Splash Mountain & theme park rides as a narrative medium

Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is meant to be– sans crowds– a place of serenity. As such, its handful of major thrill rides are obscured from immediate view. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is tucked away in a corner of the park, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is hidden by trees and faux rocky cliffs, and Space Mountain is completely housed within its iconic dome. However, there’s one thrill that’s impossible to avoid: Splash Mountain’s harrowing plunge into the Briar Patch.

Most park-goers will come face-to-face with the ride before they’ve even reached its home of Frontierland. As highlighted in the images below, Disney’s Imagineers cleverly situated its famous drop in such a way that it can be seen from Liberty Square across the river.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 12.18.40 AM.png
The points of visual impact for Splash Mountain’s main drop. Note that even if you aren’t approaching from Liberty Square you’ll still come across the drop before entering the ride’s queue north of the “Briar Patch” shop.
Point-of-view perspective of the flume drop as seen from Liberty Square. Note how the trees block out the rest of the facade to draw your attention to the main attraction.

This effectively turns the drop into an in medias res framing device. While not abnormal for a log flume, it’s the way that Splash Mountain uses this to play with rider expectations that makes it stand out as particularly brilliant. Throughout the ride you’re waiting for the other shoe– or log– to drop as it meanders over multiple smaller dips disguised as potentially being the big one. It’s a loop of reversals that makes every moment of the seven minutes leading up to the ride’s climax tense and exciting. By the time you’re climbing up the final lift hill you’ve been imbued with just the right levels of excitement and terror that the plunge feels deeply satisfying.

And oh boy is it ever satisfying. The effect of plunging into the thorny thicket is the ultimate thrill as it evokes suspension of disbelief; in that brief moment you fear for your life, even if in reality you’re on a finely-tuned ride that has proved safe for a quarter of a century.

Also finely-tuned is the titular splash upon reaching the bottom of the slope. It gets riders wet enough to deliver on the anticipation but not soaked so as to make them feel miserable for the rest of the day. A few minutes in the sun will dry you right up, turning a ride on Splash Mountain into the perfect mid-afternoon refresher.

Equally as fantastic as Splash Mountain’s thrills are its worldbuilding chops. Like any good theme park attraction, the queue eases you into the setting. Splash Mountain’s queue starts by sending riders through a barn equipped with cartoonish bluegrass music (a staple of the ride) and warning signs of the 50-foot plunge to come. You then make your way into the makeshift mountain, the overwhelming smell and freshness of a river taking over your senses. Pictures of the ride’s cast adorn the cavern walls as a preview of the folks you’ll come across on your journey. By the time you board the ride you’ve already been transported into the Briar Patch.

Splash Mountain continues worldbuilding once you’re locked into your log. You’re paraded past the living quarters of the main cast before delving through the different locales of the Briar Patch. In a stroke of brilliance, the ride’s drops signify entering new areas, each sporting a unique setting, soundtrack and cast of animatronic characters. These elements coalesce to sell the Briar Patch as a living place; as you pass by each animatronic animal you can hear their voice track elevated in the track’s mix. Through this proximity mixing the rider is made to feel as if they’re truly sharing a space with these characters instead of them being pretty set dressing. For an example of this, watch the scene at timestamp 3:20 in the video below:

Let’s talk about Splash Mountain’s narrative. The full ride clocks in at around eleven minutes, allowing it the breathing room needed to tell its story. It’s nothing too complex: lovable trickster Br’er Rabbit is being hunted down by ne’er-do-wells Br’er Fox and his cohort Br’er Bear. After evading their schemes, Br’er Rabbit is finally caught before tricking his captors into tossing him into the thicket (simulated by the ride’s climactic drop). The final scene sees Br’er Rabbit safely back home while the other inhabitants of the Briar Patch celebrate to the tune of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Simple? Sure, but that’s the point: by aiming for simplicity it manages to tell a story that can be understood by riders of all ages and dispositions purely through the use of expressive animatronics. You’re made to understand who the Br’er animals are through their staging in each scene and the tones in their voices. To explain this latter component: each scene’s full loop of dialogue is longer than it takes a rider to float by which means you’ll only catch a disjointed and fractured segment of it in a given ride-through. As such, the delivery of these lines have to convey the content of the script. It’s akin to watching a shounen battle scene without subtitles: if the action is well choreographed then the context speaks for itself; you don’t need to know what the characters are screaming at one another to understand the scene.

