Home » Park Plotholes: Downright DUMB “Stories” on Theme Park Rides

Park Plotholes: Downright DUMB “Stories” on Theme Park Rides

If you ask today’s designers at Imagineering and Universal Creative, there’s one thing that’s absolutely essential on every attraction; the central focus of each ride; the beating heart and soul of each project: story.

In reality, ride designers relationship to narrative isn’t always so cut and dry. Some of Disney’s best and most classic rids famously lack coherent or cohesive stories (think, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Epcot’s Lost Legends). Sometimes, projects layered with story are detested by fans (think Chester & Hester’s Dino-rama or Poseidon’s Fury) while rides renowned for their stories, narrative, and world-building are the first to go.

And despite Imagineers’ insistence that story is the end-all-be-all of their work today, sometimes story seems to fall by the wayside… Here, we’ve collected a number of attractions with nonsensical, non sequitor, and just plain dumb decisions, strange stories, and incomprehensible narratives… Though we may love these rides and attractions individually, there’s just no denying that for all their talk about story, designers seem to have forgotten about it when it comes to this group… But does it matter? Or are theme parks about letting go and enjoying without nit-picking the details? We’ll let you decide…

1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

As odd as it sounds, one of the most confusing and confounding ride stories on Earth is found on a ride considered among the best! When Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey made its debut in 2010, it was the centerpiece anchor of the most sought-after theme park land on Earth. But for all the photorealism and commitment to scale found in Hogsmeade (and the ride’s queue, passing through Hogwarts), the ride itself is… well… a narrative mess.

The “excuse” is that guests are visiting Hogwarts for an Open House, where “enchanted benches” will tour us through the castle grounds. But from the first seconds of the ride, chaos descends. This isn’t a case of “something goes horribly wrong…” Nope.

Instead, everything goes horribly wrong. In a frenzied dash through the grounds of Hogwarts, guests are unceremoniously flung within inches of Acromantulas, dragons, the Whomping Willow, Dementors, and more. In a matter of three minutes, guests are whipped from the castle itself to the Forbidden Forest, then to the Quidditch Pitch, which somehow leads to the Chamber of Secrets, across the Black Lake, then through the Floo Network back to the Great Hall.

Absolutely none of it makes sense narratively or even spatially. But who cares? Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey gives fans everything they wanted from their trip to Hogwarts, serving as a “best of” adventure through the magical world. Its follow-up – Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – maintains an almost eyebrow-raising commitment to its narrative, but as a result is typically viewed as being not quite as fun. 

2. Incredicoaster

Though the 2012 “Re-opening” of Disney California Adventure had reimagined the park’s Paradise Pier as a romantic, turn-of-the-century boardwalk filled with seaside Victorian architecture and allusions to classic, pie-eyed Disney characters, Imagineers weren’t quite finished. In a surprise announcement at the semi-annual D23 Expo in 2017, it was announced that the land would go under the knife again, emerging as Pixar Pier.

Oddly, Pixar Pier doubles down on the Victorian architecture and completes the historic, atmospheric metamorphosis begun in 2012… but overlays odd, juxtaposed “neighborhoods” themed to The IncrediblesInside OutToy Story, and “other.” Talk about “story,” it seems that Pixar Pier’s “story” is that the Walt Disney Company owns a well-preserved seaside boardwalk and has decided to overlay its high-earning Pixar intellectual properties across the carnival rides there… (Art imitates life, after all!) 

The land’s centerpiece continues to be the looming white roller coaster that serves as its backdrop. Formerly California Screamin’, the ride has been rebranded the Incredicoaster with static mannequins of the Incredibles littered around the course. We actually listed it among our look at the world’s “Story Coasters” as we tried to make sense of the paper thin plot. But even Disney owns up to the oddity. In the ride’s queue videos that show news coverage of the ride’s “dedication,” Violet herself rolls her eyes at the idea of their family’s name just being slapped onto an old roller coaster. Edna Mode has the answer: “It’s called synergy, darling; it’s all the rage.”

We’ve got three more examples of unusual theme park stories on the next page…

3. Revenge of the Mummy

Revenge of the Mummy opened in 2004, precariously positioned as the first in Universal’s “next generation” of thrill rides, but just before screens and simulators became the defining features. But even casually dissecting the ride’s story, you’re likely to find a few hiccups.

For example, by nature of replacing the Lost Legend: Kongfrontaiton, Revenge of the Mummy is located in the park’s New York area. Fittingly, the former Penn Station entry to Kong was reimagined as the Museum of Antiquities, with banners between its sandstone pillars even advertising its current exhibit: “MUMMY: The Curses & Legends of the Pharaohs.” Sounds like a cool set-up!

