Screens - Yay or nay?

One of the most hotly debated topics of conversations amongst theme park enthusiasts these days is the use of screens in themed attractions. It's not like screens are a new thing, we've had screens used in theme park rides for literal decades, but there's definitely a sentiment that the use of screens is a departure from 'classic' and therefore 'superior' theming. There's a snobbery around the use of screens in theme park rides, and I'd argue that actually, done right, screens can be one of the most immersive tools to use in theming. That said, there are definitely some negatives too, so let's explore that today!

My first point is one I often bring up in this debate - if the park is a movie themed park then it makes sense to have screen-based attractions because that is literally what the movies ARE! I get it, the modern appetite for what we look for in a ride has changed a lot since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the world in general has developed an insatiable appetite for immersion, but actually the old-school theme park idea of 'ride the movies' makes total sense to me.

Before 3D was such a normal thing in our local cinemas, the only place you could get even a hint of motion to match the action of the big screen was at a theme park. Yes, maybe we've outgrown that slightly, but I am always an advocate of the idea that not every attraction needs to be Potter level amazing, and I think it's a good balance to have the simpler, screen based attractions too.

Let's face it, as good as the 3D is and amazing as the special effects are, with a screen you can never realistically be 100% actually immersed in the thing because's a screen. I loooove when screens are used and they're blended in with the theming around them. Take Pirates at Shanghai - some of the most creative and innovative uses of screens in an attraction I've ever seen, and the parts where it works best it when the screens are staggered in layers with sets and theming inbetween and overlapping to help maintain the immersion. When blended together with physical sets and effects they work, but when you're in a vehicle flopping around in front of a flat white screen it's not immersive at all.

One of the greatest developments with screens in the modern theme park landscape is the use of high tech special effects and graphics within the content itself. Nothing ages a ride like a clunky old dusty animatronic struggling to move in the corner - you don't get that with screens. And the best part is in theory they're constantly adaptable. We saw this with Spiderman when it had a huge graphics update in 2012 - the whole ride felt brand new and was a breath of fresh air.

Also, look at rides such as Star Tours where the movie franchise has such a bigger world of lands and characters to draw from than when it first opened. The fact that this was a screen based ride meant that Disney could essentially relaunch Star Tours as a brand new attraction simply by updating some content and graphics. It basically means rides become timeless as they're constantly able to update and adapt for very little investment, whilst also meaning we always have something new and exciting to enjoy.

There is nothing that ruins the illusion of immersion like suddenly going from a fully themed set with actual animatronics that are really there to suddenly being plonked in front of a screen. Rides this is most notable on is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure. Of course, budget are a thing and it would be unrealistic to expect the entire attraction to be those gorgeous, detailed immersive sets, but damn I find those transitions from set to screen jarring.

Nostalgia Critic explained really cleverly why this happens - things like puppets and sets and animatronics are a simulation, but because they are physical, tangible things that we could reach out and touch our brain basically accepts them as real. With screens there's an extra layer of distance - the fake things we're seeing are a simulation presented to us by being projected on a screen - a simulation of a simulation. That extra layer of simulation presents an extra barrier in our minds, therefore it's a lot harder for us to accept that immersion. And it's poo - especially when you're so wowed by the physical sets initially!

I've already gone on about Pirates, but I could go on forever listing all the awesome example of the use of screens in theme parks in modern attractions. Mystic Manor, The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure, Derren Brown's Ghost Train, Symbolica...the list goes on and on. And when screens work, blended in with the scenery and the edges are hidden by theming and the projections aren't obvious or jarring there really is nothing like it. It's an incredible development in theming technology and for me there's nothing better than when a screen really works well in an attraction. I love it. I feel like it's a big fuck you to every enthusiast I ever seen moaning about oh screens in attractions are shit blerggghhh. Not always the case!

And then there's the other side of the coin. Screens in attractions can be so incredibly shit. We got a lot of this in China - dark rides that have tried to be slightly too ambitious and end up being some vehicle on a motion platform mincing around in front of a slightly distorted, not well lit screen with crappy graphics.

Or the worst for me is when parks try to layer screens up in sets, but don't do a good job of even trying to hide the edges so essentially you have what is a plasma screen tv sat awkwardly in the middle of a sat. It just looks pants and you're left wondering why the designers even bothered in the first place if they were going to do such a half-arsed job of it. In fact, thinking about it, with screens in rides I can't think of any instance of something being so bad it's good? Comment below if any come to mind for you because I'm drawing a blank!

Ultimately for me, screens in rides represent a world of opportunity, but only if done right. I can see why some enthusiasts complain of screen overkill, especially in parks like Universal (not that I necessarily agree, but hey ho). I'm not saying I want to see more screen-based attractions but I think there's definitely an argument for their continued use in newly developed rides and I'm excited to see what the theme park industry does with them next!

Talk later xoxo,


  1. Great write up, Just a mention for Wickerman's screens within Big Bob, giving the flame effect... You have to look closely to see the screen with the fore effect on!