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We all expect a vis­it to a Dis­ney theme park to be an escape from real­i­ty – and, let’s face it, that’s what we love about it – but as theme park lands and attrac­tions get more inter­ac­tive and immer­sive, it’s also become more chal­leng­ing for par­ents to gauge whether the expe­ri­ence will be too much for their kids, espe­cial­ly kids who are young, eas­i­ly scared, and/or sen­si­tive to their surroundings.

When Dis­ney­land opened in 1955, Walt Dis­ney intend­ed the park to be a place where fam­i­lies could do things togeth­er, as opposed to oth­er amuse­ment parks at the time where the chil­dren rode the rides and the par­ents just watched. 60 years ago, Walt’s focus was to tell sto­ries that res­onat­ed with his guests and not nec­es­sar­i­ly to cre­ate expe­ri­ences that were immer­sive and inter­ac­tive, but as Dis­ney sto­ry­telling evolved, so did tech­nol­o­gy, and what start­ed as devel­op­ing a sto­ry­line for one attrac­tion became devel­op­ing a sto­ry­line for a land (like Fron­tier­land or Adven­ture­land), and from there – with the help of fur­ther advance­ments in tech­nol­o­gy com­bined with more sophis­ti­cat­ed park goers – cre­at­ing a sto­ry­line for an entire theme park world.

At a pan­el called “Immer­sive Worlds: Bring­ing Sto­ries to Life in Dis­ney Parks” dur­ing Dis­ney’s D23 Expo 2019 – a fan-focused event that takes place every two years in Ana­heim – four of Dis­ney’s top Imag­i­neers take vis­i­tors behind the scenes for Dis­ney Parks. They dis­cussed how they approach cre­at­ing inter­ac­tive worlds that are immer­sive but not intim­i­dat­ing. The pan­el, mod­er­at­ed by Joe Rohde, Senior VP Cre­ative for Walt Dis­ney Imag­i­neer­ing who led the team that designed Pan­do­ra – World of Avatar also includ­ed Jeanette Lom­boy, VP at Walt Dis­ney Imag­i­neer­ing who over­saw Aulani, a Dis­ney Resort & Spa; Luc Mayrand, VP and Cre­ative Port­fo­lio Exec­u­tive for Walt Dis­ney Imag­i­neer­ing who over­saw the cre­ation of Pirates of the Caribbean – Bat­tle for the Sunken Trea­sure and Trea­sure Cove at Shang­hai Dis­ney­land; and Scott Trow­bridge, Port­fo­lio Cre­ative Exec­u­tive who over­saw Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Cal­i­for­nia and Florida.


Preconceived Notions

Long before fam­i­lies set foot into Dis­ney’s immer­sive worlds, Imag­i­neers have already tak­en into account what their pre­con­ceived notions might be – regard­less of whether those notions are accu­rate or not.

In the case of Aulani, fam­i­lies are being immersed in a world that’s real, so the immer­sion is not intend­ed to intro­duce peo­ple to an imag­i­nary place, but to offer more detailed infor­ma­tion about a real place. Lom­boy point­ed out that many peo­ple who vis­it Hawaii have ideas about the des­ti­na­tion based on what they’ve seen on tele­vi­sion or in the movies, but she says, pre­con­ceived notions about the Hawai­ian cul­ture are not always right, so Dis­ney Imag­i­neers knew they need­ed to cre­ate a place where they were telling the accu­rate Hawai­ian story.

At Aulani, Uncle shares sto­ries of Hawai­ian his­to­ry and cul­ture — Pho­to by Aulani, A Dis­ney Resort & Spa

“I always say that Dis­ney was the blank can­vas, and the native Hawai­ian cul­ture was the paint,” Lom­boy said. “When our guests walk in the door, we want them to know that this is a world, and it’s about real things and real sub­ject mat­ter, but we’re giv­ing them more than they expected.”

