The artists and designers at Walt Disney Imagineering are, first and foremost, storytellers. While they have many methods at their disposal, Imagineers primarily tell their stories visually, owing to the fact that most began their careers in film—a visual medium—and only later became theme park developers. Filmmakers control everything the audience sees and Imagineers try to do the same within their parks. Over time both filmmakers and Imagineers have learned an interesting truth: often the most important piece of visual storytelling is not what the audience sees but rather what the audience does not see. This concept is put to great use through something as simple as a sail in the classic attraction Peter Pan’s Flight.
For a story to succeed a storyteller must set some ground rules (time, place, voice, etc.) and stick to them. In the case of Peter Pan’s Flight at Walt Disney World, the storytellers use the ride vehicle itself, specifically the front sail, to establish an important rule—everything of interest will happen beside and below you.
Shortly after you board the attraction your vehicle rises through the opening scenes where a few elevated details are partially obscured by your sail. As you lean around to see, however, those details drift behind and your brain directs your focus to the streets of London below. You can look up and forward again but there is only darkness so your brain quickly understands that the area covered by the sail is unimportant, uninteresting and uneventful.
In fact, there is quite alot going on above and in front of you, such as upcoming elements and ride mechanics, but through scene after scene the idea of only looking down is reinforced and we forget all about the dark obstruction in front, letting us lose ourselves in the story.
All of the carefully crafted misdirection throughout the ride that has trained our brains to disregard everything above is really a set up that pays off beautifully in the final scenes. As we drift past Wendy, trembling on the gangplank, our eyes are at last drawn around our vehicle’s sail and upwards towards the duel between Captain Hook and Peter Pan. We have not been fully conscious of it, but for the length of the ride we have been visually deprived and the sudden burst of light, color, motion and the final reveal of the attraction’s title character in an area our brains have dismissed as containing only darkness is an awakening for the eyes and the mind.
This is a well crafted story.
Great storytellers know that real fear is created not by things shown but by things hidden, real sexiness is created not by the skin that is revealed but by the skin that is covered, and a real sense of adventure is fostered not by a journey completed but by a journey anticipated. Walt Disney Imagineering continues to reach back to its filmmaking roots, showing guests something special often by not showing them anything at all.
The ride draws to a close. In a beautiful bit of symmetry, as we are still looking around our own sail, our vehicle drifts around the giant on-stage sail of Hook’s ship where we discover the happy finale that was always there, hiding on the very same set, just out of view. The ride vehicle comes in for a landing, people leave smiling and quietly hum ‘you can fly, you can fly, you can fly’ to themselves. One thing is certain—people know a well told story when they see it…so to speak.
Contributed by: John Gray (NDI#194). John is the Imagineering blogger.