What are the World's Most Immersive Theme Park Attractions?
Last month, when I posted Is Diagon Alley really a game-changer for the theme park industry?
, a conversation followed in the comments about immersiveness in theme park attractions. In that discussion about whether particular attractions were "immersive" or not, I recognized that I'd failed to provide a useful definition for immersiveness in theme parks.
So let's talk more about that today: What makes a theme park attraction immersive?
Ollivander's in Universal Studios Florida's Diagon Alley
Let's head back to high school debate here and start with a proposition: That an immersive theme park attraction is one that draws you into becoming an active participant within that attraction. Immersion isn't simply elaborate decoration or a faithful representation of another place or property. An immersive attraction must take that extra step that brings the location to life — making you want to imagine that you are a part of the story that the land or location is trying to tell.
The more of your senses that an attraction can engage in this effort, the more likely that the attraction will successfully immerse you within its theme. Obviously, sight is the first sense that engages us, as we see the attraction in photos, video, and then in person as we approach it. But sound should be part of the experience, too — not just with appropriate ambient sounds, but also in the dialogue with employees and performers in the attraction. The most immersive attractions engage the other three senses, as well — enticing us to touch and use our hands as we explore all the attraction offers, and to smell and taste in well-themed restaurants and eateries in the attraction.
Can you think of some attractions that do all these things? Which attractions come to mind that create a convincing physical space in which everything you hear, feel, smell, and taste convinces you that you really are not just passively observing, but have become an active participant in this different place?
Here's the TL;DR — If you are thinking "wow, this really looks like _______," then the attraction is not immersive. If you instead think, "wow, I really am in _______!" then it is immersive.
The fort on the Magic Kingdom's Tom Sawyer Island
For me, the first truly immersive experience I ever felt in a theme park was on Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. TSI doesn't just look like an island in the middle of a river. It is an island in the middle of a river. The raft ride over serves an essential role in establishing the credibility of Tom Sawyer Island as a distinct physical space. On the island, the smell of the woods, and the sounds of the waterfalls, the gunshots from the fort (sigh), and blacksmith at work all helped sell my imagination on the authenticity of the experience. I could feel the island as I scrambled up the rocks and felt my way through the caves. You even could engage your taste buds with a snack at Aunt Polly's, though the experience there wasn't particularly authentic to 19th century mid-America, unless you stuck to the pickle and some milk.
The best part was that I could play on Tom Sawyer's Island. I didn't have to pretend that I was someone or something else in order to play a role within the attraction. Immersion is one thing, but transformation is another. That demands a suspension of disbelief that challenges even the best themed environments. The Mighty Microscope in my beloved Adventures Through Inner Space changed my size, but didn't try to change who or what I was.
And this is my problem with Cars Land. There's no place for human beings in the Cars universe, and Cars Land offers no explanation for why we exist, much less why we are here. The land treats us as if we were living cars, too. Which might work better if there were some transitional, transformative moment that helped us make that mental leap from being human beings walking through a theme park into living cars "driving" through Radiator Springs. But that's not part of the experience. I'm sure that little kids can make that leap of imagination with no mental effort. But we bigger kids need some help here.
Retaining your own identity within an attraction helps make the experience more unique, and ultimately, convincing. If you must assume another's role to become a part of the attraction, well, others can assume that role, too. To paraphrase Syndrome, "if everyone is Captain Jack, no one is." If we are all playing the same parts, that's acting, not being. The most immersive attractions allow us to be in that place, not just to play like someone else there.
The Citadel headquarters of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, at Fortress Explorations in Tokyo DisneySea
That's why, to me, Fortress Explorations at Tokyo DisneySea and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida join Tom Sawyer Island (at least, the well-maintained Tokyo Disneyland version), as the ultimate immersive theme park experiences. They are all beautiful and convincing physical spaces, isolated from the parks around them, where the best cast and team members "play along" and reinforce the theme of the land by staying in character. They offer hands-on opportunities to physically engage and make things happen within their attractions. They bring me into another place and allow me to inhabit it — to play, work, think, dream, eat, and drink there. The memory of having been in those places makes me wish that I could shut off this computer and head to the airport so that I could be on my way to spend more time in these beloved lands.
These are my magical places. Which are yours? What are your most immersive theme park attractions?
I did not imagine myself as being a human being in Carsland. I imagine myself as being a car in Carsland. The Radiator Springs ride is in the perspective of the cars. You drive the car as if you are the "car". The ride never puts you in the perspective of being a human.
