Monday Morning Imagineer – The Art of Immersion


Given the current state of the world, it’s not surprising a lot of people want to escape into another. For years, the “Disney Bubble” has been a popular way to describe how the Disney parks can shelter guests and take away the stress and problems of the real world for just a little while. But lately, you can’t get more than a few sentences into an article about new theme park lands, attractions or hotels without stumbling across a reference to immersion. You’ll hear it applied to state of the art new rides, reimagined eateries and even the queues to enter an attraction, with no doubt buses, parking lots and restrooms to follow1.

This week, I’m going to take a look at the concept of immersion in theme parks, give you a little history and show some of the best examples at the Disney theme parks(and maybe even a few from Universal as well), and cast a look to the future, with some upcoming new lands and attractions.

While it’s only recently becoming a buzz word, the concept of immersion can be traced back to Walt Disney’s original vision for Disneyland and the first Imagineers. In addition to wanting to create a park the entire family could enjoy, Walt envisioned Disneyland as a place to expand the storytelling of the Disney films into three dimensions, letting guests step into both new and familiar worlds.

Disneyland, and later the Magic Kingdom and other Disneyland parks across the world, were designed with this concept in mind. These parks start by ushering guests onto Main Street USA, an idyllic step back in time2. Stepping into each of the themed lands is likewise like stepping through a portal that lets you venture into the storybook realm of Fantasyland, travel across the country or back in time in areas like New Orleans Square and Liberty Square or catch a glimpse of the future in Tomorrowland.

The concept of stepping through a portal was also used by Imagineers to describe the experience of entering an attraction. Once you entered, you’d be transported into that world from the moment you stepped into the attraction vehicle(and later into the queues themselves) until you exited back into the park. The idea would later be applied to the resort hotels in Walt Disney World, many of which not only had extensive theming but their own elaborate back stories.

Even the basic design of the Magic Kingdom itself stemmed from Walt Disney’s concern with maintaining the integrity of the park’s immersion. As he walked through Disneyland, he would sometimes see a cowboy from Frontierland walking through Tomorrowland, shattering the suspension of disbelief so crucial for the park. So, as many of you know, the Magic Kingdom guests walk in is essentially the second story of the park, with the famous utlidors running underneath, granting access to all areas of the park out of the prying eyes of guests3.

Why then has immersion only recently become a buzzword? Blame a certain boy wizard.

The Wizard World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando changed the game in a number of ways, one of the most notable being the guest experience. In the Disney parks, characters would remain… er, well, in character, but the illusion would rarely extend to every team member in an entire land. But that changed with the opening of Hogsmeade.

Professional wrestling calls it kayfabe. In simple terms, it’s the presentation of the product as a real athletic contest, and the characters as being completely true. In the 1980s, wrestlers might be given the character of a Russian bad guy, even though they were born in Canada or Minnesota. Kayfabe meant that those wrestlers would portray their Russian character in the hotel, at a restaurant or in the airport. Kayfabe meant the illusion was maintained at all times.

You could say cast members in the Wizard World also maintain kayfabe. They aren’t employees of Universal Orlando, but wizards who live and work in the magical world of the Harry Potter books. Everyone from the staff at Ollivander’s to the hosts and cashiers at the Leaky Cauldron are to maintain the illusion at all times. The overwhelming success of the new area has led to Disney following suit, with both the upcoming Pandora – The World of Avatar and Star Wars lands being trumpeted as fully immersive in similar ways.

Immersion in theme parks isn’t going away any time soon.

Now that we know a little bit about what the concept of immersion means, let’s take a look at some of the techniques that are used to help establish it for guests.

The first element guests will encounter comes with the design and architecture of both the lands and the facades of the show buildings. Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom provides a wonderful example in how the different buildings of a park must serve multiple purposes. The Town Square Theater, where guests can meet Mickey Mouse, stands to the right as you first enter the park. Designed to match the aesthetic of Main Street, it’s also one of the larger buildings in the land. This was done to hide the Contemporary Hotel from view, which would ruin the illusion of stepping back in time.

Another wonderful example can be seen in the Haunted Mansions found in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. The attractions themselves are very similar, and the facades of the buildings need to match the ride’s spooky theme. However, the two exteriors look very different. Why? In Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion is located in New Orleans Square, while the Magic Kingdom Haunted Mansion is situated as part of Liberty Square. Thus, the two facades need to match the architecture of their home areas to maintain the illusion. Pirates of the Caribbean has similar changes in its facade for these reasons.

Speaking of Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s a wonderful example of how a ride can be structured to establish tone and bring guests further into its world. The Disneyland version is particular effective at this, with the ride starting gently as guests travel through a Louisiana bayou with fireflies dancing around them and banjo music playing in the distance.. It’s just enough time to imagine you’re there… when the boat drops and you hear the familiar refrains of “Yo Ho(A Pirate’s Life For Me)”. The slow build isn’t necessary(the firefly scene is absent from the Magic Kingdom version due to the different setting), but it’s a wonderful setup for the attraction’s world.

