both Green Lantern attractions and themed elements are somewhat minimal. Guests are still guided through the obligatory, and slightly unpleasant cattle pen queue line with chart music bearing out from all corners. With the Green Lantern logos shimmering over both coasters as the sunsets, the rides have a strong brand identity. But you can’t help to wonder if the theme was executed in a different, beautifully themed way what a star attraction the rides could have become at both parks.
A movie for the family
But are there occasions when even in your average theme park, who are perhaps restrained by stricter budgets compared to the bigger players within the industry can actually make a popular culture themed ride their own? In most cases, the family market has seen an increasing number of attractions themed to some of the most popular children’s movies and TV shows around. With parks seeking new and creative methods of thrilling families, intellectual property can actually reignite the magical flame that once was the core of the theme park industry.
In 2011, Staffordshire based theme park Drayton Manor introduced its first roller coaster for a number of years. Dubbed Ben 10: Ultimate Mission, the new roller coaster, aimed at families, was themed to one of the best-loved cartoon characters running on the Cartoon Network channel. But compared to Thorpe Park and to a certain extent Six Flags, rather than taking a relatively common ride system and plastering The Ben 10 logo and cartoon Network branding around it, Drayton introduced a standout attraction within growing UK market.
Taking a leaf out of Universal’s book, the park paid tribute to the animated series through the use of an immersive queue line. Riders are guided through intricately detailed themed elements before arriving at the ride. The roller coaster comes in the form of a new style of family ride from Dutch manufacture Vekoma. The ride, dubbed a ‘Family Boomerang’, builds upon the success of the firm's original Boomerang model. Since debuting over two decades ago the ride has gone on to be the most successful roller coaster model in the world. To date, the company has shifted over 50 units of the ride.
For Drayton Manor, the mission for Ben 10 was simple: to create a unique family experience that the young and old alike would remember. By cleverly intertwining the Ben 10 branding with the first Junior Boomerang roller coaster, the park achieved great success within the family market. With a unique roller coaster, which travels in both forwards and backwards directions through a thrilling, but fun track layout, the ride has paved the way for a gem of a family attraction built on a strict budget. With effort being made to create a unique queue line experience by cleverly embedding the characters of the sci-fi series throughout the enclosed queue line, any child who dreams of being transported away from everyday life will instantly fall in love with the attraction.
Employing the unique
Unique ride systems may also have an important role to play in the ever-growing family market. Drawing upon the success of the animated hit movies Arthur, the lovable animated characters of the blockbuster will soon find a new home at German theme park Europa Park. Owners the Mack family, who also own a leading amusement ride manufacturer, are to follow the similar footsteps of Drayton Manor and Universal by debuting a new coaster style in 2014. A suspended variation of the classic powered roller coaster is set to take centre stage in a new area dedicated to the film. Immersive theming thrown into the mix along with a revolutionary ride experience, a perfect storm has been created. Fused together with imagination and creativity, the movie themed attraction perhaps encapsulates what a theme park is about: sharing the wonder of magic and fantasy in ways never thought imaginable.
Creativity is key
Are there too many theme park attractions themed to movies? Perhaps not. A theme can be anything to help the public escape reality as they enter a place like no other. What really matters is how creative a park is to help sustain the magic of the attraction. Using a proven ride system and theming elaborately to a disturbing horror franchise, or recycling a film title across two attractions may be exhausting the point. However, combining an immersive ride experience with a gripping narrative, the use of a film or TV at the heart of attraction can bring a whole new aspect to the theme park world.