TEA Talks: JRA's Shawn McCoy Discusses the Subtle Science of Story

February 26, 2015

Earlier this month, JRA VP of Marketing and Business Development, Shawn McCoy participated in "TEA Talks", a webinar series produced by the Themed Entertainment Association's NextGen Committee.  Shawn spoke to over 100 NextGens (defined as students or recent graduates of less than three years) about the power of story, its components, and how creators and producers can immerse their audiences in a story-based attraction.  Shawn was joined by Adam Berger of Berger Creative Associates and screenwriter, David Misch.

Through the magic of editing and video embed, the webinar can be viewed below, with a transcript of Shawn's remarks underneath.  Other TEA Talks are available for viewing at TEA TV

Next week, we'll have even more TEA news for you, as we preview the upcoming TEA Summit and Thea Awards.

Power of Story

Thank you very much for taking a few minutes to discuss one of my favorite topics: stories. And more specifically, the power that stories have to create engaging, memorable experiences.

What is Story?

I've had the pleasure of being in the attractions business for over 20 years, and over that time I've heard a lot about the use of stories in visitor experiences.

However, I admit, a lot of the time, I really didn't know what the word "story" meant, as it applied to visitor experiences.  

Some of you may feel that way, but hopefully, in about 10 minutes, you won't feel that way anymore.

Components of Story

To understand how stories can be translated into visitor experiences, you must first understand the basic components of a story.

The simplest way to think about story components is to think about the components of a great book.

It has a bevy of memorable characters,

A series of environments,

An interesting narrative that has a beginning, middle and an end,

And stories can have great power over an audience.

For example, stories can make you care about characters.

As a quick test, if you had your choice, would you want to have a beer with this archeologist, or this one?

I would say most of you would choose the fictional Dr. Jones, because you know his story.

But what if I were to tell you that Professor Howard Carter actually uncovered King Tut's Tomb? You'd probably want to hear that story also.

Stories also make us care more about content, such as artifacts in museums.

For example, you probably wouldn't look at this chair for more than two seconds if you saw it in a museum.

But when you hear the story that it was the chair that Abraham Lincoln sat upon when he was assassinated, that story makes that chair much more interesting.

And that's our job as attraction designers, to engage audiences by telling that story in a memorable manner.

So how exactly do we do that?

How To Manifest Story in Visitor Experience

Luckily, we have a number of mediums at our disposal in which to tell stories:


  • - Themed architecture
  • - Environmental graphics
  • - Displays
  • - Immersive environments
  • - Media experiences
  • - Rides
  • - Shows

But do those tools really work to create memorable guest experiences?

Well, let's see.

No Story / Story

Let's look at two rides that are pretty much identical, except for a layer of story and theming.

First, our non-story based attraction: a generic drop tower.

Pretty simple concept: you go up and down and, sometimes, up and down again. No characters, no environments, no stories. Just thrill. Just amusement. Fun for those 45 seconds or so, but not really memorable beyond that.

Now let's take that same ride component and overlay engaging environments, characters, a strong storyline and a bit of intellectual property and you get...one of my favorite attractions of all time:

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (TM)

The story begins with its haunting architecture and carries on as you walk through the creepy lobby and into the library, where we hear the story of those who perished on that doomed elevator.

We then make our way into the boiler room, and take an elevator, where we see the ghosts of those who passed away. All of this builds up and happens before the highlight of the ride, the tower drop.

This attraction points out one of the key factors in telling a good story within an attraction, in that by taking guests through several environments and pre-shows, the story was able to slowly unfold, providing guests with the opportunity to forge an emotional connection to the characters and underlying narrative. You have to provide space and time for stories to evolve and connect with your audience.

So, again, the base ride is still the same for both of these attractions. But I would propose that the guest experience within the Tower of Terror is much richer and more memorable because of story.

To IP, or Not IP

As most of you are probably aware, intellectual property is very much in demand these days.  And when you base an attraction on an existing IP, your audience has already been exposed to, and become emotionally attached to, your characters, environments and stories, which makes it easier to immerse them.

But do you have to have IP to create a memorable guest experience? I would say that while its certainly nice to have IP to work with, it's not a necessity.

Let's again take a look at two identical rides, one with IP and one without, to see if the use of intellectual property provides a markedly better visitor experience.

