Disney Theme Park Attractions as Adaptions

There has always been a connection between theme parks and films. Rides and live shows at theme parks around the world try to emulate the action in movies and television shows, and films often try to recreate the excitement and wonder in roller coasters and live shows. For instance, the mine cart chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a clear reference to roller coasters. In fact, sound designer Ben Burtt even recorded roller coasters at Disneyland for the sound in the scene. The link between theme parks and film is even more uncanny. When a film is exciting or has you on the edge of your seat, reviewers often call it a “thrill ride.” How these films are adapted to attractions and vice versa leads us to see that certain concessions or additions are needed to make the change. Certain things are okay in live shows and rides that are not acceptable on the silver screen, and certain film tropes are impossible to pull off live.

One of the many limitations in adapting a film to a live show is the action. When building a live show, you want to bring the same emotion and suspense of the silver screen to an audience without special camera angles and close-ups. The way the audience interacts with actors fundamentally changed with the rising popularity of films. Due to the controlled environment where they are created, movies can depict more dangerous situations that live shows can only dream of trying to convey on stage. The rise of animated films with Disney allowed for even more imaginative situations than even live films could convey. They challenge for many attraction designers — in this case the Disney Company — was in making thrill rides and readapting these films back to live shows to market them efficiently. Often these shows would include a very basic story related to the source material with some music and dancing. For instance, a smaller Disneyland show on Aladdin might include actors reenacting a pre-recorded show of Aladdin saving Jasmine from some palace guards with a dance number or two. The audio would probably be pre-recorded by the Scott Weinger (the original Aladdin voice actor) and the rest of the original cast and the actors would “lip sync” the performance.

Recreating the classic airplane fist-fight scene from "Raiders"

Recreating the classic fist-fight scene from "Raiders"

Taking the Indiana Jones example, the series is connected with theme parks in many more ways than just sound effects. In response to the series’ massive success, Disney announced in 1989 the then-named Disney-MGM Studios in Florida would open the “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!” in collaboration with George Lucas. Lucas has already worked with Disney earlier to open the famous “Star Tours” simulation ride, so another collaboration for another popular series was only natural. In “Star Tours,” the task was to recreate the thrills of the Star Wars space travel scenes as realistically as possible for the audience to experience themselves. This new project presented a whole new task.

With Indiana Jones, the challenge was how to bring the excitement of what has been called “the ne plus ultra of blockbuster filmmaking” to an audience in a way that could be performed multiple times a day. Never one to be deterred by perceived limitations of any given medium, Lucas and the Imagineers concocted a live show with the intent of wow-ing the audience with dangerous stunts. The show includes a reenactment of several scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, including a temple-raiding segment, a fight in Cairo, and a fist fight with accompanying explosions. Rather than take the show as a serious narrative, the Indiana Jones actor is actually squished by the rolling boulder in the first scene. The music stops and a “crew” come on set and begin rolling the boulder back up it’s track as if it’s light as a feather. This makes way for a “director” character who walks out and addresses the crowd, explaining how all the action and danger in Indiana Jones is actually just an illusion. At first this might seem illogical for a director (George Lucas) to admit. Especially one so intent on making their films exciting. This highlights an important difference in action films and action drama. Indiana Jones isn’t a serious drama, it’s a light-hearted action movie less interested in violence and more in adventure. The Disney Imagineers also faced the issue of George Lucas’s plan to include multiple scenes from the film. Changing scenes as big as planned takes time. Stunt shows are also often akin to magic shows, where the majority of the show isn’t the trick itself, but rather the lead-up to it. Combining all this, the show was designed to initially highlight the actors are safe, so that the audience can simply enjoy the rest of the show and even laugh about it without worrying.

