Earlier this week I was listening to Lou Mongello’s excellent interview with Tony Baxter. This interview was fairly refreshing; I’ve met Mr. Baxter before, and even with creepy, random fans like me he’s a relatively no-nonsense guy who doesn’t speak with PR-driven restraint. (I’m looking at you, Test Track chat!) At one point in the interview, Mr. Baxter made the comment that he disliked the new digitally-driven changes to queues and attractions being referred to as more immersive and interactive (I’m paraphrasing based upon memory–listen to the interview yourself for the precise quote) than past experiences. To him, the most interactive experience in the parks is the Jungle Cruise. This is something with which I whole-heartedly agree, and not just about the Jungle Cruise. A great number of Disney attractions are interactive, as any attraction that places the guest in the midst of the experience is an interactive attraction. These fully encapsulating interactive attractions of the past like Jungle Cruise, Horizons, or even Tower of Terror actually execute on the premise of interactive entertainment better than the “touch random screens and press buttons” style of new interactive. At least in my opinion.
Unfortunately, societal expectations, preferences, and ideas are a moving target, and what was popular with one generation doesn’t always resonate with the next generation. As younger generations are more familiar with a type of interactive where their actions have a causal impact on their experiences, Disney is shifting its attention to a different type of digital interaction. Since listening to that interview, I’ve thought about this more and more, and the implications it has for the Disney theme park experience going forward. While the potential for these kind of experiences excites me, there are some pitfalls that concern me.
The most obvious pitfall, and one that is commonly cited in discussions about new interactive attractions, is that the extraordinary dimensionality present in so many attraction sets will slowly become a relic of the past. More and more new attractions are screen-based, and while I enjoy a number of these attractions, I think there’s something to be said for a fully dimensional set-based attraction. Toy Story Mania is a fun attraction that I enjoy playing, but given what it is and because I own the Wii game by the same name, there’s absolutely no way its waits at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are justifiable for me. Essentially, it’s a glorified video game, albeit a fun one, that lacks the heart of a unique Disney attraction that you need to visit a theme park to experience. For lack of a more articulate explanation, “there is no there there.”
Similar criticism can be made (and has been made) about the Spaceship Earth descent, Monsters Laugh Floor, and a few other recent attractions and queues. It seems that guests aren’t happy unless they’re touching something or somehow an active participant in a game-like experience, even if they’re an active participant in something that is devoid of substance and quality.
Shifting gears a bit, this type of interactivity isn’t just bad for attractions when taken to an extreme. It’s bad for the guest experience in general and is prevalent beyond attractions. The biggest culprit? Smartphones. I already established that I’m a surly old-timer with my post last week on political correctness in the parks, so my stance here should come as no surprise.
Being glued to our smartphones or similarly distracted from the true experience of the theme parks is the biggest pitfall of the “new” interactive way of experiencing the parks, and something many, including myself, are guilty of doing. We check-in to locations, share photos and thoughts about what we’re doing via social media, check and enter wait times in Lines, and in many ways attempt to share the experience that we should be having with others instead of having the experience ourselves. By diverting even some of our attention from the parks and attractions we’re supposed to be enjoying, we do not get the full experience that the Imagineers put so much painstaking effort into creating.
Of course, we get the general gist of it, and most of us probably aren’t texting while riding Space Mountain, but there’s so much more to the Disney theme park experience than what occurs in the four minute intervals between the time we board an attraction and the time we de-board. The entire theme park is an artistic creation, all of which is meant to digested and enjoyed. The parks themselves are like a real-life video game, and as guests we explore them much like we control a character in a platform adventure video game. The parks aren’t merely a sum of the snippets of time on-board each attraction, they’re so much more, which is what makes Disney theme parks so special. Each time we attempt to multitask or share our experience with others, we miss part of the experience we should be having.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not lecturing down from a pulpit on high, admonishing everyone. I am just as guilty of this as many others. Even though I make a conscious effort to avoid using my phone in the parks, I take a lot of photos. Each time I look through that viewfinder, my experience is diminished. Because of this, I’ve recently made an effort to put the camera away or avoid high use of it for chunks of the day, but I still find myself using it a lot. This idea that we need to constantly immerse ourselves in our gadgets has become ingrained in us, and is a tough fixation to break.
With the continued roll-out of Next-Gen and as elements like My Disney Experience expand, immersing ourselves in the experience instead of our gadgets is going to become more difficult. There will be more and more “important” reasons to pull out that iPhone and distract ourselves. There will be digital FastPasses to get, digital ADRs to make, phone-based interactions that will be triggered based upon certain locations, and a myriad of other possibilities presently unknown. As this happens, the new digital immersion will increase, displacing the traditional immersion of the parks.
In some regards, this new digital component will probably offer a lot of benefits to the experience, and I’m excited about the possibilities. But the old-timer in me fears what it will do to the classic style of immersion and interactivity. Will guests miss the hilarious puns and gags in the queue for MuppetVision 3D because they’re too busy watching a customized video “hello” message from Gonzo that was triggered by their location in the park? Will future generations even notice the names on the Main Street windows, or will they be too busy darting from portal to portal waving cards at video screens? We can experience a lot of great things through our smartphones and tablets at any ‘ole time. We cannot experience the rich dimensional design and tactile detail of the parks from our couch. There’s no app for that.
I know it won’t be easy, and it goes against the grain of the direction we’re heading not just with the theme park experience, but in many aspects of life, but it’s time to experience the parks firsthand, with as minimal distractions as possible. Society is beginning to recognize the dangers of distracted driving and how that doesn’t allow us to fully “experience” our surroundings while operating a vehicle. It’s time we as Disney theme park guests recognize the dangers of distracted theme park enjoyment and start more fully experiencing the amazing theme park experience that’s all around us.
What do you think about the “new” type of theme park immersion? Are you glued to your smartphone in the parks? Are you reading this from Walt Disney World right now?! Share your thoughts in the comments…unless you’re in Walt Disney World, in which case wait until you get home.