When asked what’s my favorite aspect of visiting a theme park, my answer is rather odd: the complexity. Most people come to a park for a chance to escape, feel the rush of a roller coaster or be taken to another world in a dark ride and call it a day. Personally, I like finding out how a park operates, how it was designed and why those choices were made.
Today’s article focuses on something which had never crossed my mind before, which is how attraction storylines can be compared to mythology. I recently interviewed Adam Berger, an attraction show writer and author of the book Every Guest is a Hero. We discussed how he got his start in writing for attractions as well as the inspiration behind his book. Enjoy!
What started your interest in theme parks and why does Disney stand out above the rest for you?
I was fascinated with the Disney theme parks years before I ever made my first visit to one. I remember as a very young child poring obsessively over an old pictorial guidebook that my aunt and uncle had brought back from a visit to Disneyland in the 1960s. Then, for an entire year before Walt Disney World opened, I scoured the local public library for every scrap of information I could find about the place. When my family finally visited WDW in 1972—less than a year after it opened—my obsession only deepened. We stayed at the Polynesian Village Resort over Labor Day weekend and I recall that, on our last night there, I was so distraught at the idea of leaving this magical place that I managed to somehow give myself an asthma attack!
Of course, there are lots of things for a 12-year-old boy to love about the parks: from the costumes and architecture, to the lighting and background music, to the characters, and of course the shows and rides. Then there’s the meticulous attention to detail and that commitment to cleanliness and customer service for which Disney is rightfully famous. So those are all part of the equation. But at the heart of the Disney Guest Experience is storytelling. As a lifelong writer, I think that’s where I must have felt my deepest connection.
The fact is, whenever you’re in the Disney parks, you are literally surrounded by stories, with all these elements I just mentioned helping to tell those stories. And it may seem like there are hundreds of stories. But once you look a little closer, you’ll discover that, in very fundamental ways, they’re all really just a single story expressed in many variations through many different formats and mediums. I’m speaking, of course, about the mythic Hero’s Journey. And that’s where my book comes in, because Every Guest is a Hero reveals this secret story that’s hidden in plain sight everywhere you go in the Disney parks.
That was a long, long time ago. I had my film degree and some professional film production experience under my belt. But what I really I wanted to do was become a professional attraction show writer. Yet I had no connections in the industry and no idea how to break in. I was living in Central Florida at the time and I learned that there were (and still are) several independent and well-respected attraction design companies in the area that were established by former Disney Imagineers. This seemed like a good place to start, so I spent several months writing a batch of sample attraction show scripts, basically creating a show writing portfolio from scratch. I then dropped my portfolio off at one of those design companies—a group called ITEC Productions—and crossed my fingers, hoping they would ask me back for an interview. And a few days later, to my surprise, that’s exactly what they did. I met with their Director of Design and he gave me a small writing project with a tight deadline and very little money. I accepted this first “Call to Adventure” with enthusiasm.
I remember it was a guest experience narrative for a cartoon-themed dark ride being proposed for a Japanese theme park. I don’t recall exactly which park (ITEC was working on a bunch of Japanese theme park projects at the time). But I realized this first gig was meant to be a test of my creativity and professionalism to help ITEC decide if they wanted to use me on a regular basis. So I went home and threw myself into the assignment, heart and soul. To this day, I still have no idea if that ride was ever built. But my guest experience narrative must have satisfied the ITEC folks, because after that, they kept calling me in for project after project, year after year. And they’re still calling me in to write for them, some 23 years later.
What exactly is the “Hero’s Journey” and how did you start connecting it to Disney attractions?
It was Joseph Campbell who coined the term “Hero’s Journey.” Campbell was a noted mythologist, author, and lecturer. After spending years studying and comparing the myths, legends, folk stories, and fairy tales of cultures around the world, he realized that they all had certain elements in common. From these observations, he was able to describe a structure or “paradigm” that seemed to recur over and over again, which he called the “Hero’s Journey.” It’s also known as the “monomyth” because it’s shared in one form or another by people everywhere.