Ratatouille Adventure

Based on the popular Pixar movie, Ratatouille Adventure opened at Disneyland Paris this past July.

During the attraction, guests ride on a trackless vehicle and see all of the movie's characters as they ride through the Parisian kitchen featured in the movie and try to evade the evil Chef Skipper.

So that's a quick look at a ride that successfully integrates intellectual property and story.

Mystic Manor

Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland provides a very similar guest experience, except this attraction is based upon a new story developed specifically for the ride.

The story begins with the architecture of Mystic Manor, home of Lord Henry Mystic and his monkey, Albert.

In the immersive pre-show, Lord Mystic explains that the house is filled with exhibition rooms of his latest collections. He also mentions an enchanted music box full of rare magic that must be opened with caution.

Guests then begin touring the Manor, and, of course, Albert opens the box and brings everything inside the house to life.

So, while this attraction isn't based on an existing IP, I would say that it's every bit as engaging as the Ratatouille ride, given its use of likable characters, magical environments, and an exciting storyline.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The best story-based attractions are those that engage all of your senses and make you feel as though you are part of the narrative, living it in real life.

My last case study is probably the best recent example of this approach in action: Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Since 1997, a variety of memorable characters, magical environments and exciting stories have been described in great detail within 7 books and brought to life in 8 movies. So, audiences have had over 17 years to fall in love with these components, which Universal had to bring to life. And they have done so by using all of the techniques we discussed today: themed architecture, immersive environments, rides and shows.

Through these techniques, you live the story.

You walk through Diagon Alley, choose your wand at Olivander's, run through a brick wall to get to Platform 9-3/4, and ride the Hogwart's Express.

You can eat at the Leaky Cauldron, drink a butterbeer in Hogsmeade, or buy a chocolate frog at Honeydukes.

You can explore the various environments and unleash the magic of your wand or see a variety of shows before you return to Hogwarts to outmaneuver a dragon or re-visit Diagon Alley to "Escape From Gringotts" with Harry, Ron and Hermione.

Why is this such a great experience?

Because it uses a variety of mediums and techniques to completely immerse guests with a story that once only existed on paper.


Which brings us to our final chapter.

In summary:

  • - A good story is comprised of interesting characters, environments and narratives.
  • - Stories have the power to make an audience care about characters and content.
  • - To engage your audiences in a story-based attraction, you must provide enough time and space for the story to evolve and for your guests to care.
  • - Intellectual property certainly is nice to have when creating an attraction, but not required. Guests will remember a good story more than a weakly interpreted IP.
  • - The best attractions completely immerse guests in a story, engaging all of their senses and making them feel as though they are part of the narrative.

Most importantly, stories have the ability to suspend reality for a moment in time and capture our guests' hearts and minds, and that is an amazing power.

Thank you.



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JRA Mourns the Passing of Co-Founder Amy Merrell

February 20, 2015

It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Amy Merrell on February 16, 2015 after a prolonged illness.

Amy was one of the original founders and owners of JRA and considered to be one the cornerstones of our company. Her passion, hard work and pursuit of excellence in everything she did were major contributors to the success that JRA has enjoyed for over 25 years. Per our Owner/CEO, Keith James,“we have lost a core member of the JRA family. More importantly, we have lost a very close friend.”

Our hearts go out to Amy's husband, Yousef Aouad, and their sons, Gus and Quinn.

Donations in honor of Amy can be made to the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Our Daily Bread Cincinnati, or the American Cancer Society.

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The Friday Five: Talking Long Walks, Super Powers and Hobbits with Adam Wolf

February 13, 2015

Adam Wolf

Adam Wolf

Happy Friday!

We're back with our second of two "Friday Five" segments, in which we discover the inspirations and aspirations of our super star co-ops.  Today, we're talking long walks, super powers and hobbits with industrial design co-op, Adam Wolf.

Name: Adam Wolf

School: University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP)

Major: Industrial Design

Graduation Date: 2016

Portfolio Site

Dream Project: To work on any type of product that would go up into space, such as equipment on the space shuttle, or the look of the astronaut's space suits.


My favorite part of the design process is…

My favorite part of the design process is the ideation phase, when ideas are flowing and you get yourself excited about the project.

Dream Vacation

My dream vacation would be to live in a hut in the jungles of Central/South America and get a chance to hike and explore the wilderness.

