Marc Davis was one of the most influential Imagineers of all time. Chances are, if you like Disney’s parks, he had something to do with it.
He’s certainly one of my heroes, and--like any worthwhile hero--when he says something I disagree with, it forces me to evaluate my beliefs.
Well, it took three years of research, but I can now say honestly that, in the following quote, Marc Davis pisses me off.
“[Walt] didn’t like the idea of telling stories in this medium. It’s not a story-telling medium. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates. You don’t see a story that starts at the beginning and ends with, ‘By golly, they got the dirty dog.’ It wasn’t that way.”
Apparently this was a jab at former CEO Michael Eisner, who filled the parks with narrative structures that were designed for films, but not parks. In that context, I agree with Davis' gist.
What pisses me off is his phrasing. Eisner may have used the word “story” as a slogan to rationalize some tasteless choices, but he didn’t change its definition.
Theme parks are full of stories! It's part of what makes 'em so special. The difference between an amusement park and a theme park is that a theme park is unified by...well...a theme--which is a narrative concept.
What’s more, there are tons of narrative structures that were designed exclusively for the parks. They don't exist anywhere else. If we wanted to tell a Forensic Story, for example, we couldn't do it in a movie or a novel. It would be too oblique. We'd have to tell it in real life, by committing a crime and then toying with the police.
(...although, to be fair, he might have. We don't know.)
Theme parks and narratives have been revolutionizing one another for the better part of a century, and the results have been fascinating. Despite that, their relationship is barely being studied.
Davis certainly isn't encouraging anyone to do so with that quote. To me, that's a shame--but maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the quote gets one thing right. Most attractions don’t have a story.
Davis' quote actually hints at the first structure we're gonna discuss. He may not deign to acknowledge that it’s a story, but rest assured, it is.
It’s just simple. So simple, we don’t even notice it while we’re experiencing it--which is more or less the point.
The Experiential Story
Remember, back in English class, when you learned about narrative points of view? Didn’t it feel like the second person perspective got short-changed?
After all, first person had classics like Cat’s Cradle, the Great Gatsby, and Jane Eyre! Third person had the Old Man and the Sea, Oliver Twist, and Harry Potter! Second person had the Choose Your Own Adventure series...and cookbooks...aaand greeting cards.
Well, suck it, Faulkner, ‘cause second person’s also got Disneyland. (I’ve always wanted to write that sentence.)
An Experiential Story is about us. That’s right, us! You and me and all who’ve come to this happy place are each, individually, its protagonists. It's the chronicle of our experiences as we attend an attraction.
Usually, stories happen to someone else. First- and third-person protagonists serve as our window into the world--but while we sympathize with them, it’s rare that we’re personally invested. If, for example, they fall off a mountain and die, we don't die with them.
In the parks, however, stories happen to us. We're surround by 'em! If we fall off a mountain...well, let's hope that the fat guy in our row hasn't left too much of a gap between us and the lap-bar.
As such, the Experiential Story appeals directly to our subconscious minds. That’s why they can be hard to analyze: they affect us through subtext, not text--which means they can omit exposition that we expect other kinds of stories, like movies and novels and ballads and whatnot, to tell us.
For example, in the Experiential Story of the Swiss Family Treehouse, we are the protagonists, are our objective is “achieving the thrill of voyeurism, and trying not to get caught.” Christ, what a big red beautifully pushable button that is! If this were a film, we would absolutely get caught.
But it’s a park, and we don't. First, we enter someone else's home, ogling and groping and breathing on their belongings, and then we exit, relieved to have gotten away with it, and then we try to dissuade ourselves from buying a second Dole Whip.
Now that would make a boring film. It’s not about someone who wants something badly but has trouble getting it--it’s about someone who wants something fleetingly and gets it as soon as they’re able to climb around a tree full of staircases! There’s no conflict!
But when we walk through the Treehouse, we know there is conflict. We can feel the tension! Since the story's happening to us, and we can't hide behind a first- or third-person protagonist, we're much more sensitive. The mere possibility of danger is enough to excite and satisfy us, on its own.
In Experiential Stories, our objectives are...well...experiences. Usually they're about seeking thrills, humor, entertainment, or interesting information.
Our antagonists can be just as vaguely defined. Anything that can negatively affect us is fair game, be it a boring show, a waterfall, or people who voluntarily spend their time at Disneyland shooting things.
Ah juss want mah Country back!!"
Perhaps the vaguest element of the Experiential Story is its chronology.
