Learning play from the supreme ninja Jedi play masters with gobs of liquid cash. That’s right: Disney

Disney: building rides for a participatory generation… I spent a week geeking out at Disney World last year and I think the absolute coolest part of the whole thing is to see four generations of play/fun/pretend trends standing there right next to each other. It’s practically a museum of public play. Bear with me as I geekily analyze Disney rides and what that might mean about how people’s perception of play is changing through the decades.

When you consider Disney, you think of the original 1955 Disney World: A big, distant princess castle, a main street, a frontier land. All of these look-but don’t touch visually stimulating spaces supported by rides where you sit down in a car and go through a magic world: Mr. Toad’s ride, Peter Pan, Small World. This was the era of fantasy: dreamy and distant- and that’s ok.

But then comes the 80’s and Epcot: similar look-but-don’t-touch rides BUT now dedicated to imagination with obsessive talk about innovation. There’s figment the dinosaur and the spaceship earth ride, each ending with a very similar, preachy “the future is up to you” call to action. “You got it wrong, Doc. It’s not about listening with your ears, it’s about listening with your IMAGINATION!” (Are you feeling betrayed, generation of liberal arts majors?)

Nineties/early millennium rides seem obsessed with screen time. My sister perfectly described the Nemo ride as “watching Finding Nemo while sitting in a moving clamshell”. Some of them don’t even attempt to be rides, like Captain EO or the Muppet 3D adventure at Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM). You go into a big room- and watch a movie that has a few gimmicks like a moving clamshell or bursts of air under your chair. Imagine it’s 1995 and there are ALL SORTS of new screens out there.. flat screens, light screens, flexible screens “4D” screens and they’re gonna use ALL of them! This is the time where images of Mickey started getting really, really shiny. (I imagine the artists at their 90’s, recently photoshop-accessible computers saying “MOAR highlights- MOAR gradient! Luminescent Mickey! He must glow like a GOLDEN GOD!” something like that.)

So of course on this trip to Disney with my family in 2013, I wanted to know—WHAT’S NEW??? Disney is the master of play- they have built an empire on understanding how people have good, clean fun. So what’s the next big thing? It was exciting how clear the answer seemed to be:

1. A full story arc: None of the new rides seemed content to say “you’re on teacups in wonderland”, figure it out. They came with a story arc with a full background, even if the complete story was hidden.

2. Individualization: In each of these new rides, I had a role. There was a story and I had a part in it.

3. Interactivity:I needed to personally respond to each of these rides. I pressed buttons, shot things, moved locations. 

A simple “Turkish twist” ride called Mission to Mars BUT… the twist is that you’re in a spaceship exploratory mission. You have roles like captain, engineer and navigator and they ask you to push buttons at a certain time in the ride. 

A Buzz Lightyear game, where you sit in a car and you go through a magic world of space aliens BUT… you’re a space ranger and Buzz instructs you to shoot at them to get points. You compete against other players in your car and in other cars.

Full on location-based games! I kid you not! Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom lets you move around the Magic Kingdom with cards, unlock messages and battle Disney villains. Disney villains are trying to take over the magic crystal. I am Merlin’s assistant and I have to hold up the correct cards to defeat them. This game… didn’t really work. But there was another one that DID work (Phinneas and Ferb) and I’ll compare those two games later…

But the point is– there were a TON of games. I don’t think that’s because Disney said “games are cool and hip, let’s throw money at them”, (though they might have) but more likely I think it’s because games are the easiest way for them to achieve those three magic components that kids seem to crave as part of a fun experience right now: Story, Individualization, Interactivity. There were games where I actually had to collaborate with strangers. At one point there was even just a wall of Disney-themed video games for people to play- they pulled out all the game stops if you will- they’re trying every kind of game. But it’s because games allow for the kids of interactions kids want right now.

It’s entirely possible to achieve those three magic components without being techie or even looking like a game at all. A “story time with Belle” preview for the new Fantasy Land, Kids were invited into Belle’s castle and asked if they could help Belle act out the story of how she met the Beast. Each kid was given a cardboard cutout to show their character (teacups, dusters, horses) and they all acted it out in an incredible 10 guided minutes of story-based interactive role playing. The kids were thrilled. The parents were thrilled. It was a total win.

If I wanted to wax philosophical, I could say that Disney is reaching out to a participatory generation. Maybe today’s 0- 12 year old is so overstimulated that they respond only when media is addressing them individually, prompting them to take action right now in a very specific way. I know that no kid- and probably no parent either- realizes that this is what’s happening… but when you’re 8 and you have exponentially more information than any other 8 year old human has ever had to date, how do you filter? You can’t respond to everything so you respond to the things that address you personally that you have to take immediate action for. I think that’s what Disney is seeing and they’re building accordingly.

These are kids that expect their feedback to matter. I’ve never seen so many little girls dressed as princesses or so many little boys with fake “pirate” beards. There are special kid-sized princess costumes for them and they get their hair done “princessy” at the Bippety Boppety Boutique. They don’t watch the fairy tale, they ARE the fairy tale. In 1955, kids didn’t have to dress like pirates to go to Disney world. Let me rephrase that: kids didn’t GET to dress like pirates to go to Disney world. What a cool time to be a kid. Except for the bioluminescent cartoons. That I could do without.


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