The monomyth is a metaphor that describes a journey of transformation shared by everyone, everywhere. It resonates with the human psyche because it embodies the transformative events—the challenges, setbacks, and triumphs—that we all face in life. That, ultimately, is the reason why the Hero’s Journey—and places that use it, such as the Disney parks—connect with people of all ages and all backgrounds on such a deeply satisfying emotional level.
Do you use this as a formula as a show writer and can you give an example?
Well, I know this may sound a little surprising, but when I’m composing an attraction storyline—at least in the early stages of the process—I deliberately try NOT to think about the Hero’s Journey. Instead, I prefer to follow my creative impulses and just let the story emerge organically. Then, sometime later in the process, I’ll review what I wrote and, more often than not, I’ll find that the Hero’s Journey has manifested itself with little if any conscious effort on my part. Of course, I usually have to go back in and tweak the story, maybe adding or rearranging some parts to more effectively convey the necessary elements of the Journey. But by and large, I’ll find that the major movements, stages and archetypes are all there. And this will be the case whether I’m working alone, or developing the storyline in a team environment with several people contributing to the story.
I think a great example of this is a long-defunct attraction I wrote many years ago for ITEC Productions. It was called “The St. Michael Mystery” and the venue was the former Church of St. Michael—a desecrated cathedral at the edge of the Old Town section of Prague, Czech Republic. The main attraction’s theme was quite unique: “A walking tour through the tortured imagination of Franz Kafka.” It was very surreal and, frankly, Kafkaesque. And throughout the conceptual and schematic design stages, I never once gave a thought to the Hero’s Journey. But then, years later when I looked back on the show, I realized that my storyline followed the pattern of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey virtually point-for-point, starting right from the beginning, with a talking marble bust of Kafka issuing you your Call to Adventure. Then you climb through a hole in the wall to cross the First Threshold into the Special World. But before you can proceed to the next room, you are stopped by an intimidating Threshold Guardian in the form of a Soviet-era bureaucrat, who demands to see your papers. And it just went on and on from there, matching the Hero’s Journey paradigm the whole way. It was really an uncanny feeling for me to look back and discover how closely I had been in touch with the monomyth without even consciously thinking about it.
You use the term “brain scripts” in the book. What do you mean by that?
You probably won’t hear the Imagineers using the term “brain script” when they talk about what they do, but it’s a fundamental tool that they use virtually on a daily basis. A brain script is a sort of film script of the mind. These are story patterns that you’re already familiar with. It’s how your brain takes seemingly random bits of information and uses them to construct meaningful stories. For example, let’s say you’re walking around the Magic Kingdom—maybe you’re texting a friend on your smart phone, and not really paying attention to where you are. (I know that never, ever happens to you or your readers, but just go with me here.) All of sudden you look down and you notice a whole bunch of animal footprints—elephant prints and gorilla prints and others—stamped into the pavement. Then you look up and you notice colorful tent structures nearby and you hear festive calliope music wafting through the air. Without even looking at any maps or signage, you correctly deduce that you are in some sort of circus environment—specifically the Storybook Circus district of Fantasyland. Because you are familiar with the elements of the “circus” brain script, you have easily connected the dots, combining all these seemingly random “signals” to decode and construct a meaningful story in your mind.
And you can find other brain scripts everywhere in the Disney parks. There’s one called the “David and Goliath” brain script where you have this ridiculously overmatched challenger facing off against a supremely powerful foe. That, obviously, is the brain script of attractions ranging from Fantasmic! to Under the Sea ~ Journey of The Little Mermaid. There’s another one you might call the “Final Frontier” brain script, which is all about humanity’s conquest of the cosmos with all its dangers and rewards. You’ll find that brain script at the core of Space Mountain, Mission: SPACE, and Star Tours – The Adventures Continue. And then there’s the “Cinderella” brain script, in which a plain Jane or regular Joe discovers his/her hidden potential. That one forms the basis of attractions such as Test Track Presented by Chevrolet and the now-retired American Idol Experience.
