Home » Artificial Worlds: The Rise and Reign of Screens and Simulators at Theme Parks

Artificial Worlds: The Rise and Reign of Screens and Simulators at Theme Parks

Back in the first half of the 20th century, the business of entertainment was quite a bit different. Back then, mere “amusement” was enough to draw people to leisure gardens, carnivals and traveling fairs, seaside boardwalks speckled with thrill rides, and rudimentary roller coaster parks. But when Disneyland opened in 1955, entertainment changed.

After being swept up into its “worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy” – immersive, cinematic lands built not by carnies, but by filmmakers – guests began to have one simple, timeless, reverberating request: “take me somewhere.” And in the decades since, designers have chased that very idea, looking for increasingly elaborate ways to make guests feel as if they’ve become part of another world, from Peter Pan’s Flight to Pirates of the Caribbean; Haunted Mansion to Indiana Jones Adventure…

But there’s only one kind of attraction that can take guests somewhere without really going anywhere at all: simulators. Today, a growing chorus of critics say that Disney and its contemporaries may rely too much on the transportational power of these increasingly-elaborate attractions, and in an age where guests are increasingly surrounded in screens at home, legitimate questions must be raised: is it time to sideline the simulator? Can physical sets ever make a comeback in the digital age? Or has the reign of these technological giants just begun? Let’s start at the beginning…

Almost beginnings (1970s)

Image: Disney

Believe it or not, Disney’s desire for a simulator actually predates the technology that could’ve made it possible. The story begins with Disney Legend and beloved, fan-favorite Imagineer Tony Baxter, who saw the potential of a ride going nowhere way back in the 1970s. As a matter of fact, Baxter planned for a simulator through the nautical world of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be one of the starring E-Tickets in his never-built Possibilityland: Discovery Bay.

That cancelled land (meant to debut at Disneyland in 1976) would’ve given guests the chance to step aboard simulator pods, departing from Captain Nemo’s famed Nautilus for a deep-sea journey through coral reefs and ancient cities before facing off with a dreaded giant squid. Captain Nemo’s Adventure would’ve been the earliest kind of simulator, setting guests into a cabin capable of rumbling, nodding, and shaking along to projected film.

Image: Disney

Discovery Bay was cancelled, of course, but designers acknowledge that the motion simulator technology that would’ve powered it hadn’t really advanced as far as Disney would’ve needed, anyway.

Some sources say that Disney was even ready to revive the simulator concept in 1979, hoping to apply it to their film The Black Hole – a disastrous feature meant to become Disney’s Star Wars equivalent but… well… failing. Obviously, if Imagineers did ever play around with the potential of a Black Hole simulator, it was quickly shelved. However, they say that good ideas never die at Disney. Sometimes, they just need a little time and a shot in the arm…

SIM SPOTLIGHT: Star Tours (1987)

Image: Disney

For plenty of projects in the 1980s and ‘90s, that shot was Michael Eisner, the new, young CEO fresh from his stint at the head of Paramount Pictures and ready to revive Disney after more than a decade of stagnation. Eisner had been brought on because his cinematic resume made him perfect for revitalizing Disney’s studios (both live action and animation) which hadn’t really had a legitimate hit since Walt’s time, and whose once-golden name was now tarnished. Obviously Eisner did bring Disney’s name back from the brink, initiating the Disney Renaissance where the studio couldn’t stop making box office blockbusters like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Pocahontas.

Image: Disney

But spectacularly, Eisner also believed that movies would be the key to transforming Disney’s aging theme parks from tired museums of ‘60s style into modern, thrilling places where everyone – even teenagers! – would find something to love. Eisner simply (but controversially) believed that for Disney Parks to remain relevant, they needed to let guests “ride the movies” to see the stories and stars that mattered most to modern audiences… even if they weren’t Disney movies!

