From landscaping to lampposts, every detail of the theme park’s environment contributes to a story. When guests pass under the archway to Adventureland at Disneyland, visual and aural cues signal their entry into daring tales of the untamed unknown. Further into the land, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye invites guests to experience one such tale first-hand.
As in this example, in most theme parks, guests progress from a sweeping, atmospheric narrative suggested by the park itself to a contained land that offers its own narrative framework to an attraction with a linear story. Each of these transitions furthers the promise of escape offered by theme parks as they immerse guests deeper into other realities. In the best attractions, the illusion that begins the moment guests step into the park is made complete.
Still, an attraction’s script often acknowledges guests as such in order to orient them toward their role in the story. “Tourists,” Indiana Jones mutters in the Adventureland attraction that bears his name, “Why’d it have to be tourists?” On some level, many attractions are conscious of their status as tourist destinations, but far fewer acknowledge the experience as part of a theme park. By referencing the parks in which they take place, the stories told in these “Meta Attractions” uniquely contribute to the narrative fabric of the theme parks themselves.
Universal Studios Hollywood | Universal City, CA | Opened 1964
Since 1915, Universal Studios has been a fully functional film and television studio and from the beginning, studio tours were part of its DNA. In 1964 the studio tour was reborn in the form of “GlamorTrams” that offered guests the unique opportunity to get a glimpse into Hollywood production. As years passed, the studio tour evolved to incorporate staged spectacles that demonstrated special effects and of course, new forms of Hollywood magic in the form of mixed media attractions. To this day, the Studio Tour remains the heart Universal Studios Hollywood, blending fantasy and reality from park open to close. So intertwined with the park’s history and identity, the Studio Tour may be the original meta attraction.
SOARIN’ AROUND THE WORLD / OVER THE HORIZON
Disney California Adventure / Epcot / Shanghai Disneyland | Anaheim, CA / Orlando, FL /Shanghai, People's Republic of China | Opened 2001 / 2016 / 2016
When it first debuted as Soarin’ Over California at Disney California Adventure, guests took a simulated hang glider journey across the state ending with a flyover of Disneyland’s Main Street USA toward Sleeping Beauty’s Castle during a fireworks spectacular. On one hand, this supported the park’s original intent to showcase what California had to offer visitors, but the attraction’s final scene underscored the emotional connection guests have with the Disneyland Resort itself: it feels like coming home. This notion was so integral to the storyline that it remains the finale for the attraction’s current iteration, Soarin’ Around the World while Epcot’s version ends with a pair of fireworks exploding over Spaceship Earth and Shanghai Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over the Horizon swoops into downtown Shanghai at its close. Each attraction captures the joy of travel and the fantasy of flight and by referencing the park or city in which each one is located, suggests that returning home can be the greatest thrill of all.
VOYAGE TO THE IRON REEF
Knott’s Berry Farm | Buena Park, CA | Opened 2015
Voyage to the Iron Reef is a 4D, interactive dark ride whose action takes place beneath the Boardwalk themed area of the park, but whose story pertains to the park as a whole. As guests embark, they learn that recent construction on the Boardwalk area has awakened the villainous Kraken Queen and her aquatic army whose “unquenchable appetite for coaster metal” has put the rest of the park at risk (Knott's Berry Farm). During the skirmishes in which players take aim at the Queen’s mechanical minions, background scenes display sunken roller coaster tracks and decaying ride vehicles. By integrating the park’s history, real-world expansion, and attractions without stories of their own, Voyage to the Iron Reef adds narrative value to the loosely themed Boardwalk area and allows guests to become active participants in the story of the ride and the park as a whole.
