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Revealing the Secret Disney Laws of Storytelling

Elsa, recently crowned queen of Arendelle, watches helplessly as her world falls apart, her greatest secret revealed. She controls the weather; technically, Elsa is a witch with cryokinetic magical powers. The new ruler runs away from her responsibilities, shamed by her abilities.

As she crosses an ice bridge of her own making, Elsa’s actions mirror the lyrics of the song playing in the background. She has tested the limits and broken through, creating an ascending set of stairs that will allow her to reach the summit of the proverbial mountain. Here, she will make her new home, a literal ice palace. In her own words, Elsa is free. Her powers once embarrassed her and terrified her parents. Now, they liberate the snow queen from her life of shame and depression.

In the movie, Frozen, the imagery played onscreen reinforces the notion of Elsa’s internal (and now external) conflict. The opening of the Let It Go scene from the movie shows a minuscule woman, isolated and insignificant. The only imprint she makes is a modest set of footprints in the snow. As the sequence advances, Elsa grows in stature. Once she accepts her natural ability, she redefines the landscape as a celebration of her powers and feels her self-esteem grow. Symmetrically, the camera focuses more on her, lessening the scale and scope of the surrounding mountain range. Elsa now towers above her surroundings.

Elsa’s voyage of self-discovery is the story of Frozen, and everything in the best scene from her movie underscores her destiny. Her powers are a blessing rather than a curse, but she won’t accept that until her sister, Anna, learns her secret and loves her for who she is. Let It Go is the series of events in her life that put her on that path to sisterly reconciliation. This moment is also the defining sequence from the greatest Disney animation of the 21st century, at least in terms of movie box office and merchandising.

When Imagineers learned that they would translate the tale to the World Showcase at Epcot, their task was seemingly simple but, counterintuitively, a difficult challenge. It’s also one that they face each day of their job. When Disney Imagineers build theme park attractions, they must thread the needle in terms of respecting and relaying classic tales in a timeless way that guests of all ages and walks of life will embrace as thematically parallel.

Hey, if it were easy, anyone could do it.

Image: Disney

Imagineers aren’t universally revered by chance. They’ve earned their stripes through countless career successes. Each moment you spend at a Disney theme park, you’re surrounded by artifacts that reflect countless hours of diligent cast member efforts. The only goal of these employees is to provide a satisfactory day at the park for even the most apathetic guests.

Retelling the stories from the Disney movie library isn’t easy, but it’s critical to the dominance of the Disney theme park empire. Let’s take this opportunity to explore all the factors and considerations that drive Imagineers as they build excellent rides, paying particular attention to the ten rules Disney park planners employ before, during, and after construction. We’ll use a few historical examples, starting with the philosophy of Walt Disney, and we’ll also evaluate how the rules have evolved over the years, leading to attractions like Frozen Ever After, Spaceship Earth, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. This is your chance to feel like an Imagineer for the day.

The ways of Walt

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One of the things you may not appreciate about Walt Disney’s introduction of the theme park industry is how little support he had. That criticism even extends to his brother, as I’ll explain in a moment. As the anecdote goes, Uncle Walt felt disgust whenever he took his family to amusement parks. They were frequently dirty in terms of garbage and unkempt landscapes. Even worse, the “attractions” of the era were oftentimes rusty buckets of bolts that failed to inspire confidence about their safety.

As a wildly admired businessman and industrialist, Disney worked constantly. On those occasions when he had free time to spend with his daughters, he wanted relaxing excursions while he was liberated from the worries of the outside world. He felt frustration when he paid the price of family admission to amusement parks, only to notice all of their shortcomings. The problem with having an entrepreneurial spirit is that you always realize when a service isn’t performed to an optimal level. Had the amusement parks of the 1930s and 1940s proved satisfactory, we wouldn’t know of Disney theme parks today.

Emboldened by a perceived opening in a marketplace with unlimited potential, Uncle Walt shared his vision with his brother. He excitedly shared his belief that the team running the Walt Disney Company could construct their own amusement park, only they’d tether it to the ideas and high quality standards of the Disney brand. Suffice to say that his brother didn’t share the same optimism for the premise. In fact, the older sibling, Roy O. Disney, initially refused to spend a dollar of the corporation’s money on what the world now knows as Disneyland.

