As a professional attraction show writer, I’m always fascinated by the many ways the Disney Imagineers use their mastery of visual storytelling to immerse guests in their themed environments. But you don ‘t have to be a theme park designer to appreciate the countless details that fill every Disney theme park, helping to communicate the storyline and adding so much enjoyment to your experience.
One of my favorite examples of this is also among the most easily overlooked—especially if you are visiting without a young child in tow. I’m talking about The Boneyard playground in the Dinoland U.S.A. section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. You may think The Boneyard is all kid’s stuff…but you’d only be half right, because it’s also an example of Disney themed storytelling at its finest.
The story plays out on several levels, and you can decode it by simply looking around and paying attention to the details. First, you’ll notice that this is very clearly a paleontological dig site, with the fossils of dinosaur bones exposed in the various layers of earth that have been deposited over millions of years. If you take a few moments to study the (fake yet very realistic-looking) rock formations, you can clearly make out the different layers or “strata” in which the fossils have been trapped.
Superimposed over this is the architecture of the paleontologists’ camp. The scaffolding, netting, and debris chutes double as climbing structures, slides, and other play elements. But check out the graphics, signage, and audio and you’ll discover an intriguing conflict that is at the heart of the Dinoland U.S.A. storyline.
The conflict is a generational one. First we have the professors of the fictional Dino Institute and their outdated understanding of dinosaurs. Then we have the youthful graduate students and their new (and occasionally radical) ideas about the subject based on the latest scientific research. Take a few moments to examine the plaques, signs, and whiteboards posted around the dig site and you’ll see the conflict in full blossom, with the students tacking their own handwritten corrections onto the Institute’s official descriptions. In places, the professors have pushed back with their own tacked-on notes.
As it happens, the conflict between the professors and the grad students is not just an example of the eternal “generation gap” between young people and their elders. It’s also an example of an uneasy real-world transition that’s been occurring in recent decades—from traditional scientific ideas about dinosaurs to newer theories that have revolutionized our understanding of these prehistoric beasts.
You can also see the grad students’ rebellious streak demonstrated in other ways. Although you won’t find any of the grad students at work on the dig site, you’ll hear two of them yucking it up between tracks as the wisecracking deejays of the Institute’s pop rock radio station. And be sure to seek out a certain wall of excavation tools, which reveals at least one student’s non-conformist impulses.
So have you visited DAK’s Boneyard playground? Were you surprised to discover the depth and detail of the storytelling in what is nominally a “kids zone”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Adam M. Berger is president and senior show writer at Berger Creative Associates, Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based creative writing and consulting firm serving themed attraction and design clients around the world. He is also the author of the book Every Guest is a Hero: Disney’s Theme Parks and the Magic of Mythic Storytelling—available in print and e-reader editions from Amazon.com and other fine online booksellers.