Take a look at any attraction attendance report and you will find the same names near the top: Disney and Universal. Why do those parks draw so many more visitors than their competition?
Is it because they operate year-round? That helps, but other parks, including Knott's Berry Farm, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens Tampa, are open to guests all year and they still trail Disney and Universal in annual attendance.
Is it because of the popular characters and franchises that the Big Two offer? That also helps, but don't overlook that Six Flags owns the theme park rights to the wildly popular DC Comics and Looney Tunes characters, including Batman, Superman and Bugs Bunny. And Six Flags' top park could double its annual attendance and still not beat any Disney or Universal park in the United States.
So what is it that Disney and Universal consistently offer that trailing parks lack? The year-round operation and attractive IPs help, but it's a third key quality that puts Disney and Universal on top — immersive themed environments.
We wrote earlier this week about Disney's old Adventurers Club and how it enveloped visitors in an ever-evolving story that made that destination a must-see for many Disney fans, many of whom continue to mourn its closing, seven years later. Disney's been creating alluring themed environments in its parks ever since the opening of Disneyland in July 1955. It's the "magic" of walking through a princess' castle into a fairytale kingdom that helps distinguish Disney's spinners, carousels and flat rides from those found in so many other parks around the world.
In our earlier post, we wrote about a "ladder of engagement" that allows theme park visitors to step up from simply feeling present in a fully-realized themed environment to participating in that environment through a progression of optional roles. In crafting these environments, park designers must take care to avoid including elements that break the theme and take people out of the atmosphere of the environment by reminding them that they are in the "real world" of a theme park.
Some distractions cannot be avoided, including the illuminated "EXIT" signs that fire codes demand inside buildings and warning signs at the entrance to attractions where people are restricted from riding due to certain health or physical conditions. But the best theme park lands find ways to conceal or theme other common distractions. The employee passageways inside the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride aren't marked with "Employees Only," or "Team Members Only." They say "No Muggles." Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean eschews the common back-and-forth, chained serpentine waiting area in favor of well-themed fortress passageways for its interior queue. You'll find dozens of other such examples in the Disney and Universal parks.
But sometimes, the best efforts of park designers are undermined by the others "up the chain" in corporate management. We're not just talking restricted budgets — creativity always is restricted by what artists can spend to achieve their vision, no matter the medium. We are talking instead about when a company's efforts contradict one another, and a company introduces products or offerings that weaken its previous efforts. You see that when a park replaces a store's collection of unique, area-themed merchandise with new inventory of generic souvenirs. Or when a company decides to earn extra cash by slapping billboards inside the park, marring the decor of a land.
But today, we are going to focus on one specific case where a theme park company's product has undercut the viability of its parks' themed environments. In case you haven't guessed already — we're talking about Disney's MagicBands.
A MagicBand isn't part of any character universe. In a themed environment, it's a foreign object, as are the ubiquitous "Mickey head" stanchions now found outside every Walt Disney World attraction. Tapping a MagicBand actively takes you out of any thematic role within a themed environment and returns you to the role of theme park guest.
Your MagicBand reminds you that you're at Walt Disney World, and not a pirate in a Caribbean fortress or a royal subject in fairytale kingdom. In doing this, the MagicBand effectively substitutes individual themes within the Disney World theme parks for the meta theme of Walt Disney World itself.
The MagicBand, part of Disney's billion-dollar-plus "NextGen" initiative, is the culmination of Disney's promotional efforts to make itself the focus of your vacation experience, rather than any of various characters or franchises found within the Disney parks. You visit Universal to spend time with Harry Potter, the Minions, Spider-Man, Transformers or inside Jurassic Park. You visit Disney World to visit Disney. Your MagicBand is an ever-present reminder of that. It's the difference between "Live the Adventure" and "Show Your Disney Side."
The question facing Disney now is... does that matter? Will theme park fans in the years to come accept the role of being a Disney World visitor over other potential roles that they could play (to whatever level) in a park where the theme takes precedence over the brand, and not the other way around? Or are fans okay with playing two roles at once — as a Disney visitor as well as whatever role they might accept in a specific environment within Disney World?
The pushback that many fans have shown Disney, in person and online, suggests that some fans aren't happy with more than just the logistical snafus surrounding the roll-out of MagicBands and Disney's MyMagic+ reservation system. For some of these fans, the intrusion of MagicBands with Disney's theme environments weakens the magic and takes them out of the roles that they've paid to play. But are those fans the exception... or the rule?
