Since moving to Northern California, I ended a reign of over 8 years with Walt Disney World at my disposal...the freedom to go play at the parks whenever I wanted. My new local park is California's Great America, a fun little park with lots of coasters. I finally got my annual pass and checked it out yesterday. It really makes you appreciate how much more effort Disney puts into their theming.
Great America is perfectly clean and pretty with plenty of fun rides and things to do, but their theming is marginal at best. I walked through one area that suggested the idea that it was New Orleans with some of the classic iron detailing on the buildings, but it was a cleaned up version...as if someone had drawn some ordinary buildings and thought at the last minute to declare that they were supposed to be in Louisiana style. One of the eateries was called Pizza Orleans. Pizza? What happened to the beignets and gumbo? When you go to New Orleans Square at Disneyland, you feel as if you've really traveled to another time and place.
I remember as a kid, we visited a little place in Memphis, TN called Libertyland. Its highlight was the Zippin' Pippin'- a coaster rumored to be Elvis's favorite. It was a tiny amusement park, and I was shocked that you could see the cars zooming by on the city streets from inside the park- something absolutely unheard of when you visit the big parks.
I know I'm biased. I fully admit to being a Disney snob. But, really, after visiting other parks, you have to agree that no one does it quite like Disney. Only Universal comes close. Their Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Island of Adventure is incredibly detailed, and I applaud a job well done. (And as I say that, I'm craving one of those yummy frozen butterbeers!) But often, Universal falls just short of what you'll find at Disney. A prime example is Shrek 4-D. The audience holding area for this movie is perfect- you are in the Duloc dungeon. There are signs everywhere indicating you are about to be tortured. The attraction hosts announce that the punishments for not following the rules are various amounts of flogging. Then you are herded into the theater....and *boom* no more theming. It's just an ordinary theater. The movie- a short sequel to the original Shrek, is great fun- the theater rumbles along in sync with the action on the screen as the ghost of Lord Farquaad persues Princess Fiona. However, they've created a story with a complete disconnect from the audience. There is no reason for us to feel those rumbles as we are not part of the story. The characters don't acknowledge us.
At a Disney park, most of the 3-D/4-D movies actually have the audience playing a role in the story. In Honey I Shrunk the Audience, we are the audience watching the science awards show. We feel the rumbles because the giant toddler picks us up. In It's Tough to be a Bug, we are inside a tree. Everywhere you look inside that theater looks like a part of that tree- the benches, the ceiling, etc. Flit talks directly to us. At Muppetvision, we are right there inside the Muppet theater. You can even see the Swedish Chef inside the back wall. Statler and Waldorf are physically there in the balcony just as they are on the tv show.
In college, my friends and I had season passes to Dollywood, a themepark owned by Dolly Parton. I spent many happy hours there, including a fun 20th birthday celebration. I had to laugh at their attempt to imitate Disney though. They have a ride called Blazing Fury which is a wild ride through an 1880's town that is on fire. A few human figures pop up throughout the journey, but they all look incredibly fake, and all the female characters sound like Dolly herself. Disney really has a monopoly on realistic audio-animatronic figures.
Don't get me wrong- one can absolutely have a great time spending a day at a non-Disney park, especially someone who only cares about the intensity of roller coaster thrills- something Disney doesn't have much in the way of. My own dad is one who falls in that category. Some folks are more about a good thrill than being immersed in the story, and that's fine. For me, though, I want to be transported to another world.