Pokemon Go and the future of theme park attractions

July 12, 2016, 2:47 PM · For several years, Disney and Universal have been developing technology to extend theme parks from collections of themed attractions into platforms for interactive storytelling experiences. But while Disney has been expanding its use of MagicBands, and Universal has been selling loads of its wizarding wands, Pokemon's gone and turned the entire country into an interactive themed experience.

Pokemon Go is hotter than a July day in Orlando right now, rocketing to the top of app download charts and sending millions of Americans out of their homes and into their neighborhoods in search of Pokemon to capture, train and fight.

Who knew that the secret to getting Americans to exercise was a bunch of Japanese animated characters?

With Pokemon Go, your smart phone becomes the portal to look into the Pokemon world, where you can see animated Pokemon in your neighborhood or many other public spaces. Be the first to capture 'em, and they are yours — to take to other designated public spaces that serve as "gyms," where you can train and fight the Pokemon for points.

It's interactive, virtual, real, and social — all at the same time. It's a "NextGen" themed experience, except that you don't have to pay a theme park admission to participate. Pokemon Go is happening all around you (in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, at least).

Of course, people are playing Pokemon Go in theme parks, too. Legoland Florida just posted rules for fans hunting Pokemon in the park. (TL;DR: Keep out of restricted areas and try not to bump into people.) Fans are playing all over Disneyland and Walt Disney World, too, which has got to be driving arch-rival Universal nuts, as Universal has the theme park rights to Nintendo characters. (Pokemon Go is a production of Niantic and the Pokemon Company, which is one-third owned by Nintendo.) I wonder if Universal's attorneys have asked their counterparts at Nintendo about the possibility of restricting Pokemon Go from non-Universal theme parks. (If I worked for Universal, I absolutely would be making that call.)

Pokemon Go's use of public spaces for gameplay creates enormous opportunities for businesses. Being a gym or Pokestop brings guaranteed foot traffic for a business these days, and stores and restaurants are beginning to ask how they can be designated as Pokestops by game developers. (Looks like one heckuva potential revenue model there, actually.)

The flip side works, too. Imagine if a mall, housing development, or even a theme park became a Pokemon-free zone. Gamers would steer clear — which could become a huge liability or asset for those businesses, depending upon their point of view. Some institutions, such as Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum, already have asked visitors to refrain from playing while on their grounds, which makes complete sense. How long until game developers build those requests into the game itself? (Which might make that imagined plea from Universal easier to accommodate, as well.)

Pokemon Go raises the stakes for Universal. We'd already written about the expectation that a video game-themed land, such as Universal's planned but-not-revealed Nintendo developments, would offer a greater level of interactivity than traditional theme park attractions. With Pokemon Go making your block at home an interactive play land, any theme park land based on the franchise will need to take the experience up another level — creating an experience far more special than anything you can do at, or near, your home.

The quick solution would be to make Universal the exclusive theme park home to Pokemon Go, then to populate those parks with rare or exclusive Pokemon and gameplay items. But what about the long term? What can Universal — and other theme parks — do to make their in-park experiences more enticing than just playing Pokemon Go?

Parks already have begun to use augmented reality. Cedar Point this summer is offering "The Battle for Cedar Point" through its smartphone app, which offers augmented reality as part of its daily gameplay. But it's easy to envision far more immersive applications within the parks.

How much quicker would the wait for Frozen Ever After go if Disney could send a virtual Olaf through the queue to entertain waiting fans? But Disney really could clean up by creating its own Pokemon Go-style game where guests could try to collect all of Disney's animated characters, which would be distributed throughout the parks. Not just the Big Five, mind you. I'm talking everyone from Pete to Humphrey the Bear to The Rescuers. Disney geeks, rejoice!

Even better would be augmented reality supporting game play that recreates an authentic experience within an established narrative. Imagine using interactive spectrespecs in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to see and capture wrackspurts and other magical creatures. Heck, sync the spectrespecs with Universal's interactive wands and they might be able to do far more than just trigger some animations in store windows. In-park dueling with other witches and wizards could become "real."

