Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Worlds or Rides: Is Immersion Reconcilable with Function in Theme Parks?

Disneyland and Disney Hollywood Studios' newest expansion, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge (SW:GE), has led to a lot of divisive opinions. None is more divisive than the argument of why it has, at it's best, turned out to simply draw crowds close to numbers of people who came last year before the expansion was completed. Most of these discussions ultimately revolve around the fact that Rise of the Resistance, arguably Disney's most complex attraction ever constructed, will not be open for months. No Rise, no armies of humanity demanding entry.

Beyond the fact that this is not provable now given that it is a hypothesis about the future, that this is usually agreed upon doesn't necessarily mean that everyone agrees upon what that means about what presently exists at Galaxy's Edge. The land itself is completed minus Rise: it is done, and by all accounts, it looks great. You can go and see it and "fly" the Millennium Falcon, eat at Oga's Cantina, buy a Blue Milk, build a light saber, and make things beep with your phone. For those who purely want to "experience Star Wars", there really aren't any barriers beyond the expense of a one day ticket, which if we are being very frank here, anyone actively in this exorbitantly expensive hobby should have the capacity to afford.

As Galaxy's Edge has opened to guests in Florida however, there are concerns which have arisen from guests demanding the utmost in "immersion". Many revenue centers (restaurants, shops) don't feature any form of air conditioning, given that they are open air markets, so fans were frequently seen propped up in corners during the summer months. Seating is at a premium in the land, which has led Operations to go to the store and buy stock patio furniture to give people a place to sit down and eat. Much rumoured live entertainment and character interactions in the land did not appear, with Bob Chapek being blamed as some sort of villainous accountant. If the intent is absolute pitch perfect world building, these things obviously are a detriment to it as functional as they may be. This question of functionality is in fact a fundamental question about the parks themselves: What is the function of a theme park? This seems an almost ridiculously basic question, but it is rarely asked and merely accepted to be inferred as self evident. There is in fact a significant divide in this.

SW:GE is generally accepted to have been influenced by the construction of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands Of Adventure, which was the first US example of what one might term "hyperreal". Rather than produce a theme park space that was a pastiche of known entities in a safe-for-children-and-mass-tourists manner (like how Adventureland is basically every place brown people live smashed together), these new hyperreal places intend to build fully-formed worlds for people to explore and interact with. Whether that is Avatar's "interactive" sperm cannon plant, Potter's wands, or the Play Disney App in Star Wars, these places put you in your own individual role playing game (full cooperation optional) to be part of the land. That then is the point of theme parks, isn't it? To put us in foreign worlds where we get to "escape" and become someone else; to transform ourselves into junk traders and wizards and, uhhh, intergalactic tourists. Or is it?

That is perhaps what some people would like theme parks to be. The media portals we use boost the negative signals because negatives attract attention, and advertisers crave content that gets attention, creating a sort of death spiral in which no matter who you are, we are in constant global peril from some sort of existential threat. Many people are exhausted of constant worry; worry about global climate change, billionaire rapists, financial ruin due to medical bills, armed conflict, mass shooters, fentanyl, immigration, loss of individual freedoms. No matter what side of the political fence you are on, there is someone, somewhere who wants to radicalize you (and subsequently sell you media, dietary supplements, and possibly donate to a political campaign or ten) even if you are the sort of individual who has well paying work and can easily afford a luxury hobby such as "attend theme parks". These worlds are then a potential escape for you, a thoroughly psychologically taxed and beaten individual. It should be no surprise then that on Twitter, Facebook, and the like there are many, many people who relate to these parks as a form of therapy. Walt did intend for his park to be an escape from every day life. That is true. So did Walter Knott. So did literally everyone who built traditional amusement parks or zoological gardens.