And in the 1980s, there was no one whose stories mattered more than George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones – the two defining film franchises of the era. Both Eisner and Lucas were ecstatic about the idea of incorporating the properties into Disney Parks as quickly as possible, which meant ambitious plans for a Star Wars roller coaster were a no-go.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

But Baxter chimed in, suggesting that the long-stalled plans for a motion simulator might make more sense here than ever before. And better yet, building a simulator would allow this Star Wars attraction to arrive at Disney Parks (relatively) quickly…

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

The time was right. Disney contracted to purchase four ATLAS (that’s Advanced Technology Leisure Application Simulator) pods, capable of dynamic motion. They even earned a trademark for a system to make loading these 40 person pods load quickly and efficiently. Paired with Lucasfilm-produced ride video and wrapped in an elaborate setting and backstory as only Imagineering could concoct, the Lost Legend: STAR TOURS that opened in 1987 is still remembered as one of the most spectacular attractions ever… and the one that changed Disney Parks forever…

“Ride the Movies” (1990 – 1999)

Star Tours was just the addition Disneyland needed at exactly the time the park needed it, and – for better or worse – its success singularly redefined what Disney’s theme parks should be about. Put simply, Eisner had been right: “riding the movies” would be the next wave to carry through to the new millennium, and now simulators provided a way to do it.

For example, Universal had been looking to construct their first from-scratch, purpose-built theme park in Central Florida for the better part of a decade (their original property in Hollywood had been a “theme park” in some sense since the ‘60s, but centered around its working movie studio and Tram Tour). As you might imagine for a movie studio hoping to break into Disney’s backyard, though, plans had always stalled. By the mid-’80s, Universal’s executives had largely decided that they shouldn’t try to take on Disney until they had a coup.

Enter legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who’d been invited to visit Star Tours during its testing phase back at Disneyland. While there, George Lucas allegedly made an offhand comment about how Universal could never build such an elaborate and advanced ride. Naturally, Universal’s creative directors were incensed by the challenge.

Image: Universal

Spielberg prompted them that they ought to prove George Lucas wrong using Back to the Future (produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal) as the basis… and voila! Universal developed the Lost Legend: Back to the Future – The Ride, and Universal Studios Florida was green-lit.

In a (failed) effort to dissuade Universal from building a studio-themed park in Orlando, Disney’s plans for an EPCOT Center pavilion dedicated to the film industry got upgraded to an entire park – the Disney-MGM Studios, and even at its opening, construction was well underway on its own Star Tours, with 150% the capacity of Disneyland’s.

Image: Disney

Meanwhile, another ATLAS attraction was on the way to EPCOT Center just a few steps away. There, the Lost Legend: Body Wars appeared in the park’s Wonders of Life pavilion, using the technology to send miniaturized guests into the pulsing bloodstream of a human to examine the incredible world within.

Image: SeaWorld Parks

Star Tours. Body Wars. Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Questor. The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. SeaWorld’s Wild Arctic. Throughout the ‘90s, simulators appeared not just as theme park favorites, but as attractions at shopping malls and entertainment centers. The technology had grown. That meant that it was time for Disney and Universal’s theme parks to take it to the next level… Read on…

SIM SPOTLIGHT: From troops to SCOOPs (1995 – 1999)

Image: Disney

In 1995, Disneyland debuted the most technologically sophisticated ride that they world had ever seen. But guests stepping onto this cutting-edge, 21st century thrill ride didn’t appear to be stepping aboard a futuristic Starspeeder 3000, a time-traveling Delorean, or a medical miniaturization pod. Instead, it sure looked like they were hopping aboard rusted-out, reclaimed troop transports from World War I.

That’s because Disney had taken the guts of a motion simulator and placed them on a moving dark ride. Rumbling out of the station and into the ancient ruins of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the 12-passenger troop transports would suddenly spring to life, traveling along a forward path like a classic dark ride, but rumbling, banking, shuddering, and stalling thanks to embedded hydraulic motion actuators under the passenger array.

Image: Disney

That Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure and its 1995 opening didn’t just debut the new Enhanced Motion Vehicle (EMV) that essentially fused a media-based simulator with an authentic dark ride to turn the rider into an active part of the story.

It also re-ignited the themed entertainment industry. Because at Universal, designers have spoken loud and clear: it was the debut of Indiana Jones Adventure that caused them to look at the Spider-Man ride they were developing for Universal’s new theme park and decide against using the simple, passive, tried-and-true Omnimover ride system (most famously seen on the Haunted Mansion) in favor of something with a little more oomph.

Image: Universal / Marvel

In 1999, Universal debuted the ride that redefined simulators yet again. Itself a Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man saw Indiana Jones’ EMV and raised it. The so-called SCOOP ride system likewise is a classic dark ride, traveling along a path through physical scenes.