(Sorry, I need to stop for a moment and have a Butterbeer to calm down. Because I really, really want to see this happen now.)

Pokemon Go has raised the stakes for all theme entertainment designers. Now let's see how the parks respond.

Replies (22)

July 12, 2016 at 3:11 PM · When Disney dumped Infinity, it lost a great opportunity to capitalize its properties. MagicBands should be converted into gaming as well as Fastpasses, but it's not coming to Disneyland. The next best hope is some interactive gaming in Star Wars Land having to do with the Force. They should create the Jedi Academy with a purchasable Jedi wand. The wand can also double as a light saber handle for guests to do virtual light saber battles against a large LCD screen. Further into the future, do a Marvel version in California Adventure. Interactive gaming was perfected at the Great Wolf Lodge with the MagiQuest game that uses Wands that could be customized with special powers. Virtual reality games were done at some level at Disney Parks in Orlando, but nothing that can be called popular. They are largely immature and limited. Disney needs to go BIG or it'll lose out.

Previously, the rumor was Disney cut the transportation from Star Wars Land due to budget cuts. Disney Imagineers wanted transportation to bring kinetic energy to the SWL. This is a relic of old theme park design. No one cares about a transportation system. People rather walk and play. Now that we know people really pine for virtual gaming, Disney can consider using valuable company resources to create gaming that is also a profit center. It is a true win-win.

July 12, 2016 at 3:18 PM · I think Anon is on to something here. Even if Disney were restricted from allowing Pokemon to appear in their parks, they'll just create their own app with their characters.
July 12, 2016 at 3:43 PM · Theme Park integration is limitless. Rather than Universal requesting that Pokemon Go play be removed from Disney parks, why not partner with Nintendo and have branded messaging that more Nintendo action is available at Universal Parks appear in the game while in a Disney park! Heck! Have special Pokemon characters that are ONLY in Disney parks, that, if caught, give players discounts at Universal parks! Free soda, or discounts on meals. Mickey gonna lose his mind!
Speaking of Mickey, how much fun would it be to use this technology during Halloween that lets us join Mickey, Donald and Goofy to hunt ghosts based on the classic 1937 short Lonesome Ghosts?
The possibilities are endless.
July 12, 2016 at 3:58 PM · It's a sign of how huge Nintendo is going to be for Universal , interactive attractions are the future.
July 12, 2016 at 4:30 PM ·

July 12, 2016 at 4:35 PM · The Kim Possible / Agent P's World Showcase Adventure is very much like this and has been running for years.

Also Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom has been running for several years now.

I remember decades ago they had a low tech version of this in Adventureland where you followed a real paper map to find treasure.

This has been updated into the A Pirate's Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas.

The much lamented closed "Adventure's Club" was a prime example of immersive game type of entertainment in a theme park environment. I remember finding business cards for a "Private Eye" in one of the drawers on the top floor one time visiting. I wish I still had that one.

Renaissance Fairs have been bringing this type of immersive entertainment to the public for decades.

Steve Jackson Games had a huge college campus hit in the 80's with their "Killer" LARP game. Although in today's environment the game probably wouldn't fly today.

I have been wanting to bring an experience like this out of the theme park and into the "real world" for quite some time now. Nintendo beat us all to the punch, and what a punch it is.

July 12, 2016 at 5:25 PM · Cool article, good ideas!
July 12, 2016 at 8:08 PM · There is a simple but expensive solution for Universal in this situation: buy a controlling stake in Nintendo. Just to keep it away from Disney parks and exclusive to Universal parks. This would have been more plausible except for the fact that the value of Nintendo increased by 7 billion literally overnight thanks to Pokemon Go.
July 12, 2016 at 9:27 PM · Let's not forget that theme parks are not giant arcades, and rides are about experience, not story. I think interactivity can add some spice to the theme park variety, but if they become the main point, then theme parks will have lost their way. We still want to be entertained while we're there, not run around playing some game. Maybe some kids want to do that, but it's never been solely about entertaining the kids. Remember Walt's dream?

