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.


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