And this is where the problem with this thinking lies: "immersion" is not simply a thing that exists in the confines of Disney theme parks. Modern and postmodern art has played with the interactivity of art and the public for much of the 20th century, and in the 21st century this has been taken to bold new places by the likes of Meow Wolf and teamLab, as well as theater troupes and museums. There are many places in the US with spaces reserved purely for renaissance festivals (not unlike fairgrounds, which of course they mimic the European precursor to), and Evermore Park was constructed to more impressively/permanently fulfill these role playing fantasies. Cedar Point constructed Forbidden Frontier for 2019 following the success of the Ghost Town Alive summer "game" in Knott's Berry Farm. Immersive theater has been used by the Smithsonian; Orlando has had a fairly authentic and expensive representation of ancient Israel in the Holy Land Experience for many, many years. The Ark Encounter in Kentucky? It's built to the cubit based on the descriptions in the Bible and filled with animatronics to make you know just what Noah was doing. Can't immerse more than that.

So clearly, if world construction and relocating to that fantasy is the demand, then these things must be doing strong business. Ark Encounter? Attendance there is sluggish and it would probably have shuttered inside of 5 years if not for state tax breaks. Holy Land Experience - which has never had a ride - failed financially and had to be bought out and operated by a religious TV station. Evermore is operating at a whopping three nights a week. Cedar Point announced they're going to bring back a family boat ride that just so happens to encircle where Forbidden Frontier is....on an island. That means the bridges to the island have to go. Turns out immersive themed experiences at "big iron rides" parks - no matter how well done - aren't appealing to people who don't like "big iron rides" parks since it's still a "big iron rides" park. Art installations like Otherworld in Columbus. OH or THE EXPERIENCE in Tulsa, OK are expanding, but the cost for entry in that space is dramatically lower than that of a theme park world (or theme park sized entity). And more importantly: these art installations are not theme parks.

What separates immersive art experiences from a "theme park" is that a "theme park," very specifically by the language we use, refers to themed amusement facilities. Amusement facilities have shows, rides, dancing, swimming, and so on. Theme Parks have existed for decades with people flocking to them to experience things: Country Bear Jamboree, Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, just to name a few of these. Things happen around them and occasionally to them, but never do they make things truly happen. The idea of immersive world building as the future of theme parks changes this dramatically. The impact of the art is maximized by interaction with it, then the art must be encouraged to be interacted with. For those who've seen the parks as that kind of escape - a space for reinvention of themselves - this is a dream come true.

But what about everyone else? What about the people who just want to go on a ride? What about kids? Children will have the least ability to accumulate points in Galaxy's Edge compared to childless adults who use it as an after work escape, and the younger they are, the less likely that they will be turned on by a series of games and missions with such stringent rules. In creating a rich mythology for visitors, Disney imagineers have left nothing to the imagination of the guests. There is not intended to be much in terms of individual interpretation. The scenes mean what they mean; they communicate with brute force intensity. It sees the lack of narrative in Pirates of the Caribbean not as an asset, but a liability. Star Wars as a intellectual property shows this conflict in the parks as well. As bound to canon as Galaxy's Edge is, many early reviews and anecdotal evidence suggest Smuggler's Run doesn't on average receive as high of marks from guests Star Tours (a ride that plays liberally with canon).

If the functionality of theme parks is to merely to entertain rather than "immerse" in a realistic world, this wouldn't be surprising. Star Tours introduces us to old favorites and worlds we've always wanted to explore, in addition to huge battle sequences. It's been updated fairly recently and has reasonably good animation and animatronic figures aboard the craft (Smuggler's Run has one animatronic in a pre-show, and he's from a cartoon series that averaged about 3 million viewers). It hits the right notes of nostalgia (a huge part of Disney's success in general) while also providing variation in experience to draw guests back. Star Tours offers no buttons to mash and no points to get, but still manages to have an average wait not far from a half hour even after the construction of Galaxy's Edge.