As for Pokemon Go, I have three letters to describe that: FAD. People will get tired of running all over town like dang fools.

July 13, 2016 at 1:28 AM · This is a great article that makes some very interesting points!

However, I think it's too early to draw the conclusions that the article draws. Pokemon Go dropped a few days ago and people go crazy. But let's see what the situation looks like in 3 months plus. My guess is that the craze will die down and only a fraction of downloaders will keep playing the game.

And I don't see myself running around a theme park glued to my phone in order to collect digital characters. Not even while waiting in line. Actually, I go to theme parks to take a break from screens and to immerse myself into actual sceneries and physical experiences.

We millennials love our phones and screens. But we are not all about them. Let's give us more credit than that.

July 13, 2016 at 5:45 AM · I want to join Mickey, Donald and Goofy to hunt ghosts on Halloween... sign me up! I'm not a gamer either.
July 13, 2016 at 7:49 AM · First rule of - Pokemon Go fight club was not to talk about Pokemon Go fight club...

I can't wait for a huge family fight between two families in MK because someone got to the Pokemon first..

I like the game, gets my child out on the house finally to get some exercise.

July 13, 2016 at 9:02 AM · We've been hearing about people showing up in deserted warehouse areas or not so nice areas of town very late at night searching for Pokemon.

And there there was the guy who found 2 strangers rummaging around in his bushes at 1.30am looking for Pokemon. They're lucky he didn't shoot them or have them arrested for trespassing.

For the parks, this could be a money bonanza. Throw in some small prizes or discounts on merchandise and the crowds would be insane.

July 13, 2016 at 10:57 AM · It's just a matter of time before we start to see incredibly interactivity between our smartphones and theme parks. When I won TPA 6.1, I envisioned a system and park which is fully implemented from the ground up to incorporate this kind of interaction. With the technology where it is now, even my magicband interaction may not be necessary. The future is going to be very interesting, but the question remains as to whether people in the future will simply be using theme parks as a means to an end with their virtual/augmented worlds. Exciting and turbulent times are ahead.
July 13, 2016 at 3:27 PM · "Let's not forget that theme parks are not giant arcades, and rides are about experience, not story."

Theme parks originate from private gardens to public parks to carnivals to amusement parks to theme parks. They are a form of recreation. We cannot separate the amusements from one park to another. They all seem quite similar. Gaming was always a feature of amusement parks. In trying to appear more upscale, Disney cut that back, but it always existed in some form. Disney's California Adventure has a short midway in Paradise Pier. Disneyland as shoot-em rides like Buzz Lightyear. Frontierland has the shooting gallery that's still there.

Disney attractions are all about story, but they are hidden in the backstory, which are quite lame in some ways and contradictory in others. For example, the Haunted Mansion backstory was changed numerous times. They are nice to have around to build a theme park, but hardly used in the attraction's narrative. Games can tie up the loose ends where we need story, interactivity, and profit center. Attractions and rides have barely any story, no interactivity, and are passively enjoyed with passive income due to all you can consume admission pricing. So the contrast is real and the result can be explosive as seen from Pokémon Go. People do want more interactivity from their enjoyments and they should be able to do it at their favorite themed entertainment, which is likely Star Wars. Only wish they'll allow some cosplaying.

I think Disney has been trying for years to make their attractions more interactive. It hasn't really worked. The solution appears to drop recently. Can Disney take advantage?

July 13, 2016 at 5:45 PM · I think the sustainability of Pokemon Go needs to be evaluated before any realistic predictions can be made. The game is extremely popular now, but will it still be popular in a month? What about a year? What happens when someone gets themselves seriously injured or killed while playing it (yes, it will likely happen eventually)? Additionally, I'd say that 90+% of the game's audience is in their mid-20s or below. Is something like that a good investment for a theme park that is meant to appeal to all ages?

