The Trend Towards (new) Immersion

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter undoubtably set in motion a new immersion standard.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter undoubtably set in motion a new immersion standard.

Alrighty, a big topic to start off with lol. Just as a warning, this post doesn’t exactly have a thesis – there’s a lot of ground to cover, more it’s a bunch of half developed observations. Take it as fair warning that my biggest flaw as a writer is keeping myself focused.

Has anyone else noticed just how prevalent the terms “immersive” or “immersion” have become in the themed entertainment world? It seems I can’t even read a press release for a  new merry-go-round without coming across a sentence like,

“this ground-breaking new attraction featuring a brand new type of rotating mechanism immerses the rider into the world of wooden horses and carousels of old like never before.”

Hyperbole and the focus on ride system aside (topics for another day) there’s that damn word again: a concept encompassing perhaps the absolute pinnacle of themed design being reduced to a buzzword completely devoid of any of it’s original meaning. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is immersive. Radiator Springs is immersive. The Rivers of America is immersive (I can hear some shouts about that last one coming my way already – I’ll get to it). The Simpsons land at Universal Orlando is not immersive. Nor is the despicable me attraction. Nor is a lot of the theme park world. But that’s not a bad thing, especially when the focus on immersion in the modern era seems ever so more emphasized not on the concept of immersion itself, but on a particular subtype of it.

So before going any further what is immersion in the context of the theme park world? I’d say traditionally it’s been the ability of a themed area to fully surround the guest with an environment that puts them emotionally, and usually physically, into another space than the one they actually are in. It’s the ability of careful design and unique elements that can make it hard to remember that everything around you is artificial: that those trees only go on for 10 feet, that warehouses surround you, that none of this environment existed before humans created it, that you’re actually in the middle of a bustling city. Depending on the degree, you could argue that theme parks by their very nature are inherently immersive. And I would largely agree with that statement. But for practical purposes I’d say it’s those places within theme parks that are transportive within the park itself.

Panorama of Rivers of America
This is also immersion! 🙂 Sorry about the lamppost.

The Frontierland/New Orleans Square/Critter Country/Rivers of America section of Disneyland I find to be one of the best examples of this type of immersion.It’s hard to fathom the existence of Tomorrowland in this section of the park, much less the rest of the resort, much less Anaheim and the monotonous grotesque sprawl extending for miles around. Not only that, but despite everything about the area being clearly constructed, excruciatingly well designed, encompassing  influences of probably over a dozen locations spread over thousands of miles, and far too romantic or clean to be real, it forms a cohesive whole that seems like a natural landscape. (Obviously all of this is subjective, and the New traditionalist school (as David Younger terms it) of thought might very well cringe at its lack of “authenticity”. An ongoing theme on this blog is probably going to be my critique of the most modern school of themed entertainment design thought, and it’s obsession with authenticity, recreating things exactly, reality, and leaving no room for imaginative conflict, clashes, non-sequiturs, juxtaposition, non reality, etc that came about when the original school of themed designers didn’t really have to time to take themselves so seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of this style, but it’s just a style and one that seems to be obliterating all the others. New Traditionalism and the new “immersion” seem to go hand in hand).

Anyway, over time and especially since the Wizarding World popped onto the scene, immersion has come to mean literally ripping an environment off the screen or page or map and building it stone for stone in the real world, eliminating absolutely any trace of the outside world, outside park, reality itself, and potentially the fact you are even a normal human. Animal Kingdom largely has followed this idea since it’s creation and will take it to the current frenzied level with Pandora. I would not be surprised if they make everyone walk around with those gas masks on (interesting opportunity for special effects, but obviously ridiculous). WWoHP famously went as far as to not serve coke products within the land and build all the stores to the scale of the original sets, ensuring massive congestion. I’m a huge fan of the Wizarding World, and applaud the bravery and innovation (though I question if the latter design feature was more supported by budget than pioneering instinct lol). Immersion tends to mean a lot of rock work too if its Disney.

Yet conversely immersion has also come to mean anything the PR department says it means. So everything. I think this is because with the success of lands like Radiator Springs and WWoHP, the attitude of many designers, and the attitude of a lot of the crazy people like me on the internet that care about these things, has been that the modern usage of immersive design is equal to good design. And most importantly that everything else is bad or lazy design. People seem to forget that its a rather new style and attractions like Dumbo, Peter Pan, or even something like Future World and Horizons have been beloved by people for decades while exhibiting essentially no immersion in the modern sense, only classic immersion as I described early on. There is a fear that if something is not immersive, therefore it is not good, and immersion becomes the goal, even if the project is much more well suited to another style of design. I think the history of theme park design failures is a story of so many times people trying to force a specific design style or specific attraction type into circumstances that just don’t support it.

Picture of Carousel at the Magic Kingdom
Come on does this really need a backstory about being a training device?

Remember the example at the beginning about the merry-go-round? Well that was only a half sarcastic reference towards Prince Charming’s Regal Carousel and it’s ridiculous backstory about tournament training that came about with the Fantasyland expansion in Orlando. New Traditionalism can be blamed for that, but more specifically it’s more recent characterizing obsession with everything being “immersive”. Is it not possible that Fantasyland is its own place that happens to have a carousel? Lands used to be their own places, not other places. (Damn I need to write that article on New Traditionalism soon, it keeps bleeding in here).

One has only to look to the recent surge in immersive theatre to get a sense of where this trend towards building more and more immersive attractions is headed. Immersive theatre really excites me in a lot of ways, but many attempts at it also have a very video-game like influence which I’m unsure about using on a large scale.

