Disney theme parks in recent years have been undergoing grand transformations, welcoming large-scale lands based upon acquisitions and partnerships. Movie-inspired areas such as Cars Land, Toy Story Land, Pandora — the World of Avatar and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are in, while the topic-based lands of yore — Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland — are no longer in vogue with theme park designers.
It’s a pivot that’s influencing the compositional purpose of the lands. Walt Disney Imagineers are increasingly emphasizing interactive elements and play-based experiences, and in the case of Galaxy’s Edge and the in-development Avengers Campus coming to Anaheim, a more plot-focused design approach. The increased cinematic influence is also gradually tweaking the very mission statements of the parks.
The past decade has seen a rethinking of the theme park’s role, and in turn how many of us consume mass entertainment. More than 150 million people last year took part in Disney-branded endeavors, said Bob Chapek, the senior Disney executive who oversees the company’s parks, on stage Sunday as part of Disney’s three-day fan focused event, the D23 Expo. Such a number illustrates the vital role Disney plays in shaping our cultural narrative.
But the company that once re-created an African savanna in Animal Kingdom or a park dedicated to science, technology, American industry and global culture in Epcot, is looking more inward when it comes to its theme parks in 2019. New projects discussed and announced on Sunday that are coming to Disneyland in Anaheim and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., focused almost exclusively on maximizing properties that can also live in the multiplex and, eventually, the upcoming streaming subscription service Disney+.
“We’re putting in more Disney, more Pixar, more Marvel and more ‘Star Wars’ into our parks,” Chapek said. “Every live show and spectacular should bring your favorite stories to life in thrilling ways.”
But when everything is Disney, Pixar, Marvel and “Star Wars,” are we at risk of someday losing the “theme” in our theme parks? Lands such as Galaxy’s Edge, currently open at Disneyland and launching in days at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, are identical lands that exist in parks built on vastly different mission statements, the latter once dedicated to the how-to of movie-making. The big reveal at D23 Expo this year was Avengers Campus, which will exist as separate but connected lands in Disney California Adventure in Anaheim as well as Disney resorts in Paris and Hong Kong.
“What we hear from literally millions of our guests is that they want more ways to experience their favorite stories,” Chapek said. Yet fans sampled after the parks-focused panel discussion expressed a more nuanced range of emotions, and one that could probably best be summed up as cautious optimism, especially when it comes to what’s considered a long overdue transformation of Epcot.
The Florida park, especially its Future World, once relied heavily on corporate sponsorships and also suffered from having its crystal ball become outdated faster than Disney could refresh it. Yet the park is beloved among Disney fans in part because it was inspired by the final wishes of Walt Disney and was ultimately structured more on originality than Disney brands, its mascot essentially a purple dragon named Figment who may not be recognizable to those who didn’t grow up with the park.
There was no news Sunday on Figment and the Journey into Imagination ride the character leads, but fans did learn of a “Moana"-inspired walk-through experience dedicated to the majesty of water, a “Guardians of the Galaxy” rotating coaster dubbed Cosmic Rewind and a re-imagining of Spaceship Earth, one that will focus on storytelling through the ages rather than human connectivity and advances in communication. There was also the surprising reveal of a “Mary Poppins” attraction coming to the United Kingdom pavilion in the World Showcase, joining a previously announced “Ratatouille” ride opening next year in the France exhibition.
Yet Disney theme parks are many things to many people, and any change is at risk of swiping something that someone holds dear. “I’m a little nervous that Figment, or, you know, the ‘Three Caballeros,’ who are my favorite, might disappear and they won’t tell us till it’s gone,” said Willy Donica, 33, from Burbank, referencing the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion themed to the “Three Caballeros” that itself was a refresh of a ride that didn’t originally boast Disney characters.
Others wondered if the emphasis on blockbuster franchises — intellectual property or “IP” in industry speak — means a certain joyfully weird era of Disney theme parks are coming to an end. Earlier this month, for instance, Disney celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Haunted Mansion, arguably the park’s most beloved attraction.
What’s more, one of the most talked-about films at the D23 Expo was the Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt-starring film “Jungle Cruise,” itself based on a concept that dates to the park’s beginnings. While the ride took inspiration from the company’s “True-Life Adventures,” it ultimately went in a more lighthearted direction and has for decades existed without an accompanying cinematic universe.
Another fan, Cassie Soumas, liked what she saw of Disney’s Epcot plans, which will also include a game-focused pavilion called Play! She said she is “super-excited” about what was shown but is a “little curious as to what else is coming.” Pressed on the latter, she took a slightly more skeptical wait-and-see approach. “I’m hesitant to have IP being sprinkled into everything,” said the local 22-year-old. “Part of the magic of going to Disney parks is the Tiki Room and Small World, stuff that were original Imagineering ideas and are now classic things.
“Imagination,” she added, “is the key of the Imagineers,” and she still hopes to someday get “original content” that is “not just replicating films.”
And yet fandom is full of contradictions.
Disney further dropped details of the Avengers Campus coming to Anaheim next year, which at launch will be led by an interactive Spider-Man ride that promises to simulate the look and feel of shooting a web from our hands. Other experiences are planned, including what Imagineer Scot Drake described from the stage as the “ruins of a mysterious California sanctum” where one could learn the ways of sorcery from Dr. Strange.
In development and given no timetable is an “Avengers"-themed ride. Little details were provided, except that it will take guests to the Black Panther’s world of Wakanda. This was all a dream come true for Weston Wurtz, 22, of Santa Ana. “When they were announcing Spider-Man and whatnot, I was getting so excited,” Wurtz said. “I had tears of joy.”
One thing is certain: the film-focused approach is shifting theme park design to a more participatory experience. Walt Disney is often credited as describing the sensation of riding through Pirates of the Caribbean as akin to a cocktail party, meaning guests would float through it and get bits and pieces of a narrative to string together if they so desired. Today’s lands and rides feel more scripted, an attempt to place guests in an ongoing story.
Avengers Campus will follow in the footsteps of Galaxy’s Edge and come with a back story. In Galaxy’s Edge, for instance, the story goes that the Resistance is hiding out in a nearby forest, and the evil First Order has just landed in an attempt to sniff them out. Guests enter the conflict, which can be explored via the Play Disney Parks mobile app, where there is a game for control of the land itself. Those who don’t want to use the app will still find themselves playing if they ride Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, which melds a theme park simulator with an arcade-like experience.
Guests can design supersuits, sling webs or get glimpses into the science behind the Marvel universe in Avengers Campus, which will be themed as a recruitment-based area. “If there is one shift,” said Imagineer Scott Trowbridge during a talk Saturday about changes from Disneyland’s 1955 opening to today, it’s that the company is “trying to open up more room for our audience to become part of the story.”
That’s the entire pitch of an in-development Florida hotel themed to “Star Wars” entitled Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, which will be a two-night, cruise-in-space-like vacation. Among the offerings will be the ability to train with a lightsaber or visit the ship’s bridge to learn how to fly it — or operate its defenses. The Starcruiser promises guest interactions with droids and aliens, which were part of the original pitch for Galaxy’s Edge, and it looks to unfold as a sort of two-day, live-action role-playing game.
“We just kind of assume that people want to come and play with us a little bit more,” said Trowbridge, who led the Galaxy’s Edge teams. “But hopefully you guys like that idea. So if you don’t, clap now.”
For once, a fan convention was relatively quiet.