How music helps make the magic in theme parks

June 30, 2013, 2:53 PM · [Editor's note: This article is cross-posted from our sister site,]

Imagine a beautiful, clear morning at Universal's Islands of Adventure. You've arrived early (because you read Theme Park Insider!), and, for some reason, you decide to walk around the park the long way to get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As you walk through Jurassic Park, you slow down. Even though the Jurassic Park River Adventure is not yet running, you are taken in by the beauty of the jungle landscape. You are nearly alone in this immersive place, and as music swells with a theme from Jurassic Park (called — no joke — Journey to the Island), you suddenly feel as though you are in the movie, a doe-eyed observer of this impossible new experience. At some point, you reluctantly realize that you'd still like to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey before the crowds descend. You've got to leave this theme-park Eden and cross the bridge into a different place. But, what a transition! As you start to cross, and are able to make out the shape of Hogwarts on your left and a Butterbeer cart in front of you, you become aware that the music is changing. You are suddenly in Harry's world, alive with all of the wonder and possibility that Harry experiences in the books and movies. Before you get on that Kuka robot arm, before you even step under the arch, the magic becomes real.

Start at the 16:55 mark for the bridge music.

As a musician, I probably spend more time in theme parks paying attention to the way the park sounds than most guests. The music, especially the "underscoring" (the background music playing all around you while you visit a themed environment), is often designed not as a focal point of its own, but as another layer of theming. In today's most immersive themed lands (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) the music does more than add theming, it actually creates the illusion that you are IN a movie. It's your life, only better, and with a soundtrack! It creates the kind of experience I described above.

On a recent trip to Orlando, I noticed that many of the most successful themed attractions share music by the same composer. I'm talking here about John Williams. He is responsible for the musical scores behind some of the biggest attraction properties in Orlando: Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, E.T., Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and, until very recently, Jaws (gone now, but with Diagon Alley taking its place, it's a zero net loss). You might notice that this list spans three parks and the two biggest theme park players, Disney and Universal. Very few others have reach like that (not coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is the other, and he produced or directed many of the movies on that list). Basically, as far as theme park attraction music goes, John Williams is the man. He wins Orlando.

John Williams
John Williams conducts the Orlando Philharmonic at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 16, 2010.

What makes his music, or the franchises connected with it, so successful? The answer is simple: he is very good at what he does. For many years, he has been considered the best in the business when it comes to scoring blockbuster films. Three things set him apart.

First, like any decent film composer, he has a great sense for the character of a movie and the mood at any moment in the film. There are certain things that sound like a John Williams score, but there are also big differences between the sound of, say, Jurassic Park, which has exciting, idealistic, slightly overconfident music, to reflect the idealism — and delusions — of the character who invents Jurassic Park; and Harry Potter, a musical score full of both joy and regret, reflecting Harry's discovery of a better, but scarier, world than the one he thought he lived in.

The second thing that sets John Williams apart — and this one has gotten him into some trouble with musicians: he is good at borrowing material. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the great pieces written for symphonic orchestra over the last 250 or so years, and of the history of music going much farther back than that. If there is a clever trick in the book for creating a certain sound, effect, or mood, he has studied it and used it. In many of his films, for example Star Wars Episode IV, someone with a knowledge of music history can go scene by scene and name these influences (The Dune Sea of Tatooine sounds just like the Introduction to Part 2 of Stravinky's Rite of Spring; Imperial Attack borrows freely from Mars, the Bringer of War from Gustav Holst's The Planets, etc). I don't disparage him for doing this, and I imagine that he would be the first to admit his influences. But his "stealing" drives some professional musicians, and non-movie composers, crazy, because they feel that he stands on the shoulders of masters and hasn't earned his fame. That's kind of absurd. For one thing, if you are going to be influenced by those that came before, as every artist is, at least Williams picks the right people to mimic. His already-mentioned sense for mood and pacing means that he picks his influences very carefully, and based on the dramatic action in the film. He also works in a field where creative borrowing is almost expected. Much of the architecture in the Harry Potter films and Universal attractions, for example, comes from well-known Medieval castles and artwork. Few fault the set designers for going back to those influences. John Williams is doing exactly the same thing with the music. But he certainly contributes more than just good copies of older music.

Which leads to his third strength: the guy can write a great melody. Think about it. You can hum the themes to all of the movies I listed above (well, in the case of Jaws you would have to kind of groan rhythmically). Being able to write a good tune is a surprisingly rare gift for a composer. Two other composers known for their skill in writing melodies are Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and they have also been slandered by other musicians jealous of their natural abilities in this regard.

What does all of this mean for a theme park fan? Well, it's no surprise that some of the top-grossing IP [intellectual property] in all of film history has music written by the most successful popular film composer. But in the case of John Williams, the music may have really contributed to the success of these films. Can you imagine Star Wars without the music swelling as the binary sun sets on Tatooine? Or E.T. without the main theme blaring as E.T. helps the kids fly their bikes over the city? Or how about if we didn't have Hedwig's Theme to evoke quickly the entire film world of Harry Potter? These are iconic moments in film, and music, history, and they elevate their entire franchises, and the theme park attractions built off of them, to a different level.

Which leads me back to the bridge connecting Jurassic Park to Harry Potter at IOA. After my recent visit, I decided that bridge is my favorite musical "moment" in a theme park. I like many other spots, too, present and past: the old Imagination pavilion music at EPCOT by the Sherman Brothers, Danny Elfman's new ride soundtrack to Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland (the decision to commission and record a ride soundtrack of that magnitude makes me wonder if a film is in the works), and even the entrance plaza music at Islands of Adventure, which shifts brilliantly over the course of the day. But the bridge from Jurassic Park to WWoHP takes the cake for me, because the music is really well-integrated with the theme, and having two great Williams scores set off next to each other like that is just plain fun.

How about you? What's your favorite music, or musical location, in a theme park?


July 1, 2013 at 09:13 PM · As one of the violinists on several theme park recordings, I agree! Living in Orlando is a dream for me, and working here is the icing on the cake! We are annual passholders at these theme parks, too, and enjoy just walking around and listening to the music while taking in the scenery. It is refreshing to hear a fellow musician's reaction as a visitor. Thank you for posting!

July 2, 2013 at 01:57 PM · My favorite theme park music is the score to Soarin' at Epcot and Disney California Adventure, written by Jerry Goldsmith. It fits the attraction perfectly, the main melody is gorgeous, and Goldsmith presents that melody in a whole lot of ways for only a 4-minute piece. I remember hearing that, after Goldsmith first rode the ride before writing the music, he came back with tears in his eyes and said that he'd score it for free. (I'm guessing he still got paid.)

July 2, 2013 at 11:23 PM · We have several other responses over on the original post on Theme Park Insider, if you're interested in how some more theme park fans have responded.

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