Is Theming Important?

This is going to be a bit of a brain dump so bear with me but it's something I've been pondering for quite some time now. When I compile my Top 10 coasters list, theming is very rarely something I take into consideration. Looking at my list, there are only really two coasters on the list that I would say are themed (Taron and Oz'Iris) and out of those, only one of them actually sees the ride experience enhance by the theming. I have a few friends who have Top 10 coaster lists where the theming and narrative of the experience is much more heavily weighted, which I always find makes for a really interesting list, but in the same breath it's strange to me that I don't really rate theming on a coaster as something that massively impacts my experience of the attraction overall - especially as I adore dark rides so much!

I guess in my opinion, because of the high speed nature of a coaster, it's extremely hard to actually add theming to one that truly impacts the coaster experience element of the overall ride. Oftentimes you're going so fast past the theming that it's hard to truly say that the quality or immersiveness of the theming had any proper impact on your experience at all. Taron somehow gets away with this - not only does the incredible rockwork and the intricate way the landscape seems to swallow you whole the minute you step into Klugheim making for a marvellous off-ride experience of the coaster, that same immersiveness is translated perfectly to the ride experience too. From weaving in and out of the jagged rock faces to slithering through the buildings themselves and over the rooftops - without the theming I don't think Taron would be half as breathtaking as it is. Partly for the narrative elements but also because the near misses and close proximity of the theming really heightens the sense of speed and frenzy that make Taron so fantastic.

That's not to say there aren't some incredibly themed coasters in the world, but I would argue that the majority of the time we experience theming on a coaster we are actually traversing through dark ride sections of the coaster. The likes of Vliegende Hollander at Efteling with its slow atmospheric pre-coaster section building up the narrative and tension before we launch out onto the tracked sections is undoubtedly fantastic as an overall ride experience, but you'd be hard pressed to argue that the theming actually adds anything to the coaster portion of the ride.

Disney are obviously the leaders when it comes to really giving it a good go with trying to blend theming and coasters. Expedition Everest springs to mind - yes you have the slowed down portions and even fully static segments to give us a chance to soak in all the detail but it doesn't shy away from adding some huge thematic elements to the high speed sections too. Whizzing through the seemingly tiny crevices of the Forbidden Mountain definitely heightens the sense of thrill and who can forget the terror of hurtling towards that giant animatronic yeti as he leans down trying to grab your train? It's absolutely fantastic and works perfectly together to maximise the thematic elements of the ride to build a cohesive narrative without compromising on the thrills.

But even then, Expedition Everest is whole heartedly a family coaster and whilst it's not exactly low octane, it's by no means comparable to something like SkyRush or Helix. Coasters that are so fast and frantic, constantly bombarding you with forces and speed and transitions and throwing everything it can at your body to give you the most thrilling experience it possibly can. It's with coasters like these that I pose the question - is theming even important? Narrative and storytelling on rides is wonderful and immersive but personally I'm just as happy being transported to another world by pretending I'm on an exploratory mission to the Himalayas as I am forgetting all my troubles through the sheer force and speed of a coaster. Is there any need for these high octane, white knuckle rides to even have theming?

And at this point I guess it's important to distinguish between theming and styling. Amanda Thompson famously proclaimed at last year's Icon press event that the Mack multi-launch coaster is 'style - NOT themed' and whilst hilariously fabulous I actually think there's a lot in that statement. We always hear enthusiasts going on and on about oh but the theming on insert-coaster-here is AWFUL, but realistically if a coaster is as wildly thrilling as say, SkyRush, does it need a theme in the first place? In my opinion if the thing is looking tidy and sharp it's not necessarily something I really miss from the ride experience because if it did have extensive theming you'd be whizzing past the damn stuff too fast to even take it all in! I'd argue the likes of Helix, Icon, even Stealth, are all 'styled NOT themed' because at speeds like that, what's even the point?

Disney are the masters of getting us as close as humanly possible at suspending our disbelief and accepting that yes, this is a tea train in the mountains knocked off course by a mystical beast. Or yes this is a mine cart gone awry through the wilds of the frontier. But they manage to keep those things so convincing because they choose coaster and train types that lend themselves to being a vehicle in the first place - things that in real life really would be carts that run on track, meaning it's a lot easier to accept the whole fantasy. On something like Iron Rattler, do I really believe I'm riding on the back of a snake that's gone a bit mental? No, far from it. But the difference between that and something like Expedition Everest is Disney get as close as humanly possible to making me believe their storyline whereas Iron Rattler is entirely removed from its concept by the reality of the coaster hardware in which we enjoy the experience.

And because even Disney, masters of theming and storytelling, can't even get us to a state of 100% suspension of disbelief despite their best efforts to incorporate believability into their ride narratives, maybe 'styled NOT themed' is the way forward when it comes to coasters. I'm in no way saying I see no difference between something like the gorgeously themed Taron and car park coasters like Scream! at Six Flags Magic Mountain, because obviously the former is preferable, but I do enjoy the idea of more coasters styled like Helix or Icon, embodying the idea of coasters as some kind of strange performance art - telling a story through styling and the feelings they evoke as opposed to actually attempting to submerge us wholly into a narrative the way Disney do. If anything the former opens up the opportunity for coasters to be as intense and thrilling as possible continuing to look stunning at the same time.

What do you guys think? Is there any point in big boy coasters being properly themed? Is it a waste? Or does it add to the overall ride experience? Will we ever see a fully themed coaster that doesn't sacrifice the thrills in the name of achieving a comprehensive narrative?

Talk later xoxo,