Interactive Attractionsby Steve Russo, staff writer
Have you noticed the trend? It began some time ago. I’m not certain, but I think Horizons may have been the first to use it. If not the first, it was certainly one of the earlier ones.
What am I talking about? Interactivity. More specifically, I’m speaking of the recent trend of incorporating interactive elements in rides and attractions across Walt Disney World.
As I mentioned, this isn’t a new concept. Can you recall the ending sequence of the Horizons attraction? Your ride vehicle reached a point where all its riders were given the opportunity to vote, via an on-board panel, for one of three endings to your journey: Mesa Verde (the desert scene), Sea Castle (the ocean), or the Brava Centauri space colony. The majority ruled and your last few minutes of the ride would be spent within that choice.
As I thought about this concept of building interactive situations into rides, it led me to think about the other end of the spectrum: those rides that change very little or not at all. I have to admit, there are some non-interactive attractions that still have a high level of repeatability to them. I’ve been visiting Walt Disney World regularly for more than 20 years and, on every trip, I ride the Pirates of the Caribbean. Why? Save for a few new effects and the addition of Captain Jack Sparrow in a few scenes, it really hasn’t changed at all. Maybe that’s the beauty of it— like seeing Main Street for the first time on each trip. It’s like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes; or more appropriately, returning to something familiar that touches you in some positive way.
I feel the same way about many attractions: the Jungle Cruise, “it’s a small world," Mickey’s Philharmagic… it’s fine when these attractions get a new coat of paint or a general cleaning—maybe even a few updates or tweaks. But let’s not toy with them too much because a large part of their charm is their repeatability. The Jungle Cruise is the same ride with essentially the same spiel by the Skipper; yet I still ride and enjoy it each trip.
I recognize that, as a society, we are losing our patience at an accelerated rate. You could blame it on the proliferation of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), smart phones, portable video games, microwaves… whatever. It’s there. We’re used to getting things instantly, or at the very least quickly, and our patience with lengthy queues is waning.
What is Disney doing to help us through those trying times when we’re forced to wait in a line for an attraction for 20, 30, 40 minutes… or (gasp!) longer? They’re giving us something to do while we wait. Many of the queues at Walt Disney World are laden with artifacts and memorabilia that provide entertainment and a back-story to the attraction. Think about the wealth of items, most of them authentic, that grace the queues at Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Unfortunately, once you’ve been through those queues a half-dozen times, you’ve probably seen most of them and some of the shine has worn off. This is where Disney seems to be focused today.
The queue at Soarin’ is typically packed with anxious guests and honestly—there’s not much to see. The Imagineers replaced the photos that would display on the large screens in the queue with a video game of sorts. You and the other guests in your “section” are pitted against other guests in a competition. Through body movements, you fly a balloon, or a bird, to complete a course before your competitors. Is it fun? Sort of. Honestly, none of us would stand in line to play this game but its presence in the Soarin’ queue provides a diversion that can help the time spent waiting seem to pass by a bit more quickly—a positive outcome by anyone’s estimation.
The success of this diversion in the Soarin’ queue has led to similar techniques in other attractions. Interactive games have been placed in the queue to Space Mountain—arguably, one of the longest queues on Disney property. They’ve done similar things with the queue at the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and when you think about it, there’s a level of interactivity in the queue for Toy Story Mania with the Mr. Potato Head character.
I think we can deduce that this appears to be a trend—a conscious effort on the part of Disney and its Imagineers to make our time in line more palatable. A number of new interactive elements have been added to the queue at the Haunted Mansion and reports tell us that the Dumbo rides (yes, there will be two) in the new, re-imagined Fantasyland will offer a 3-Ring Circus interactive play area while you wait to ride—not your typical queue. The new Little Mermaid attraction is said to have a “completely different queue area." Yes, I think we have a trend.
This interactivity is not just for the queues and pre-shows; it’s becoming more and more a part of the attractions themselves. As I mentioned above, many attractions have a repeatability factor that will offer a good to great ride experience no matter how often we ride (within reason of course.) There are others such as the Carousel of Progress that, for historical or nostalgic reasons, should probably never change beyond the occasional dusting and new coat of paint.
However, interactivity is here and being embraced in attractions across the parks. One of the early examples is Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. The old If You Had Wings / Dreamflight attraction was upgraded and laser cannons were added to each ride vehicle. Your mission to help Buzz battle the evil Emperor Zurg introduced a level of interactivity to this attraction that assured that no two rides would be exactly alike. The competitive among us would like to ride multiple times to better our score and our intergalactic rank—or maybe just to beat our spouse.
That concept was taken a few steps farther with Toy Story Midway Mania. The competitive aspect was maintained but new and different games were introduced and, of course, the 3D facet provided a new and more exciting wrinkle. Guests immediately made this attraction a favorite and continue to flock to it in large numbers today.
During the most recent refurbishment of Spaceship Earth, the Imagineers seized an opportunity to turn the trip down, the part of the ride without a great deal of theming or things to see, into something more enjoyable using interactivity. Each guest responds to a few questions on a touch screen and then is treated to a video depicting their possible future. I’ll let you decide if this is better or worse than its predecessor.
Turtle Talk with Crush introduced a level of interactivity, using technology, that we hadn’t seen before. For the first time, an animated character would interact directly with an audience. This was taken a few steps farther with the introduction of Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor that allowed several of the show’s animated cast members to interact with guests, simulating a real comedy club. While those two attractions can be called unquestionable successes, another use of interactivity, Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration, was anything but. While the interactivity was there, the show that surrounded it couldn’t sustain this attraction beyond a few weeks.
There’s another aspect to this trend; another set of attractions that don’t necessarily have the interactivity of Horizons, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Toy Story Midway Mania, Crush or Monsters, Inc., but they do capture a bit of the randomness. By that, I mean that something about the attraction will be different on successive rides. This keeps the guest guessing and provides a bit of surprise or newness, if you will, to each ride.
This randomness exists, albeit naturally, on several Animal Kingdom attractions. I’ve always maintained that one of the attractive characteristics of Kilimanjaro Safaris was the fact that no two rides were alike. You can say the same thing about the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and the Maharajah Jungle Trek. These attractions boast living elements that move, interact with each other and serve to make each visit different—random.
The Imagineers have now begun to engineer this randomness into attractions. This is evidenced in a change that was made a few years ago to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. During a short refurbishment, the Imagineers introduced a “randomizer” into the attraction’s computer controls that would vary the ride’s drop sequences. Previously, if you had ridden the Tower of Terror more than a couple of times, you knew exactly what was coming and when. With the randomizer, an element of surprise was introduced for even the most prolific riders—a definite “plussing” of the attraction.
Reports are that the new version of Star Tours (opening today as “The Adventures Continue”) will boast a possibility of 54 different rides, made possible by multiple destinations and, presumably, a few random encounters along the way. Again, the randomness of this ride should serve to keep it fresh for the riders for a much longer period.
That’s the trend as I see it. There’s a conscious effort on the part of Imagineering to build interactivity for the guest wherever possible—particularly in attraction queues. There’s also an effort to introduce randomness into attractions to add to a ride’s repeatability factor. All of this provides a benefit to us, the guests, and serves as another example of how Disney continues to enhance the experience and raise the bar on theme park entertainment.
Once again, those are my opinions. What attractions did I miss or which do you feel could be enhanced with a level of interactivity or randomness? Let me know and, as always, thanks for reading.