Theme Park Insider

How a Walt Disney World Bar Set a New Standard for Theme Park Attractions

June 28, 2015, 3:41 PM · Last week's post about the demolition of Walt Disney World's old Adventurers Club building revived the feeling of loss that many fans still hold over Disney's decision to close that former Pleasure Island club.

The Adventurers Club wasn't simply a bar. It served as a stage for an ongoing interactive performance, where guests could join actors in improvising tales of travel and adventure around the world. The club was a bold experiment in what we now call LARP — live action role playing. The Adventurers Club's appeal wasn't necessarily to the gamers who today drive many LARP events around the world. The Adventurers Club appealed instead to the many theater geeks who worked at the Walt Disney World Resort and other area attractions, who adored this opportunity to have fun while stretching their improvisational skills. There was nothing to be "won" at the Adventurers Club but a smashing good time.

Adventurers Club members
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So why is this important, seven years after the club's demise? The Adventurers Club previewed a 21st-century vision for the themed entertainment industry — a model for themed entertainment that can compete successfully with high-definition home televisions and interactive online video and role-playing games. The Adventurers Club showed how a theme park can create an environment that gives fans something beyond riding the same rides and seeing the same shows — an opportunity to join an immersive narrative experience that changes with every moment.

I felt this as a child when I took the raft across the Rivers of America to Tom Sawyer Island. There, I could become part of Tom and Huck's gang, creating my own adventurers as I explored the island that Disney had created to fire my imagination. Millions of fans feel this today as they enter Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which even the stars of the Harry Potter films lauded as the most faithful expressions of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley that they could envision.

Ultimately, these types of opportunities are what distinguish theme parks from amusement parks. They're not simply collections of attractions but themed environments that provide an opportunity for narrative immersion that extends beyond those moments when you're on a ride or in a show.

That's the magic that people feel when they walk through Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella Castle into Disney's Fantasylands, where they can not just imagine but actually feel themselves stepping into a fairy tale kingdom. On this simple level, theme park fans always have loved role playing. We've always welcomed these opportunities to immerse ourselves in another world. It's our chance to make the "once upon a time" now.

What the Adventurers Club did so well is create an opportunity for passionate theme park fans to take a few more steps up a ladder of engagement with its themed environment. Step inside, and most evenings you could count on one of the club's "characters" calling you into a conversation. You could play along and talk as yourself, but if you wanted to, you could try to match your host's stories with outrageous, and equally made-up, tales of your own. Some guests got so involved in the club's ongoing narrative that it became hard to tell who was a role-playing Disney cast member and who was just a role-playing fan.

If the Adventurer's Club failed in any aspect of providing an interactive environment for fans, it was in that the club might have skipped the first few rungs on that ladder of engagement. With its intimate environment and enthusiastic participants, the club was a bit too "in your face" for many Disney guests, who quickly retreated to Mannequin's or another Pleasure Island club where they could put back their first drinks in relative anonymity, to build some liquid courage before having to make up conversations with people they didn't know.

In a place such as Diagon Alley, you can walk through as a theme park fan, treating the land like any other — waiting for rides, eating in restaurants and browsing the shops. If you want to take it further, you can go ahead and buy an interactive wand then start casting spells at the designated windows. Or you can buy some house robes and sit down for a Butterbeer or Dragon Scale as if you were on break from term at Hogwarts. On any given day, Universal Orlando visitors likely will find others in full-on Potter role-playing, such as the local high school students who'd dress as Hogwarts students to do their homework at Three Broomsticks every afternoon. The ladder of engagement here is more accessible, gently leading people into greater involvement as their desire (and bank accounts) allow.

Wizarding World cosplay
Photo courtesy Universal Orlando

Of course, some people who take those first steps up the ladder will long for opportunities to move higher and higher, further engaging themselves in an interactive world. These are the challenge for theme park designers in the 21st century. How do you create not just new rides and shows, but new platforms upon which guests can become performers themselves? How do you create a ladder of engagement that invites new visitors to climb aboard without intimidating them to the point where they rush away? Then how do you create the ability to keep adding rungs to the top of that ladder, so that your most passionate, engaged fans never get bored and always find new ways to remain entertained by the world you've created?

It's much easier for designers to start with characters and environments that visitors already know, than to have to introduce a mythology from scratch. That's one of the reasons why we've seen a movement toward outside IP in themed attractions. If you're trying to build a sense of engagement, it just makes sense to begin with a property with which visitors already feel engaged. Harry Potter fans come to Universal Orlando already wanting to taste a Butterbeer. Universal simply needs to deliver that wish.

