Home » One Word Shaped the History of Disney Parks Forever…

One Word Shaped the History of Disney Parks Forever…

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!).

5. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (1998)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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…