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. Continue reading “Disney’s Giant Leap Forward”