Sleep No More promotion image, lovers, audience wearing masquerade masks.
Sleep No More is about as immersive as you can get but still not interactive. And people love it. (Also notice the name of the company, Emursion – did I say it was a buzzword?)

In fact while immersive productions such as “Sleep No More”, which require nothing from the audience except silence have gotten pretty much universal acclaim, the more interactive attempts (there’s been several in Orlando in the last few years) have been rather mixed and awkward. Productions exist where the audience is forced to perform tasks, make decisions, interact with the performers, even run or crawl, rather than being a static observer. I happen to be a person who is not a huge fan of video games or unnecessary physical activity, so I’ll admit I’m biased. On the one hand these types of experiences really interest me, and the potential that’s there is huge. On the other hand, I feel like it could easily be overdone, and with how important “immersion” has become recently, I could easily imagine a world in which all new projects are based on this and it quickly becomes tiresome. I’m not sure how much I want to go to a Star Wars land if I’m being constantly chased by storm troopers, need to learn a local language just to buy some blue milk, and my grandmother can’t get her much needed coffee. On the other hand, if the goal is immersion, then that’s exactly the kind of environment a designer dreams to create. And the designer in me actually salivates a bit at doing something just like that. But there has to be a balance of sorts, unless the goal is to fundamentally change the theme park experience – which it may be. A tingling in me says that Universal’s third Orlando gate could be most successful by taking these ideas to their stupidest max and sticking  them all in one place – rather than trying to mix them into existing park structures. I’m not sure what the right answer is, or how to square the differences. But it seems to me that a completely immersive and interactive themed experience is a rather different animal than the traditional themed experience and we’re approaching an era where the two are going to be fighting it out. You can’t go too far in the new direction without alienating or changing your audience.

The advantages of pursuing a more and more immersive style are clear. There’s opportunity there for a huge variety of experience, there’s the wow factor, there’s the “playing pretend” aspect that has always been hinted at in themed design, but never been fully utilized. But a more and more immersive style potentially comes at the expense of the theatricality of previous design styles (and perhaps longevity too- though thats more of an IP vs Original content question). What comes to mind immediately for me is a Mary Poppins attraction concept I’ve been working for on a while now that takes a lot of inspiration from classic dark rides, traditionalism, even a bit of modernism (god I can’t remember if that’s the word I’m looking for or not), and the theatre world. It’s still immersive in the old sense, but not in the new, and I wonder if attractions or lands like that, which I firmly believe can be just as great, have a place in a world where the goal is to create new “immersive” environments. I want to know that places like the east and west corners of Disneyland, places that don’t try to be anywhere else but themselves still have a place in this new world. Do amalgamation lands have a place where the goal now seems to be to create individual specific spaces? Will I be able to buy a coke anywhere but Main Street in 30 years?

If it’s unclear exactly what I’m trying to get at, that’s ok, its a bit unclear to me too. This is not a post trying to bash the new immersion. There’s so much that’s exciting there. An example that comes to mind that just opened is Derren’s Brown’s ghost train.

I get to ride an underground train and get to experience something awesomely reminiscent of Poseidon's Fury? I'm in.
I get to ride an underground train and get to experience something awesomely reminiscent of Poseidon’s Fury? I’m in.
This looks so slick

While unfortunately I haven’t been able to experience it first hand and can’t speak to the quality of the virtual reality segment, the whole thing strikes me as a perfect example of what the modern immersion can look like when perfectly balanced. (minor spoilers ahead). You have meticulous sets, live actors, active audience participation (without being so active as to piss off people who don’t want to be active or can’t), it seems to work really well. Rumors about the main star wars attraction being built involve a similar format of ride: interactive walkthrough: immersive theatre: ride. That’s exciting. Also very easily screwed up. On the one hand getting off in the middle of the ride, being handed a weapon, and engaging in laser tag with stormtroopers (no idea if that’s what’s being proposed), before running off onto an escape pod sounds brilliant. On the other hand it sounds like a logistic and efficiency nightmare, not to mention only well-suited for a small portion of the very broad theme-park going audience.

I guess what I’m asking for is balance. Following immersion to its ultimate end can essentially create a live video game. And that’s not a bad thing, but not necessarily a good thing either. It becomes almost a new type of themed entertainment experience. I think there’s actually several new types of themed entertainment experiences that haven’t really been explored. On it’s own it’s fantastic but trying to integrate it into the pre-existing theme park structure is a difficult challenge. As long as we’re talking theme parks, I don’t want to see even this trend come at the expense of other types of lands, attractions, and immersion. How do you integrate them together to form a cohesive whole? I think that’s something that’s missing. You have California Adventure, and then you have Carsland. And the two don’t really gel together. You have Islands of Adventure and then you have Hogsmeade, which again don’t really gel together. They’re both disconnected from the rest of their parks. The beauty of the old style of immersion, was the entire park and the individual sections of it could form cohesive wholes. The trap you get into now is you end up creating these little islands of extremely specific design that don’t, and perhaps can’t even connect to each other. The park itself looses it’s identity, the park stops becoming it’s own location so much as a set of pathways that connect other specific locations.

There’s a lot here to digest. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry (or look at it longingly from afar in my current case). But like any time of great innovation it doesn’t seem to be quite worked out yet how all these new ideas can be combined together in the best way. And like any trend the pendulum will probably swing too far in one direction before swinging back. It ought to be an interesting decade.

 

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