When Disney surveyed the public about a hypothetical immersive Star Wars hotel early this year, it felt like an idea from the future, not an actual commitment. Surely they’d wait until after the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — already a highly ambitious and risky new park area — before starting work on a whole new hotel?
But at this year’s D23 convention in July, Disney confirmed not only that the hotel was real; not only that it’d be fully immersive; but that it’s a pilot for an entire ‘Disney 360 vacation concept’:
According to Bob [Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts], this revolutionary new vacation experience will be a living adventure that allows guests [i.e. paying visitors] to immerse themselves in an entirely new form of Disney storytelling.
“It’s unlike anything that exists today.” Bob said. “From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story! You’ll immediately become a citizen of the galaxy and experience all that entails, including dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100% immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”
…which is about when every Star Wars fan on the planet posted shut_up_and_take_my_money.gif
There are two extraordinary things about this announcement.
One: Disney has chosen one of its most valuable crown jewel IPs for what anyone should realise is a highly risky venture. Star Wars may be the best possible fit for an immersive hotel (more on that later) but that only raises the stakes if the tech doesn’t work or the story or acting is bad.
Two: The immersive storytelling experience at the hotel is what guests will be paying for. It’s not an alternate reality game promoting a TV show. It’s not a free smartphone-powered Phineas and Ferb adventure at Epcot, or a $50 interactive Harry Potter magic wand at Universal Studios, both of which you might only expect to deliver a couple of hours of fun and would forgive for having a few technical hiccups, because you’re really at the theme park for the rides, not the games.
No: Disney’s Star Wars hotel may well cost thousands of dollars for a family, and the entire point of going is the immersive storytelling experience. It’s what they’re paying for, so it has to be sensational.
I’ve spent the past 13 years designing alternate reality games with emails and websites and actors and black helicopters, and smartphone games that make exercising more fun in the real world. I can guarantee that the Star Wars hotel team will be rightly terrified at the scope of what they’re building, and thrilled that they get to be the first people in the world to do it.
But what’s driving Disney to build this ‘360 vacation experience’? Why was it so hard in the past, and (just about) feasible now? What kind of technology might it employ? And most importantly, what will the experience be like?
Disclaimer: My company, Six to Start, has consulted for Disney Imagineering on theme park stuff in the past. It had nothing to do with Star Wars and I have no inside knowledge on what they’re up to.
Why ‘Living Adventures’? And why now?
Disney has a poor track record with immersive storytelling experiences, providing that you look only at its most popular incarnation: videogames.
Over the decades, they’ve tried again and again to develop videogames in-house, with little lasting success. With the shuttering of Lucasarts, Disney Interactive, and the $100 million ‘toys-to-life’ Disney Infinity in recent years, and Star Wars games now farmed out to Electronic Arts (who promptly delivered a game with precisely zero story), it certainly seems as if Disney’s thrown in the towel.
Their heart was never really in it. Disney had to pursue videogames because too much money was at stake, but their most talented storytellers and artists and designers never truly wanted to work on games; movies were where true artistic glory lay. Along with the theme parks, they were the font of all new and refreshed IP, from Toy Story to Frozen to Moana.
More prosaically, I think Disney see themselves as narrative storytellers, and they’ve never figured out how to tell the stories they want to tell in a wholly digital and interactive format while still making bucketloads of money.
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Star Wars hotel and videogames. They both involve people interacting with computer systems with the aim of progressing in an immersive, digitally-mediated environment where multiple outcomes are possible, some of which are more desirable than others. You might then conclude that the Star Wars hotel will fail in just the same way as before, with Disney not quite making their stories mesh with a deeply interactive experience.
But in the real world…
Believe it or not, there are other things in creation than videogames. Escape rooms, immersive theatre, alternate reality games — all are compelling in their own ways, if not as popular or profitable as games. They demonstrate alternative ways to guide people through an experience that feels interactive, and perhaps even is interactive, while also conveying a rich and satisfying narrative.
