This episode was written & produced by Dave Parsons.
Theme parks have a way of transporting us to magical places, and sound is crucial in maintaining the illusion. From the most action-packed attractions to the background music playing between park areas, theme park sound designers have thought of it all. In this episode, we speak to Joe Herrington and Mike Fracassi, two Disney Imagineers who work to maintain the magic for guests of Disney Parks.
Music used in this episode
Reflection on a Ballroom Floor - One Hundred Years
Watchers (Solo Piano Version) - Steven Gutheinz
To Me You Are - Nick Box
Fibonacci - Adrian Disch
Heron's Path - Steven Gutheinz
Sailboat - One Hundread Years
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View Transcript ▶︎
[Theme Park Ambience]
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story of how theme park designers use sound to shape our experience.
The modern theme park owes much of its origin to the world’s fairs of the late 1800s. They were designed to celebrate the successes of industrial innovations by mixing entertainment, engineering, and education. In 1895, Sea Lion Park - one of the first fixed-location amusement parks - opened its doors at Coney Island in Brooklyn, and shortly after, hundreds of amusement parks were up and running across the country.
[wooden roller-coaster SFX]
In the 1950s, the concept of “theming” was introduced to enhance the “amusement park” experience. The aptly-named theme parks began weaving the art of storytelling into the visitor experience. They did this through elaborate landscaping, architecture and a whimsical cast of characters. While the rides, games and attractions of ordinary amusement parks certainly maintained their allure, the immersive quality of theme parks produced an added layer of wonder.
In these wondrous places, sound plays a critical role in maintaining the illusion designed for the guest. Often overlooked, the music and sound design of park areas and attractions work endlessly to help tell the story by setting the mood, weaving together plot points, and seamlessly transitioning the guest from one story to the next. And when it comes to designing the soundscape of a theme park, it’s hard to top the work being done by the Imagineers at Disney.
Joe: We set out to control what you see and what you hear and what you smell. And what you feel emotionally.
That’s Joe Herrington a Walt Disney imaginary media designer. Joe has been working with Disney since 1981, and has worked on almost all of the major park attractions since then.
Joe: We put you in our fantasy place. To do that, we have to understand the powerful influence that sound has on people. Sound can make you relax, they can make you sweat, they can make you get chills. Feel calm or terrified. We want to be a part of controlling those emotions. The soundscape that we create is a very vital part of doing that. It sets the stage and then it takes you by the ear and leads you right through the story, and that's our objective.
To maintain the illusion of the story, the audio imagineers at Disney split their park soundscapes into different zones. This is so they can achieve a more complete immersive experience for their guests.
Joe: When you go into a zone of a park, we are trying to tell a particular story in that part of the park. In Adventure Aisle, as you approach the village, you began to hear little musical pieces [Adventure Aisle music]. So in the next zone, you had a little bit more music [Adventure Aisle added music]. You went from total jungle to I'm not sure what that is, is that rhythmic? Yeah it is, is that an instrument? Yeah, it is. And then suddenly, when you transition into the village, you've made a real nice smooth transition from no music to full on music [continue Adventure Aisle music]. That created this very rich, very real fantasy place.
While getting the music and background ambiance just right for a specific park zone is vital, designing what a guest hears as they’re traveling between park zones can be just as important.
Joe: As you go from land to land, and attraction to attraction, you pass through decompression zones, transition zones, buffer zones, those transitions tell you things like, "Okay, you can relax here and decompress, and you're not gonna miss anything." They hand you from one story to the next story. Without letting the two stories intrude on each other. And that's what makes it a magical place. Because once you get into our story, you never leave it until you walk out the door.
The story always comes first with theme park soundscaping. And proper music selection and arrangement of that music is key to maintaining the fantasy experience.
Mike: I'm Mike Fracassi, music production supervisor for the Walt Disney Imagineering music studio.
When we first learn of a new ride experience, we always start with story. What is our creative intent, what is the guest experience going to feel like, what's our adventure we're going on? And from there, we start to put together just some music style guide ideas. If it's a roller coaster, that's probably gonna be a faster paced feeling. So we'll pull music style guide ideas, whether it be songs or score material for many thing just to get a flavor of what we think it's gonna to feel like. And then we work with the rest of the team throughout the process to just allow the music selection to evolve.
In addition to a captivating music track, how the music plays and where it’s specifically coming from is a unique challenge for every attraction.
Mike: First thing you need to do to make sure the music works from scene to scene is look at the reality of the environmental space you're working within. You can't ignore acoustics, and you can't ignore the spatial relationships of the different scenes. Look at small world for instance.
