‘Star Tours’ and Screen-Based Publics

Informational Signage in ‘Star Tours – The Adventures Continue’ attraction | Disneyland Park (Anaheim, CA) | 2011

When asked to describe a trip to a Disney theme park, few vacationers would speak positively of waiting in line. Even fewer would recall passing that time looking out a simulated window or, god forbid, reading. Fewer still would register such a memory in reference to an attraction like Star Tours – The Adventures Continue (2011). Insignificant as it may seem, this in-queue gazing may actually do more to sell the experience than the attraction it precedes.

Perhaps this last point deserves some explanation.

To call Star Tours a screen-heavy attraction is something of an understatement. This description applies most overtly to the ride system itself: a motion simulator offering sightseeing tours to various locations from the Star Wars film franchise. Upon closer inspection, however, one finds that the attraction is riddled with screen images from the beginning of its queue to the obligatory gift shop that transitions riders from the attraction’s exit back into the park. And it is these seemingly mundane acts of looking at, and specifically reading from, a screen that inflect the experience so profoundly for visitors.

The basic premise of this attraction (that riders have made reservations with the eponymous touring company to explore parts of the Star Wars universe) is compelling even for casual viewers, and much of its appeal comes from the detailed portrayal of environments only briefly seen, or sometimes just hinted at, in the films. This implanted desire to expand upon the visual experience of the films is blended with an eerie sense of optimism, as the destinations offered by the company (advertised throughout) are united under the banner of commerce regardless of their role in the plot. Here, the logics that structure the universe are those of technology and business, and textual design supports this approach.

Overall, the attraction’s aesthetic is that of an airport or other commercial transportation facility. Riders enter the queue under the direction of illuminated signage displaying English text paired with the same messages in an invented alphabet. Pieces direct visitors to various locations within the attraction and provide procedural information such as pick-up and drop-off locations for 3-D glasses. Large screens overlook riders on their way through a terminal area, offering arrival and departure information interspersed with advertisements for the company’s tour destinations (see above). Posters bearing similar advertisements line the walkways at the conclusion of the attraction, and the silhouettes of an assortment of passengers (representing several of the franchise’s more recognizable species) can be seen through simulated doors and windows.

Standardization of the textual design – with elements such as font and color kept constant throughout – suggests the fictional company’s efficiency and broad influence. This lends the attraction a sense of officiality and uniformity, while the use of multiple written languages and the portrayal of a heterogeneous clientele foregrounds exactly the type of diversity desired by a massive commercial enterprise spanning an entire galaxy (the adventurous reader might draw a parallel between this and the real-life company in whose park the attraction resides).

This diversity comes, unsurprisingly, with many strings attached. While featured, it is really only valued insofar as it can be effectively administered by the company. In creating a consistent aesthetic for visual communication, and placing English and the Latin alphabet in a superior position relative to other scripts and languages, Disney constructs a riding and viewing public that, while diverse, is nonetheless humanoid and Anglophone. And, since the voice of this abstract authority is one that is also inflected by the position of the touring company, it is made inescapably clear that the primary organizing principle of this particular universe is commerce.

Star Tours is just one example of a set of strategies at work in the Disney parks since their early days. Text and graphics fit into the company’s themed design in several ways, some of which are more transparent than others. On the most direct level: non-diegetic expository text, such as placards containing safety information, can inform visitors about attractions with little to no attempt at integration. These elements can also be placed more deliberately into the universe of an attraction, where they may be called upon to provide narrative context or add to the aesthetic experience of the waiting space. In forms such as in-queue games or puzzles, these elements can further engagement by inviting active participation on the part of visitors.

Disparate as these approaches may be, they all help to establish the waiting space as an informative one. By offering information about the narrative universe of a themed attraction, or direct participation in it, textual and graphic elements frequently serve the purpose of getting visitors quickly acquainted with its parameters. It is important to note, however, that none of these strategies exist in a state that is anywhere near independence.

Disney and its competitors develop parks and attractions that rely on references to numerous genres and narrative traditions, each of which constructs a specific audience, and rarely have any of these traditions served purposes that are universally beneficial. Uniting a galaxy through leisure travel may seem an admirable goal, but it tarnishes the endeavor somewhat when one begins to ask questions about who is on the giving and receiving ends of these experiences, as well as the interests of those pulling the strings. Enjoyable though it may be to immerse oneself in a themed environment, it is always worth pausing to consider the ideological leaps that environment is asking its participants to make.

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