Most importantly, the Star Wars hotel is a real world experience where you interact with real people. In my experience, that limits the types of silly immersion-breaking actions people frequently try. In a videogame, a player might try to shoot a vital ally out of boredom. As a game designer, you can ignore this attempt (make the ally invulnerable to friendly fire); you can allow it and create a whole new narrative branch where the ally is dead and you’re an arsehole; or you can come up with some story excuse why the player can’t do that.
In real world experiences, people tend to follow implicit social rules better, especially when interacting with earnest actors. That makes Disney’s job much easier. If they tell guests to talk to an informant in the bar, they can be pretty certain they won’t try to kill the informant or jump on her head. And that means that they can tell better stories (come at me, gamerbros).
No slouch in technology
Disney aren’t at the cutting edge in games, but they’re deceptively advanced in real world entertainment tech. Since they introduced the MagicBand bracelet at theme parks in 2013, they’ve produced over 29 million units, making Disney the fourth largest distributor of wearables in the world.
Like contactless cards, MagicBands are used for hotel and theme park entry, and in shops — but unlike cards, they can be scanned by long-range readers to deliver “personalised experiences” like knowing when you’re about to arrive at a restaurant, or telling a park photographer your name as you walk up. Naturally, they’ve also been used for storytelling:
Barely a month goes by without a Disney Imagineering experiment in interactive storytelling being revealed, whether it’s the playing card-based augmented reality game Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, or the smartphone-powered Phineas and Ferb adventure at Epcot. Then there’s Disney Research, which is pouring millions into projects that are suspiciously relevant towards an immersive hotel, including digital puppeteering via motion capture (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), human-robot interaction (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and dynamic story generation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
VR gets a look in, as well. While Disney has experimented with digital-only VR with their Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine, their latest Secrets of the Empire experience by ILMxLAB and The Void is a premium, site-specific VR adventure.
As with any experiment, it’s hard to predict which of these projects will bear commercial fruit, but the direction of Disney’s gaze is clear: immersive experiences that meld digital and physical interaction. Unlike videogames, they won’t run consumer technology in our homes.
Instead, these experiences will be high-touch: expensive but profitable, brief but memorable. Just like their movies and theme parks.
And they won’t be games without end like Candy Crush or Overwatch. They’ll be narrative experiences with a beginning and an end, distinct from dreamlike immersive theatre from the likes of Punchdrunk.
I remember the first time I went to a Punchdrunk play, the Masque of the Red Death, ten years ago at the Battersea Arts Centre. The sheer scale and opulence was intoxicating, almost overwhelming for a neophyte like me. There’s an intensity to real world immersive experiences; you aren’t at arms length, you can’t just turn off the TV or switch off your phone. You feel vulnerable and off-balance, which can be exciting.
And I think that’s what Disney realises. They know it’s worth spending billions on theme parks because there’s something uniquely vivid about overwhelming real world experiences in an age of digital screens, something that draws people from across the globe.
Something that makes them open their wallets.
As much as Disney is fascinated by the narrative and experiential possibilities of a Star Wars hotel, they’re even more enticed by the profits it could bring: I’d be astonished if the average spend per guest was less than $1000 per stay. A really good hotel costs at least $300 a night, and if you throw in an incredibly exclusive theatrical experience (Hamilton tickets still go for hundreds of dollars), four figures for a couple of nights makes plenty of sense. For Christ’s sake, you’re going into Star Wars!
Let’s say they have 100 rooms with 200 guests per night, meaning 50–60,000 guests per year. They’ll eat and drink a lot, they’ll buy as much exclusive merch as they can carry (e.g. 3D-printed action figure of themselves, personalised Han Solo jacket, etc.), and some of the rooms will be really expensive, so let’s assume average revenue per guest per night is $1000, which comes to $50 million per year. I’m sure this is off by a factor of two or three, but regardless, it’s a decent amount of money.
Given the vast quantities of tech and content this hotel will require, the profit margin will be slim indeed, maybe only a few million per year. That’s a poor deal for most companies, but if you’re Disney and you plan to open a dozen identical hotels around the world that reuse all the content and technology, then those profit margins start expanding pretty quickly.
Indeed, Disney’s scale has always allowed it to make big investments to provide site-specific experiences that other companies cannot, and combined with its warchest of unbelievably popular franchises, it can spend less than competitors to acquire customers (interestingly, with rides becoming movies, e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, this has become a two-way street).