Usually, chronology depends upon a line of dominoed actions, each one resulting from the one that preceded it. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, the scene where the Queen commands the Hunter to kill Snow White is followed by a scene where the Hunter lets Snow White escape, which is followed by a scene where Snow White gets lost in the woods, and so on.
An Experiential Story doesn't need to follow such a coherent route. By appealing directly to our subconscious, it can link scenes together that may seem irrelevant on paper, but still manage to be satisfying in person.
This principle is illustrated in the beginning of Marc Davis’ “storyless” masterpiece, Pirates of the Caribbean.
Despite the title, the Disneyland version of the ride does not begin in the Caribbean Sea, but rather, in a Louisiana bayou, where there aren’t any pirates. Then we pass through some caverns and fall down some waterfalls, and only then do we reach the Caribbean Sea, and the pirates therein.
We’ve teleported, and maybe even time-traveled. In most stories, these plot devices would merit a lot of attention, but not in this one. The ride neither foreshadows nor comments upon them. They just...happen. The event is atmospheric and interesting, and it feels right.
Teleporting from Louisiana to the Caribbean is affecting--not because it makes sense--but rather, because it fits tonally with the scenes that follow it. We feel eerily isolated in the bayou, and once we enter the caverns, we feel it even moreso. We’re not following logic through the story--we’re following emotion.
The problem with this approach is that, if we were writing an Experiential Story, how would we know where to end it?
Most stories announce what’s gonna happen pretty clearly. Toy Story can’t end until Woody brings Buzz back to Andy, Amadeus can’t end until Salieri explains his part in killing Mozart, and Black Swan can’t end until Natalie Portman gets so stressed that she turns into a chicken monster.
With Experiential Stories, however, our objectives are too broadly defined to have such simple parameters. In the Enchanted Tiki Room, for example, our objective is "to enjoy the show."
Well, how many songs does it take for us to enjoy the show? If we sit down, hear the opening number, and enjoy it--can the attraction satisfactorily end?
Of course it can't. Our objective here is "enjoying the show"--and the show not only includes the music, but also the experience of watching everything come to life, from the smallest characters to the largest. We sense this rhythm: first the hosts wake up, then the glee club, then the flower arrangements, then the room itself, and finally, the weather outside.
So the chronology of an Experiential Story can not only be organized by tone--as in Pirates, when we teleport from Louisiana to the Caribbean--but also by intensity--as in the Tiki Room, when nature, itself, comes to life at the end of a song, and we sense that the show will soon be over.
The cool thing is, Marc Davis sortakinda agrees with this. In a more constructive jab, he explains, “[Attractions] really don’t have a story, with a beginning, an end, or a plot. It’s more a series of experiences building up to a climax.”
That last sentence hits the nail on the head--but it ignores the fact that “building up to a climax” is a narrative function! Even more ironically, it's a function that requires a beginning, an ending, and a plot!
If the Tiki Room had no beginning, we’d enter a fully animated room, and there’d be no climax to build up to.
If it had no ending, we’d be sitting there all day, and even the show's most ardent supporters would wanna strangle those goddamn birds.
If it had no plot, then the characters could come to life in any order--let’s say the weather, the glee club, the room itself, the flower arrangements, and last but not least, the hosts--and it would make no sense.
Describing an attraction’s organization as “a series of experiences building up to a climax” also ignores the question of why the attraction is bothering to build 'em up, in the first place. The teleportation from Louisiana to the Caribbean isn’t just happening in a void. Who’s it for?
Anyone who’s ever been on Pirates knows the answer. “The experiences are for us, because they're thrilling, because we fall down a waterfall without getting hurt.” Protagonist, objective, antagonist. Clear as day and--since it appeals to our subconscious--just as transparent.
Admittedly, the Experiential Story isn’t exclusive to theme parks. Any medium that puts us through an experience can tell one.
For example--technically speaking--reading the dictionary counts as an Experiential Story. Our objective is “learning new information,” and our antagonist is “being unable to find it.” It begins when our curiosity is piqued, escalates when we search for the information, and concludes when we find it.
Of course, that's a stretch. Whoever wrote the dictionary probably wasn't trying to provide us with a narrative experience. Even if they were, and we agree that this qualifies as an Experiential Story, it's a boring one.
The Experiential Stories that are worth analyzing are told in more engaging forms, like improv games, method acting, and amusement parks. These all provide very different activities--but they each tell a story from second person perspective that appeals directly to our subconscious minds, and their contents are organized by tone and intensity.
