Nothing at Walt Disney Word is “just a ride.” Backstories exist for every attraction, land, restaurant, and hotel. They provide framework and context for the Imagineered details, and a good backstory can add another layer to the visual storytelling. In this post, I’ll list my favorite backstories at Walt Disney World.
In actuality, my feelings on Imagineering’s backstories are mixed. There’s a fine line between backstory that enhances the substantive attractions, and one that is used to explain-away thematic inconsistencies. Some backstories are clever, spelling out what could be gleaned by an astute eye walking through a given area of a park; other backstories are convoluted, going so far beyond what’s present in the parks that they read like a bad fanfic.
Thanks to the internet, Walt Disney World fans now receive info on backstory for new attractions via official channels like the Disney Parks Blog, as Imagineers over-emphasize the importance of story in everything they do. Playing a “story” drinking game with an Imagineer interview could have lethal consequences, but the reality is that WDI has always created backstories to guide their own design decisions and add depth–Pleasure Island’s backstory is perhaps the most famous example–we just have easier access to these backstories than ever before.
Whether a particular backstory “works” or not is subjective, and will vary for each guest. For me, some elaborate backstories that border on contrived do work, while others fall flat. A lot comes down to the substance of the place, and how well that substance comports with the story. Nevertheless, my list is personal, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with my choices.
Before we even start with the list, I’d like to add Tomorrowland as an honorable mention. Since much of its backstory has already faded away and the rest will likely disappear before TRON Lightcycle Run opens, it doesn’t seem worthy of extended discussion. Personally, I found the whole Avenue of Planets and Intergalactic Convention Center angle really cool, and a clever ‘space fantasy’ spin to put on the land. If I were writing this list in the mid-90s, Tomorrowland would’ve been near the top of it.
With that said, here are my current choices for the best backstories at Walt Disney World…
Expedition Everest – What I really like about the backstory of Expedition Everest is that there’s the straightforward story that most guests will be able to ascertain from the richly detailed queue. This is basically that Himalayan Escapes – Tours and Expeditions offers riders with the chance to take a train ride up the Forbidden Mountain, and offers insight into the revered Yeti, protector of the mountain.
The more nuanced backstory, which can be gleaned from around Asia, is that the buildings now occupied by Himalayan Escapes were previously the headquarters for Royal Anandapur Tea Company. The area around the mountain was once a tea plantation (crops are still visible at the base of the mountain) complete with steam trains to transport the product to nearby Anandapur. That is, until it was all mysteriously closed and abandoned.
Expedition Everest’s backstory works well for me because it’s logical to the attraction, bits of it will be picked up by even casual guests, and both layers of the story are reinforced by concrete details in the attraction. Knowledge of this backstory enhances the overall appeal of the attraction, but–crucially–the backstory is not required for enjoying the experience.
Port Orleans – The one resort that a lot of people are probably going to think of is Wilderness Lodge, but that backstory is a bit much for my tastes. For me, Wilderness Lodge is too reminiscent of actual National Parks Lodges, and it’s hard for me to get past that and buy into the backstory. I find Wilderness Lodge’s backstory to be superfluous, and it’s difficult for me to suspend disbelief when there are such clear-cut real world design influences. (That could very well just be me, though.)
Port Orleans (and Dixie Landings) probably have the longest backstory of any Walt Disney World resorts, which has been conveyed over the years via the Sassagoula Sentinel newspaper. What I think works better about this backstory is that the Port Orleans resorts is that they are conceptually more of a blank slate. Sure, they’re themed to the Antebellum South and New Orleans, but both are fairly open-ended concepts. Riverside has a range of homes represented, from rustic bayou lodges to grand mansions.
Typhoon Lagoon – This is a backstory that starts with a simple premise: a furious storm swept across the sea, devastating Placid Palms Resort. From that starting point, other details abound. The story further explained how the resort had been built in the shadow of a great volcanic mountain, how various boats and creatures had washed up at the resort, and even the arrival of the later-added mascot named Lagoona Gator.
Both of the water parks rank highly for another reason: they’re cohesive. While every other park at Walt Disney World has (justifiably) made countless thematic concessions in light of operational realities, the water parks have changed little since opening, and thus remain thematically unspoiled. This is why we implore every Disney fan to visit the water parks–they represent a pinnacle of Imagineering that are way too often overlooked.
Haunted Mansion – More than any other attraction, this is the one with the most controversial backstory. That’s because, unlike almost everything else, Haunted Mansion’s backstories (plural) were all crafted after the fact. To my knowledge, no single, overarching backstory existed during or immediately after the original construction of Haunted Mansion (at Disneyland).