That’s why Disney is unlikely to face any small scale competition in this arena. You simply can’t buy the tech that’d let you power a Star Wars hotel-type experience in a single room or small building. If you chose to make it yourself, the development and testing would take so long that it’d be hard to amortise the cost over the lower number of customers that your smaller venture would attract; and unless you had world-class content, your customer acquisition costs would be sky-high.
Last week, you both received Coruscant Communicators in the mail — they’re larger than your MagicBands because they include a small display. The accompanying briefing card was short and to the point: “Your stay is a fully immersive experience. Don’t make any plans.”
Check in is easy. As soon you walk through the hotel doors (more of a high-tech glass-encased airlock), a ‘starship’ crewmember greets you by name, invites you to a reception with the commander that evening, and deposits your bag with a waiting drone. “BB-2 here is a little slow,” he says indulgently, “but I can highly recommend our bar while you wait for your quarters to be prepared.”
You don’t have long to appreciate the nebula through the multi-storey viewscreen before a scruffy-looking character comes by your table. He presses a bulky-looking scanner to your communicator. “I was expecting someone else. Never mind. Just keep this safe, and whatever you do, don’t give it to anyone — not even the rebels!” He rushes off before you can say anything else.
When you head into the elevator to reach your room, a pair of Stormtroopers crowd in with you and punch in a special code. “We’re detaining you under suspicion of dealing with known smugglers. You’re coming with us.”
At the docking bay, they march you onto a shuttle for transfer to a prison moon. It rumbles and zooms off into space. You’re left on your own in the cockpit as your single Stormtrooper guard heads to the toilet. “Don’t touch anything — I’m watching!” he warns.
Seconds later, a hologram of a rebel soldier fuzzes into life in front of you. “I’ve just hacked into your shuttle’s security cams,” she says. “You’ve got two minutes to lock down the cockpit and fly back to the starship. And you better not get yourselves killed, because you’ve got something I need, understood?” With her help, you override the cockpit’s blast doors and steer the shuttle through an asteroid field.
“Remember who saved your lives. When you get back to your quarters, transmit that data to me. My name’s Maxime Erso.” She rolls her eyes. “Yes, I’m a rebel. And the information you have could help defeat the Empire.”
But when you return to your quarters, there’s a message from the smuggler tucked under a bottle of Old Janx Spirit—he’s offering you access to contraband tech and the smuggler’s den if you return the data to him tomorrow at the podracer tournament. You’ve got a tough decision to make…
This little slice of experience isn’t just a wild guess — it’s informed by Disney’s own statements about hotel and Galaxy’s Edge; their theme park and Imagineering experiments; their published R&D; and other cutting-edge real-world immersive entertainment experiences.
While it may seem like I have guests spending a lot of time talking to actors, it only happens briefly and at a few key moments. Time those moments well, and a single actor can engage a large number of guests in quick succession. The Shuttle ride — the most dramatic event — doesn’t have a single actor in the same room with you, meaning you could employ remote, voice-only actors (let’s call them ‘puppeteers’).
Likewise, I imagine that much of your time at the hotel will be spent either in group classes like lightsaber practice, where the instructors don’t need to know anything about your situation in the story; or in activities like scavenger hunts that don’t require constant actor interaction. Such activities can be incredibly polished since their production cost can be amortised across hundreds of thousands of guests.
But what I’ve described requires technology. Technology is expensive to develop, but if you can make it scale, you can make a killing.
The Star Wars hotel will almost certainly employ these key technologies:
- Guest Location Tracking
- Guest State Tracking (i.e. their progression in the story/game, and the decisions they’ve made)
- Human-Enhanced Actor Interaction (e.g. CG puppeteering)
- Human-Robot Interaction
- Dynamic Story Generation (probably not at launch)
These are all already employed in Disney’s theme parks, but their implementation will be considerably more sophisticated in the hotel.
Guest Location Tracking
Every second that an actor is waiting for guests, or an activity room (e.g. a Millennium Falcon simulator) is left empty, equals money down the drain. And every second that guests are lost, or confused about where to go next, is a hit on the all-important Customer Satisfaction rating.
