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One Cup of Music and a Sprinkle of Magic: The Power of Disney’s Theme Park Music

One Cup of Music and a Sprinkle of Magic: The Power of Disney's Theme Park Music CD

Ever found yourself unconsciously humming along to the “Pirates Overture” as you wait in line for Pirates of the Caribbean? “What’s the Pirates Overture?” I hear you ask. Well, I can guarantee that deep inside your mind, you know exactly what it is. If you haven’t already googled it and given it a listen on YouTube, it’s the piece of music that begins with the classic instrumental of “A Pirates Life for Me” before going into jungle exotica type stuff. You’ll know it; you can practically smell the ride when you listen to it.

We all know and (most of us) love the pure genius of the classic “It’s a Small World” and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” by the Sherman Brothers, but what I’m going to talk about is the “unheard” music*, the background area loops that the dedicated Disney fan looks up when they’re back home and plays on repeat to somehow recreate Tomorrowland or Main Street USA in their own home. What makes these pieces of music so memorable and yet invisible to the ear? Like everything, there’s a little bit of good old fashioned magic involved. Disney is an old hand at that sort of thing, so naturally, that’s why they do music so well.

*See Claudia Gorbman’s ‘Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music’ (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987) for more info about unheard music. 

Going to a Disney park is like stepping into a show or film, so to help explain, I’m going to use watching a film as an example. Next time you watch your favourite movie, turn the sound off for a few minutes. It’s boring. The lack of sound can turn even the most dramatic of action sequences into the dullest experience. Now turn the sound back on and it’s magically back to being the pulse-racing scene you once knew. But could you now hum the background music that was playing?

Chances are, to the average movie goer, the answer is no. The music is there to enhance the mood of the scene and connect you to the unfolding action, it is not intended to be actively listened to. There’s lots of scientific and theoretical reasoning behind all this but we’ll leave that for another time; instead, let’s just call this magic.

One Cup of Music and a Sprinkle of Magic: The Power of Disney's Theme Park Music Pixar Music Pixar Music

Translating this idea to Disney’s theme parks, the same theory is in force. The music is there to transport you to the Wild West, to the Himalayan mountains, to a Mexican marketplace. Unless you make a point of stopping and listening to the music around you, your brain just processes the sounds and immediately releases them. Or so you think. Maybe it’s just me being particularly attuned to this sort of thing, but I remember some of the music, especially when hearing it again outside of the parks — and when I hear it at home, I feel like I’m in Disney. That’s the power of music. I can look at family photos from our most recent trip and watch POV ride videos like there’s no tomorrow, but nothing makes me feel like I’m in Disney more than listening to the music.

So theme park music is, for the most part, only unconsciously processed yet is the perfect mode to transport you to the parks when you’re not there, and that’s because it’s so crucial to theming. Let me set the scene: The sun is setting and you’ve just seen on the app that the wait time for Tower of Terror has reduced to 20 minutes, so you decide to abandon your plans of grabbing a quick Starbucks. You power walk down Sunset Boulevard and gaze up at the menacing Hollywood Tower Hotel that looks down at its next victims, the flickering flashes of the neon letters remind you that this is no ordinary hotel, and as you get closer, you hear the distant screams of guests already in the Twilight Zone. You eventually step in line and feel totally transported to 1930s Hollywood.

One Cup of Music and a Sprinkle of Magic: The Power of Disney's Theme Park Music Tower of terror black and white Version 2

Every detail that you passed between Starbucks and Tower of Terror has been leading to the overall creation of this immersion. But the music you hear is that all-important magical ingredient that glues the whole experience together, and you probably didn’t even notice it. As you walked along Sunset Boulevard you heard the jolly sounds of jazz which, as you got closer and closer to the tower, started to softly change from relaxing jazz to creepy jazz. A slight echo and reverb effect has been added to the music to indicate that not all is right, something strange and sinister could be about to happen. Couple that with the screams from above you and I think it’s a safe bet that you could be in for a fright.

The use of songs from the time period with the added echo also contributes to the atmosphere; there’s something about hearing Vera Lynn’a words, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when,” that gives the impression we won’t meet again. Maybe it’s the screams that give it away. What I’m trying to say is that without the background music constantly setting the scene, it wouldn’t quite deliver the same level of escapism and immersion that occurs at Disney. That’s not to say that other theme parks don’t do this, it’s just that Disney does it especially well.

The music is the important ingredient to create theming, but despite only unconsciously recognizing it, it is a very good memory signifier when back home. Because the background music is so crucial to theming in the parks, once you’re listening to it outside of the resort, you feel transported back to Disney. I suppose it’s a little bit of Disney that you can bring wherever you are; you can’t exactly build Main Street in your house (although that is the dream), but you can certainly play the Main Street music loop.

It’s a bit of a contradiction, as you don’t consciously remember these pieces of music; it is something else deep in your mind that does, and ultimately lets you feel as if you’re back in Disney when you’re at home. So get on YouTube and start listening! Bring back memories from your vacations and create your Disney at home.

Does anyone have a favourite area music loop? What Disney background music do you like listening to back at home?

I’m an avid Disney fan and film studies graduate from the United Kingdom who will talk Disney all day. It was my dream to one day work in Walt Disney World and I was lucky enough to make this a reality by participating on the International College Program in 2017. I can safely say it was the best experience ever! My goal in life is to visit each Disney park across the world and I now spend my days planning vacations to get back to the magic at every possible opportunity — who doesn’t love a good Disney planning spreadsheet?!


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