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Disney Theme Parks 2.0

So, we have the so-called web 2.0, which, to paraphrase is a more interactive (social) web, hence the blog you’re reading now, and allowed to post comments to. So why not “Theme Park 2.0″ that’s more interactive and responsive to the guest/visitor? I would like to lay claim to the label “Theme Park 2.0″, but in researching/writing this entry, I came across a blog posting at Theme Park Insider, by Robert Niles where he talks about some of what’s going on, not just at Disney, but other parks as well, and he calls it “Theme Park Interactivty 2.0″, so I’ll give him the credit, and as he said in his entry, this is “a topic that we ought to talk about more”.

I wasn’t able to attend D23, but in the days since it wrapped up, I’ve been reading, watching and listening to various people tell about some of the presentations that were shown, and I must say, I’m really hyped to hear what they’ve got planned. It really sounds like Disney has started a new chapter in the design and function of new attractions in their parks. Taking in all of the media from D23, led me to my own naming and further thoughts on where they might be headed.

Really though, while Disney may not necessarily choose to label their new creations how Robert or I would with the “2.0″ moniker, this new chapter appears to have actually started at least in part over 10 years ago with Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. Sure, as some may say, it’s just a moving version of the Frontierland shooting gallery, but still, it takes interactivity up a level, and gives the rider somewhat of a different experience if not challenge when they ride it. In some sense, Toy Story Midway Mania took Buzz up at least another level if not 2 or 3. Yeah, at the core it’s still a moving shooting gallery, but it’s one that uses 3D screens and compressed air effects to react to you with a much broader range of actions, taking the fun, challenge and variety to a whole other level.

It’s nice to see that “2.0″ isn’t limited to just attractions either. Starting back a few years ago, Disney debuted their first walkabout animatronic, Lucky the Dinosaur. They’ve since followed with Muppet Mobile Labs and Wall-E. While I’ve yet to see any of them in person, I’m really impressed with what they’ve done with these and hope to see more of them in the future. These are great additions to the parks, and have the potential for creating a really unique experience for guests that they’re very unlikely to experience anywhere else. Another, who isn’t a walkabout, but still impressive, is Remy (the rat from Ratatouille) at Chefs De France in Epcot. And, while they’ve begun building walkabout animatronic characters, they haven’t forgotten or neglected the classic costumed characters such as Mickey, Minnie, Donald and others. They’ve given them sort of a “2.0″ upgrade by making their mouths and eyes actually move now instead of just being stationary. I have to admit though, while it was neat to see the first time, it’s also a little on the creepy side.

One of my favorite implementations of “2.0″ has to be the combination of  technology and show in what Disney calls the “Living Character Initiative”. First seen at Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot, then Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor Comedy Club at Magic Kingdom, and the latest addition of Luxo Jr at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the recently opened and closed Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration. I still recall my first time seeing Crush and watching him interact with guests. Everyone in the room was completely in awe by this turtle from Finding Nemo moving around and talking right in front of us. To this day, it is still one of my favorite shows.  I like The Monsters Inc comedy show too, but it seems like they struggle more with the material and finding good comedic rhythm. Perhaps it’s just been the talent that was working the show on the two times I’ve seen it. Still, it’s a cute show with enough variety and interaction to make it an okay show. In my opinion, it could be a better show if they had a comic show writer to help freshen the material from time to time.

Other “2.0″ like features have also included Pal Mickey, which was a lug-around, somewhat plush Mickey reportedly with the guts of a PDA and infrared receiver that triggered specific phrases stored in his “brain”. Being a techno-Dinsey geek, I rushed out and bought one of these when they first came out. He was cute, but a little corny, and the tidbits of information he gave while you were roaming the parks made him slightly entertaining and fun to carry around, most of the time anyway. Sadly, he’s been discontinued now, and is no longer being sold in the parks, but from what I hear, the sensors that trigger him to talk are still in the parks and he will still work. Another of Disney’s latest interactive features, is the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure. Themed to Kim Possible, guests use a “Kimmunicator” that is actually a flip phone, and wander thru the different pavillions in World Showcase tracking clues sent via the device. The device will also trigger some effects when the guest is near or has found them. I like the concept of this, but I think the theming of Kim Possible is a bit late. Regardless, it’s still a neat new use of “2.0″ in the parks. Perhaps in the future they will expand this to other parks using other themes.

All of these lead in to the announcements made at D23. If they wind up doing everything they presented, it should make for some fun, interactive experiences never before seen. Let me just try to highlight what they presented. 

Probably one of the biggest attractions, they’ve ever designed and to be built, Radiator Springs Racers Disney’s California Adventure sounds like it will have a few new “2.0″ features. At the core of this is what’s being called a next gen Test Track with 2 tracks side by side where riders will race each other thru Radiator Springs. I’m not real sure what next gen means in terms of Test Track, but the riders will experience what sounds like a few different interactive features where the riders can choose different stops along the route like Luigi’s Casa Della Tires, or Ramone’s House of Body Art.

The new Fantasyland upgrade/expansion at Magic Kingdom, is chock full of new “2.0″ features.  In Cinderella’s country chateau, behind the castle, guests will get to witness her fairy godmother magically  transform the princess from her servant’s clothes into her ball gown right before their eyes. Afterwhich, they will help her practie for the ball or train to be one of her royal knights. One that’s interesting and a bit mysterious is the Beauty and the Beast adventure. Apparently there will be a “magic mirror” at Belle’s father’s cottage that will somehow transport guests to the Beast’s castle. Once in the castle, they will get to participate in retelling the Beauty and the Beast by performing it for Belle. Another mystery is the “interactive games” that were promised to eliminate the queue for Dumbo. All of these sound quite intriguing, but so far are details on them are rather sketchy.

Moving out of the Magic Kingdom, over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, is probably one of the more exciting (for me at least) attractions, rather upgrades, and that’s Star Tours II. It may be a stretch to put the “2.0″ label on this yet, because details on this are sketchy as well. But, from the sound of things, this attraction is prime material for having some real “2.0″ style features. It’s being reported that there are at least a couple of different scenes from the different Star Wars movies. The trailer used at D23 showed a sequence from the pod races on Anakin’s home planet, Tatooine. Also, the attraction will be in 3D.

The best thing that new “2.0″ features offer is the relative ease and flexibility in changing and enhancing an attraction. Not necessarily a “2.0″ feature, but the guys at Imagineering were very wise when the built the Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s unknown if they intended to change up the drop sequences when they first bult the attraction, but by making some programming changes, they transformed the ride into something that’s potentially different every time, or at the least it’s a random experience which the rider doesn’t know or expect. By designing attractions with this kind of flexibility, hopefully it will allow them to stick around long after they might have been otherwise replaced. This kind of branches into a future entry I’m working on regarding the chemistry of classic attractions, and how there haven’t been very many in the last 15-20 years. But, like I said, that’s a future entry.

All of  this is a natural and very welcome evolution of (Disney) theme park attractions. And, I believe it’s what Walt had in mind by constantly pushing the envelope, looking for new and exciting ways to entertain people.

I neglected to mention, The Orlando Sentinel also posted an article along these lines, titled: Theme Parks’ Goal: Less watching, More Doing, it’s worth a read.

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