Disney’s next generation theme park entertainment, already here?

The BBC has a great story examining how two of the most recent attractions to open at Walt Disney World point the way toward future development from Walt Disney Imagineering. Disney sees current and future generations of youth who are already so inter-mediated with video games, texting, MP3s, video downloads, and 3-D movies (sometimes all at the same time) that they’re afraid standard attractions just won’t be enough to inspire repeat visits down the line.

“The emerging generation expects more immersive, personal and interactive experiences in every facet of their lives,” says Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering.

The two attractions the article looks at are Toy Story Midway Mania and Kim Possible. TSMM takes the ‘video game’ experience and brings it into the parks in a very Disney way. While Kim Possible is one of the first examples of how Disney can build an attraction using overlay technology. No need to expand the footprint of the park, just intertwine the experience with what is already there.

Sure, WDI can continue to pump out the heart pumping thrill rides like Expedition Everest or new entertainment environments like The American Idol Experience, but really, so can anyone these days (usually with the help of laid off Imagineers). What will set Disney themed environments apart in the future are overlays (or an even more exciting technology called Total Immersion, but that’s coming well down the line).

Just about exactly 8 years ago, I wrote a short story for LaughingPlace.com (unfortunately, the second page of it appears to have gone missing, so I rescued it from the Internet Archive Wayback machine (woo hoo) and have included it in full below the cut) forecasting where this overlay technology might be heading in the future. If it seems familiar, that probably means you’ve used a Pal Mickey before. It also gives you an idea of how long these ideas percolate in Imagineering before making it into the parks. Additionally, I’m almost finished with a novel by Vernor Vinge called “Rainbows End” which takes this overlay concept to the umpteenth level and extends it worldwide via a combination of future social networking and an economy based on themed design and role play.

I think it’s important to remember that it all comes back to quality story telling with the type of rich detail that Disney knows how to intertwine with entertainment. If Disney keeps their eye on that, the technology is just another color on their canvas.

Dispatch From the Future

Anniversaries are a time to look backward and forward. If you can’t learn from where you’ve been, then there is little hope the future will turn out right. If you can’t envision a bright future, then all your past efforts will go to waste. Walt knew this and the various lands of Disneyland (and his vision of EPCOT) all pertain to this philosophy.

Disneyland is approaching it’s 45th Anniversary on July 17th (should be a national holiday if you ask me) and I have been consulting my crystal ball for a vision of what the park might look like 45 years from now.

Chances are it will be much the same as it is now. Main Street will have a few new tenants, I’m sure. Sleeping Beauty Castle will still anchor the guest’s walk toward the hub, and the Train Station will still be the focus for those approaching Town Square. Many new attractions will dot the landscape and plenty of old favorites will continue to entertain beyond their billionth guest.

Yes. It will look familiar to my then 75 year old eyes.

However, there is a buzzword being passed around the hallways of Walt Disney Imagineering even now that will change all that-Total Immersion Environments. TIE worlds are the ultimate experience in themed entertainment. Low-tech versions of this exist today with fantasy role-playing games and events, such as murder mysteries, Sunset Blvd characters in MGM-Disney Studios, etc.. The first of the high-tech TIE worlds might be said to exist in Universal’s Islands of Adventure Amazing Spiderman ride. But well before 45 years arrives, things will be totally different.

It’s likely that TIE worlds will exist both as overlays to existing environments and as stand alone attractions. Stand alone attractions will be more structured and heavily scripted like today’s experiences. In an overlay, each participant will choose ‘skins’ that will help customize the experience for them. That skin will then be planted on top of the existing world to augment the experience. At Disneyland it might work something like this…

“Hello and welcome to Disneyland. Guests wishing to purchase passports please proceed to a yellow guest services station. Guests who need to rent our TIE visor please check in at the main entrance. Thank you for visiting Disneyland. We hope your stay here is a pleasant one.”

The deep and rich voice of the Disneyland announcer fills your ears as you approach the Disneyland Entrance Plaza. This is your first trip in over a year and the lushness of the spring plants and the beautiful flower arrangements are overwhelming. Still you and your family manage to make your way to the main entrance and pick up your Disney TIE visors.

The visor interfaces with your personal iNet even as your pre-purchased passport is being verified through the Disneyland Entrance network. A quick smile for the biometrics face scan and you’re through the gates and in front of that famous floral Mickey.

