Theme Park of the Day: Tokyo Disneyland

What's next for interactive attractions at Disney and Universal?

August 29, 2016, 2:54 PM · Top theme parks are working on some neat technology that will help make their new attractions into custom, more personal experiences. Fans have gotten used to having interactive experiences when they visit the Disney and Universal theme parks, but the stuff designers are working on now will take that interaction to a new level — one that could help make a theme park visit seem as responsive and engaging as a video game come to life.

Of course, video game-style "shooter" rides are nothing new to theme park fans at this point. Disney's Buzz Lightyear rides have been around for nearly 20 years now. Toy Story Midway Mania showed that parks could create a game that didn't rely on guns (or wanna-be guns) as controllers. And Legoland's Ninjago The Ride showed that you don't even need a controller to play a game on a dark ride.

The next logical step would be game-style rides themed to, well, actual video games. And Universal's working on that, having secured the rights to Nintendo's video game franchises for attractions in its theme parks. Universal's shared no details on what those attractions might look like — or how they'd function — but Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aimé briefly references its partnership with Universal in a recent interview:

These theme park designers are considering that so many of their patrons have a smart device. They’re thinking about what that means to the overall experience. I’m not going to share anything in this interview, but certainly the Universal team is aware of it. Certainly it is something that they are considering as they work with us to create this theme park experience.

Pokemon Go brought widespread mobile gaming into the parks, even if the parks had nothing to do with its design and implementation. But that game showed that people are willing to get out their cell phones and interact with an app as part of the experience of visiting a theme park. Now the next step is to create a more engaging experience that involves the park environment as something more significant than a backdrop and that perhaps involves other park visitors as participants in your game, as well. Disney's headed in this general direction with its Kim Possible and Agent P games at Epcot, as well as its Pirates game in Adventureland. But they didn't harness the tech power that almost all park visitors now carry in their smartphones.

But all of these experiences still depended upon active participation by guests. What about technology that reacts and adapts to visitors, without their active input? Disney's played with that tech in creating interactive message boards that "read" visitors' names from their MagicBands, taking the next step beyond Universal's ET ride, which featured ET bidding farewell to each rider, by name, thanks to guest input at the start of the ride. Can parks develop tech that allows more sophisticated customization of a local environment (whether on a ride or not), simply by reading a visitor's MagicBand, or better yet, an enabled smartphone? (For privacy reasons, one likely would need to authorize a park app on your phone to communicate with the park, the way that Waze does while you're getting ready to go on a trip.)

Beyond privacy concerns, one of the big issues standing in the way of all this is bandwidth. Anyone who's tried to Instagram a photo from inside a crowded theme park probably knows how challenging getting and maintaining a high-speed data connection within these environments can be. And that's without some massive new system continually reading and reacting to visitors' movement within the park and its attractions. If a park's designers want their environments to respond to more than a person's location and maybe their name — such as their age, gender, interests, or history on a given ride — that means building and maintaining a massive database to store and retrieve all that data.

As Disney learned with its My Magic+ rollout, it's one thing to create this nifty new tech in a demonstration project and something else entirely to scale it to support tens of millions of visitors a year.

But parks keep trying. A relatively recent patent application from Universal details its plans to create a "video game ride" that modifies its game environment based in inputs from riders, with the potential to create levels of play based upon riders' histories. Players could assume themed roles, become leaders or followers of other players, and the game could react to players' ages and levels of ability within the game, triggering practical effects, and even steering different physical ride paths based upon all these inputs. (And, yes, you could use wands instead of guns, joysticks or steering wheels as controller devices.)

Disney's also been filing patent applications for technology that could drive more interactive themed experiences. Here's a Disney patent application focused on the process of converting a video game into a real-life simulation, such as a making Disneyland's Space Mountain into a higher-definition, three-dimensional, thrill-ride version of the old Asteroids game. (H/T Orlando Business Journal.) Disney's also been working on ways to allow visitors to play with lightsabers and creating environments where animatronics can tell if you are looking at them and react accordingly.

Will all this work? More importantly, will it scale to high-volume theme park attractions? We'll have to wait to see. But, for now, we can see a glimpse of a very interesting, and interactive, future that major theme park designers are working to create.

Replies (8)

August 29, 2016 at 4:09 PM · No thanks. When I enter a theme park, I put my phone into airplane mode. I might turn it on once or twice to check for messages/texts. The last thing I'd want is to have to use my phone as part of an attraction.

Admittedly, I'm in the minority. But, there are also plenty of foreign guests who might not have connected smartphones. Plus, not every child is going to have a phone. All of those facts are major obstacles without easy solutions.

August 29, 2016 at 6:16 PM · As for people without phones I could see them creating a device you can rent to play along while in Parks. Creating more revenue for the theme parks.
August 29, 2016 at 7:06 PM · As long as it is implemented correctly, I'm all for advances in interactivity. Recently, we sat behind someone on Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland that had their phone out the whole time. It ruined our field of view and was bright enough to illuminate our faces. Phones need to have a purpose and, other than that, need to be put away.
August 29, 2016 at 10:45 PM · I've always been a non-conformist, hence one reason I've never had a smart phone. Smart phones make for dumb users, zombies stumbling around, oblivious to their surroundings.

I don't mind some interactive attractions as complements to the in-park entertainment. I also don't mind if having a smart phone enhances the experience in some ways. As for me, I find that looking around and enjoying the beauty and fun around me is still much better than keeping my nose buried in a tiny screen.

August 30, 2016 at 5:12 AM · I'm all for putting the phone away. I worked in a telecommunications company for many years and love it, but I think it would be nice if theme parks would stick to other methods to entertain people.
August 30, 2016 at 8:46 AM · Since Disney won't allow people to dress up in their favored characters, interactivity will be less fun. It's only as fun as the cost. Each arcade game seems to get better as long as feed the coins. Interactivity needs to get deeper without a lot of hassle.
August 30, 2016 at 1:39 PM · I recently went to Universal, and some things has change. Now Harry Potter has interactive attraction with figures, and people is happy with this, but from this to go with a smartphone all day is to big. I'm not sure that everyone like it. I personally dont like
August 31, 2016 at 3:09 PM · I don't even take my phone to a theme park, or if I do, I turn it off, put it in a locker. I am there to enjoy the atmosphere many people have worked hard to create and maintain not have it ruined by some pointless email or text, the world can live without me for a day or two.

Ans as a previous comment said they ruin dark rides (and even open air rides as people hold them up to film, not caring about the experience of the people behind them).

Having interaction in the main park area or even the ride queue is one thing but keep it off the rides
I am all for the rent or even buy a cheap device, the basic tech is incredibly cheap, a Disney/universal branded 5 inch tablet that only works on WiFi, and can be used to store your photos, and the secrets etc you find etc is a great idea, and it opens up so many more merchandising opportunities

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