Legoland worked with Cartoon Network writers and animators on the Chima attraction to sync details and distill the complex cartoon into basic elements. But they also recognized that not all guests have heard of Chima, said Candy Holland, senior creative director for the Legoland parent company Merlin Entertainment. So, for the uninitiated, designers used the queue line to tell the Chima story so people could be brought up to speed before boarding the water ride.
"It's a balance," Holland said. "There are some people who may not yet be familiar with the Chima theme. Some people come to Legoland, maybe haven't even played with Legos yet. And it's a great opportunity for the parents to understand why their kids are living in, and obsessed with, the World of Chima."
SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica is a rarity in the attractions world: It's an entirely new story, not based on any movie, show, book or toy. "It can be done if there are some other innate aspects to the story," said Gerner. "Penguins as animal have innate appeal."
Smaller and regional parks often have attractions with simpler concepts, but internationally, large parks are also going for the complicated narratives popping up in big parks here. Universal's Transformers ride opened in Singapore before hitting the U.S., and a dark ride that opened in July at Lotte World, an enormous mall and entertainment complex in South Korea, revolves around a pack of dragons that descend on a castle. Riders must "seek them out and encourage them to leave," said Hettema, who worked on the ride.
It all comes down to narrative, theme park experts agree.
"As storytellers, we have to always be advocates for the guest," said Craig Hanna, owner and chief creative officer at the Burbank, Calif.-based Thinkwell Group. "We have to make sure that whatever story we're telling is easy for the guest to consume."
Hanna, who worked on several attractions for Universal, including the Men in Black ride, said attraction designers put a lot of thought into plot and character. Attractions must be detailed and true to the story, he said, but not so detailed that they're confusing.
Theron Skees, who works in Orlando for Disney's creative corps, known as the "imagineers," said the new and richly detailed themed areas in parks today are actually in line with what Walt Disney himself envisioned some six decades ago.
"Storytelling has to be relevant to the culture," he said.
Imagineers at Disney create a backstory when they first develop a themed area, complete with a hierarchical narrative. No detail is too small to explore or discuss: lighting, architecture, sound, landscaping, costumes — all in hopes of creating an emotional connection with the guest. Often, that backstory stays backstage, and guests never see or hear about the creative process.
When Disney theme parks first opened in California in 1955, Western themed-stories were popular, and so was the resulting Frontierland attraction.
These days, Skees said, people are well-traveled and knowledgeable about worldwide trends — American kids are into Japanese anime, for instance — and the parks reflect this.
"We're dealing with a more sophisticated audience who are more globally aware of storytelling and genres," he said.