There's a lot to be learned for any kind of entertainer by visiting the theme parks in Orlando, Florida. And that's exactly what I'm going to tell the IRS when they ask how a dinner at the Sci-Fi Drive-In at Disney's Hollywood Studios is a business expense.
It's true: A day spent last week at Universal Studios Orlando and then two days at Disney parks (Hollywood and the Magic Kingdom, which is a slightly intimidating name for a theme park), were more than instructional in the art of keeping a mass audience entertained, enthusiastic and wanting more. The two large corporations behind these resorts have done a great deal of research into what works and what doesn't, and it shows.
If you're a writer, a performer, a director, an editor... you get the idea... take heed. The experts are leading by example. Pay attention, and you can find a way to link the ideas to what it is you do.
First: Always create anticipation. There's a reason there are all sorts of distractions on theme park ride lines, and it's not just that the park operator wants you to forget you're on line for over an hour to get on a three-minute ride. No, the idea here is to plant in the mind of the audience the idea that this is going to be awesome, so the wait is worth it. Entertainment along the way is part of the package--it makes you feel like the host cares about you, and builds up the experience to come.
Also: Make the audience member feel special. This still pertains to the line only. Both Universal and Disney have systems in place to make the guest feel smart and privileged by passing most of the simple peons on the line to more popular attractions. The differences in the systems are significant, but they have the same goal.
Universal Orlando allows some guests to bypass most of a line at especially busy rides (particularly in the Harry Potter sections, where traffic is highest), but you have to pay more for tickets that do so. It is sometimes possible to get nearer the front of a long line if you're willing to ride by yourself (without the rest of your party), but you then often bypass the pre-show described above, and in some of the rides, that the best part.
Disney's system, as usual, is better thought out. A Fast Pass option is available to all ticket holders. Special scanners at the entrance read the card. You can (if you have the Disney World app on your phone) select three rides the day before your trip and designate them for Fast Pass. Available times will be shown, and you choose. No more than three. If you don't have the app, you can do the same thing at the park at Guest Relations or Fast Past stations, usually near the really popular attractions.
The takeaway: I can feel like a big deal and save time and I don't have to pay extra. It's about pampering (at least in their minds) the audience.
A quick last note on lines: The wait times are posted outside each ride at both parks. They are almost always overestimated, giving the guest a treat when the wait doesn't actually take quite that long. Another pleasant experience that cost nothing.
And: You have to deliver an experience. The audience is primed and ready for something to happen after all that waiting (or, not waiting). Just the build-up won't satisfy. Make sure your product is superior, because all the smoke and mirrors in the world won't mask the fact that you haven't been trying hard enough.
For the author, this means not letting plot get in the way of character. Not writing dialogue that simply delivers story points and no personality. Constantly entertain.
Say what you want about the theme parks--they're garish, some of them are getting a little ragged around the edges, the commercialism is as blatant as it can possibly get. All that is true. But do they entertain? They sure do. And if I earned in one year what one of those parks takes in for french fry sales in one day...
We can all take a lesson.