The great parks of the 21st century will not be the ones that offer bigger, faster, and wilder rides. Nor will they be the ones that find new ways to usher us from one passive viewing experience to the next. The best theme parks of the 21st century — the ones that will compete and win against other forms of technical entertainment — will be the ones that create irreplacable worlds that make us crave to visit.

Just like the Adventurers Club did.

What are some of your favorite immersive environments inside theme parks?

Next: How one major theme park company is undercutting its efforts to create themed environments.

Replies (17)

June 28, 2015 at 3:46 PM · Brilliantly surmised.
June 28, 2015 at 5:33 PM · Some people loved it too much. I didn't like it at all. I was in the club for a full hour waiting for something to happen and nothing did. It takes too long to figure it out, thus it didn't appeal to some casual tourists like myself. The drinks was treated as a side show. I heard it wasn't too profitable.

Role playing environments are fine as entertainment. The problem is they need to refine it and constantly update it. The Adventurers Club's flaw was its consistency. Plus, the club reminds me of a real stuffy club. It's like they are ghosts. Sort of like the movie "The Others" or "The 6th Sense". They are dead. They just don't know it.

June 28, 2015 at 6:11 PM · The Adventurer's Club was always a charming way to enjoy an evening!!! I grew up knowing my great-grandparents, and must say Pamela Perkins wore clothing that I could have seen my relatives wear in their hey day! It took us to times where innuendo was more valued than the crassness of today. The cast was always spectacular pulling up landmarks for obscure towns that would connect with guests! They engaged us and made us anticipate the club anthem! I loved each visit!!!
June 28, 2015 at 7:42 PM · God, this club....So amazing, just spending whole nights in there sometimes. The jokes, the way the characters bounced off the guests with funny stories, you never got enough of it as well as them keeping up the act. Plus, loved how you'd see the same actor in different roles with different turns that added to the fun. Still, a key part of WDW that I miss and wish they could bring back somehow.
June 28, 2015 at 7:46 PM · Anon Mouse has a great point. I may have enjoyed the Adv Club as a tourist, but it really came to life for me as a Cast Member, spending Thursday nights wire-to-wire at PI, hopping between Comedy Warehouse and the Adventurer's Club. For most tourists, it required too much patience and investment. It was definitely "niche."

Which is exactly why so many people - mostly current or ex-cast members - loved it, and now we hate Corporate Disney for taking it from us. Of course the Adv Club wasn't profitable. It employed numerous equity actors in a much smaller space than any of the drink-guzzling dance clubs. To a bean-counting suit, the Adv Club must have been a nightmare.

That makes it even more special - a rare animal that survived Disney's form of natural selection for so many years. It was truly lightning in a bottle, a special piece of theatrical magic for a small but very passionate group of fans. The world of that place was real. I even went to the Mad Cow Theater to see 3 of the actors in a completely different play. And when I greeted them afterwards, I teared up as I congratulated them with a hearty "Kungaloosh!"

