Home » Tourist, Trainee, and Time-Traveler: Inside 6 Iconic “Roles” You’ve Lived at Disney & Universal Parks

Tourist, Trainee, and Time-Traveler: Inside 6 Iconic “Roles” You’ve Lived at Disney & Universal Parks

Whether you’ve rocketed through the boundless cosmos on Space Mountain, been an adventurer uncovering the mysteries of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, trekked through the lantern-lit forests of Grizzly Peak, or explored the snow-capped village of Hogsmeade, you’ve been a part of one of the most essential cornerstones of themed entertainment design: story.

When you spend a day at a Disney or Universal Park, you truly do “leave today” and step into new worlds, new adventures… and new roles. From archaeologists to time-travelers, students to tourists, reporters to escape artists, a day at the parks is truly a day on-stage, trying on an assortment of once-in-a-lifetime roles.

So today, we thought we’d try to group those “roles” you’ll find across Disney and Universal Parks into six overarching categories – six “motivations” for on-stage stars of rides, lands, and parks to play off of. Our list is far from exhaustive, and it’s important to note that these “roles” not only overlap, but can evolve from queue to ride! Still, it leave us wondering: Would be a park be weaker or stronger if all of its lands, rides, and experiences kept guests in a single role? Which of these is the most fun to inhabit? We’ll leave that to you to decide! Share your thoughts in the comments below!


How you know if you’re “the observer”: Things happen around you, not to you.

The Good

Let’s be clear: for a lot of Disney Parks’ history – and many Disney classics – your “role” is just to enjoy the ride.

For example, think of the ride often considered Walt Disney’s own magnum opus and heralded by many as the best classic dark ride on Earth: Disneyland’s PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. When guests board their own boats to sail through the firefly-lit swamps of New Orleans, crash down waterfalls into ghostly caverns, and float through a Caribbean town under siege, at no point are guests by design meant to feel that the events of the ride are happening to them. Quite the contrary, Walt remarked on how drifting through the town ought to feel like being a cocktail party; picking up bits and pieces of conversations, but never lingering too long. In that sense, guests were clearly observers, merely meant to take it all in.

It’s the same with the HAUNTED MANSION, when you think about it. Though you might imagine yourself as a “tourist” visiting the old manor on the edge of town – a role potentially exemplified by the presence of the Ghost Host speaking directly to you – it’s certainly arguable that the events of the ride are merely “spooky sights and sounds” happening around you, not to you. Sure, guests inadvertantly circle up for a seance, “fall” out of the attic, and end up with a hitch-hiking ghost climbing aboard… but altogether, the ride is largely a passive one in the very best way.

The Bad

As the Haunted Mansion shows, Disney’s patented Omnimover ride system of continuously-moving clamshells is an ingenious ride system for ushering thousands of guests an hour through looping vignettes where they can sit back and observe a world unfolding around them. Unfortunately, that ended up being a poor choice of ride vehicle (and thus, role) for the two Little Mermaid dark rides at Disney California Adventure and Magic Kingdom.

Unlike the rest of Disney’s Fantasyland-esque dark rides where guests physically or emotionally inhabit characters’ roles, the  use of the Omnimover on THE LITTLE MERMAID ~ ARIEL’S UNDERSEA ADVENTURE ensures that guests never really feel like part of the story. Instead, they’re passively touring through (sometimes iffy and disordered) recreations of scenes from the movie. The Little Mermaid’s is a world guests wanted to inhabit, and instead its ride uses the Observer role, which is perhaps why fans tend to think that the ride is good, but not great.

In other words, this “role” (and many others) are clearly tied closely to ride systems. So as we press onward, think about the role that the rise of the simulator and the “Ride the Movies” era had not just on guest roles, but on the ride systems that are sometimes inextricably connected… 


How you know if you’re “the trainee”: The time is now and the place is here.

