On Magical Hats, Sorcerers and the 'NextGen' of theme park storytelling
Written by Robert Niles
Looking back, I missed something important last December when I visited Tokyo DisneySea.Tweet
The theme park was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and DisneySea had placed a "Magical Hat" in each of the theme park's lands to mark the occasion. But these hats weren't designed just to look "magical." They did things - if you could find the correct trigger on, or near, each hat. Perhaps it was a sound effect, or a light display. But the displays were enough to attract queues of eager visitors, waiting their turns to trigger the magic.
The 'Magical Hat' above the entrance to the Arabian Coast in Tokyo DisneySea. There's an interactive Aladdin's lamp next to the walkway below.
I was too busy trying to get to, ride, and photograph all the top-rated attractions at Tokyo DisneySea to give these Magical Hats more than a quick glance. But after playing Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World last month, I wish that I'd paid more attention to what Disney had done in Tokyo. Because, together, these additions to the Disney theme parks help draw a line toward the future of Disney's vaunted "NextGen" project.
Ultimately, NextGen is about redefining the attraction experience beyond the physical limits of specific rides and shows to involve the entire theme park. It's a natural extension of the immersive environments that define "theme" parks. Not only should these environments look the part, they should play it, too.
Think of theme park lands in NextGen not just as settings for attractions, but as platforms for them. Imagine props throughout the land that interact with you, responding to your touch, or instructions. The Magical Hats were a small step toward that end. They took a few of the gimmicks found in places such as Disneyland's Indiana Jones and the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion queues and released them out into the park.
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom takes another step. This interactive game brings story into the mix, and requires a higher level of interaction from guests to participate. You've got to make decisions now, in choosing which cards to hold up to the magic portals to defeat the Disney villains you battle there. Sorcerers connects the various interactions throughout the park into defined narrative quests, as well.
This concept isn't new - the Kim Possible game did something similar at Epcot. Heck, even some of the old kids' arts and crafts projects around Epcot gave you the chance to follow an agenda around the park and do something creative at each station. But viewed in the context of Tokyo and the new interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion, Sorcerers shows a direction that Walt Disney Imagineering is going.
The next step is what I call "passive customization." Instead of you making a decision about what card to hold up to a Sorcerers portal, for example, the next step in NextGen is to have the prop in the park make the decision. This will require individualized RFID-enabled room-key or admission cards (or wristbands), with your personal information embedded. Touch it to a prop in the park, and the prop can respond based on your data. (Disney's implementing RFID room keys and NextGen technology at its new Art of Animation hotel, opening in May.)
A simple implementation? Touch the prop with your wristband and boys get a pirate emerging from behind it; girls get a princess. Or grown-ups get simulated pyro, and little kids get a cute cartoon character popping up. Expect simple gimmicks at first, perhaps without much customization. But as Disney gains experience with the technology (and more importantly, with how guests interact with the technology), Imagineers can begin to use this technology to tell truly interactive stories - custom "choose your adventure" narratives that could be unique to each guest.
You thought Tower of Terror's multiple ride profiles had repeat-ride appeal? This technology could help make Walt Disney World visits even more addictive for certain theme park fans.
Of course, not every guests wants a customized interactive adventure. When I told my wife about this technology, her face turned green.
"I don't have the energy for that," she said. A simpler vacation's more relaxing for her. If Disney's smart, this element of NextGen won't be imposed on guests anymore than a ride to Pirates of the Caribbean is today - it's there if you want it, but if you want to skip it in favor of something else, well, that's fine, too.
But the more options - and, let's face it, price points - that a theme park resort can offer, the more consumers it might attract. Frankly, before I played Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, all this NextGen talk really didn't do much for me. I skimmed by it, as I did the Magical Hats in Tokyo, because I've always been more interested in theme parks' story-driven narratives, and not so much the story-less tech gimmicks. I see now how story can play into and with in-park interactive technology, however.
More interactive "props in the park" are coming to Walt Disney World. And they're bringing some questions with them: What stories will these installations enable Disney to tell? Will Disney follow through and develop these stories? And will these interactive experiences engage guests the way traditional attractions have for generations?
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