Peo­ple might also come into imag­ined lands with some infor­ma­tion about the sto­ry, so the goal for cre­at­ing those worlds becomes inte­grat­ing the infor­ma­tion peo­ple already have into the way those sto­ries are told, rather than cor­rect­ing mis­con­cep­tions. For exam­ple, when Imag­i­neers cre­at­ed Trea­sure Cove, May­nard said they con­sid­ered sev­er­al sources of infor­ma­tion since the Pirates of the Caribbean sto­ry is par­tial­ly based in the real world, is par­tial­ly imag­ined, and in the case of this spe­cif­ic world, it’s even par­tial­ly new­ly-imag­ined. Then, all those sources were com­bined to cel­e­brate the things peo­ple have seen before while also intro­duc­ing new experiences.

When Imag­i­neers cre­at­ed Trea­sure Cove, they added lay­ers of fan­ta­sy to Pirates of the Caribbean  — Pho­to by Shang­hai Disneyland

“With Dis­ney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, the world is real, and it’s mag­ic at the same time, and it’s scary, but it’s fun­ny at the same time,” May­nard said. “We could­n’t put all these things every­where in the world at all times, so the main ride is more scary and mag­ic, but the stunt show is much more real and funny.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: all the feels! — Pho­to by Shang­hai Disneyland

An Invitation; Not an Obligation

Anoth­er crit­i­cal aspect of cre­at­ing any Dis­ney world is deter­min­ing how to let peo­ple know who they are in this world – and, more impor­tant­ly, what is expect­ed of them. Unlike a “haunt­ed” expe­ri­ence where every­one is enter­ing with the knowl­edge that they are going to be scared (and in the­o­ry, they agree to that in advance), when a fam­i­ly vis­its a Dis­ney theme park, they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly agree to be an active par­tic­i­pant in the expe­ri­ence (and in most cas­es, are def­i­nite­ly not agree­ing to be scared or intim­i­dat­ed by it).

Kids can play along with the sto­ry in Galaxy’s Edge, but they know that every­thing is safe — © Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

Rohde described the process as “the solic­i­ta­tion to be involved” and not­ed that Imag­i­neers know that peo­ple need dif­fer­ent lev­els – espe­cial­ly kids – and that every­one needs to be able to “seat them­selves” where they want to be in a land so they can com­fort­ably engage in it.

“With Ani­mal King­dom, we’re always are assum­ing that you are you, it is today, but you are not home,” Rohde explained. “We gen­er­al­ly don’t ask peo­ple to make a very big tran­sit, so in the case of Pan­do­ra, they get that it’s safe to be there, they’re not expect­ed to do some­thing they’re not pre­pared to do, but there will be oppor­tu­ni­ties to engage and to learn.”

The col­or­ful land­scape in Pan­do­ra — The World of Avatar makes you for­get you’re in Orlan­do — Pho­to by Walt Dis­ney World

Pan­do­ra’s bio­lu­mi­nes­cent plants make it an even more mag­i­cal world at night — Pho­to by Walt Dis­ney World

Trow­bridge also not­ed that Imag­i­neers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly increas­ing the lev­el of real­i­ty, but they are increas­ing the lev­el of believ­abil­i­ty in the sto­ry they’re pre­sent­ing. In that way, park guests – and kids in par­tic­u­lar – can play along with the sto­ry, but they know that every­thing is safe. Because of that, all four pan­elists agreed that it should always be an invi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate, but nev­er an oblig­a­tion. Plus, they said, even guests who are will­ing to be active­ly involved in a world, don’t all want to engage at the same level.

Trow­bridge illus­trat­ed those lev­els in Galaxy’s Edge by say­ing that each per­son has the free­dom to decide whether to talk to a char­ac­ter or take on a mis­sion for the Resis­tance, but if they just want to hang out at the can­ti­na “and watch the space world go by,” their Star Wars expe­ri­ence can be just as reward­ing. Although the goal was to cre­ate sto­ry-dri­ven immer­sion, guests can par­tic­i­pate in that sto­ry as much (or as lit­tle) as they want. In that way, it’s total­ly okay for Star Wars-lov­ing kids to bran­dish lightsabers at pass­ing stormtroop­ers, but it’s equal­ly okay not to.