[It’s A Small World song]
It’s A Small World was originally created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and has been an iconic Disney attraction ever since.
Mike: It's essentially one big open building, it does have some walls between scenes, but there is a lot going on in each scene, there's a lot of different arrangements within each scene, but they're all playing the same song. So we take a bass liner track that is the primary arrangement, and that plays through most of the building, but then you have all of these other unique arrangements for each ethnic music style. But they're also playing the same song [continue It’s A Small World song, different styles added]. So it's really in the arrangement of orchestration that you can make an attraction like that work because there is no separation, or not much separation between the scenes, and you can get a lot of nice ear candy as you float through all the different vignettes you hear ethnic versions of the song, and it becomes a very playful and fun audio experience.
[end It’s A Small A World song]
For more complex attractions, simply choosing the right sized speakers - and getting them in the right place - becomes a kind of artform in and of itself.
Joe: You have to understand the physics of nature, the physics of sound, and why things are the way that they are. And you use those things to your advantage. If you go into a scene, and all of the music, and all of the dialogue, and all of the effects are playing from one or two speakers, there's a level of fake-ness that comes out of that. And you immediately pick it up on a subconscious level. And your brain says, "This isn't real." The minute you take that and break that out into a number of speakers and play it back in a more realistic way, it's a lot more interesting to the brain, your brain, now, can do some work, it can begin to pick these things apart.
For example, if I'm in a conference room, and there are 10 people around the table, and everybody's being picked up on one microphone [conference room SFX] and people start talking over each other, you, as a listener on the other end, can't pick out anything. You don't know who's talking, you don't know what's being said. But the minute you do that with multiple channels, like stereo, then your own brain can get engaged in picking these things out and making the difference and deciding what it wants to listen to.
[stereo conference room SFX]
The same thing happens in an attraction. If I'm in a scene, and I've pulled the sound around in a number of different channels, my brain can decide to pick out things it wants to focus on. Just like it does in nature. You have what you might call the tiki bird effect.
[Tiki Room song]
The term “Tiki Bird Effect” refers to The Enchanted Tiki Room attraction, created for Disneyland in 1963.
Joe: When you go into the tiki room and you play dozens and dozens of birds on discrete channels [continue Tiki Room song], you hear that one over there, and you hear this one over here, and you decide to focus on this one, or that one. And the clarity, and the dimension, really come way up. And so we use that technique as much as possible in our attractions. The more speakers, the more reality, that you can get in a particular area.
Creating and maintaining realism is crucial, and some attractions pose a greater challenge than others.
Joe: Let's take a character in an attraction, like in the old bear jamboree [Old Bear Jamboree clip]. If the bear is gonna sing, you want the sound to come from the bear, and there's a lot of problems associated with that, because there may not be a place to put a speaker that's gonna play the sound pressure level back at a level that is believable for a bear to play, and be the size that he is.
[Old Bear Jamboree song]
So you have to find other places to put the speakers. Well now, a human being, up and down, they can discern 7-10 degrees of accuracy. So you could go above or below that creature in a straight line and be pretty much on line and make them believe that it's coming from his mouth [Old Bear Jamboree clip centered]. But if you start putting the speaker off to the side [Old Bear Jamboree clip off to the side], a human being can discern two degrees. So the minute you put a speaker off in a tree stump or something beside the bear, everybody knows that's not coming from the bear. You create problems on a subconscious level for your guests. They don't come through and they say, "That sound's not coming from that bear." They just perceive it on a subconscious level as bad show.
For audio-animatronics characters, the size of a character’s speaker is just as important as its position.
Joe: We just have to treat it like what it really is. If it's a bird, then he gets his little speaker that is sized appropriately [bird chirping SFX], and positioned where it belongs. But if it is a humongous crocosaurus like in the river ride in Shanghai, this thing is monstrosity - he hovers over the raft and he's supposed to scare people to death [monster SFX]. And so you've got to create a sound pressure level that is believable for a creature of that size. So what we might do in a situation like that is to create that particular creature, the sound of that creature, with a number of speakers.
In creating an entertainment show with life-like characters, the physical restraints of technology is another challenge.
Mike: Often, our animatronics are singing or dancing, and we have to be aware of tempo. So if we have a song that's moving at a pretty quick clip, we might have a figure that doesn't quite move that fast. Our figures are built to a very tight specification of operation so that they can last a long time. So if our BPM is very high, we might have to create an arrangement that has a perceived lower tempo for that specific character.
