When a new attraction opens at a Disney theme park, actually getting on the ride can take a lot of patience. James Cameron’s Pandora: The World of Avatar debuted last May at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and lines for Avatar: Flight of Passage can still exceed two hours without a FastPass+, which are always in short supply. The new Toy Story Land, which opened June 30, features a new Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster that has Pixar fans waiting five hours in line.
While Walt Disney Imagineering can’t do anything about the Florida heat, humidity or rain, it can make wait times more manageable. And the key to keeping Disney fans occupied while visiting U.S. theme parks is video games. While taking in Andy’s backyard from a toy-sized perspective in Toy Story Land, guests can play Andy’s Board Game Blast, a digital take on a classic family board game that’s been designed to pass the phone around for multiplayer interactivity.
The “Play Disney Parks” app, which launched June 30 and is only playable in Disney theme parks, is the first product from the Imagineers and The Walt Disney Company’s digital guest experience division that aims to capitalize on the game development bandwidth inside the company (Disney Interactive was also involved) and the ubiquity of gaming in today’s world.
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Imagineering has always incorporated experts from across the entertainment and technology landscapes. With the rise of video gaming over the past three decades, the group has seen an influx of game developers join its ranks. Over the past decade, the concept of “gamer” has grown to incorporate the majority of people across the globe – and the guests that visit Disney’s theme parks around the world.
Anyone who’s been to Walt Disney World Resort’s The Magic Kingdom or Epcot over the past ten years or so has seen the direction Imagineering has been steering the guest experience, blending video game role-playing experiences with real world attractions. Disney’s Kim Possible: World Showcase Adventure debuted in 2006 and offered guests flip phones to go on a secret mission that unlocked interactivity with animatronic characters hidden in plain sight. In 2012, that attraction gave way to Phineas & Ferb’s Agent P World Showcase Adventure, which incorporated an AT&T sponsored FONE (Field Operative Notification Equipment) for interactivity. The new Play Disney Parks has integrated Agent P into the app, which unlocks at Epcot.
Jonathan Ackley, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, is one of the game developer minds behind these experiences. Ackley is best known in the video game world for his work at LucasArts, developing classic PC games in the 1990s “Day of the Tentacle,” “Sam & Max Hit the Road,” “Full Throttle,” “The Dig” and “The Curse of Monkey Island.” Since 2001, Ackley has been gamifying experiences at Disney theme parks, including the wildly popular Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdon collectible card game that unlocks animated storytelling and motion-sensored gameplay at hidden kiosks throughout the Orlando theme park, and Disney Cruise Lines’ Midship Detective Agency, which uses motion-sensored playing cards to reveal interactivity across “enchanted pictures” throughout the cruise ships feature Mickey Mouse and the gang, as well as The Muppets.
Josh Gorin, executive R&D Imagineer at The Walt Disney Company, told Variety that the free iOS and Android app offers the chance to extend that interactive storytelling layer into the guest pocket, leveraging the incredible power of this basic super computer that they’re carrying around and turn it from a distraction from the experience into something that enhances it.
“When you think about the history of Imagineering storytelling over 60 years, it’s about creating truly immersive places where guests can step into fantastic worlds, meet characters they love and connect with the people they’re with, and Play Disney Parks is a natural extension of that original vision by leveraging the latest and greatest in technology to bring those worlds to life and give our guests an active role in the story,” Gorin added.
Dan Soto vice president of the digital experience at The Walt Disney Company told Variety that over 90% of guests visiting Disney theme parks bring a smartphone along for vacation. It’s this “tipping point” that has paved the way to introduce video games designed to be played while waiting in line at specific attractions throughout the four Disney World parks and two Disneyland parks in the U.S.
“Since 2013 we’ve been on a fairly aggressive track on the digital transformation of our theme parks and a lot of that is a direct response to the consumer,” Soto said. “Our world is changing. We walk around with our smartphones all day long and have this thirst and demand for real-time information, for customizing and personalizing experiences, for leveraging technology to create a simple and seamless sort of consumer experience. So whether it be Magic Bands, which we introduced back in 2014, or the My Disney Experience app, all of those things have been all about how do we make your guest experience much more simple and seamless.”
Even inside the queues for rides, Disney has been integrating video games for fans to interact with to help distract from the lines. In 2014, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opened at New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom with touch screen displays offering multiplayer “Bejeweled”-style gaming.
“We’ve been exploring how to leverage interactive technology to even make your wait time experience feel better and more immersive,” Soto added. “Mine Train is a good example of where we have more physical kiosk-based interactive experiences. Haunted Mansion has some fantastic props within the queue that allow you to interact. But the new app allows us to unlock new models of gameplay through the ability to scale and introduce new games to the guest experience.”
