Look, it makes total sense that "screens" get a bad rap.
Particularly in the early 2000s, there's no doubt that across Disney and Universal theme parks, the Venn diagram of "rides" and "movies" became pretty much a fully-overlapped circle. The result is a period when fans – often justifiably! – criticize Disney and Universal parks for offering far, far too many rides that begin with picking up a pair of 3D glasses. Sometimes, it can feel that a day in the parks mostly involves being sat in a box and jostled in front of a screen.
But hear us out. At the end of the day, it's not if screens are used, but how they are. After all, though we may just be getting out of an era defined by an overreliance on screens, screens are not the enemy! To prove it, here are three absolutely incredible, show-stopping, E-Ticket headlining attractions that simply wouldn't exist – or at least, wouldn't be anywhere near as sensational – if they were required to stick to physical sets alone.
1. STAR TOURS
In one of our in-depth Legend Library features, we launched into unbelievable story of Disney's first Star Wars attraction – 1987's blockbuster collaboration with George Lucas, the Lost Legends: STAR TOURS. Literally positioned at the cutting edge of then-available technology, STAR TOURS did the unthinkable: it brought Disney Parks back to life after a very long period of slumber. In fact, then-CEO Michael Eisner's bold assertion that Disney Parks needed to keep up with the times and feature the hottest stories of the day – even if they weren't Disney characters! – was the kind of risk that could've crashed and burned.
But STAR TOURS is remembered today as the ride that changed everything, simulataneously kicking off the "Age of the Simulator" and the "Ride the Movies" era in one go. Basically every motion simulator owes its existence to Disney's STAR TOURS. Of course, like all great innovations, copycats spread quickly. By the '90s, cabin-based simulators could be found not just at amusement parks across the globe, but at fairs, festivals, and even malls. Still, we shouldn't take for granted that STAR TOURS was the start of something big – and something that couldn't have been done at all without the coordinated efforts of Walt Disney Imagineering and Lucasfilm working in the medium of screens.
The other part of STAR TOURS' story is that – by being "upgraded" to its own 4K, HD, 3D prequel with randomized destinations and encounters – the ride also lives up to a massive (and often underutilized) benefit of screens: they can be updated. Though some fans brush off screens' flexibility as part of their inherent lack of permanence and depth ("just swap out whatever's on the screen for the next hot IP"), fresh animation and new scenes bring STAR TOURS full circle, allowing it to adapt to the times and keep Disney Parks fresh and exciting.
Star Tours is "just" a screen, in a box that shakes. Yet it's so much more. And that's precisely what we mean when we say that it's not whether a ride uses screens, but how it does. Take for example...
2. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
When the Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man opened alongside Universal's Islands of Adventure in 1999, nothing like it had ever been seen before. The true first when it comes to 21st century "multi-media" rides, without Spider-Man, the entire industry would look a whole lot different, and it's unlikely that any of our post-Millennium Modern Marvels would look quite the same as they do today.
By now, you know the trick: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man places guests into roving, motion-based dark ride vehicles that pass through physical sets interspersed with massive screens. Those screens act like windows, extending physical sets where animated moments trigger real, physical effects around riders. Spider-Man represents a perfect synchronization of "real" and "projected," surrounding guests in the comic book streets of New York.
More to the point, everything Spider-Man does would be a whole lot harder to pull off in another medium. Scenes populated exclusively by even the best Audio-Animatronics couldn't capture the same energy as the action-packed, vibrant, explosive, and thrilling ride. It's screens done right. And even if a few too many Universal rides in the last twenty years read like permutations of Spider-Man (yes, we're talking to you, Transformers, Reign of Kong, Escape from Gringotts, and Fast & Furious: Supercharged), there's no doubt that Spider-Man is still the G.O.A.T... and still a perfect application of screens even a generation later.
To review, STAR TOURS was the birth of the simulator, offering ride designers the incredible ability to launch "across the galaxy" in a small space and in a quick turnaround. It was a landmark ride that moved "screens" to the forefront in 1987, then showed their incredible adaptability in 2017.
Then, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man used every trick developed in the decade since, integrating scenes into physical sets and using them – along with new animation techniques and ride technologies – to bring the comic books to life. Only "screens" could've made those Amazing Adventures as bold, bright, kinetic, thrilling, and electric as they were.
So let's leap forward again for our third legend, made possible only by those screens...