Both problems can be alleviated by knowing exactly where guests at all times. If they’re in the wrong place, you can give them a gentle hint on where to go next; and if they’re on their way, you can prepare the actor or activity room. Or the actor can come to them.
Determining the position of people indoors has been notoriously difficult. Walls and floors and furniture and humans (who are mostly water) reflect and attenuate radio waves in unpredictable ways, and GPS signals are often too weak to be useable. While RFID-powered technology like the MagicBand works well enough outdoors, it can struggle to be sufficiently accurate and reliable in a crowded building — perhaps it could locate someone to within a few metres, but that may not be enough to distinguish between two separate rooms.
Lately, a number of indoor wifi positioning technologies including Chronos have reached <1m accuracy, with Apple and Google refining their own solutions. We’re not quite there yet for a generalised solution that can be used on consumer tech in any location — but then, Disney doesn’t need to use consumer tech. They can afford to spend more time and money than almost anyone else on making it work in just a few specific buildings. So I think this is a solved problem for the Star Wars hotel.
I’m less certain about what tech they’ll make guests carry. The obvious answer is a smartphone, which can double up as an input/output device so guests can keep track of what they’re meant to be doing next, like the Phineas and Ferb Epcot adventure. Plus smartphones are cheap, available in large quantities quickly (unlike custom tech), and are easy to develop software for.
However, I’m not convinced that Disney will be hot on the idea of guests potentially staring at screens all day when they’re meant to be marvelling at the ‘starship’ they’re walking around in. And smartphones can break and run out of batteries, which is a serious buzzkill. So perhaps they’ll equip the phones with bigger batteries and keep the screens off most of the time; or they’ll make a ‘MagicBand 3.0’, which works really well indoors and could eventually be deployed across the theme parks as well.
Guest State Tracking
When you’re watching a movie or a play, the story progresses at the same rate for everyone in the audience. Even in immersive theatre, the action follows a strict, global timeline; individual actors may briefly interact with individual guests, but they’ll soon return to their Westworld-style loop. Escape rooms are different because the action proceeds at the pace at which the players solve the puzzles, but they suffer from a problem of scale — only one group can occupy a room at a time, otherwise the room becomes disordered and confusing.
If you want a single large location to support multiple groups of guests in their own stories, each of which can proceed at its own pace, then you need a way to track guests’ state — that is, the decisions and progress they’ve made in the story so far.
Guest state tracking doesn’t need to be high tech. It can be as simple as giving them a token or stamping their card when they complete a task. This works well enough for many experiences, but low-tech solutions can become clunky and error-prone under strain. What if too many guests arrive at a checkpoint at once? What if someone loses their token or fakes a stamp?
Each of these problems has a workaround (e.g. finding staff to help) but they’re often labour-intensive and immersion-breaking. Low-tech solutions also preclude certain fun kinds of interactions (e.g. actors knowing that you crashed the Millennium Falcon without looking at your stamps), and can completely break down when you reach a critical number of decision points or guests.
High tech it is! And technology has so many other benefits. If you track guests’ decisions and story progress via smartphone or MagicBand, actors can view their history at a glance on their own tablets or phones; activity rooms and computer screens can tailor their content in a split second, just as guests walk by; stories can feature dozens or hundreds of decision points; and guests can break their phones and restore their state with a replacement device within minutes.
Disney will need a real time story engine to underpin this technology, similar to those in roleplaying videogames like Fallout or The Witcher. Such an engine is expensive to make because it’ll deal with complex, dynamic systems that, unlike videogames, needs to work with the real world, in which you might lose track of guests for a few minutes, or where crucial actors might fall ill occasionally.
And Disney will need to make this technology and engine themselves. No-one else is going to make it for them — or for anyone else — because there are so few potential customers that have the expertise, intellectual property, or money to required to build their own hotel, let alone theme park. Besides Disney, there’s only Universal, and I’m sure they already have plans for a Harry Potter hotel powered by their own tech.
Yes, the margins are better in videogames (and soon, VR), but Disney could soon have a very profitable business in ‘360 vacation experiences’, protected from competition by a classic Buffett-style economic moat in the form of their vast IP and theme park expertise.