The Good

Placing guests in the role of a “trainee” can be a great way to bring guests into a world one step at a time… As a trainee, after all, you’re not expected to know much, so it’s okay to have expository pre-shows explaining the conditions of your “recruitment” and to break the fourth wall to explain safety procedures and explain away ride vehicles. Being a “trainee” can also be a great role if it ends up layered within a larger story, typically by having guests “recruited” for one thing that quickly and unexpectedly evolves into another.

For example, guests queuing for the DINOSAUR are led to believe that they’re merely touring the prestigious Dino Institute and its old marble museum halls. Even once recruited to test out the Institute’s cutting edge CTX Time Rover by traveling to the age of the dinosaurs, their “trainee” mission is commandeered by a rogue employee with a secret mission of his own. Mercifully, the Dino Institute is left behind for the steaming, hissing jungles of the Cretaceous.

Likewise, guests take on the trainee role in Universal Orlando’s MEN IN BLACK: ALIEN ATTACK when the World’s Fair exhibition they’re visiting turns out to be a cover for the secret alien regulating agency. Even once recruited to test their skills in an MIB training room of flat cutout targets, an actual intergalactic emergency forces riders out of the training center and into the mean streets of New York, where wet-behind-the-ears trainees have to become intergalactic heroes. Cheesy? Yes. A great example of using the trainee role to its strengths? Also yes.

The “trainee” role is also at the heart of the Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure, which quite literally rests on the idea that guests are being tested and recruited at a C.A.M.P.U.S. (that’s Centralized Assembly Mobilized to Prepare, United, and Safeguard) established to train the next generation of heroes. Frankly, being empowered to test new STARK tech and become a hero yourself isn’t just a smart way to sell in-universe souvenirs; it’s also a very clever and natural way to use the “trainee” role! That’ll make WEB-SLINGERS: A SPIDER-MAN ADVENTURE a cool, low-key, low-stakes “trainee” experiment for the whole family.

The Bad

The “trainee” is also a somewhat problematic role in that it tends to intersects with a common trope in our telltale signs of a “bad” ride story – taking place in a training center, office, or institute. The premise typically revolves around guests stepping into an attraction to find that they’ve been recruited to tour, train, or test something. Narratively, it’s often a creative cop-out that allows Imagineers to fall back on the unimaginative assurance that you’re in a warehouse, in a theme park, so no need to suspend your disbelief or use your imagination.

Our go-to examples of this poor use of the trainee role are EPCOT’s JOURNEY INTO YOUR IMAGINATION and MISSION: SPACE, both of which cast guests as “trainees” and continuously, constantly reassure them that they’re not really going anywhere; it’s all a simple training process, in a building, in a theme park. Considering both took the place of epic, imaginative, and almost-abstract masterpieces (the Lost Legends: Journey Into Imagination and Horizons, respectively) that had the guts to just let people dream, it’s clear the “trainee” role can be a tough one to get right.


How you know if you’re “the tourist”: There’s an in-universe explanation for the gift shop.

The Good

Ah, the tourist. The tried-and-true theme park ride role is masterful in that art truly does imitate life. Pretty much everyone visiting a theme park, after all, really is a tourist, who’s traveled to a place to see a thing. So it’s practically brilliant to repurpose and repackage that role for in-universe purposes. In fact, Animal Kingdom practically makes this its de facto role, whisking guests between Disney versions of real-world locales and cultures to (respectively) see something new.

One of our favorite uses of the trope has to be the incredible story concocted for Disneyland’s INDIANA JONES ADVENTURE. Set in Indy’s pulpy 1930s time frame, the ride casts guests as nouveau riche Europeans drawn to the lost river deltas of Southeast Asia by the era’s sensationalized black and whites news reels covering the discovery of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Lured by a chance at visions of the future, eternal youth, or endless riches, we instead arrive in the remote jungle to find… it’s a tourist trap. Cleverly, the rusted, tattered, generator-fueled frame story was actually spread across all of Adventureland – one of Disney’s earliest U.S. attempts at an immersive, interconnected land!