Function subsequently has led to changes in form elsewhere in Disney World's Galaxy's Edge. Recently, news that menu boards would see the names of food items changed to reflect what they actually were instead of "in character" names; Fried Endorian Tip-Yip became Fried Chicken. Guests apparently had been confused by the names and cast members were complaining the refusal of paying customers to play along with the conceit of being on another planet (a planet, it should be noted, where Coca Cola and paper receipts saying the park name are apparently Star Wars canon) when attempting to spend huge amounts of money on food for their family. To an outsider, the notion that customers would be forced to change their behavior in this way is hilarious, but is largely accepted as a given by those deep in the bubble of hyperimmersion. Cast members have increasingly moved away from calling water fountains as "hydrators" and restrooms as "refreshers" given that those words mean nothing in the context of actual reality when people need to drink water.

This isn't to say that Galaxy's Edge is a total failure: while domestic park attendance dropped in spite of this massive investment, there have been increases in per capita spending related to the new restaurants and retail shops inside. And of course there's the small issue of Rise Of The Resistance not being open. Without it operating, it feels like that period of time this section is opened is more or less a control for the real experiment of "Worlds or rides?"

For all the hand wringing to the contrary, theme parks are just a subgenre of amusement park. Without the function - the rides, in this case - there's no need to see what the section has until they've arrived. If you disagree, ask yourself this: would hundreds of thousands of guests refuse to book travel to Disney if Rise of The Resistance was open but it was Oga's Cantina that was behind in development? How about if it was Droid Depot that was delayed 9 months? Do you really think if they pushed out the roving bots and doubled the number of costumed characters that it would lead to monster lines and record attendance more than if it was the 20+ minute, multi-system, multi-sensory E-ticket ride to end all E-tickets? Be honest with not just yourself but what you know about other people.

I've learned there's always someone who has the contrarian position. I once had someone on Twitter tell me they traveled to stay at Disney moderate resorts for a week and never go to the parks. To be entirely honest, that claim was mind blowing. Doesn't mean I think they're a bad person or anything (they are probably very nice people who I would bet are shy as hell in real life), but I reserve the right to question some people's life choices and what it says about the relationship they have with the rest of society. I also know that going to Disney World for a week and not going to parks because "pools" and "Disney Springs" is not standard procedure for most people who are hardened Disney fans, much less regular, normal people. There would absolutely be one or two people who would wait out Droid Depot out of 20 million. But that's what you're looking at. Theme parks can't be geared to that one or two: it has to be to the 20 million, and maybe the way guests have reacted (or not reacted) to Galaxy's Edge is the path back to that.


  1. To be fair though, when we say "per capita spending is up," what ringfence does this entail. It's sort of a detour topic but one could also argue that the "attendance is down/per capita spending is up" phenomenon is not necessarily due to SWGE but to the infrastructure ramp-up leading up to it...eliminating certain tiers of cheaper APs, higher ticket prices for busier times, $600 rack rate for Deluxe, not to mention Food & Merch prices through the roof across the board.

    Unfortunately not much info is available outside of the Annual Reports/investor calls in which per capita spending is lumped into the generalized "domestic parks" bucket and could come from anywhere.

    The more serious question is, has Disney finally reached a price ceiling? If so, the fallout will not, in any stretch of the imagination, be pretty. If the same pattern follows after the 50th, there will be massive cuts across the board in order to make margins, and since Disney has no more fat to cut that means layoffs and mass closures. Buckle up.

    1. I'm not convinced that the sky is falling even if they've hit a price ceiling. The company is hugely profitable. Maybe they'd cut some underperforming items back to seasonal operation, but (and this assumes it counts as one), I'd never be doing a lightsaber construction anyways to care if it was closed from Nov 3-25 or between New Years and Easter. People want to assume the absolute worst case scenario, but we've never really seen that with the company and they're actually in the midst of a massive construction boom. Since it is impossible to deny the EPCOT refresh or TRON construction, everything is terrible because ketchup packets or parking signs or someone wearing a backpack.

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