Yes, I’m back from a fun, exhausting trip to Disneyland. And yes, my vacation inspired a blog post. You’re not surprised, are you?
Anyone who has visited a Disney park knows they aren’t like other amusement parks. They don’t have the fastest, highest, biggest rides. What they do have are rides that tell a story.
My favorite ride at Disneyland is Indiana Jones Adventure. Like most of their big rides, Indiana Jones is all about the experience.
The story starts with the plants around the first 30 feet of the line—tall and green—and we’re immediately transported to the jungle. A few props of a battered jeep-type vehicle and crates add to the expedition feel.
Then we descend into the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Signs warn us to avoid stepping on diamond-shaped stones. Arrow holes perforate the stone walls. Lights flicker ominously. More props decorate the space—rope ladders, hoists and pulleys, tree roots growing through the Temple’s ceiling.
All this is just while we’re waiting in line.
By the time we reach the actual ride, we’re primed for the story. We’re fully invested in this world and ready to participate in Indiana’s latest adventure of escaping this Temple.
How Does Disney Do It?
- The Big Picture: Many of the buildings used for their rides fit the story. The broken-down hotel for Tower of Terror. The house for Haunted Mansion. The airplane hanger for Soarin’ Over California. The setting matches the story.
- Details: The details flesh out the world, creating a place to explore. Props add a dynamic quality by making it seem like people live in this world and it’s not just a static building. In the ElecTRONica nighttime event at Disneyland’s California Adventure park, the replica of Flynn’s video arcade from the Tron movies isn’t perfect, as they didn’t build a custom building for the attraction. However, the details— “windows” at the second floor for Flynn’s hangout, 80s video games and music, the original Tron game under the neon sign seen in Tron: Legacy—are all enough to make us believe in the facade. Details bring a world to life.
- Consistency: Nothing breaks the spell. Even the video for the safety spiel of Indiana Jones Adventure is “in character.” In Flynn’s, the Disney employees wear “Flynn’s” and “Flynn Lives” t-shirts. There’s a reason Disney calls their employees “cast members.” Every employee is expected to play their part and contribute to the guests’ experience. Keep them in the story.
World-building the Disney Way
All of those points also work for writers when world-building. Whether that world is Regency England, a vampire’s hideout, or present-day Seattle, we have to make readers believe we’ve created a real world, populated by real characters.
- Create a setting that makes sense for the story.
- Use all the senses to make the setting feel tangible.
- Start world-building from page one, not with an information dump, but by gradually adding and layering details.
- Flesh out the world with props, characters, and unique aspects.
- And most importantly, never, ever, pull a reader out of the story.
Have you been to a Disney park? Can you think of other ways Disney creates a full experience? Can you think of other rides or attractions that made you feel part of a story?