The Pitfalls Of New “Immersion”

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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 becomeĀ ingrainedĀ 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. ;)

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Posted on August 31, 2012

30 Responses to “The Pitfalls Of New “Immersion””

  • We leave 1 cell phone in the car, and bring one into the parks, but most times put it in our bag in the locker (for emergency use). We like to use it for pictures sometimes, but for the most part, our times most enjoyed are sans phone.

  • For me it started when they put the video screens of Tarzan in the Tarzan Treehouse. It was the beginning of the cheap-looking video screen in the attraction plague that I fear will continue.
    My compliments however to the Imagineers whi worked the LCDs into both Nemo attractions seamlessly.

  • we bring our phones in to the parks for 2 reasons.
    1. to meet up after our party split to enjoy different attractions (though this does NOT happen often)
    2. to check LINES for wait times

    my ringer and vibration are off at all other times. though it does make for a handy clock so we don’t miss the shows and parades :)

  • I enjoyed your thoughts. It’s interesting to me because, when we were in the parks this year, I was annoyed that I kept forgetting to use my iphone to help me map out my destinations or track ADR reminders I put in my calendar. I was too caught up enjoying the parks to remember to use my planning tools. And as I am planning my 2013 trip, I have been telling myself not to forget to use my new iphone apps that Disney is promoting. But after reading this, I am feeling so much better about forgetting the smart stuff & really just relaxing & taking it all in, over & over again :) We still need to have our phones with us though, it makes it much easier to separate & regroup. As for taking photos – I live behind my camera taking pictures of my daughters, and while I make an effort to put the camera away at many times, I do cherish the pictures when we get home. My daughters & I spend countless hours reliving the vacation through the pictures & videos.

    • I can totally understand wanting the photos of your daughter. Believe me, I’m not advocating stopping taking photos completely! I’m just advocating a healthy balance with less emphasis on gadgets.

      I think the “distracted driving” laws are a good analogy. They don’t prohibit you from carrying your phone in your car, period, they just make it illegal to use the phone while driving. Likewise, I’m not advocating leaving your phone in the room–it serves many truly important purposes–just being mindful of when and how often you use it.

      It sounds to me like you’ve already struck the right balance, so you don’t need my advice!

  • I agree wholeheartedly. I may only be 19, but it has been easy for me to notice a huge shift in the definition of “interactive” at the Disney Parks. Some of the stuff that they are introducing is really intriguing to the eye, like The Magic The Memories And You, but there are many other things such as The Seas With Nemo & Friends, which allows you to see the animations on screens as they swim around. I’m am hoping that with the completion of Fantasyland, some of the creative aspects and dimensional scene-work will be reintroduced into the lives of Disney Park guests and will break the new age technology spell.

  • I was thinking about how many photos and videos my husband takes even before you got to that part. We only use the phone for lines info and even then not much because we strictly follow our never fail touring plan. However, he is constantly capturing everything, even though we’re there at least once a year. He asked me to help him video the safari, and I refused (not nice, I know) because I wanted to actually enjoy it. I think maybe for some people, like him, they actually do have fun taking the pictures, but I don’t get it.

    • I’m also one of those people! For me, photographing the Disney theme parks is a hobby in itself, and a big part of why we go. However, I have to remind myself of why that’s a hobby in the first place and the even bigger reason why we go, and that’s the excellent overall story and art of the parks. It’s all about balance!

  • Interesting post, Tom. In a way, all our connectivity and interact in the present will ultimately service to make us less connected in the future. For example, I’ve had limitless fun with other guests reminiscing about past Disney attractions. This activity may eventually go by the wayside when few of us actually share the same experiences. If my Spaceship Earth and your Spaceship Earth become totally different, how can we bond over those experiences later on?

  • Made me think about how shocked I was watching the Olympics Opening Ceremonies this year. ALL the young athletes walking in during the Parade of Nations were filming themselves and each other. I’ve never seen so many smart phones up in the air. It sort of made me sad. Now, if I were one of those kids, would I have done the same thing? Probably. How could you resist capturing one of the biggest moments of your life? I get that. But I also know it took away from the magic of the moment. It’s just sort of a weird time we are in — socially and technologically.

  • I am not a fan of these “interactions” in queues. I get the want to entertain while people wait. What’s wrong with talking to one another? Or, plan what we’ll do after riding the attraction? Guests need to just wait in line and get over the fact that waiting is part of life. The game at Space Mountain in WDW might be fun, but the game ends, and the line has advanced so far you can’t see the end.