That friendly voice fills your head again. “Hello. Through these gates you’ll find worlds of the past, fantasy, and tomorrow as presented to you by the minds and talents of the Walt Disney Company. Please don your Disney TIE visor now. ”

Sliding the visor into place and selecting the on button results in a small green light telling you everything is working. You look around and see a few Cast Members helping guests configure the visor to more difficult iNET models. Quickly everyone in your party is ready to go.

In a few seconds another Disney Cast Member approaches your group. She is about 5 foot 8 inches tall and has a peppy cheerful look about her. She is a little on the fair skinned side, with blonde hair that falls past her shoulders, the Southern California woman prototype. Her costume is the traditional Disneyland Guest Relations plaid that you remember seeing on every visit.

Addressing your family she says “Hi. I’m Tour Guide TIAA. TIAA stands for Total Immersion Assistance Avatar, but you can just call me Tia. If you need my help at anytime call for me and I’ll be right there to aid you. In the meantime, please stand still while I activate your preferences menu.”

A hover screen appears about 5 feet in front of you. And lists a menu of choices that will help shape your visit today.

“A few minutes of preparation can save endless hours of waiting inside the park,” continues Tia. “So please be patient while we get you set up. If you plan to return tomorrow, these settings will be saved and available to you.”

“Please choose an Avatar now,” states Tia. “My sister Tour Guide Tanya is our most popular avatar and is our default selection. Our second most popular avatar is Mickey Mouse. He’s perfect for the young and the young at heart. Please make your choice now, or select ‘List Avatars’ for more options.”

“Thank you for choosing Tour Guide Tanya. Remember if you need assistance you can either ask Tanya or call for me, Tia, at any time.” With that Tia waves good-bye and walks off into the distance, disappearing behind another family.

Seconds later another Guest Relations tour guide approaches. She could be Tia’s twin except for the name badge that reads Tanya. “Hi everyone,” she says. After a pause she says, “it’s okay. You can say hi to me. I’m very interactive and can answer nearly any question you have.”

“Hi Tanya.” You all reply in unison.

“Alright let’s get on with the show.” She says. “Follow me underneath the train tracks and onto Disneyland’s Main Street USA.”

As you pass under the tracks it’s as if you’re traveling back in time. Hundreds of park guests interact with hundreds of townsfolk from the early 1900s. Sneaking a peak outside your visor you notice that only a small minority of the townsfolk are actual cast members. The majority are virtual avatars, just like your tour guide.

Tanya continues, “Since this is your second visit in two years, I’ll be giving you the intermediate level of detail and history. For instance, you may not know it, but there is an apartment above the Firehouse there on your left. When Disneyland was new Walt Disney used to stay in the apartment with his wife and daughters. Cast Members knew to be extra sharp when the light was on in the apartment. After Walt died in 1966, a light was left on in the window as a symbol of his spirit watching over the park. Nifty, huh!”

As Tanya spoke a Fireman walking a Dalmatian approaches your family. He’s a tall blond young man with black pants, red shirt, and black suspenders. His firehat reads, ‘Disneyland Fire Dept. #1.’ Tipping it toward you he gives a cheerful “Morning Folks.”

You smile in return but your young son is a bit more enthusiastic. “Hi Mr. Fireman.” Taking that as an invitation, the Fireman stops to let your son pet the Dalmatian and run him through a few useful fire-dog tricks. The dog, not the boy.

While your son is occupied, Tanya takes some time to quiz you and your wife about your eating preferences. In a few seconds she has a list of recommendations for eating and available reservation times. Before you know it your lunch and dinner reservations are made and a bookmark is left to their menus in case you get a few moments to check them out and maybe even place an advance order.

The fireman and dog, both of whom are real you notice beneath your visor, are getting ready to move on, and so are you. As you march down Main Street to the familiar music Tanya is providing glimpses into details that you never noticed during your previous visits.

Right as you enter the hub a familiar looking creature in tux and tails bounces up to your group, it’s Mickey Mouse! “Hi everyone!” he squeaks. “Welcome to My park.” Meanwhile Tanya has produced a digital camera and takes a picture of your group with your very special host. Your son is enthralled with Mickey and giggles as Mickey wrinkles his nose at him.

“Whelp, I have to get back to my movie barn in Toontown, my leading lady Minnie is waiting for her big scene,” pips Mickey. “I hope you’ll come visit me there later. But since you’re here, may I recommend you visit Fantasyland. Tinkerbell tells me the lines for Peter Pan and Dumbo are extra short right now.”