Another clever use must be Tokyo DisneySea’s TOWER OF TERROR, wherein the dilapidated Hightower Hotel is baked right into the mythology of the park’s turn-of-the-century New York-themed American Waterfront. There, guests join the line with the explicit intent of touring the hotel’s run-down remains and the abandoned artifact collection of its one-time owner (a S.E.A. staple). Even the name “Tower of Terror” is, in the land’s mythology, an intentionally sensationalized name invented by the non-profit New York Preservation Society to sell tour tickets to finance the hotel’s preservation. Phew!

Increasingly, Disney and Universal’s “Living Lands” rely on this formula, too. STAR WARS: GALAXY’S EDGECARS LAND, and THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER may have IP-friendly names on park maps, but they’re brought to life as the in-universe worlds of Batuu, Radiator Springs, and Hogsmeade – worlds with their own story-specific dining and shopping, often with massive, original mythologies baked into every square foot. Guests enter these worlds not as insiders, but as tourists. Having the mindset of having landed in a last-stop village on a remote planet, a revived Route 66 town, or a hidden Scottish village briefly opened to Muggles lends itself to an atmosphere of exploration, celebration, and discovery. 

Still, the epitome of the “tourist” trope being used right must be PANDORA: THE WORLD OF AVATAR. There, Disney Imagineers smartly severed the immersive land from the 2009 Avatar film entirely, ensuring guests need not know anything about the film’s plot or characters to feel at home. Rather than rehashing the movie (wherein humans lead an assault on the peaceful planet to strip its minerals… oops…), the land is set decades after the events of the film with guests cast as eco-tourists sent to Pandora by the Alpha Centauri Expeditions company to gaze in awe at its flora and fauna and to tour the collapsing remains of humanity’s long-abandoned assault, laughing at some anonymous ancestors of our own whose greed and corruption were so obviously wrong.

The Bad

Being the “tourist” can be incredible when it means visiting other worlds, dense jungles, long-lost times, or fantastic places. But it can be dangerous when it veers too closely to another of our telltale signs of a bad story – being “too close to home.”

It’s also the thing that still makes DINOLAND, U.S.A. at Disney’s Animal Kingdom feel like an odd man out. Although we’ve argued that Dinoland is technically just as story-infused as the park’s Asia or Africa, the fact is that the underlying story just doesn’t matter much when the exterior is a nondescript small town with a parking lot carnival. It feels too close to home, sapping the excitement inherent in the “tourist” role.

When DISNEY CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE opened in 2001, the entire premise of the park was that its four “districts” replaced the need to see the rest of California. Its exaggerated, comic book style lands didn’t bother to transport guests to idealized, romanticized times and places in the history of California; instead, it invited them to step into spoofs of California like a Hollywood set of modern Hollywood, a rusted and abandoned National Park, and a modern boardwalk of unthemed carnival rides. Frankly, those are all things people can find in the real world, so visiting a Disney Park’s version of them wasn’t exactly a must-see… hence why the park’s billion-dollar reimagining focused on resetting each land’s timeline and layered on some of that historic, fantasy-infused Disney detail.


How you know if you’re “the hero”: If you fail, we all fail

The Good

Perhaps a subset of the “trainee” role, the difference with the “hero” role is that it’s often an emergency recruit that skips… well… the training. The “hero,” “savior,” or “emergency recruit” role often jumps out in connection with the tried-and-true “something goes horribly wrong” storyline. It’s what happens when – in an instant – guests are propelled from observers, trainees, or tourists into the only thing standing between good and evil.

Both STAR TOURS and STAR WARS: RISE OF THE RESISTANCE do this well by casting guests as members of the series’ Rebel and Resistance underdogs. Guests are recruited into the anti-space-fascism movements in each ride (in STAR TOURS by unknowingly having a Rebel allegiant spy on board an otherwise standard domestic flight; in Rise of the Resistance by being captured, detained, and questioned while leaving Batuu’s secret Resistance base) and suddenly find themselves as the movement’s only hope. On STAR TOURS, guests save the day by escaping. On Rise of the Resistance, they do so by keeping quiet in interrogation, then finding their way off the Star Destroyer and back to Batuu.

