How to build an immersive new world, the Disney way

August 24, 2019, 11:58 PM · What's more audacious than designing an entire world? But theme park fans now seem to be demanding immersive worlds from new attractions, challenging theme park designers to expand their repertoire to meet this need.

But designing a world that fully envelops an audience pushes designers to find effective ways to frame and communicate needed information about these worlds, so that people will feel not just permitted but empowered to engage with them.

Saturday afternoon at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, Imagineer Joe Rohde led a panel discussion on "Immersive Worlds: Bringing Stories to Life in Disney Parks." Joining him on the panel were Jeanette Lomboy, Site Portfolio Executive for Aulani; Luc Mayrand, Vice President of Creative for Shanghai Disneyland; and Scott Trowbridge, Portfolio director in charge of Star Wars Galaxy's Edge.

Here is the audio of the presentation, with edited highlights in text following.

Joe: We have a long tradition as a company of building stuff anyway. Why now worlds?

Scott: I don't know that this actually is a big change, saying that now we're building larger immersive worlds than we did before. I actually believe that, if you go back to Disneyland's original roots, I think it was at that time also this idea of inviting guests and audiences to step into worlds that they may be seen only on screens or read about in books, maybe in the early days of television. But given the technology that was available, the kind of the resources that were available at the time, I'm not so certain that we're not doing with these worlds today exactly what Walt Disney would have wanted to do in the early '50s had that been an option for him, and the rest of the imagineers that were working at that time.

We just have better tools today, where we have a lot more technology we have a lot more ways in which we can engage an audience, and also our audiences expectations have grown exponentially since the kinds of entertainment experiences the kind of immersive entertainment experiences that they that were available to them in the early 50s.

Joe: This is an interesting thing because Aulani immerses people in a world that's actually real, and I want to sort of turn that same question to you about what is the value of immersion, when we're dealing with an actual real place that's right outside the door?

Jeanette: For those of you that have been there, you guys may have had preconceived expectations of what you thought Aulani would be like knowing what you thought Hawaiian culture was about. As Disney, everybody expects us to give our guests best possible experience. We could not stand up and say we're Disney and give them the wrong experience - an inaccurate experience. We knew that we wanted to help tell the Hawaiian story that we need to do right and to create a world in which we were actually showing you what that looked like was really important to us. I always say that Disney was just the best possible blank canvas and the native Hawaiian culture was the paint.

Scott: I think you can't ignore the context that people are already coming to these experiences with. It's always a negotiation between the author, the audience member, and the medium. And so when you invite someone to come into a world - whether it's an imagined world, or whether we're presenting a world like Aulani where we are trying to almost correct a misperception of that world, we have to understand the perceptions that most of the audience is coming with - the base software, right? The archetypes, the tropes, the preconceived notions. And we can't just ignore those, we have to we have to integrate those into the way we tell those stories, because that's who our audience is and that's how they're coming, so we need to we need to meet them as they're presenting themselves to these experiences so that we can take them from that place, and then, through a hopefully transformative experience, move them from where they start to where we want them to go.

You know we build these things we build these experiences for purpose. As an author of that experience we're trying to move them towards a goal, whether it is to have a great time, or whether it's to better understand a real culture and sweep away those misperceptions, or whether - in the case of Galaxy's Edge - we just want to have people feel like they are empowered and enabled to become a hero in their own lives and the lives of people around them. We have to treat them as they present themselves to us, right, we can't ignore that - but all those all those preconceived notions have to be built into the experiences we built.

Luc: Going into a brand new market [such as China], we do a lot of research - we also have a lot of people advising us as to what people will and won't do, and what they like and don't like, and so forth. And that's very, very challenging. So we actually went out in many, many places and wanted to look at how people enjoy themselves - to kind of have an idea for ourselves, not just what we were informed they were doing, So, for example, we were told that people in China would not want to get wet, that they would not want to do anything physically difficult, that they will have trouble immersing in stores and so forth.

Right now we're ordering a second canoe that's going to go around that river, just because people love it so much. The water play area is always filled with people that are just spraying each other like crazy all the time. So there's a lot of things that turn out to not be true because they kind of more universal - people love to have fun.

Joe: I'm curious about the whole invitation process, how you engage, how you would bring people in, what level you would bring them in, how do you get people to get into it?

Scott: I think you use the right word, which is invitation. For all these experiences, it's an invitation to engage, not an obligation. One of the things we know from from our years of testing new ways to engage an audience and new ways to interact with an audience, one of the things that that we've that we learned and keeps being reinforced for us is that not everybody wants to engage at the same level - and any individual might not want to engage at the same level over the course of a day or even an hour. So we need to be able to give people the freedom where they can decide to engage.

Luc: When we were looking to create both Treasure Cove and Adventure Isle, there is this mountain [with a] tremendous fantastic enormous waterfall and has this challenge trail, which is wonderful. But in creating the place, the thing that convinced me we had to make this experience was going around to various other places. I went on several of those challenge trails, which were not themed at all, but the dynamic I saw there just totally took my heart and said, "oh, this is important." You think it would a little kid going through, and then there's the parent going, "oh, you can do it you can do it you, Susie - you can do it, Bobby." The dynamic I saw was oftentimes the kids zip forward be on the other side of the dangerous obstacle and the parent would be like, "I don't know if I should do that." And so then it would be the kid actually empowering their father and their mother - and that I mean that flips everything. From that moment, anything's possible in that kid's life and then the parents' life, too. They've just seen something in their kid they never saw before, and the kid just realized, "wow, I have power, too."

Jeanette: [Aulani] would not exist today if we did not have relationships with the community. If there were not the thousands of Hawaiians who lent their voice and their knowledge to help us build it. I'll tell you, when Joe and I first started on that project, there was a skepticism within the community that they thought that we would misrepresent the culture, and there's a huge responsibility on Disney, on us, to make sure that have made sure that that didn't happen. And so I will tell you the hard part first and foremost was reprogramming everybody to say, what's right and appropriate is the most important thing before being magical, wonderful and beautiful.

Last thing, I'll tell you this is one little tidbit. We had no idea we were doing this, but a native Hawaiian had to tell us this - because we thought all the art at Aulani should have been done by Native Hawaiian artists, because it's about what you should be done by them - at the end of the project, one of the Hawaiian advisor said to us, "do you realize you have the largest collection of contemporary native Hawaiian art in the world?" No, we didn't set out to do that [and] marketing jumped all over it, but we didn't have to do that. We just want to do the right thing. There's thousands of Imagineers, but it was the community that really allowed us to do what Aulani is today.

Scott: I was over [in Star Wars Galaxy's Edge] in the Resistance Camp area, which will in the early part of next year be recruiting new members of the resistance, so hopefully you'll 'rise' to that challenge. [Laughs from the audience] So I was over there and and Chewbacca was there, and there was a little boy who might have been maybe seven or eight years old, and he was having this encounter with Chewbacca and they were having this moment, and I heard this family as they were walking away, and this little boy said to his parents,

"So, wait, Chewbacca is real? So wait, that means the Jedi are real? That means Star Wars is real?"

I was just like, yep, that that is what success looks like - when you can have somebody believe so much that they're willing to put themselves into that story. That's all we can hope for is giving people experiences that they couldn't possibly really be having, but they are.

* * *

The D23 Expo continues Sunday with the Disney Parks Sneak Peek presentation. For more on Imagineering's creative process, please read our interview with WDI President Bob Weis.

Replies (1)

August 25, 2019 at 9:47 AM

Why now worlds?- Because Universal created we did that all along or actually we now have the technique to do that and Walt would have wanted it.
Oh Disney....

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