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5. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (1998)

Tree of Life under construction
Image: Disney

Wait a minute, aren’t we forgetting something?

Before we get to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we do need to address the elephant in the room… How did Disney-MGM Studios fit into Disney’s history for immersion? Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, and weirdly enough, the park ended up being kind of a step backwards for immersion in Disney parks. Michael Eisner had just become CEO, and he was a movie business guy. Disney wanted to outdo Universal Studios at the studio park game, particularly being Universal Studios Florida was near opening. There was a lot to love in Disney-MGM Studios, including one of Disney’s most fun immersive attractions, The Great Movie Ride, but the problem with studio parks is that they actually have a strange way of breaking guest immersion. Like Universal, Disney tried to use the common thread of Hollywood to knit attractions together, but what came out felt disjointed compared to Disney’s usual fare. Despite some significant wins with attractions like the Hollywood Tower of Terror, it would be years before Disney’s Hollywood Studios would really step into its own in the area of immersive attractions.

On the flip side, Disney absolutely knocked it out of the park with the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998.

You could write volumes about the tapestry of details that make Disney’s Animal Kingdom one of the most immersive theme park experiences in the world. To this day, Imagineer Joe Rodhe keeps revealing fresh tidbits about the park’s design that guests are just barely learning about. Disney’s Animal Kingdom didn’t have the option to cut corners on immersion—Disney’s goal was to build an animal park so ultra-realistic that even the animals wouldn’t fully be aware they weren’t in their native environment. There would be no traditional cages, no looming bars. Every experience was fine-tuned to feel like an actual journey to the African safari or a perilous quest through the jungles of India or Nepal. Disney actually wanted guests to question if there was anything at all between them and the lions, tigers, bears, and fruit bats.

There actually is nothing between you and fruit bats, by the way…

The details that make Disney’s Animal Kingdom so immersive are absolutely insane, from the intricate carvings of the Tree of Life down to the way Imagineers designed the power lines in Harambe Village to look like haphazardly coiled cables are rigging the whole power grid together Everything was directly inspired by the Imagineers’ travels to Africa, Asia, and beyond (journeys celebrated in the restaurant, Tiffins), and the result is one of the most hypnotically immersive parks ever achieved.

6. Tokyo DisneySea (2001)

Tokyo DisneySea Prometheus volcano at night
Image: Disney

For the sake of brevity, we’ve largely focused on Disney’s US parks, but that isn’t a knock against Disney’s overseas parks. Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland are rich with incredible contributions to theme park immersion (like Disneyland Paris’ Frontierland and Shanghai Disneyland’s Challenge Trails). Nowhere has this proven truer, however, than at Tokyo DisneySea.

Tokyo DisneySea is lauded as one of the most immersive theme parks in the world, and thanks to partnership between the Oriental Land Company and Disney Imagineers, it is a park entirely in a league of its own. The concept behind the park is a hub where guests can adventure to a series of fantastical ports of call. These include the Jules Verne inspired Mysterious Island, a Venetian Mediterranean Harbor, a Mermaid Lagoon, an Indiana Jones’ inspired Lost River Delta, the Arabian Coast, Port Discovery, and even an American Waterfront. The entire park is the stuff of dreams, and they have absolutely aced immersion both with the park’s incredible theming and with ultra-immersive attractions like Fortress Explorations, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

7. New Fantasyland and Cars Land (2012)

Gaston posing for kid
Image: Disney

2012 marked the start of an amazing decade for advancements in immersion at Disney parks—particularly with the arrival of two much-anticipated lands.

By the 2010’s, Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland was beginning to feel distinctly dated compared to its Disneyland predecessor. This perception completely changed with the arrival of New Fantasyland in 2012. I’ve written before how I used to largely avoid Magic Kingdom on excursions to Walt Disney World—New Fantasyland was one of the improvements that played a major role in improving my perspective on the park, and it was specifically because of its brilliant use of immersion.

New Fantasyland took Disney’s most iconic fairytale stories and brought them to life in ways guests never thought were possible. Instead of a hodge-podge town fair, New Fantasyland turned the landscape around Cinderella Castle into a sprawling countryside where Disney’s classic stories seamlessly interconnected. Rapunzel and Flynn Rider celebrated the lantern festival in the castle square. Ariel greeted travelers in a grotto by the sea. The seven dwarves mined the nearby hill country, and the Beast’s castle lay just a short journey beyond. Dumbo, Goofy, and Casey Jones all worked in the same storybook circus outside of town. Even Gaston’s Tavern became a reality delightfully appealing to adult visitors who enjoy watching a master troll at his craft (no one roasts like Gaston). You didn’t even have to have kids to enjoy New Fantasyland—any guest could enjoy it thanks to immersion.

