When you hear the phrase “waders, swimmers, and divers” you likely imagine a body of water – perhaps the ocean surf, or a placid swimming pool. But if you’re a theme park designer, you almost certainly start to think about audience/Guest reactions to the stories you’ve put thousands of hours of work into.
For designers of theme parks and themed attractions, “waders, swimmers, and divers” are the three types of people who come to these parks/attractions, describing a range of visitors who express increasingly greater interest in the backstory of what might otherwise “just” be a roller coaster.
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Would you like to discover whether you’re a wader, swimmer, or diver? Then read on!
Defining Waders, Swimmers, and Divers
Theme park designer Tim Kirk, as quoted in David Younger’s excellent Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment – the essential textbook for theme park designers – describes waders, simmers, and divers as follows:
The Waders just want to walk around and see pretty pictures. The Swimmers want to get a little deeper; they might want some backstory, they might want to get into it a little more. And the Divers really want to know every shred of information that exists about that particular subject. We give them all this backstory in case they’re really, really interested, and if not that’s okay – they don’t have to read it, or they don’t have to look at it, and for the most part they don’t really do. At one level, the just want to ride the ride.
In the same book, designer John Wardley further notes that:
If your attraction relies entirely for its effect on people understanding some kind of story that involves them actually stopping and thinking, you run into big problems. The best thing to do is to design the attraction so it can be appreciated on both levels: on the brain dead level, and on the thinking level.
David Younger perhaps sums this idea up best by stating that, “While a proportion of guests may be extremely enthusiastic for even non-essential backstory, at the opposite end of the scale a proportion of guests simply will not pay attention to story whatsoever.” This spectrum – in this case placing the divers at the first end and waders at the other – encompasses the entirety of theme park attendees.
So where do you fall on this spectrum? Let’s explore each possibility!
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Let’s be real – if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not a wader. But you almost certainly know somebody who is! It might be a parent, a friend, or (heaven forbid!) a partner, but it’s somebody who comes to a theme park with you and couldn’t care less about the story. They skip over reading any signs, don’t look at any of the interesting designs in the queue lines, and probably check their phones during pre-shows. Heck, they might not even know an Avatar or a Star War from a Marvel and a Pixar!
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There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this! After all, there are many more amusement parks than there are theme parks because rides that succeed based purely on physical thrill are popular, viable, and (compared to the immersive attractions at Disney or Universal) relatively cheap type of attraction. A roller coaster doesn’t need a backstory to be fun, and in fact, you’ll rarely find an intricately themed coaster on any top ten lists of best roller coasters.
Waders are just there to have a good time and to – quite literally – enjoy the ride. They can certainly appreciate, get into, and follow along with an explicit storyline that’s part of the attraction, but they may not be up for much more than dipping their proverbial foot into the equally proverbial water (or literal water, in the case of Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach!).
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Swimmers, compared to divers, want to know a little bit about the backstory of a ride or attraction, but not so much that it lives rent-free in their brains. They’ll pay attention to a pre-show, check out what’s happening in the displays beside a queue line, and read the signs out front of an attraction.
Their interest in the story, though, doesn’t extend much beyond the boundaries of the attraction/land/park itself. They may know that Big Thunder Mountain features a runaway train set in an abandoned mining town, but they’re not going to memorize the backstory of that town or look up the names of its citizens.
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When it comes down to it, most theme park visitors are likely to be swimmers. They’re looking for more than they can get at a regional or local amusement park or fun-fair, but they aren’t so invested in the stories they encounter that they want to keep following them even when they’re at home.
In fact, in today’s IP-infused theme park environment, swimmers already come in with the requisite knowledge to appreciate many attractions, and don’t need to put in any effort to know the backstory before they get on a ride!
Divers know – or at least want to know – it all by diving as deeply into a story as possible. They can name the ghosts on the Haunted Mansion, the parrots in the Tiki Room, and the goats on Big Thunder Mountain. They linger in queue lines to take in every detail (and drive the people behind them in line crazy), buy behind-the-scenes books and adaptations that expand upon the storyline, and probably have come close to losing friends over their in-depth knowledge of ride dialogue and narration.
Even when it comes to IP, theme park Guests can still be divers. A swimmer may know that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance takes place during the sequel trilogy, or even that it’s set between Episodes VIII and IX, but a swimmer will discover that the attraction’s events take place during a specific part of the canonical timeline – before certain novels and after certain comic book series – during which General Leia Organa rebuilt the Resistance forces to finally take down Kylo Ren and the First Order.
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In short, if you’re the sort of person who clicks on a Disney Tips article about the different types of themed entertainment audiences and reads all the way to the end . . . then you’re probably a diver who loves talking about immersion, experience design, and the ways in which the backstories of various lands interact with the attractions in those lands.
Basically, you’re one of us. And we love you all the more for it!