May 17, 2011

What Disneyland Can Teach Us about World-building

Puzzle of globe

First, I want to thank J.A. Paul and Rachel Firasek for their guest posts.  I had fun with their interviews and I hope you all did too.

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?

Comments — What do you think?

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

This post was so inspired and right on…I feel like writing!
I’ve been to Disney literally a hundred times, maybe a few more. I used to live in Fla, and we had year passes, so we went 5, 6, 10 times a year when we were kids.
Now that I live in Ga, I still go every year. My sisters and I go for a girls trip, and then we also take the kids on another.
I’m a huge fan.
Anyway, like I said I’ve been loads of times, but never saw Disney World like you saw it. I’m incredibly impressed with your post and how you’ve tied everything together with story telling. I always loved the charm of Disney, but failed to see it as a metaphor for my craft.
GREAT post!!!!
And thanks for your wisdom.
Have a happy day:)

Raelyn Barclay

Love the comparison! Excellent post.

JA Paul

I’ve never been to Disneyland but now I want to go. How young is too young for kids?


Another thing Disney does to help keep the illusion: massive underground tunnels and off-limit areas, keeping mundane/out of place things (like garbage trucks, off-duty princesses, people who belong in other “Lands,” etc.) out of sight.

That’s like revision, eh?

PW Creighton

That’s awesome. It’s kind of like a couple of the most memorable rides I remember. The pre-briefing sets you up like you described the Indiana Jones ride and then it keeps you transfixed. Like I talked about in my newest post about treating a narrative like a roller coaster/thriller, it’s all about the set up and delivery. Great observations while ‘vacationing.’

Patrick Thunstrom

I grew up in Southern California, and can attest to the level of detail put in to the attractions! My favorite as a child was Star Tours, and can still remember waiting in an extremely long line waiting to get on, C-3PO touting the exciting adventures like a travel agent, and some droids that ‘talked’ to the line as they passed his work station. As a kid, it really felt like you’d stepped into the Star Wars universe to experience the adventure. (Not that I’d not have used that wording at the time, I’m pretty sure it was ‘That was AWESOME!’).

My parents both worked for Disney at one time or another, as well.

One of the neat things I’ve learned though is the Disney level of detail doesn’t stop at just the settings. They use some tricks to expand on the experience. On Main Street, for example, the top windows of the buildings on both sides of the street get steadily larger as you walk into the park. This creates an optical illusion that you won’t see (I’ve tried!) but you’ll feel. Getting into the park Main Street seems short and the Magic Kingdom right there. Leaving, the diminishing effect makes Main Street look much longer, which just compounds with the fact that you’re now tired, and probably walking slower!

These kinds of little things are all over Disney parks!

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Nice description. It sounds very interesting and fun, though I don’t think I’ll be able to visit Disneyland, since I’m so far away. Maybe someday in the future.

Glad you had so much fun 🙂

Susan Sipal

What a fun post, and a great analysis! I think that word fun is such a part of the experience, and what many readers are looking for in worldbuilding. Even in a dark read, there’s still a certain element of “fun” in exploring a new, well-defined world. Thanks for the insight!

Julie Musil

This is brilliant! I’ve been to the Anaheim Disneyland many times, and I never thought of this. But you’re right, even when we’re in line Disney has created an environment that puts us in the mood. I hope you had a great trip! (although yes, it’s always exhausting)

Todd Moody

Glad you had a great trip and made it home safely! Disney is great and I could really see it in your description. Awesome post as always!

Gene Lempp

Haven’t been to Disney since I was a kid but I do remember the theme driven ambiance of every attraction. Great to get to see it through a writers eyes. Great analogies and post Jami 🙂

Laura Pauling

I have been to a Disney park and your observations are spot on! I guess that makes Six F lags more like a commercial novel and Disney more literary!

TJ Hollingsworth
TJ Hollingsworth

Great post! I visited Disney several times as a kid and loved it. All the details were layered in, completely immersing you in the world of each story. For a small amount of time you could forget where you were and just enjoy the experience.
Isn’t that what we want for our readers?
Well, maybe with the exception of the “It’s a Small World” ride. That just gets in your head and makes you crazy,lol.
I have to agree with the comparisons between Disney and Six Flags, for me it’s the difference between a really great book to get lost in for hours and a “Beach Read” you want to finish before you get sunburned,lol.
Glad to hear you had a good trip and made it home safe!

Jeanmarie Anaya

In Disney World, the Pirates of the Carribean ride is fantastic. (Even prior to the whole Captain Jack renovation.) You actually feel like you’re a part of the sets. It’s amazing how they do it.

Great post!

Rachel Firasek

I’m a little late, but thanks for having me Jami! It was a blast!!!


[…] gushed about it, so I must be able to build worlds for my stories. But short of saying, “Let it grow organically” and “Don’t info dump,” I didn’t think I had much advice to […]

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