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how disneyland’s “snow white” ride update in 2020 will change its storytelling experience

“Snow White’s Scary Adventures” is one of those rides that I remember going on as a small child on my very first trip to Disneyland.  It’s by all measures a classic.  In fact, “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” is one of only three dark rides (the others are “Peter Pan’s Flight” and “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”) in the park today that debuted on Disneyland’s opening day in 1955.

The original “Snow White and Her Adventures” ride opened at Disneyland in 1955. Image from: The Orange County Register.

Disney Parks announced changes to the “Snow White” ride to come in 2020, with the ride closed for refurbishment after January 6.  On the surface, these changes don’t seem all that significant, but to me they are actually interesting enough to warrant a discussion here about storytelling, dark rides, Disney, and all that fun stuff.  So, keep your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the vehicle as we delve into some design talk…

Changes announced for the “Snow White” ride

According to the announcement on Disney Parks Blog, the changes include a slew of technical upgrades, from laser projections to music, lighting and animation.  The ride will also get a refreshed facade and structural improvements, with an extended refurbishment reported to cost up to $445,0001.

All these changes are great, but what really struck me is the reveal of two new scenes to be added to the ride.

From Disney’s blog post announcing the updates:

In addition to experiencing familiar elements of the attraction you know and love, you’ll discover enhanced story details and all-new scenes. For example, a new vignette will show Snow White in a beautiful forest setting waking up from her deep sleep. Also, the attraction will conclude when Snow White is reunited with her animal friends and a shimmering castle is seen in the distance.

Snow White awakes from her slumber with Prince Charming’s “True Love’s Kiss” in the first of two new scenes to be added to “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” ride at Disneyland in 2020. Image from: Disney Parks Blog.

What’s so special about the “Snow White” ride at Disneyland?

The thing is, “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” is a unique ride at Disneyland.  Yes, the Disney Parks blog post calls it out as “Disneyland park’s only ride-through princess attraction”, but to me the most fascinating thing about the ride is its approach to storytelling.

After boarding your ride vehicle, you enter through the dwarfs’ cottage, where a figure of Snow White is seen on the stairs.  Animals are perched at her feet.  Dwarfs are making merry music.  And then you exit the cottage and Snow White is never seen again for the rest of the ride.

The Seven Dwarves in Snow White’s Scary Adventure” (CC BY 2.0) by Loren Javier

Which means, from then on, you, the guest, plays the role of the main character.  You become Snow White.  You’re whisked into the woods, where the evil queen is peering through the window of the cottage, and then through the “Scary Adventures” the ride promises, all through a first-person perspective.

It doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but this is actually really special for a Disney ride.  In pretty much all other Disney rides that are based on a film or a story (one key exception: “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride”), you see the main character as you pass through often familiar scenes.  You see Pooh get stuck in a hunny pot in “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”, and you watch Indiana Jones run away from a giant boulder in “Indiana Jones Adventure”.  So asking the guest to be Snow White, not follow her, or watch her, is different.

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A little history of the original dark rides at Disneyland…

“Snow White’s Scary Adventures” is a rarity for an old ride because up until now, Disney Imagineering has largely kept this form of guest-as-the-protagonist storytelling intact.  Although the early dark rides at Disneyland often placed guests in the role of the protagonist, many of them have since closed and the remainder have been significantly reworked to showcase the main character within the ride.

The one exception to this rule is “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride”, which to this day, has no real presence of the main character aside from his portraits in Toad Hall.  The advantage for that ride is that the Disney IP that it is based on, the movie “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad”, was released in 1949 and is therefore largely out of public memory.  Guests riding the ride have fewer expectations or connections with the characters because they don’t remember the movie, and are experiencing the story as a novel experience through the ride.

Current exterior facade of “Snow White’s Scary Adventures”, that is also slated for refurbishment in 2020. “Snow White entrance” (CC BY 2.0) by Eric Polk

Another existing original dark ride, “Peter Pan’s Flight”, did not depict Peter Pan at all when it opened, and simply featured a flight through the scenes in the nursery, above London, and around Neverland, where guests saw characters like Captain Hook, Smee and the crocodile.  The 1958 “Alice in Wonderland” ride featured a series of crazy scenes loosely strung together, bringing the guest (presumably as Alice) to an Upside Down Room, an Oversize Room and finally on to the table at the Mad Tea Party.