A hallmark of the Indiana Jones series is also its comedy. In order to appeal to this, part of the show also involves selecting audience members to be “extras” in the Cairo scene. However, one of the members selected is actually a “planted” stunt actor. Later in the show, this actor performs a death-defying stunt and the audience gasps, thinking an audience member inadvertently was in the line of fire. The actor jumps up and admits he was a stunt actor all along, one again declaring to the audience that it’s all just a performance. This is a way to once again grab the audience’s attention in a way that emulates Indiana Jones’ many near-death stunts.

The popularity of the Indiana Jones franchise only continued to grow after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released. Indiana Jones attractions were eerily absent at Disneyland Anaheim. Thus, George Lucas again teamed up with Disney (and this time over 400 Imagineers) to produce “Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye” (TheRaider.NET). This ride was truly a breakthrough in adaptation and storytelling. The thrill ride itself takes place in a specially-patened military-hummer-themed “motion vehicle” as you zoome through chambers, moving up and down past flying darts, snakes, over bridges, and past rolling boulders (Baxter et al.). However, that’s only half the ride. An entire backstory was created for the ride. The ride is “set in the Lost Delta of India, circa 1935” (TheRaider.NET). This backstory is told through over a dozen letters scattered through the ride’s line. The “line” is a half mile long full-scale temple with 11 separate “chambers” you must navigate. The chambers branch and tell different parts of the story, the last room containing an optical illusion which makes it look like it is three separate rooms. The line itself is the first half of the story. Along with the letters, some news reels, and telegraphs, the chambers include moving spikes, skulls, animatronic snakes, hanging skeletons, claustrophobic walkways, and more. The point of this was to make the audience feel like Indiana Jones raiding a temple. The audience themselves explore a temple during the first half, then must escape during the second half via “modified military transport vehicles” (TheRaider.NET).

Blueprints for the special vehicles Disney used for the ride

This all begs the question why there is such a connection between films and theme parks. The Walt Disney Company is the most profitable media conglomerate in the world (Siklos). Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is the most visited theme park company in the world. Though not initially intended as such, the Disney film and Disney theme park businesses were destined to be eternally intertwined. The Disneyland park was created as a place for fans – young and old – of Disney’s vision to come and have fun and experience dreams come true. Disneyland and the later parks were originally dreamed up as “societies” with both residential and commercial areas. EPCOT was marketed by Disney as an actual city. These plans were scrapped after Walt Disney died and the Disney Company decided they did not want to run an entire city. Instead, they would focus on “experience” in their parks. Their famous Imagineers focus on bringing the imagination to life in their rides and shows.

Many films have been turned into rides. Not always successfully, either. Most theme park adaptions incorporate the original story into the ride’s vehicle-design specifically. “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” (based on the movie) involves vehicles shaped like honey pots. Alice In Wonderland has been adapted numerous times into different Disney attractions. For this ride, Disney took the classic “teacup ride” design and applied an Alice skin to it. Right next to the “Mad Tea Party” in the park is another ride entitled “Alice In Wonderland.” The ride vehicle here is a magic caterpillar which goes down the rabbit hole. Interestingly, Alice is only seen hidden behind a leaf in one small portion of this ride. The point of both these attractions is to make the visitor feel like Alice, either at the tea party or perusing through Wonderland. Interestingly, the “Alice In Wonderland” ride is one of the only rides Walt Disney regretted making because he said it “lacked a connection to the audience’s hearts” (Disney Wiki).

It’s fair to say that in general, films and theme park attractions have had tropes which can be hard to adapt between the two and keep the same feeling or spirit. However, the line between what’s possible and not in an attraction are constantly being blurred. How theme park adaptations will look ten years from now we can only imagine.


Works Cited:


“Alice in Wonderland (Disneyland Attraction).” Disney Wiki. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

Baxter, Anthony W. et al. “United States Patent: 5623878 – Dynamic Ride Vehicle.” 29 Apr. 1997. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

Siklos, Richard. “Why Disney Wants DreamWorks – Feb. 9, 2009.” CNN Money. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

“TheRaider.net – Indiana Jones Attractions.” TheRaider.NET. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

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