  • I completely disagree about Toy Story Mania. It’s my favorite ride, I can’t get enough of it. I have the Wii game & it’s nothing like the actual attraction. At first I thought you were joking about that, since there were so many complaints when the game came out.

    • I did call Toy Story Mania fun, I just said its waits are unjustifiable (at DHS) for me. I would never wait 2 hours for it.

      That said, it’s not even close to my favorite attraction. I haven’t done thorough rankings, but I doubt that it’d be in my Top 30. What do you like so much about it? Specifically, how do you see it as superior to classics like Haunted Mansion?

      • I’m not the OP, but TSMM is definitely in my top 5. First, the queue for the WDW version is amazing. Even though Mr. Potato Head operates in B-mode most of the time, it’s incredibly fun to interact with him. TSMM is also an attraction that almost anyone can ride and enjoy, vs. thrill rides like Tower of Terror. To me, part of Walt’s vision for the parks was a place where families, parents and kids, could enjoy rides together. He sat on the park bench upset that he couldn’t enjoy the carousel with his daughters. TSMM is a perfect example of that kind of ride, one that almost all ages can ride and enjoy, together, and laugh about afterward. TSMM also has great re-ride value, vs. rides like Haunted Mansion and other dark rides that I practically have memorized by now.

        I don’t wait 2 hours for TSMM, but then again, I don’t wait 2 hours for ANY ride, so I don’t think that’s a fair way to rank it. I do wake up extra early on my planned DHS day so that I can easily get at least one TSMM fastpass, ride it twice right away, and then head to Star Tours for a few rides before coming back for a second TSMM fastpass.

        I also appreciate that, in the long term, TSMM is going to be easier to maintain and upgrade than a set-based attraction. (Then again, Soarin’, another fave of mine, should be easy to upgrade or at least re-master, and they haven’t bothered with that yet.)

  • Wonderful, thought provoking article. As a Disneyholic I love what you are saying about enjoying the parks for their own intrinsic design and detail. The environment is so rich and dynamic that you could never see everything even in a lifetime of visits. I often find myself wishing I could get people to slow down and enjoy less attractions more thoroughly. Fortunately my husband and I go without the kids occasionally so we can do just that. As a parent and grandparent however, I love having the convenience of cell phones and instant social media so we can seperate from the group or let our older kids seperate from us and we can find each other with ease. I also love taking pictures to share with folks back home and friends who maybe don’t love Disney as much as we do, but still love us and like to know what we are doing. I have also found at least at Epcot, the “interactive” game whether in its Kimpossible or Phinneas and Ferb formation, helps the younger members of our group become thought engaged in what they are seeing. My you gets son even went from hating Epcot to finding and enjoying and even loving little details around the countries that he would have never noticed otherwise.

    • I absolutely agree with what you’re saying. The World Showcase interactive game is a perfect example of how technology can be used as a “gateway” for younger generations to experience portions of the parks that otherwise may not appeal to them and enjoy those details on their own terms. While I’m not a fan of SOTMK for other reasons, I do see the value in this type of experience.

      Everything, even touchscreens, social media in the parks, and Duffy the Bear ;) can be good in moderation. It’s all about finding the right balance!

  • The parks need to meet their guests where they are, and not how they used to be or how parks (or other guests) wish they were. That being the case, the connectedness and digital interactivity expectations are part of the givens, and you can’t just talk people out of their wants. They want it, and it’s THEIR want. If you’re Disney (et al), you take their money because you’re offering to entertain THEM. Unless you want them to vote with their feet and see the other guy’s show, it means performing what they find entertaining. They don’t pay to participate in what you want to perform for them (cf. indy films vs. blockbusters).
    I’d gently argue that these observations have a little bit of “hey you kids get offa my lawn” to them, other than the fact that it’s clear that the observations come from a good “they don’t know what they are missing” place. That is true, but that’s the guest you’ve got and Disney has admirably gone to meet them … sometimes. A photo I wish I had captured was a full-on Bippity-Boo’d tiny little girl in the blue princess dress sitting on the floor of the dark queue room outside of Star Tours at DLR, face illuminated by the glow of Dad’s iPhone. I contrast this with the children – and parents – who hooted and giggled for 50 minutes of the new queue at Pooh in MK. The time even flew for me, and I was a solo mature adult. They arrived at the point of vehicle load in a happy state and were already immersed in the theme, whereas the Star Tours DLR girl was cranky and bored and so completely over whatever had driven her to want to cooperate with the rest of the family when they joined the queue in the first place.
    The queue is an opportunity to condition the mood and responses that you want them to have when they board the ride vehicle. Likewise, the Spaceship Earth descent is a playful compensation for ignoring the temptations to exit the ride vehicles or otherwise get up to no good, and I think it’s crafty and clever. The fact that people have personalized versions of the Spaceship Earth experience or can compete for High Score on TSMM does give them a shared experience. It’s not the shared experience of having heard the identical narrative which may have been received as interesting to some but uninteresting to others. Instead, the shared experience is that of having participated in something tailored and customized, and people can bond over comparing. As an analogy, the legacy model is like a book club where everyone reads and discusses the same book, while the new model is more like getting together to compare and trade comic books or baseball cards, which is equally a classic model of social interaction. It’s different than the past era of ride and queue design. Incorporating digital media in the queue and parts of the attraction is a way to intercept the laser-like hypnotic spell of the Facebook from friends back home and lock them on to the tractor beam of the park’s narratives (if I have invoked the science fiction metaphor correctly). I guess what I am essentially saying sounds like “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” but I am also arguing it is not necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing. What my child expects as a norm of environmental interaction in general, and the way you “use” an amusement attraction in particular, is different from what my parents expected as a norm, and that ship has sailed.

