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How do theme parks make fake seem so real?

March 22, 2017, 10:58 AM · People who work at theme parks throw around the word "magic" a lot. And they should, because that's exactly what the best theme park designers create. Now, I'm not talking about the sappy popular meaning of the word "magic" — I'm talking about magic as an act of stagecraft. It's a visual con, designed to make you believe that you are seeing something that can't possibly be in our normal, natural world.

From the moment we're born, our experience on this planet teaches us what can and can't be in that world around us. We learn to accept norms about the way that stuff looks, acts, and moves. So whenever we're confronted with something that violates these expectations, our initial reaction is to reject it as impossible.

That disbelief is poison to creating themed environments. While a filmmaker might be able to get you to go along with some ridiculous sight on the screen, such as the folding streets in Doctor Strange, a theme park designer faces a much tougher challenge, because he or she actually must obey the laws of physics in creating a themed space. While people might be willing to go along with illusions while sitting in a darkened theater, walking around an expansive physical space reignites our innate sense of physical skepticism.

Enticing you to suspend your disbelief in that environment takes an enormous amount of work — all to create something that seems, so, well, natural, that you dismiss it as effortless "magic."

In its latest video on the development of Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the creative team at Walt Disney Imagineering talks about how they worked with Disney's Animal Programs department to design a visual "ecosystem" for the fictional world of Pandora that would capture the fantasy of James Cameron's imagined environment from his film Avatar, while looking real enough that visitors would suspend their disbelief and accept it.

"The world of Pandora is meant to be real," creative director Joe Rohde said. "We're bringing that world forward, where you can look at every single tiny detail of that world as long as you want."

Did it work? We will find out when Pandora - The World of Avatar opens officially to the public on May 27.

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Replies (10)

March 22, 2017 at 11:06 AM · "While a filmmaker might be able to get you to go along with some ridiculous sight on the screen, such as the folding streets in Doctor Strange, a theme park designer faces a much tougher challenge, because he or she actually must obey the laws of physics in creating a themed space."

This is exactly why I feel the overuse of screens at themeparks is a cop out. It doesn't convince you hat you have entered another world, rather you are watching another world. It doesn't disnguish itself enough from the experience you get at the movies. BTW I work in the film and television industry.

March 22, 2017 at 12:54 PM · "walking around an expansive physical space reignites our innate sense of physical skepticism." The article was worth it for this line alone. IT IS the feeling of immersion through the attention to detail that sets Disney Parks apart from it's competitors.
March 22, 2017 at 12:55 PM · I view theme park experiences as making use of the viewer's "WILLING suspension of disbelief" -- if the viewer is there to enjoy the experience, they tend to overlook those bits of the 'real world' that are a constant distraction.
March 22, 2017 at 1:32 PM · Great article. The video shows why it might be a good idea to have lands based on a singular IP although some Disney fans might say it is limiting or exploitive. The Pandora land pulls you into the environment whereas previously it is the ride that does it. The land becomes an attraction and it forces Disney to take it to a higher level. Disney couldn't allow problematic sightlines like seeing a Medieval castle at the end of an American Main Street. There are just too many theming intrusions at all Disney theme parks. I certainly hope they are on their way of fixing it with the new Star Wars Land.

I would love a full Pirates Land like at Shanghai being duplicated here. An Indiana Jones Land at Animal Kingdom to replace Dinoland would be much better. Extending the country pavilions at EPCOT with immersive attractions is the next step.

March 22, 2017 at 2:26 PM · When I'm riding POTC, I don't think the Pirates are real people, I know they're animatronics. I also know I'm in a building, not outside. But it's the whole setup that sells the suspension of disbelief. It's a cool experience, the immersion, attention to detail, everything is important. You know it when you see it, and you also know it when you don't.
March 22, 2017 at 2:26 PM · When I'm riding POTC, I don't think the Pirates are real people, I know they're animatronics. I also know I'm in a building, not outside. But it's the whole setup that sells the suspension of disbelief. It's a cool experience, the immersion, attention to detail, everything is important. You know it when you see it, and you also know it when you don't.
March 22, 2017 at 2:58 PM · Looking at the boat ride for pandora, from what I can see about it now, Disney, as always, have you go trough the ride as a spectator. For me that is a huge disconnect. I feel like audience and not as an actor in that play. I hope the Flight of passage will put you more into the world. As for the exterior, again from what I can see from different clips, I notice many Florida plants known to me with "alien" plans thrown in there like pink flamingos. I'm sure it will be better in person.
March 22, 2017 at 3:43 PM · Not so difficult - while you're still stunned by the park admission price you'll believe anything.
March 22, 2017 at 5:17 PM · Ok, COTD winner right there. :-)
March 23, 2017 at 10:14 AM · Come on Robert, that's more like COTY because it is true.

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