Scott Hardie | February 29, 2024
I don't know how many people here are into theme parks like me, but I do know what I think will be the future of that business.

Theme parks are about immersion, but today, that only goes so far. The company will decorate the space around each attraction to look like it's all part of the same unified theme, and they'll put their employees in costumes and teach them to stay in character, and they'll open shops and restaurants nearby that extend the theme with further opportunities to separate you from your money. But ultimately, every guest receives more or less the same generic experience. You still feel like you, Mister or Missus Anonymous Tourist visiting a static location that treats you the same as thousands of other people every day.

Imagine a future in which the park not only recognizes you, but remembers what you've done and changes accordingly. Disney World and Disneyland have started to do this with "Galaxy's Edge," the Star Wars land: If you do well in the pilot-the-Millennium-Falcon ride and then later go to lunch, the waiter might greet you as the amazing pilot who helped the rebel cause. Build your own small droid in the droid workshop store (at a hefty cost) and it will come alive at certain opportunities, beeping and squawking and lighting up when it encounters droids made by other customers or certain costumed characters who work there. Universal Studios has begun to play with technology, such as selling wands in the Harry Potter lands that you can wave in front of certain displays around the park to make the objects come alive and dance as if animated by magic, but to my knowledge it's not yet personalized.

Disney placed a big bet on this future in the form of its Galactic Starcruiser hotel, a daylong immersive experience that let you role-play alongside paid employees who would give you rebel missions to enact on the premises. The experiment failed financially because there's not many people who are both giant Star Wars fans and can drop $6000 on a two-night stay for a couple, but I think implementation and marketing were the failure rather than the idea. Requiring people to stay overnight was seen as a way to justify the expensive experience, but in the public's mind, this made it a hotel that happened to involve role-playing instead of the other way around, and that's a pricey bill for a hotel. When Disney figures out a better way to create immersive experiences like this, where you wear a costume and take on a named identity and carry out tasks and play out a story that has multiple endings depending on the choices that you make... Holy cow, that's going to be amazing. It won't scale up to be done by thousands of people per day like a roller coaster, but it will be too expensive for most people anyway; figuring out the right balance between scale and cost and public perception will be key. Using technology to accomplish this goal, such as dynamic settings that move people around in maze-like settings that seclude them from other participants and AI that provides ever-evolving story details for the cast members to discuss in character, will help.

Ten years ago, ABC Television broadcast The Quest, a short reality competition series in which adults were dropped into a make-believe fantasy kingdom, eating and sleeping and conducting challenges in a real castle. Everyone around them was an actor in character, so they could walk up to a random background extra in the courtyard and ask about the show's story and have a conversation about it that enriched the experience. Here's a brief glimpse of what the show was like. The series was highly entertaining and I very much recommend it (Amazon, Apple TV+, and YouTube all have it; the less good sequel series featuring kids is skippable), but the reason why I mention it is because it's such a perfect demonstration of the concept of full immersion. If a theme park can figure out how to scale down a multi-day experience like that into something that a family can do in a day or less, and that contains the costs while still delivering the holy-crap-this-is-real excitement of full immersion, they'll really be on to something.

I think it's inevitable. I just wonder which theme park is going to be the first to crack the code that makes it a viable business option. Am I wrong?

Scott Hardie | February 29, 2024
As long as we're on the subject, Kelly found what has to be my favorite reaction to Disney closing the Galactic Starcruiser:

click image to zoom

Scott Hardie | June 27, 2024
Jenny Nicholson's epically long but very entertaining review of her Galactic Starcruiser experience has attracted a lot of attention. I agree with her about many of the things that Disney got wrong, especially the marketing (letting people think that this was a crazy expensive hotel instead of a 48-hour LARP experience was their first big blunder) and the idea that routine busywork, like scanning endless QR codes on cargo containers and then solving simple puzzles in an app for hours, would satisfy anyone's craving for an immersive experience. The gist that I get from her video is that Disney started with ambitious if misguided plans, and then cut the legs out from under the project by slashing its funding at some point, so the Starcruiser was forced to make do with cramped rooms, buggy apps, overtaxed performers, underwhelming tasks, and so on.

I continue to believe that a LARP experience is the way forward for this kind of entertainment, and that all someone has to do is crack the problem of scale. When touch-screen technology first became really good in the 2000s, Microsoft saw it and said "let's make a table" and it was a laughable flop, whereas Apple saw it and said "let's make a phone" and it became some of the most popular technology on the planet. Galactic Starcruiser was the table, but the phone is still out there waiting to be invented. A fortune awaits whoever figures this out and executes it well.

Samir Mehta | June 27, 2024
[hidden by request]

Scott Hardie | July 4, 2024
You might be right. I do find it amusing that I am so interested in Walt Disney World and am arguing here in favor of experiences that immerse you in Disney IP even though I have very little interest in Disney IP myself. I love the World for a variety of reasons, but the company cramming Woody & Buzz or Russell & Dug into another attraction is not one of them, and if anything, I think they're overly invested in aging IP that won't always be so valuable.

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