  • I totally agree! Sometimes I wish we lived in a much “simpler” time when we did not have all the technology we have today.

  • I couldn’t agree more! I think this new focus on “immersion” has gone overboard and is not very well done in most cases. Simply pressing buttons on a screen is not “immersion” to me – I’d much prefer to be surrounded by the physical & tactile attraction that look at a computer screen. I think kids today grow up being way too tied to their phones, iPads, etc and can’t enjoy their simple surroundings anymore. Society has grown so impatient and ADD and I don’t think it should be furthered & supported by these changes at the theme parks.

  • I use all of our wonderful technology to plan my trip. I spend months checking the crowd calendar and looking at line wait times to plot out where I want to be and what I want to do when I get to Disney. Being able to take a break from work to check out one of my Disney websites thrills me. Because of the technology I can use, my excitement builds every day that I am planning my trip. But when I get there… I put it all away and soak up everything the “World” has to offer. From the minute I drive under the signs in to Walt Disney World, until the time we drive away (with tears in my eyes), I escape in to the world created for just that purpose. That is how I enjoy the old and the new.

  • “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.”
    Exactly. That’s why we enter the park with phones off and ready to enjoy all the Imagineers have chosen to create for us. Looking down at your electronic device is something you can do at home or at work for free. I am already immersed in a 3-D game far better than anything on any screen I’ve ever seen when I’m in a Disney park.
    Excellent article; thanks for sharing!

  • I think you’ve got two separate points going on here, or maybe even three, and I agree at least in part with all of them.

    1. Neither my wife nor I have ever brought a phone of any kind into a Disney Park and we’ve never felt like we missed having one. And it’s important to remember that whole big families and groups have been visiting Disney World as long as its been open and only in the very recent past have things like smart-phones even existed. It is perfectly possible to split your group and meet up later without needing an Apple product. Groups have been doing it in places scarier than Disney World since the beginning of human history.

    2. Interactive queues are a totally different phenomenon altogether from the use of distracting personal devices. Like it or not, interactive and digital elements in queues are now part of the fun and should be considered among the important details to be savored instead of personal devices. I for one happen to really enjoy the games inside the Space Mountain queue, and I really, really loved the old nothing-to-see-here Space Mountain queue just for the sense of anticipation. Some queues have been undeniably improved by creative touches. The Soarin’ queue would be unbearable without either a lot of design elements or something to do, and the Imagineers went with something to do. Some rides favor design elements as the distraction, and those are great too. But they serve the same purpose, and the rest is all just splitting hairs.

    3. I do happen to agree with your take on mostly-digital attractions like Toy Story Mania. I absolutely agree that it’s a glorified video game. That doesn’t make it anything less than great fun, but I do think it’s far less special than those attractions that immerse you in a physical environment. I love video games, probably too much (ask my wife), and I love Toy Story Mania, but it will never ascend to the level of Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean for me. The joy of those rides is finding and savoring innumerable details in a fully engrossing physical environment, in enjoying the illusion of physically being in a totally “different” space. To me, it’s a much more powerful experience.

  • I tend to agree with you, but my 4 and 6-year-old sons love the TVs, touchscreens, and button pushing. I can point out the beauty of the parks and the wonderful details in the queues until I am blue in the face but they want to see some video or play a game. Kids are growing up with these elements and they are going to continue to expect them, so they certainly aren’t going away.