June 28, 2015 at 8:19 PM · As a member of the concept group for Pleasure Island @ Imagineering our goal was an unusual & unlikely mix of clubs, eateries, and experiences. Not only variety, but familiar favorites (dance, country-western) + an array of surprising & memorable moments. 8 Imagineers visited 6 N. American cities, visiting latest, greatest, weirdest, most exclusive, night time venues. We wanted inspiration and to go beyond places like the goth "Limelight" dance club in an old church in NYC or site-specific "Tunnel" (abandoned subway tunnel.) From start, Adventurers Club was a risk and favorite of everyone on the team—almost all Disney execs liked it. (Eisner was a theatre major, he got it.) At the same time, I was creating, casting, and rehearsing a new concept for soon-to-be-opened Disney-MGM Studios. I had dreamed up a company of citizens of Hollywood. I called it "Streetmosphere." I always imagined Adventurers Club as "indoor street theatre." Go in, let it happen to you. AC show director, magical Roger Cox, called it “a floating opera." Daytime: 33 actors rehearsing on the best "set" ever: Hollywood Blvd., 1947. Evenings: an invitation from, Mr. Cox, to assist AC actors inhabit eccentric "Club members" and interact with each other and enlist guests by "casting an assumption" on them as if the, too, were current or long-lost Club members. More guests than we hoped for, initially, jumped in quickly and returned f-f-frequently. Other guests just watched. My dad, not a theatre person—not artistic (but a very creative) —LOVED Adventurers Club. He came to ALL my plays and always described live theatre as "being in the same room with the story." He was the prefect AC guest. Didn't need to jump in but ready to play along when engaged by one AC members. That Disney closed AC (many YEARS before the space was needed) is one of the saddest chapters in their 60 years of themed entertainment. "It didn't make enough money" is balderdash, and twaddle. Not sure WDW ever wanted AC to work. When AC was just concrete blocks, Joe Rohde, Rick Rothschild, and I stood in what would be AC's Mask Room with Disney CEO Michael Eisner. "I love the idea of this, but it's so unusual ...will guests get it?" We said, "some won't, many will love it." Then, "Fortunately, it's too small so it may never seem deserted." Michael was surprised at our confidents. (After a deep breath) I offered, "AND, I think, instead of Neon Armadillo, next door, it should have been the AC's restaurant. It would more than pay for the club + have roaming characters. Years later it’s EXACTLY what the Jekyll & Hyde Club became in NYC. They hire several of our actors (from AC & Streetmosphere), and admitted “J&H” was heavily "inspired by" and "copied from AC at WDW." (So I was told by the J&H Manager when I went to visit several of our actors.) Guests do like walking through theme parks environments we create, pretending they’re there: Main Street, USA, Adventureland, Hollywood Blvd., Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley, EPCOT’s streets of UK, Animal Kingdom’s walking trails, themed long line areas for Pirates of the Caribbean or Expedition Everest (don't do Fast Pass!) It does not need to be based on familiar block buster movies to be popular. Many of those mentioned are imaginary based on nostalgic memories or far away places. It’s "environmental storytelling", guests get it and join in. Look at the popularity of TOWER OF TERROR—now FOUR locations to serve you. I headed the concept team that Imagined “ToT” out of whole cloth. 6 imagineers and Mel Brooks playing make believe. Turns out, guests want to play along! Disney Springs appears to be creating very few new experiences to engage imaginations of WDW guests—replacing "make believe' with "make a buck." SAD.
June 28, 2015 at 8:41 PM · As a member of the concept group for Pleasure Island @ Imagineering our goal was an unusual & unlikely mix of clubs, eateries, and experiences. Not only variety, but familiar favorites (dance, country-western) + an array of surprising & memorable moments. 8 Imagineers visited 6 N. American cities, visiting latest, greatest, weirdest, most exclusive, night time venues. We wanted inspiration and to go beyond places like the goth "Limelight" dance club in an old church in NYC or site-specific "Tunnel" (abandoned subway tunnel.) From start, Adventurers Club was a risk and favorite of everyone on the team—almost all Disney execs liked it. (Eisner was a theatre major, he got it.) At the same time, I was creating, casting, and rehearsing a new concept for soon-to-be-opened Disney-MGM Studios. I had dreamed up a company of citizens of Hollywood. I called it "Streetmosphere." I always imagined Adventurers Club as "indoor street theatre." Go in, let it happen to you. AC show director, magical Roger Cox, called it “a floating opera." Daytime: 33 actors rehearsing on the best "set" ever: Hollywood Blvd., 1947. Evenings: an invitation from, Mr. Cox, to assist AC actors inhabit eccentric "Club members" and interact with each other and enlist guests by "casting an assumption" on them as if the, too, were current or long-lost Club members. More guests than we hoped for, initially, jumped in quickly and returned f-f-frequently. Other guests just watched. My dad, not a theatre person—not artistic (but a very creative) —LOVED Adventurers Club. He came to ALL my plays and always described live theatre as "being in the same room with the story." He was the prefect AC guest. Didn't need to jump in but ready to play along when engaged by one AC members. That Disney closed AC (many YEARS before the space was needed) is one of the saddest chapters in their 60 years of themed entertainment. "It didn't make enough money" is balderdash, and twaddle. Not sure WDW ever wanted AC to work. When AC was just concrete blocks, Joe Rohde, Rick Rothschild, and I stood in what would be AC's Mask Room with Disney CEO Michael Eisner. "I love the idea of this, but it's so unusual ...will guests get it?" We said, "some won't, many will love it." Then, "Fortunately, it's too small so it may never seem deserted." Michael was surprised at our confidents. (After a deep breath) I offered, "AND, I think, instead of Neon Armadillo, next door, it should have been the AC's restaurant. It would more than pay for the club + have roaming characters. Years later it’s EXACTLY what the Jekyll & Hyde Club became in NYC. They hire several of our actors (from AC & Streetmosphere), and admitted “J&H” was heavily "inspired by" and "copied from AC at WDW." (So I was told by the J&H Manager when I went to visit several of our actors.) Guests do like walking through theme parks environments we create, pretending they’re there: Main Street, USA, Adventureland, Hollywood Blvd., Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley, EPCOT’s streets of UK, Animal Kingdom’s walking trails, themed long line areas for Pirates of the Caribbean or Expedition Everest (don't do Fast Pass!) It does not need to be based on familiar block buster movies to be popular. Many of those mentioned are imaginary based on nostalgic memories or far away places. It’s "environmental storytelling", guests get it and join in. Look at the popularity of TOWER OF TERROR—now FOUR locations to serve you. I headed the concept team that Imagined “ToT” out of whole cloth. 6 imagineers and Mel Brooks playing make believe. Turns out, guests want to play along! Disney Springs appears to be creating very few new experiences to engage imaginations of WDW guests—replacing "make believe' with "make a buck." SAD.
June 28, 2015 at 8:42 PM · My husband and I did not "discover" the Adv Club until we had been to the parks for about 5 years. We even purchased DVC points at Saratoga Springs so that we were close to DD and the club. We miss it terribly as our visits would be concluded once or twice during an 8 day stay after we had left the parks. We loved the changing cast members and the interactive quality and the complete immersion. It would have been worth an extra fee if they would bring it back. Somewhere...somehow...
June 28, 2015 at 10:12 PM · Great article, and I agree 100% that theme is the way of the future for parks, and increased attendance and profits. Such a shame I didn't get a chance to experience the Adventurers' Club, it sounds like it was too cutting edge for its time and the suits didn't get it saying, "it's better to close it down than figure out how to make something different and popular profitable." Universal should beat Disney to the punch again and open something similar in their "downtown."

