Home » All-Star Roundtable: 4 HUGE Changes Coming to a Theme Park Near You

All-Star Roundtable: 4 HUGE Changes Coming to a Theme Park Near You

Want a peek into the (near) future? We’ll tell you the four places that Disney, Universal, and the rest will take theme parks to, ranging from living and breathing hotels to open-ended (socially) immersive events and rides.

Now that both New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida have finally been completed and opened, ushering in the latest and greatest in theme park design, it’s time to look to the future. Where can – and, much more importantly, should – Imagineers take us next? Should the focus be on ride systems or culinary offerings? What is the next-generation in immerision, entertainment, and technology?

It’s a heady set of questions, but we have a panel of heavyweights that will more than be able to answer them:

Behold – the future!

Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz, freelancer:

With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley set to open in just a few days, and with that land’s focus on all-encompassing theming and park-to-park experiences, it’s got me thinking: what will the next innovation in theme park design be? And, perhaps more importantly, what should Universal, Disney, and the rest be working on next?

For me, personally, I can’t help but think it’ll have something to do with that long-neglected sense, touch. Taste, after all, has surprisingly taken center stage over the last five years (thanks to Butterbeer and New Fantasyland), to an extent that I never would’ve believed possible just last decade. It makes me want to actually feel cold, hard stone when I touch a wall in Hogwarts Castle or Hogsmeade Station.

You guys, though, might be less psychologically deranged and want an even more mend-bending ride system or more crazily elaborate queues. =)

1. Permanent – and social – immersion

Ricky Brigante, Inside the Magic owner/host:

You bring up an interesting point regarding touch. This is exactly where the haunted attraction industry is going. For so many years, the rule in haunted houses has always been “you don’t touch them, they don’t touch you.”

But in recent years, many haunts are shifting to “you don’t touch them, but you sign a waiver so we can touch you.” That shift is producing quite the variety of interesting and exciting experiences. You’re correct that touch is a sense that’s underused in the parks, which often describe their attractions as “multi-sensory experiences.”

ScareHouse hoods and restrains you in its Basement. Image © ScareHouse.ScareHouse hoods and restrains you in its Basement. Image © ScareHouse.

But to answer your question directly, I believe the next step is to take the “immersive experience” concept to the next level. It started with rides that make you feel like you’re somewhere else for five to 10 minutes. Now it’s all about lands that let you walk around and explore. But, ultimately, both of those are time-limited. You spend a few hours in Diagon Alley and then step out and quickly get hit with a blast of reality, sucking you out of the fantasy world you were enthralled in.

So the next leap should be experiences you can exist in for long periods of time, such as themed hotels that are just as decked out with entertainment and details as today’s attractions and lands. Sticking with the Harry Potter theme, it would be like getting a room at Hogwarts or an apartment in Grimmauld Place. And interesting events could happen throughout each day.

Back to the haunted attractions… the Great Horror Campout comes to mind. It’s an experience that spans an entire night. For an evening, full night, and following morning, campers are taken from their everyday lives and put into one of ghastly horrors. It works for fans of the genre, but the concept could certainly be applied to any other type of experience. Spend a few nights as a guest of a princess, or on an island with pirates, or on a space station.

The ultimate social media. Image © Universal.The ultimate social media. Image © Universal.

The Hogwarts Express has also created something rather unique in a theme park attraction by giving it a sudden social element. When you ride Pirates of the Caribbean, you (usually) don’t talk to the strangers in the boat with you, or even on Disney’s monorail.

But every time I’ve ridden the Hogwarts Express, I ended up talking with the other people in my cabin. It’s a private, intimate affair where you are shut in a small room with strangers and forced to make it work. And since everyone is there with a common goal of having fun, it ends up being a great experience on a different level. Extending themed experiences across multiple days would allow such social interactions to take place, making it even more fulfilling.

2. “Open world” theme park rides

Nick Sim, Theme Park Tourist editor-in-chief:

In terms of the direction things are heading, I think that Ricky is absolutely right.

