Even though he doesn’t know it, Neil Patrick Harris has played a huge role in my life and thus, Theme Park University. To be clear, I have only seen a few episodes of Doogie Howser, M.D. and roughly half of the How I Met Your Mother series. Not that I have anything against them, but I wouldn’t call myself a “super fan” (and yes, I thought the HIMYM finale sucked too).
Actually what put NPH on my radar was seeing him gush about a show in New York called “Sleep No More” when he was co-hosting with Kelly Ripa a few years ago on Live. He raved about this new thing called “immersive theater,” where the audience gets to wear masks throughout this giant building that they explore and discover performances and unique sets. There were no “rules” and there was nothing separating the audience from the actors. You were in their space and vice versa.
I literally spent the next few weeks researching as much as I could on “Sleep No More.” Where did this come from? How did they come up with this idea? Were there more shows like this around? Being a research junkie, I not only found other immersive theater shows, but found myself on a plane very soon after Harris’s interview on Live just to get lost in “Sleep No More” myself. Since then, I’ve gone back three times and counting. If they had an annual pass option, I’d be all over that like a Doberman in a beef jerky factory.
I also found myself googling the hell out of Neil. Turns out he’s the President of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, another one of my favorite hangouts. Magic has always been a fascination of mine since I was a kid when my dad took me to see David Copperfield at The Fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta when I was five. Since then, I have craved seeing magic performed live anywhere from Las Vegas to theme parks.
Those of us in the theme park world know that NPH is also a huge fan of theme parks. He’s the official announcer for the Coaster Radio Podcast, as well as a frequent guest and interviewee for the Season Pass podcast. For the past several years he has come to Epcot to narrate the Candlelight Processional and hosted the Disney Parks Christmas Parade special in 2013. He’s the barker for California Screamin’ at Disney’s California Adventure. The guy eats, sleeps and breathes immersive entertainment and so do I.
Naturally, I was over the moon when I learned that his book was also interactive. As a kid, I was fascinated with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books where the reader would decide at the end of a chapter if they wanted plot A to unfold, they would go to a certain chapter. Plot B would send you somewhere else entirely and the book would branch out in all these different directions giving you new ways to experience the book every time you read it.
“Choose Your Own Autobiography” works in the exact same way as those old books. Except in these adventures, most of the action really did happen in Harris’ life at some point. Unlike in normal autobiographies, where you get to read what happens to the author, you become the author, thus the book is written in second person narrative. It takes some getting used to, but it does put “you” in control. Every once in a while, if you choose to go through the book and make a “bad” decision, it will end in your/Neil’s tragic and comic death – so choose wisely.
Throughout the course of the book you’ll hear great behind-the-scenes stories from when Neil hosted the Tony’s to how he befriended Elton John and got to hang out at his place for a week. While it’s all fascinating, the final chapter is what truly got me.
For his 40th birthday, Neil’s partner, David Burtka, sent him on a scavenger hunt that started with digging through his flower garden in his backyard and eventually ended up in New York City. Along the journey, Neil had to collect keys, maps and clues in restaurants, hotel rooms and more that would lead him to some extremely cool surprises along the way. The final puzzle was a map that when turned over was a mask like the ones guests wear in “Sleep No More.” Before he knew it, he was whisked away to Chelsea in NYC where he got to take part in a private event that recreated his life from childhood to current day in the McKitrick Hotel. Fucking amazing.
Perhaps it’s the final chapter that struck a chord with me. Harris talks about just how much of a fan he is of Disney theme parks. Here’s a passage from “Choose Your Own Autobiography”:
“…you fell utterly, spiritually, in love with the park. There is no bit of Disney magic that doesn’t enchant you. The precision and brilliance of their parks reflect a true and deep understanding of the nature of entertainment. It’s the same reason why later in your life you will fall in love with Las Vegas; it’s little more than a giant theme park whose theme is theme parks. From the first day of your first trip, you consider yourself a citizen of the Magic Kingdom, despite your inherent distrust of their monarchical form of government.”
A few years ago, I got to see Neil host an event called the “Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom” at the Disneyland Hotel celebrating animatronics at Disney theme parks. Everyone who’s anyone who has ever designed, programmed or maintained animatronics in a Disney park were in attendance, from Bob Gurr to Garner Holt. Neil took the gig to learn more about his passion. Don’t believe me? Here’s another passage from Choose Your Own Autobiography.
“And now for your hundredth time and their very first, you are boarding Peter Pan’s Flight in Fantasyland. It’s one of the few original Disney attractions still in operation, and of course you—savvy, sophisticated you—know all its secrets. You’re familiar with how Omnimovers work, you’ve seen how Audio-Animatronic figures are programmed, you’ve studied the circuitry and you know where the speakers are. And knowing all this makes you greater appreciate the artistry and you find yourself admiring the thousand little details that go into the ride. But some of the wonder, you admit to yourself, is gone.
Until you gaze at your two-year-old son sitting on your lap, and his twin sister, sitting on the lap of the man you love so much, and this five-minute climate-controlled adventure that you’ve grown a little jaded about is once more a spellbinding enchantment, because you’re seeing it anew through their eyes. Gideon gapes at Captain Hook. Harper gasps at Peter soaring through the sky. They both squeal with delight as the crocodile does his dirty work. You experience them experiencing pure magic, unadulterated by cynicism or irony or self-consciousness. And as the ride makes its full circle, so do you, until Peter Pan has done it again, and you are once more a child, taking it all in, amazed, overwhelmed, enchanted.”
If you love themed entertainment and behind-the-scenes stories directly from a celebrity, click on the Amazon links on this page and pick up a copy of “Choose Your Own Autobiography”. Using that link to buy the book (or any purchase on Amazon) will help pay the bills here at the University and it won’t cost you a dime. Even better, if you want Neil to read the book to you, click this link and sign up for a free trial of audible.com and it will also help out the site a little as well.
I have very few regrets in life, but one of them is not getting to meet Neil when I had the chance at the animatronics event in Anaheim. I know thousands of people read Theme Park University with all kinds of connections to the theme park and entertainment industry. If anyone knows how to get in touch with him for an interview on Theme Park University, please send me a message to JoshYoung@ThemeParkUniversity.com.