Look east -- far east -- for Disney's best response to Harry Potter
Written by Robert Niles
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.
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.
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.
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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