But the SCOOP not only bucks and rumbles (and spins), but interacts with 3D screens set among the dark ride’s physical scenes. With shifting perspective to match riders’ moving points-of-view, Spider-Man’s 3D screens act as windows into another world, expanding and extending scenes, allowing action on-screen to trigger tactile effects on-scene.

Image: Universal / Marvel

Arguably, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man remains, to this day, the most spectacular showing of that early STAR-TOURS-set idea of what a simulator could be: bucking, twisting, rumbling, pitching, banking, flying, and falling, perfectly in-sync with a falsified “world” around riders.

SIM SPOTLIGHT: Soarin’ Over California (2001)

Alright, so the ‘80s birth of the motion simulator in theme parks had crescendoed in the ‘90s with ever-more elaborate installations, up to and including Indiana Jones Adventure and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. The latter might’ve even become the defining example of the genre, perfectly encapsulating the ride system’s capabilities.

So when Disney returned to the simulator ride, it would be in an entirely new category. In 2001, Disney opened a new theme park that had the industry talking for all the wrong reasons. The subject of its own Declassified Disaster: Disney’s California Adventure feature here, Disneyland’s infamous second gate didn’t have much to write home about. In fact, when it opened, the park was woefully short on rides, and had practically nothing that fans would call “Disney quality.” There was one exception.

Image: Disney

Soarin’ Over California was one of the most spectacular attractions Disney’s Imagineers had ever designed. Smartly, Disney (temporarily) ended the arms race in the simulator battles of the theme park wars and opted to do something very different with the technology. Soarin’, in many ways, would be the antithesis to Star Tours. On-board, riders seated in rows of a “hang-glider” would be hoisted up and positioned inside of a domed, OMNIMAX screen on its side, surrounded not only in the sights of California (its coasts, deserts, cities, forests, and peaks) but in the sounds of a cinematic score by Jerry Goldsmith and accompanying smells. Soarin’ was for all: an emotional, moving, spectacular celebration of California.

Naturally, it was duplicated within Epcot’s The Land pavilion in Walt Disney World.

Image: Disney

Ultimately, both installations have made their way into an in-depth Lost Legend: Soarin’ Over California feature because they’ve since made the switch to an international Soarin’ Around the World ride film instead. But to this day, Soarin’ remains one of the most sensational rides Disney’s ever created, and in its own way remains as awe-inspiring as Star Tours.

21st Century simulators (2000 – 2009)

The first decade of the 21st century, we see the “standardization” of simulators.

Take, for example, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. After its 1999 debut (years ahead of its time), few could have imagined where the “SCOOP” ride system would appear next… But those who were betting probably wouldn’t have assumed that the advanced ride type would make the jump to a regional, seasonal theme park in Virginia.

Image: SeaWorld Parks

Yet that’s where the Lost Legend: Curse of DarKastle was built, ingeniously transposing the ride system into a legendary journey through the cursed history of a German king. Truly a 21st century haunted house, DarKastle thrust guests into classic 3D “gotcha” scenes before catapulting into a wild, aerial race to defeat the mad King Ludwig, aided by his mother’s forlorn spirit.

Image: Disney

At Epcot, the controversial Mission: SPACE was constructed over the bulldozed remains of the park’s thesis dark ride and Lost Legend: Horizons, fittingly demonstrating Future World’s new direction: a semi-scientific realm of E-Ticket simulators and thrill rides. Admittedly, Mission: SPACE is a bit brainless and has suffered enough bad press as to require that Disney lower its gravity, but make no mistake: Mission: SPACE was once envisioned as the direct evolution of their line of simulators, providing unfathomable physical realism.

Remember that rash of studio parks that spread across the world in the early ‘90s, with Universal Studios Florida and the Disney-MGM Studios as its epicenter? If the 2000s taught them anything, it’s that keeping a movie-themed park current is no easy task. In the early 2000s (spurred, in part, by the more “timeless” intellectual properties that populated Islands of Adventure), Universal set forth an ambitious plan for keeping its original 1990 studio park current, even if it meant cannibalizing classics like the Lost Legends: Jaws and Kongfrontation  that had seemed untouchable just a year earlier.

Image: Universal / Fox

Jump then, to Universal’s own Lost Legend: Back to the Future – The Ride once more, now sixteen years old. The very ride that had justified the park’s existence was determined to be obsolete. And just like that, it closed forever. While fans still lament the loss of Back to the Future, it’s an interesting case study; one of the first large-scale simulator attractions to be “upgraded” by (more or less) just swapping out the ride film. That’s how The Simpsons Ride came to both Universal’s American parks.

