Writing Great Themed Shows 1

One of my earliest Disney memories is the Character Shows at Carnation Plaza Gardens, what I call the ‘Where’s Mickey?’ shows because they all seemed to have the same plot: all The Gang is here, except – Where’s Mickey?! Then they’d scatter to look for him, leaving Goofy, then Donald, then Chip & Dale to do their specialties. Mickey would arrive in time to join everybody for the finale.

(With the 70s along came women’s lib and ‘Where’s Mickey?’ was replaced by the ‘Where’s Minnie?’ show; finally in the eighties, Mr. Eisner put his hand in everywhere and we saw the advent of the ‘Where’s Roger Rabbit?’ show.)

Of course the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland was my favorite show in the Park for decades, but ‘Show Me America’ in 1970 really opened my eyes to what could be accomplished on a theme park stage; a book show with a full, live orchestra, Broadway-caliber talent and a script that told an original, coherent story.

The Dapper Dans and the Main Street Maniacs always surprised and charmed, and in the 90s Disney-MGM’s Dick Tracy Show was a landmark; not only for its production values but for being a show based on a Disney film that dared to not recycle the same plot as the movie!

At the other end of the scale, EPCOT’s ‘Splashtacular’, left me hot, sore and confused (When our hero Mickey asked the villain what it was she was after all she’d tell him was, “None of your business!”). Disneyland’s ambitious ‘Snow White’ Live!’ seemed a beautifully-produced-but-wasted opportunity to involve us in the story we all knew and adored, and the less said about ‘Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration’ the better.

When theme parks dream big great things happen… about 50% of the time (Remember that the ‘Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” opened the same day as ‘Food Rocks’!). But looking back on the broad scope of live entertainment I’ve enjoyed (and the ones I’ve endured) a few elements stand out that the successful shows had in common. I call them the ‘5 Keys to Creating Great Themed Entertainment’, and I’d like to share them with you (and any Future Showmen who might be looking in):

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DELIVER WHAT YOU PROMISE

Many years ago I visited the Six Flags park in Atlanta where I waited in a long, hot line for their Jungle Cruise attraction. I was giving serious thought to leaving the line to find some shade and a cold drink, but every boat that returned from its trip was filled with cheering, clapping Guests who obviously had the time of their lives on the ride, so I hung around.

When I finally embarked on my jungle adventure I found the ride was a long, uneventful bore. The highlight of the whole experience was the moment just before ride’s end when our skipper announced, “When we come around this corner, be sure to cheer and applaud so the folks in line will think this is a great ride!” I would be tempted to condemn the park for lying to me about the quality of the attraction, but they never advertised the ride as being any good (even if that was my hope). All they really promised was that at the end I’d be happy… demonstrably so. And so I was, as I happily-but-cruelly perpetuated the gag.

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What is show is called, how it’s advertised and – yes – the other Guests’ reactions constitute a promise to the Guest. We create certain expectations and if those expectations aren’t met, if we haven’t kept our promise, that’s bad show.

When Disneyland’s ‘Enchanted Tiki Room’ opened in 1963, it was a perfect example of a show keeping the promise of its name. It was indeed an enchanted room filled with tikis.

On the other hand, in Walt Disney World’s ‘Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management’ all the ‘New Management’ did was complain about the original show. The title ‘Under New Management’ carries the promise of improvements – a change for the better. None was forthcoming. So not only was the promise broken, but those of us who knew and loved the original were confronted only with audio-animatronic assaults on Walt Disney’s ground-breaking classic attraction.

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When we were creating the Blues Brothers Show for Universal Studios Florida, our first version consisted entirely of the boys at stand mics singing next to the Bluesmobile. It was the Blues Brothers and it was a show. Promise fulfilled? Not nearly.

Even if the Guests were only expecting to hear a few songs, we are a theme park where we are supposed to put you in the movies. By promising to deliver the Blues Brothers in such an environment we have raised expectations. It now falls to us to create within the Guests a sensation of being in the movie WITH the Blues Boys.

Now look at the movie. John Landis’ film is a series of relatively average situations that Jake & Elwood come into and violently change. They’re single-minded, egotistical, delusional, disrespectful, rude and funny. They have a profound effect on those around them — offending, insulting, amusing, inspiring and ultimately moving average folks to dance in the streets.

Now look again at the Guests. They’ve seen the movie (Some executive-types will tell you the Guests haven’t seen the movie, don’t know the characters and, in fact, don’t know ANYTHING… When they tell you that simply ask them, “Then why are they attending the show?” That shuts them up). They know these characters and they are there in anticipation of seeing the same kind of behavior and feeling the same deviant delight in their hijinks they felt in the movie theater.

Now look at the two previous paragraphs. See it? There’s the treatment for the Blues Brothers Show. Everything you need to include to fulfill the Guests’ expectations is listed right there.

Instead of announcing “The Blues Brothers!” and starting the medley… we create a situation, something that involves the Guests’ presence. We set up a premise: a need, an adversary and a crisis situation.

