How Disney Does Immersion

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Stormtroopers fill the streets during Star Wars Weekends. Photo courtesy of Gordon Tarpley on Flickr.

When we think of rides, we typically think of them in the most basic terms. You get on something that has been created for you to have a certain experience, you experience it, and then you get off. Back during Walt Disney’s time, you could only have one experience, designed for you. You could always count on the fact that Space Mountain had the same track, every time. As time progressed, so did the advancement of the experience of the ride. Star Tours, for example, boasts that you can have a unique experience every time you ride.

But Disney is taking things a step further. Next time you head to a Disney park, you might just be the one in control of the story.

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Outside of Mission: SPACE in EPCOT. Photo courtesy of Sam Howzit on Flickr.

The idea of immersion and interaction on rides isn’t entirely new. In fact, Disney has been doing it on a fairly small scale for many years. Mission: SPACE opened in 2003 and made its riders a part of the story. A four man flight crew is told that they each have a special duty in order for their mission to succeed. The navigator, pilot, engineer, and commander each have a sequence to initiate on the ride. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make the rider feel like he or she has power in what happens to their experience.

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Mission control instead Mission: SPACE. Photo courtesy of Sam Howzit on Flickr.

Ride-wise, Mission: SPACE is really one of the few examples of on-ride immersion. In the queue for Soarin’, soon to be riders can play and create new things by planting virtual seeds and such, but it doesn’t affect the ride itself or change any story. Same with Space Mountain. Those in line can blast other ships and collect supplies, all virtually and on consoles before getting on the ride. But this does nothing to affect the ride’s story itself.

Hong Kong Disneyland looks like it will be the first Disney Park to offer full-fledged immersion on what is half-ride, half-show. Mission: Dimensions of Danger is being referred to as an “immersive experience.” It’s mainly a walk-through attraction, similar to Universal Studios’ now defunct Twister-Ride It Out! Guests are taken through different rooms, but each room is connected to different Marvel characters. What makes it different from other walk-through attractions, however, is that the guests are asked to play a role in what happens.

The main plot involves asking the audience to help Dr. Strange keep Hydra away from an object called the Portal Nexus. Throughout the “experience,” guests meet Thor, Star Lord, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Dr. Strange, although it’s not just Audio-Animatronics you’re meeting. Thor and Star Lord are live and in person, along with another member of S.H.I.E.L.D. who is the one to explain the mission. The other characters pop up in film version and other side characters (like Baby Groot) pop up as Audio-Animatronics.

When you meet Star Lord and Thor, though, it’s not just a meet and greet and you’re not just there to watch. The characters invite guests to help them crack riddles and puzzles to help them get back the Portal Nexus from Hydra. Depending on how the guests do seems to determine how the story plays out. It may not even stop with this ride. Imagineers have already been hinting at a greater, more interactive presence of  Marvel characters and storylines in the parks worldwide. Perhaps guests will become a part of the Marvel universe themselves.

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Marvel Universe entrance in Shanghai Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Joel on Flickr.

What we’re seeing in Hong Kong Disneyland may give us a huge clue as to what Disney is planning in Star Wars land. Above all else, Disney has been saying that the area, set to open in Hollywood Studios in 2019, is going to be immersive. In this case, though, it’s not just the ride that is immersive. Instead, the whole area will be. Disney tested it out with Legends of Frontierland in Disneyland back in 2014. Guests were encouraged to create their character, pick what their character would do in the Gold Rush, and then interact as their character.

Star Wars Land will have you deciding what to do on the rides and whether you’re good or bad (or rather Jedi or Sith). What you do can result in complications throughout the area. You may even find that you have a bounty hunter on your tail.

Disney has been gearing up for immersion rides and experiences for years and it looks that all that will be building up to what Disney decides to create with Marvel and Star Wars next.

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