Joe: That goes with any kind of technology. A lot of the things just physically will not move as fast as we’d like them to move.
Making an attraction sound realistic is tough - but in some cases, masking unwanted sounds like hydraulic pumps or the snapping of actuators can be even trickier. Theme park rides create a lot of noise just to be able to operate, so how do they mitigate that? Also, what are the nuances of taking a film and turning it into a physical experience? All this and more, after the break.
The amount of thought and care given to the sound design of an attraction is incredible, but, ironically, a lot of the magic actually comes from what you don’t hear.
Joe: Many sounds cannot be masked - things like hydraulic pumps [hydraulic pump SFX], the snapping of actuators [actuators snapping SFX] - and so what you got to do is work with them. In the case of Tower of Terror, we had a situation where when the guest dropped in the vehicle, they would scream. And it was coming through the sound barrier door.
[Tower of Terror scream]
So we went in we found out, after some study, that everybody screamed in the very same place. We recorded guests doing that, then our sound designers got together and started creating the soundscape, utilizing those screams at that particular place in the track, and you couldn’t tell that the people were screaming right behind your back.
You do the same kind of thing where you have hydraulic pump noise, or air noise, or actuator noise. If you possibly can, you try to mask it, but if you can't mask it, you try to find things that you can do in the soundtrack that utilize those sounds to our advantage.
Another thing they use to their advantage is access to popular Disney movies and their characters.
Mike: When we start up a new attraction that's based on a film, we look at what the creative needs are for the project and look at how the film music can apply. In most cases, we always want to re-record, re-arrange, and re-orchestrate the film music to meet the exact needs of our storytelling. Sometimes we'll take a story from a film and take a little bit of a turn, another fork of that storyline and create something unique for the park. One example would be a newer attraction we have in Hong Kong called the Iron Man experience.
[Iron Man clip]
We wanted to create something unique to the audience in Hong Kong. We really wanted our music to be unique to that experience. So we had the composer take the idea of what the Iron Man us and represents [Iron Man music], and then create something new for the attraction [new Iron Man attraction music]. Most guests really wouldn't even know that it's not from the film, but it feels very much from the film.
Joe: The same thing is true with the soundscapes and the sound effects - I'll give you an example, the Tron experience we did in Shanghai. The initial concept was, we would just use everything right out of the film [Tron clip]. We started going through the sound effects, and we just found out we couldn't use any of them. We could use them as templates, we could use them as examples, but we needed to redesign everything around it.
These were two completely different mediums. One is two dimensional, and one, you're immersed in it, you're walking through it, and that requires a different set of rules to play with. And so, very often, what is created for the silver screen just does not work in a three dimensional environment, and so we end up re-creating it for our needs, but following as much as possible, the creative intent that it had for the film.
To succeed in the field of theme park sound design, it clearly takes creativity, innovation, and a willingness to push the envelope. And with a group of audio Imagineers so dedicated to their craft, it’s exciting to think what new surprises may be in store for Disney parks in the future.
Mike: We've been a company where we create these very controlled environments, very controlled experiences. Even though on the guest experience it might feel out of control, very much controlled audio and dynamic experiences. The way we consume media these days, I think there's more demand for customized, unique user experiences. And I think that's where we're gonna be challenged in the future is allowing that to happen and how to roll that up into our storytelling for everybody at the park. I think that's one area where we're gonna see a lot of development work in the years to come.
Thankfully for theme park soundscape designers, wherever technology might take us, the art of storytelling will stay the same.
Mike: Our primary goal for the audio soundtracks is to really support the story that we’re trying to tell in each environment. That is our first and primary goal that we always start with, and it’s the one we hope to end up with. As soon as we start creating soundtracks that call too much attention to themselves beyond what the environmental story is, then we’re not really supporting the story, we’re reaching a little too far.
Joe: Story. First. So many people see a piece of technology and they say, "Oh, let's wrap a show around that." And you got to go back to the basics, you got to be true to the story. Because if you do that right, they will remember that for the rest of their life.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by Dave Parsons...and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney.
Thank you to our guests: Media Designer Joe Herrington, and Music Production Supervisor Mike Fracassi - both of Disney Imagineering.
The music in this episode is from Musicbed. They represent more than 650 great artists, ranging from indie rock and hip-hop to classical and electronic. Head over to music.20k.org to hear our exclusive playlist.
Also, we’re proud to announce that we now have full transcripts available for every one of our episodes on our newly revamped website, which you can find at 20k dot org.
As always, thanks for listening.