Remember your ABCs

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Without the support of anyone internal to the company bearing his name, Walt Disney leveraged his assets, including an insurance premium and his self-professed dream home. While that was a good start, he needed more capital, so he developed new corporate relationships with major media outlets, companies that wanted to get in business with Walt Disney. One of them, the American Broadcasting Company, would remain an ally until The Walt Disney Corporation ultimately purchased them in 1996. This is important in that the way Disney tells story even today traces its roots back to the early 1950s.

During the planning and construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney introduced the guidelines for the attractions. Since he’d learned to tell stories via Oswald the Rabbit and Mickey Mouse cartoons and then extended them into multiple acts in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, Disney’s synapses fired in a certain way. He carried those over to his work with ABC, prioritizing the marketing of his upcoming themed lands.

As a teaser for the upcoming park, Uncle Walt developed television programming that he knew would translate organically as themed park attractions. In terms of scenes, acts, and character development, many of them shared similarities with his cinematic offerings. He innately understood that Disneyland would tell stories similarly to the classic animated and live action stories from the Disney library. The way that Walt Disney knew how to illustrate cartoons grew into the way that he created full-length feature films and, later, television shows. The premises of themed lands and attractions grew from these prior tendencies.

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The newly branded Imagineers of WED Enterprises received novel training as ride designers. They learned to think of each segment of an attraction as a movie set, complete with a center stage spotlight and accompanying background set designs. To this day, the staging of Disney theme park attractions employs this philosophy.

The logical sequence of events has had a profound impact on our vacation habits. The genesis of the themed park is basically the blueprint that we, the tourists of these destinations, have embraced for decades now. It might seem quite different or possibly not even exist had Disney not started an ABC television series at this juncture. His brother turning down his request to help with Disneyland was the best thing that could have possibly happened to it. Circumstances dictated that Uncle Walt develop new media connections. While developing them and mastering a new medium, he learned that augmenting his roots could expand his empire.

Mickey’s Ten Commandments

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Marty Sklar is a legendary name, even in comparison to other famous Imagineers. He told stories so well that he eventually earned the title of Principal Creative Executive for the entirety of The Walt Disney Company. He also held the title of Vice Chairman at the same time. If anyone understands how Disney tells story, it’s Marty Sklar.

Sklar famously started working for the company right as Disneyland opened. He was a would-be journalist recruited from the Daily Bruin at UCLA. Uncle Walt assigned him the task of writing the Disneyland News in 1955, weeks prior to the park’s opening. The following year, he graduated and started working for WED Enterprises, which became his life’s work. Sklar retired in 2009, 53 years after his hiring; he was one of the longest tenured employees in Disney history.

After his employment with Disney ended, Sklar wrote a book entitled One Little Spark!: Mickey’s Ten Commandments and the Road to Imagineering. In it, he shared company secrets about all the little ways Uncle Walt trained his staff to tell stories. Sklar meant this in the broadest sense as well as the most miniature one. From its opening day forward, Disneyland told a story in and of itself as the Happiest Place on Earth.

Image: Disney

The branding was more than a catchy marketing slogan. It also pressured employees of WED Enterprises to create something so wonderful that theme park tourists could lay down their burdens the instant they entered the Disney Bubble. Disneyland is a place where fantasy blurs with reality, and that’s the explicit design of Walt Disney.

The substructures are equally consistent with their storytelling. Each themed land is an impeccable combination of parallel elements. In isolation, each one fits well into the greater scheme of, say, Tomorrowland, as an example. You’ll notice plenty of quasi-futuristic elements that reflect a better world just a few years away if you simply take a moment to study them.

What’s amazing about this area of the park, however, is that the sum is greater than its parts. Each attraction, store, and restaurant at Tomorrowland stands alone as an accurate representation of the world of tomorrow. In combination, this themed land evolves into a living, breathing re-creation of a place that may not exist in theory yet paradoxically is available to visit each time you head to Disneyland.

