Disney’s Princesses are Coming of Age: Will Theme Parks Evolve with Them?

Posted by Sasha on Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Snow White

When the very first Disney princess graced the screen in 1937, she broke barriers: Snow White elevated animation from the stigma of silly cartoon to the realm of respectable art form. Disney’s princesses have come a long way from housecleaning and finding Prince Charming and today, they’re breaking new barriers in animation storytelling. The royal heroines of the last five years – Rapunzel fromTangled, Merida from Pixar’s Brave, and Anna and Elsa from Frozen – take us on journeys with much more emotional complexity than their princess predecessors. These heroines aren’t just pretty faces; they are role models for a type of emotional bravery and growth that could only become mainstream in this day and age, where seeking mindfulness and connection with others is popular and encouraged.

The Princesses as Role Models

In both Rapunzel and Merida’s stories, we see the tension and need for separation that inevitably occurs between a teenager and a parent. While the princesses have different relationships with their mother figures, both fight for their independence and learn a valuable lesson in separating from their mothers: Rapunzel learns that she has been manipulated and controlled by her mother figure to serve her own needs, and Merida learns to communicate with her mother more effectively, reconciling their differences and reconnecting with the love that they share.

Rapunzel and her abusive mother figure (Tangled)

Merida and her mother (Brave)

In Frozen, Anna and Elsa model a different set of emotional themes. Elsa shows us the struggle and metaphoric consequences of repressing one’s true self, which results in an unstable inner climate and a lack of warmth and connection with others. As the main antagonist in the plot, Elsa is a not a typical villain: she is a well-meaning young woman who never got the support she needed to comfortably adjust to the adult world. Another first for Disney is the plot’s central relationship, which is expected to be the romance between Anna and her love interest, but actually ends up being about the sisters’ love for each other. In the end, it’s Anna’s unfailing loyalty and love for Elsa that saves the day, not a handsome man.

Elsa crying alone, unable to stop freezing the room (Frozen)

Storytelling Evolution

All three storylines have plenty of the signature Disney bells and whistles – pretty princesses, fairytale-like whimsy, humorous characters, magic, adventure and happily ever after endings – but the interpersonal dynamics modeled in each story demonstrate a psychological depth that breaks the mold of classic Disney princess animations. While the classics hinted at mature struggles, such as Cinderella’s need for freedom from her abuse, or the many instances when a princess defied her father to follow her heart (Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas), these experiences were reduced to the same formula of conflict, adventure, romance, courageous acts and a happy ending. Emotional struggles seemed to magically resolve themselves when the princesses changed their situation or achieved acts of valor.

Tangled, Brave and Frozen don’t skim over the complexity of their princesses’ emotional struggles; entire songs are dedicated to how they’re feeling, allowing emotional tension to fully play out on the big screen. In the end, we are left with much more than courage + romance = happiness. We see that breaking from an abusive, manipulative relationship takes immense courage and self-trust; that successful parenting means allowing children to have their own minds and love them anyway; that children must embrace their independence but learn to express their differences in a non-hurtful way; that having an open heart is what makes life livable and relationships successful; and that “typical” romance does not trump every other kind of love.

From Screen To Theme Park

As the Disney princess stories mature, will this complexity get translated to their accompanying theme park attractions? As CNN recently pointed out, “Anna and Elsa…have already become top-selling toys…A Frozen attraction at Disney’s theme parks would be another logical step.” If that is the case, Disney may wish to do some careful thinking. The theme park versions of the princess stories usually focus on physical beauty and shallow character representation through meet-and-greets. Dark rides re-tell a simplified version of the story with an eye towards throughput and quick entertainment value. This kind of typical themed entertainment experience, whether adventure-based or vanity-based, would dilute the subtle but  barrier-breaking emotional themes of the recent princess movies.

Princesses meet and greet characters at Disneyland

Wouldn’t it be nice if Frozen ushered in a new kind of themed entertainment experience that celebrates Anna and Elsa’s mature values and lessons instead of their pretty faces and dresses? Perhaps this is where theme park design could borrow from the museum world’s capacity to integrate social responsibility and experiential learning into exhibits. There’s a fine line to walk between didacticism and entertainment, but it’s worth navigating for the sake of Frozen, if not for the sake of the young audience that looks up to Anna and Elsa.

sisters Elsa and Anna (Frozen)

Readers, what do you think?


image sources: grouchoreviews.com, disney.com, fem2pt0.com, rotoscopers.com, modernmouseradio.com, disney.wikia.com


12 responses to “Disney’s Princesses are Coming of Age: Will Theme Parks Evolve with Them?”

  1. Sarah says:

    This is a very well written article. I haven’t watched the newer Disney Princess movies because the stories were getting pretty redundant. It’s peaked my interest to hear that they have evolved finally. I think it’s great that they are leaning towards providing a better morale for young girls.

  2. Kim says:

    Maybe Disney is growing up as its younger viewers are dealing with a much more complex world that is not so easily simplified. Maybe they are moving away from stereotypes and moving closer to real humanistic characters with hopes and dreams but also with quirks and flaws. I do hope that Disney figures out a way to incorporate this realism in its theme parks to emphasize that a pretty face is not all that girls have to aspire to.

  3. Lindsay says:

    I do agree that over time the changes in society as a whole do lead to changes in these types of characters. However I think that this article may be over thinking it a bit. Do you really think that small children care how “complex” an atttraction is at a theme park? I don’t. These attractions are there for simple fun, and I think that the happy rides and meet and greets still fit with today’s generation of children (and adults).

