Sunday, January 30, 2011

Maintaining the Magic: Questions about the new Fantasyland

It seems fairly obvious at first glance. Eliminate two character meet and greet areas; add in a roller coaster. The tradeoff is immediately evident; a ride will draw more people than a meet and greet. It appeals to boys as well as girls. It offers a higher capacity, faster loading, quantifiable attraction. Seems idiot proof.

Obvious or not, however, making the move away from interaction and toward rides may not have been the wisest choice in the new revision of Fantasyland at Walt Disney World. Although it sometimes seems counterintuitive, people value the experience of being singled out, made to feel truly special, over an enjoyable, repeatable thrill ride.

Disney should know this. They’ve been practicing that basic truth in some form since the opening day of Disneyland, and if they had forgotten, recent success at their Orlando competitor, Universal Studios should have reminded them.

In Jan 2011, Universal Orlando resort reported a fourth quarter 2010 attendance increase of 46%. That increase was, of course, largely credited to the addition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And, although the entire Harry Potter area of the park is drawing record crowds, one particular attraction outstrips the others, generating hour long waits when every other attraction has guests walking on. That attraction, contrary to most expectation, is not the new, thrilling Harry Potter ride. It’s Olivander’s Wand Shop.

The principle that people like to be singled out and made special is one of the oldest truths of entertainment. People have been getting pulled up on stage in one form or another since the beginning of time. But in creating the show at Olivander’s, the designers at Islands of Adventure took things one step further. What is it about the wand show at Olivanders, an attraction that, on paper, sounds more like a distraction than a “show,” that makes it so special?

Consider two factors:

1.) The lead-in. The people led into Olivanders are all “normal” – they’re just coming in to see an unusual location. And then, suddenly, one of them is singled out as being more than they appear: they are special. Okay, that’s the basis for most of the great adventure stories in world history. It’s everyone’s secret dream, no matter what their age. To be someone special, to have a hidden talent, to be part of a wonderful, magical world beyond the ordinary. Yeah, that’ll sell a few tickets.

2.) The use of technology to create credible magic. Once that special person is singled out, the operator of Olivader's places them correctly to have a wondrous experience. The technology in the shop is designed to create magic centered around that special person, magic which makes him/her a star and creates a breathtaking illusion, not only for the chosen individual but for those watching as well. Cynics that we are in the modern era, seeing “magic” – theme park technology – interacting with someone we know isn’t a plant taps into all of our childhood hopes and dreams in a way that sells product and gets people to stand in line.

Those elements, well handled, make Olivander’s Wand Shop the hottest location on Universal Resort property. One of the harshest online critics of theme parks admitted to waiting 2 hours in the blazing sun to get into Olivander’s, and then waiting afterward to tell the employee running the show that the wait had been well worth it. Children drag their parents back over and over again in hopes of being chosen. You don’t get those reactions out of a ride. Period. Does this tie into Harry Potter fandom as well? Certainly, but the interaction, well done, transcends Harry-Potterdom. It’s about being special and experiencing something that out of the ordinary.

With the new expansion of Fantasyland, touted by many as Disney’s answer to the Wizarding World, Disney had the opportunity to take that kind of personal interaction combined with technological magic, and show the world how Disney handled it, to create a guest experience that made “magic” real in new ways.

Instead, we’re getting a kiddie coaster.

Now, make no mistake; the princess meet and greets were not particularly boy-attractors, and it may have been a wise choice to add something more family friendly to the new Fantasyland. But falling back on a new mini-coaster supplemented by animatronics seems a step back rather than forward. Like Harry Potter’s dark ride, it lacks the innovation and personal magic of making someone special.

The descriptions of the originally proposed meet and greets hint at that sort of idea. The interactivity of the fairies in Briar Rose’s cottage, and the implied transformation sequence into Cinderella’s ballgown could have provided a whole new level of interaction. Yet even those proposed bits of magic fail to draw the audience in at the same level as demonstrating that someone in the audience is truly special.

Was there a fear that singling out one child would cause trouble? If so, then the Disney company needs to reference their own films. In the words of the Incredibles’ villain, Syndrome, “when everyone is special, no one is.” By failing to engage an audience member, you take away the chance of being the special one, the drive that brings us back over and over again and captures our imagination.

I’m still holding onto hope for the new Fantasyland. Both the Beauty and the Beast area and Toontown remain largely unspecific. There is still the possibility that Disney will offer something truly groundbreaking, magical, and innovative in those areas. But, counterintuitive as it may seem, I am sorry to see the personal interaction side of Fantasyland rubbed out. Perhaps there should have been a change from princesses to Peter Pan or Flynn, but there should have been something intimate – a discovery of a lost princess or a far more direct sprinkle of pixie dust.

Here’s hoping the magic doesn’t get lost in what Walt’s imagineers called “hopalog capacity.” If Disney intends to keep its crown as the king of the theme park industry, it needs to remember more than volume; it needs to pay attention to wonder, magic, and the things that speak to the hearts of its guests.