Theme park operators have seen the impact that developing a coherent experience incorporating attractions, shopping, and dining can have, with Universal leading the way with the Wizarding World (and, subsequently, Springfield and Diagon Alley). Not only does this lead to guests having a better time (there’s a huge difference between just racing through a Harry Potter-themed dark ride and spending a couple of hours in Hogsmeade), but it also leads to them spending a lot more money.

Now that Disney, Universal, and the rest have seen the impact that this approach has when applied to a single land, they will be licking their lips at the prospect of extending the idea across entire parks and beyond into other areas of resorts. Disney already does this to some extent with its themed hotels, but there’s definitely room to bring more story-based elements and actual dramatic events into hotels, restaurants, and stores.

More theming, please. Image © Disney.More theming, please. Image © Disney.

While that’s all very exciting, I’d like to see theme parks continue to innovate in terms of the actual ride systems that they employ. In the same way that videogames are gradually moving away from linear storylines towards “open world” settings, I think we could see the same thing happen in theme park rides.

The technology to support this already exists. Local positioning systems enable ride vehicles to break free from fixed paths, and the combination of physical sets and digital projection technology employed by rides such as the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man could enable different scenes to play out based on randomly-generated sequences (as in Star Tours: The Adventures Continue) or triggered by rider actions (as we already see, to a limited extent, on rides like Toy Story Midway Mania).

What could this mean in practice? Well, I think it could mean that a boat ride like Pirates of the Caribbean could go from being a linear set of scenes that play back on a loop to a thrilling ride across an open “ocean” in which groups of riders play an active part in a raging battle.

There are other benefits to this approach – most notably that rides could be updated relatively easily without replacing the underlying infrastructure. The downside is that it would probably mean fewer physical effects, such as the spectacular audio-animatronics that we’ve seen from Disney and Universal in the past.

3. Westworld and Jurassic Park – for real

Lance Hart, editor-in-chief of Screamscape:

I’m not sure is “touch” is the right way to go… at least not in America, where “personal space” is always such an issue. It can work in a haunt for certain, as being touched ties into the fear aspect that they crave, but for the mainstream theme park industry, I think they’ll go another direction entirely.

Taste has been coming into play quite a bit in the latest big-budget expansions from Universal (Potter and Simpsons) and Disney (New Fantasyland/Cars Land), and I think it may be just a matter of time before the second-tier players try to capitalize on this in some fashion, as well, by creating their own signatures dishes, deserts, beverages, and so on.

This will be a great thing, in my opinion, as I think all the parks on this level, from Six Flags to Cedar Fair, have spent years turning their food options in their parks into the equivalent of a generic mall food court and even bringing in generic name brands off the streets into their parks (Panda Express, Johnny Rockets, Subway, Chick-fil-A) rather than embracing their creativity and trying to offer guests something new and unique that they can’t get anywhere else.

Staying with the food concept, I think we could see a return to the idea of the themed dinner theater show that has been slowly dying off, even in Orlando. Medieval Times had the idea right when they tried to serve simple food without forks and knives that you had to eat with your hands, and I think someone could get really creative with this concept and try to push it to the next level, even, perhaps, with just a concept that may focus more on the food and restaurant aspect within a heavily themed atmosphere, and less on the live performance side of things – make it more personal and intimate.

If only. Image © MGM.If only. Image © MGM.

I wouldn’t mind seeing some hotels get into the act, as well, and trying to create themed environments within a resort aspect. Of course, you can see the ultimate end-game of all this thinking put into play in Michael Crichton’s classic sci-fi film, Westworld.

For those who haven’t seen it, it was the ultimate theme park resort, as guests arrived in plain clothes, were taken to wardrobe to be dressed up into the theme of the “world” they were going to visit during their stay, which ranged from Westworld to Roman World to Medieval World. They would stay and play in the resort and interact with robotic cast members who make it all seem real. Crichton followed this idea up later in Jurassic Park… but are we ready for that kind of idea yet?

Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz, freelancer:

Yes. =)

4. Doubling down on the basics

Derek Burgan, writer at Touring Plans:

For me, the concept of “touch” is a catch-22.

