Since Trump Became President, I Can’t Stop Riding Roller Coasters
On catharsis and Disney's new "Incredicoaster"Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Politics Features Roller Coasters
This is a review of Disney California Adventure’s newest ride, the Incredicoaster. I’ll get to that. But it’s also a political manifesto: since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I cannot stop riding roller coasters. I’m not sure exactly why roller coasters are the one thing that provides me with solace from the reign of our terrible president. Maybe it’s nostalgia, the same miserable force driving his supporters. I grew up with a Six Flags season pass, and I’m just trying to reclaim something I enjoyed in my youth.
But I think there’s something more going on. Donald Trump’s presidency is profoundly dangerous, yet a lot of that danger is invisible. Take our nation’s current unwillingness to deal with climate change; that’s as dangerous as it gets, and it is something I understand conceptually, but it is not a danger I feel often in my body.
Roller coasters are the opposite. They create a genuine sensation of danger in a safe environment (assuming you are at a major theme park… carnival setups or water slides made to impress TV executives are far less safe). Giving my body the sensation of danger is therapeutic. It’s strangely meditative, allowing me to take the anxiety of the current moment and internalize it. So what I am saying, before diving into the specifics of this roller coaster, is that if you are deeply anxious about the Trump administration, and have the stomach for it, ride a roller coaster. You probably will not regret it.
Disney California Adventure recently rethemed their California Screamin’ rollercoaster as The Incredicoaster, coinciding with the release of The Incredibles 2 and the park’s Pixar Fest. The transformation may seem cynical; much of Disney’s park development over the past decade has taken the form of theming areas of their parks to their most popular pieces of intellectual property. The ride even goes so far as to acknowledge the slapdash branding in its preshow (more on that later). However with the specific IP involved in this case, there is genuine political storytelling potential to be tapped with the Incredicoaster. Seriously.
The Incredibles is a strange film. The heroes of the film are oppressed by an overly burdensome regulatory system that prevents them from being as super as they would otherwise be. Their excellence is hereditary, not earned. In fact, the villain in The Incredibles is someone who would deign to give superpowers to the masses. It’s not a stretch to read the film as an Ayn Randian parable. It’s anti-democratic on its face, and is the rare Disney movie that hardly asks the audience to identify with the main characters. Given how successful the film is in other ways (great performances and visuals) its politics are weird and alienating.
What roller coasters do well is create a visceral physical experience. By theming a roller coaster to The Incredibles, you could cast the riders as having super powers. Shoot your audience at 55 miles an hours, and suddenly that distance and alienation between viewer and character is destroyed. The rider is now special; they are feeling the feeling of being Incredible, and the ride itself turns being Incredible into something available to anyone (well, anyone able to afford a ticket to California Adventure). By using the bones of California Screamin’, the fastest coaster at the Disneyland Resort and the sole ride in the park that features an inversion, there is the potential for a perfect intersection of property and ride mechanism. Does the ride succeed? And can a ride at Disneyland of all places really be political?
As roller coasters continue to evolve as thrill machines, their capacity as conduits for storytelling lags behind other ride mechanisms. As a regular attendee at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the experience for most coasters is the same: lightly themed queue, lift hill or launch, series of extreme elements, brake run, end of ride. Sometimes they throw in a second lift or reverse launch, but it’s generally the same formula.
Don’t get me wrong, that is a great recipe for thrills, but most coasters struggle to turn those elements into something artistic. Most coasters eschew the narrative storytelling that dark rides attempt try for obvious reasons. They’re fast, often too fast for a rider to see a show scene. As Jeremy Thompson of The Thinkwell Group pointed out, almost all current roller coaster designs accelerate and decelerate on linear paths, limiting the ability of designers to shape show areas. They’re loud, drowning out onboard audio. Fast and loud is good for creating a sense of danger, but not so good for creating a narrative experience.
Roller coasters also fail as storytelling mechanisms for more ephemeral reasons. What is exciting about a roller coaster is the sensation it creates in the rider. Inversions, acceleration and g-forces. These are not traditional narrative tools, and throwing characters and plot on top of them can be distracting. Grafting a normal theme park story (think a ride like Peter Pan, which tells the story of the animated film) onto a normal roller coaster does not benefit either the story or the coaster. The best most coasters achieve is a non-narrative story. Batman: The Ride tells the story of flying around Gotham City, but there’s no characterization, no real narrative.
The best way for a roller coaster to tell a story is by creating the proper context for the experience that is to come, then crafting the ride to match the thematic qualities of the story in question. Space Mountain has no specific narrative, but I’ll be damned if that small roller coaster that tops out at 35 miles per hour does not make it feel like you are going to space. It manages that effect by leaning into what the ride can do well, and eschewing an overly specific narrative that would take the rider out of the experience of riding the ride. The Incredicoaster could have done that: build the context of the incredibles in the queue, and let the coaster create the effect of becoming incredible.
Sadly, the final product of the Incredicoaster does not quite come together. Rather than treating the rider as a normal person who gains super powers, according to the ride’s narrative the rider is instead… a regular person attending the dedication of a roller coaster being renamed in honor of The Incredibles. This confusing meta-narrative is conveyed by a pre-show video that riders will likely miss most of as it is only shown in a small portion of the queue. There’s a meta-joke about the cynicism of the experience by way of an apology that is missed by most of the people waiting for the ride, and does not land with those who catch it. The bulk of the queue does not even feature video footage to distract waiting guests, instead choosing to teach you who the Incredibles are with dry facts written on posters. The level of immersion in the queue is surprisingly low, akin to what you might find at a Six Flags or Cedar Fair property.
Once on the ride suddenly you are watching the Incredibles try to chase down their shape shifting baby. You mostly see this in a few tunnels with lighting effects that are only particularly effective at night, and audio cues that you have to struggle to hear over the din of the track. The coaster ends with a show scene featuring Edna and the baby in a room presented as still characters rather than animatronics like you see elsewhere in the park. There is a full narrative there that the rider can parse out in a single ride (especially at night toward the front of the train) but trying to do so is distracting from the experience of riding a roller coaster. The ability to give oneself over to the experience of the ride is diminished, and the story is not exceptional enough to be worth the trade off.
This level of IP integration fails to meet the standards Disney has set for themselves at the California Adventure property, which has become a truly fantastic theme park of late. Radiator Springs Racers took the critically lambasted Cars franchise and turned it into one of Disney’s best dark rides. And even last year’s ludicrously titled Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout conversion of the Tower of Terror drop tower was successful, resetting the bar for what an IP based conversion could look like.
That ride is staggeringly fun, capturing the spirit of the Guardians films from the second the rider walks into the show building. The ride experience is also upgraded, with a program that is far more thrilling and exciting (though admittedly less tense) than what came before it. It tells a story with high-quality pre-show animatronics giving way to a ride experience that mirrors the feeling the movies create in the viewer, peppered with fresh scenes and music that would be at home in the film’s soundtrack. However, Guardians never had the opportunity to be anything more than escapist entertainment; the IP involved did not have the political undertones of The Incredibles, so the ability to subvert them was not available for the Imagineers who designed that ride.
The Incredicoaster remains a solid ride, though the opportunity to tell a story that rises above the standard roller coaster was missed. The final product sits between a quasi-themed thrill coaster like Batman: The Ride and a fully themed coaster like the Seven Dwarves Mine Ride at Disneyworld. But honestly? It’s fine. It is a good coaster with launches and a loop, and if you ride it you will forget we have a terrible president for a few minutes. And for now? That’s enough for me.