While California Adventure’s Web-Slingers will likely stall out at the “trainee” level, we expect further Marvel rides in Anaheim, Paris, and Hong Kong to cast guests as authentic “heroes.” For example, the Avengers Campus’ in-production mega-sized AVENGERS E-TICKET will transcend the “trainee” role and send guests on a mission where they’ll actually team up with Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and more to save Wakanda from a villainous invasion. 

The Bad

The “hero” role is one of the toughest to get right because it requires that guests fully suspend their disbelief and “believe” in the story’s high stakes. To get to that level, the ride has to have high stakes that feel authentic and a story and world that guests want to participate in.

Frankly, we explored the fine tuning needed to get this role right in our in-depth look at the loveably messy POSEIDON’S FURY. Theoretically, the attraction opened with a narrative scale to match its massive exterior, with guests witnessing a seismic battle between good and evil. But that word “witnessing” was the issue. Guests were unceremoniously dragged from chamber to chamber, then to the bottom of the sea with practically no actual “role” in the story, firmly placing Poseidon’s Fury visitors in the “Observer” role. Which was, like, a very odd bit of cognitive dissonance for an attraction that theoretically had such an epic story.

A quick-fix rewrite in 2001 was meant to revise the foundational flaws of Poseidon’s Fury by giving guests a “hero” role. However, while the current production has its “heroic” moments, it’s hard to say that it ever elevates guests past “tourist.” Why? Because the stakes don’t feel real (thanks to an antagonist who ends up being an actor in a spandex suit and armor filmed in front of a green screen) and it the world itself just isn’t a super compelling one that guests are willing to suspend their disbelief for. To that end, “tourist” seems to be where even the revised Poseidon’s Fury maxes out. 


How you know if you’re “the bait”: Your only job is to hold on tight

The Good

Okay, so if you begin as a “tourist” or “trainee” and then end up with the responsibility of saving the world, you become a “savior.” If you begin as a “tourist” or “trainee” and then end up helpless, you’re the bait. And frankly, it’s usually more fun than it sounds.

A great example is Universal’s THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF SPIDER-MAN, in which guests’ routine trip through the Daily Bugle’s press office finds the phones ringing off the hook and the reporters having walked out amid reports of the Sinister Syndicate stealing the Statue of Liberty. Editor-in-Chief J. Jonah Jameson has no choice but to recruit guests to step aboard the news-gathering SCOOP to set off into the mean streets of the city, where a quest for headlines turns guests into a toy batted back and forth between villains. So while we begin as trainees, things go wrong enough to leave us at the mercy of the Syndicate, with Spidey himself saving us as every turn. Did we help? Um… no. We kind of made things worse. But we had fun doing it!

California Adventure’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – MISSION: BREAKOUT! probably lives here given that guests enter the mysterious warehouse of the Collector to view his intergalactic oddities (including the captured Guardians themselves) but are swiftly recruited by Rocket to use their gantry lift tour clearance to sneak him aboard. With Rocket on top of the elevator and the controls hotwired, guests are propelled into a weightless, chaotic, laugh-out-loud escape attempt. At the end, as Star Lord waves goodbye and thanks guests for their help, the team’s sardonic Drax even asks, “Why are we thanking them? They did nothing.” And he’s right. We were the bait. (It’s made even more explicit in the ride’s Halloween sequel, Monsters After Dark, when Rocket instructs riders to distract the monsters set loose in the tower by “screaming real loud, and looking delicious.”)

See also JURASSIC PARK: THE RIDE in which guests are knocked off course and spend the rest of the ride trying to survive an onslaught of carnivores with basically no actual hope for self-preservation besides luck. 

The Bad

The Bad of the “bait” role is really just its quantity. At Universal Orlando, it can feel like you end up helplessly subject to an onslaught of villains, monsters, or disasters more often than you’re picking up 3D glasses (and that’s saying something). Being “the bait” is a little bit like low-hanging creative fruit. It’s fun to have something goes horribly wrong, and it’s easy to place guests into an inescapable situation while someone else controls the stakes… or worse, no one does.

