Theme parks have been using celebrities in their attractions for a long time. Sometimes it’s just a recognizable voice coming out of an animatronic figure, like Robin Williams’ portrayal of the Timekeeper, but oftentimes it’s the celebrity’s full likeness — as in the case of Johnny Depp and Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
But we live in a time where public figures are regularly getting into trouble due to often decade-old social media posts, and the response from the public is to “cancel” that celebrity. This is a potential nightmare for theme park attractions that heavily feature a celebrity that’s considered “problematic,” so is it really the best choice to continue casting celebrities in them?
In my opinion, there’s no simple answer when it comes to this scenario. Celebrities are used in theme parks for all sorts of reasons. There are times when the star is portraying a character they made famous on the big screen.
An example of this would be Chris Pratt as Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! It would be strange to have anybody but Chris Pratt portraying Star-Lord in the attraction, but what if, for some reason, the public felt that Chris Pratt should no longer be featured. This, of course, is entirely hypothetical and Pratt has been selected simply because Mission: BREAKOUT! was the first example to pop into mind. Time and time again, we have seen large corporations break ties with celebrities for numerous controversial reasons. But Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! would literally need to be shut down entirely if something like this were to happen.
Now let’s look at another example of using a celebrity in an attraction, but in a “safer” way. Another character Pratt has made famous (the man is EVERYWHERE) is Owen Brady in the “Jurassic World” franchise.
When Universal Studios Hollywood decided to create a Jurassic World attraction, they brought in not only Pratt, but also his co-star Bryce Dallas Howard. But in this ride, these characters/celebrities are only seen on monitors. If there were a problematic scenario (once again, hypothetical) where they needed to be removed, it would be very simple to shut off a monitor and/or change some video footage without disturbing the overall experience and story. I’m not sure whether or not this was a consideration as the attraction was being created, but I do think it’s a smart way for these companies to think moving forward in our (like it or not) “cancel culture.”
Although the “canceling” of everything may feel fairly new, a scenario like my last example did actually happen back in the early 1990s. When actor Paul Reubens (who brilliantly portrays the character of Pee-wee Herman) got into some legal trouble, Pee-wee was quickly removed from a studio tour video segment at Disney-MGM Studios. Just imagine if Pee-wee had been featured in a major portion of the tour. Perhaps even as a tour guide. That would have been a much more difficult “fix” in order to please the vocal public. Whether or not you or I agree with the removal of these celebrities, the reality is that the corporations and advertisers can’t afford to ignore it, oftentimes needing to make difficult decisions.
In all of the examples I’ve given thus far, these were celebrities that really needed to be part of an attraction since the characters they originated were being featured. But it’s also very common for celebrities to be used when they’re not the only option. Sure, some Jimmy Fallon fans might enjoy seeing him as their Universal Studios “tour guide,” but really anybody could take on this part. And that “anybody” could save some major company headaches in the future.
Then there’s the case of celebrities portraying a character that is original to an attraction. One of the first examples to come to mind is Phylicia Rashad as Dr. Marsh in Dinosaur at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This casting “risk” is completely unnecessary, and frankly, I’ve never been a fan of casting celebrities in these roles as it always takes me out of the story and makes the character less believable. All I see is Phylicia Rashad, not a character in a story that the Imagineers have worked so hard to develop in order to put me in a fully immersive experience. The one (admittedly hypocritical) exception, in my opinion, may just be Patrick Warburton in Soarin’, because he’s just so darn good. “Nice work pal.”
It’s undeniable: stars are appealing to audiences and park guests. Everyone likes to see their favorite celebrities. But if the theme park owners were smart (and I believe they are), they should really start looking at minimizing their use of celebrities and/or using them in clever ways that can easily be changed or removed.
What do you think? Does having a celebrity in an attraction make it more appealing to you? Do you believe that the cancel culture we live in could cause problems for theme park attractions, or is it a totally separate thing that should simply be left alone?
Jeff DePaoli is a producer and voiceover artist living in Los Angeles. He can be heard as the voice of Disney Trivia on Alexa as well as the host of “Dizney Coast to Coast,” the ultimate, unofficial Disney fan podcast. Get your FREE gifts of “America’s Hidden Mickeys,” “On the Rohde Again,” “Theme Park Comfort Kit” and more at DizneyCoastToCoast.com.