The Caves Branch Estate - Belize

 I beat a creative block by…

When my creativity stalls, I like to go outside and go for a walk somewhere, preferably through a park. Or, I’ll go somewhere with a great view of the city, such as Bellevue Park, and sit and think for a little bit.

Bellevue Beach Park

What are your favorite movies?

My favorite movies are the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’ve never been able to decide which of the three movies I like the best.

 If you could have any super powers, what would they be?

If I could have any super powers, I would pick Spiderman’s powers so that when I fly, I get the thrill of freefalling, as if I’m constantly going up and down on a rollercoaster.

Photo credit: www.comicbookmovies.com

Thanks, Adam! Next week, we'll recap the Themed Entertainment Association's recent "TEA Talks: The Subtle Science of Story" webinar, featuring JRA's own Shawn McCoy.

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The Friday Five with Jessica Ping: Talking Zombies, Neon and New Orleans

February 06, 2015

Jessica Ping

Jessica Ping

Welome the Friday Five!  In this series, we ask five questions of our co-ops as a way of introducing you to the newest members of the JRA team. Today, we meet the first of our two spring co-ops from the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).

Name: Jessica Ping

School: University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning

Major: Graphic Communication Design


Dream Project: Partaking in anything related to visually informing or preserving the culture, history, music, food or art of New Orleans.


The part of my career I enjoy the most is …

The satisfaction in knowing I'm going into a career related to something that I'm passionate about and that makes me feel fulfilled and happy. Nothing compares to the pride you feel when finally, after putting in so much work, seeing something you designed or helped design be completed, displayed, and then seeing others enjoying your work as well.

My favorite exhibit/attraction is …

I recently visited The Neon Museum in Las Vegas and absolutely loved it and the stories that went along with the pieces. I'm very thankful Las Vegas has made an attempt to preserve such an interesting and significant part of their culture for future generations.

Photo credit: Neon Museum Las Vegas

To get inspired…

To get inspired I either spend time alone cuddling with my two cats or I go somewhere beautiful and quiet where I can gather my thoughts such as Spring Grove Cemetery, local parks, or the art museum. I took a letterpress class I really enjoyed once at Steam Whistle Letterpress in OTR and I used to take aerial silks lessons which I hope to restart again soon. Or I spend time with my boyfriend and friends and do something really fun to relieve stress such as traveling, dancing, going out to eat, or whatever exciting big event is going on at the time. I also am inspired by and will be participating in Artwork's current project: CincyInk.

Photo credit: ArtWorks Cincinnati

For ideas, I read / look at …

Some of the websites I frequent are: Juxtapoz, Pinterest, Fast Company Design, Communication Arts, The Design Blog, Behance, Design Envy, Design Observer, etc.

My current favorite artists are Mark Ryden and Lora Zombie. I also really love the typography of Jessica Hische.

Photo credit: Lora Zombie

What’s a quote that describes you?

"Life is not measured by breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away."

Thanks, Jessica! Next Friday, we'll talk Spiderman, magic rings and dream vacations with our other DAAP co-op, Adam Wolf.

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The Rise of the Upsell: Testing the Limits of the VIP Experience

February 04, 2015

Disney E-ticket

Disney E-ticket

First there was the E-ticket, where if you wanted to ride the best rides, you “paid to play.” But as theme park attractions became all-inclusive, parks had to discover a way to increase per caps and offer higher-end experiences. So the jump-the-line pass was born. Then came Extra Magic Hours. Reserved, front row show seating, behind-the-scenes exclusives, private tours and overnights at Cinderella’s Castle followed. Now, a family of four can choose to pay thousands of dollars for a single day’s entertainment. So where does this keeping up with the Joneses end? And what does this mean for the “little guy” that cannot afford such luxury? Is this trend “along the lines of class warfare” as one Time Magazine article posited, or is it just the natural function of a capitalist society?

