Don’t expect Disney’s Avengers Campus to be like ‘Harry Potter’ World or ‘Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’
If the recent trend in theme parks has been awe-inspiring interpretations of fantastical worlds, this summer’s planned opening of Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure will bring things closer to home.
In a departure from towering re-creations of other universes — see the magical realms of Universal’s “Harry Potter"-inspired lands, or Disney’s own takes on the “Avatar” and “Star Wars” franchises, including the recently opened and especially alien Galaxy’s Edge — Avengers Campus relies more heavily on the familiar.
That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of illusions, ranging from the technological to the gastronomical to some good old-fashioned magic tricks. But when Avengers Campus, which was previewed to media last week, launches on July 18, it will be first and foremost a place to hang and play.
“How do we participate?” was a question that fueled many early brainstorms for the Avengers Campus, says Scot Drake, who is leading the land’s creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering.
At Avengers Campus, we will be called upon to engage. See, for instance, the land’s centerpiece new ride, Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, a family-focused attraction that’s essentially a large-scale video game built on silly and communal gesture controls. Remember Microsoft’s motion-sensor home experiment Kinect? Think of that, only significantly more refined, where riders — players? — can use their hands to simulate throwing and retracting webs into digital environments.
Even the merch is participatory in Avengers Campus. Guests will have to resist the urge to buy battle-ready toys dubbed Spider-Bots. A gift shop will house a mini robot battlefield, where score is kept via a light system on the robotic motion controls. Play has taken on a more prominent role in recent years at Disney’s parks, as evidenced by the mobile adventures guests can explore via the Play Disney Parks app and the arcade-like Galaxy’s Edge ride Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure is pitched as a sort of next-generation take on Toy Story Midway Mania — not only are the guests themselves the controllers, but the ride will attempt to marry gameplay with a deeper narrative.
We will enter the Worldwide Engineering Brigade (WEB), a so-called workshop where Peter Parker (Spider-Man, once again played by Tom Holland) and others are working on ways to let regular folks experience superpowers. When the Spider-Bots, the creepy-crawling robotic sidekicks, go off the rails, we will be shuttled into another invention, the WEB Slinger Vehicle, where we will don 3D glasses and sling webs, aka fling our arms like no one is watching, to capture the bots and manipulate the digital environments.
Such a communal, lighthearted and family-focused experience saves Disney from trying to concoct an attraction that one-ups the borderline thrill ride that is the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal’s Orlando, Fla., theme park, which exists via a deal that predates Disney’s acquisition of the Marvel brand. Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, which joins the existing Guardians of the Galaxy -- Mission: Breakout! puts the emphasis on zaniness, boasting no height requirement and appealing directly to generations weaned on video games.
Disney’s gathering of shareholders comes just weeks after the company abruptly announced a new CEO to replace Bob Iger.
“When you think about Toy Story Midway Mania, it’s overtly a game,” says Brent Strong, an executive creative director with Walt Disney Imagineering. “We’re coming in to play a game. Here, while it’s absolutely interactive, and has game-like levels to it, you are on a mission with Spider-Man. There is a full narrative arc that accompanies the gameplay of this — the Spider-Bots are getting out of control, they’re flooding across the campus, Spider-Man is concocting a plan with your help to defeat them.”
Disney’s overall messaging is that Marvel’s characters are coming to our world in the present day, thereby making Avengers Campus a somewhat unique land in that a large percentage of it will look and feel very much like contemporary America, albeit reimagined by characters such as Spider-Man and Ant-Man. But if Walt Disney’s theme park designers cited far-off places such as Turkey and Morocco as influencing some of the design of Galaxy’s Edge, Imagineers this time around referenced locales that will most certainly be more recognizable to Southern California parkgoers.
“We will take field trips to college campuses or over to [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] or to Caltech,” says Heidi Rosendahl, the color designer and field art director for the Avengers Campus.
The building that will house Web Slingers, for instance, will have a converted warehouse, aged-brick look that wouldn’t feel out of place in many pockets of downtown L.A.'s Arts District. The underlying story of Avengers Campus is that the space once belonged to Tony Stark’s father Howard for his own endeavors. Along where the line forms for the Spider-Man ride we see fading paint indicating a former automotive warehouse while we hear the Spider-Bots rattle through the exposed pipes and air-conditioning units.
Whether building an Italian restaurant in DTLA or a ride at Disneyland, here’s one benefit of warehouse chic: No need to hide a building’s innards. “We’ve been able to use the real and weave it into our story,” says Rosendahl. “If this were a princess castle this probably wouldn’t work out so well for us.”
Furthering its play-driven aesthetic, Avengers Campus will borrow lessons learned from Galaxy’s Edge when it comes to characters, although it won’t worry so much about directly feeding into a broader cinematic narrative. While there will be traditional meet-and-greets in Avengers Campus — Iron Man is alive and well in this land and he has some new armor to show off — these photo sessions will be augmented with more story-driven encounters. Superhero Thor will be on the hunt for someone worthy of wielding his hammer, and the presence of his brother Loki will be played as a mystery.
Thus, if Disney delivers on its promise, Avengers Campus will be an activity-focused land. Long teased, for instance, has been an acrobatic Spider-Man, which is technically a robot that will perform stunts 60 to 65 feet in the air above the building housing the attraction. Expect the stunts to be visible throughout the land, and after soaring through the air a very human Spider-Man will climb down the building and meet with guests.
Everyone, kids and adults, will be invited to train with the Black Panther’s guards in the dead-center of the land — “It’s not just a pick-a-kids kind of show; it’s for anybody to be involved in,” says Michael Serna with Disney’s live entertainment team — while nearby, Doctor Strange will play host to a magic show in a nook of supernatural ruins. The latter will rival the Guardians ride in bringing an otherworldly bent to the land — concept art for Doctor Strange’s area (the Sanctum) showed a place that will appear to glow in the evening.
Flanking the land will be the glistening silver of the Avengers Headquarters, believed to someday act as the entrance for a new ride but for now home to an elaborate stunt show. The performance centers on the villain Taskmaster — you’ll also see him, surely not coincidentally, in the upcoming “Black Widow” film as well as the “Marvel’s Avengers” video game — attempting to infiltrate the campus.
The stage, on elevated ramparts of the building, will be visible from a nearby bar and restaurant that will emphasize somewhat adventurous twists, especially when it comes to presentation, on fried chicken and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while serving beer flights in mini-beakers. At the Pym Test Kitchen and Pym Tasting Lab, referencing characters Ant-Man and the Wasp, the design relies heavily on humor, as the latter contains a bar centered around a giant beer can and the former places a pretzel conveyor belt above guests’ heads, where we’ll watch the snack swell in size. Other food spots will also directly reference the films; see The Shawarma Palace cart, a nod to a beloved “Avengers” post-credits scene.
“I think it’s the excuse to play with these power sets,” says Drake of the land and its playful design elements, where sandwich buns are “shrunk” while the breaded chicken is comedically oversized (more culinary experiments from Ant-Man and the Wasp gone awry).
“I think all kids, and all of us as kids, would pretend that we would have these extraordinary capabilities. We have the opportunity to deliver that to a lot of people, and I think those are the systems that we are focusing on exaggerating in our park offering,” Drake adds.
“I don’t think the goal was just play,” he continues, “but it was how do we get into the story and how do we make sure that we’re not just witnessing superheroes.”
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