Driving School: Lessons learned from drive-thru storytelling

Storytelling shines at the heart of all attractions, bringing life to new ideas, feelings, and memories. We seek entertainment to escape reality, allowing ourselves to be swept up into whimsy, fantasy, and magic. This escapism was especially crucial in 2020; beyond the devastating loss of human life, and an unfolding economic crisis, the ways we experience human connection faced unprecedented challenges. As a working actor in the themed entertainment industry, I pondered the same question many of my colleagues were actively debating: how can we best continue telling creative stories, and offering guests meaningful connections, while still integrating enhanced real-world safety measures?

Photos via AJ Danna

By AJ Danna

As Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm might observe: “Storytelling, uh, finds a way.”

With masks and gloves at the ready, thousands of Southern California families gathered to enjoy a variety of car-based immersive experiences. I am grateful to have learned valuable lessons in storytelling from working at many of these drive-thru attractions, including Netflix’s Stranger Things: The Drive-Into Experience, Haunt ’O Ween LA, and SoCal WonderLAnd. I also performed pre-recorded voiceovers for vehicular storytelling experiences like Road Trip Mysteries, Opechee Haunt’s TOUR, and the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride Live Drive-Up Experience. Even as the themed entertainment industry returns to producing walkthrough experiences and events, this intense period of innovation will serve as a testament to what storytellers can accomplish under any circumstance. I am forever inspired by the collective creativity shown in 2020.

Going forward, I invite storytellers everywhere to utilize these lessons I learned from drive-thru attractions as tools in their own storytelling toolbox.

Click It Quick

Much like traditional theme park rides, drive-thru attractions often included characters and vignettes that were only visible to guests for a matter of seconds. All of the applicable show elements had to “click”… and quick! Consider the now-famous scenes of skeletal pirates inhabiting the caverns of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction; though guests only see them for a moment, the skeletons’ humorous interactions with nautical creatures and treasures are exhibited clearly and memorably.

In the case of SoCal WonderLAnd, a drive-thru Christmas attraction, our crafty elves attached “Naughty/Nice” signs to a clipboard to perform a quick assessment of each car. This visual gag was effectively humorous for “naughty” adults and meaningful for “nice” kids — all while accommodating for social distancing and masks. If we could make those non-verbal connections then, we can easily make them now!

A Thousand Words

While I would agree that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” we mustn’t underestimate the power of verbal storytelling. In the case of Road Trip Mysteries and Opechee Haunt’s TOUR, words were all we had to create an immersive atmosphere, without the addition of big-budget visuals and sets.

The traditional “campfire story” was reinvented for the pandemic era, utilizing vivid descriptive language, compelling performances, and binaural sound mixing. Guests traveled by car to various real-world locations, including houses and natural landmarks, while immersed with audio-based stories about each location’s prior inhabitants. Of course, the fictitious subjects of the stories didn’t exist in the physical realm… or did they? To the surprise of many guests, TOUR concluded with a socially distanced appearance from the story’s main character, further blurring the line between storytelling and reality. If we could blur the line then, we can do it again now!

Reflect and Connect

When it comes to nurturing an emotional connection with an audience, there are two primary means of storytelling: original stories with relatable or empathetic universal themes, and intellectual property-based stories. These “IP-based” attractions are set in pre-existing worlds from an established movie or television show, thus bringing a familiarity advantage to the guest experience. For example, if a guest has positive memories of watching the “Stranger Things” series, they may reflect on those positive feelings when experiencing a “Stranger Things”-themed immersive experience.

When storytellers are working within IP-based attractions, it becomes our job to recreate the familiar environments, circumstances, and accompanying feelings of connection within the world of the IP. Stranger Things: The Drive-Into Experience achieved these connections through socially-distant character interactions, pre-recorded dialogue on a radio frequency, and nostalgic music. If we could bring guests into these familiar worlds during a pandemic, we can definitely bring them there now!

Find the Heart

When telling original stories, with no familiar connection to a guest, it’s important to remember the ways in which we can establish a universal emotional connection. Veteran storyteller Stacy Barton once outlined her writing process to students at The Themed Entertainment Creative Academy; her advice to us included identifying the specific emotions guests desire to experience within an attraction. In every story across the world, there is a feeling to be had: what universal emotion will your audience connect with?

In the case of drive-thru attractions, Haunt ’O Ween appealed to our guests’ longing to keep familiar traditions alive, including socially-distanced trick-or-treating and pumpkin picking. It was deeply meaningful to receive positive feedback from families, often including immunocompromised individuals, who were able to safely partake in traditions — especially during a year that eliminated or otherwise disrupted many comforting social experiences. If we could identify and utilize emotional connections then, we can certainly do it now!

Giveaways and Takeaways

Many drive-thru attractions included physical takeaways from the experience, including the aforementioned Halloween candy and pumpkins, a Christmas stocking, and even a Bluetooth speaker disguised as a 1980s mixtape cassette. These commemorative items were often delivered through car windows and trunks by employees protected with gloves and masks. Even during a global pandemic, guests could safely take a piece of these extraordinary worlds home with them — thus increasing the perceived value of the experience. If we could deliver them then, we can deliver them now!

With today’s advances in guest safety, operational ability, and available technology, the storytelling possibilities for the future are endless. From original stories with universal emotional appeal to the integration of popular movies and television shows yet to be created, the ever-evolving themed entertainment industry will continue to offer guests a creative escape.

To the next generation of storytellers: I look forward to working alongside you. I can’t wait to see what you create, on foot and by car; I just hope you don’t have to do it during a global pandemic.


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