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When you enter Tomorrowland or any other Disney themed land, literally everything in sight has a purpose, and that purpose is to transport you into an imaginary realm. To achieve this goal, Walt Disney started with literally nothing but 160 acres of orange groves. Then, he sat down with the smartest people he knew (excepting his brother), who were not coincidentally folks that had impressed him over the years with their problem-solving skills. And they embarked on the journey to solve the ultimate problem. How does someone turn an orange grove into the Happiest Place on Earth? The answer lies in the ability to hypnotize strangers into believing in something artificial. It’s the ultimate truth about how Disney tells story.

The most oppressive physical law of nature

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How does a Disney employee create something from nothing, weaving an impeccable yarn that captures the imagination? They follow the precepts that Sklar lists in his book, many of which he learned directly from Walt Disney. Surprisingly, some of them sound more like marketing than storytelling. Prior to studying them, however, the first thing to understand is how any process works.

Inertia has twin definitions. The first is the Physics concept that “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.” In Newtonian terms, an object in motion tends to stay in motion while one at rest remains at rest. Any time you can’t get off the couch, blame Sir Isaac Newton.

The non-SAT version of the definition of inertia is that it’s a “tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.” Both of these statements are critical to the work of an Imagineer…and anyone in life, really. Inertia is the physical law that keeps you where you are, whether that’s a positive or not.

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Breaking inertia is the mother’s milk of an Imagineer’s existence. Sameness is their sworn enemy. To create something, they have to disrupt the constant state of inertia surrounding them. Embarking on this grand endeavor is a struggle, and that’s precisely why Walt Disney asked for his beloved staff members to consider a couple of key factors prior to moving forward with any project.

Given his early struggles as an illustrator attempting to make his bones in the corporate world, Disney understood all too well the frustration of a great idea that went nowhere. He’d lost the rights to his own character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, early in his career. He’d also attempted to conquer Hollywood cinemas several times. Due to his high standards, Disney had one of the best track records of any filmmaker in history, but he still had his share of cinematic duds. Have you ever heard of The Sword and the Rose or Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue? Exactly.

The first two steps are the hardest

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Like any wise person, Uncle Walt tried to learn from those storytelling mistakes, eventually settling on a couple of overriding premises he felt were critical to the viability of a project. Whether his projects had failed in the concept phase, the production shoot, or in marketing, he wanted to know exactly what he and his employees could have been done better. Over the years, his company codified these beliefs and the accompanying hard-learned lessons about the strongest and most effective ways to tell a story. These precepts are the enduring legacy of Walt Disney, creator of the entire theme park industry.

Marty Sklar describes the first pair of concepts thusly:

1)      Know Your Audience

2)      Wear Your Guest’s Shoes

These are arguably the most important two factors in telling a story. The underlying premise for each idea sounds straightforward but includes a great deal of nuance. Know Your Audience is a theory that has grown simpler to evaluate for Imagineers over time, but it was the most difficult in the early days of Disneyland. This philosophy asks attraction planners to identify which parties will enjoy the very thing an Imagineer intends to build. They also need to know why someone would or would not enjoy it, which is a topic that falls into both categories, at least somewhat.

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In layman’s terms, Know Your Audience is the premise that drives every advertisement you’ve ever watched in your life. For Imagineers in 1954, it was a speculative mental exercise about how they would entice families to spend all of their vacation days and hard-earned money on a plussed version of an amusement park, one that was yet to exist. Disney also faced an uphill struggle with this aspect since they intended to charge more for their new endeavor than current operators charged for traditional amusement parks.

Imagineers brainstormed constantly as their founder negotiated to purchase the Anaheim orchard groves that would become the Happiest Place on Earth. A litany of concepts that they planned for the opening day of Disneyland wouldn’t come to fruition for many years afterward, and the underlying explanation for each one was that Imagineers couldn’t pin down exactly who they should target. They couldn’t get a handle on the first rule, knowing the audience. During multiple instances, cast members invented sublime concepts for attractions, but then they wound up delayed due to the known audience issue. Debates ensued about who would show up and what they would expect, given the title/theme of an attraction.

Perhaps the most famous example of an attraction caught in the middle was The Haunted Mansion. Disney’s staff suffered a schism as employees debated the target audience. Would park attendees at the Happiest Place on Earth prefer a scary ride or one chock-full of gothic horror?