A lone saxophone is heard and a young man (Willie) rounds the corner in cook’s garb, playing for his own enjoyment. His wife (Mabel) meets him at the apartment door and they perform a song for the crowd (‘Stand by Me’). Willie tells Mabel he’s got a date to play a gig in Chicago with Jake and Elwood, but she refuses to let him go…

THEN sneak in the music (‘Peter Gunn Theme’). If you’ve done this right, the Guests will turn as one and smile, cause the Bluesmobile will just be rounding the corner. The Blues Brothers hop out of the car and introduce themselves to Mabel.

So now they start singing, right? Wrong. Park Management might tell you they should start singing and even some of the Guests might be ready for a song, but we’re on a Mission from God; we’re building an emotional moment that will exceed expectations and engage the Guests in a way that a Vegas act never can.

Now there’s a scene. The Blues Brothers plead for Willie’s release, Mabel self-righteously objects and Jake proceeds to work his magic: whining, conniving, pleading and pouting while Elwood stands by, stoically backing up everything his brother says.

NOW there’s a song… from Mabel. Wait — WHAT? Why aren’t the Blues singing?! Because we’re still building that moment.

Remember the scene with Aretha Franklin in the diner when she sings ‘Think’ to her husband, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, backed up by three diner patrons? There’s a magic moment in that song that we’re going to recapture; it’s the moment when Jake and Elwood are suddenly up off their stools and dancing along to the number. It’s funny because a) it’s unexpected, b) they’re deadly serious and c) it’s wonderfully choreographed, shot and edited. So (while we’re using a different song and a different situation) we’re going to borrow that bit while pushing the scene forward with Mabel’s song.

A note on ‘difference’ – I changed the song to help the audience see the moment through new eyes. I don’t even use an Aretha Franklin song here; I borrow an ‘angry attitude’ song from The Wiz (‘No Bad News’) that conveys the same message as the original scene. This keeps the audience with us in the moment as opposed to thinking back to and making comparisons with the original.

After the adversary sings with the Boys as back-up dancers the scene continues — there’s a desperate come-to-Jesus moment and finally Jake & Elwood have to prove themselves. The vamp for ‘Soul Man’ begins… and now the Guests aren’t just ready, they’re primed. The songs we were going to throw at them now have a purpose, an emotional context… in essence, we’ve placed the Guests within the framework of the movie. And when at the end Jake invites the Guests to join the cast in a street dance there won’t have to be any, “Aw, come on!” whining from the stage. The Guests will jump in and line up and rock the street because, after all, aren’t we all in this movie together?

We promised the Blues Brothers. We have delivered on that promise.

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Nomenclature is one of our most powerful tools in creating magic. What we call the show forms a pact with the audience, setting up expectations. While in the Park the Guest has a million decisions to make, and to an unfamiliar visitor using a map or guide book those decisions are made based on nomenclature: When choosing between ‘Space Mountain’ and ‘Dumbo, the Flying Elephant’, which seems a better investment of my limited time and effort?

‘The Blues Brothers Show’ promises a certain experience. By carefully analyzing, anticipating and exceeding expectations we can keep that promise. It’s always easier to identify bad nomenclature after the fact. Any Guest filing out of the studio after USF’s first Christmas Event knew for a fact that ‘Universal’s Super Santa-Tastic Extravaganza’ was bad nomenclature; it made a promise NO ONE could hope to keep (The blame for this kind of misjudgment lies not only with the originator of such blather, but with the manager who approved it and believed the Guests wouldn’t ultimately be disappointed by it).

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Keeping your promise to the Guest is the biggest reason to see that a show or attraction is properly maintained. Repeat visitors, especially, expect to see the same show they saw before with all the effects and elements operational.

Every attraction has a ‘Moment of Maximum Anticipation’; it’s that feeling the Guest has before the show actually begins, before they’ve even entered the venue, when they’re relying on you to keep the promise made by the show’s name and premise. They are still free to believe the seats will be comfortable with a good view of the stage, the show will be funny or dramatic or nostalgic, everyone in their group will be enchanted and they’ll leave happy that they invested in the experience.

From the moment they step inside, the process of tearing into that anticipation begins: The seats are metal benches instead of comfortable recliners, the view is obstructed by the man in front of them with a child on his shoulders, the animation is out-of-synch or broken, the jokes are poor, the climax is disappointing or the rest of the family are sorry they came.

Some things we can’t help; and some folks will always have unreasonable expectations. But the quality of the writing and the maintenance of the show are things we can and should make a priority.

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One more note: Shows evolve. Walls are hit, limits reset, budgets cut. These influences will inevitably affect the final product. And since the craft of themed entertainment is Dealing Creatively with Operational Reality, it is the responsibility of the producer to continually check the work-in-progress to make sure the result can deliver on its promise. If changes dictate, adjust your nomenclature and promotional content to match what your Guest is actually going to get.

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About Ron Schneider

Creative Consultant, Lecturer, Freelance Writer, Director & Show Doctor, Actor and Voice-Over. Lifelong student of themed interactive entertainment.
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