Do theme park fans really want to spend time in a "theme park metaverse?"
Disney Parks' Chief Technical Officer yesterday at the IAAPA Virtual Education Conference detailed Disney's efforts to create such a thing. Basically, it's a union of in-person, practical entertainment with data-driven, virtual experiences. When you use the Star Wars Datapad in Galaxy's Edge or play games in a queue elsewhere through the Play Disney Parks app, you are participating in that metaverse.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, it welcomed fans who had grown up with circuses and carnivals. So Walt's theme park developed attractions that advanced those traditions. We got dark rides, track rides, carousels, and shows. Over the years, subsequent generations grew up watching filmed media on a daily basis, then playing video games and eventually using the Internet. Today's theme park audience comes to the parks having evolved a very different relationship with entertainment media than visitors to Disneyland and other theme parks had in the middle of the 20th century.
To remain relevant to modern audiences, theme parks must evolve, as well. At first, parks did this with film-based attractions and more technically advanced ride systems and show effects. But with people consuming more interactive media outside the parks, designers need to create interactive experiences inside the berm, as well.
That led to the development of shooter rides, starting with Disney's Buzz Lightyear attractions. But as games evolved from arcades to our phones — meaning that they became accessible to us at all times — themed entertainment designers have looked for ways to keep up by making interactivity more ubiquitous inside the parks.
And thus, the desire to create the metaverse — the union of practical and virtual experiences that would keep a generation raised on mobile interactivity wanting to come to the parks as much as their parents and grandparents did.
While I understand all these steps in the evolution here, I think it's important for everyone — fans and designers — to remember that new media rarely evolve because someone wanted to do something in a different way. They evolve because people wanted something better.
New media succeed when they offer something that old media cannot, such as more immediacy, better immersion, wider options, or deeper interactivity. They fail when they do not offer consumers a compelling reason to break from their well-established habits and adopt the new thing.
Ultimately, what sells is excellence. People book their first trip to a particular theme park because they want to experience something cool that they have heard that park offers. Maybe it's watching their child meet a Disney princess, or maybe it is riding a new Rocky Mountain Construction roller coaster, or visiting Hogwarts Castle in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The form and format of the experience do not matter to the average consumer nearly as much as the quality of that experience does.
(Yes, there are fanatics out there who will ignore quality in favor of quantity. Just look at the people who will drive an hour to bag some Wacky Worm to inflate their coaster count. Heck, just look at people who actually keep track of their coaster count. Now that's great, and I am happy that people want to do that. But I am just saying that is not the average theme park customer experience.)
The problem for Disney — or any other themed entertainment company working on a metaverse experience — is that not many fans are looking to combine a world-class theme park attraction with a maybe-better-than-average iPhone game. If people really want to kill time in a queue, they are more likely to turn to truly excellent games and pastimes available on their phones rather than spend time with a mediocre offering from the park, even if it is the "official" interactive experience for the attraction they are waiting to ride or see.
Theme parks discovered in the past few years that almost no one wants to experience a virtual reality-based theme park attraction just for the experience of strapping on VR goggles. And if they do, they will do it just once — unless the experience is truly excellent, which too few theme park VR attractions were. I suspect that parks are going to discover the same with their metaverse initiatives.
But I hope that theme parks do not use guest indifference as an excuse to abandon attempts at blending the physical with the virtual. Because fans' problem is never with the new, the innovative, or the different. We will embrace those and have on countless occasions in the past. Our problem is with the mediocre, the confusing, or the superfluous.
The idea of the theme park metaverse makes great sense. But that idea needs to spawn a truly innovative and compelling attraction before theme park fans will embrace it.
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