Truthfully, I enjoy playing the game, and I definitely could see the technology being used for a theme park attraction. As an example, suppose Universal created a Pokemon Safari Zone attraction. The attraction itself would be a real-life recreation of the Safari Zone, complete with tall grass, trees, ponds, small cliffs, and a couple buildings. Using augmented reality glasses and other necessary accessories (such as small balls that render as a Safari Ball in virtual space), guests attempt to catch virtual Pokemon. After a set amount of time (or exhausting all of their balls), guests would receive a recall notice to exit the attraction so their gear can be given to the next person in line. For further interactivity, a Pokemon gym could also be present where guests battle each other using Pokemon caught in the Safari Zone.

However, while Pokemon Go is fun I've found it is only fun in small doses. I would never want to visit a theme park where something like this was required to get the full experience throughout the day. Additionally, a theme park needs to offer something you can't do elsewhere in order to make it a worthwhile investment. A simple augmented reality app would be a tough sell as you can use it anywhere. Using VR technology to put guests in an entirely virtual world also doesn't work as well because it never feels real. However, if you take a classic guest-driven theme park attraction such as Tom Sawyer's Island and add AR technology to bring the experience to the next level, that may be the next generation of interactive theme park attractions.

July 13, 2016 at 7:54 PM ·
You should comment more.
July 13, 2016 at 8:04 PM · I both agree and disagree with the people who say that we should wait to see if this is just another fad. Making such a huge investment in Pokemon Go this early on is probably way too risky a business move. Before we know it, the hype might die down along with the app's popularity. But if you were to force me to bet money, I'd probably say it'll stick around for quite a while. My proof? Well, you could say that Pokemon itself had "fad" written all over it when it first came out. I still remember how every kid I knew was going nuts over it. We were all watching the anime, playing the games, and collecting all the trading cards. The franchise was everywhere. You'd think that it would be just another passing fad, but almost twenty years later the franchise is still going strong. The anime is still coming out with new episodes. The trading cards are still being bought, sold, battled and, well, traded, everywhere. And new games are still being made, with the seventh generation coming out this year. And it's managed to keep capturing the appeal of little kids everywhere. The franchise has managed to stay relevant the same way that Superman and Batman have managed to stay relevant since the 1930's: by constantly changing and adapting with the times, as well as other forms of media. So Pokemon making the jump to mobile gaming is just another way of adapting. And guess what? The original kids that grew up on Pokemon and made it popular in the first place haven't forgotten it. The large majority of adults who play Pokemon Go are those original kids. They downloaded the game because they have so many nostalgic memories behind the franchise, and it had such a large impact on their childhoods. And when something has such a big impact on you at such an early age, there's no getting rid of it, it's there forever. Am I saying that Pokemon Go will definitely still be just as popular a few months from now? No. Would I be surprised if it fades away just as quickly as it rose to stardom? Absolutely not. All I'm saying is that given the entire Pokemon franchise's track record, we shouldn't automatically dismiss this app as just another passing fad, similar to how we shouldn't automatically be thinking about long-term investments.
July 13, 2016 at 9:59 PM · It was interesting playing at Sea World yesterday. Definitely need to make sure you aren't blocking paths, stopping or bumping into people. And the gym owners will definitely be employees!
July 14, 2016 at 7:07 AM · Pokemon is no more a fad than Star Wars is. And this new virtual reality gaming will last a very long time before the next great thing. This is only the beginning, that's why I think Disney should have Star Wars gaming in the parks. The possibilities are endless
July 14, 2016 at 7:39 AM · OK lets pay $100 plus to go to a theme park and waste time playing a game on your cell phone. What a waste of time and money
July 16, 2016 at 8:19 AM · Totally agree: " OK lets pay $100 plus to go to a theme park and waste time playing a game on your cell phone. What a waste of time and money". Theme parks should be about interaction.. with FRIENDS AND FAMILY. I really hope that Disney and Universal keep entertaining guests with amazing attractions and shows that don't force us to look at the LCD screen of our phones (which our society is becoming so addicted to). This idea got me chills, in a not good way.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Visitors guides

Weekly newsletter