Human-Enhanced Actor Interaction
Good actors are expensive. I don’t mean that they’re paid a lot, because mostly they’re not. I mean that they’re expensive to have around. You need space to feed and water them. They have an inconvenient habit for going on holidays and getting sick. And unlike robots, you need to keep them motivated and happy.
If you must have actors, you want to employ them cost-effectively. Radio, TV, and movies can broadcast actors’ performances to entertain millions. Theatre is less efficient, reaching only hundreds or thousands of people at a time, but those people will pay more for the privilege. Likewise, immersive theatre, which has an even higher actor to audience ratio in order to support more intimate and occasionally interactive experiences, costs even more than traditional theatre.
Disney’s theme parks also have actors (they call them “Characters”) whom guests can interact with. The most common type are Atmosphere Characters, where actors dress in Mickey Mouse and Pluto costumes. These characters usually don’t speak, but they can emote pretty well.
Then there are Face Characters like Snow White and Gaston. You can see their faces and talk to them, and even get into push-up contests:
Disney maximises the cost-effectiveness and throughput of their Face Characters by making guests wait in line to meet the ever-popular Princesses, and by instructing characters like Gaston to entertain crowds rather than individuals whenever they can.
We know that the Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge will take personal interactions further than ever, with characters reacting to the ‘reputation’ that guests have built up from their experiences and decisions in the area. We can expect the Star Wars hotel to lengthen and deepen those personalised interactions, which means they have to be as memorable and cost-effective as possible.
I can think of three ways to achieve this:
- Give actors the means to interact with guests in more meaningful ways
- Use actors’ time more efficiently
- Expand the pool of actors, driving down costs
How will actors know a guest’s reputation? We’ve talked about tokens and stamps, which are clunky in all sorts of ways. You could give actors tablets that wirelessly communicate with guests’ devices and show a readout of relevant information. In some cases, this would be thematic — imagine a busy Galactic Passport Control guard — but in general, I doubt Disney is keen on actors peering and poking at screens when they should be looking at us.
One way that actors can maximise eye contact with guests is by routing guest state and reputation through earpieces or heads-up displays like Google Glass. Yes, these things can look ridiculous, but this is Star Wars, a universe where actors look ridiculous all the time — and one in which full-face Stormtrooper helmets could easily incorporate heads-up displays and earpieces.
Now, it’s only worth spending money on this tech if actually improves meaningful interactions with guests and if there’s no cheaper alternative. If you only want actors to talk to guests by name, you might as well just have them memorise photos. But if you give them lots of relevant information about guests in real-time, you can do all sorts of fun stuff; it’d be pretty awesome if a Stormtrooper stopped me in the corridor and said that a smuggler I’d bought weapons from that morning had ratted me out.
It’s these brief but heart-pounding interactions that will stick in the mind and justify the hotel’s hefty price tag.
The Star Wars hotel will feature human actors using real-time motion capture to puppeteer digital characters, like aliens or robots; and guests will talk to these characters through screens. This is just a prediction, but I don’t think it’s a particularly risky one given Disney Research’s output in recent years.
CG puppeteering lets Disney do a whole bunch of really interesting things. For one, guests get to talk to aliens — how cool is that? Sure, you’d talk to them through a screen (or a hologram, if we’re lucky), but that’s entirely normal in the Star Wars universe. You know what else is normal? Really awful quality videoconferences, as we were conveniently reminded in The Force Awakens. They couldn’t have planned it better.
There are also enormous operational advantages to CG puppeteering. It’d allow actors (‘remote puppeteers’) to be located anywhere in the world with a sufficiently fast and reliable internet connection, although in practice they’d probably start near the parks themselves for training and quality control. Only later would they migrate away, like birds in the fall, to more distant and cheaper climes.
It’s worth noting that this is really only possible thanks to the ‘smartphone dividend’. Motion capture and green-screen equipment used to be prohibitively expensive, but now there are dozens of apps including Snapchat and Instagram that perform simple real-time facial capture. The new depth-sensing technology coming in the next iPhone and other high end devices will improve accuracy even further, presaging a era where remote puppeteers only need their skill and a phone to work from anywhere in the world, just like Uber.