On the one hand, I see the benefits. Most of the biggest smiles and joy at the theme parks are seen on kids at play areas. Design all the new technology you want with Escape From Gringotts or develop the most immersive possible experience with Hogwarts Express, and it’s still going to be almost impossible to drag kids out of Camp Jurassic, Barney’s Backyard, or Curious George Goes to Town because they are having that tactile experience that you can’t replicate with the sharpest 4K screen or thrilling drop.

The concept of “touch” in these play areas also encourages actually playing with others, a stark contrast to the world of adults in theme parks (how many pictures from the single-rider line at Gringotts had every single person staring directly at their smart phone?). In short, kids are having the pure, unadulterated fun that the older set are not having, except for short moments of ride time where we are forced to put down our phones and become a passive guest in an experience.

That said, history shows that when we can touch something, we destroy it. See the marking up on Tony Baxter’s painting in the Big Thunder Mountainqueue. See the Knight Bus outside the London Waterfront at Universal Studios Florida, which almost immediately had markings carved into its windows.

Oh, noes! Photograph taken by Ricky Brigante.Oh, noes! Photograph taken by Ricky Brigante.

On a private tour I had last year at Halloween Horror Nights, the guide went through the elaborate measures that Universal Creative has to go through to make sure everything in the houses isn’t completely destroyed because, even in the few seconds of interaction guests have within each room, many are grabbing, ripping, and defacing whatever they can get their hands on. Are they the majority? Certainly not, but it doesn’t take many to almost ruin the entire themed environment for everyone else.

Adults are often also given the choice of directly being in several experiences across Disney and Universal, with the vast majority of theme opting out. When they ask for volunteers at Disaster! at USF or the Studio Backlot Tour at USH, there is usually not a sea of hands that come up, and most of the ones that do are kids.

On my experiences at Enchanted Tales with Belle at Magic Kingdom, adults are almost goaded into performing by the cast members, even though this attraction has something you can’t get anywhere else in the park: an opportunity to meet Belle if you perform in the show. We may think we want a more active experience, but when push comes to shove, we have been trained to expect a passive experience and most generally feel comfortable with that.

Personally, I do not believe touch is the next frontier after the Wizarding World so beautifully developed and expanded upon taste. J.K. Rowling had created a world in which food and drink was a factor from the very beginning. This wasn’t Star Wars, where literally the only item any fan can name is blue milk; each Potter fan had their own dream item and was able to see it brought to life via Butterbeer, Chocolate Frogs, Florean Fortescue’s, and more.

The mother of them all. Image © Universal.The mother of them all. Image © Universal.

Cars Land tried to replicate this with their “cones,” and Disney also did across the board with LeFou’s Brew/Red’s Apple Freeze/Boysen Apple Freeze, and I don’t think even the staunchest of Disney fans would make the case that they come close to doing what WWOHP did. Just as Avatar’s success didn’t prove that everyone wanted to see 3D movies, I don’t think the food and drink success at WWOHP means that’s what guests want or expect with their theme park lands.

What should Disney and Universal be working on? All focus within the parks should be spent on making a better, more immersive experience than what guests had previously.

While Disney has atmosphere in spades with Cars Land and New Fantasyland, both, in the end, feel mostly shallow, where you go from experience to experience rather than being “lost” in the environment. While Radiator Springs Racers is beyond reproach, the rest of Cars Land could have used a bit more building out to approach how guests at Walt Disney World feel in Frontierland and, even, Liberty Square.

Universal needs to work on plusing and replacing existing experiences to bring them up to reflect the standards which have been brought under Comcast management. Shrek 4D, Twister, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and KidZone need major overhauls or possibly need to be shown the door. With Springfield, WWOHP, Despicable Me, and even Transformers (from meet ‘n greet, queue, and ride to and gift shop – all well thought-out and executed) showing the playbook of how it can – and, more importantly, should – be done.

And just as movie theaters should have realized it was 3D that made people want to see Avatar, Universal needs to understand that an HD 4K projection system is nice as long as it is there to support practical effects, such as audio-animatronics.