Do Imagineers consciously use the Hero’s Journey when writing scripts or are there other methods?
Of course, there are tons of considerations that weigh on the story and script development, such as the length of the experience, the show technology requirements and limitations, the ride envelope, budget, and so on. When it comes to the Hero’s Journey, I would say that today’s Imagineers are very well versed in Campbellian theory. They don’t talk about it very much, but if you’re ever lucky enough to walk around the WDI offices here in Florida and at their headquarters in Glendale, California, you’re likely to notice copies of “The Power of Myth,” “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and other books by Joseph Campbell on the bookshelves. So I think the Hero’s Journey is always in the background to one extent or another.
On the other hand, the earliest Imagineers, like Walt Disney himself, almost certainly were not thinking about the Hero’s Journey. And yet, as we can see, they still managed to introduce tons of mythic content into their attraction designs. I think this was possible because, like all gifted storytellers, these first-generation Imagineers knew how to listen to their creative impulses. They allowed the ideas, archetypes, and images to bubble up, uncensored, from the wellsprings of their subconscious minds. By tapping into their dreams and imaginations in this way, they harnessed what Joseph Campbell referred to as “the poetry of myth,” in which words are replaced by environments, acts, and adventures. And what always impresses me is that they did it all intuitively, as artists have done for thousands of years before Joseph Campbell and his theories came along.
Are there particular signals, characters or plot lines guests can look for when visiting a Disney Park to piece together a Hero’s Journey storyline?
Absolutely! The first thing you need to do, of course, is to familiarize yourself with the mythic themes, archetypes, stages and movements of the Hero’s Journey. Which you can do rather easily by reading the first section of my book. Once you have a decent grasp of these elements, you’ll find them everywhere in the parks—right there, in-your-face. They’re all hidden in plain sight, just waiting for you to discover them. In the second part of my book, I even walk you through 10 popular Disney attractions, scene-by-scene, pointing out how they are all expressions of the monomyth.
After reading the book, how do you think readers might look at Disney Parks differently?
Let me begin by pointing out the obvious: my book is not for everyone! There are many guests—in fact, I suspect they’re the vast majority—who visit the Disney parks with the goal of enjoying them purely as entertainment experiences. Which, by the way, is exactly how the Walt Disney Company has always intended for their parks to be enjoyed.
But there are a significant number of guests who want to appreciate the parks on a deeper level. They love to peek under the hood to learn how the parks tick. They’re the ones who are determined NOT to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” So they go to great lengths to learn as much about the parks as they can. They purchase the backstage tours and they book lunches with the Imagineers and they like to learn all about the history of the parks and the life and career of Walt Disney, and on and on.
Those are the people for whom I wrote this book. My hope is that, after reading Every Guest is a Hero, those Disney enthusiasts will find themselves better equipped to recognize and appreciate the all-encompassing role that storytelling plays in creating the Disney guest experience, and that they’ll begin to understand how those stories manage to provoke such deep emotional responses. By the way, this is also very helpful knowledge to have for anyone contemplating a career as a themed attraction designer, so I consider those aspiring Imagineers to be part of my target audience as well.
Finally, I hope that, for at least a few of my readers, their understanding of these transformative psychological processes might give them a new sense of perspective that they can use in their day-to-day lives. So they might be more inclined to accept the “Calls to Adventure” that come their way. And maybe they’ll learn to view the stumbling blocks and obstacles in their lives as necessary “Tests and Trials” along the path to their personal “Inmost Caves.” And, ultimately, perhaps they will come away with a truly heroic orientation, determined to look beyond their own self-interests to in some way strive to improve the lives of others around them. Because that, in the end, is what being a hero is all about.