At Savi's Workshop, guests will customize and craft their own lightsabers - Photo by Joshua Sudock/Disney Parks

In Galaxy’s Edge, young Jedi’s can build their own lightsabers and fight against the First Order — Pho­to by Joshua Sudock / Disneyland

Imag­i­neers don’t want any­one to be afraid, but they’re giv­ing guests per­mis­sion to play along — © Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

“Craft­ing the expe­ri­ences so you can engage with them when you want and at what lev­el you want and with who you want is real­ly impor­tant, so you nev­er feel like you’ve got an oblig­a­tion,” he said. “It can nev­er be that kind of a sit­u­a­tion where you’re say­ing, ‘Chew­bac­ca needs me to deliv­er this part, Grand­ma, I’ll catch up with you lat­er.’ –although you should always help the Wookie.”

Plus, the Wook­ie is so cute! — Pho­to by Walt Dis­ney World

Rohde describes it as a line between a world that seems to be real and the real world, and that line is what allows fam­i­lies to inter­act as opposed to being afraid or feel­ing threat­ened, and Trow­bridge notes that when kids go to Trea­sure Cove or Galaxy’s Edge, they should nev­er wor­ry about being kid­napped by pirates or storm troopers.

“We don’t want any­one to be wor­ried about that,” he said. “But we’re [still] try­ing to immerse you into a believ­able sto­ry, so there are things that give you per­mis­sion to play along.”

Imag­i­neers went out of their way to inject Aulani with Dis­ney sto­ry­telling ele­ments — Pho­to by Aulani, A Dis­ney Resort & Spa

For fam­i­lies who vis­it Aulani, the line between what seems to be real and the real world is very nar­row because they are in Hawaii and not at a theme park ver­sion of Hawaii (which is why Dis­ney char­ac­ters at Aulani are also on a Hawai­ian vaca­tion). Nev­er­the­less, Imag­i­neers still went out of their way to inject the resort with Dis­ney sto­ry­telling ele­ments that invite guests to delve deep­er into the Hawai­ian cul­ture through expe­ri­ences like learn­ing to hula or to play the ukulele.

Kids can become immersed in Hawai­ian cul­ture at Aulani by dress­ing up as their favorite char­ac­ters — Pho­to by Aulani, A Dis­ney Resort & Spa

Kids can catch the Alo­ha spir­it through expe­ri­ences like learn­ing to play the ukulele — Pho­to by Aulani, A Dis­ney Resort & Spa

“The Hawai­ian cul­ture is embed­ded in every deci­sion we made because we want­ed to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties to ask ques­tions that would enrich the abil­i­ty to con­nect and learn more,” Lom­boy said.

One of my favorite learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties at Aulani is The Ole­lo Room. In this café and lounge, every­thing is labeled with its Hawai­ian name, so kids (kei­ki) can learn how to say table (pakaukau) or chair (noho) while they’re enjoy­ing their snacks (pupus). Plus, every cast mem­ber who works in the Ole­lo Room speaks Hawai­ian, so guests can fur­ther immerse them­selves in local cul­ture by learn­ing a few Hawai­ian phras­es to share with fam­i­ly and friends back home.

Every­thing in the Ole­lo Room is labeled with its Hawai­ian name so kids can learn to speak Hawai­ian — Pho­to by Aulani, A Dis­ney Resort & Spa

“When Walt first built Dis­ney­land, he want­ed to cre­ate a place where guests felt trans­port­ed, leav­ing their dai­ly lives for a moment that was fan­tas­ti­cal,” said Jef­frey Epstein, Direc­tor of Cor­po­rate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at The Walt Dis­ney Com­pa­ny. “For more than 60 years, the incred­i­ble tal­ents at Walt Dis­ney Imag­i­neer­ing have con­tin­ued to pio­neer ground­break­ing and inno­v­a­tive ways to immerse guests in new worlds. Whether it’s rid­ing on the back of a ban­shee or pilot­ing the Mil­len­ni­um Fal­con, enjoy­ing an authen­tic Hawai­ian luau or fac­ing off against pirates in the depths of the ocean, Dis­ney brings these worlds to life like no one else.”