The issue of Intellectual Property, or IP in the parks is, In the immortal words of Bill Nye The Science Guy, a hot topic with lots of questions. More often than not, if the subject is raised, it’s used critically with a hatred usually reserved for the words “screens” or “upcharge Event”.
On a theoretical level, IP in Themed Entertainment refers to basing a ride on an existing property, rather than creating a story from scratch. While people may associate classic Disneyland with attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and Adventures Thru Inner Space, the idea of basing rides on existing properties is as old as Disneyland itself; from the obvious Fantasyland dark rides based on animated classics, to Adventureland itself (originally True-Life Adventureland to tie into the iconic Disney documentary series).
In its early years, Tomorrowland lacked any IP attractions (or attractions in general!), which was part of the reason Walt commissioned “Man and the Moon” a 1955 episode of the Disneyland TV show, exploring man’s fascination with the moon. It culminated in a sci-fi dramatization of what a moon landing would look like – inspiring a whole generation to start looking skyward and making space exploration a tangible goal.
The issue becomes more controversial when a non-Disney IP is being brought into the park. This happened for the first time in the late eighties when Imagineers realised that with a string of flops, Disneyland was in danger of becoming irrelevant and losing the interest of children and young adults. After seeing the massive popularity of Star Wars, a deal was stuck with George Lucas to combine his beloved sci-fi world with state-of-the-art simulator technology. The announcement sparked outrage among park fans that a non-Disney property would breach Disneyland’s hallowed berm, but the quality and success of the new ride soon won naysayers over.
The Star Wars IP was critical in not only the popularity and experience of the ride, but also its longevity – it didn’t take long for competitors to acquire simulators, but without the name recognition and emotional connection brought by Star Wars, the imitators faded quickly away.
Later, when the idea of turning the frenetic excitement of the Indiana Jones series into an attraction emerged, Imagineers were challenged with the question of, “can’t we just do our own version and not pay all that money to license the name?”. Tony Baxter succinctly demonstrated how powerful the IP was by mocking up a poster for the “Kentucky Buck Adventure”: even if the attraction was exactly the same, without the emotion and associations guests have for those films and their whip-wielding hero, an imitation would just fall flat.
In the past decade, IP has exploded in the parks under Bob Iger’s shopping spree of studios; Now Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, and all their associated superheroes, Jedi, dashing archaeologists and talking fish/toys/bugs/cars jostle for space in the parks. Bringing these characters into the parks is neither inherently a good or bad thing, it’s all about the execution.
In my opinion, for an IP-based attraction to be a successful addition to the parks, it requires two things:
Firstly is placement– an attraction may be fine in isolation, but if it doesn’t connect with the theming of the area or park in which it sits, it will always feel “off” and will never reach that topmost level of quality and immersion. The Indiana Jones Adventure fits seamlessly into Adventureland both visually and toneally. An update to the Jungle Cruise queue loop tied both attractions to the same time period and location, merging the old and the new beautifully.
Frozen Ever After however remains an uneasy addition to World Showcase. While many critics were won over when the construction walls came down, revealing levels of detail and theming that can only be created by Walt Disney Imagineering firing on all cylinders, the fairytale story would have been more at home in Fantasyland than World Showcase, which has always been a celebration of real places and real people.
Secondly is the ride experience; chiefly, are you an observer, or a participant? The so-called “book report” rides which slavishly follow the movie’s plot fail to have the impact of a ride where you are the hero and the catalyst for events. Radiator Springs Racers is an example of this done right – while you do follow the main story beats from Cars, you are literally in the driving seat, from arriving in town for the big race, tractor-tipping with Mater, then sprucing up your ride before squaring off with another car in a thrilling cross-country race.
Compare that to Ariel’s Undersea Adventure where you observe the events of the film, with no interaction or role in the events. You end up with a charming ride for die-hard Little Mermaid fans and young children, but the experience doesn’t have the same emotional resonance, or sense of accomplishment you get from winning your race, or escaping the cursed temple, or safely delivering your rebel spy.
When handled well, utilising a beloved IP with rich characters, settings and stories is like adding a Nitrous tank to your car. When you’re not being immersed, and transported to another world, it’s just slapping a Rolls Royce bumper sticker on your old clunker.