You proceed to Fantasyland and notice how right Mickey was. Peter Pan is a walk on. The whole area is full of various toons from Disney movies set in the fantasy milieu. Since your reservation for Peter Pan is about to expire you pass up a chance to interact right now and instead move to the entrance queue.

Your favorite ride from childhood, Peter Pan, has undergone a few changes to increase capacity and show, but the suspended ship system is still there only this time London isn’t a model, but a high definition projection of the city as it would have looked then. Little animated characters from the movie fly around in your vision and you follow them off into the stars and straight on til morning. Suddenly you’re in the mist of the fight for control of Hook’s ship and the rescue of Wendy, Peter, and John. It’s an incredibly real experience as the action takes place all around you. With the aid of Tinkerbell’s pixie dust you fly off to victory and back into Fantasyland. It’s only been a few minutes, but you feel as if you just lived through the whole movie.

“Great ride,” your son says. “Let’s go again.”

As if on cue, Tanya appears by your son’s side. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll make a reservation for you later on tonight. For now, we’re off to fly with Dumbo.”

“Dumbo, cool.” you and your son say in unison.

Tanya continues, “Dumbo is one of our two ‘classic’ Fantasyland attractions. The other is King Arthur’s Carrousel. Both are best experienced without your Disney TIE visors. Since Dumbo is a walk on, please remove your visors now and I’ll rejoin you at the exit.”

With almost no exceptions your day is one fun filled experience after another. Even when you sit down to rest, you’re amazed at the detail of the park and the benefits of the total immersion experience.

At the end of the day Tia reappears and asks if you wouldn’t mind taking a brief survey to help improve your future visits. Another cast member approaches with a small souvenir book in her hands. Her name tag reads “Krisse.”

“Thank you from all the cast members at Disneyland. We hope you’ve enjoyed your stay with us,” states Krisse. “Please accept this complimentary souvenir book and multimedia presentation of your day at Disneyland.”

Looking on the cover you see the picture of you together with Mickey Mouse and Sleeping Beauty Castle in the background. Inside are various pictures of the park, some even have you and your family in them. Included is a menu of what you ate, and recipes you can recreate at home. There are also coupons for discounts on future visits or duplicate copies of your souvenir guide.

All in all a memorable trip for you and your family.

– Indigo (February 2, 2000)

Dispatch from Disneyland: Memories and fantasies woven together to create whimsical tales that can happen any day at Walt Disney’s magic kingdom. Through Indigo’s dispatch you can experience some of the wonderful moments that make Disneyland such a magical place.

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5 Responses to Disney’s next generation theme park entertainment, already here?

  1. Tracey says:

    My husband, Scott, and I had a chance to try out the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure during our visit to WDW last December.

    Our mission was based on the Mexico pavilion – we had a good time exploring corners of the pavilion we hadn’t spent time in before and thought the “payoffs” were entertaining, without being intrusive to the other guests. As you mentioned, this type of technology is a great way to “plus” the parks without expanding the physical environment.

    LOVED the look at Disneyland in the future – reminded me a bit of Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers as well as Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – both novels have some innovative uses of technology in the Parks.

  2. Kurt Nelson says:

    Definitely reminded me of Down and Out. I am not sure Cory would like your future though, since remodeling classic attractions with virtual reality based ones is what the main character is fighting.

  3. John Frost says:

    I’m sure Cory had his ideas earlier than his book was published, and I’m not saying that my idea is particularly original, but I will point out that my “Dispatch from the Future” was published in 2000 and “Down and Out”, which I respect and love, was published in 2003.

    I specifically chose Disneyland’s Peter Pan in my story since it was no longer in the ‘classic’ form. It has been totally changed once in the past, making it a good candidate for another remake. If they were to overlay the Orlando version, which is closer to the original Disneyland one, I would hope they figure out some way to preserve the attraction for those who wanted to see the original, while also adding some overlay via Total Immersion technology (also called ‘augmented reality’ in sci-fi circles).

  4. Chuck Jordan says:

    via @TheDisneyBlog: articles about interactive theme park attractions like Kim Possible & Toy Story: http://tinyurl.com/dz6z3a

  5. Jud says:

    Hey! I was just thinking about this sort of thing yesterday after having done 5 of the Kim Possible adventures! As I wrote in my report, this is going to be big, but I didn’t think as big as you did in this wonderful story you related here so well! Are you one of them laid off Imagineers? Great entry! Thanks! (though I would not want to see the wonderful existing presentation of Peter Pan gone- there is some magic in it yet!)

    :)

    Jud

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