And gamifying the theme park experience is something that’s easy to connect with the wide array of visitors that vacation at Disney properties. According to Statista, in 2017 The Magic Kingdom attracted 20.45 million guests, Disney Animal Kingdom drew 12.5 million visitors, Epcot saw 12.2 million attendees and Disney Hollywood Studios saw 10.7 million vacationers. Disneyland’s California parks lured another 18.3 million visitors last year.
“At Imagineering we’re all about telling stories by bringing these spectacular worlds to life, and then our guests get to step inside them and take on a role,” Gorin explained. “So it’s really interesting when you combine more traditional production and scenic disciplines with game design because now you’re giving that guest an active role in the story. They’re not a passive participant. They’re able to take on a character or a persona or even just be themselves, but make meaningful choices that matter and interact with the world in a way they couldn’t before.”
Disney has been working with Disney Interactive as well as game developers across mobile, alternate reality, live action role-playing space and alternative narrative space to develop the app. Soto said the goal was to transform the smartphone from being a distraction from the story and the people you’re with into an enhancement.
“These games were designed to get guest looking up and around and engaging with the world around you, and most importantly the people you came with,” Soto added. “It almost turns the phone into a remote control for the park. It becomes your interface, your prop, as you navigate these spaces. And in a lot of these queue games you actually have the ability to trigger and interact with real physical effects. We’ve experimented with that before outside of the app, but now we’ve brought that onto our platform where we can do that in a much more scalable way and really make the parks feel alive and dynamic and keep track of your profile and achievements in a way that makes you feel you’ve taken on a meaningful role in this story.”
Toy Story Land includes two new games that are available while waiting in line for the Slinky Dog Dash rollercoaster or Toy Story Midway Mania dark ride. Andy’s Board Game Blast offers a multiplayer board game experience, while Toy Story Midway is a collection of multiplayer mini-games that eventually interact with physical elements of the queue before guests board the ride, which itself is a 4D shooter featuring the cast from the Pixar films. (Disney Interactive actually released a console video game version from Papaya Studio called Toy Story Mania back in 2009.)
All of the games being designed for the app offer hand-the-phone-to-the-next-player multiplayer experiences on purpose, according to Gorin, even though traditional mobile games connect online.
“As we were designing these activities especially for the queues, we wanted to create something that was completely distinct from other mobile games,” Gorin said. “We wanted to avoid that nose down experience. We went for a family game night vibe, not a mobile gaming vibe. So the experiences were designed to get people looking up and interacting with the world and interacting with each other using the gyroscope and sensors that today’s smartphones have.”
Soto points to a moment in the Space Mountain game where guests are completing mini quests to level up their ships by looking around the queue for power-ups and competing against other guests. At the end of the line, guests can see their ships racing around.
Achievements both inside these games and across the theme park attractions will be built out over time, tapping into the popular video game concept of accomplishing goals and then sharing them with the world.
“We’re so excited about what digital achievements can do within the park, and it’s not even just the obvious things like I rode Aerosmith’s Rock’n’Rollercoaster or I scored a high score on this particular game,” Soto explained. “We think there are opportunities to do fascinating things in terms of combining achievements like experiencing 7 Gs in one day, which would require riding Mission: Space and Test Track in Epcot. We think there are so many opportunities to unlock the achievement platform and even introduce a whole new layer of physical experiences for guests by virtue of having that achievement. At Disney we have this amazing physical immersive brick-and-mortar experience that gives us a built-in advantage to really pay off some things in a pretty special way with this achievements platform.”
“Our guests come to the parks again and again because there are new secrets to discover and they get to experience all new things, and the power of an achievements platform like the one in Play Disney Parks is the opportunity for guests to recognize that discovery as they explore the parks and unlock new things to be recognized for that with these digital goods that they can then share online,” Gorin added.
Soto said it would be easy to quickly add the type of collectible pins that are a staple in the real world to the app as virtual achievement pins.
The app will eventually add a leaderboard for guests to see where their video game and in-park achievements rank against others, according to Gorin.
“We want to grow and expand this platform in a major way, and social gaming and interconnected gameplay is something that we’re absolutely super excited about,” Gorin said.
The Walt Disney World Resort has over twenty hotels on property and four theme parks in Orlando alone.
“We think the opportunities to expand this platform well beyond our theme parks, maybe even connecting across different theme parks around the world is a big opportunity for us in the future,” Soto said.
Disney has aggressive plans to expand its parks around the globe. In the U.S. alone there’s a new Mickey and Minnie Runaway Train ride coming to Disney Hollywood Studios in 2018, followed by Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney Hollywood Studios in fall 2018.
“As you start to think about new lands and actually building this interactive layer into the fabric of the land from the very start, that’s really compelling,” Gorin said. “We’re already hard at work with the Star Wars” Galaxy’s Edge team to integrate this technology and this form of gameplay into that land so that when our guests do encounter Black Spire Outpost, they will find the Play Disney Parks app a very important tool for navigating that place and interacting with its population.”