But stepping inside, there’s no museum. Instead, guests are “on-set,” viewing props, costumes, and behind-the-scenes videos from The Mummy. Baked into the queue videos are the idea that guests are actually on-set of a new entry in the Brendan Fraser series, where a crew member has gone missing. Then, around the corner, guests are smack-dab in the middle of a “real” Egyptian tomb… only to board precarious mine carts routed through the temple, which is a whole ‘nother level of cognitive dissonance. Along the way, riders find the missing crew member (so, I guess, it IS a movie set?) before passing through ancient chambers (oh, so it’s a tomb?) and then a fake unload station (obviously acknowleding we’re in neither a movie set nor a tomb, but in a theme park).

And like Forbidden Journey, who cares?! The Mummy is a perfect example of how designers maybe don’t need to jump through agonizing hoops to make a “story” make sense. At the end of the day, people get what they want from Revenge of the Mummy: a thrilling dark ride adventure. Not every element needs to be figured out or analyzed. Sometimes it’s easier to just believe what the pre-show tells us and have fun. In fact, we traced the whole experience in our Modern Marvels: Revenge of the Mummy feature! 

4. Skull Island: Reign of Kong

Given that Kongfrontation had been kicked out of his New York home in favor of the Mummy, Universal Creative, it seemed that the studios’ class King Kong was officially gone for good… Until the king’s return in 2016’s Skull Island: Reign of Kong. Built at the more mythological Islands of Adventure park next door, Skull Island flipped the script. Rather than bringing Kong into our world, it set us down in his: the dark, desolate, and humorless world of Peter Jackson’s King Kong film. 

Universal clearly worked really, really hard to imbue a story into Reign of Kong, with an elaborate queue that establishes the Eighth Wonder Expedition Company and its 1930s setting (a la Indiana Jones). Great care is taken to make Skull Island seem “real,” right down to each of the ride’s massive, trackless Jeeps being driven by an on-board animatronic with his or her own narration throughout the ride. 

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately for all their hard work, Universal forgot to make the story matter. Right off the bat (no pun intended), we’re introduced to expedition leader “Kate,” who’s abducted by flying creatures. From then on, Kate is continuously and unceremoniously dragged off stage left, necessitating our movement to the next scene where she’s terrorized and then pulled away again. By time the ride’s finale arrives, we haven’t heard from or seen Kate in a few minutes. While returning to the station, an announcement over the radio alerts us that she’s okay, but in a way that suggests that even designers went “Oh yeah… forgot about her…”

Like with the other Universal entries on this list, we’re more than willing to simply let go and have fun without nit-picking. The difference is that it’s clear that Universal worked overtime to thrust the story front-and-center throughout Reign of Kong’s queue… then just kind of forgot to incorporate it into the ride, too. And frankly, Kong would probably benefit from having more of the pulpy, fun, over-the-top humor of the Lost Legend: Kongfrontaiton rather than taking itself so seriously, anyway.

5. Journey into Imagination with Figment

Look, no one is suggesting that Journey into Imagination with Figment was designed with the intention of being Disney’s best ride ever… After all, the current attraction was cobbled together by Imagineer David Mumford in six months, having been tasked with transforming the Declassified Disaster: Journey into YOUR Imagination (1999 – 2001) into something a little more palatable… and hopefully, a little closer to the Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination that had charmed audiences from 1983 to 1998.

If that sounds like a confusing mess, it is… And frankly, so is the resulting ride, which retains the 1999 ride’s tepid and unimaginative Imagination Institute setting and its host, Dr. Nigel Channing (played by Monty Python’s Eric Idle), but tries its best to layer the imaginative purple dragon Figment over the Institute’s tours and sensory tests. The resulting mix of grounded reality and fanciful whimsy creates one of the oddest rides in Disney Parks and also turns the once-childlike Figment into a product of the New Millenium and its direct-to-video humor. He sniffs armpits, licks faces, blasts guests with skunk smell, and more, which must leave first-timers wondering why fans love him so much! 

One of the strangest things about the “new” Journey into Imagination With Figment, though, is just how long its been around! While most fans still tend to think of it as a “replacement” or a temporary stopgap meant to cheaply and quickly reinsert Figment into the ride, the “replacement” has actually outlived the original!  

It’s all about story

Watch any behind-the-scenes documentary from Disney Imagineering or making-of featurette from Universal Creative today and you’ll hear it time and time again: “it’s all about story.” But is it? While the continuing trend of IP-based “living lands” does demand rides that fit into the worlds they inhabit in a meaningful way, not every single attraction needs to trip over itself, inventing excuses for its existence.

Do we really need to know why mine carts are passing through Imhotep’s tomb? Do we have to understand how Figment can coexist with the Imagination Institute? Does it matter why the Incredibles own a roller coaster on a Victorian boardwalk? Maybe not! After all, we once set sail from New Orleans and traveled back and forth through time to see a Caribbean town’s pirate attack;  we soared over London without worrying about departing from a Medieval faire; we sing along in an Enchanted Tiki Room smack dab in the middle of a African / Asian / South American outpost without a care in the world…

Yes, story matters… But sometimes, it’s best to just let go and enjoy.