Sunday, October 17, 2010

Splash Mountain: A Breakthrough in Literary Experience

I am an English teacher, and therefore, a bit of a geek when it comes to elements of short stories and other literature. One of my recent posts suggested that Disney World focused too much on story sometimes, but I believe that other times, they get it just right.

Such is the case with Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain, however, has an extra special literary secret: you are experiencing a living plot diagram while you are on the ride. Instead of feeling sympathy for the characters of Splash's story (like we do when we read a good story), we feel a new kind of empathy. The ride forces us to connect with the characters by putting us in parallel peril.

A traditional plot diagram for a story has a beginning situation (the set up). This part of the diagram is typically flat, and the corresponding part of the story is not terribly exciting - we are learning about our characters and their setting. Occasionally, the author will leave clues to give the audience a sense of what will happen at the end of the story.

On SM, this is exactly what is happening at the beginning of the ride. We are introduced to the world of the story through setting and some brief character interaction. Everything is calm, but the end of our journey is foreshadowed by our perfect view of the big drop.

In the plot diagram, events occur that gradually lead us to the climax. These revolve around the main conflict of the piece, and can include both the protagonist (main character) and his antagonist (the character giving him difficulty).

This is usually a steady incline moving upward towards the climax, but as on SM, there are sometimes mini-climaxes before the most exciting point. On our ride, these are the times Brer Rabbit dodges the clutches of Brer Fox and Brer Bear, and we get to experience the rush of escape as Brer Rabbit does, when we travel down the smaller drops. They are a combination of suspense (in the dark), excitement, and relief. They are also building our fear for the climax of our journey.

The climax of a story is the point of highest excitement. It is also the turning point; things are different from here on in.

What I love, as a Disney and English nerd, is that you move up the mountain as you would move up the plot diagram. On the diagram, the climax even looks like a mountain top! On the climb up, your excitement and fear should be growing - both on the Mountain and as you read a great story. At the very top, this should be the height of excitement and fear for both the reader and the Mountain guest.

The descent feels exactly as it does when you read a great story. Your fear of the climax has turned into joy, and by the end, you are satisfied by the story's resolution. The Mountain's story tells us that Brer Rabbit has escaped, and we are happy. The attraction combines this, though, with the overall relief that *we* escaped our big drop.

Splash Mountain mixes our ride experience with the experience the characters in the ride are feeling. We are afraid when Brer Rabbit is afraid. We are relieved when he is relieved. It is this parallel sense of empathy that makes Splash Mountain a genius attraction and allows guests to finally feel what it is like to be in a great story.

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