The part of the article where you discuss the Orlando-area high school students dressing up and doing their homework in Three Broomsticks - do you have a link to an article about that or was that just an example of the potential power of immersive theming?

June 29, 2015 at 3:59 AM · Far and away my favorite AC Youtube clip ...

June 29, 2015 at 5:22 AM · (How awesome to have C.McNair Wilson comment on this article! Do any of you guys remember the WDI spot he did with Marnie McPhail on the Disney Channel back in the late 80's???)

I can attest to the influence of The Adventurers Club firsthand. I worked for The Mouse in the early 90's and spent way too much time at the AC. Many years later, I found myself working at a science museum called COSI and was the producer of Adventure in the Valley of the Unknown. To say Adventure was merely "inspired" by the Adventurers Club would do both attractions a disservice. But I am not above disservice. Adventure was inspired by the Adventurers Club. And the Indiana Jones films. And tiki bars (maybe we got a little too much inspiration in tiki bars).

Adventure was a giant scavenger hunt with multiple layers and deep (some accused it of being "too deep") storytelling. COSI opened that attraction with 30 actors and they lived and breathed the thing. The cast brought the thing a vitality, but guests really brought it to life. We'd have people buying memberships, bringing tools, and starting websites (way before people were "starting websites"), all in the interest of playing along.

The Adventurers Club was wondrous (similar to many Orlando attractions) and lively (which makes it unlike most Orlando attractions). It lit all kinds of fires. And I miss it.

I was just down at Lake Buena Vista watching the Amphicars go by and was thinking, "how cute, but what I would give for a night in the Mask Room."

Kungaloosh!

June 29, 2015 at 9:30 AM · I loved the AC. So did all of my family. I still do not understand why it was necessary to close such a dynamic and hilarious institution. Not profitable?.--There were more corporate buyouts than Margaritaville! To this day I still miss the AC, and I thank Themepark Insider for bringing back some fond memories. It was not coincidence that I purchased my first premium annual pass for Universal Orlando the day after Disney closed the Adventurer's Club.
June 29, 2015 at 10:32 AM · Articles like this are why love this site. Such an intellectual and forward thinking approach to theme parks. Thank you!
June 30, 2015 at 12:43 PM · I will never forget the day I learned of the Adventure's Club's fate. I always hoped that it would make a comeback somehow, but I understand that Disney goes where the Dollars are.

Some of my best memories at Downtown Disney were at the Adventure's Club, and I miss it wholehearted.

-Matthew

June 30, 2015 at 8:11 PM · BOTTON LINE...

WDW NEVER would have closed AC if the ROI met requirements. I respect everyone's personal affinity for AC, but I say...

BRING ON DISNEY SPRINGS

and expansion at Animal Kingdom (already in construction) and Hollywood Studios (already in preconstruction)!

July 1, 2015 at 9:06 AM · Loved this club so much! In hindsight, I wish that we'd gone there so much more in our 2005 and 2008 trips. Such a fun place!
July 1, 2015 at 4:34 PM · Have you experienced The Republic in Orlando? (http://therepublicgame.com) Curious to hear what you think. It doesn't do everything right, but it's basically immersive theatre with a heavy LARP component. It seems to seek the same type of enhanced engagement that you describe. It's theoretically a structured experience with a beginning and an end as opposed to a more open-ended experience like the Adventurer's Club, but it starts to push the envelope beyond traditional/passive types of experiences.

Setting aside throughput for a moment, I could see a shortened variant of this finding its way into a theme park. Which reminds me: Enchanted Tales WIth Belle is a huge step forward in this direction even if its oriented toward a much younger audience.

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