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Similarly, Pirates of the Caribbean required more time than intended since no one could agree on ride structure. The earliest plans for the attraction called for a museum of pirate history rather than the watery spectacle we all know and love today. Both of these attractions failed to gain traction in the period prior to Disneyland’s opening due to their unsettled premises.

Conversely, Jungle Cruise was ready when the gates of Disneyland opened for the first time in 1995. That’s because it had a story and concept that were easy to sell to anyone. Imagineers knew the audience for this attraction, and it was anyone who wanted to visit Adventureland. The cast members rightly projected that anyone excited by the idea of exploring the far reaches of civilization would love a sardonic boat ride featuring the world’s most talkative captain. And that brings us to the second point, Wear Your Guest’s Shoes.

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Perhaps no attraction in the history of Disney theme parks exemplifies this concept better than Jungle Cruise. The storytelling premise of this precept is that there’s one true way to plot such a ride: to imagine it from the perspective of someone experiencing the journey for the first time. What would that person want to see and do? How would they react? What would disappoint them by its absence? These are but a small part of the set of questions Imagineers must ask themselves while telling a story. It’s also the blueprint for their success.

An Imagineer should think of each question in terms of Jungle Cruise. Then, the cast member should plus it to make it more Disney-worthy. Someone setting sail for adventure a la the crew of The Jungle Queen would want to see all the majesty of nature, and they’d prefer to do so without the distraction of navigating a boat. For this reason, the ride required a driver.

That’s where Imagineers really outdid themselves in the planning phase. They anticipated that Jungle Cruise would have repeat value. Then, they extended that premise to the captain. How would a salty seafarer feel about having to perform the same routine multiple times each hour and each day? The jokes practically write themselves, and that’s why many of those quips from the original script are still recited to this day. Disney employees stood in the imaginary footsteps of future guests and projected an outcome.

No, a wienie isn’t what you think it is.

Image: Disney

The next three aspects of Disney’s storytelling methodology as indicated by Sklar are two thirds storytelling-focused and one third marketing-based. The premises are:

3)      Organize the Flow of People and Ideas

4)      Create a Wienie (Visual Magnet)

5)      Communicate with Visual Literacy

Let’s focus on the storytelling aspects, as that’s the crux of our conversation. Until then, think of creating a wienie as the dessert, even though no nutritionist would recommend that meal. As for the meat and vegetables portion, organizing the flow of people and ideas is something that every corporate project should entail. It’s the strategy of sequencing events in the most easily consumable way.

Let’s use Seven Dwarfs Mine Train as an example. Disney tells the story of this ride beginning with the line queue. Here, you’ll wait outside for a time (since the wait is almost always an hour or more), staring at the rock formation that comprises the exterior of the home and work station of the Dwarfs. Once you approach the interior, thematic games are available. They involve subterranean mining endeavors like harvesting jewels and spinning barrels. Guests waiting to ride this roller coaster aren’t simply standing in line. They’re gradually entering and then inhabiting the world of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As they move toward the interior, they forget that they’re only 50 feet away from the rest of Magic Kingdom. They’ve unknowingly taken the requisite steps on the invisible bridge Disney builds to transport guests to a faraway land.

Once theme park tourists reach the front of the line, they board theme-appropriate mine carts made of materials fitting for the underground realm. Pickaxes, saws, ropes, and other work-related effects populate the walls. Once the mine cart zooms into action, the rider sees where the Dwarfs happily spend their work days, unearthing rare jewels and taking the occasional catnap alongside a skunk, dubious as that proposition is. The fictional realm comes to life in a believable fashion, eventually ending with an exuberant dance with Snow White as the evil Queen schemes outside.

Disney tells this story with a structure that gently transports the guest into the realm, steadily offering a bit more of the world with each passing step. It’s that gradual transformation that Disney has mastered over the years. A key reason why is strategy number five, the usage of visual literacy. Anyone who has ridden Seven Dwarfs Mine Train understands how gorgeous the interior parts of it are. The gems come to life thanks to the majesty of their colors.

Similarly, Snow White’s resplendent dress sets her apart from everyone else, identifying that while this ride stars the Dwarfs, the movie still lists her name first in the title. Disney employs colors to signify importance. It’s not coincidental that the Queen wears drab clothing that’s otherwise unfit for royalty. She’s not the star of the set piece. The heroes and heroine are.