Theme parks do this, too--but in a wholly unique way. Unfortunately, we can't discuss how without first taking a detour to learn about the other type of story that the parks tell.
The Observable Story
Just as the Experiential Story is told from a second person perspective, the Observable Story is told from a third person perspective.
It's not the same type of story that we see in movies and novels and ballads and whatnot, but it works a lot like them. Its protagonist, objective, antagonist, and chronology all exist within the attraction. Even if we leave the park (or turn off the movie, or shut the book, and so on), they're still there.
Beyond that, it's hard to be specific. There aren't many universal truths about this structure. Observable Stories can differ from attraction to attraction in the same way that, say, cinematic stories can differ from movie to movie.
Sometimes, the Observable Story is focused around one protagonist, like Albert in Mystic Manor.
Sometimes, the Observable Story takes place without its protagonist, like the Swiss Family Robinson in--or rather, “not in”--the Swiss Family Treehouse.
Sometimes, the protagonist is several people at once. Here, let's linger on Pirates of the Caribbean. Forgive me for picking on the ride--but what better way to explain park stories than by using Davis' own example against him?
Every pirate in the ride is a member of a group, and that group acts as a single protagonist. They’re unified by an objective: they wanna live the high life...pillaging, plundering, rifling, and looting. Their pursuit of this objective takes form in a number of smaller stories, including the GIF and Forensic structures that we’ve already discussed on this blog. They face the same antagonist: a town full of law-abiding citizens.
That's pretty straightforward. It wouldn't be too difficult to adapt it into another medium.
So what makes the Observable Story unique to theme parks?
One crucial difference: movies and novels and ballads and whatnot can be chopped up into subplots and anthologies, but at the end of they day, they only tell one story at a time. Imagine how hard it would be to follow more than that.
Better yet, try it out. There are two scenes below: one from It's a Wonderful Life, and one from Singin' in the Rain. Watch them at the same time, and see how much you enjoy the experience.
Individually, these scenes are masterpieces, but together, they're incoherent. We might as well be watching Black Swan!
Movies simply aren't designed to tell two stories at once, and neither are novels or ballads or amusement parks or whatnots. Theme parks, on the other hand, are. They tell us two stories--one Experiential, the other, Observable--and they tell them at the same time.
The Stories Interact
They do not compete. It wouldn't be much of a fight, if they did. The Experiential Story, which happens to us, will always steal the spotlight from the Observable Story, which happens to someone else. The only way the Bi-Narrative Structure works is if they cooperate.
Their relationship is a lot like the dynamic between music and lyrics that Stephen Sondheim describes in the book, Finishing the Hat.
"When it comes to theater songs, the composer is in charge. ...it’s the melody which dictates the lyric’s rhythms and pauses and inflections, the accompaniment which sets the pace and tone. These specific choices control our emotional response...
"In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music."
In terms of theme parks, the Experiential Story is like the music. It's more visceral, manipulating us in ways we can't fully articulate. The Observable Story is like the lyrics. It helps to focus our emotions with insight and nuance.
To put it another way, the Observable Story builds an environment around us, and the Experiential Story lets us explore it. This relationship is the very basis of the art of theme parks.
With this in mind, let's return to our whipping post of an example, Pirates of the Caribbean. The most controversial aspect of the ride's story is its chronology. At first glance, it looks like a jumble of unrelated scenes.
Most stories use recurring characters to link scenes together. In the Lion King, for example, Simba runs away from his best friend, Nala, and his home, the Pridelands. When Nala recurs, she explains that the Pridelands have suffered in Simba's absence. Just like that, we've learned about something that happened offscreen from a character who we've already met and trust.
Unfortunately, Pirates' Observable Story has no recurring characters, so there's no one to explain what happens between the scenes.
We know, however, that the Experiential Story breaks down into three acts, and if we line them up with the Observable Story, they reveal that the pirates do indeed have three acts of their own. For clarity's sake, let's call these acts "A, B, and C."
Act A consists of the scenes in the caverns and--in Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland--the bayou.
Experientially, we feel spooked.
Observably, we’re shown pirate skeletons who are cursed to spend eternity with their ill-gotten--as opposed to heavenly--rewards.
Act B consists of the waterfalls and the bombardment scene.
Experientially, we feel thrilled.
Observably, we’re shown pirates--living pirates--who are attacking a fortress.
Act C consists of the scenes of pillaging, plundering, rifling, and looting.
