On Magical Hats, Sorcerers and the 'NextGen' of theme park storytelling

April 19, 2012, 2:39 PM · Looking back, I missed something important last December when I visited Tokyo DisneySea.

The theme park was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and DisneySea had placed a "Magical Hat" in each of the theme park's lands to mark the occasion. But these hats weren't designed just to look "magical." They did things - if you could find the correct trigger on, or near, each hat. Perhaps it was a sound effect, or a light display. But the displays were enough to attract queues of eager visitors, waiting their turns to trigger the magic.

Magical Hat in Arabian Coast at Tokyo DisneySea
The 'Magical Hat' above the entrance to the Arabian Coast in Tokyo DisneySea. There's an interactive Aladdin's lamp next to the walkway below.

I was too busy trying to get to, ride, and photograph all the top-rated attractions at Tokyo DisneySea to give these Magical Hats more than a quick glance. But after playing Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World last month, I wish that I'd paid more attention to what Disney had done in Tokyo. Because, together, these additions to the Disney theme parks help draw a line toward the future of Disney's vaunted "NextGen" project.

Ultimately, NextGen is about redefining the attraction experience beyond the physical limits of specific rides and shows to involve the entire theme park. It's a natural extension of the immersive environments that define "theme" parks. Not only should these environments look the part, they should play it, too.

Think of theme park lands in NextGen not just as settings for attractions, but as platforms for them. Imagine props throughout the land that interact with you, responding to your touch, or instructions. The Magical Hats were a small step toward that end. They took a few of the gimmicks found in places such as Disneyland's Indiana Jones and the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion queues and released them out into the park.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom takes another step. This interactive game brings story into the mix, and requires a higher level of interaction from guests to participate. You've got to make decisions now, in choosing which cards to hold up to the magic portals to defeat the Disney villains you battle there. Sorcerers connects the various interactions throughout the park into defined narrative quests, as well.

This concept isn't new - the Kim Possible game did something similar at Epcot. Heck, even some of the old kids' arts and crafts projects around Epcot gave you the chance to follow an agenda around the park and do something creative at each station. But viewed in the context of Tokyo and the new interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion, Sorcerers shows a direction that Walt Disney Imagineering is going.

The next step is what I call "passive customization." Instead of you making a decision about what card to hold up to a Sorcerers portal, for example, the next step in NextGen is to have the prop in the park make the decision. This will require individualized RFID-enabled room-key or admission cards (or wristbands), with your personal information embedded. Touch it to a prop in the park, and the prop can respond based on your data. (Disney's implementing RFID room keys and NextGen technology at its new Art of Animation hotel, opening in May.)

A simple implementation? Touch the prop with your wristband and boys get a pirate emerging from behind it; girls get a princess. Or grown-ups get simulated pyro, and little kids get a cute cartoon character popping up. Expect simple gimmicks at first, perhaps without much customization. But as Disney gains experience with the technology (and more importantly, with how guests interact with the technology), Imagineers can begin to use this technology to tell truly interactive stories - custom "choose your adventure" narratives that could be unique to each guest.

You thought Tower of Terror's multiple ride profiles had repeat-ride appeal? This technology could help make Walt Disney World visits even more addictive for certain theme park fans.

Of course, not every guests wants a customized interactive adventure. When I told my wife about this technology, her face turned green.

"I don't have the energy for that," she said. A simpler vacation's more relaxing for her. If Disney's smart, this element of NextGen won't be imposed on guests anymore than a ride to Pirates of the Caribbean is today - it's there if you want it, but if you want to skip it in favor of something else, well, that's fine, too.

But the more options - and, let's face it, price points - that a theme park resort can offer, the more consumers it might attract. Frankly, before I played Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, all this NextGen talk really didn't do much for me. I skimmed by it, as I did the Magical Hats in Tokyo, because I've always been more interested in theme parks' story-driven narratives, and not so much the story-less tech gimmicks. I see now how story can play into and with in-park interactive technology, however.

More interactive "props in the park" are coming to Walt Disney World. And they're bringing some questions with them: What stories will these installations enable Disney to tell? Will Disney follow through and develop these stories? And will these interactive experiences engage guests the way traditional attractions have for generations?

Replies (10)

April 19, 2012 at 2:51 PM · I loved the way the parks used to be. Now, its a mad house. It is frustrating to go before I even left the house. Disney needs to rethink how they do their attractions. They need to double and triple their ride capacities to allow people to wait for their rides within an acceptable 30 minute wait and no more than 1 hour max, or restrict attendance (and I might be bending here) start having hard ticket reserved dates.

I think NextGen is a bust. I don't see how it is considered fun. Having thing pop out in a virtual environment is fun at first, but this gets old quickly.

April 19, 2012 at 3:24 PM · I can't wait for NextGen to become more prevalent. Imagine the possibilities with RF enabled tickets or AP's that function simply by being in your pocket.

-Having your ride photos synced to your ticket/ap simply by having the card in your pocket when you go on the ride. Then at the end of the day you stand in front of a 'Magic Mirror' that then displays your ride photos. All without you ever having to do anything.

