Are Theme Parks Wasting Time Designing a 'Metaverse'?

November 17, 2020, 7:37 PM · 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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Replies (22)

November 17, 2020 at 7:51 PM


November 17, 2020 at 10:05 PM

Seeing as I still use a regular cell phone I got in 2013, not into this either.

November 17, 2020 at 11:45 PM

Same as Aaron - put that stinkin' phone away!

November 18, 2020 at 12:32 AM

Seems like Robert read the comments lol.

While I agree that theme parks, like everything, have to evolve and adapt to current times, theme parks are special in that they don't need to adapt to certain entertainment changes. The phone is an amazing technological advance for society. It has truly helped us in so many ways, but it causes a huge distraction, a distraction that has led some to an addiction. Theme parks are suppose to help remove us from the regular world and help us have fun/ let our worries go for a little. With phones, these problems can still persist. Now phones do have a great function in park wait times and park daily updates, but apart from that, it should never be used(... unless you're in a two hour line for a ride).

The Galaxy Edge's datapad seemed cool but I never used it. It seemed like it wouldn't change my experience much. However, what the Wizarding World has done with wands is exactly what should have happened. Phones remind us of our day to day life, but an object within a land can give us a better sense of immersion. Seems universal will utilize this idea again with Nintendo world and those "magic band" type wristbands. The idea of further interaction with the world around you is an awesome concept and a greater step into furthering immersion, but don't use the phone. Disney could have sold actual "old" datapads for like $30-40. Could've been a busted transmitter with a screen that could have acted like the app but with a bit more functionality to it. Oh well...

November 18, 2020 at 12:57 AM

Waiting in line sucks, we know that. I commend Disney trying to improve the experience but I know of something that will instantly make the experience of waiting in line better... air conditioning! I am upset that Disney designs these wonderful new attractions without an indoor queue. What the heck! Slinky Dog Dash has some measly fans but an indoor queue with AC would make the long wait that much more bearable. Yes it is an outdoor ride, but Hagrid's over at IOA has a long, lengthy queue away from the elements with cool air being pumped in. Instead of these phone apps, Disney needs to invest in improving the wait experience with the most basic, all-inclusive way and that is to provide more shade and indoor waiting areas such as Toy Story Mania and Space Mountain (Disney World versions).

Don't give me any of this garbage about theming. Ask anyone who visits Disney World in the summer whether they prefer theming or an indoor area with AC to wait in line for a ride and the people will speak. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ratatouille, Tron... man I hope for the sake of the summer crowds that Disney can come through with some comfortable waiting conditions.

November 18, 2020 at 1:28 AM

A huge reason people visit theme parks it to take a break from the outside world. However, the more you need to bring in from that world to enjoy the offerings of the park, the harder it is to become immersed in the environment offered. While phones are a great tool and certainly have their uses, they should never be relied upon as a critical part of a day at a theme park, and I'd even say the dependence on them at Disney and Universal right now is borderline too much. Using them as an attraction not only limits who can participate, but it also cheapens the experience and raises a question as to why pay admission to play a game when you could play something better outside the gates. At the very most, phones in parks should be used for enhancements to the guest experience that do not in any way compromise the visit of those who do not utilize them.

November 18, 2020 at 6:48 AM

Agree with AJ. I also think that Disney has made a mistake using phones as an essential element in the parks. Even my kids that use phone all the time think it detracts from the overall enjoyment. It is better to see it snow in a room at Hogwarts than to play a second rate game on the phone. Another point: there is new management and a pandemic that may allow Disney to walk back what I believe to be the biggest mistake they ever made, and it is related to phones- Fast Pass Plus. It has made members of my family run back to the room with temper tantrums. I have seen guests completely confused and exasperated with it. Now is the time to revamp a system that I think makes the lines worse, not better, and makes you not be able to enjoy the vacation with the 30 and 60 day pre-planning requirement.

November 18, 2020 at 9:59 AM

I don't even own a smartphone, and hate the fact that you can't even access the most popular ride in WDW without one. People are fixated on those tech toys all day long, why would they need to play with them in the immersive world of a theme park, too?

