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Orange County FAMILY

Breaking the 3rd Wall

Getting audience into the act makes memories and sense.

July 23, 1998|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They call it atmosphere or interactive entertainment: live actors, singers, dancers or characters who make a vital, human connection with guests.

Whether it's a barbershop sing-along on Main Street in Disneyland, a story swap between a child and a grizzled Ghost Town miner at Knott's Berry Farm or a made-to-order experience under the big top, executives with local theme parks and spokespersons for touring and other attractions say it's a sure-fire way to break down the barriers between the entertainer and the audience.

Those who cross the line from viewer to performer--or those who gleefully watch a family member, friend or stranger do so--are touched in a way that no thrill ride or splashy stage show can duplicate, said Disneyland Resort vice president of entertainment Mike Davis.

"We get a fair amount of letters from people that talk about . . . their atmosphere experience," Davis said. "They're the ones that touch your heart, the ones that say 'I'll remember this the rest of my life.' "

Jordan Smith wasn't convinced his role in a Laughing Stock show in Disneyland's Frontierland would be a lifelong memory. But he did know that the memory of going face-to-face with his future "bride," Sallie Mae McGillicuddy, was one he was eager to share with friends at home in Vancouver, Wash.

"I'll tell them I met the ugliest woman in the world," the 11-year-old said, laughing. Jordan was the youngest of three potential grooms selected to vie for Sallie Mae's hand in a "Dating Game"-style serial sketch that's partly scripted and takes place outside the Golden Horseshoe Saloon.

Seven-year-old Shannon Smith (no relation) of Treynor, Iowa, found her connection in Disneyland's new Innoventions attraction. (Housed in the former Carousel of Progress building, the interactive showcase of products of the near future is being tested on selected days and will officially open in the fall.)

Selected by an Innoventions host, Shannon nimbly hopped from circle to circle on a gizmo said to test athletes' agility. Smiling, the petite blond proclaimed the experience "funner than hopscotch." Her parents, Keith and Carol Smith, said the interaction "helped make the [theme park] experience more participatory" for the family.

The Anaheim park presents nearly 30 atmosphere acts, Davis said, including the widely recognized Dapper Dans barbershop quartet on Main Street; the Trash Can Trio, an explosive percussion group dressed like park sweepers; and Tomorrowland's Biomusicologist, a roaming character who uses a Jetson's-style machine to read the biomusical rhythms of guests.

On a recent evening, the machine blipped and jangled and produced several bars of "Hair" while "reading" a burly teen with a shaved head.

Knott's Berry Farm

At Knott's, personal contact between performer and park-goer has been key to Ghost Town ambience since the early days, notes the theme park's director of entertainment, Matt Schlieseman.

"Ghost Town is the emotional heart of the park," Schlieseman explained. "At the gunfighter shows, the audience is right there, often sharing ad-libs with the actors, communicating with them, being part of the experience."

The te^te-a-te^tes continue after the weapons are holstered. On a recent Saturday, a pair of strapping cowpokes hunkered down to swap tales with a 6-year-old boy. A few moments later, the lad swaggered away happily.

Knott's recently added interactive elements to Camp Snoopy's Thomas A. Edison Inventors Workshop, where youngsters can play at interactive learning stations and chat with a costumed "personal assistant" of Dr. Edison.

This summer in the area tailored to younger children, they opened the Peanuts Playhouse, in which kids can imagine they're one of the Peanuts gang by bouncing on Lucy's bed or banging out a tune on Schroeder's giant keyboard.

For more intimate moments, they can take part in the roaming Camp Snoopy Sidewalk Theatre, in which costumed Peanuts characters and a character escort invite kids to dance, sing or chat.

Of course, introducing any unknown child or adult into a largely scripted performance can invite trouble. (Remember the infamous "Cram it, clown" incident on the old Bozo show?)

Schlieseman says his performers are prepared.

"If there's a child that's a little bit . . . well, precocious, we'll try to have fun with that too. We try to give the child a chance to express himself and still ensure that the show goes on."

Adventure City

At just two acres with 15 attractions, the Adventure City theme park on the Stanton-Anaheim border is tiny compared with its larger, better-known cousins. But park president Allan Ansdell says that's all the more reason families can look to them for those Kodak moments.

"We don't have the multimillion-dollar attractions the other parks have," conceded Ansdell, who founded the park with his family in 1994. "We rely on the interactivity" to make the experience a positive one for young guests.

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