In this series of articles, I hope to deconstruct the theme park attraction name to understand what makes them effective, their role in the theme park experience and identify the numerous considerations and influences that can shape just a few small words.
Sometime in the mid-eighties, Disney’s newly appointed CEO, Michael Eisner, was looking over some models of upcoming Disneyland attractions and decided to make a suggestion for the Zip-a-Dee River Run: the Imagineers should include an animatronic of Daryl Hannah as the mermaid from the 1984 Disney hit Splash! To Michael, the film held a special significance as the first major studio hit since he took on his new job, but to the Imagineers it was pretty apparent their new boss didn’t quite understand how Disney theme park attractions worked yet. Amongst the critters and creatures of a 19th century Deep South, an eighties mermaid wouldn’t be the most natural fit. Michael was happy to take on board the correction when the Imagineers explained it to him, but wasn’t fully content with the name Zip-a-Dee River Run. Disneyland has a Space Mountain, a Matterhorn mountain and a Big Thunder Mountain, he thought, why not a Splash Mountain (a name infinitely more marketable to those familiar with Disney’s mountain range). Decades later, the Imagineers can’t think of any name that more perfectly suits the attraction.
Attraction names are incredibly important and must simultaneously accomplish a number of objectives, appealing to a wide range of people, and at the same time simply sound good. Those words on a park map or the name above a queue-line may be the only incentive for a guest to commit their park time to the unknown attraction within. Whether an attraction name sounds great is of course highly subjective, but what possibilities for names there are, and what constitutes a good name from a practical and communicative perspective is certainly something that can be analysed. Despite their apparent simplicity, good attraction names require an aptitude and flair for language to fulfil everything required from them.
Historically, attraction names were originally remarkably malleable, even in Disneyland. Attraction names would differ between the park maps, the park guides, the attraction sign or between employees, and in many cases included little thought at expression, being more description than an attempt at evoking an adventure as in the case of the Disneyland Mule Pack Ride. Through time, however, attraction names have come to be recognised as an important element in the overall show, as will hopefully be explained.
Theme park attraction names need to fulfil a number of practical requirements, the most fundamental of which being to get the guests to want to experience the attraction and justify their waiting in line, a goal often accomplished by an intriguing, exciting or inviting name to draw people in. Each attraction name needs to be somewhat unique, not overly complicated and immediately identifiable with the attraction it refers to so incidents of mistaken identity are not common (a problem which might cause guests to search for a different attraction to the one they wish to experience).
Beyond this however, an attraction name can also be selective in order to specifically target the appropriate audience for that particular experience. It is of no value getting guests of all ages interested in an attraction designed only for a specific age bracket: consider the different audiences that Tower of Terror would appeal to when compared to Alice’s Tea Party. When Sindbad’s Seven Voyages opened at Tokyo DisneySea, it had trouble locating its audience - the scary elements made the ride unpleasant for young children, but the production design was too cartoony for older guests. The attraction was eventually given a make-over in which it was made to specifically target a younger demographic. The scarier scenes were toned down, a new, more childlike song was brought in, and as part of the process the attraction was renamed Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, making clear the attractions intention to be a children’s retelling of the Arabian stories. Certain words and phrases are more likely to appeal to children than adults, and this can be used to appeal to certain groups. More complicated attraction names aren’t appropriate to Fantasyland, which primarily caters to a younger crowd, for example.
As well as demographic selection, an attraction name should also give a general sense of what the attraction is, empowering the guests to be self-selective in choosing the attractions which will most appeal to them. Attractions such as the Mystic Manor, Spinball Whizzer and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall each give some suggestion to the experience (in these cases mysterious, dizzying or scary) so that guests know which attractions to seek out, and which to avoid.
Finally, the attraction name also takes a role in being one of the first elements in telling the story, equipping the guests with their first morsels of information about the experience to come. The name is generally the first piece of incluing guests receive, and can be used to prepare the guest who some expectations about the attraction. Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye immediately tells the guest that this temple is not a welcoming place, and perhaps somewhere they shouldn’t be, readying them for their dramatic escape later on. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea gives quite direct exposition about the guests’ intended destination, but does in a dramatic and mysterious way, whilst Dragon Challenge challenges the guests to survive the experience that awaits them.
