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Look east -- far east -- for Disney's best response to Harry Potter

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Published: May 16, 2013 at 1:19 PM

With all the attention we've paid to Universal's Harry Potter over the past weeks/months/years, let's not overlook a potentially enthralling theme park franchise that rival Disney has started to develop -- one that's far from realizing its immense potential to engage theme park fans.

I'm not talking about Princesses. Or Avatar. Or even Star Wars. I'm talking about a Disney theme park franchise that the company has yet to introduce to its American theme park fans.

It's the Society of Explorers and Adventurers.

We first heard of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers at Tokyo DisneySea, where the group (take a moment to figure out its acronym…) plays prominent roles in several attractions inside the park. The Society makes its headquarters in the park's Fortress Explorations Citadel, which also serves as home to Magellan's restaurant, which one can consider the official Society dining room.

Fortress Explorations at Tokyo DisneySea
The headquarters of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, at Tokyo DisneySea

But the Citadel's not the only Society presence in the Tokyo park. DisneySea's Tower of Terror attraction focuses on Society member Harrison Hightower, a world explorer and antiques collector whose arrogance an contempt toward the ancient cultures he seeks becomes his undoing.

Newspaper account of Harrison Hightower's fateful journey, on display in the attraction queue.

And there we find the conflict that animates this wonderful narrative. In Fortress Explorations, we see how the Society inspires visitors with the wonder of scientific discovery. But in Tower of Terror, we see the dark side of global exploration, when the greedy drive it toward exploitation of native people and their cultures instead.

Disney's not left the Society in Tokyo. This month, Disney opened Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, and in it, introduced us to another Society member, Henry Mystic. Mystic's not as overtly evil as Hightower. If anything, Mystic's sin seems more of benign neglect -- failing to properly control his monkey assistant, Albert, who unleashes the potentially destructive magic of Mystic's artifact collection during our visit to the Manor.

Great narratives, such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, expose us to seemingly limitless new worlds of characters and conflicts, which echo archetypical stories from our cultural past. Potter reflects traditional coming of age tales as well as a classic Christ fable. (Harry dies to protect his people, and then is resurrected, all surrounding a chapter called King's Cross. C'mon, Rowling's just beating us over the head with it at that point, isn't she?)

With its conflicts in Tower of Terror and Mystic Manor, Disney's Society of Explorers and Adventurers' narrative echoes epic tales of discovery and of conflict between civilizations at first contact. And it does so while introducing notes of the supernatural, an archetypal element that's driven stories since the beginning of time. This isn't a single narrative driving a single attraction. It's an epic tableau, with the potential to drive a limitless number of attractions around the world.

What Disney has created so far tantalizes visitors with the suggestion of many more members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, with epically engaging conflicts of their own, all as yet to be discovered by us. By doing so, Disney's created space in its as-yet under-developed Society narrative for our own imaginations to fill in, further engaging us in the story. True interactivity isn't simply triggering a special effect. It's causing us to become emotionally and intellectually engaged in a narrative, helping to craft and move it along, even if we're the only ones who see it happen.

Society of Explorers and Adventurers brochure
Click for a larger version of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers' headquarters map

Disney's accomplished that grand task with the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. It's driven me to rethink my own budget, to start stashing cash to pay for future trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong, where I again can be with these intriguing characters. And it's making me long for Disney to further develop the story of the Society, and to bring it to an American audience, which, I am certain, will embrace and cherish the Society as much as I have.

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Readers' Opinions

From 86.138.237.152 on May 16, 2013 at 1:40 PM
I hadn't linked these two attractions but to see the over-arcing story that they both fit into is genuinely exciting. The great frustration is that Disney has spent a lot of time and Imagineer investment in developing these outstanding attractions in the Far East whilst Orlando in particular languishes somewhat. New Fantasy Land is an excellent development aimed fair and square at one of Disney's main demographics but Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom desperately need some Disney magic and major investment to keep them in the running. The Potterverse will be a major draw and serious competition so Disney needs to step up to the bar, announce California Adventure style make overs for the three parks, and fast-track the work. AK has Avatar land coming but Epcot and HS both need equal investment and maybe the Society of Explorers and Adventurers could provide some much-needed inspiration....
From 82.15.12.22 on May 16, 2013 at 1:46 PM
No offence, but I am sure I am not the only one getting a little tired with Robert's constant bragging about having been to Tokyo DisneySEA. The fact that JTTCOTE has now upsurped HPATFJ as the number one attraction on Theme Park Insider just goes to show how influence Robert's ramblings are becoming. How many people voted 10 for JTTCOTE just because Robert told them to?
From Dominick D on May 16, 2013 at 1:47 PM
Great article! Now that I think about it, the SOEAA could like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and have an exclusive ride at each resort. That would be awesome.
From Dan McNeely on May 16, 2013 at 2:12 PM
I'd much rather see Disney bring Mystic Manor to Orlando than produce a clone of Cars Land.
From 206.29.182.217 on May 16, 2013 at 2:26 PM
Wow Robert. That's an excellent article. I particularly appreciated your insight on "true interactivity". I also feel like this club is greatly underdeveloped. It could be used to revamp the tired old jungle cruise attraction and restore it to its original purpose of inspiring wonder and excitement, instead of a series of gags and jokes.
Also I think the explorers club could fit into tomorrowland or Epcot. Maybe a future version of the club that is engaged in space exploration and new science.
From Johnathan Ramey on May 16, 2013 at 2:27 PM
Oh it goes oh so much farther than that! with ties to the Old adventures club (may it RIP) and If my sources (all be it slightly obsessed with the subject) are correct there are already references to the S.E.A At trader sam's at DLR.