  • One of the wonderful things about our 2 week holiday to WDW was that we couldn’t use our phones at all! We are from the UK and roaming charges are just too expensive to even consider using a smartphone, so for 2 blissful weeks there was no phone calls, no text messaging and no surfing. As my 15 year old daughter is usually glued to her phone, I wasn’t sure how she would cope, but after a day she didn’t even miss it. We had a wonderful time, noticed loads of little details we’d never seen during previous visits, and didn’t even think about our phones at all – mind you, as soon as we were back in the airport terminal in the UK, she was straight onto the phone checking all her messages of the last 2 weeks – but it was good whilst it lasted!

  • DS9: Dad, you forgot to pack the Hidden Mickey book!
    Dad: No, I didn’t, I left it home on purpose.
    DS9: But you said we were having a contest to see how many we could find this trip.
    Dad: That’s right!
    DS9: So how are we going to be able to find them now?
    Dad: (Silence, Dad peers over the top of his glasses and raises an eyebrow.)
    DS9: And having the book would kinda be like we were “cheating”?
    Dad: (Smile of approval for having a kid who “gets” my point.)

  • What the Imagineers need to be working on is something that will deactivate a cell phone when the person steps into the stretching room at the Haunted Mansion. We were at at DL last month and this woman’s glowing phone totally ruined the atmosphere. She even continued to text during the walk to the Doom Buggies!

  • I’m always torn on this topic but keep falling back to the belief that all of this next gen stuff is going to be good for the parks. Let’s put aside the economic and environmental impact that cutting down on printed materials will have and just look at the intentions of most of the changes. The apps and digital fast passes are going to cut down on stress in the parks tremendously. No more missing your window to ride space mountain because the 35 minute wait on Peter pans flight was actually an hour and 35 minutes and you lost track of your return time because the kids are restless and you wife wore heels…(look around, it happens)No more disappointed son that missed Indiana jones stunt spectacular because his sister wanted to watch Beauty and the beast and the dad didn’t realize those shows have limited showings…you get the idea. With the app you plan your day out easily and quickly in the morning and then get reminded of things with a push notification. If anything, you are staring less at a paper map and spending MORE time taking in the details of the park.

    As for the people that constantly stare at their phones facebooking and tweeting more then a tiki bird, they are most likely people that come to the parks so often that it’s just an everyday thing to them, or they just aren’t the type that would ever pick up on or take the time to figure out what that license plate number means in cars land , or if the tile mosaics in future world have a deeper meaning then just being beautiful. I’d love it if everyone shared the same passion that the core disney fan did, but at the same time it’s kinda special to know there are details there that only a select few will really get, as If the imagineers were like, “this ones for the hardcore Disney geeks to say thank you for paying attention”. To me it makes it special and unique.

    The “interactive” queues and new “virtual” games are hit and miss if you ask me. The ones in the queue lines are just distractions to make the time go by and rarely add to the story as they should be, so on that note we agree, but the agent P game(other then not having a volume control) is pretty fun. Imagine being 10 or 11 years old and you are walking around with this cell phone that you kinda understand how it works and you are interacting in real time with both characters you love on tv and the physical environment around you to make things happen!! Or going to laugh floor or turtle talk?? You’d leave the park and go back home to your friends and tell them, I don’t know how, but its REAL now people!! No more polyester suits that can’t talk!! I talked to a cartoon and he answered me back! He told my joke to a crowd full of people and they loved it!

    Sorcerers of the MK is weak to me simply because of the execution and the fact that I grew up addicted to role playing games as a teen so I’d want more strategy that can actually be figured out, not just randomly hold up cards and have no clue what the result will be.

    I think in ten years time you won’t have to worry about tv screens ruining the decor of the park though, because the living character initiative will have perfected androids with AI that roam the park like you or I do and we will be able to buy swords and guns with RFID chips built in that turn the game into a real life video game just like you mentioned. Then the only thing to really worry about is mister Lincoln freeing the characters and leading them on a revolution against the cast members(skynet anyone?) Just like the carousel of progress teaches us, it’s not the gadgets we have that make things better, but how we can use those gadgets to enhance the thing that really matters, spending time with friends and family, and as I saw in my last visit to WDW, there are still lots and lots of families that are using these new WDI experiences to make lasting memories the same way my family did the old fashioned way, making fun of each other while waiting 45 minutes to go on mr toads wild ride.

    See what insomnia and a smart phone can cause? This reply is waaaaay to long, somebody shut me up already!

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