Dine with Shamu. Photo credit: SeaWorld Parks

Behind the Seeds at The Land pavilion. Photo credit: Walt Disney World Resort

Serengeti Safari at Busch Gardens Tampa. Photo credit: SeaWorld Parks

Some theme park upcharge options offer a little piece of luxury at a (relatively) low cost. Beyond line-skipping passes, which range from $30-$70 per day, many of these up-sell experiences consist of guided tours and opportunities to see parts of the park inaccessible to the general public. Visitors can Dine with Shamu at a SeaWorld park, enjoying an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet and a behind-the-scenes killer whale demonstration starting at $29. Instead of behind-the-scenes, guests can go “Behind the Seeds” at EPCOT’s Land Pavilion, in which they interact with plants, insects and fish on a $20, educational walking tour. The Magic Kingdom’s $79 Keys to the Kingdom Tour offers guests a chance to hop on three rides, peek into the park’s underground utility tunnels, and take home an exclusive keepsake. And at Busch Gardens Tampa, an additional $99 per person buys a five-hour Guided Adventure Tour of the park, front of line access to most major rides, lunch, and a Serengeti Safari, which includes an open-air tour of the park’s Serengeti Plain and an opportunity to feed a giraffe. Those willing to shell out a little extra money can breeze past their general admission counterparts on ride queues and sneak into “secret” passages and doorways.

Discovery Cove Trainer for a Day VIP Experience. Photo credit: SeaWorld Parks

VIP Experience. Photo credit: LEGOLAND Florida

But those willing to shell out a lot of extra money enjoy a whole other level of exclusivity. LEGOLAND Florida’s $495 VIP experience offers a personal VIP escort, the opportunity to open the park with a LEGOLAND character, an exclusive tour of the model shop, priority access to rides and attractions, lunch, park admission, parking and photographs. Discovery Cove’s Trainer for a Day Ultimate Package includes a 30-minute dolphin interaction, a private photo session with two dolphins, an opportunity to feed tropical fish and a shark, meet-and-greets with birds and other animals, a behind-the-scenes tour of animal support areas, the ability to shadow a trainer for a day, and a 14-day pass to all of SeaWorld’s Orlando parks. The experience costs a hefty $483-$563 per person, depending on time of year.

As usual, Disney and Universal take the VIP cake when it comes to exclusive experiences. Universal Studios Hollywood’s VIP Experience, comparatively affordable at $299, includes park admission, a private trolley tour of the park, and the opportunity to visit real working sets, actual sound stages and a props warehouse. They also receive VIP entrance and exit, lunch and breakfast in a VIP dining room, and an amenity kit that includes such essentials as lip balm, a poncho and bottled water. But why enjoy the VIP treatment with other people? At Universal Orlando, a group of three can enjoy an 8-hour, completely customized tour of both parks for $2,599 (not including park admission). Disney, however, wins the most expensive Private VIP Tour game, ringing in at $315-$500 per person, per hour, not including admission or park hopper passes and requiring a minimum of six hours. The tour guide picks the guest up from the hotel in a private vehicle and offers a personalized itinerary through Walt Disney World’s multiple theme parks, pushing the guest’s stroller, shuffling them through secret ride entrances, reserving front-row seating at shows and parades, fetching snacks and souvenirs, and arranging for character meet-and-greets. One TripAdvisor reviewer, who rode 17 rides and met five Disney princesses during her recent tour, vowed that she would “not likely do a day at the Magic Kingdom without this again.”

Photo credit: Universal Studios Hollywood

So where does the VIP craze end, and what happens to the garden-variety visitor? Families are already paying as much as $99 per person for a one-park pass to the Magic Kingdom, and if they want to visit more than one park in a day, the price jumps to over $140 per person. That’s not a small price to pay to watch dozens of privileged tour goers jump to the front of the line. According to the Time article, much like airlines have made leg room more cramped to encourage passengers to fly “Economy Plus”, “theme parks have a financial incentive to make waits for rides and attractions – and the ‘regular’ experience as a whole – more unbearable,” the logic being that next time (or even the next day), you will pay the extra money to join the Joneses at the front of the queue.

But park operators point to these exclusive offerings as simply capitalism at work, and many analysts feel that the stratification of the theme parks experience merely reflects the current economic stratification of society as a whole. They even argue that creating these premium experiences enables them to keep across-the-board ticket prices in check and add a touch of panache in years when they aren’t unveiling a new, multimillion-dollar attraction. In the final analysis, people vote with their pocketbooks, and so far, parks like Universal are seeing double-digit sales volume increases as a result of their VIP tours. While an “Occupy” Disney or Universal movement may not be looming, time and the economy will be the best judges of whether “regular Joes” will stay away, keep coming back…or upgrade.

Photo credit: Walt Disney World Resort

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