One of the most important aspects of communicating with visual literacy is a bit of a misnomer of terminology; it doesn’t simply refer to the eyes. To the contrary, it references non-verbal forms of communication. Disney understands that its guests have five senses rather than one. They construct attractions with a multi-faceted approach, trying to stimulate as many of the senses as possible, preferably unbeknownst to the rider. Any awareness of this subtle manipulation would again break the illusion.

From the guest perspective on the ride, the sensory stimulation takes several forms. As the rider admires the visuals of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Imagineers have built the attraction to trigger your other senses as well. The touch and feel of the mine carts as well as the entire interior of the facility simulates that of a more comfortable version of an underground mining facility.

Disney has to walk that fine line between authenticity and guest comfort. In other words, they want you to feel like you’re riding a mine cart without FEELING like you’re riding a mine cart. The sensation shouldn’t seem as bumpy, and the last thing you’d want is to suffer through an accurate recreation of the smell of the place. Any aromas that you notice throughout the ride are comforting rather than distracting. Also, your mine cart is smooth rather than delivering the coarse feeling of dense metal. Otherwise, you wouldn’t enjoy the tactile experience, breaking the illusion.

In fact, we should use a different example for smells. While Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is wonderful for most of the human senses, smell isn’t its forte. This oversight is a running theme among Disney attractions. All of them offer a delightful sensory sensation, but few trigger all five at once. Perhaps the best example of one that does is Soarin’ Around the World along with its predecessor, Soarin’ Over California.

The two versions of the ride experience whoosh guests through the air as if they’re flying. In order to simulate this sensation accurately, the ride system lifts and turns you when appropriate. More importantly in terms of story, it also augments the experience with audio clips that accentuate the applicable region of the state/country where you’re currently “flying.” Finally, the sense that Soarin’ triggers as well as any Disney attraction ever is smell. Disney introduces lush fragrances like the oranges of California via hidden Smellitzers that pump in those scents. It’s an invisible stimulation of one of your senses, one that honors the tenet of communicating with literacy.

As for the wienie aka visual magnet, that’s something diehard Disney fans probably already know. Walt Disney liked to think big, and he fervently believed that the quickest way to garner attention was by a showy declaration. The wienie is the building (or item) in your line of sight that you can’t possibly miss, the thing that demands your scrutiny. When Disneyland opened, the wienie was Sleeping Beauty Castle and remains so to this day…although the monorails were and still are showstoppers, too. At Epcot, the giant golf ball known as Spaceship Earth qualifies as perhaps the most memorable wienie at Walt Disney World, while Magic Kingdom has several visual magnets including the famous manmade mountains: Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, and Cinderella Castle.

While the construction of a wienie sounds massive in scale, it doesn’t have to be. The premise simply dictates that Disney tell a story on several levels. The thought process is that a person needs subtle elements like the ones mentioned for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to enjoy that subconscious acceptance of an invitation to a faraway, imaginary land.

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In order to entice the guest in the first place, however, an attraction needs something grand to differentiate it. Still, the most famous wienies across the parks tend to be castles and attraction exteriors. In fact, the Enchanted Storybook Castle at Shanghai Disneyland is so attention-grabbing that Hong Kong Disneyland felt the need to “transform” their castle to make it more competitive. They feared that the wienie at the competing Disney park was too good and would negatively impact their business. 

The final five

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The rest of the storytelling goals relayed by Sklar are complementary relative to the upper portion of the list. The final five are:

6)      Avoid Overload – Create Turn Ons

7)      Tell One Story at a Time

8)      Avoid Contradictions – Maintain Identity

9)      For Every Ounce of Treatment, Provide a Ton of Treat

10)   Keep It Up! (Maintain It!)

A couple of these storytelling goals aren’t as intuitive as the ones above. Let’s start with avoiding overload. In layman’s terms, this is best described as less is more. One of the struggles that all Imagineers face is an issue of reduction.

