Theme Park Thrill

How do you keep a multimillion-dollar theme park investment fresh for new generations of visitors?

The Mighty Microscope scared the crap out of me as a kid. And I loved it.

Adventure Thru Inner Space opened in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland a few months before I was born. You sat down in one of a never-ending chain of “Atomobiles” that the Mighty Microscope “shrank” to the size of a molecule for your journey. I bought into the con without hesitation, crying to my mother afterward that I did not want to spend the rest of my life the size of a snowflake.

The Mighty Microscope caused problems for me again a few years later, in my first science class, since shrinking things is not at all what microscopes do. But Adventure Thru Inner Space caused even bigger problems for Disneyland not too long after that, when audiences got bored and quit caring about the ride.

That’s a big problem for theme parks: keeping things fresh and keeping up with changing audience tastes and entertainment expectations. Movies close after a few weeks, then move to home video and streaming services. Theme park attractions? They stay where they are built, and when people stop caring, the bulldozers move in for the final ride.

How do you keep a multimillion-dollar investment fresh for new generations of visitors? For every Haunted Mansion that endures, there are attractions like Adventure Thru Inner Space, Country Bear Jamboree and Rocket Rods that do not. As audiences get younger and attractions get older, Disney, Universal and other theme park operators scramble to find new ways keep their fans lining up at their big investments. Miss too often and you earn a FastPass to the court system’s Big Bankruptcy Adventure.

Adventure Thru Inner Space closed in 1985, to be replaced by Star Tours, a “Star Wars”-themed motion simulator ride. When fans grew tired of that attraction, Disney rebooted it in 2011 as Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, which featured dozens of randomly selected scenes, allowing visitors to ride it again and again without getting bored.

Outside of Disneyland’s Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout!, which recently was updated from the former Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Outside of Disneyland’s Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout!, which recently was updated from the former Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Early last year, Disneyland closed its Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride and rethemed it to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise. Bye-bye, Rod Serling. Hello, Chris Pratt. Disney didn’t demolish the tower. It simply tarted up its facade with garish decorations, filled the lobby with props from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and programmed new random drop sequences for the ride, each featuring a collection of filmed vignettes. Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! quickly became the highest-rated attraction at the Disneyland Resort — at a fraction of the cost of building an attraction from scratch.

Theme park designers also are turning to video games for inspiration in developing experiences that reward fans with a unique experience every time they ride. Disney kicked this off with its video game-like shoot-’em-up Buzz Lightyear rides. And now Six Flags — heretofore known for barely themed roller coasters and carnival rides — has spent tens of millions of dollars to install Justice League-themed interactive dark rides at seven of its parks across North America. (Park operators rarely disclose the exact price they pay for their attractions.)

Justice League Battle for Metropolis Evening Extravaganza, Six Flags Magic Mountain
Justice League Battle for Metropolis Evening Extravaganza, Six Flags Magic Mountain

Developed by some of the same contractors that have built rides for Disney and Universal, Justice League: Battle for Metropolis puts riders on vehicles that rock and twist as they move through the City of Metropolis, where riders shoot their hand-held light guns at targets on 3D screens in battle against Lex Luthor, The Joker and other DC Comics villains. Repeat riders can learn from practice where to find bonuses hidden within the game. It’s an experience much more attuned to the desires of today’s audiences, raised on video games and the Internet.

Theme park operators also invest in fresh takes on classic attractions. For four months every year, Disneyland drapes a “Nightmare Before Christmas” overlay on its Haunted Mansion, changing the narrative from a serial killer bride to Jack Skellington and other characters from the 1993 animated film. When “Pirates of the Caribbean” blew up as a film franchise, Disney retooled the venerable original attraction by adding several Captain Jack Sparrow animatronics to the ride.

The lessons? To appeal to younger visitors, aging theme parks must not only offer ever-changing and interactive attractions, they must offer experiences that stand up, well … under a microscope.


Non-Disney attractions that out-Disney Disney

Mystery Lodge, Knott’s Berry Farm: An enchanting and reverent look at Native American culture that uses a nifty special effect at the end.

Police and Fire Academy, Legoland California: Kids and parents can compete together in a race that feels like a family-friendly “Survivor” challenge.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Hollywood: Perhaps the best use of a single franchise in any theme park. Don’t miss the butterbeer.

Robert Niles is the founder and editor of, an online consumer’s guide to the world’s top theme parks.



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