What do you think?
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I don't see it as a foreign object. It is the hidden Disney concierge that helps you avoid the lines, pays the meals, and lets you into your room. It does force you to use your phone apps more often to make reservations and remind you to keep appointments. Using the phone can certainly take you out of the park, but it is my phone and my choice.
From the article: "The question facing Disney now is... does that matter? Will theme park fans in the years to come accept the role of being a Disney World visitor over other potential roles that they could play (to whatever level) in a park where the theme takes precedence over the brand, and not the other way around? Or are fans okay with playing two roles at once — as a Disney visitor as well as whatever role they might accept in a specific environment within Disney World?"
I would suggest there is a third experience: That the guest enjoys the attraction and is never even aware that they are supposed to be immersed in the theme or story.
Very often creative types pursue "blue-sky" concepts that they believe are extraordinarily cool (which they are) and thematically airtight (ditto). But I'd be willing to bet that nine guests out of ten don't even know that they should be paying attention to theme or story.
Example: The theme and story of 'Men In Black: Alien Attack' is fantastic! From MIB HQ disguised as an old World's Fair exhibit, to the guest as trainees story, to the crash of the prison ship, from queue to unload the story is well-presented and clear. But I would be shocked to learn that beyond the hardcore theme park fan-base, most guests are even aware there is a "story" to go along with what they regard as a real cool shootin' gallery or life-sized video game.
I think this circumstance is relevant to the significance of the question Mr. Niles' has posed about Magic Bands. It's not whether they are a distraction that shatters the illusion that creative types are trying to establish, but rather who besides the fanatics that frequent TPI or the myriad of other similar themed entertainment sites might muster enough energy to bother complaining about it?
Nothing against your comment, but I wouldn't tell that to any of the thousands of Robe adorned guests and "non muggles" who attended opening day for Diagon Alley, not to mention the ever so slightly dramatic few who fell to their knee's and cried when they trode through the open entrance shortly after the ribbon had been cut. (or the many many many others who waited an entire day just to see the land.
As for the question about the Guy in the Nascar shirt. It's a pretty simple explanation. He would be seen as a muggle being "allowed to experience the wizarding world". They make that very clear in D.A. that Muggle and non-Muggles alike are permitted to explore the land. However the argument that the Magic band, is a constant reminder of being a park guest remains vallid, simply for the fact that, while a wizard belongs in Diagon Alley, and a muggle exists in the Wizarding World universe, a magic band only exists for Disney, by Disney, for guests of the park, and for no reason or person other than a Disney guest. It isn't as if it your key between worlds, it's simply a band for rides at a theme park, that require the interactive stations, which also do not have any use in any realm, world, or universe other than a Disney theme park.
I'm not saying your question of how valid the author's argument for some may be, but you seem to belittle the potential, once in a life time immersive experiences that guests who come to these do want, almost as if in an effort to purposefully make them out to be "too stupid" to realize that "there is a "story" to go along with what they regard as a real cool shootin' gallery".
Just saying, I don't think the people who go to these places, Disney and Universal alike, find the level of detail or immersive roleplaying insignificant at all, that's kind of the point, you don't have to be a fanatic to care about the experiences deeply. But hey, I guess if that's how you feel, that's how you feel.
Theme park fans have largely done number #1 and #3. No one has tried full role playing in the theme parks. Disney has tried some gaming in the parks. Disney encouraged some dressing up in costume during Halloween, but its mainly Disney Side at other times. Kids have the benefit of doing full costumes with the BBB makeup sessions. Can or will Disney or Universal do the full role playing? I have a suggestion. Allow some cosplay. Give some limited guidelines. Publish some rules and selected quotes to use. Train the CMs on the proper responses. They already greet the girls with "Hello Princess" and they love it.
Remember, Disneyland has Dapper Day and Goth Days as unofficial events. Everyday is Disney day.
For the most part the Mickey poles are themed and kids enjoy the 'cool' interactive light-up. Never had to look for paper or cards or show a photo, etc.
The Universal experience was a pain with the attendant stopping you for a physical photo check and then a scan. Not to mention, at times he/she created a line due to a single scanner working. And why doesn't it work on the HP attractions???
