What are the World's Most Immersive Theme Park Attractions?

October 9, 2014, 10:28 AM · 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.

Tom Sawyer Island
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.

Fortress Explorations
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?


Replies (22)

October 9, 2014 at 11:28 AM · 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.

Alternatively, I am the unseen human who might be enjoying a day in Carsland as imagined in the movie. If you're invisible as a human to the cars, they never see you. You see them. In fact, the cars take on the personality of the human. The cars are really an extension of the human, but only if you're driving the cars.

Whatever the explanation you'll accept, the Carsland is immersive since everything takes place in a land of cars. That's all you need to know. You're the car. The car is you.

In my opinion, Carsland is the most immersive land in all of Disneyland Resort. It is the most successful realization of a imaginary land. (I have yet to visit Universal's Harry Potter lands or Tokyo Disneyland/DisneySeas so I can't judge those efforts.)

October 9, 2014 at 12:29 PM · 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?

I find that the entirety of Walt Disney World is very immersive. From the moment you check into your onsite hotel until the moment you leave, you are immersed in the world of Disney. I get a similar feeling at Universal, although having to walk through CityWalk tends to shatter the illusion (Disneyland has the same problem with DTD being between the hotels and the theme parks).

Colonial Williamsburg is pretty immersive if you can carve a day or two off of your Busch Gardens Visit.

Some of the Halloween events, even at my local park, are pretty immersive. In particular, for a regional chain, I think Cedar Fair does a really nice job both narratively and decoratively with Halloween Haunt.

Lastly, when I rode the Beast at night in a thunderstorm...it was very immersive!

October 9, 2014 at 12:40 PM · 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.
October 10, 2014 at 12:22 PM · ^Oops, didn't log in.
October 9, 2014 at 12:47 PM · James I see what you did there. You made it sound like a question but it was really a statement!

I think that level of immersion that a person feels also very much depends on the individual and how much they care about the source material. Diagon Alley may be incredible to most people, but someone who has no connection or feelings to the Potter universe simply would not be able to appreciate the level of detail and immersion presented in that land. Although some experiences are so incredible that even the layperson can be impressed by the transition.

I think that Disney and Universal generally accomplish a great deal of immersion throughout their parks, but I have never felt as much a part of a story as when I visited the original Hogsmeade section. That was the first time I felt like I was intruding on someone else's physical environment, it was that immersive for me!

October 9, 2014 at 1:00 PM · ^You give me far too much credit, Nick!
October 9, 2014 at 1:12 PM · "Or is the conceit that we are not muggles but are in fact wizards too?"

Perhaps. You can buy wands at Ollivanders. Then you're a full-fledged wizard or witch. Remember, if you're not in Diagon Alley or Hogsmead, you're presumed to be muggles since you can't do magic in the muggle world (I read the book).

October 9, 2014 at 1:18 PM · 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.
October 9, 2014 at 2:34 PM · "Perhaps. You can buy wands at Ollivanders. Then you're a full-fledged wizard or witch."

But then you ride Escape from Gringotts and you find out your a visiting muggle again.

I also agree with James about Disney being immersive in and of itself. Disney World is its own place, its own fantasy, even EPCOT is an idealized version of the real world. Universal does not have the same feeling for me. It has a lot of rides that put Disney to shame, but in terms of immersion I have always felt that Disney does a way better job. The carnival games at Universal in particular annoy me.

October 9, 2014 at 3:41 PM · 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.
October 9, 2014 at 6:55 PM · Rob, I am sure the new USO land is amazing, and I am sure it is immersive.

Honestly, I was not trying to start a Disney/Universal debate - they are pointless and boring.

What makes all these "magical places" work is a suspension of disbelief by the visitor. And without it, they all fail. Even Tom Sawyer's Island.

October 9, 2014 at 8:59 PM · *sigh*

The Adventurer's Club was pretty darned immersive.

October 10, 2014 at 5:34 AM · Most immersive attraction is Tower of Terror.
The creepy bellhops. The boiler room. Name me a better pre-show.