If you think this a reductionist way to look at a story then you’re missing the point as to why Splash Mountain bothers with one in the first place: it serves to enhance its worldbuilding and give the ride’s thrill elements a reason to exist as they do. Perhaps you’re starting to see why Splash Mountain stands as a masterpiece of ride design now. Every component of the ride informs the others to the point of indistinguishability. The result is total immersion. You become a part of the story and the world. You live it.

No other narrative medium puts the entirety of your senses to work in the same way that a theme park ride does. They may be limited in the types and depth of stories they can tell but they make up for it in a full-body experience that can’t be provided anywhere else. You become the subject of the story. You experience the thrills. You, quite literally, get taken along for the ride.

The next time you find yourself at a theme park, take in every element of the rides. Investigate the details of their queues, think about how they convey their world or storyline, and most importantly suspend your disbelief. The final piece of the puzzle is you: as with any medium, it’ll give you back what you’re willing to give to it. Be a kid again, play make believe, and you too can be a part of the story.

6 thoughts on “Splash Mountain & theme park rides as a narrative medium

  1. wakalapi

    Excellent thoughts! I’m too much of a wimp to enjoy rollercoasters. I come out of them with cramped arms from holding on waaaay too tight.

    Not too long ago, thinking about game mechanics, I really can’t see too much difference in most narrative games vs thematic roller-coasters. It’s just most narrative video games usually have a bit more of a bounding box to walk around in. Still we have to stay the path, just as a roller-coaster stays its path. Funny enough, playing video games is often done physically sitting down. My idea came when I was thinking of Skyrim as a fantasy theme park filled with a ton of roller-coasters (stories and/or dungeons to choose from. The overall layout of a theme park tries to get you to go all around it, much like the main story of Skyrim. I don’t say this to diminish it really, but just to sort of marvel at how so much can be done… well, on either literal or figurative, rails.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting way to look at Skyrim and similar games… hadn’t thought of them like that before but it makes a lot of sense! (There’s a whole discussion on open world design to be had here: often times they are glorified hubs for activities designated to specific waypoints, thus the theme park analogy being incredibly apt.)

      I think you’d do well with Splash Mountain though. The majority of the ride is a slow float through dark ride segments, building out the world and telling the story. The drops are small, and the big one is ultimately less violent than it may seem. Plus the logs are decently spacious.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. wakalapi

        Well at your recommendation, if I ever go there I will try splash mountain and look out for world building all around! Anyway, cool post, I look forward to more 🙂


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  3. Admittedly, I’m not particularly fond of theme parks and rollercoaster rides myself. But I found myself suddenly interested in them upon reading about your experience with the ones as Splash Mountain. Unfortunately, I doubt my country has anything of a comparable quality to offer even close that level of immersion, but I may very well check out one or two in the future and see how I feel about them then.

    Also, animatronics creep me out. Watched the video and I had to bail shortly after the timestamp, where they’re displayed in full expressiveness. Perhaps this fear is the result of a traumatic experience I had with a few cartoon episodes, namely the most memorable one that comes to mind is the Simpsons episode “Grift of the Magi”, with all the ‘Funzos’…

    Probably not that scary in retrospect, but still slightly unnerving after Five Nights At Freddies, to witness real life animatronics being active and making noise, especially reciting scripts as though they’re already becoming sentient learning our language – I’m not actually that worried about it, but let’s just leave it at that. I’ve gone on long enough about my apprehension here.

    Excellent post! Best piece I’ve read about theme parks ever.


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