For the past decade, Walt Disney Imagineering has been conducting multiple play tests, big and small, in its parks. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, opening later this year at Disneyland and Florida’s Walt Disney World, will put a heavy emphasis on active participation and game-like scenarios. Legends of Frontierland, which ran at Disneyland in the summer of 2014, was, according to Imagineering executives, one of the tests that helped inform the new land. This story was originally published in The Times in June 26, 2014.
“Hey,” the kid said. “I can get you out of jail.”
I politely said no. Standing in lockup, after all, was a rare photo opportunity. The kid shrugged and walked off, and there I stood alone in my cell, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in front of me, the Mark Twain Riverboat docked to my left.
Welcome to the Legends of Frontierland, Disneyland’s wacky new live-action role-playing game running daily inside the theme park. Legends of Frontierland pits guest against guest in a battle for control of a fictional town -- in this instance one that’s set inside Disneyland’s vision of the Old West.
Or something sort of like that.
Even for a resort with wench-auctioning pirates and hitchhiking ghosts, the recently launched Legends of Frontierland is often absurdly nonsensical. To play Legends of Frontierland is to partake in live theater as much as it is to participate in a game.
Cory Rouse, the game’s primary architect and a team member in Walt Disney Imagineering’s research and development department, admitted, “It’s hard to describe.”
Guests become a character of their own creation, and roles are often outlandish. Sometimes you’re playing a card game within the game, sometimes you’re drinking what’s described as the “worst tasting drink in the West,” and sometimes you’re just standing in front of Big Thunder Mountain in a makeshift jail.
Disney theme parks have been rapidly adding game-like experiences. Legends of Frontierland, which runs at least through Labor Day, is one of two games brought to the 59-year-old Anaheim resort this summer. The scavenger-hunt-like Adventure Trading Company opens Aug. 1 in neighboring Adventureland.
Legends of Frontierland is a different beast, relying heavily on improvisation. It hearkens back to Frontierland’s beginning, before the park constructed Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland and its replacement, Big Thunder Mountain, when the land was largely populated with costumed Wild West characters -- “traders, trappers, cow hands, ‘two-gun men,’ dudes and dance hall girls,” reads some of the park’s promotional descriptions of Frontierland from 1955.
There are rules to Legends of Frontierland, but they’re vague and amazingly, one won’t find any of Disney’s trusted brand icons here. Instead, Disneyland visitors will meet employees -- “cast members,” in park parlance -- with such names as Coyote Chris, Willum or Red, and players will have the opportunity to use in-game currency to buy land, including park landmarks such as “old-timey saloon” the Golden Horseshoe.
In the Legends of Frontierland, anything goes -- as long as it’s family friendly.
Just ask the woman, her character’s name was McFly, manning the jail cell on a recent Thursday afternoon. Want to know what can get you thrown in the slammer? Well, everything, really. “You can write an arrest warrant if you see someone chewing with their mouth open. That’s unconscionable.”
That wasn’t the only crime on her mind. She put her hands on her hips for dramatic effect and then looked a reporter up and down. “Someone can write a warrant for you because you’re wearing plaid on a Thursday and maybe they don’t like the looks of plaid on a Thursday.”
At the game’s core, guests will be asked to pick a town, either Frontierland or Rainbow Ridge, the dying community glimpsed in the Big Thunder ride. Players will complete various tasks or activities in the hopes of amassing little wooden tokens, “bits,” which can be used to buy land or bribe others. The team with the most land wins, but it’s far from competitive.
Legends of Frontierland takes Disneyland’s ethos of creating an alternate reality and runs with it, regularly asking guests to engage in behavior that pushes the boundaries of what’s likely considered courteous for a theme park. In my first five minutes of the game I was given a task via telegram and asked to read its message aloud, repeatedly, throughout Frontierland.
The announcement stated that a talent show would be taking place in front of the Golden Horseshoe in 15 minutes. At first, I read it timidly, not wanting to disrupt a fellow guest’s experience. Full disclosure: I’m an annual passholder, one who is at Disneyland once or twice a month and most often alone.
I had a couple friends with me this time, nervous that my shyness would overcome me or that a role-playing game with strangers would too abruptly challenge my belief that a trip to Disneyland is a personal experience.
As the three of us stood there holding that telegram, something changed. First, fellow players asked what it said. Then a young girl also wanted to know. Then a Disney cast member shouted at us: “You better get reading that telegram!” We looked at each other, we looked at the telegram, we closed our eyes, and we shouted in unison.
And when we opened our eyes, we saw we were drawing a crowd. They wanted us to repeat the message. So we did. Again and again and again, until eventually Willum offered a correction. “Is the talent show still in 15 minutes? That’s what you said 10 minutes ago.”
We had been shouting for 10 minutes.
We may not have known exactly what was happening in Legends of Frontierland, but we were suddenly deep into it. That we were still a little clueless was to a certain extent by design, Rouse said.
“Rather than thinking of it like a game, we actually think of it as a mini-government. How does this town actually operate? How does the jail actually operate? If we think about it that way, then we make way for people to create their own fiction,” said Rouse, who in his pre-Imagineering days was a comedic improv performer in shows in and around Frontierland.
It allows for the game to be rather versatile and vary day to day, dependent upon the whims of the guests. I played for five hours.
Eventually, it dawned on my friends and me that we should go on some rides. Then a goat was led through Frontierland and Rainbow Ridge, and “residents” were asked to follow it. We did, and then all cheered and high-fived one another. And then we bought an elixir marked “charm.” It made cast members fall in love with us or give us bits.
“You’re the prettiest girl in the West,” one told my friend.
Pretty enough for some bits, she asked?
“Pretty enough for my attention,” he deadpanned.
And we decided to stick around Rainbow Ridge a little longer. Or is it Frontierland?
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