What Makes IP Work In an Attraction? Legends from Disney and Universal Weigh In

By Jeremy Schoolfield

Legends

Intellectual property is synonymous with the attractions industry in many ways. But as the importance of IP has grown over the past several years, so to have the challenges of working in this realm.
BRC Imagination Arts’ Bob Rogers assembled his annual Legends panel to shed some light on this complex topic. Sharing insights to a standing-room-only crowd on Wednesday were Walt Disney Imagineering’s Joe Rohde and Scott Trowbridge, and Universal Creative’s Thierry Coup. Over the course of 90 minutes, Rogers asked poignant questions of these acclaimed attraction designers. Here are just a few of their answers.
How do you distill a two-hour movie into a five-minute attraction?
The panelists agreed using IP in an attraction is never about trying to condense two hours of story. It’s about using the building blocks of the IP itself to tell new stories in an entirely different way.
“We’re really building story worlds,” Rohde said. When compared to film, “the stuff we do is much more about direct experience.” The guest is more the protagonist in today’s attractions as part of a first-person narrative.
Coup said attractions allow guests to discover new parts of the stories they love. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, he said, adds metaphorical pages to the beloved novels of J.K. Rowling.
How should the industry engage with advancements in technology as it relates to building these worlds?
Technology plays an important role in design, they said, and guests’ expectations continue to rise as, say, virtual reality is now available in the home. However, there are fundamental principles that must be served first.
Coup said some guests literally bowed down and kissed the ground when they entered Diagon Alley, the Wizarding World expansion at Universal Studios Florida—before they’d been on a ride or waved a magic wand. He said they simply fell instantly in love with the land’s architecture and theatrical design.
“World-building starts at primal levels,” Rohde agreed. “Is it beautiful? Does it offer surprises?” The appeal of Pandora—The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is as much about rockwork, lighting, and agriculture as anything, he said: “The challenge with technical effects is always their half-life.”
“All of this has to be in service of telling the purest type of story,” Trowbridge added.
What are some tips for managing IP owners?
“Initiate a discussion on the basis of underlying value system and theme—not on the basis of superficial detail,” Rohde said. “Let’s talk about what this story is really about. From there, we will discuss what aspects are relevant to what we’re going to do. Where it becomes difficult is when a creator has not done introspective work to understand for themselves the underlying values, so instead they’re fixated on detail manifestation … and it becomes this long discussion about some doorknob in a movie.”
Coup compared working with an IP owner to a marriage: “You have to put your egos away and really speak to each other.”
What are the fundamentals of attraction design, regardless of IP?
Trowbridge’s influences run far and wide, but he said it all boils down to this: “The number-one thing I pay attention to is our guests—and what they pay attention to.”
Rohde emphatically declared attraction design is most certainly an art form, with a lineage stretching back centuries through all manner of disciplines. He stressed the importance of studying not just our own industry’s past successes, but the broader history of design.
“Things work for reasons, and those things are knowable. And if you know those reasons, you can make things work,” he said. “Execution is the answer to all of these questions.”