In later years, this level of immersion began in the queue itself. Both version of Star Tours do this well, using both the familiar characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO and a Star Wars take on an airport boarding area(which guests to the park are probably quite familiar with) to set up the world. The queue’s design is based upon the familiar Star Wars films, with even a massive AT-AT walker standing guard outside. Toy Story Midway Mania also transports guests into the attraction’s world, as the queue is designed to look as though guests have just stepped into Andy’s room at the scale of the toys.

The queue can also help immerse guests in the story and set up the attraction itself. Universal Studios does a good job with this, with Transformers The Ride 3D being one of my personal favorite examples. Set in the world of the Michael Bay films, guests enter the NEST headquarters and see a fragment of the Allspark in a container, which the Decepticon Ravage actually steals during the attraction. The queue also introduces unfamiliar guests to both the various Decepticons and Autobots they’ll meet during the ride, including their ride vehicle, an Autobot named Evac. In a fun touch, the cast members who help you disembark at the end wear NEST uniforms and actually applaud guests on a job well done.

Perhaps one of the most loved immersion aspects in recent years has nothing to do with the sights or sounds on an attraction, but a smell. Soarin’ Over California is perhaps one of the most exhilarating attractions in recent years, thanks in part to an innovative ride system and well designed experience. But ask anyone who’s been on it, and they’ll often first mention the smell as they pass over the orange grove. In fact, when the California film was replaced this year, many people first lamented the loss of the oranges! Smells are also a part of Spaceship Earth during the burning of Rome scene, and many guests also think fondly of the unmistakable smell of the Pirates of the Caribbean queue(though this one might not be planned).

Performance is another aspect of creating an immersive experience in the parks that can’t be underrated. Perhaps nowhere is this more notable than when guests meet characters. Whether it’s Mickey, Donald or one of the princesses, guests aren’t meeting someone playing the part, they’re meeting the actual characters. One of my favorite memories from our Disneymoon was meeting characters, and thinking back to Anna and Elsa or Donald Duck will always bring a smile to my face.

This expanded to attractions before Wizarding World, too. The experience on the Jungle Cruise is directly tied to the performance of the skippers on the boats, and cast members in the Haunted Mansion remain in character, speaking in monotone and almost never smiling4. What Wizarding World established was expanding the concept to everyone in the land, bringing guests further into the illusion of stepping into the world of the books and films.

So what does the future hold for these concepts? California Adventure’s recently opened Cars Land shows just how far the Imagineers can go in recreating the familiar world of a film(though since I’ve yet to see it myself, it’s a little hard for me to comment on at any length). Pandora – The World of Avatar promises to transport guests to the world of James Cameron’s successful film, recreating the distinct plant and animal life as well as letting guests meet the larger than life Na’vi. However, it’s hard to get an idea of just how successful the new concept will be.

When it comes to the upcoming Star Wars Land, however, there’s a better sense of what we might expect, thanks to Star Wars Launch Bay. A walk through exhibit that celebrates the entire series, including props, costumes and models. But the Launch Bay also boasts a small mock up of the infamous cantina from the first film. In recent months, guests haven’t just been able to see this set, but have also encountered characters like the Jawas and Greedo, who are just wandering through the area. And in May, a new droid appeared, freely roaming through the area and interacting with different areas in the cantina. Named Jake, this new droid is rumored to be a test for more droids that will follow. With the Star Wars land said to contain a wide range of aliens, working in attractions, eateries and shops as well as wandering the land, it’s clear that the Imagineers have plenty of new tricks up their sleeves. The suggestion that this new planet will also be an active space port suggests we may also somehow see ships coming and going. Whether they can pull it off, and how they’ll do it, remain to be seen.

Anything else remains little more than idle speculation, though it’s fun to think about. Could Disney one day create an immersive hotel experience, set completely in the world of one of its films? And what will happen when Marvel starts to make more of an impact in the parks? I talked last week about the new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction in Disneyland, one that will feature both the Guardians themselves as well as Benicio del Toro reprising his role as The Collector. It will be interesting to see how they’re incorporated into the attraction, and what might follow.

The only thing certain is that both Disney and Universal will continue to find new ways to draw us further into the worlds of the parks and their lands and attractions. With new parks and attractions bound to be announced before the year’s over, I can’t wait to see what tricks they’re going to use next.

Not So Hidden Mickeys, AKA Footnotes

1. Then again, guests using the facilities in Universal’s Wizarding World will sometimes hear Harry Potter character Moaning Myrtle, so this has already happened. And yes, it’s just as disconcerting an experience as you’d expect.


2. An exception to this is Shanghai Disneyland, which instead has the character inspired Mickey Avenue.


3. Well, most of the time, as Disney also offers different tours that will let guests see this hidden side of the Magic Kingdom.

4. This does lead to problems from time to time, as some guests will complain about the “attitude” of Mansion cast members, clearly missing the point.


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