Theme Parks Explore the Limitless Possibilities of Interactive Attractions

February 29, 2016, 11:24 AM · How much do you really do in a theme park?

Sure, you probably go on a lot of rides, and see some shows. But that's mostly just sitting around while stuff happens in front of or around you. What do you actually do in the park, actively? You eat. You walk around. You shuffle through slow-moving queues. But most theme park attractions remain passive experiences, moments where you are literally just along for the ride.

They don't have to be that way. Many top theme parks are developing more active attractions for their visitors — experiences that allow visitors to become participants instead of mere spectators. These new interactive experiences allow visitors to engage their imaginations in ways that more passive rides and shows too rarely do. And they are redefining the entertainment potential for theme parks.

I wrote about some of these new experiences in my Orange County Register column this week. These interactive opportunities offer the potential to change theme parks from well-decorated collections of rides and shows into platforms for customized entertainment experiences — a sort of living, real-world video game in which guests actively participate in their own adventures.

For theme park fans in Southern California, we're just discovering the fun of playing with interactive wands in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, where we are encouraged to dress up like a witch or wizard, cast spells at the windows and imagine that we went to Hogwarts just like Harry and Hermoine did. In May, we will get an expanded opportunity to play like Old West settlers in Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town Alive!, where characters will engage with us throughout the land, advancing storylines that change every day.

Disneyland recently tried something similar with its Legends of Frontierland experience, and Disney will fill its upcoming Pandora: The World of Avatar at the Walt Disney World Resort with abundant interactive opportunities as well.

And, of course, parks are making more of their traditional attractions interactive, as well. Sometimes they are competitive, as in so many video-game-inspired shoot-'em-up rides... but they don't have to be, as well-illustrated by experiences such as Disney's Animation Academy, where visitors learn to draw Disney characters that they can take home with them, at no extra charge.

Ultimately, interactive experiences help parks to expand their capacity by making the entire park into an attraction, distracting fans' focus from a limited collection of rides and shows and redirecting it instead toward the limitless possibilities of a day in a place where your imagination can run free.

What is your favorite interactive experience in a theme park?

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Replies (11)

February 29, 2016 at 11:55 AM · Interactive experiences can add spice to the theme park variety, but let's not get carried away. A theme park is not a giant arcade.
February 29, 2016 at 12:51 PM · Some people in your party might be more engaged than others. So you end up with mixed results when some just don't care or can't keep up. Total immersion is great if you like the theme. Harry Potter is a very specific theme. Disney is more generic. If you don't like one, move on to the next. My young kid at home don't like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Maybe we'll just go to LEGOLAND. Interaction means playing with the Lego sets.

To have a truly interactive experience in a theme park, they need to have customizable experiences. You can pick your characters and destinations. Make your choices. See different things. This won't happen soon, but the technology is almost here. It was fun to build your own custom car on Test Track. The only problem is you don't actually ride it. Why not get your own journey for Star Tours? The problem with randomness is it's pretty much not random when you ride it. Better to specify the scenes that you haven't seen.

February 29, 2016 at 3:18 PM · Tom Sawyer's Island!
February 29, 2016 at 10:38 PM · I've played both Agent P's World Showcase Adventure at Epcot and Adventure Trading Company at Disneyland (while it was running), and I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences (even if Adventure Trading Company was too short). The thing that caught my attention about both attractions is that they used the environments to tell their stories, something that I feel that parks should explore more often (especially here in SoCal, where space for new attractions isn't always easy to find).

Personally, I think the future of theme parks rests in role-playing, but on a much larger scale than the one that the parks are toying around with right now. They are on to something much larger than they realize, and each of these individual experiences (interactive wands, Legends of Frontierland, Ghost Town Alive!, etc.) is just the tip of the iceberg of what could be the next big thing in theme parks.

Imagine this: While the main focus of any park will always be the rides, what if each park becomes its own "role-playing game," where each individual attraction not only told its own story, but also supported an entire, park-wide narrative that guests could then navigate through at their own pace. Think of it as like Ghost Town Live!, with its day-long story arc, but also incorporating the park's attractions, allowing guests to become characters in the events surrounding them, and bringing interactive elements (like the interactive wands) into play. That would bring the park's immersion to a whole new level.

March 1, 2016 at 4:44 AM · I love the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
Which wasn't mentioned. The issue is that it's so long you can only do it if you are a frequent visitor.
March 1, 2016 at 4:52 AM · I think a great way to expand on interactivity is including more attractions where guests can talk to the characters. I remember how ecstatic I was when I saw Turtle Talk for the first time; I grew up watching Finding Nemo so to actually speak to one of the characters was mind-blowing. I think Universal should make an attraction like that. Especially since they'd be allowed to say stuff that's a little more risqué.
March 1, 2016 at 7:43 AM · Everything old is new again... Think Fantasy Island or WestWorld.
March 1, 2016 at 10:41 AM · Does PhotoPass count as interactive? Maybe it's borderline, but I see it as a sort of interactivity, especially with new things like the on-ride videos (ToT or the Dwarfs Mine Train at WDW). Perhaps, in the future, Disney will be able to sell you the video of your day at a park just after the end of the same day (mixing on-ride videos, generic images and animation of pictures Ken Burns style). Or even a movie about your whole stay at the end of your vacation.Ready to be sent via Facebook or others, providing free publicity for the park... The Magic Band technology allows that type of things. Limit will be your privacy. Just imagine: but honey, who is with you on this ride? ;)
March 1, 2016 at 2:43 PM · Ughhhh I honestly hate interactive attractions.
March 1, 2016 at 3:25 PM · Interactive elements definitely have a place in the theme park experience, but I think there is a danger to making everything interactive. To be successful, a theme park needs to appeal to as wide of demographic as possible, and while many enjoy them interactive elements don't appeal to all. This is particularly true of those that require a purchase, such as the Harry Potter interactive wands. Additionally, everything needs to be different, and if the interactive elements are all more or less the same it will get old. I think the current interactive attractions are great and I'm all for seeing new forms of it, but the park still needs to remain enjoyable for those who choose not to participate in the interactive aspects.
March 2, 2016 at 12:16 PM · The problem with the wands is that the tricks are hard to pull off. We saw lots of kids struggling to do them. Of course, watching people do the tricks was a nice, cheaper option for us :)

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