November 18, 2020 at 10:14 AM

My brother and I visited Galaxy's Edge in Sept of 2019. We both excitedly downloaded the appropriate apps and started "interacting" with the amazing world around us. Several of the interactions were touted as "multi-player" (or something similar) - and we really tried - but, after a while, it devolved to he and I shambling through the cue for Smuggler's Run separately staring at our phones. Before long we put them away (and kept them away) and began noticing the environment around us - old school style. Much better. I'm not against the concept, but I just haven't seen it live up to the hopes expressed.

November 18, 2020 at 10:15 AM

This right here "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", nail on the head. Yes, im all in for the immersivenes that is provided with the wands at Universal, but leave the phones out of it.

November 18, 2020 at 11:18 AM

I don't mind it. You never know where the next innovation will come from. And I really like the ambitious nature of the "park as a platform" approach.

November 18, 2020 at 11:18 AM

WDW all but requiring a phone has created the "haves and the have nots" scenario that make for an extremely unequal playing field. Sure you scored your Rise boarding pass but how much anxiety did you have up to that moment? "OK! Switched to my provider's network instead of Disney wifi. Is Verizon better because that family next to us has AT&T and they seem awful confident! Why didn't I get a Galaxy 20 Ultra because my S8 isn't going to be fast enough!" I'm sorry....I teach technology and I love it more than anyone but I agree with everyone here. Use it to check in with your family while at the theme park. That's enough!

November 18, 2020 at 12:12 PM

I'm going to say it - I don't necessarily mind using my cell phone in a theme park, nor would I mind using any sort of other connected device that enhances my experience in a theme park. However, the issue with Disney's approach is that they tout an improved, immersive, and personalized experience, but everything they've done to achieve those goals has fallen short. Having a cell phone at WDW and Disneyland is a NECESSARY EVIL because Disney gives frequent users a huge advantage over luddites in expedited and more frequent access to attractions. However, the experience ENDS there, and everything else Disney claims using your phone in the parks should do to improve your interaction is utter hogwash. Yes, users can improve their understanding of what's going on around them and view some cool AR (and real life) affects through their phone, but it's more of a distraction and time-waster than anything else. Sure, it's cool to "hack" a Galaxy's Edge control panel with your Datapad, but it's not any different than if they had a big red button on the panel that said "push" on it and lights, blips, and beeps went off when you pressed it. It's cool to play different interactive phone games while you're standing in line (particularly for an attraction that doesn't have FP like Peter Pan at Disneyland) to pass the time walking back and forth in switchbacks where the scenery doesn't change. However, it's no different than playing Candy Crush, Head's Up, or any other cell phone game with your friends/family while you're queuing.

This entire "metaverse" is nonsense until Imagineers actually give us something that's truly new and different. Interactive theme park props and elements have been around for decades, and performing that interaction with your cell phone is no different than pressing a physical button on a panel or having the element on a timer.

Previous attempts at creating immersive and interactive experiences had a "carrot" at the end of the stick to encourage guests to participate - A Pirate's Adventure has a PotC FP at the end of the journey, while Soorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has those collectable cards. These new virtual experiences like the Datapad and in-queue games/activites give users NOTHING while touting such great advantages (Galaxy's Edge inhabitants are supposed to interact differently to users with high scores, but we have NEVER experienced that either in DL or WDW). Until guests have a motivation to use these "tools", they will just be there as a sideshow/accessory to the real-life theme park experience.

The same story has repeated itself all the way back to when MagicBands were introduced. Imagineers touted those as the impressive, interactive, incredible devices that would greatly improve the guest experience. It's great that all you have to do is tap your wrist on a Mickey Head to buy something, open your resort room, or to use a FP+, but as far as interactivity within WDW, MagicBand NEVER lived up to what Imagineers said it would do. Yes, after 5 years, the system FINALLY can put your ride photo/video straight onto your PhotoPass without having to select it at the unload platform (though you also still get a few photos that aren't yours too), and we did have Mickey say our name once before the talking Mickey was swept under the rug, but all the other interactive advantages Imagineers advertised MagicBand could do never materialized. The same thing is happening with the Disney Parks App and other so-called "interactive" aspects of new attractions. Imagineers talk a big game expecting guests to fall for their marketing spiels and highfalutin technical terms, but theme parks guests are getting more savvy and see right through their flim flam. Mandini's talk was frankly insulting to even the average theme park guest, and almost like a snake oil salesmen. Until theme park designers start to respect the intelligence and knowledge of their guests, all of these attempts to increase the interactivity of parks will continue to fail.