If anything Disney has a strong ability to create deeper stories than they let on in there parks. Anyone who has ever worked in a park such as DAK or DSH and/or taken a in depth tour of those park will know this

From Doug Jenkins on May 16, 2013 at 2:58 PM
Hate to say it, but it sounds like Disney needs to bring some of it's Far East Imagineers to the US.
From Robert Niles on May 16, 2013 at 2:59 PM
Great info, Johnathan! That's what I get for not going into bars....
From grant crawford on May 16, 2013 at 3:36 PM
Disney truly does have some incredible IP that it can bring to its parks, and with this insightful article there is evidence that it is not resting on its laurels (or those it has purchased) and is willing to create new and interesting franchised themed rides, which is great. It should be noted that this is something that universal has NEVER done, and just because it is a movie based theme park does not mean it cannot introduce original content.

The truth is that Disney in recent times has, with the exception of DCA and fantasyland, failed to truly invest significantly in developing its parks in the US. The announcement of avatar does not seem to have progressed much further.

My opinion is that Disney has been spending it investment dollars in other aspects of its extensive business, acquiring new franchises. Namely Pixar, marvel and now star wars. Between these franchises it is clear that Disney has the ability to create some incredible attractions and themed zones/parks. Now that the marvel buyout has started being lucrative, I anticipate that in the very near future we will see some announcements on the development front, and there will be some much needed investment in these neglected parks.

If Disney is able to bring its creative force, as evident in cars land and the far east, to these franchises on the east coast the true winners will be us as the theme park going public. Having 2 competing theme park companies vying for our dollars by creating amazing content will truly be incredible.

From 69.164.180.103 on May 16, 2013 at 3:33 PM
I just don't know. The power of Harry Potter is the legions of fans that exist. The only brand I see at Disney (besides Disney itself) is Marvel or more specific The Avengers/Iron Man. A story they have to tell in a guide book or map is unknown until you book. Unless they are going to theatre with it, ala Pirates? With $1B in the bank after week 3 of Iron Man (week 4 if you count over seas) maybe Orlando is ready to get the theme park rights back?
From Dominick D on May 16, 2013 at 3:51 PM
82.15.12.22, I'm not. If anything, it only wants to make me go more.
From Anon Mouse on May 16, 2013 at 4:03 PM
Very interesting proposal. I would agree, but the idea of adverturers and explorers seem too quaint. It needs another angle to get me interested. However, I do think a combination of two E-Tickets like Mystic Manor and DisneySeas' attractions that are integrated into a new and exotic land in a relatively minor park like the Studios or Animal Kingdom will do wonders to counter Harry Potter.

Nonetheless, the Studios Park should go with Star Wars at minimum. Finish Avatar and the long overdue Dwarf's coaster although no one will care next year when Diagon Alley opens.

From 85.150.173.168 on May 16, 2013 at 5:39 PM
IOA's entrance feels very adventure/explorer like.
Yes this site talks a lot about amazing Disney stuff outside the US and the wonderful Harry Potter additions (and more) at Universal Orlando but that is because it's very hard to get excited about a Monster Inc sticker on a monorail, the carnation of a "princes" and a boring Pirates game.
What is the last attraction Disney did at WDW: The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow. Yep, amazing, not. That's what the leader of the theme park industry is putting in their biggest resort in the world.
From 72.15.63.66 on May 16, 2013 at 6:35 PM
I don't they should bring scraps of DisneySEA to Orlando. Why don't they just clone the whole Tokyo DisneySEA and make a 5th park. How amazing would that be. That's something I think would really excite people.
From José María Sandoval on May 16, 2013 at 9:33 PM
Great article!!
From Robert Niles on May 16, 2013 at 10:07 PM
72.15.63.66, let's not forget that the DisneySea park was originally designed for... Long Beach, California.

Sigh.

From Johnathan Ramey on May 18, 2013 at 1:58 PM
Given some further digging i have found out that S.E.A has ties to tower of terror. http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Harrison_Hightower_III
From 204.195.121.158 on May 20, 2013 at 3:58 PM
Thx so much for your article.
I travel to Japan regularly, but have never taken the extra time to swing by the Tokyo Disneys. But because of your reports I've already booked my stay @ the Hilton Tokyo bay & will enjoy a quick jaunt to DisneySea in early June. Cheers.
Dan from Sacramento (Disneyland & DCA regular)
From 99.118.244.141 on May 20, 2013 at 5:05 PM
I for one am a proponent of this Adventures Theme. I really wish Disney would realize that this is a much better idea to bring to its U.S. parks. Exploration and Discovery are ideas that speak to adventurers both young and old. It is discovery of the new and unique that brings people from everywhere to visit the Disney parks. Personally I feel that the approach that Disney is taking while competing with Universal is completely wrong. Allow Universal to focus on Hollywood theme attractions and counter their successes with amazing attractions that push boundaries and innovate like no other than Disney could deliver. I don't understand why Disney feels that for the US market they always have to rely on a movie franchise for success. I have no problem with their focus on movie themes at the Studios Park but to have to shoehorn a movie theme into every U.S. Disney attraction ultimately cheapens the attraction, Stitch's Great Escape for example. What's so wrong with giving us a brand new story, exclusive to the theme parks, to embrace and cherish? The overwhelmingly positive response that Mystic Manor has been getting and the resounding negative response that Avitarland has been receiving should be a wake up call to Disney.

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