  4. Jameson says:

    I completely agree with the fact that Frozen has taken Disney to a completely new level in regards to maturing character development. I am not sure how it will translate to theme park design, though. Disney typically tries to maximize the fun and enjoyment for guests, just as was mentioned in the post. A dark or serious ride/venue might not be the most fitting thing for a Disney park that caters to individuals of all ages. I can certainly see plenty of fun, enjoyable things that could be done with the “Frozen” theme. Whether or not they can incorporate the powerful message of the movie remains to be seen.

  5. Jason says:

    I have to admit I haven’t seen Frozen yet, though I have been meaning to, and I didn’t even know about Tangled until I read this post. I have always liked the more obscure fairy tales (like Rumpelstiltskin) so I will definitely have to watch them both, Tangled and Frozen that is. I did see Brave however, and did appreciate the emotional depth and originality it had. I think Disney made a conscious choice some years ago to move in a different direction with their princess franchise. It’s interesting that they first started by changing the race of the princess. I always thought of that as something they felt obligated to do after hearing people make the realization that everyone in Disney cartoons is white or an animal (with the exception of Princess Jasmine, but a white Jasmine would have been weird.) I think their decision to deviate from the traditional princess narrative speaks not only to a changing of the times but also to a more intelligenter movie-going audience. Yet, while I appreciate the direction they went, I can’t help but once again feel as though Disney saw an opportunity to take advantage of another current trend. Instead of cashing in on the increasing diversity of lead characters in movies they went for strong female leads, since the independent heroine is currently big at the box office. Maybe that’s a pessimistic way of looking at it, I’m not sure. As for trying to have the physical iterations of their female leads at their theme parks, I don’t see Disney going for it. Nobody wants to have their child to receive life lessons from a stranger in a Halloween costume. All that being said, I definitely like the direction Disney is going with female characters being less one dimensional and not simply being the love interest or damsel in distress.

  6. TN87 says:

    This article is almost exactly the conversation I had with my sister the other day over the phone. It is so refreshing to see a Disney princess end on a note that is not about a guy but about love and perseverance. I hope Disney follows suit and changes their theme parks. What good is a princess in a dress whose only skill is good manners? Frozen is the beginning of what we should show our children. They can start with a theme park that shows a princess in a new light. Being pretty is not a skill. We should not praise that. Having courage and fighting something that many people including children go against, is the best skill of all. I think Disney is going in the right direction in these movies and I hope there is more to come.

  7. Ben says:

    I like that Frozen doesn’t follow the usual tropes of good versus evil. I think a lot of movies and recent novels, ie A song of Ice and Fire, have moved away from the usual archetypes. I think it allows for more complexity. In terms of theme parks, as this article mentions, Princesses are always portrayed in a superficial manner. I’m not sure how Disney will go about creating a more meaningful them park experience, but it can start by halting its focus on pretty dresses and faces.

  8. George says:

    Have you had a chance to check out Enchanted Tales WIth Belle at WDW Magic Kingdom? As an attraction, the combination of walkthrough, immersive theatre, and meet & greet is a clever mashup of experience design techniques that has the potential to transcend the dark ride retellings and surface meet & greets that you mention. Thematically, it might fall short of the mark in terms of carrying a more progressive theme, but hopefully it’s a signal that Disney is open to taking a more sophisticated approach with their princess-themed attractions in the parks. While there will always be a renewable resource of young fans for whom the surface-level treatments remain compelling and appropriate, it would be a smart move for Disney to design attractions for that portion of their fan base that is growing up with these characters and is in danger of outgrowing them.

    Unfortunately, it often takes a bit of time for concepts to work their way from the screen to the parks:

    Little Mermaid (1989) –> Ariel’s Undersea Adventure (2011)
    Beauty & the Beast (1991) –> Enchanted Tales with Belle (2012)

    Hopefully, it won’t take until 2035 to get a kick-ass Frozen attraction.

  9. Cahil says:

    Absolutely great read with spot on insight. I’m excited to see the direction the Disney parks will take in creating attractions & entertainment based on their characters (such as the ones you have mentioned) that are appealing to a broader age range and more mature interpretations.

  10. Ron Schneider says:

    In 1982 I originated the strolling Dreamfinder character for the new EPCOT Center in Orlando. Here was a new Disney character, created with a mission: to promote creativity and inspire all people to see themselves as imaginative creatures who can accomplish anything that they can dream. The Disney Parks ‘formula’ as well as the guests’ expectations work against this goal. It reduces the character interaction to a photo op and an autograph… and this has only gotten worse with the arrival of the queued ‘meet & greet’.

    I was determined to touch the people I met with the EPCOT message, and so took my time with each group to play imaginatively with them. I made use of my character’s back story and established motivation to color the guest interaction and thus my visitors came away with a very different idea of themselves and what it meant to meet a Disney character.

    These more complex princesses have that same opportunity. It doesn’t take much time or effort to recognize what a guest has in common with the character’s background and play on that… and with a little imagination we can do more than pose and sign and pose and sign. We can touch hearts and change lives.

  11. Sasha says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight and experience, Ron. I’d be curious to know your thoughts on EPCOT today and whether it has stayed true to the message you represented in the 80’s…

  12. Thibault says:

    I agree EPCOT has probably some of the most interesting Disney attractions, but also it is targeting an older age group, which explains more complexity. I am personally very impressed with Test Track where Disney does an amazing job working with Chevrolet in engaging with visitors after the dark ride. I could see this being applied to a Frozen ride, without the commercial element of course!

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