Everyone likes to point out DIS spent a billion dollars, but the budget didn't just cover Mickey poles. If covered development of park AND consumer software and FastPass+ station reconstruction. And like any technology leap, as the tech spreads to other parks the ROI proves the development costs were reasonable.
As a DIS stockholder, the long-term returns are going to be great! The short term gains have already proven it!
As for being immersed...
The argument being made presumes, I alone enter the atmosphere, thus the attraction can accomplish making me forget about reality. I wonder how the author gets to enter any park by himself to be immersed and then critique???
I agree 100% with Anon today... I think that once you get the idea, the magic bands really feel like "magic wands" (and better and cheaper than the ones in the Harry Potter Lands lol). I do agree that some guests just care about the rides and not about the whole experience but for some of us it is important too. That was my complaint about Universal 10 yrs ago, that is wasn't as "themed" as Disney but now they have come a long way and they are actually getting better than disney in some cases... I only wish Universal develops some kind of magic band as well!
The bands are, as far as I know, a convenience. It's there to make things quicker and easier, so you can get back to the immersion that, let's face it, you break every time you perform a function that isn't immersive. Because every time you pull out your wallet to buy something or pay for food, there goes the immersion, because it brings you back to your responsibilities as an adult, even if it's only for a few minutes.
Or, every time you have to dig out your ticket to get a Fastpass, there goes the immersion again.
By only having to swipe or press something you'll have on yourself anyway, you break less of the immersion and get back to the immersion faster, because you're not paying attention to those adult aspects that Disney wants you to ignore for the duration of your trip.
Plus, it fits the Disney theme either way. Swiping to get access to a ride or to get a snack is pretty immersive and magic.
An Anonymous Poster writes: “Nothing against your comment, but I wouldn't tell that to any of the thousands of Robe adorned guests and "non muggles" who attended opening day for Diagon Alley ...”
I respond: The fact that they showed up in robes on opening day would seem an affirmation that they would be among the “ten” in my “nine out of ten” equation. Also, I would be surprised how many of those in robes could have provided a detailed description of the story associated with the ‘Escape from Gringott’s’ attraction after their first ride.
The Anonymous Poster contends: “As for the question about the Guy in the Nascar shirt. It's a pretty simple explanation. He would be seen as a muggle being "allowed to experience the wizarding world".
I Respond: And I would assert that a sizable portion of those who visit the Universal Orlando parks do not know what a “muggle” is and regard the guy in the NASCAR shirt as … well a guy in a NASCAR shirt.
The Anonymous Poster contends: “However the argument that the Magic band, is a constant reminder of being a park guest remains valid.”
I Respond: As would be a similar contention about the existence of mouse ears and cheesy plastic Firebolts (made in China) and cash registers and directional signs and name tags and park maps and trash cans and wait time signs and souvenir Simpson mugs etc., etc., etc.
The Anonymous Poster writes: “I'm not saying your question of how valid the author's argument for some may be, but you seem to belittle the potential, once in a life time immersive experiences that guests who come to these do want, almost as if in an effort to purposefully make them out to be ‘too stupid’ to realize that ‘there is a ‘story’ to go along with what they regard as a real cool shootin' gallery’.”
I Respond: First of all I am not sure why you put the words “too stupid” in quotes as I never made that inference that any group of guests were not smart enough to understand a story. At the same time I don’t disagree with the assertion that some guests (as in one out of ten) are wholly invested in an epic quest for that immersive experience – enough to the point where they will fall to their knees while wearing a wizard robe in a theme park. Rather, in keeping with the topic of the blog, I don’t see the size of that demographic to be anything substantial enough to “undercut” Disney’s “core product.”
The Anonymous poster writes: “I don't think the people who go to these places, Disney and Universal alike, find the level of detail or immersive role-playing insignificant at all …”
I Respond: And I am inclined to believe that a broad majority of the people who visit theme parks do not wear wizard robes, are still amazed by the atmosphere and come away with memories of extraordinary experiences that were not at all affected by the incongruous appearance of Magic Bands … and mouse ears and cash registers and directional signs and name tags and park maps and trash cans and wait time signs and souvenir Simpson mugs and plastic brooms that don't really fly etc., etc., etc.
I have not yet used Fastpass+, but I can say that I have helped over a dozen friends plan trips to WDW since Fastpass+ was introduced and EVERY ONE of them loved the simplicity and ease of the system, as well as the fact they could reserve their favorite attractions ahead of time. Granted, these folks are not the hard core TPI fans (who are a small, but passionate niche within an already very small niche of theme park enthusiasts), but they are the target audience of Disney's brain trust, and they are the people who tell their friends what an amazing place WDW is to visit just because of Fastpass+.
