Monday, May 26, 2014

Getting Meta - Layered Narrative in Walt Disney World Attractions

Getting Meta - Layered Narrative in Walt Disney World Attractions

Having a story within a story is nothing new, and can sometimes provide a good narrative structure to transition between tales. Sometimes it goes too far, and sometimes the narrative conceits draw the audience out of the story, reminding them that it's just a story and they're just an onlooker. Take for example the timeless classic Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny.

Santa Claus tells a group of children about a girl visiting Pirates World.  She visits a diorama display of the story of Thumbelina, which is narrated by a tinny PA, and we begin story number three, occasionally cutting back to the girl listening. In this case, the narrative structure is for padding the running time and maybe patching up some gaps between scenes.

There was a similar structure for The Princess Bride, except there the interruptions were more for comedy (and as a strange sideways apology for having an otherwise unapologetic fairy tale fantasy movie in 1987).  It worked better there, but it still reminded the audience "None of this really happened, or even pretended to happen, it's a story a pretend grandfather told".

And if anybody does storytelling, and does things too far, it's Disney parks.  While Walt himself was big on everything having a story, things got silly by the 90s or so.  Every resort restaurant or bus terminal got its own elaborate backstory.

A lot of this was obsessive, but innocuous.  99.9% of guests aren't going to know the in-jokes behind the window displays in Main Street, or that a trolley car's license plate number is an imagineers' wife's birthday backwards.  Most don't know, fewer care, but not knowing doesn't diminish the experience.  Usually.

The problem of an attraction being too wrapped up in its narrative structure (or guests being too stupid, if you're less charitable) began day one at Disneyland with Snow White and Her Adventures.  Guests complained that the ride didn't have Snow White, not realizing that the concept was that they were Snow White.  Snow White was later added in (1983 for Disneyland, 1994 for Disney World), and somehow I doubt that guests panicked as they were suddenly able to bilocate.  "I thought I was Snow White!  Why am I over there?!"

Over the next few weeks we'll look at other times that the narrative structure of an attraction got too complex for its own good.

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