But, for the most part, simulators were still accessory attractions, even if they were gaining traction in park lineups. It’s the 2010s that would see the explosive growth (or perhaps, overgrowth) of simulators… and that’s where we’re headed. Read on…

SIM SPOTLIGHT: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (2010)

Image: Universal

In 2010, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Now, just steps away from the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man resides a ride that may have dethroned it. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey uses the same basic backbone (an open-air motion-simulating vehicle advancing through physical scenes interspersed with screens) and adds an almost indescribable technological flair. Ask a disembarking guest to explain the ride mechanics and you’re likely to get a lot of arm and hand motion without much clarity.

The truth is that the KUKA Robo-Arm ride system that Forbidden Journey employs is nothing short of magical, holding four guests in the “fist” of a robotic arm that’s traveling along a dark ride track, able to bend at the “wrist” and “elbow,” occasionally swinging into small, personally-sized domes to project action sequences.

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

Like Spider-Man, Potter was praised for its ambitious advances in technology and its commitment to keeping simulators “real” by incorporating physical sets, animatronics figures, and more. Even if it’s a mad-dash, non-sequitur race through the Wizarding World, Forbidden Journey has naturally become a Mecca for Potter fans; a must-see adventure, and one of the world’s leading examples of what a 21st century simulator can do.

Refining and reimagining (2010 – 2019)

Largely, you might consider the last 10 years to be otherwise lacking any major breakthroughs in simulator technology. And it’s true that, at least for the most part, the 2010s have been an era of refining what works.

Whether it’s Soarin’ Over California’s rebirth as Soarin’ Around the World, its unfortunate spin-off as the Declassified Disaster: Europe in the Air knock-off at Busch Gardens, or the numerous flying theaters appearing at theme parks, malls and entertainment centers around the globe…

Image: Universal

The re-use of Spider-Man’s SCOOP technology in Transformers: The Ride or Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

The rebirth of STAR TOURS as the HD, digital, random-sequence Star Tours: The Adventures Continue or the 2016 application of the thirty year old technology in Hong Kong Disneyland’s headlining Iron Man Experience

And that’s probably for the best! Between ATLAS simulators, EMVs, SCOOPs, 360 projection tunnels, flying theaters, and more, it may very well be that designers have all the physical tools they need to transport guests to new worlds and – more often than not – to “ride the movies.”

And it has to all lead up to the debut of today’s leading simulators…

SIM SPOTLIGHT: Flight of Passage (2017)

Image: Disney / Lightstorm

It’s interesting… Any discussion of Pandora – The World of AVATAR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom will always have to begin with the footnote that fans vehemently and vocally objected to the 2009 film AVATAR as a candidate for permanent inclusion in its own full Disney Parks land when it was announced… The five years of development hell that followed didn’t exactly warm them to the concept. However, the 2017 opening of Pandora – The World of AVATAR seemed to assure fans that the land would work at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, even if it was in spite of the intellectual property and not because of it. 

Smartly, designers severed the land from the film, outright skipping the action film’s militaristic human-led assault on the planet (in search of Unobtanium) and instead set the land forward in time to the moon of Pandora long after humans’ attempts to mine Pandora out of existence have been thwarted. In the land, guests play the role of thoughtful eco-tourists, visiting the verdant moon to gaze in awe at its flora and fauna, collectively rolling our eyes at some distant, anonymous ancestors who thought they ought to strip it for profit.

Image: Behind the Thrills

That’s why we’re invited into an old military base (cleverly being consumed by the planet’s alien foliage) to participate in the time-honored, coming-of-age tradition of the native Na’vi people: a ride on the back of a Mountain Banshee – dragon-like creatures who soar around the planet’s floating mountains. This is AVATAR Flight of Passage, the land’s undisputed E-Ticket.

The brilliance of the concept is a thousand-fold, but there are a few things worth celebrating: first of all, our physical bodies will remain inside the military base, with our mind simply being linked to an “avatar” doing the riding. That explains the industrial set-up, our mounting of an obviously-mechanical device, and the necessary 3-D glasses.

