WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — Boasting obscure characters and detailed story lines, several new attractions opened at theme parks this summer in Central Florida. The new rides and areas are much different from those just a generation ago, when Dumbo the Flying Elephant was considered high tech.
These days, a ride involving a simple, blue elephant just won't cut it.
Take World of Chima at Legoland, for instance. The attraction is based on a Lego building block play set and Cartoon Network show about eight animal tribes, a crocodile king, magical vehicles called Speedorz and a life force called Chi. There are epic battles over the Ancient Pool of Chi, set in a lushly landscaped tropical world.
Or look at Universal's Transformers ride. It isn't just inspired by the toy and the movie — it's a detailed, 3-D, "interactive battle" between the Autobots and Decepticons that has its own website.
Even the straightforward-sounding Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin ride at SeaWorld Orlando is about a penguin hatchling who grows up, leaves his mom, is chased by a leopard seal through a psychedelic-looking world and then reunited with his tribe of fellow birds. Real, live penguins appear at the end of the ride.
When did fun become so complicated?
Theme park consultants say attractions need to be more detailed in the age of video games, smartphones and 3-D TVs. And of course, parks aren't just competing with home entertainment; they're competing against each other for guests' time and money, especially in the I-4 corridor, a busy highway that runs through the Orlando area. The rise of the Internet means everyone is a critic — several theme park fan blogs are devoted to dissecting the geeky details of each new attraction.
"In the 1970s we could do quite a bit in theme parks," said John Gerner, the managing director of Leisure Business Advisors LLC. "Nowadays, it's hard to provide a typical music show. There just isn't that much of a thrill anymore."
Attraction designers have a difficult job: They must present a story to guests of all ages, from all walks of life.
"It's got to be layered and it's got to work on a number of different levels," said Phil Hettema, a California-based theme park designer. "It's got to work on the kids, the adults. It's pretty tricky. You're trying to convey a lot for those who don't know it. You have to give the newcomer enough clues."
With an established story like Transformers, many people have seen the 1980s TV cartoon, and many more the movie franchise. So even if Universal's intense, dark ride involves a new story or is incredibly detailed, most people can follow the narrative.
Same with Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Many of the visitors are familiar with the story, either through J.K Rowling's books or the blockbuster movies. Yet familiarity also has its pitfalls for theme park designers: Rabid fans know when a detail is out of place.
Scott Thomas, Cartoon Network's vice president of consumer marketing, says he's gotten emails from the under-10 set about inconsistencies and questions in the storyline for the Chima cartoon. "Kids today have very high expectations," he said. "And the storylines are very complex in kids' media today."