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Breaking the 3rd Wall

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.’ ”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

The park, comprising nine rides, a climbing wall and a petting zoo, is geared primarily to children ages 10 and younger. Performances run toward puppet shows with a safety theme (Officer John Reed, formerly Officer Friendly for the Santa Ana Police, has a regular gig there). Children can match wits with the puppet characters and try them out after the show.

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Ansdell says the park’s interactive elements encourage shared moments between generations.

“We have a Thomas the Tank Engine play area where the kids can come in and play with hundreds of pieces of track and bridges. The dads get in there and build these elaborate layouts and get really involved with the kids.”

Circuses

Even the circus is getting in on the interactive act. By letting kids get up close and personal with the merry pranksters before they don those scary rubber noses, the “Three Ring Adventure” pre-show at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus may ease chronic clown phobia.

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“A lot of children are intimidated by clowns,” admits Ringling public relations coordinator David Kiser, an Oklahoma native who spent 14 years as a Ringling clown.

“Here, they can watch as four clowns put on their makeup and costumes.” By interacting with the clowns-in-progress, children will be less likely to be spooked during the show, Kiser said.

Ringling’s interactive event is free to all ticket-holders one hour before the performance. In Ring One, visitors can meet and greet Khan, the “tallest man in the world,” and other performers.

Clown transformations take place in Ring Two. Ring Three is devoted to animals. Other performers stroll the perimeter to meet and greet.

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Right now, Ringling isn’t the only interactive circus in town. San Francisco-based Make*A*Circus, now in its 24th season, knows how audience participation can enhance the circus-going experience. They take it a giant step further, boosting children’s self-esteem by bringing the kids into the performance.

In Act One, the traveling troupe performs juggling, acrobatics and other feats of derring-do, then invites volunteers into the ring to learn some of those same circus skills. The finale is a joint performance by the volunteers and the professionals, punctuated, no doubt by a lot of whirring and clicking as parents capture the memories on film.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Interactive Media Sites

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Disneyland, 1313 Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. $38 for adults; $28 for children 3-11. (714) 781-4565.

Knott’s Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. $36 for adults, $26 for children 3-11. Southern California residents in ZIP codes 90000 through 93599 pay $25 for adults, $12.50 for children. (714) 220-5200.

Adventure City, 1238 S. Beach Blvd., Anaheim. $10.95, all ages. (714) 236-9300.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues its Southern California run at the L.A. Sports Arena through Sunday; July 28-Aug. 4 at the Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave. Tickets: $11.50-$32.50. (714) 740-2000.

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Make*A*Circus performs Friday at 7 p.m. in Chapparosa Community Park, Chapparosa Park Road at Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel. Free. (949) 362-4350.


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