This series is an altered second draft of an essay written for my dissertation, which will eventually be available in whole on this website.
On the WDWMagic message boards, former Imagineer Eddie Sotto proposed a question to its readers. With the growing success of 3D films, how will brick and mortar three dimensional environments compete in the future?
It’s an interesting question; films are becoming increasingly immersive. No longer is the world confined to the two dimensional screen, but instead its elements reach out and surround you. When Disney is selling immersion, perhaps it’s under threat from the local cinema. I think it requires a detailed strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis to understand how Disney can differentiate itself appropriately.
One arguement is that films won’t be able to replicate the smells and ambiance of a real environment, but really this is just a matter of time. Already, many scents we smell at Disneyland aren’t real – the popcorn, the candy, the stink bug, the burning of Rome. Yes there are the occasional real smells that exist, like burning fire perhaps, but many of the real smells at the parks are unintentional (and perhaps, if they could be controlled, wouldn’t be there – even fan favourite smells such as the stale water of Pirates and Splash or the mechanical smell of the Indiana Jones Adventure). Essentially, if people already accept some smells despite their artificiality, there is no reason to suspect they won’t accept all artificial smells; Disneyland cannot claim a benefit here. Already, specially equipped cinemas in Korea are offering ‘4D’ theatre experiences – synchronising smells, sprinkling water, wind, motion activated seats and “twenty-five other special effects” to major blockbusters – essentially bringing Muppets 4D to the local cinema.
Certainly some attractions aren’t at threat. The physical exhilaration we may feel on a rollercoaster or spinning teacup cannot be replicated in a theatre. These attractions are safe. At threat however, are the attractions that rely on three hundred and sixty degree immersion. We may say that Pirates of the Caribbean has a great peripheral scope that encircles the guest, but perhaps in the future movies will return to ‘Panorama’ or even ‘Circle-Vision’ screens for greater immersion. The Haunted Mansion is even more at risk in that it already limits the scope of the guests view with its ‘doombuggy’ Omnimover seats which restrict vision only to where the seat is pointed.
If this trend continues, I think it is these traditional dark rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion that are at threat. Simply, 3D films can do fantasy worlds better – they don’t have to worry about wheelchair access, emergency exits, or even real physics – literally anything can be digitally created on a computer. The cost of digitally creating something is significantly less than constructing in real life.
At present, there’s a huge intrinsic difference between seeing a 3D film and experiencing a theme park attraction like Pirates – but I honestly expect that 3D films will making increasing steps towards bridging the gap. It is possible that some hurdles are unlikely to be jumped; moving your head even half a foot left and right reveals the real depth of a physical environment but has no effect on a 3D film, but I honestly wouldn’t rule out this being insurmountable.
Some ideas have been explored to deal with this threat; attractions such as Toy Story Midway Mania have introduced interactivity into the fold, part way between a theme park attraction and a Nintendo Wii. It seems unlikely that theatrical films will incorporate this interactivity, leaving a possible gap in the market for theme parks to fill. However, I’m pretty sure ‘interactivity’ along these lines is not what will be needed in the future, as this will almost certainly be claimed by video games. Yes it is interactive, but it is interactive from a distance.
However, the key to retaining the theme parks niche is, I think, made of up of three parts: amplifying the guests control in both a tactile sense, an explorative sense and highlighting the nonlinearity. Built environments allow the guest to wander from the path, allowing them to deviate from the pre-designated paths of movies. Emphasize the guests control over their journey. If a guest wants to go to the mysterious caves rather than the swamp shack, they can do so. Secondly, guests can reach out and touch physical environments. A 3D Indiana Jones film may be immersive, but it cannot duplicate walking the queue of the Indiana Jones Adventure; touching the cold, rough rock walls or pushing a bamboo pillar causing the roof to descend. Allow the guests to reach out a touch the environment they’re in – to step across stepping stones, slide down rock faces, feel the wood grain of a barrel, or knock a mysteriously locked door.
Furthermore, movies follow linear stories which attractions don’t need to be confined to. By emphasizing repeatability and spontaneity, themed attractions can stand out. As Walt regretted, films are locked and unchangeable – attractions can be constantly updated and changed. One hour you may walk through the jungle and come across an abandoned clearing – the next hour there may be a native ambush.
What does this mean for traditional attractions? In all honestly, I expect that attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean just won’t be justifiable as they are in the future. In its place will be the option of either 3D film or 3D environment. The ‘3D film’ version of Pirates will depict the towering mountain of shipwrecked galleons, giant voodoo goddess rising from the waves, and enormous swirling whirlpools – effects too expensive and impractical to duplicate in real life. Without a doubt they will be immersive; showing sea spray down on the audience, shaking the guests right along with the characters battling through a fierce storm or replicating the warming Caribbean sun. The emphasis will be on spectacle.
Meanwhile, however, the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction will be a physically explorable environment in which guests can walk through – and get lost in – the mysterious pirate caves, follow a treasure map to a hidden treasure – and then choose whether they want to walk to the pirate beach, or wander into the rowdy pirate bar. The emphasis will be on control and physical interactivity. Of course, distance interactivity will still compliment the environment, for example picking up a musket and firing at gunpowder barrels in the courtyard below – but this will not be the sole interaction as in Midway Mania. More actors will be required in the three dimensional environments as audio-animatronics will not fulfil the required interaction of future attractions (at least not yet; Lucky, Push and the Muppet Mobile Labs are certainly tackling this problem). However, the greatest opportunity for attractions is to escape from the characters and film and empower the guest to be the staring player. Their influence must be actual, not just superficial.
The greatest success will come when spectacle and tactile interactivity and control are merged. Whilst exploring the pirate town, the guest may walk up to the lookout point at the top of the castle, and through the arches of a tower, see the krakens tentacles locking onto a doomed pirate ship. Or whilst walking through the caves, look through a crack in the wall to see the voodoo goddess Calypso rising out of a whirlpool and suddenly exploding into thousands of crabs – effects which can justifiably be done with video screens (hopefully the rumoured ‘glassesless 3D’ technology).
Park lands are the least at threat, but more needs to be done to inject spectacle and interactivity into them to make up for the diminishing role passive ride-throughs will have. A simulation won’t threaten taking a real rowboat out on a lake, or swinging on a rope, or the options available in investigating a three dimensional environment. Lands which are simply pathways between shops and rides won’t do – the lands will have to become the attractions themselves. Let guests get out of their bateaux on Pirates and explore the town. Implement 3D screens all throughout the inside of Space Mountain which visualize swirling galaxies, streaking comets and roaring spaceships. And merge attractions with their environment so intimately, that boarding a boat will no longer be ‘getting on a ride’, but simply swapping your feet for a boat as your ride vehicle.
In conclusion, theme parks need to amplify;
- Physical exhilaration
- Tactile interaction
- Spontaneity and change
- The guest as the character