Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Disney World - From Analog to Digital

I got back last week from a week-long family vacation at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. My first trip there was when it first opened in 1971. We were the first family in the small town where I was born to go to Disney World, so that family trip made it into the local paper (complete with a picture of me in a highchair happily sporting the trademark mouse-ears). Since that visit I have been back to Disney at least once every decade.

Disney World has always made use of cutting-edge technology to deliver entertainment. It was just this past trip, however, that the dramatic technological shift with their attractions became apparent to me. Analog may still remain supreme there, but the future appears to be digital.

Analog experiences are still aplenty at Disney. My daughter's favourite experiences were the theatrical shows, costumed characters, decorations, and dark rides . She also loved the log flume ride and I loved the rollercoasters. But rollercoasters are still rollercoasters (albeit greatly enhanced at Disney by special effects and art direction). Although the motion simulator and immersive experience of Mission: Space is an experience completely unique (and the only ride ever to almost make me vomit).

But, I love how old school tech still holds up well at Disney. Haunted Mansion is a great example of the excellent use of projectors, smoke, and mirrors. Disney perfected the dark ride (a term I didn't know until recently either, according to Wikipedia it is a enclosed ride with animatronics, manequins in tableaux, and special lighting and sound effects) and they are still crowd-pleasers. Haunted Mansion was my daughter's second favourite ride as it was mine when I was a kid (her favourite was Splash Mountain, mine was, and still is, Space Mountain).

Our two favourite parts of Haunted Mansion were ghostly apparitions both achieved via mirrors (including a technique called "Pepper's Ghost" from the 1850s). Okay, I had no idea what Pepper's Ghost was before reading it on Wikipedia but my point is the analog techniques are still effective. (Less so with Country Bear Jamboree and Tiki Room as the animatronics seem like something from the old scifi flick Westworld).

It was my 1992 visit, that I noticed a big switch in entertainment styles at Disney World. A year earlier MuppetVision opened at Hollywood Studios. MuppetVision was my first effective 3D experience (the ones on TV in the 80s didn't really cut it) and it was my first experience with 4D (i.e. combining 3D film with physical events in the theatre). It was Disney's second 4D experience (Michael Jackson's Captain Eo in 1986 was the first). The technology worked incredibly for me. I had never seen such a vivid 3D film before and I hadn't even conceived of 4D (although putting buzzers in people's seats to shock them during pivotal scenes was done in the 60s). 4D was so new to me that when a bubble smacked me in the face, when explosions went off in the theatre, and when a costumed-actor burst into the crowd - it rocked my world!

4D still rocks but is now getting less thrilling with its ubiquity. There is one per Disney park, i.e. Mickey's PhilharMagic in Magic Kingdom, It's Tough to Be a Bug at Animal Kingdom, and Soarin' at Epcot) and we've encountered them at Ontario Place and Niagara Falls. (BTW, I'd like to start a campaign to use the Ontario 4D film at Ontario Place to replace the dreadful show at the Canada pavilion at Epcot.)

3D/4D may use computers in production and digital projection, but it still seems like an analog experience. The real fundamental switch to a completely different type of experience was Toy Story Midway Mania! - a completely digital experience.

There were digital predecessors at Disney. The dark ride Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (opened in 1998) allowed riders to shoot lazers at targets with scores tabulated instantly on the rider's car. And the lame-o ride Spaceship Earth had a redo in 2008 that added interactive, digital components. The traditional dark ride components (the lame-o part) is augmented by an interactive component that uses a photograph of the rider and user-supplied choices to create a customized, futuristic vision video (which can then be emailed).

The epitome of digital at Disney World, however, is Toy Story Midway Mania. It opened 2008 at a cost of $80M. It is much-hyped and immensely popular - by noon at their slowest time of year they ran out of fast passes and the queue was well over an hour. Basically, the attraction is a series of 3D shooting games (modelled on old-style midway attractions such as darts and ring toss). Riders are transported from game to game in a vehicle and a running score is displayed in the car. There are 4D special effects such as wind blowing at you if you pop a balloon, but they are infrequent and minor.

According to some Disney travel writers, they believe this type of attraction is the future. I can see its appeal to the company as updating them is much simpler and cheaper. Instead of tearing down existing structures and scenes and building new ones, they can just install a new program. Despite the hype, however, it didn't seem that much better than at-home games. It seemed frenetic and lacked the charm or immersiveness of other Disney attractions.

A Disney attraction that I do think has tremendous potential and I believe will be more common among amusement parks and tourist destinations is the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure. Guests pick up a mobile device from a mission kiosk and then go to one of the country pavillons to unravel a mystery. The mobile plays clue videos and allows individual input based on the players' real-world findings. It also makes use of the device's camera and positioning functionality. Based on successful gamer responses, it triggers real-world action, such as sound effects and the motion of sets or statues. Overall, I loved it! But it wasn't a tremendous hit with my daughter. The storyline was a little too complicated, long and hard to hear. Still I think the Kim Possible game combines analog and digital experiences in a really vivid, interactive and compelling way.

My family already wants to go back to Disney, but it may be awhile before we actually return. When I do return, I'll be eager to see whether digital has indeed taken over or whether analog holds strong.

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