New High Tech Magic at the Magic Kingdomby Jeff Kober, contributing writer
[Publisher's Note: Because this story is being published on April 1 and we're still getting hate mail over fooling people with last year's April Fool story, we'd like to definitively state up front that this story is NOT, repeat NOT, an April Fool story, but an actual look at some new technology ideas coming to the Disney parks and resorts in the next couple of years.]
There has been a lot of discussion recently among Disney park fans around interactive queues and "Next Gen" technology. People are excited about the latest developments and about what's coming next. Of course, high tech/interactive gadgetry has been in attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World for some time. Originally the shooting galleries involved clay and paper targets that were repainted each night. In the 1980s, that changed when shooting galleries started to use infrared technology.
That was followed in the 1990s by the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster attractions that used the same type of technology to hit targets while moving through an attraction. Those attractions have become so popular that they have since been introduced in every Magic Kingdom around the world.
In turn, Toy Story Mania using video game and 3-D technology has beaten Astro Blasters in becoming even more popular at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure Park.
High-tech/interactive theater attractions like Turtle Talk with Crush and Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor continue to delight audiences.
And let's not forget the ultimate fortress in high tech interactivity, the now archaic DisneyQuest.
High-tech interactivity is here to stay. But the high-tech talk lately has not been around rides but rather the creation of interactive queues in the Disney parks. Interactivity in a queue or a pedestrian space is not really a new concept either. Gadgets in Disneyland Park's Toontown have been around since the 1990s, as well.
Even simple toys in the queue at Dumbo's flying elephants were introduced long before the idea came around of doubling their number.
But now even the pedestrian experience and the queue is getting high tech. And why? Because it occupies your attention, while taking the load off of attractions and other entertainment. In short, it's a virtual babysitter. Definitely a high tech one. But one that keeps you occupied while you wait in line, or while wandering through the parks.
Let's take a look at recent developments over the last couple of years. And let's look at what may be headed your way even before you see a mermaid, a beast's castle, and a circus show up at your castle door.
Interactive Queues and Activities: Timeline
Pal Mickey started way back in 2003. The concept was simple, but fairly cool. What if your plush Mickey spoke to you as you as you went through the Magic Kingdom? Soon, transmitters were placed throughout the four Walt Disney World theme parks that would signal Mickey's speaking. Later other games were added, before the device was discontinued. Pal Mickey was a good alpha test for what would eventually become a series of high-tech developments. On the other hand, it was underfunded, undersupported, and underpromoted.
In 2006, Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure premiered in Epcot. Using customized cell phones from Verizon, guests embarked throughout the international lands of the park searching for clues, and uncovering the diabolical activities of villains bent on destroying the world. The attraction was well received, and continues full throttle today.
Soarin' became not only Epcot's but Walt Disney World's most popular attraction when it came on board. So when Imagineers saw the potential of doing something to help occupy the attention of those waiting in line, it turned to technology in 2007. The interactive technology allows hundreds of guests in the standby line to participate in interactive games while they wait to board Flight 5505 (an homage to the attraction's opening date).
The ride itself is an interactive marvel, but Toy Story Mania went much further when it opened in 2008. It used technology in the form of a Mr. Potato Head to keep standby guests occupied in what has also become one of Walt Disney World's most popular attractions. Acting as a carnival barker, Don Rickles recorded hours of dialogue and words to create an interactive conversation with guests waiting in line.
In 2009, Imagineers went back to the historically longest line of them all, Space Mountain. The attraction re-emerged with a new gaming system for those waiting down the long tunnel to board their ships. Again, the intention is to keep you occupied while you wait.
What was probably most charming about The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh when the queue opened in 2010 was how really low tech and quaint the many activities were. But still, the highlight is a set of honey panels guests wipe through.
This year saw the launch of Disney's newest cruise ship, the Disney Dream. Imagineers set about making a ship that would set itself apart from any other fleet's. In addition to indoor portholes showing Disney characters at sea and the Crush visit at Animator's Palette, the Enchanted Art throughout the ship makes walking the hallways a pleasure. Again, it's about occupying the attention of guests.
Town Square Theater and Haunted Mansion. This month both the Haunted Mansion and the newly refurbished Town Square Theater (formerly the Exhibition Hall) host new interactive high-tech elements in its queues. For the Town Square Theater, this means old-style posters from the turn-of-the-last-century magically coming to life. At the Haunted Mansion, you get to help the poetess Prudence Pock complete her lines of poetry, using some interactive voice technology.
Keep in mind, Imagineers at the Haunted Mansion have been "buried" in this interactive stuff for more than a year and a half. What they are seeing now is what you're getting in the next couple of years. And what would be that?
So What's Next?
While guests are looking over the fence to the New Fantasyland addition coming on board, the next bit of magic may be right in the palm of their hand. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is the working title (and the trademark title held since November of 2010) for what is the Magic Kingdom's new interactive experience. Imagine an interactive adventure of going through the Magic Kingdom seeking out clues and seeing the magic come to life. Here are just a few of the possibilities:
Of course, those are just imaginations on my part. The real clues and events have not yet been revealed, And it's unclear whether your adventure will go throughout the Magic Kingdom, or like the Epcot experience, you will be designated to a certain land like Frontierland or Tomorrowland. It's also uncertain what device will be used to navigate through the experience. What is certain that it will not be a phone, nor will it be Pal Mickey. It will be a device unlike those.
While nothing has been implemented into the park, the development of the props and activities are well underway. It's expected that guests will be able to experience Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom before they experience the new Fantasyland addition.
Also, a very exciting interactive game will soon be introduced at Disney's Animal Kingdom. I've been sworn to secrecy as to who the host character is on this experience. But if you think about who it might be, it will be obvious that this is the perfect host for such an experience at a park that seeks adventure. There are a lot of possibilities with this game. And there's a lot of territory and theming yet to cover.
What about Disney's Hollywood Studios? It's uncertain whether any of this will occur at the Studios, Clearly there could be some great themes played out. Imagine a "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" film noir type of experience. But the park suffers from a smaller foot print and moving a massive number of people throughout looking for clues in different directions is a little trickier.
But if you want to see this technology come alive sooner, book your next vacation to Hawaii, not Florida. Imagineering has been putting in long days trying to get the interactive systems up and running in time from the opening of Disney's first property on the Islands. The Disney Vacation Club Aulani Resort & Spa will be using a higher grade pad (but not an iPad) for their interactive activities. They can do that because there's a more limited flow through the hotel compared to the parks. Also, they can use a higher tech device because they have everyone's credit card on file at the front desk.
And when the Imagineers get done with that, they have to head over to Germany to ready the Disney Fantasy for its high tech activities.
And what about Epcot? It's going to be rebooted, with Kim Possible herself and the "Kimmunicator" phones literally getting the boot. The implementation of the new system will more likely happen after the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom get their systems in. But it is being planned. Management is very pleased with the number of people who continue to participate in the Kim Possible experience. And that's why they want to continue the experience at Epcot, but with a character that has a more permanent place in the Disney family.
And why are they doing this? There are two chief complaints at Disney's parks: The crowds are too large and the lines for the rides are too long. This set of initiatives occupies the attention of a lot of guests not only in the queue, but in wandering throughout the park, thus creating a higher capacity for more guests. Think of it as similar to having another attraction placed in the park. But there's no having to build a new building. And the activities do not interfere with attractions, entertainment, shops and restaurants. So it's a win/win for everyone. And while no one is calling it a virtual babysitter, you can be assured that in a very entertaining way, it's occupying your attention and perhaps even creating a more magical experience. And magic, high tech or otherwise, is what Disney is all about.