What is it that truly sets Disney theme parks apart from the competition?
Is it entertainment? Disney’s firework spectaculars are some of the most incredible on the planet. Is it attractions? Disney has some incredible attractions, but there are other parks with great rides. Disney parks easily have the competition beat in the area of food, but even in this, there are strong competitors like Puy du Fou in France.
There are many things Disney parks do with excellence, but one magic word has set Disney parks apart from day one…
Immersion has become a major buzzword in theme parks in recent years. Parks are going to greater lengths than ever before to transport guests to fantastical worlds in the most vivid ways imaginable, from intricately detailed lands to ultra-realistic hands on attractions. Everything from the scents in the air to the foods guests eat are carefully considered to create the most captivating experience possible, but this concept isn’t entirely new. Indeed, the history of immersion at Disney theme parks is as old as the parks themselves.
How did immersion shape the Disney parks we know and love today? To trace this abbreviated history, we have to start at the beginning…
1. Disneyland (1955)
Walt Disney was never known for playing things safe when it came to his creative pursuits. He was a bold visionary who confounded the masses by turning cartoons into award-worthy works of art. It would have been enough for him to simply leave his mark on cinema, but Walt had a grander idea that would change the course of entertainment history.
What if he could find a way to transport guests into his cartoons?
Amusement parks were not particularly nice places in the 1950’s. Most were dirty, mega-sketch, and way too scary for small kids. Theme parks as a concept basically didn’t exist. It isn’t surprising that when Walt started pitching his vision for Disneyland, people thought he’d lost it. They even dubbed the project “Walt’s Folly”.
Despite a comically-disastrous opening day (so infamous that it’s still known as “Black Sunday”), Disneyland captured the heart of America and welcomed over a million visitors in just two months… and this was largely due to successfully introducing audiences to immersion.
Disneyland really did give guests the opportunity to step into Walt Disney’s cartoons in ways people never thought imaginable. Even when dealing with setbacks, Walt’s default was to improve immersion. On opening day, when weeds sullied the shores of the canal boats, he sent cast members with signs with exotic sounding Latin names to turn weeds into theming. Disneyland’s attractions weren’t like amusement park rides—they were living, breathing storybook experiences. Throughout the park’s first decades, this would only improve as classic immersive attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Haunted Mansion opened. Every detail that could be improved was, right down to wafting the sweet scent of cookies down Main Street.
2. Magic Kingdom (1971)
Walt constantly wanted to improve his projects, and despite Disneyland’s success, there was much he wished he could have done differently. He particularly always looked for ways to keep guests immersed in the Disneyland experience, and he hated when this was broken by things like a Frontierland cowboy walking through Tomorrowland to reach his post. He also disliked that the land around Disneyland had quickly been bought up by businesses he had no control over.
Though he didn’t live to see it open, Walt got his chance to do Disneyland bigger and better with his Florida project, which specifically included a “Disneyland East”—what would become Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Ironically, Walt wasn’t particularly interested in building the Magic Kingdom. His real passion was focused on E.P.C.O.T (more on that shortly), but he couldn’t deny his board’s good business sense. Disney’s Florida project would need a surefire draw, and an East coast Disneyland was the best way to do that.
Walt worked with Imagineers to make Magic Kingdom bigger and better than Disneyland in every way possible. Attractions were scaled up, and many were given significant improvements to increase immersion, like the adaptation of Submarine Voyage into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Most famously, Magic Kingdom was designed to actually sit a fully story above ground, resting on a series of hidden “utilidors” that would allow cast members to move about freely away from the public eye. Other improvements included an advanced AVAC system for stealthily dealing with trash, as well as broad advances in audio-animatronics to make rides feel vividly realistic. Walt would pass away before his Florida project ever broke ground, but he would have been pleased with how Magic Kingdom gave guests even more of his particular brand of immersion.
3. EPCOT Center (1982)
E.P.C.O.T. Center was Walt Disney’s true passion for his Florida Project—a fully functional “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” where carefully selected world-changers would live in a utopian community powered by the latest technology. His original vision wasn’t necessarily for a park—like we said, he sort of capitulated to build Magic Kingdom to make it happen—but tourists would be encouraged to visit E.P.C.O.T. to experience everything his prototype community had to offer the world.
Walt never got to see E.P.C.O.T. realized, and his vision was so ultra-complex, not even his brother Roy could make enough sense of it to bring it to pass. He did, however, do the next best thing…
Epcot remains one of the most unique and strangely immersive theme parks in the world, a place where guests celebrate the human spirit by journeying into history, technology, ecology, and international culture. Epcot gave guests the perfect marriage between past, present, and future, a park where learning became adventure and guests could experience the technology of the future today.
Epcot may not fit our typical perspective for an “immersive” park because it is so grounded in reality, but Epcot was Disney’s first major success in creating an entire park that made guests feel like they’d landed in another world. While this has been easily apparent in Epcot’s attractions like The Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, Horizons, and more recently, Mission: SPACE, this is particularly true of World Showcase.
The beauty of World Showcase isn’t in transporting guests into perfect little embassies of each of the countries represented. Rather, World Showcase allows guests to immerse themselves in an idealized representation of what makes each of those countries feel magical. We can taste the food, shop the wares, drink the wines, revel in the scents, and even experience the people of each nation through the park’s cultural representatives. It’s immersion at its best and most subtle all at once.
4. Tomorrowland and Adventureland grow up (1994-1995)
The 90’s were an amazing time to be a Disney parks fan, particularly thanks to a bold commitment to adding even more immersion to the Disney experience.
Tomorrowland has always been a troubling problem for Disney Imagineers—what do you when the world of tomorrow becomes today, or even worse, yesterday? Tomorrowland was originally designed to look forward to the 1980’s, and both lands quickly grew dated when the 80’s came and went.
Imagineers rose to the challenge, and in 1994, Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland received a complete makeover. Instead of racing to keep ahead of the world of tomorrow, this version of Tomorrowland embraced pulp science fiction by turning the land into a galactic hub with a rich and melodramatic backstory, almost like an ultra-fictionalized Epcot. Every building was themed into unique parts of a bronze-plated city complete with salons, public transportation, mail carriers, and newspaper stands. The land even had a backstory connecting attractions like Space Mountain and the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter (Disney’s infamously-scary attraction that may have been a little TOO immersive) via an ethically dubious corporation called X-S Tech (who also owned FedEx for some reason?).
Disneyland was supposed to get the same overhaul, but it was ultimately cancelled due to budget cuts after the failure of EuroDisney’s opening. Disneyland did, however, get its own ultra-immersive upgrade in a different part of the park.
Just like Magic Kingdom got New Tomorrowland in 1994, over the course of the following year, Disneyland’s Adventureland received a complete overhaul transforming it into a mysterious Southeast Asian explorer’s outpost. Details across the land were aged and improved to make way for one of Disney’s most immersive attractions of all time: The Indiana Jones Adventure.
It cannot be understated how mind-blowing this ride was when it opened—for fans in 1995, this was similar to the opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. It wasn’t just a spectator’s quick stroll through Raiders of the Lost Ark or a stunt show like Disney-MGM Studios offered. It was one of Disney’s first successful gambits with making guests active characters in an adventure. Visitors at previews for the ride were even given special cards that could be used to decipher the writing inside the queue tunnels… and if you happened to walk that queue with a cast member, no one was prepared when someone in the know pulled the infamous rubber post and sent the ceiling sliding downwards (it actually moved before!).