Why Epcot's Play pavilion might change the theme park industry

February 23, 2019, 2:54 PM · When Walt Disney World announced its latest round of news about its transformation of Epcot, many of us focused on the new entrance, since that was something we all could wrap our heads around. It's relatively easy to imagine the new entry plaza with the concept art that Disney provided. Just take away Leave a Legacy, add some trees and greenery, fill in a new version of the original fountain and add some flags, and we're there.

But it's the other news that Disney dropped that I want to talk about today — that new "Play" pavilion in the old Wonders of Life. What's up with that? Disney didn't offer much detail about that new project, not even its name. But if you've been following what's happening at Disney, especially with its Imagineering division, it might be possible to put together a picture of what a visit to this new Future World pavilion might be like.

Epcot's 'Play' pavilion
Concept art courtesy Disney

As I mentioned in our initial report on the pavilion, the interior looks straight out of Disney's Ralph Breaks the Internet, with its techno-pop/futuristic vibe. But what's behind all those facades? What is there to do in this pavilion?

Here's how Walt Disney Imagineering portfolio executive Zach Riddley described the pavilion, in Disney's press release: "This innovative, new pavilion is beyond anything we’ve ever created and is completely unique to Epcot. Built on the power of play, it introduces an immersive and interactive 'city' where you can explore, create and interact with some of your favorite Disney characters."

Okay... that doesn't help a whole lot. So let's frame this another way.

It's Disney's Imagineering Pavilion.

Like many businesses in the creative industries, WDI works on countless projects that never make it to the public. That's because there is a Great Filter in the attraction development process. A new experience must scale to the park in which it will be placed, complement the other experiences in the park, be consistent with the company's image and support its promotional needs, and then run reliably — all within a desired budget. Many great experiences fail to pass one of the tests of the Great Attraction Filter, never making it to the public.

That doesn't mean that those concepts and experiences couldn't work in a different environment. But until the right opportunity with the right client at the right time comes along for a particular concept, these ideas linger in some stage of prenatal form. Perhaps they're just a sketch, a schematic, a treatment, a model, or a prototype.

Having enjoyed the good fortune to tour WDI's headquarters in Glendale, California on several occasions, I have sampled a few of the experience prototypes that Imagineering stores in its facilities. It's easy to imagine some of these finally getting to debut for the public in this new Epcot pavilion.

The Play pavilion effectively opens the Great Attraction Filter by lowering the barriers that keep engaging concepts from the public. Within the context of the pavilion, an individual experience does not need to scale up to handle hundreds or thousands of guests per hour by itself. It can be built around a character or franchise that Disney might not have deemed popular enough to carry an entire attraction or that Disney thought was better served with an alternate experience. Yes, an experience must still work reliably and come in under a certain budget, but the Play pavilion concept allows WDI to bring more treats from its skunkworks out for the public to sample.

And some of these are amazing.

Imagineers have created character interactions powered by artificial intelligence that take the experience of something like Turtle Talk with Crush to another level. They've extended what can be done within theme park attractions to include radically immersive environments and social experiences. This goes far beyond the glorified arcade games of Disney Quest or the corporate exhibits that guests have found in Epcot's Communicore and Innoventions halls over the years.

Just like filmmakers learn their craft making short films before taking on features, the Epcot Play pavilion could provide Imagineers the opportunity to develop skills and concepts on a smaller and more experimental scale. The single most informative moment for any creative professional is that moment when the public experiences your work for the first time. No committee meeting, mentor review, or charrette can replace that experience. Peer review is great, but public review ultimately determines the winners and losers in the theme park business.

Unfortunately, the economics of the Great Attraction Filter prevent creative design professionals from getting that feedback for so much of their work. A Play pavilion could provide Imagineering with the invaluable opportunity to give more of its concepts, and more of its creators, the benefit of that ultimate test. If that's the direction of that Disney ends up taking with this pavilion, Epcot's Play pavilion might become the single most influential project now under development in this industry. And that's exciting to imagine.

So let's play.

Replies (10)

February 23, 2019 at 4:08 PM

I suspect that it is no coincidence at all that the new Disney Parks app is called *Play* Disney. That's got to be central to this whole experience.

I'm imagining guests creating various forms of custom data in the app, then that coming to life in various ways in the pavilion. (Not unlike the customisation aspect of its neighbour, Test Track.)