5D CASTLE THEATER
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom | Zhuhai, People’s Republic of China | Opened 2015
A year after Chimelong Ocean Kingdom opened, the technically impressive 5D Castle Theater followed suit debuting the 13-minute animated film, KaKa’s Great Adventure, which weaves a narrative thread through the park’s more than half a dozen themed areas and, at the time, the world’s largest oceanarium. In an interview with InPark Magazine, project creative director, Rick Rothschild, describes the experience as “the central storytelling piece for Ocean Kingdom” designed to “inform the overall guest experience” by providing backstory on the park’s themed lands and the characters that inhabit them. With park mascots, Ocean Genie, KaKa, and KiKi as their guides, guests journey to a fantastic planet filled with Ocean Kingdom landmarks and populated by many of the animals found in the park. KaKa’s Great Adventure is a meta attraction whose story, locations, and characters make the park a better experience for all.
HEX – THE LEGEND OF THE TOWERS
Alton Towers | Opened 2000 | Alton, Staffordshire, United Kingdom
Alton Towers originated as a tour of the Earl of Shrewsbury’s estate; over a century later Alton Towers found even greater success with the inclusion of rides and other attractions beyond tours of the historic manor, grounds, and gardens. Within the park, Hex – The Legend of the Towers offers a unique, localized experience through a storyline directly connected to the area’s history. Set within the Towers themselves, the dark ride reframes the local legend of the Chained Oak Tree for maximum thrills. The story tells of the Earl’s encounter with an old beggar woman, who, upon being cruelly dismissed, places a curse on the Earl’s family: each time a branch falls from the oak tree, a member of his family would perish. In this version, the Earl experiments on one of the branches deep in a vault in an attempt to break the curse. The attraction’s self-awareness in regards to cultural myths, history, and its own geography mark Hex as a distinct entry in the meta attraction category.
GHOST TOWN ALIVE!
Knott’s Berry Farm | Buena Park, CA | Opened 2016
Ghost Town’s contribution to the identity of Knott’s Berry Farm cannot be understated. The area, which contains many structures that date back to the early days of the park, was already rich with atmosphere before its 2016 refurbishment, but along with it came more than just a fresh coat of paint. Though various forms of live entertainment had previously existed in the park and specifically within Ghost Town, the ambitious Ghost Town Alive!, a daylong theatrical experience, breathed new life into the heavily themed streets. Beginning at park opening, guests are able to participate in a branching narrative with the area’s townsfolk. The story invigorates all aspects of Ghost Town from retail and dining establishments to artisan demonstrations and attractions. While the performers themselves do not express awareness of the theme park as the site of the activity, the experience contributes to the park’s narrative integrity in the way it elevates the role of guests, encourages exploration, and applies new meaning to attractions across the park.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Epcot | Orlando, FL | Opening 2021
First announced at the 2017 D23 Expo, the as-yet-untitled Guardians of the Galaxy attraction at Epcot will mark the debut of the Marvel universe at Walt Disney World. When completed, the attraction, which replaces Ellen’s Energy Adventure, will be one of the “world’s longest enclosed coasters.” Of course, Walt Disney Imagineering promises a coaster experience like no other, designing a “new innovative ride system” and a new story for the characters (Disney Parks Blog). While story details are still under wraps, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek told the D23 audience that Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord) actually visited Epcot as a kid, a revelation he paired with a vintage Polaroid picture of a boy in front of Spaceship Earth. As to how much the theme park is referenced within the ride itself remains to be seen, but the information that has been released certainly suggests that the attraction’s narrative will lean into Epcot’s legacy, which would be a welcome development for many fans nostalgic for the Epcot of yesterday.
Walt Disney once said, “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park. I want them to feel they’re in another world” (D23). While theme parks offer escape from the real world, many attractions take that escapism to the next level, making guests forget—even for a moment—they are in a theme park. The attractions described here do not do this. On the contrary, meta attractions remind us of the otherworldliness of the park itself.
By taking guests on journeys that use the parks as a narrative backdrop, these attractions help tell the story of the parks and amplify their mythic nature. Though they differ in their approach, each one makes the park in which it is located feel simultaneously more intimate and more vast—bound in physical scope but made boundless through the multitude of experiences contained therein. They suggest that no matter how far our adventures may take us—another planet, the wild west, or somewhere over the horizon—we can always return to our home away from home: the theme park.