What if, as a theme park guest, you could stand in a particular scene or location within a themed land, just outside your favourite attraction, and look through a window to see another country’s version of that same theme park, thousands of miles away?
Or what if your favourite local museum could bring you to an exhibit being displayed by its equivalent on another continent, devoting a room or hall to enabling visitors to virtually experience something they might not have the opportunity to travel and see in ‘real life’?
Over the course of the last couple of decades, increasingly easy and inexpensive international travel has made the world feel smaller; making the appeal of such ideas limited, even as recently as five or ten years ago. Why would I want to look at Orlando through a window, when I could just fly there tomorrow? But as we all begin to finally wake up to the evidence climate scientists have been waving in our faces for several generations — perhaps flying to Orlando tomorrow isn’t the best idea — and the separate realisation that something like Covid-19 can ground flights without much warning, the idea of seeing the world without actually travelling very far may become more appealing. The future of themed entertainment may well be a hybrid, combining in-person visits with virtual experiences set in far flung locations.
In researching and planning my first full-length novel I have had the privilege of giving some thought to what zoos might look like in a few hundred years, among other things. Although the idea is only touched upon briefly in the final story, it’s been interesting to think about the fact that in the future, it probably won’t make sense to hold other creatures in captivity for convenient entertainment, even as impressive, humane, and animal-centric the best examples might be. The conservation element of zoos, often touted — usually with the best intentions — as educational, will very likely take place somewhere much closer to the animals’ natural environment; and the undeniably valuable education provided to all ages by seeing them in their own habitat might be offered by something more like super high-definition cameras, hidden in the wild, transmitting footage moment-by-moment via the internet and projected in a walk-through setting like the one already being offered to display pre-recorded media content by Illuminarium Experiences. Imagine walking into a David Attenborough documentary and controlling what the lens captures, because that ‘lens’ is your own field of view, and the footage is happening in real-time all around you.
Let’s turn our attention to theme parks as the most immediately relevant category to this discussion, as, aside from it being an area of personal and professional interest I spend a lot of time thinking about, it’s almost certainly the area of the themed attractions industry with the most tangible examples of like-for-like parks, lands and attractions semi-replicated in different locations across the world.
An obvious starting point seems to be IP-driven, immersive lands. Examples include Marvel — whose theme park ‘universe’ spans Disney California Adventure’s recent MCU-focused Avengers Campus (joining an existing area at Hong Kong Disneyland and a soon-to-open equivalent at the Walt Disney Studios in Paris), Universal Islands of Adventure’s Marvel Super Hero Island, and IMG Worlds of Adventure’s Marvel zone in Dubai — and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which encompasses everything from the new Harry Potter New York store to a Warner Bros. Studio Tour just outside London, to a series of fully immersive lands in Universal resorts on both the East and West coasts of the United States, as well as Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan. Other examples on the ever-expanding list might include Peppa Pig, LEGOLAND, DC Comics, and Jurassic World.
Taking the example of Marvel; it seems unlikely the various takes on fully themed lands by different licensees outside of Disney parks would have the opportunity to be connected anytime soon, and even if they could, it could be tough — though not impossible, thanks to fans’ willingness to accept and embrace recent ‘multiverse’ storylines — to make a story make sense between Marvel Studios’ MCU characters and those of the Marvel Comics catalogue. However, with two lands on two different continents already open and existing in the same ‘universe’, and at least one more on the way, it would seem a shame not to find ways to connect them. I anticipate there will at least be efforts made by Imagineering to make a nod in each park to the presence of the others, through signage, and perhaps subtle easter eggs for the more observant fans and frequent visitors.
Given the Stark Industries theme and the fictional organisation’s legacy of pushing technology into the future, though, and the real-world tech available to us now, there could be numerous ways to overlap each Avengers-themed land as a storytelling device, whether it’s a wall-to-wall screen offering a real-time glimpse into another park (perhaps with added VFX surprises and enhancements in the background), or even opportunities for characters and show performers to interact with each other remotely — language barriers and time zones permitting.
There are also multiple LEGOLAND parks set across three continents, each with a varying, locally relevant take on the brand’s overarching, unique theme. Catering primarily to families with young children, those in their main target group (ages 2–12) might be exactly the people who’d be enormously excited to find out they could wave at another family on the other side of the world. Within the theme of their latest development, the MYTHICA land, set in a parallel universe to ours, what if younger guests could build a fantastical creature in Windsor, UK, and introduce it to a counterpart in Günzburg, Germany, where the two custom characters could be brought to life through animation in that other universe, and interact?
In addition to in-park storytelling, other examples of potential use cases for this kind of interconnectedness could extend to receptions and other common areas in themed hotels, retail outlets, dining, and even travelling exhibits, which could become, among other things, a ‘window in to the parks’. Additionally, the opportunities for rich storytelling within AR, VR and MR as an extension to a guest’s experience in a themed environment are only just beginning; LEGOLAND have built an augmented reality app to accompany the launch of their new lands, and although I have not yet had the chance to experience Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in either location due to the current travel restrictions, I have been able to walk the periphery of its setting on the planet of Batuu in the accompanying ILMxLAB experience.
Finding interesting and meaningful ways to build connections between different iterations of a dimensional environment is the kind of detail that might be walked past or ignored by the day tripper who doesn’t even know they’re in a brand new land the rest of the world is desperate to experience; but it could be a game changer for the family of superfans who have been anticipating for this trip for months, eager to see what the (hypothetical) park’s creative teams have in store for them.
So, as long as efforts to build connections don’t interrupt the first type of guest’s experience in a negative way, and serve to help tell a deeper story for the second, does this become a valuable pursuit? As someone who looks for ways to bring an experience home to understand its impact in a deeper way, and believes in the idea that the best attractions can be enjoyed over and over again, with something new being discovered on each visit, I’d like to think so.