Image: Disney / Lightstorm Entertainment

But once the real world falls away, Flight of Passage becomes – to not say too much of the experience that many have yet to see firsthand – one of the most joyful, surprising, and moving experiences Disney has ever Imagineered. Fusing the power and beauty of Soarin’ with the thrills of Star Tours, it’s a near perfect mix that truly must be seen to be believed… by all means, a headlining E-Ticket that completely and totally redefines the role and abilities of a simulator yet again. It’s practically indisputable at this point that Flight of Passage is simply the reigning “magnum opus” of the “simulator” ride genre.

In fact, is AVATAR Flight of Passage the best theme park ride on Earth? For some people, it may be. Just at the time when it seemed that the simulator genre had again gone stale, Flight of Passage reinvigorated the concept by reminding naysayers of the power and grace that these rides can contain. Far from merely “faking it,” simulators can be spectacular. 

SIM SPOTLIGHT: Millennium Falcon – Smugglers Run (2019)

Image: Disney

Perhaps the perfect capstone to the “refining era” of the simulator in the 2010s is one of the last additions of the decade. When the two Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands opened in Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2019, both were without their headlining, E-Ticket attractions. (That ride, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, was the subject of troublesome tech issues that delayed its opening on both coasts, but which is widely heralded as an industry-defining experience that redefines the word “epic” in dark rides.) 

Instead, the two Star Wars lands opened with only their “supporting” attraction – Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Behind-the-scenes, this interstellar smuggling operation combines elements of Star Tours, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Mission: SPACE. Yet Smugglers Run is entirely unique. It’s actually less a ride than a moving video game.

Image: Disney

Aboard the Millennium Falcon, guests are assigned roles (each cockpit seats two pilots, two gunners, and two engineers) who are responsible for certain aspects of the ship during the mission. The pilots make out with the starring role by literally controlling the side-to-side and up-and-down movement of the simulator pod, respectively, but engineers and gunners can improve (or destroy) the ship’s performance by pressing flashing buttons during the ride’s course. 

Using a gaming engine, the ride reacts in real time to the performance of riders, creating an experience that can be laugh-out-loud fun, or teeth-grindingly frustrating depending on your preferences… especially since, with its six-person design, your results and experience depend on the performance of strangers who may or may not be interested in participating in such an immensely-interactive experience.

Image: Disney

While riding in the Millennium Falcon may be a lifelong dream for some, ending up with crash-happy eight year olds as the pilots, a confused grandma as a gunner, or non-English speaking engineers who don’t understand they’re supposed to repair the ship probably wasn’t what you had in mind. Hence why a ride that seemed cued up to be a homerun hasn’t really risen to be a star at either park it inhabits…

Pros and cons…

And that harsh reality brings us to our final look at the three “plusses” and three “minuses” of simulators that both Disney and Universal will have to carefully consider as they balance their parks with this growing sub-set of attractions… Read on…

Image: Disney

From a surprising technological marvel in 1987 to what some consider an oversaturation today, the role of the simulator (or, more broadly, “screens”) in theme parks has indeed spread quickly… And that should come as no surprise. After all, though the “ride the movies” era got its start under Michael Eisner’s regime in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s arguably stronger than ever today. Many Disney Parks fans, for example, worry that the U.S. parks will never again see a truly original E-Ticket, with seemingly every major addition in recent memory connected to a box office blockbuster.

And maybe that’s fair given that Disney has spent billions and billions of dollars to acquire Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars while also undergoing its own “Disney Revival” (a proposed follow-up to the “Disney Renaissance”) with blockbuster animated features like Frozen, Wreck-it Ralph, Zootopia, and Moana

And that brings us to…

The Case FOR Simulators and Screens

Image: Disney

1) IF THIS IS STILL A “RIDE THE MOVIES” ERA, SIMULATORS ARE SIMPLY THE SMARTEST WAY TO DO IT. If you’re stepping onto a ride purported to take you along an adventure with Harry Potter and friends, wouldn’t you rather see Daniel Radcliffe reprise his role, tearing through the sky on a broom with you zooming right behind rather than see an animatronic of him on a broom suspended from the ceiling? Isn’t STAR TOURS: The Adventures Continue a perfect way for a single ride to truly transport guests to the worlds of Star Wars; better than any physical dark ride could do it? Isn’t Transformers: The Ride stronger for being all screens than including clunky animatronics to punctuate otherwise explosive high-action scenes?

In an era where riding through beloved movies is key, simulators and screens let us see the “real” characters and the “real” locales as they truly are rather than limited “theme park” versions of them.