Remote puppeteers can be brought online and offline at will, switching costumes and characters in seconds, scaling to demand in minutes; and while I can’t imagine the Star Wars hotel being empty for its first few years, there will be peaks and troughs in the demand for character interactions. As for supply, that won’t be a problem for a Disney project like this, even at lower wages.
CG characters are also fungible. Only Brad Pitt can play Brad Pitt today, but any decent remote puppeteer could play the robot General Grievous. In fact, multiple actors could, all at once. Imagine you’re running an event that’s affecting a hundred hotel guests and you want the General to speak and interact with them simultaneously. One actor can’t do that, unless they literally visit each person in turn in some comical parade, but it’s trivial for a team of remote puppeteers.
I doubt Disney will go ‘full Uber’ any time soon, because to begin with, CG characters will only make up a small proportion of their characters, but if guests enjoy their interactions, that could change quickly. It’s also possible that people won’t enjoy talking to CG characters, but I think this is where storytellers and actors and technologists will have to come together to figure out how to develop the best tools and scripts.
Human-Robot Actor Interaction
The Galaxy’s Edge area will reportedly include ‘real’ robots like BB-8 that can move around and talk. If that’s true, so will the hotel, which is an even safer and more controlled environment for robots. Some robots might be very basic, only responding to a few phrases; others could be puppeteered (I suspect that AI won’t be ready for lengthy conversations for many years, being too obviously artificial).
Dynamic Story Generation
Call me old-fashioned, but if I’ve only got a few hours to spend playing a game with a story, I’d prefer that story to be hand-crafted, even if that means it’s fundamentally linear with few genuine player choices. And judging by Disney’s successes in linear storytelling (and failures in procedurally-generated gameplay) I think that they should stick to what they’re good at.
Still: there are definitely cases for dynamic story generation, especially when it comes to groups of guests interacting with one another. Thus far, I’ve imagined that families or small groups embark on their own experiences at the hotel; they’ll see other families but they won’t need to interact with them to progress. That’s a safe way of delivering reliably good experiences because humans can be unpredictable when you put them in groups.
But if you can create stories for groups of guests and direct those stories in a way that allows for a certain amount of randomised drama while not letting things go totally off the rails, that seems even more exciting to me. It’s also a good way to encourage people to come back again and again, addressing the dreaded content-generation problem where it’s very hard to get repeat visitors to escape rooms and immersive theatre because most people don’t want to pay the same story twice.
People won’t be spending thousands of dollars at a Star Wars hotel for the technology or the robots or even the actor interactions. They can get all of those things ten times cheaper elsewhere.
They’re going because it’s Star Wars. Because it’s a chance to become a member of the Rebellion; to gamble against smugglers and criminals in smoke-filled den; to walk through a starship and look down on Coruscant; to be a hero.
A generic sci-fi hotel, even a Mass Effect hotel (a reasonably popular sci-fi franchise) wouldn’t have close to enough fans to be sustainable. It’s hard to imagine which franchises could support such an expensive corporate adventure; Harry Potter, of course. Star Trek, maybe. Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. Avengers. There aren’t many.
Story matters. Do you think Pokémon Go would be anywhere near as popular as it is if it was replaced with generic monsters?
And story is Disney’s ace in the hole. None of the technology or logistics I’ve described would faze a hardened Silicon Valley veteran for a second. Sure, it‘ll take time and money to develop a seamless and reliable experience, but guest location and state tracking are solved problems, and CG puppetry is a consumer technology now.
But technologists, I’m afraid, often have poor taste in fiction. The skills required to tell a story are very difficult to programming an app; and to make matters worse, most stories don’t have the capacity to ‘scale’ to billions of people as easily as Facebook or Instagram can.
The challenge for Disney’s 360 vacation concept is to successfully marry technology and storytelling in a real world setting. They need to make it seamless and thrilling and reliable. They need to make it profitable. And then they need to scale it up to dozens of sites around the world.
Luckily for Star Wars fans — and Disney shareholders — they’re pretty good at that.