-Standing in front of an interactive tombstone in the Haunted Mansion queue and seeing your name appear

-Pirates taunting you based on the number of times you've ridden the attraction

-Toy Story Manai keeping a tally of your scores so you can see how you improve over time

-Space Mountain on ride speakers addressing you by name as your take flight

-Having interactive fountains and lights that display your favorite colors as you walk by them

The closest I've come to experience next gen was at BeaverCreek. They had EpicMix for their lift tickets and it tracked every lift you went on, total vertical feet traveled and allowed you to play games and unlock achievements without every having to remove your lift ticket from your pocket. (Since it was RF based)


April 19, 2012 at 3:53 PM · Kim Possible was sooo good. I was never really into Epcot until I played it.
April 20, 2012 at 11:27 AM · Niles: "Think of theme park lands in NextGen not just as settings for attractions, but as platforms for them."

I Reply: EXACTLY! This is why Disney NextGen holds such promise and power. Attraction designers no longer measure possibility by through-put (capacity). From the moment you enter the front gate you are experiencing the attraction. Walking between attractions is every bit as entertaining as the (please someone suggest a better term) "rides".

In the cold world of economics, the measurement of a park ticket’s value is suddenly affirmed by just walking through a park. On days of monster crowds, the park experience is as valued and positive as it would be when the posted wait times at E-Tickets are just 10 minutes.

The condensed and controlled conditions of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is the perfect setting to successfully produce such an experience.

Suddenly the acquisition of 'Avatar' becomes astounding in its potential. From the perspective of the NextGen approach, ‘Avatar’ is not a “response” to Universal’s Potter ride. Rather it thinks beyond the heavy metal of a robot arm and regards the themed entertainment experience in a broader and a far more emotive and evocative presentation. How refreshing is it to realize that a movie franchise's potential in a themed entertainment medium is not measured by its box office receipts?

This is what takes to bring theme parks to the next level. Kudos to the team at WDI for maintaining their reputation (history) as pioneers in the medium. Sure there will be cynics who will sit by waiting to whine about any minor shortcoming in the system. But as is the case in the development of every new theme park element, the system will be refined and improved.

April 19, 2012 at 8:18 PM · This sounds so sad to me. People going trough a park on a scedul seeing their name, colours, item,etc. It´s a me, me, me experiance and doesn´t show the magic all the different imagineers want me to see because it´s part of a story.
Universals ET has ET saying your name at the end. Comming from the Netherlands our names aren´t pronouced well and aren´t recoginsable but it also gets old very fast.

It will all come down to money, thats the road Disney is going. Pay more get a better experiance, pay regular and you get leftovers. Do the math and you know I´m right.
They can´t give you all a no waiting time for the attractions, they don´t have enough of them. So the rich people don´t need to wait because after the attractions they are bored and go shopping and they have the money to do that. The folks that saved all year to visit the park stand in line and wait their turn, they get the lesser spots at the shows and the parades and Disney doesn´t care because they have no more money to spend.

April 19, 2012 at 9:13 PM · It's been confirmed over and over Nextgen things will be free. So no complaints about that.

Think about the roots of Disneyland. The idea was to immerse the guest in a realistic recreation of genres we love. When the park opened, visiting Frontierland was about being lost in the west, or Adventureland was about seeing the exotic jungles you would otherwise never see. Over the years, that idea of experience has shifted to rides, a repettative short experience. Nextgen is the futuristic throwback to the old idea of Disneyland. It's about bringing the themes alive, to create unique and immersive experience that should make our time in the parks all the more realistic and magical.

I think people are weary of NextGen because there just isn't a great way to explain it, and some people have natural aversions to change and or technology. But things will only get better and it will all be so easy.

April 20, 2012 at 12:13 AM · I love in Disneyland's toon town the area with the jail (with the soft bars). There is a door to a power station that when you turn the handle you hear the 'sound' of electricity and bright lights sparkle from it the door.

I was there with my young neices and as a gag I went to the door and jerked my body around as though being electrocuted. They freaked at their favourite uncle being shocked and came and pulled me away from the door.

Its little things like that that set Disney apart from other parks, because such interaction with family and park are much more memorable than a simple roller coaster ride.

As for more interactive stuff, I say bring it on.

April 20, 2012 at 8:05 AM · I, for one, am very excited about the direction theme parks are going with this new technology. However, the question I have is how Disney or Universal might address the current technology or education gaps among the population. Not everyone might be familiar with RFID chips or how this new technology might work. Will they be offering pamphlets educating those who don't have the access to this technology? I would think they might try to pull a "Walt Disney's Disneyland" type television program on ABC to educate those who are not familiar with new technology. If NextGen is as a momentous industry changing event as we are led to believe, Disney has to address the education and participation gaps in the technology. Hmmmmm, I think there's a Graduate School final project in this....I must away!
April 20, 2012 at 10:06 AM · I'm pretty sure when NexGen is out, Disney will do all it can to sell this new billion dollar feature. I bet there will be many many TV specials, news coverage (already Fox News is reporting on it) and I'm sure there will be printed info. However, as long as the parks have had Fastpass, and despite both printed and auditory explanations provided, people still fail to understand Fastpass. Fortunately, Nextgen should be really simple and intuitive.
April 22, 2012 at 7:32 AM · I am confused and not sure how I will like this new technology. I can say I do not want to plan every second of my vacation , I like the freedom to go slow and enjoy things as they come. I also don't see how they can eleminate wait times all together. Wouldn't the park become overcrowed with people not sure what to do and things popping out to amuse them?
I see a world of WALL-E people coming soon to a park near you.

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