Just out of curiosity, is there a back story for the Potter stuff that explains why ordinary folk without magic powers are allowed to wander around the halls of Hogwart's or take a spin through Gringotts Bank? I just don't remember a lot of muggles running around the Wizarding World in the novels. Been a while though.... Or is the conceit that we are not muggles but are in fact wizards too?
The most wonderfully magical and immersive place for me is Islands of Adventure's Port of Entry. The way the music transitions through the different parts of the land, the beautifully done architecture, all of the little easter eggs, seeing "The Adventure Begins" and "The Adventure Lives On", the grand reveal at the end, etc. I think it's perfect and walking through gives me chills.
^Oops, didn't log in.
James I see what you did there. You made it sound like a question but it was really a statement!
^You give me far too much credit, Nick!
"Or is the conceit that we are not muggles but are in fact wizards too?"
James, I completely agree with your comment about Walt Disney World. Whenever we go there, I feel like I am somewhere else, completely removed from the outside world.
"Perhaps. You can buy wands at Ollivanders. Then you're a full-fledged wizard or witch."
Neither my GF or I are fans of the Potter books or films. I've watched less than 30 minutes of the movies. But we were totally immersed when we went to Diagon Alley. We spent apx. 40 hours of our vacation in Diagon Alley. Never wanted to leave. I even bought my GF a wand which she happily used throughout Diagon & Hogsmeade. We also made the green screen dvd film, and I was on stage for the Celistina show.And the immersion continues when you go to London & ride the Hogwart's Express to Hogsmeade. It seems as if you never leave one park to go to the other. I never experienced anything like Diagon at any other theme park I've visited. Probably the closest , as James Rao said, is Williamsburg, but that isn't really a theme park, even though it's a couple of miles to BGW.
Rob, I am sure the new USO land is amazing, and I am sure it is immersive.
Most immersive attraction is Tower of Terror.
Robert, I have to agree on you take on Carsland. My wife and I never got what it was about other than a walk through highly colorful cartoon environment. I guess the immersive goal must have been missed on me because until I read this article, I wasn't even aware that was their objective. Not saying it wasn't fun, because it was; just saying we got absolutely no feeling of being transported anywhere other than into a cartooned themed area.
Hey, I love Cars Land. But I agree that it feels like I am visiting the intersection of Toontown and Route 66 -- which is great. But it is not the same type of immersive environment I'm trying to describe, where you become part of a story in a different time/place. I never feel like I am part of the story in Cars Land. I'm watching the story (and enjoying every moment of it). But it is the cars' story, not mine.
You're being very anthropocentric, Robert. As a car myself, I feel quite immersed when I visit Carsland.
Comment of the Day!
I totally spend most of my day at DCA in Carsland. I feel more at home there than any other place in the Disneyland Resort. Disneyland is too crowded for me these days and after about 30 minutes in there, I can't wait to get out and go over to DCA walk through the incredible Buena Vista Street then just go into Carsland and just spend the rest of the day there. Have lunch at Flo's and I am good for the rest of the day and night. An occasional snack from a Cone. I love the place and I am not really a "Car Guy". But that place just feels like home, comfortable and safe.
While I haven't seen either of the Cars movies, I was thoroughly impressed with Carsland when I visited last month. I wouldn't call it immersive, but I do think it is a completely themed and well thought out area of DCA. From the plants created with car parts, the Radiator Springs queue, and Flo's Diner, there is an amazing attention to detail around every corner, nook, and cranie. It restored a little faith to me that perhaps Disney still has the ability to build a complete, themed land here in the states.
Having to take a special journey to get to a theme park destination prepares you for that new immersive experience. The Magic Kingdom delivers this with its monorail and boat trip across the seven seas lagoon, Platform 9 ¾ to Hogsmead Station envelope’s you in that reality, but for me, the Las Vegas Star Trek experience just nailed it.
YES! The Star Trek Experience wins, I was lucky enough to do it in 2006, blown away by the immersion. Even the second attraction when the borg chased you down the halls and the huge 3d theatre simulator was awesome. And then the bar was so themed too with awesome specialty drinks. Thanks for reminding me about that. I wish it was still open.
From what I've gathered, you're just "you" when visiting Cars Land. The conceit of Radiator Springs Racers and even the other two attractions gets really shaky if you're a car -- six smaller cars riding in car? Two cars riding a tire or pulled by a baby tractor? True, there are no humans in the Cars Land universe, but it appears that the designers had to make a compromise here and say "The cars are welcoming us (humans) to Radiator Springs." No logic to it, unfortunately, but it seems that the constraints of the property wouldn't allow for that.
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