Across the country, another delightfully immersive land made it’s debut in 2012 as well. Disney’s California Adventure had long suffered criticism for feeling like it just didn’t meet Disney’s usual standards for immersive entertainment. It felt like a caricature of California culture, a strange extension of downtown Anaheim only connected to Disney by tenuous threads.

The success of Cars Land marked a major win and significant turning point for the park. The town of Radiator Springs brought just the right blend of Disney immersion and charm, producing a land that feels magically real. Particularly celebrated is the Ornament Valley section of the land (where Radiator Springs Racers is found), which introduced a much needed berm to Disney’s California Adventure to block out the Anaheim skyline. In its own way, Ornament Valley sweeping natural landscape would prove the perfect testing ground for Disney’s next forays into using forced perspective to create natural wonders as backdrops for lands…

8. Avatar: The World of Pandora (2017)

Little girl looking up at Pandora floating islands
Image: Disney

It’s impossible to talk about immersion at Disney parks without culminating with Disney’s two greatest successes at the art to date.

People weren’t particularly optimistic when Disney announced they would be adding a land to Disney’s Animal Kingdom based on James Cameron’s Avatar. It sounded like a desperate ploy by Disney to prevent Universal Studios from snatching up the property after their competitor’s staggering success with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Despite the film’s historic box office success, Avatar just never built the dedicated fan base of other film franchises. The World of Pandora seemed a poor consolation prize for the opportunity Disney lost when they gave up on Beastly Kingdom as Animal Kingdom’s fantastical creatures land.

Boy, were we wrong…

The World of Pandora is one of Walt Disney World’s greatest success stories. You don’t have to care a lick about Avatar to be absolutely captivated by Pandora’s floating islands, bioluminescent flora, and mysterious creatures. It’s stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful, and Disney’s choice to theme the land as an in-world tourist hub was brilliant. The whole land feels like an ode to science fiction/fantasy over the years, and there’s no question that Pandora’s flagship attraction, Avatar Flight of Passage, remains one of Disney’s most magically immersive experiences to date.

Possibly with one exception…

9. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (2019)

Dad and little girl in front of Millennium Falcon
Image: Disney

Despite a rocky start battling conflicted press and a polarized Star Wars fan base, critics agree that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge succeeded as Disney’s boldest venture into ultra-immersive lands. Guests visiting the Black Spire Outpost aren’t just invited to take a tour of events throughout the Star Wars series—they become active participants in a canon day in the saga’s timeline, and that day has significant repercussions on galactic events.

No matter how you feel about Disney’s handling of Star Wars, there is no question that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge succeeds at immersing guests into the world of Star Wars. Every detail of the Black Spire Outpost is designed to make guests feel like you have left Disney’s Hollywood Studios and been transported to the mysterious world of Batuu. The planet carries connections to events throughout the Star Wars saga, from Tatooine-like architecture, to statues from the Old Republic era in and outside of Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, to the actual Millennium Falcon sitting right there in front of you.

And you get to fly it… You get to fly the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy…

In Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, you can sip blue milk while slicing Imperial frequencies with your Datapad. You can antagonize stormtroopers and engage in secret missions with Rey, Chewbacca, and Vi (the Spy) Moradi. You can build a droid, join a secret society to tap into the Force and build a lightsaber, or just peruse the local shops to brush up on your kloo horn-speeder-summoning skills. That alone would have been enough, but then Disney decided to take things even further by giving us the most absurdly immersive attraction of all time—a four part, 18 minute mission against the First Order in Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

By the way, that mission plays a crucial role in kicking off the events of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

What does the future hold for immersion in Disney parks? We’re in a weird season, for sure, but we are confident Disney will find their stride again. If Disney was able to bring us all of this, where might they go next with future immersive projects like the Avengers Campus, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, or the highly anticipated Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser resort? We can’t wait to find out…

Enjoy this article? Keep reading to learn some of the unexpected ways that Walt Disney World’s reopening has felt a little weird to guests...

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