It was the 1983 Fantasyland refurbishment that retroactively added the main characters to their rides.  In “Peter Pan’s Flight”, guests had found it confusing that the title character never appeared in the attraction.  The refurbishments meant that now you only fly like Peter, not as him, overlooking iconic scenes from the movie like Peter Pan and the children flying near Big Ben.  But while depictions of Peter Pan were liberally scattered through his ride, only one Snow White figure was added to to hers.

The only 3D figure of Snow White currently in the ride appears at the very beginning. Image from: WDWInfo.

How the changes will affect the way Snow White’s story is told

Through this lens, it’s interesting to see that the proposed new vignettes for the 2020 refurbishment of “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” both show Snow White.  They appear to take place near the ending of Snow White’s story, so I’m suspecting they will be placed near the end of the ride, which could bookend the ride experience nicely by pulling guests out of their role as Snow White to return to the real world.

But if Disney Imagineers also decide to add a number of audio-animatronic Snow Whites through the ride, the form of storytelling could be altered to be from third-person, instead of first-person perspective, throughout the entire ride, just like the 1983 refurbishment did for “Peter Pan’s Flight”.  And that tweak, in a small way, will mark an end of an era for the ride.

The Wicked Queen lurks outside a window in Snow White’s Scary Adventure” (CC BY 2.0) by Loren Javier

Disney has long been known to focus on storytelling, which has proved to be very successful in their theme parks.  In their 270-word announcement about the changes to Snow White’s ride, story is brought up no fewer than three times.

…new and innovative ways to enhance our storytelling…

…you’ll discover enhanced story details and all-new scenes…

and a pointed statement that could be hinting at the shift in storytelling planned for the ride:

Walt Disney Imagineering is reimagining how the classic tale of Snow White lives happily ever after, and guests will be invited to follow along with her story.

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What this says about designing stories for theme park rides

Following along with Snow White’s story instead of taking part of it is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it’s probably a smart move given the initial confusion of the protagonist-deficient dark rides when they debuted.  And it provides an insight into the design of narratives for entertainment experiences, in particular, theme park rides.

We don’t want to be our heroes, we just want to meet them.  It’s an important distinction.

In immersive experiences based on existing stories or characters, guests don’t want to be the main character, but are more interested in seeing him or her.  It’s that thrill of meeting a famous character that has brought millions to Disneyland, and it extends to the principles of designing rides.  Think about it, it’d be ludicrous to tell a guest, “This is Disneyland, but you won’t ever see Mickey Mouse, because we want you to think you’re Mickey Mouse and that you run the show around here.”

Snow White, her animal friends and Prince Charming at the end of the story in the second of two new scenes to be added to “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” ride at Disneyland in 2020. Image from: Disney Parks Blog.

Guests are more interested in watching the story unfold and being a part of its fantasy world.  They want to see beloved characters and aspire to help them (“Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run”), go on an adventure with them (“Indiana Jones Adventure”), play games with them (“Toy Story Midway Mania”), sing along with them (“Frozen Ever After”), or wave at them from the ride vehicle (“Pirates of the Caribbean”). But guests want to be themselves because then the adventure is happening to them, not to a make-believe character they are imagining they are for the 3-minute dark ride duration.

It’s wonderful to see Disneyland continue to evolve.  As we say goodbye to this iteration of “Snow White’s Scary Adventures”, I’m excited to see what new forms of storytelling emerge to help guests feel, as a red-haired mermaid once put it, “part of that world”.

References Cited

  1. Macdonald, Brady. “Disneyland to give Snow White’s Scary Adventures dark ride a major facelift in 2020.” The Orange County Register, 8 November 2019. Web. 8 January 2020.

Additional References

  1. Ramirez, Michael. “Enchanting New Magic Coming to Snow White’s Scary Adventures at Disneyland ParkDisneyland Resort. Disney Parks Blog, 26 November 2019. Web. 8 January 2020.
  2. JohnYChen. “ 2019 Disneyland Snow White’s Scary Adventures On Ride Low Light Ultra HD 4k POV.” Uploaded to YouTube, 29 January 2019. Web. 8 January 2020.