And the idea of an "interactive city" sounds like exactly what they're going for with Galaxy's Edge. Which we already know is going to incorporate the Play app, right?

February 23, 2019 at 5:24 PM

Note this new addition to Future World doesn't actually have a name yet so may or may not end up with the word "Play"when it rises from the long departed Wonders of Life location. Concept harks back to what Communicore/Innoventions tended to be so makes me wonder what those central spaces in Future World will morph into by 2021.

February 23, 2019 at 5:52 PM

It would be nice if this was true, and it would be the ultimate imagination.
But from how I read it I was thinking more in the line of the Crayola Experience.

February 23, 2019 at 8:26 PM

I'll wait for more details as no doubt a few things will change before it's finally opened. I do hope they use the old "Body Wars" for a new type of simulator experience.

February 24, 2019 at 9:09 AM

I think it'll be a Disney themed version of Kidzania, the city for kids. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAYs13kcDK8

February 24, 2019 at 2:43 PM

As a theme park fan I hope that this will be an extraordinary experience. But I also respect creative efforts where the park operators are willing to embrace a vision/concept and just go for it --- even if their efforts fall flat on their face ... :o) ... And I believe as fanboys/fangirls we have a responsibility to tip our hats to those who swing for the fence and then (oh well) turn their heads to see the ball tucked into the catcher's mit. Regardless of the final product kudos, kudos, kudos to Disney for continuing to invest BILLIONS into their Florida property. Clearly the Disney team is not just looking at 2021 (the 50th anniversary) but the 60th and 70th and to infinity and beyond.

February 25, 2019 at 4:22 AM

In WDI we trust!

February 25, 2019 at 8:14 AM

This is really exciting to me. It sounds like they could really push more interactive and niche attraction ideas. Maybe giving guests more constructive (instead of consumptive) experiences.

Clearly, theme park guests don't mind seeing theme parks be "constructive"!

February 25, 2019 at 9:59 AM

I think this development has potential, but I worry that WDI will either be limited by their overlords or will fall victim to the traps of popularity. Innoventions was supposed to be WDI's testing ground, using corporate dollars to create interesting new attractions and exhibits that could employ new technologies and concepts for what a theme park attraction could be. The small scale exhibits and attractions within Communicore/Innoventions ended up being more like a trade show than the World's Fair that was initially suggested by the pavilions.

The conversion of Wonders of Life holds a similarly intriguing concept, but only if WDI is allowed to follow through. The advantage here is that it doesn't sound like they will be constrained by corporate funding, which is probably why Innoventions was less than inspiring. However, WDI will still have to answer to their own corporate overlords that will expect a certain level of throughput and interest level from guests. I worry that in order to draw guests, the attractions within this pavilion will stagnate and fail to push the envelop. I expect a lot of VR to be applied, but for all of the fans it will create, it will also alienate a large segment of the Drones that won't want to wait for individual attractions or won't see a "must do" in the pavilion to warrant the walk over. Let's face it, you couldn't walk through EPCOT without passing a door to Innoventions, yet guests rarely bothered to walk through doors steps away. Will guests be willing to walk out of the way (beyond the entrances to Mission Space and Guardians) to experience attractions on the same level that were contained within Innoventions?

MikeW mentioned the Body Wars simulators, and I personally wonder if there's enough of the equipment still available to use, since it was reported that Disney had cannibalized the ride systems for parts to maintain Star Tours (identical simulator platforms). However, if the simulators are salvageable, it would make a lot of sense to perhaps retrofit them the same way BGW did with Battle for Eyre by expanding the use of VR/AR on a motion base platform.

There is definitely a lot of potential here, but there are a lot of different directions Disney could go here. If it does indeed end up being a petri dish for future WDI developments, then that would be incredible for all theme park fans. However, there are plenty of other directions this could go that would ultimately lead to disappointment. Innoventions and DisneyQuest already failed, and Disney hasn't revealed enough about this new pavilion that differentiates this from those previously failed concepts.

February 25, 2019 at 10:59 AM

It will probably be named with a symbol and be referred to as:
"The Pavilion formerly known as the Wonders of Life" or "TPFKATWOF" or "Tipf Cat Wuff" for short.

Maybe I should copyright that really quick....

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