During brainstorming sessions, cast members come up with countless ideas, most of which would add tremendous depth and utility to an attraction. The unique challenge ride planners face is that they run the risk of overwhelming guests if they include too many of these (good) ideas. That would prove counterproductive. Instead, the goal is to select the perfect accoutrements to accentuate an attraction without allowing the background to overwhelm the ride itself.

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Think about Expedition: Everest’s line queue. The artifacts and thematic books and journals from prior adventurers weave a yarn of exploration and danger. Having too many of them runs the risk of distracting guests away from the excitement of the actual ride. Then again, Expedition: Everest probably stretches this philosophy more than any other existing Disney attraction since it features approximately 8,000 items. If anything Imagineers have created has ever violated the sixth rule, it’s this one, but most people give it a pass since it’s so thematically appropriate. Maintaining this delicate balance is the challenge ride designers face on a daily basis. And Disney does give its employees the leeway to bend a rule when circumstances dictate.

Rule seven, focusing on a single story, supplements the philosophy that less is more. A wonderful example of this specificity is The Seas with Nemo & Friends. This attraction is elegant in its simplicity. All it does is recreate the journey of Marlin, Dory, and Nemo, as the first two parties attempt to locate the lost clownfish. It’s almost paint by numbers in how dutifully it honors the accompanying movie.

Imagineers appreciated that all they needed was to extend the story into the third dimension. They had that confidence since the story already captured the hearts of Disney fans upon its release in 2003. It didn’t become the most popular Pixar film ever released (up until that point) by accident. So, an attraction based on the movie didn’t need new elements introduced. Ride planners simply needed to tell an already wonderful tale in a new medium, an omnimover attraction carrying guests through the integral set pieces and scenes from the film.

And then there were three…

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Before we discuss the most important bullet point out of the lower five rules of Imagineer storytelling, let’s talk about philosophies eight and ten, both of which are involve maintenance. These two are ones I’ve mentioned in prior articles. The idea of avoiding contradictions stems from Walt Disney’s frustration in seeing a cowboy in Tomorrowland…or possibly an astronaut in Frontierland. The anecdote tends to change with each retelling, but the underlying premise remains. To master the craft of thematic storytelling, each section of a theme park must maintain logical consistency. That means avoiding anything that would ruin the illusion.

The most famous example of this is that heads roll at Disney any time multiple versions of the same character are in plain sight. There’s only one Minnie Mouse, so a park patron should never see a second one in the same general location. That’s easier said than done since several cast members wear these costumes during a given day. Avoiding contradictions like this is an imperative of the park’s operators. Otherwise, everything falls apart. Also, Walt Disney presumably spins in his grave.

As for rule ten, maintaining the park, that one’s the most often discussed part of Walt Disney’s legacy. A huge fan of plussing attractions to keep them fresh and relevant, the corporate founder famously stated, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

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Imagineers carry the honor (and burden) of maintaining Uncle Walt’s vision for the Happiest Place on Earth. One of his edicts during the early days was that cast members must spend time in lines for attractions every now and again. Otherwise, they’d lose sight of the excitement of the experience, all but assuring that the ride grows stale over time. It’s not a coincidence that many of the most passionate Disney fans today are cast members. They relish the ability to honor the founder’s wish for park maintenance through shared experiences.

The final rule regarding story is the most oddly phrased one. What does Disney mean when they say, “For every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of treat”? It means that ride planners should never force a concept down a guest’s throat, at least not without providing ample rewards to counteract any preachiness. In other words, Disney’s not above tutorials about education and self-improvement on their attractions, but they remember that the paying customer is there to have fun, not get lectured.

This ninth rule of storytelling is one that you’ll notice the most at Epcot, but it applies to all of Disney’s edutainment rides as well as any other attraction that offers a teaching element. The corporation’s philosophy is that educating guests is an admirable goal. In order for them to accept that part of the story, however, Imagineers must disseminate the knowledge in small doses. Otherwise, the illusion will again fall apart for the customer. As you can see, maintaining the illusion is a constant struggle for Imagineers.

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Perhaps the best demonstration of the “ounce of treatment, ton of treat” approach is the FutureWorld section of the park. I’ll use my favorite attraction, Spaceship Earth, as the example. This ride is equal parts oral history and omnimover journey up and down several stories. The set pieces for this attraction are among the most detailed of any Disney theme park, and that’s not accidental. Instead, it’s a specific implementation of the rule.

