John Holdun

AABA Dark Rides

I watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs recently, probably for the first time since I was a child. I knew the beats of the story well from the Disneyland ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, but I was curious about the film’s ending. The ending of the ride is so quick and unsatisfying; what did they cut? It turns out they didn’t cut much of anything. There’s a quick encounter with The Evil Queen where she falls off a cliff, and then some on-screen text exposition (‽), and then the kiss that revives the princess, and we’re out. The ride’s ending is, in fact, a faithful adaptation.

A few times a year I find myself designing a new dark ride. I like to start each one from first principles, attempting to rediscover what the essence of the medium is. In this case, I was thinking through the classic Fantasyland rides and picking out the parts I like about each one. I like the sudden shock of Snow White, the oppressive scale of Pinocchio, and the dizzying pace of Mr. Toad.

Thinking of Snow White and all these other rides, I realized that most of them end just as poorly. In most there is a single gag that ties up a few loose ends, while some make do with a mural painted directly on the exit corridor. Mostly they rely on the audience knowing the source material by heart. It’s cheap to call out a two-minute adaptation of a ninety-minute work for lacking depth, but it got me thinking: are there any short dark rides1 with satisfying endings?

Peter Pan’s Flight. This one satisfies me. It might be the only one. The details of the plot are left up to one’s own memory of the film, but if we consider the ride as a primary work, what happens?2

  1. A magical boy and a fairy grant us the power of flight! We soar out of our bedroom window and fly high above London! It’s very cool!
  2. Now we’re in some fantasy realm with an island full of fanciful characters3. It’s a cool place we could not have visited without the gift of flight.
  3. There are some hostile pirates around this island, and we’re now in danger because we came here. Luckily, the boy that brought us here is also protecting us and has taken over the ship.
  4. The fairy turned the now-friendly ship gold and made it fly! We can’t fly anymore, but headed home we’re tantalized with what adventures this new ship might make possible.

This feels eerily familiar to another of my recent fancies, and another art form perfected in the mid-twentieth century: the thirty-two-bar form of pop music, as heard in most jazz standards. One part is performed twice, and then there’s a second, contrasting B part that builds tension; and then the first part is repeated yet again to resolve that tension. It’s an AABA pattern, just like this ride, where the A part is cool flying and the B part is scary pirates.

Some more important elements in this structure:

If we generalize from flight to access to a strange and unique world, I think this outline is probably also applicable to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Peter and pirates become Tigger and Heffalumps) and Pinocchio’s Daring Journey (Jiminy Cricket and sin).

Another key aspect of the AABA song structure is that the cycle repeats within the song, often three or four times, with different vocal delivery or instrumentation. We can compare this to a re-ride if we focus on something different each time, and ride designers can encourage this by providing more detail than an audience could possibly take in all at once. That flight over London is always satisfying to me for this reason.

What really makes Peter Pan’s ending so memorable, I think, is the suggestion of something more. “And they lived happily ever after” is a refreshing release from a longer narrative, but I think for such a short and rapid series of events it is more rewarding if there’s a suggestion that I missed something: that it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems, that there’s more to the story.

Something I haven’t seen much is a twist ending that changes the meaning of the preceding events. If, for example, we saw Captain Hook flying away from the crocodile at the end of Peter Pan, it would raise new questions—did Tinkerbell save him? Could Hook always fly? Using this technique, the design encourages a second look to re-evaluate everything the viewer thought they knew about the world they just visited. I think this is the foundation upon which I’ll design my next ride.

  1. I say “short” here specifically to disqualify the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. Their slower pace and elongated duration afford a different kind of storytelling than a Pretzel-style dark ride, so we’ll save them for a future conversation. 

  2. The various versions of Peter Pan’s Flight at different parks vary slightly from each other, but I think these beats work for all of them. 

  3. Unfortunately, some of the characters in the ride and the film portray deeply racist stereotypes. There’s no excuse for this. It’s difficult to appreciate Disney things for a lot of reasons, overt racism being only one of them, and part of the joy of deconstructing their successful works and designing new ones is imagining alternatives that are less problematic. They even have the potential to be progressive!