Immersion is not the same thing as theme, nor is it the same thing as story. The three terms may interconnect and overlap in various ways, but they imply different things. WDW visitors want immersion – transportation to another place/time via details that surround and with NO visual (or audio) elements that detract from the illusion. Those concepts together make theme. But theme doesn’t have to mean a “story.” Story matters a lot on attractions individually, but if you think about it, few attractions have stories that link together on the level of the whole land. Over the decades, the Imagineers have taken stabs are unifying stories for lands, but these are rare and not always long-lived. It is far more common that lands give a setting (time and place) but no actual story, leaving the attractions to provide story one at a time, usually not interconnected with each other.
Consider Main Street. This is famously an idealized version of Walt’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri (with a healthy dose of Fort Collins, Colorado thrown in, courtesy of designer Harper Goff who grew up there). It’s specifically at the turn of the century (Walt’s birth era), when there were both streetlights AND gas-powered lamps; both horse-drawn vehicles AND horseless carriages. But this is a time/place setting. There’s no backstory to the land; no evil corporation, no wealthy landowner, no citizens uniting… it’s just a place.
Fantasyland, where Walt thought most visitors would begin, was always meant to be the place where you could re-live the Disney movies. That necessarily meant a lot of plot (a.k.a., story) in those attractions. In some ways, they are the “beginner” level of attractions at a Disney park. Branching out from here, the rides expect more from the guests, both cognitively and in some cases even physically (you have to shoot at targets in Tomorrowland, for instance, or run down the paths of Tom Sawyer Island yourself).
Tomorrowland is one place where unified themes were often attempted. Originally, Walt wanted Tomorrowland to represent 1986 (the next scheduled return of Haley’s Comet), and over time the Anaheim park also tried other variations on a future theme (Agrifuture – or edible landscaping – still kind of exists there; and there was one pitch to make it a Montana Future, because, as designer Bruce Gordon put it, “everybody wants to live in the forest.”) In the Magic Kingdom, the original “white” future was transformed in the mid-90s to an alien spaceport, which does tie together the various attractions relatively well.
New Orleans Square in Disneyland has a setting but not a story, but this land is unique for having a story pitched for it that was never put into place. Imagineer Eddie Sotto once tried to create an underground tunnel from the Mansion area to the island, using the pirate Lafitte as the reason for this lair on the island, and thus unifying all of NOS and the island into a single backstory).
Much more common are lands that feature multiple themes simultaneously. Walt’s original Frontierland was equal parts Zorro (on TV at the time), True-Life Adventures (Nature’s Wonderland), and Davy Crockett (TV and movies). In the Magic Kingdom, the buildings are constructed to look like a progression from St. Louis (Diamond Horseshoe) to the Wild West (Pecos Bill). Big Thunder Mountain fits in nicely in the end, but the Appalachia-themed Splash Mountain in the middle there doesn’t precisely fit in. But despite the theme, there is no central story.
Liberty Square has a definitely time/place vibe to it, right down to the river of, uh, symbolic excrement in the middle of the pathway (really! designers knew there was no indoor plumbing back then!) But it seems to also lack any kind of story.
Adventureland similarly is a mishmash of exotic places
, but especially motivated by the TV shows for True-Life Adventures. Magic Kingdom’s version includes some Middle Eastern areas, plus the Caribbean (after visitors demanded the pirates ride on this coast also). In other words, it also has a lot of clashing themes and clearly no central story.
EPCOT Center has few lands, and there seems to be no story to the ones that are there. Future World is just futurism and flies in lots of different directions. The country pavilions of World Showcase are again geography-based, not story-based.
In Disney’s Hollywood Studios, there are lands, and they are themed to look like a certain place, but they seem to have no sense of a story behind them. The one exception might be Sunset Blvd, which hones in specifically on 1939 and is anchored by the Tower of Terror. The entire area seems well-integrated; except for the obvious interloper in the form of Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, which was put here not for story (or theme) reasons, but rather because of traffic flow.
In Disney’s Animal Kingdom, there are lands, but these also seem defined by geography rather than story. A tiny bit of story does creep into Harambe in Africa, where the poacher storyline from the safari (which has now been removed) shows up in the village in the form of posters on walls. But by and large this land, like Asia, has no central story.
The one giant exception is Dinoland U.S.A., which DOES have a story. In fact, it has one whopper of a story. The entire set of attractions here – from the kids’ sandpit dig to the fast food restaurant, from the carnival to the dinosaur ride, – comes from a single story. It goes like this:
Chester and Hester ran a sleepy gas station along Route 498 (the park opened in 4/98!) when suddenly dinosaur bones were discovered nearby (the kids’ sandpit). Archaeologists moved in and set up tents (Restaurantosaurus), and there was so many bones discovered that a museum was erected nearby (Dino Institute and the Countdown to Extinction ride). Sensing profit to be made by the resulting tourists now flooding the formerly sleepy area, Chester and Hester built a temporary carnival on the parking lot right next to their gas station, intentionally kitschy to celebrate dinosaurs for the masses.
The irony, of course, is that over 99% of visitors here don’t pick up on the clues and make the connection. The story is lost of them. And this perhaps proves the point: story matters for individual attractions, but not for lands.