2) SIMULATORS CAN BE AS NUANCED AND EMOTIONAL AS ANY OTHER RIDE. Despite common criticism that simulators are, by nature, colder and less authentic than other dark rides, we find this untrue.

Image: Disney

In the three decades that designers have been tinkering with the technology behind simulators, they’ve developed a keen understanding of their strengths. So while we argue in our Countdown: 25 Best Audio-Animatronics on Earth that no “screen” can replace a great moment with Mr. Lincoln, Mickey battling a fire-breathing dragon, or a climactic encounter with a gigantic monster, designers know that, too. So instead of trying to beat traditional rides at their own game, designers draw on what simulators can do better than physical rides: the goosebumps of getting a hologram transmission from Princess Leia; the tear-jerking score and seamless transitions of Soarin’; the free-falling comic book thrill of Spider-Man… Simulators can’t do what traditional dark rides can do… but the inverse is true, too. 

Image: Universal / Marvel

3) SIMULATORS ARE NIMBLE. Traditional dark rides (especially the more elaborate ones) are (sometimes literally) concrete. They are what they are. While Disney may be able to accentuate classics with fresh special effects or projection mapping, for the most part they are what they are until they’re replaced. But simulators, by design, can change quickly. That’s especially important given the advance of technology (with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, for example, being “upgraded” no less than 3 times since its opening less than a decade ago, from HD to 4K; similar upgrades have kept Spider-Man and STAR TOURS going as well) but also creatively.

For better or worse, it’s what allowed The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera to convert to Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast which in turn switched to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. Regardless of which you think is the best or most relevant, it’s really just a simple switch of film (and granted, some major remodeling of queues, preshows, etc) that gives that ride a new lease on life every decade or so. See also, Back to the Future becoming The Simpsons; STAR TOURS making way for its “prequel.” 

Image: SeaWorld Parks

Look at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, whose European-themed simulator went from Questor (1990) to King Arthur’s Challenge (1996) to Corkscrew Hill (2001) to Europe in the Air (2011) and now Battle for Eire (2018). In each subsequent update, the ride was reborn, re-marketed, and revitalized for a new age. Each time, it by default became more high definition, ending with its current incarnation where riders on the motion platform look out on a 360-degree virtual world through virtual reality headsets!

The Case AGAINST Simulators and Screens

1) SIMULATORS CAN OVERSATURATE PARKS. It’s become a leading complaint about Universal, and probably for good reason. When we took a frank (and surprising) look at the Rides Universal Needs if it Wants to Beat Disney, we were surprised to find that Universal Studios Florida has 15 proper rides, and that a majority of them are essentially built on looking at a screen with varying degrees of jostling, with most of that majority requiring 3-D glasses to do so… That’s a pretty tiring idea! It stands to reason that if I pay big bucks to visit a theme park and feel that most of my day amounted to being rumbled in front of a screen, I might feel that my day was not well-spent.

Image: Universal

How many “narrative-friendly” excuses could possibly exist for why we need to pick up 3D glasses in what feels like every queue line all day long?

Sources indicate that, internally, Universal Creative admits that it’s tipped the scales too far, and has committed to leaving screens out of its next phase of attractions, from the new Harry Potter roller coaster coming to the Wizarding World through Super Nintendo World and beyond. That’s very, very good news. Luckily, Disney has traditionally maintained a healthier balance (thanks to its storied 60+ year history, much of it predating simulators), but there’s another problem with screens that IS becoming a major marker for fans…

2) SCREENS MAY ENCOURAGE PARKS TO THINK AND ACT SHORT-TERM. Whether fans like to hear it or not, Disney learned quite a bit from Universal’s strategy in the 2000s, where classic attractions – no matter how beloved! – fell in the name of progress.

Image: Universal

Fans accuse Universal of stocking its parks with “flavor of the week” attractions with little care for their longevity, stuffing in high-earning intellectual properties even knowing that the attractions they created wouldn’t last more than a decade. The abysmal Fast and Furious: Supercharged, the awful Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon… By all accounts, none of those attractions will still be around in 2030… and that’s the point! Simulators and screens can be swapped out at the press of a button.