November 18, 2020 at 11:56 AM

I have to agree with many of the opinions here. I would much rather a Theme Park Experience that would be better enjoyed if I left my phone in the room, rather than bring it with me.

November 18, 2020 at 12:14 PM

REAL interactive magic ("magic" ?) only happens when you're 100% free of any kind of recognisable tech devices.
Especially those that are your own. Like phones.
But also those that you must wear to be able to see what you're supposed to see. Like annoying 3-D glasses. Or bulky heavy super-annoying virtual reality masks.
The STUFF you must carry, destroys the experience, because it destroys the "magic".
For me, all of that is a total NO-GO zone.
The spin-doctor marketing talk behind it, indeed does not even matter.

I exclude them in my own concept design advices...

November 18, 2020 at 12:25 PM

I agree with an above poster complaining about Fastpass +... It's an abomination! But, we have to remember that Disney is a business interested in making money, lots of it. By allowing their hotel guests to get first dibs on top attractions a full 30 days in advance from non-resort folks it encourages people to splurge on their overpriced, and at times severely, hotel rates. It's a business move guys. It is not going away. Depending on their level of accommodation, Disney will charge up to triple the amount of comparable off resort stays. Shaving off hours worth of wait is a huge incentive for those folks paying to stay on site.

November 18, 2020 at 12:41 PM

I guess these might work for the younger set thus this group not getting the value. I’d like to see Disney tweak its ride reservation to once you enter the park and based on current wait times, capacity and availability, you make reservations or stand in line as in the past. Makes the day a little more adventurous instead of walking around waiting for some ridiculous sub par attraction reservations. Let the hotel guests in an hour early etc upping the value of on property stays like Universal and Disney does now.

November 18, 2020 at 2:50 PM

Wait a second what does the headline phrase "waste of time" imply? Is Disney playing beat the clock?

November 18, 2020 at 3:37 PM

I mostly agree with Russell. The potential for something great is there, but we haven't see it yet. Most recently, where is the great interactivity with cast members we were promised when Galaxy's Edge was being built? Things like crashing the Falcon on MF:SR, then having a cast member interact with us later about it? It sounded really cool when it was first announced, but then it quietly went away. Maybe the technology didn't work well. Maybe it was too hard to upkeep. Or maybe Disney realized it was not cost efficient and decided to use our datapad cell phones to perform Wizarding World tricks. Regardless, the best stuff parks have to offer is still what is around us and not is going on on our cell phones.

November 18, 2020 at 4:22 PM

"Wait a second what does the headline phrase "waste of time" imply? Is Disney playing beat the clock?"

You know what he means TH. The question comes down to whether Disney is wasting money and resources creating and developing this "metaverse" that guests don't want or need.

For me it boils down to Disney talking on their pedestal down at guests telling them that they will be able to do all of these amazing things in the parks that makes their experience more interactive. However, time after time, when those interactive systems are deployed to the guests, they NEVER live up to the promises, and frequently just become more obtrusive to the guest experience. If spending time and resources ends up alienating guests, making them despise the planning process of visiting WDW, and forcing them to use their person cell phones (of various generations and abilities, assuming they even have one) to tap into the interactivity of these additions, then Disney very well may be wasting their time/money with this effort, just like they did with MagicBand.

November 18, 2020 at 4:59 PM

"NEVER"? (In all CAPS no less)

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

- Walt Disney

November 18, 2020 at 5:10 PM

@Sarah, u bring up a really good point about the wifi. Fortunately we were able to get a boarding pass for RoR last month, but depending on what cast member you asked, you got a different explanation whether to use the parks wifi or not. Some were saying "well if you have Verizon, switch to our wifi" or "don't use Disney's wifi because everyone else is already on it slowing it down". Once I secured my boarding pass, others who were in line with me asked me help them obtain one, which of course was gone in just seconds so it was pointless.

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