Creating Immersion in Star Wars Landby Todd King, contributing writer
Shanghai Disneyland – a Sign of Things to Come?
Did you see the video footage from Shanghai Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean? If not, you really should (just search for it online). What you see in online videos of park rides is certainly not a full view or a visceral experience like you would have in person, but it is an impression of the kind of new ride technology we may be seeing in future Disney park attractions. In fact, Shanghai's Pirates may even be a precursor to the kind of shows we will see in the coming Star Wars land. It combines many practical effects with several large-scale projected images built right into the set pieces that sets out to make an experience that is three-dimensional, augmented by movement and animation that will keep your mind guessing which parts are physical and which parts are on a screen. This cool new stuff now opening with Shanghai's park is our best clue to the future of our beloved parks and the new rides that are coming, particularly for Star Wars land.
This second-guessing-of-the-mind is an element of the attractions we sorely need. We should not have a new supposedly technologically advanced attraction housed in the futuristic world of Star Wars and have guests figuring out how it all works upon first viewing. It would have no "magic." If you see the Shanghai Pirates ride and take a look at the Jack Sparrow animatronic that changes from flesh to skeleton right before your eyes, then you'll see what I'm trying to talk about.
My initial reaction to that effect was utter amazement. In that moment, I forgot about all about the ride itself and forgot that I was just watching a video. I said, "Whoa. Did that just … change? … Wow …" We've been to Disney park rides for a long time now and we love them and continue to be amazed by their ingenuity, but in some cases, we've probably grown accustomed to their amazing-factor for some time.
It is like we're reliving our initial wonder at these attractions—I do this almost every time I visit rides like the Haunted Mansion. I think to myself, "I remember when I first approached this place, I remember how I felt, and here I am walking the same steps I took those years ago." I do it every time. I can't help it. It's a moment when those Inside Out emotions are pulling up memories from those little spheres and projecting them on the viewer. But that initial feeling, that first encounter with that feeling and with that experience are in the past. We strive to capture that feeling, to relive it, and going back to Disney parks makes it easy to trigger those memories of being totally astonished. Improvments to technology have surprised us through the years—more realistic animatronics, polarizing 3D effects, and others. We are looking for new attractiosn to produce that feeling of seeing something completely new for the first time and sometimes it seems that we're getting harder and harder to amaze.
Star Wars and the Emotional Connection
We felt an array of emotions watching the Star Wars movies for the first time and much of these emotions were in the realm of wonder. We were simply spellbound by this world and how its characters made us feel. It's why we became fans. It's why we watch the movies over and over again because we want to relive the experience as much as we can—we want to remember that feeling of amazement and share it with others. It's why we show the movies to our kids and our friends. It's like going back to a Disney park where we want to experience that freshness and wonder all over agian. Alas, if only we could go back to start over again! For Star Wars land, we need this kind of deep emotional connection. Can it give us these same feelings of absolute wonder? If so, how will Disney accomplish this? Well, I think they can with both small details and big ideas.
We've seen the production drawing of the Millennium Falcon seemingly centered in Star Wars land. We also know there will be a Millennium Falcon ride where we somehow control the ship and its speed and its weapons. Although the attraction seems to be another experience in the evolution of simulator-type rides, it still sounds pretty cool. How can it be made better? How can it resonate with guests and fans?
Something that comes to my mind is how the entire ride is themed; simply consider the entrance and queue for the ride. Think of your favorite Disney ride, one that you tell other people about, and you probably include the approach to the ride itself as part of the overall enjoyment. Like I mentioned above, approaching the Haunted Mansion brings about that "aura of foreboding" with the looming building and its intimidating structure surrounded by its crooked vegetation. It's like the opening scenes of a movie that set the mood for what you are about to see. Just like in the Star Wars movies, the anticipation and build-up for the final confrontation is as great as the final scenes themselves. Sure we'll get to pilot the Falcon, but what would truly "plus" the experience is to be able to actually walk up to the ship itself and take in its size (fans should be saying, "Look at the size of that thing!") and its details. If we can do that we should be looking at something that looks so close to the real thing we'll believe it is a genuine article; we'll believe it could take off at any moment!
