Storytelling in Themed Entertainment. Essential or extra cost?
We all like to call ourselves storytellers, but what exactly does that mean? How does one tell a story in a themed environment effectively and doesn't that cost millions of dollars? Is it even necessary? And can it be more than a cost factor?
To answer these questions effectively, we must first agree on why our product is very special. We surely sell tickets, merchandise and turkey legs and one might also say, fun and experiences. But at the end of the day, I believe that in all of entertainment, while all of the above is true, we mainly sell escapism.
Whether in movies, television, music, books, art, museums or a visit to the theme park, people long for a break from their everyday lives and a glimpse into a different, more exiting and thrilling one!
They may read, watch or hear other people's stories in movies, television, books or songs. In a painting or sculpture, they observe a moment in a particular story. Museums let them learn about the stories of the past. So what makes storytelling in a themed entertainment experience different? The answer is simple:
We are the only ones that can make our guests the HEROES in their own stories!
When we've done our jobs right, every guest will experience the feeling of being the protagonist in his/her personal hero's journey... an experience as fulfilling as no other medium could ever provide! You could also say:
We sell personal adventures in a safe environment.
What Storytelling is NOT
It is my firm belief that there are a lot of misconceptions about what storytelling in a themed experience is: Often people mistake it for extensive dialogue or written text, or an overload of information that makes it more complicated for the guests to enjoy the given situation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, our story is the guideline of what we want the guest to experience. It is the plan of what we want them to feel. With just the right amount of visual elements, sounds, scents, effects and more, we immerse the guests in the storyworld and heighten their experience.
Why it is essential to have a story
Today's audiences are handling more high quality story content on a daily basis than ever before. Media platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, H.B.O. and others provide bigger, better and longer storylines than ever before - to be experienced in the comfort of our homes. Guests are not only familiar with this quality of storytelling - they expect and demand it. So when a guest decides to leave the house, pay for a ticket and come to us... we better make it count!
While any attraction will deliver a certain level of thrill on its own, based on physical characteristics like height, speed and force, all of these factors can be amplified by adding the right element of story. Let's look at two short examples to illustrate this:
1. A rollercoaster in the dark is great and thrilling, but how much more thrilling is boarding a rocket ship and taking off into outer space on your personal mission to Mars?
2. While a little boat trip is enjoyable for sure, imagine going on a research trip into the jungle when things go horribly wrong and you come face to face with a monster, brave your fears, prevail and live to tell the tale!
That is the power of storytelling!
"But isn't it SO much more expensive to add a story?" To be fair, it could be. But good storytelling is about choosing the RIGHT story that will maximize the guest experience within a reasonable budget. Sometimes very simple (and cheap) solutions do the job just fine. When done right, a relatively small investment can achieve HUGE results.
Benefits of adding a story
Our need for stories is what unites us as humans. Stories form long-lasting emotional bonds beyond physical sensations and work for every age group, gender or background.
The right story can hide operational necessities, mask dreadful wait times, lengthen the overall experience beyond the ride time and provide the perfect setup for the attraction's hardware itself to shine.
Overall, guests will be happier - and happier guests spend more money!
Additional revenue through storytelling
Maybe most importantly, a great story is the guarantee that guests will love the new (and probably very expensive) attraction.
Also, it offers many opportunities to generate additional revenue. After forming an emotional bond, people are more likely to take home a souvenir of the adventure they just experienced or to buy the plush toy of the character they fell in love with. They may want to buy books, graphic novels, audiobooks/-plays, comics, toys, music, replicas or other merchandise from the same storyworld. The possibilities are endless.
Today's storyworld for a small attraction might be the setting of a billion-dollar-franchise in a few years. Remember that "little pirate ride" at Disneyland that is now a 4.5-billion-dollar-franchise with 5 blockbuster movies, 2 more in the works, video games, books, toys, replica costumes and props and countless other merchandise - not to mention a cultural phenomenon?
Whatever guests, owners and operators desire, a good story, set up right from the start, is the key to success, the foundation for future developments and the glue that holds the project together.
About the author:
Julian Sylva is the founder of Julian Sylva Creative. He provides storytelling and consulting services for the themed entertainment industry. Being a writer, show director, creative producer and project leader gives him a unique perspective on blending creative ideas with their affordable realization. He is based in Hamburg, Germany, and a lifelong enthusiast of theme parks and immersive experiences.
To contact Julian, please send a message to: firstname.lastname@example.org