And like it or not, that’s increasingly happening at Disney Parks, too. By time Disney finishes its 3 Marvel super hero-themed lands at Disney California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios, and Hong Kong Disneyland, the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that it’s based on will have released its last film and moved into a new era absent Captain America, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Avengers. Give it ten years or so and a new generation of super hero fans won’t know Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man or Chris Pratt’s Star Lord at all. In fact, if they know the characters, it’ll likely be a “rebooted” version with new actors, new looks, and new stories…

Image: Disney / Marvel

But that’s okay! Disney will simply swap out the screens on Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! Fans always argued that that “hip, irrevent” thrill ride blasting ’70s rock music over California Adventure’s 1940s Hollywood Land wouldn’t be as timeless as the Lost Legend: Tower of Terror that it replaced… but that was never its intention. Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! won’t last forever, and it wasn’t meant to. It was meant to quickly and inexpensively insert the characters into the park while they were still relevant, and will likely be a different ride entirely by the end of the next decade. That “expendable” nature of rides leaves Disney feeling a little too much like Universal, chasing quick payoffs rather than thinking of what the parks should be in 10, 20, or 50 years.

3) SCREENS AREN’T SPECIAL. And this is a reality that theme parks will soon need to face… Think about 3D films, like the Lost Legend: Captain EO, that once spread across theme parks and science centers around the world. Novel, interesting, and exciting, 3D films felt new and cutting edge and specialUntil 3D re-entered mainstream cinemas… then home theater systems… then, essentially, evaporated as the trend fell away. In other words, 3D films were a “hip,” cool technology that theme parks should showcase in spectacular ways.

Image: Disney

Yet today, the three 3D theaters at the Disneyland Resort (formerly, Captain EO, Muppet*Vision, and It’s Tough to be a Bug) are wasted space. One shows a Star Wars clip show to empty theaters, one alternates a decade-old Philharmagic with “extended sneak peeks” of upcoming films, and the other was cleared out to build the new Avengers Campus.

Why? Because that wave has passed. It took a few decades, sure, but 3D films eventually became commonplace, losing their appeal and seeing return visitor numbers drop. It now seems almost certain that Disney will never bother financing a “new” 3D film for any of the theaters across its resorts. 3D films just aren’t “attractions” anymore, because they’re available anywhere.

Image: Disney

And given that increasingly high-definition screens and even virtual reality are now household wares and mall attractions, could simulators ever lose their appeal in the same way? To some extent, it’s already happened. That’s why almost every Disney or Universal simulator from the ’90s – not so awfully long ago – is already gone, replaced, or re-done with a new intellectual property. As long as Disney and Universal are committed to such continuous, costly updates, so be it. But will simulators always be showstoppers in the minds of visitors? We’ll see…

The future of immersion? (2020 and beyond)

Image: Disney

In the 1950s, Disneyland’s simple, flat, blacklight dark rides took guests into their favorite fairytales.

In the 1960s, elaborate dark rides – the magnum opus of Walt and his team – created larger-than-life, cinematic experiences like the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Michael Eisner’s tenure literally turned Disney Parks into places for guests to “ride the movies,” diversifying with new technologies including the modern motion simulator.

Image: Universal

In the 2000s and 2010s, continuous technological advancements have taken the simple ATLAS and evolved into EMVs, SCOOPs, flying theaters, KUKA Robo-Arms, and other inconcievable devices meant to propel guests into worlds both physical and digital, with virtual reality on the horizon. Gripping, emotional, thrilling, beautiful, funny, and wild, simulators have become as diverse as dark rides, with any two being no more similar than Peter Pan’s Flight and the Modern Marvel: DINOSAUR.

Image: Universal

At each step, every new innovation has always been to find a better way to transport guests into a new world. And in the last decade, fabulous advances have been made there, too… Thanks (again) to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a very new idea has been born: what if immersion isn’t really about dark rides or simulators?

After all, Star Tours may propel us into the unthinkable Star Wars galaxy and mythos for a wild interplanetary ride…

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

…but Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge invites us to live our own Star Wars story… to truly step into the world we’ve only imagined… To eat where the characters eat; shop where they shop; to be a part of their world.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge; Springfield, U.S.A.; Cars Land; Pandora – The World of AVATAR; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter… perhaps these immersive, habitable worlds truly are the next logical evolution of the simulator, inviting us to step into the places we’ve seen on screen rather than just riding through them… But the long and short of the rise and reign of the simulator is simply that these virtual rides aren’t going away… and when used wisely, they represent some of the most spectacular rides ever created…