Furthermore, if we could enter the ship through its access ramp just like Han Solo does himself, then it is one way our connection to the movies will truly come to life. We will feel like a person in the Star Wars world and we're boarding a ship we can see and touch and do so in exactly the same way as the characters in the films. Beyond that, what if we could walk inside the ship—maybe as part of the queue—and see the hall and the back room and the alien chess table and the controls over the walls … ? In short, what if we could walk right into the movie? It is a movie, a story told through the lenses of special effects and mythic journeys, but our emotional connection to it is real. We need it to be real.
Walking in Star Wars
I think Disney is heading toward ways where we can walk into Star Wars land like we're walking into a Star Wars movie. A lot of these production drawings we've seen haven't shown a lot of guests walking around—they've been full of aliens. They look like drawings for the movies and not a theme park. Perhaps this is the environment we're going to be walking into. When we get there, there will be characters everywhere, in costume, in make-up, and "in-character" and we will get to interact with them. Everyone from shopkeepers to bartenders, we'll be dealing with beings from other planets just as if we walked into Mos Eisley or Maz's castle or Cloud City or Coruscant and have to orient ourselves to get around. It would be like we're in a galaxy far, far away. But we know we'd be safe since it's a Disney park but the feeling would be immersive.
These ideas have always been part of theming at Disney park attractions but now we're talking about stuff on a much larger scale. Think of Disney Hollywood Studios where Star Tours now resides. It's next door to Indiana Jones and Muppetvision 3D. As you approach Star Tours you get a closer view of the AT-AT and some of the trappings of the Ewok village—but they're not far from the road to Indy and Kermit. Once inside we see our beloved droids 3PO and R2 but that's only once you're indoors; besides the droids, the queue doesn't completely feel like a place in Star Wars. Don't get me wrong, I love the whole thing and watching the droids always makes me smile. But in Star Wars land, (hopefully) the immersion would be all around us from the sidewalk, to the park directional signs, to the vegetation, to the walkways, and to the "people" all around. It's theming, it's immersion, and Disney has a long history of creating such experiences—they practically invented it. All these ideas combined are to create not just a couple of really great E-ticket rides, but are to create a real place that you want to go and dwell.
We're going to feel like we're there. I mean, we'll be served by aliens in a cantina. Not just costumed characters, but people playing a part as if from the movies but now here with us and interacting with us. They may say to us, "No blasters!" There will be the presence of either the Empire or the First Order as we've seen in the concept picture of the imperial shuttle being flanked by stormtroopers. "Let me see your identification!" And maybe we could play a Jedi mind trick on them. There may be an alien band start up some music—Disney parks are no stranger to these pop-up performances like the Dapper Dans on Main Street USA and the British Invasion in Epcot's United Kingdom. Would they be real people/costumed characters performing? Would the indoor cantina have animatronic characters playing music every half hour or so? Maybe jawas would be walking around looking to trade pins. Surely the ideas for making this land come to life are not limited by this little brainstorm here. Just watch the movies and scenes like that cantina, Jabba's palace, or Starkiller base, and the possibilities are there if you just walk through the screen.
It's not just Star Wars
And Star Wars land won't be the only new place for these large-scale immersive experiences. Don't forget we have Pandora: The World of Avatar coming to Animal Kingdom, and it aims to re-create the fantastical land from the movie in immense detail from plants that seem alive to floating rock islands. On top of that, we have Toy Story Land coming, where we will walk in as guests and enter a place in which we are like toys and see the site from that point of view. If we have thought over the last few years that Disney parks are in need of greater and more immersive experiences, well, those dreams are being built as we speak. All we can do now is make future vacation plans, wait and wait, and hope the opening-day crowds have used their deodorant and remain civil.