However, given that several of the vignettes present in Haunted Mansion’s scenes follow a loose narrative structure, some semblances of backstory have long been inferred, even by the attraction’s designers. Over the years, various backstory elements have been ‘ratified’ by Disney, as they’ve been featured in books, comics, or even merchandise. Haunted Mansion ranks highly for me not because of any single backstory that has since been added, but because the attraction is so evocative that it can give rise to myriad backstories, many of which could “work” for the attraction, even if they were never intended.
Blizzard Beach – “One balmy day, a freak winter storm developed over the western end of the Walt Disney World Resort and covered the area with a thick blanket of powdery white snow. Before you could say ‘hot cocoa,’ plans were underway for Florida’s first ski resort.”
That’s the opening paragraph of a fairly long official backstory, but it’s all you need to know. It’s also a story that is patently obvious to anyone who walks through Blizzard Beach, and is seamlessly reinforced throughout the park. Not only is this backstory straightforward, but it’s a novel and clever conceit for a water park.
Tower of Terror – This one is interesting because the backstory is cleverly presented to all guests, not in a way that beats anyone over the head with story, but that deftly provides a foreboding introduction and narrative framework by Rod Serling. Via a lost episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the attraction tells the story of what happened on one fateful night that changed the Hollywood Tower Hotel forever. It explains how the hotel opened in 1928 and became a “star in its own right–a beacon for the show business elite.” There’s also the classic ‘something has gone wrong’ moment when lightning strikes an elevator carrying five guests who mysteriously vanish, changing the fate of this once-great hotel.
If I could experience one attraction again for the first time, it would be Tower of Terror. I’ve been doing this attraction for as long as I can remember, and don’t even recall my first ride. I would imagine that the first time seeing the pre-show entails something of an ‘a-ha’ moment, with some of the inferences you could make while approaching the Hollywood Tower Hotel, through its gardens, and into its lobby being suddenly confirmed. Just as much as that a-ha moment, I’d want to immediately take a second ride to see how the pre-show provided context and opened my eyes to new details throughout the exterior and interior queue.
Dishonorable Mention: Dino-Rama – My final pick here is not my favorite–not by a long shot. To the contrary, this is my least favorite backstory in all of Walt Disney World. When I die, I want my tombstone to read, “Tom Really Hated Everything About Dino-Rama. ALL of It.” Nothing clever, because I want to be unmistakably clear that I hated this garbage “land” with a passion, and felt it had zero redeeming qualities. I feel like this is necessary because every time I bring up Dino-Rama’s sucktacularness, there’s invariably a comment along the lines of, “I used to think the same thing until I discovered the really clever backstory!”
Let me put this into perspective. Imagine the highly-implausible scenario in which I forgot Sarah’s birthday; no gift, no card, no dinner–nothing. Realizing this at the last minute, I come up with a “really clever” story about how I’m a great husband, and have this spectacular idea for what we’re going to do. After rambling on about this for an hour or so, I end the story with “uh oh, something has gone terribly wrong and we can’t do this. Here’s a dirty sock instead. Happy birthday!”
Do you think Sarah would be satisfied with my story and sock, or say, “[expletives deleted], you forgot my birthday?! Way to go, chowderhead!” (Yes, Sarah actually uses old-timey sailor terms like chowderhead, and swears like one, too.) While I’ll never find out what she’d do because I’m not a birthday-forgetting monster, Sarah also hates Dino-Rama, so I have a pretty good idea how she’d react.
Dino-Rama is like the birthday-forgetting significant other of theme park lands. The land offers nothing of redeeming substantive value, but talks a good game. Theme park backstory only succeeds to the extent that it’s enhancing something worthwhile, making you care even more about something you already love. Dino-Rama’s backstory is lipstick on a pig, expecting to dupe you into thinking a bunch of tacky carnival rides are actually good. Unfortunately, it has been “successful” with way too many Disney fans.
Beyond that, this reflects a pervasive problem in fandom: diehard enthusiasts want barriers to entry to make the material incomprehensible to casual audiences. They want to be “in the know” or have deciphering content be a challenge, with there being some misplaced notion that it earns them street cred or some nonsense.
I’m pretty proud of myself for understanding ~90% of Tenet on my first viewing, but I shouldn’t have had to turn on closed captioning or read two articles to make full sense of it. The other thing is, esoteric storytelling in a theme park–a largely visual medium where most guests are quickly passing through–is not objectively desirable or good. The bottom line is that any story that’s lost on the vast majority of the audience is a failure at a fundamental and foundational level. The whole purpose of a story is to be communicated; failure at that makes it no better than a car that won’t run…or a wild mouse roller coaster that’s permanently closed. (Too soon, Primeval Whirl fans?)
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Which Walt Disney World backstories are your favorites? Least favorites? Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Despite my pleas, are you a fan of Dino-Rama? Any questions? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!