Nevertheless, now that all the NextGen updates are up and running WDW must shift their focus away from My Disney Experience and toward the building of new attractions. They cannot afford to let another ten years and another $1B go by without giving fans (old and new) something revolutionary and TANGIBLE to enjoy at the parks.
As for the absurd comment that 9 out of 10 guests don't get the theme anyway so theme doesn't matter except to the hardcore fan boys... if that were the case then Six Flags would be rocking the attendance figures. The "9 out of 10 guests" segment might not get the whole back story and theme on a conscious level, but they do appreciate it on a subconscious level. In other words, you don't have to know what a "muggle" is to wonder and marvel at the incredibly immersive theming of Diagon Alley.
I Respond: First I never contended that "9 out of 10 guests don't get the theme." I said that nine out of ten guests are not so fanatical about theming that they would be distracted by the presence of wrist bands (or mouse ears, or cash registers, or directional signs, or name tags, or park maps, or trash cans, or wait time signs, or souvenir mugs that are omnipresent at theme parks). In short that nine out of ten theme park guests are not distracted by magic bands to the point where they (the bands) "undercut Disney's core product."
Tony Perkins continues: "In other words, you don't have to know what a "muggle" is to wonder and marvel at the incredibly immersive theming of Diagon Alley."
I Respond: I agree! And those folks who enjoy the Potter experience without knowing what a muggle is are the same folks who are not distracted by the presence of magic bands.
But with that said, I like the Magicbands and MyMagic+. For several years, I haven’t enjoyed my visits to Disney parks because every visit became an exercise in testing my patience - too many people, too few quality attractions, and too much standing in line. On my last visit when I used MyMagic+ and was guaranteed a spot on three or so quality attractions per day without an overly long wait, I actually had a relatively good time. (As someone who has been going to Disney parks for well over 4 decades, I find that last statement of mine a sad indication on how much Disney has lowered my expectations of the enjoyment value of a trip to a Disney park.)
The Magicbands and MyMagic+ are a micro solution to a macro problem, but at the very least they are a step in the right direction. Hopefully, Disney will continue on their path of redemption and start to add more quality attractions in their parks instead of focusing primarily on revenue enhancers.
If Disney was building enough new E-ticket attractions, then magic bands and fastpass+ would not even be needed. Lines would be more evenly distributed throughout the parks without forcing customers to follow a bunch of complicated rules.
Here's a new poll suggestion: Should Disney have spent that $1 billion on Magic Bands or on 10 brand new E-ticket attractions instead?
2. Once again, much to my annoyance, people are complaining that Disney isn't building new rides. While I'm starting to worry just how long we have to wait for Star Wars, I know you all know that Disney is building Avatar Land and Frozen is coming out NEXT YEAR! Seriously, unless Disney decides to delay Frozen and Avatar by another year or so, I consider all arguements that Disney is lazy to be invalid.
3. A fellow anonymous reader writes that there should be a poll involving whether or not Disney should have spent $1 billion on Magic Bands. But let's be honest, that's almost the exact same thing as this pole.
The same robed guests who waved Express passes to see if it'd work at that attraction? Every theme park breaks theme at some point when it comes to business and logistics. Queuing alone, no matter how well themed the queue, breaks theme. Waiting an entire day, in line, to get in? That's not themed.
I don't think people go to parks to pretend they're in the story of each ride. They go to have fun. And the different experiences can be wondrous and fun. You had to pay to get in - that's not very themed - but the willing suspension of disbelief is a bit more resilient than being broken by just tapping a wristband against a stanchion. For most guests, the story starts when you get into the ride vehicle. Suggesting otherwise is like saying that buying popcorn ruins the movie because it takes you out of the story.
And don´t get me started on the girl next to me who talked to (and sometimes screamed at) a friend of hers all the way to the loading zone of BTM. I mean, I am sure that Jessica probably *is* a terrible bitch, and I do not in any way endorse her behaviour - but in terms of immersion into the theme, the conversation was less than helpful...
By that logic, there was never any real immersion at Disney. Apparently Dumbo has the ability to clone himself and can survive having a huge metal stick jabbed in his side.
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