I don't want to live in a metaverse.
"Metaverse" became one of 2021's top buzzwords. Facebook even renamed its parent company "Meta" as a gesture toward the concept. Disney Parks managers have pushed the creation of a theme park metaverse as one of the company's goals. But many people I've talked with still have no idea what the heck a "metaverse" is supposed to be.
Many people conflate a metaverse with a multiverse, especially with the Marvel Cinematic Universe now going all in on the latter concept. While a multiverse is supposed to be the simultaneous existence of multiple parallel universes, a metaverse is a combination of technical elements that allow people to live, work and/or play in a persistent online virtual environment.
But I do not want to live in a persistent online environment. Hearing music through speakers can't beat listening to the live voices of a choir or an orchestra sharing a concert hall with you. Real life mountain views, ocean surf, and desert sunsets simply overwhelm their digital recreations. Even as an introvert with sometimes crippling social anxiety, I still want to see, talk to and maybe even hug actual people from time to time.
I love and cover theme parks, and an online virtual environment is the antithesis of what a theme park should be. Theme parks make possible stepping into fantastic and impossible environments. They make the virtual real, while the metaverse makes what is real virtual.
While some of the technology associated with the emerging metaverse offers enticing possibilities to enhance themed entertainment experiences, I hope that the people who design theme parks and other attractions never deploy them in ways which minimize the physical experience that makes these destinations unique within the entertainment industry. Look, I am all for developing new technology. But the Internet and communication technology should provide ways to discover and connect with more in real life. It should not become a replacement for that life.
Unfortunately, some of the new tech that theme parks have been deploying - in part due to the ongoing pandemic - have begun to turn guests away from the immersive experience of visiting a unique physical environment and instead bring them back into the metaverse-like digital environment that many of us visit theme parks to escape.
Virtual reality offers amazing potential for home gaming and entertainment. It helps architects and designers, and their clients, walk through the spaces they have created before the costly process of construction begins. VR can help professionals from physicians to the military practice new techniques in a no-risk environment. It can allow strangers to meet without the prejudice of physical appearances. This is amazing stuff, so I understand why theme park designers would find it enticing. But I never want to don a VR headset in a theme park again.
When fans visit theme parks, they want a different experience from what they can enjoy in front of their TVs or behind VR headsets at home. And they definitely want something different than what they go through at work. That's why so many fans have complained about the spread of media in theme park attractions. Sometimes a designer needs media to create an effect or portray a familiar face without breaking a budget. But when theme park media don't feel any different from what fans can find in a multiplex or, worse, at home, designers start losing the case for spending money to visit their parks.
Much of the newest tech in the parks extends beyond attractions, however, especially at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. With mobile ordering, virtual queuing, recommended itineraries, photo filters, and various interactive experiences, theme parks are deploying more and more ways to direct our attention from the wonders around us in the parks to the same mobile phone screens we look at so often outside the parks.
Of course using your phone while in the parks can enhance the experience. I loved mobile order when it debuted, but it hasn't scaled (in part for reasons I will go into tomorrow). I prefer getting a Lightning Lane return time via my phone rather than having to walk across the park just for that, like I did with the original Fastpass. Being able to check wait times via an app helps me make better decisions about what to do, when. An in-park interactive experience is a better way to kill time in a stalled line than using my phone for something that takes me out of the park experience, such as checking email or social media.
But let my screen time inside the parks be an enhancement and not a requirement. Someone who cannot, or chooses not to, use a park's app ought to be able to enjoy the full value of what they paid to visit, rather than having to accept a substantially diminished experience or spend extra time queuing for employee help.
Yesterday I wrote about how Disney effectively has raised prices on many of its most enthusiastic visitors through reservation limits on annual passes and new upcharges such as a Disney Genie+. While I argued that might be a smart business move for Disney, it still hurts loyal fans who had enjoyed the great value they had been getting from their Disney visits. A step forward for one forces a step back for another.
Many Disney fans also are complaining about having to spend more time on Disney Parks' apps whenever they visit. While Disney and other theme park companies are right to pursue new technology, there remains a risk that deploying it in the wrong ways could end up hurting the guest experience that the new tech was supposed to help.
And that risk ain't virtual - it's as real as an Orlando afternoon thunderstorm.
Update: Here is that promised article on the mobile order problem, among other things: Walt Disney World's Biggest Problem? An Attack of the Clones
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