As Dame Judi Dench narrates the history of man, an overwhelmingly dense topic, each segment plays out like a big budget movie scene. It starts with humans finally working together to overcome a wooly mammoth, and it ends with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak building the personal computer in a garage.

Along the way, Disney accentuates each scene with small touches like the Smellitzer fragrance of burning embers when Rome falls, the actual Olympic clip of Jesse Owens triumphing as Nazis watch impotently, and an authentic 19th century printing press announcing the end of the Civil War. Without these elements, the narration might bore riders, leading to an extended nap on one of Disney’s darkest dark rides. Instead, the lively colors, strong smells, and historically accurate details offer the treats that counterbalance the treatment. To a larger point, Spaceship Earth is a functional monument to the entirety of the ten Disney rules for storytelling. If you’ll think about them in the context of the attraction, an aspect of each philosophy should pop into your head.

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Putting it all together…

Let’s circle back to Frozen Ever After to see how Disney handled the translation of their wildly popular movie into a new attraction. Knowing the audience is easy in this instance, given that it’s every fan of the film. Since Frozen has dominated Disney theme parks the last couple of years, ride planners already knew they had a hit. Still, they had to put themselves in the shoes of the guest, identifying which parts of the story are integral.

Correctly, Imagineers chose Let It Go as the seminal sequence. That’s why it functions as the high point of the ride, the center stage with the special spotlight. When Elsa sings, you’re on the edge of your seat, and that’s by design. It ably follows the rule of organized flow.

When Elsa finally embraces her powers, she feels a strange sense of liberation even as she isolates herself in the mountains. Frozen Ever After mimics this transition, eventually highlighting the seminal moment in the film when the ice queen breaks free from societal conventions.

As you watch Let It Go, the stage itself functions as a wienie. You enter the set moving forward and then leave by moving backward in your boat. The walls in and out of the scene all display versions of the same story. Elsa is singing Let It Go, and your eyes will see it everywhere. While the visual is stunning in and of itself, non-verbal communication exists in overt and subtle fashion. The overt way is through the power of Idina Menzel’s voice, conquering the room with her inimitable singing.

The subtlety stems from everything in the room that’s not Elsa. It’s dark save for her. Disney manipulates you to pay attention to what’s in front of you at the expense of everything else. You probably don’t even remember you’re on a boat until the doors shut, indicating that you’ve exited the showcase set. This is also a sign that Frozen Ever After has avoided overload. Less is more when Let It Go plays. Similarly, notice how crisp and fresh the other set pieces are on the attraction. The audio-animatronics (AAs) are the best ever, and so Disney lets them be the stars of the show. The sets are otherwise minimalist in tone, as the rider shouldn’t feel the distraction of looking away from the AAs.

Impressively, this minimalism also checks off the box for telling one story at a time. Each set piece stands on its own in isolation. Any fan of Frozen can easily recall the scene from the movie re-created for the attraction. Disney actually takes this premise one step farther by including characters from Frozen Fever at a memorable point in the ride. In this manner, they’re also checking off the final two maintenance boxes since the Frozen sequel will feature these characters. So, the ride is already updated to factor in a future film, and it resolves any lingering issues about the time period when Frozen Ever After exists.

As you can see, the only one of Disney’s storytelling rules that doesn’t apply to Frozen Ever After is providing a ton of treat for every ounce of treatment. It’s not an educational attraction per se although there’s a bit of thematic Norwegian building construction thrown in. So, the attraction clearly passes the test on nine out of ten rules of Disney storytelling. And if you want to make an argument about the treat/treatment one, I won’t fight you on the point. I’m sure Imagineers have thought of it in terms I couldn’t possibly understand.

The next time you visit a Disney theme park, take the time to consider how Disney tells each story. Apply the same test I’ve used for Frozen Ever After in the section above. Test how many of the rules above that you can see in action as well as which ones the company had to stretch a bit as a concession to maintaining the illusion. I would suggest a comparison of the oldest ride at the park followed by the newest. That way, you can see just how much the premise has evolved in the 60+ years since Walt Disney invented the theme park industry.