Experientially, we feel amused.
Observably, we’re shown pirates achieving their objective of living the high life.
Notice how conveniently the seams of the two stories overlap! Granted, we still don't know which order the Observable acts happen in, or what happens between them--but like many great theme park narratives, we're encouraged to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
One of the most popular interpretations is that Act A is, in fact, the ending. Therefore, the story goes: the pirates overcome the fort, then they pillage, plunder, rifle, and loot their way through the town, but ultimately they find themselves doomed to the caverns.
Imagineer Tony Baxter believes, “That’s the moral of the story. What good is all the treasure if you’re so frivolous and careless? You can’t spend it if you’re dead.”
The popularity of this interpretation undermines Marc Davis' theory that "You don't see a story that starts at the beginning and ends with, 'By golly, they got the dirty dog.'" That's exactly what we do see--especially in Disneyland Paris, whose version of the ride is actually presented in the order B, C, A!
Having grown up in the American parks, I'm astonished by this ending. These are scenes that I've been floating past since I was a little boy--and they've existed since 1967--but by simply shuffling them to the end, the ride takes on a new narrative life.
My friend, Mark W., points out another way to interpret the ride's chronology. He notes that the Magic Kingdom's version doesn't have a bayou. Instead, the ride begins inside the same fortress that we see later, in the bombardment scene.
It therefore follows that, when we float through the caverns, we aren't teleporting or time-traveling. We're just going outside.
In this interpretation, the Observable Story is linear. The acts are presented in the order A, B, C--which means that the dead pirates in the caverns must have decomposed long before the living pirates arrived in the town.
That raises all sorts of interesting questions. Why are the dead pirates in the caverns? Maybe they were trying to break into--or out of--the fortress? Did they know the living pirates? Were they killed by the living pirates? If so, why? If not, were they killed by the Spanish soldiers, or each other, or someone else?
We will never ever know. All we know is the end result, thanks to the Observable Story, and how we should feel about it, thanks to the Experiential Story. Every other mystery is ours to solve, and no matter what we come up with, the results will still tell a story.
Eric Zimmerman describes this phenomenon in the essay, "Creating a Meaning-Machine: the Deck of Stories Called Life in the Garden."
"Life in the Garden (1999) is an interactive paper book… The fifty or so pages of the story are cardlike sheets to be shuffled, picked, and placed between the covers of a tiny book, temporarily creating a story. The first page (“Adam, Eve, and the serpent lived in the garden”) and the final page (“The End”) are always the same, but the rest of the text and images are selected and ordered randomly. […]
"The player fills the gaps and ambiguities between the pages with meaning, completing and enlarging the statements that emerge from the designed elements.
"For example, consider the text of the following two Life in the Garden pages:
"So Eve tickled Adam and he laughed.
"God was not pleased.
"Encountered in succession, as they are here, it is nearly impossible for the reader not to create a casual relationship between the two statements. What was it that displeased God? Was it the tickling? The laughing? Something implied by such intimate behavior? Or perhaps the events on previous pages?
"The reader, stumbling across these narrative fragments, invents ways to connect them, imparting to them additional meanings."
Just like Life in the Garden's story cards, the content of Pirates' Observable Story stays the same, no matter how it's arranged.
Act A is about pirates who’ve suffered unfulfilling deaths while pursuing material gain.
Acts B and C are about pirates who enjoy fulfilling lives while pursuing material gain.
By placing these acts together, the ride invites us to compare and contrast them. The living pirates don't have to become the dead pirates--they don't even have to know the dead pirates exist--for it to be a poignant juxtaposition.
We--the second-person protagonists--fill in the gaps that are missing from the third-person protagonists' story. We are both, the audience and--subconsciously--the recurring characters who explain what's happened offscreen. The story relies upon us to both, watch it and tell it.
That's how entwined the Experiential and Observable structures are. This is just one of the bizarre, unique stories I've found throughout the course of three years of research. And y'know who's responsible for most of 'em?
Marc Davis. That's what so sad about his vendetta against "story" in theme parks: he was one of its greatest practitioners. It's a massive part of his legacy.
After all, no one had ever made a Disneyland before. It was an experiment, and polymaths like Davis had to craft brand new languages of design and narrative to conduct it.
The result was the theme park: a hive of stories, whose art is not featured on a screen or within a cover, but rather, as a location. Studying its structures can help us appreciate what exists, show us how to move forward, and--last but not least--honor the geniuses who invented it.