Expanding on attraction name’s position of introducing the story, we move beyond the practical requirements of an attraction name and begin to explore their role in the story experience and the fictional world. Attraction names divide into those which are diegetic and those which are extra-diegetic, the deciding question here being whether a fictional character in the presented environment would call the attraction by the same name as a guest. For example, a cowboy in Frontierland would be knowledgeable about the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but a spaceman in Tomorrowland would be expecting perhaps the Star Command Headquarters over a location called Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters.
Diegetic Attraction Names: Main Street Cinema, Jungle Cruise, Tarzan’s Treehouse, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Princess Fantasy Faire, Mickey’s House, Space Mountain, Star Tours, etc.
Extra-Diegetic Attraction Names: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan’s Flight, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, etc.
Assuming a goal of creating seamless fantasy environments in which an attraction is just a logical extension of what the characters in that world might get up to, the extra-diegetic attraction name seems somewhat problematic, isolating the attraction as a distinct entity. With the avoidance of attraction names being far too logistically problematic, the general solution has to been to accept the name as a manifestation of Theme Park Acknowledgement. Attraction names cannot always be diegetic (or even if they can be, may hold far more expression in a name which is extra-diegetic), and so designers have chosen to embrace this, devising names of wonderfully theatrical and cinematic proportions, such as the Haunted Mansion, Revenge of the Mummy or Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune.
Diegesis is generally favoured because it continues the illusion of the environment. Compare Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to Runaway Mine Train: the first maintains the premise of really being back in the wild American frontier, organically experiencing the same events that a cowboy might come across, whilst the second is discernibly fake and manufactured – if the fictional characters in the attraction’s world knew it would run away, they would have stopped it.
Attraction names don’t need to be diegetic, but the key to their suitability is recognising that the attraction sign will be visible in the land and ensuring that it does not impact on the overall environment. This problem is apparent in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, where the attraction sign for Stitch’s Great Escape is far too dominant over its surroundings. Whilst the name may be suitable for the experiences, seeing the extra-diegetic signs breaks the illusion of being in a real futuristic city: if this really was the headquarters of the Intergalactic Council, why would they have a sign saying ‘Stitch’s Great Escape’ and a two-dimensional Stitch cut-out image at their entrance? A solution may have been to have a video billboard as the attraction entrance, broadcasting a fake news alert that Stitch has escaped, whilst the two-dimensional Stitch flat could have been a Stitch silhouette shaped cut-out through the metalwork, as though the destructive alien had ripped his way right through it (whilst the shape remained familiar to guest passers-by).
Diegesis can often lie in the presentation of the attraction name. Consider the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which is certainly extra-diegetic as a name. At Tokyo DisneySea, the Twilight Zone source material was dropped due to a lack of exposure in Japan and the attraction came to be known simply as Tower of Terror - a name which might very well have remained extra-diegetic. However, through a clever backstory, it is established that the New York City Preservation Society is offering tours of the mysterious building – the “Tower of Terror”, a local nickname for the crumbling hotel. The attraction sign is made to look like an advertisement for the tours. Similarly, whilst Space Mountain could have stayed as an abstract name for the conical structure, many years after opening the Disney Imagineers cleverly established the backstory that the building is really a Space Mountain-class Spaceship which has landed in Tomorrowland, backed up with nearby imagery of a cluster of Space Mountain-class Spaceships flying through space, or other Space Mountain-class Spaceships docked to a space station.
Even extra-diegetic names can be presented in a diegetic way. For example, the entrance to Slinky Dog Zigzag Spin at Walt Disney Studios Park is portrayed as the box the toy dog came in. On the side, the advertising slogan reads: “Collector’s edition Slinky Dog. See him Zigzag. See him Spin round ‘n’ round”, but because the bolded words are so much larger, guests who read it can clearly see it as the name of the attraction.
Generally, the ultimate aim is a name which is simultaneously both diegetic and cinematic.
In Part II, I shall begin to deconstruct attraction names used throughout Disney, Universal and Merlin theme parks to understand the common sources providing the content of attraction names.