October 10, 2014 at 10:26 AM · 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.
October 10, 2014 at 11:32 AM · 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.
October 10, 2014 at 12:05 PM · You're being very anthropocentric, Robert. As a car myself, I feel quite immersed when I visit Carsland.
October 10, 2014 at 1:45 PM · Comment of the Day!
October 10, 2014 at 5:04 PM · 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.
October 11, 2014 at 8:19 AM · 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.

I am surprised no one mentioned Silver Dollar City as an immersive park. From the drive to the park up to walking through the front entrance, you definitely feel like you're taking a step back in time to visit an old Ozark mountain town. Most of the cast members wear period garb and speak in a folksy manner. Not only that, there are several demonstrations throughout the park of glass blowing, candy making, woodworking, and metallurgy that you can watch and learn how they are crafted using early 20th century tools. In my opinion, only two rides (Wildfire and the Powderkeg) would potentially take you out of the element of being in this time period while rides such as Fire in Hole have a direct connection to it.

October 13, 2014 at 4:42 AM · 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.

After walking through an historical exhibition of past Star Trek memorabilia, you approach the usual motion simulator ride. Lined up in a rectangular room in front of six opening doors, just like Star Tours – what could be special about that? Cue: lights out, strobe and wind effects, noise of a transporter and then you appear standing on the circular transporter pad on the Enterprise. A transition that removed you from your reality and placed you in an alternative environment. (Apparently, the walls lifted into the ceiling changing the room and space.)

The level of detail required to create the illusion was exceptional – Paramount Parks created a walking tour of the ship’s corridors, access to the main bridge, an operational turbo lift to main engineering and then a walk on to a shuttle craft for your flight home to Vegas. Even the transition between walking onto the shuttle on the Enterprise, enduring a turbulent ride home and then leaving the shuttle on the roof of the Hilton hotel had been dealt with. The set around the shuttle had been altered whilst riding to give you the impression you had left a 24 century ship and had arrived back home to normality.

Finally, you took a hotel service elevator to access the Star Trek exhibition gift shop.

What I would like Disney to create at their Hollywood Studio is to take the Star Tours ride and add another new ending to the movie, allowing the shuttle to deliver its spy to Tantooine. Then when you make an exit from the simulator, the ramp and visuals around the shuttle would look like you had arrived at Mos Eisley’s star port hangar on Tantooine. Then it’s just a matter of taking a left into another hangar to access a full scale Millennium Falcon (ride), take a right into the famous Cantina for lunch or straight head for the streets and other show buildings. Somehow Disney needs to suspend reality and create the illusion in the same way that Paramount Parks did in Las Vegas.

October 13, 2014 at 5:26 AM · 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.
October 13, 2014 at 12:00 PM · 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.

At the Wizarding World (Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley), guests are Muggles. At "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," you're visiting on the very first day that Muggles are allowed to visit Hogwarts. In the queue, Dumbledore mentions that Voldemort's "hatred of Muggles is widely known, but do not fear, you're well protected..."

The House Founders (talking portraits) in that queue make several references. Salazar: "With all these Muggles running about, perhaps a dragon’s just what we need." Godric: "A few Muggles might be just what the Slytherin team needs, judging from their most recent efforts." Salazar: "What are all these Muggles doing at Hogwarts anyway? I expect this is Dumbledore’s doing." Godric: "If Dumbledore think it right and proper that they be here, then they are more than welcome. Besides, perhaps one of our younger guests will wake to an owl one morning and find themselves summoned to Hogwarts." Rowena: "Yes, just think, the next great witch or wizard could be walking through this room right now, unaware of their hidden talents. Just like Harry Potter."

That Muggles can see the wizarding world implies an addendum to the International Statue of Wizarding Secrecy (1692), which decreed that the wizarding world would be hidden away from Muggles by a complex series of charms and enchantments -- although that's never explicitly stated. Hope that helps! =)

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