Frankly, one of the best-known examples of guests being hopelessly batted around at the whims of others has to be HARRY POTTER AND THE FORBIDDEN JOURNEY. Yes, it’s a technological masterpiece… But c’mon. On board, guests are helplessly (and somewhat nonsensically) tossed from bad guy to bad guy, encountering dragons, Dementors, Basilisks, Acromantulas, the Whomping Willow all in the course of a three minute onslaught that really has only the flimsiest of “stories” to justify its existence. Riders are unceremoniously tossed from place to place with nonsensical transitions, and have absolutely no role but to hold on tight. As a “best of” montage giving Potter fans what they want, it’s a major coup. As an example of good narrative storytelling? Well…


The giveaway: It’s all about exaggerated emotion

The Good

As many Imagineering fans will be quick to tell you, when Fantasyland’s classic dark rides initially debuted, none actually had physical representations of the characters they were named for. No Snow White in SNOW WHITE’S SCARY ADVENTURES. No Mr. Toad in MR. TOAD’S WILD RIDE. The idea at that time was that you were the character; that you were seeing through Snow White or Mr. Toad or Peter Pan or Alice’s point of view, and that you were in turn experiencing the story through their feelings – hence the amping up of the scares, chaos, beauty, and trippiness, respectively.

Famously, visitors failed to connect to the concept and wondered why, for example, Snow White was no where to be seen in her own ride! As such, future revisions to the dark rides retroactively added lead characters. But what has stayed true is that guests still inhabit those characters while on board… perhaps not physically, but emotionally. Now our journey through Snow White’s Scary Adventures places us just a few precarious feet behind Snow White, thus experiencing all of the frights that came with her flight from the Witch; our madcap journey through London may not be as Mr. Toad, but we surely feel his motor mania firsthand; though we see ALICE IN WONDERLAND, we also see how vivid and peculiar Wonderland was to her.

The point is that though the specifics and the concept have changed, some of Disney’s most classic and beloved rides still rely on guests experiencing what the character experienced, but exaggerated for the medium. It’s a powerful, invigorating, and – importantly – intuitive way to be! No one has to tell you that you’ve experienced the joy of PETER PAN’S FLIGHT; you know it! You feel it! 

The abstractionist version of “the character” role is probably the one you take on when you’re aboard SPACE MOUNTAIN. You’re not a “trainee” flying to space, really… you’re just experiencing the wonder of space flight. So even though it’s not an IP character, you’re stepping into that raw, exaggerated emotion in much the same way.

The Bad

We know, we know. As readers are quick to remind us, we always pick on STITCH’S GREAT ESCAPE. But it’s a perfect example of guests experiencing the role of a character going wrong. In theory, Stitch’s Great Escape was meant to make you feel the chaos, humor, and unbridled mayhem of Stitch. It was a focused, in-depth character study that exaggerated the character’s most grotesque features. Considering that guests’ overall experience of Magic Kingdom as a whole allegedly ranked higher on days when Stitch’s Great Escape was closed, it obviously didn’t quite land.

The problem here is probably that Disney chose the wrong attributes of the character to have guests endure… er, um, experience. A great many words have been written by Disney Parks thinkers about the attraction, but one compelling thought is that Disney’s quick cash-in on the then-popular Stitch character failed to account for the fact that the juvenile, mean-spirited, gross-out character (whose features were all exaggerated in the attraction) is not the character fans loved. Quite the contrary, it was Stitch’s evolution away from his messy, mean start that made families fall for the cuddly alien. Basing an entire attraction on the “before” of his before-and-after personality was… bad. 

Put another way, both Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Stitch’s Great Escape are examples of attractions that took a single character, exaggerated their stories, and then created attractions that allowed guests to embody their core emotions… it’s just that one had a foundational flaw.