Hit me up with your Disneyworld recs! I’m going there – and Kennedy Space Center – in two days time…
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”
A couple of years ago, I visited the The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The museum has precisely nothing to do with The Walt Disney Company that owns approximately all of the world’s entertainment industry, and as far as I’m aware, the Company does not much appreciate how the Family depicts Walt in a less-than-messiannic manner.
That’s not to say it’s a warts-and-all exposé, either. There were some good bits about the various fights Walt had with his early collaborators, but most of the $110 million spent has gone towards showing how awesome he was, like this lovely scale model of Disneyland:
Growing up in the UK in the 80s and 90s, we weren’t exposed to much Disney stuff. My partner remains shocked at the number of classic Disney movies I haven’t watched, like Pinocchio or Robin Hood or Peter Pan. What can I say? We had other things to watch on TV.
Which explains why I was so surprised by the sheer scale of historic Mickey Mouse merchandise on display at the museum, dating back to the 1930s.
Anything you could slap a couple of ears on and sell to kids, it was there. Comics, alarm clocks, wristwatches, clothes, dolls, clubs, everything. It’s like Mickey Mouse was the Pokémon of its time (he says, intentionally anachronistically — and annoyingly).
It’s this massive popularity that makes certain (older, nostalgic) people claim that Mickey Mouse is somehow the most well-known or popular fictional character in the world. This is plainly untrue.
One day we will be able to run a Google Image Search on the real world and check out how many instances of the Mouse exist versus other characters, but for the time being, we can look at Google Trends and see that Mario destroys Mickey by a large margin, as does Harry Potter and a bunch of other characters.
Disney begs to differ, according to Claire Suddath of Time in 2008:
Disney claims that Mickey had a 98% awareness rate among children between ages 3–11 worldwide. Mouse-related merchandise sales have declined from their 1997 high, but they still make up about 40% of the company’s consumer products revenue.
I find it hard to believe that 98% number, but I do believe they sell a shit-ton of Mickey merch, even to this day. And yet — who cares whether the 98% number is correct? I doubt anyone at Disney (the Company) believes that Mickey Mouse is more popular or relevant these days than, say, Iron Man, either.
But that’s not important. Mickey is a mascot, not a logo. He shows that Disney is a loveable American institution, not just a media conglomerate. And in fact, the less they use Mickey, the better, because if they made a bad Mickey movie, it would tarnish the entire Disney brand.
Day 3: Valletta (Malta)
Malta isn’t a place that I would go out of my way to visit. Its capital, Valletta, has plenty of charm and interesting architecture – a legacy from the incessant invasions and occupations by Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, French, British, and a bunch of other people you haven’t heard of before – but when you’re on a cruise that’s also going to Carthage, Naples, Rome, and to the Cinqueterre, you can’t help but think Malta is a bit of a filler.
A slightly odd thing about the otherwise lovely cruise terminal in Valletta is that it has two original buildings joined by a new facade, designed to blend in. Behind the facade is a car park – you can see it through the doors and windows. Maybe they ran out of money.
After walking around the alleyways, gardens, and cathedral, and having our first gelato of the trip, we headed back. On our way, we passed by a small park containing lots of lazy, contented cats enjoying the sun; their presence was explained by ‘Cat Cafe’ that gives away food and drink. Very nice.
Tonight, we were in Animator’s Palate for dinner. This is an interesting and gimmicky restaurant whose conceit is that, as the evening goes on, the white walls and empty painting frames gradually become filled with colour and pictures and videos. It sounds neat, and it probably was, about fifteen years ago, but today it comes across as rather low-tech for something that supposedly cost millions to build; it didn’t help that the video screen next to us wasn’t working. Of course, Disney’s new ship, the Dream, has an upgraded version with all sorts of new screens and display technologies that will look equally old in, oh, five years time.
The Animator’s Palate is unique on the Magic for another reason – it’s not trying to look like something else. Practically every restaurant and bar on the ship is modelled on some popular ideal; Parrot Cay is a fun Caribbean restaurant, Rockin’ Bar D’s (yes, that’s its real name) is a bar/club kitted out with retro yet cool posters and props, Cove is basically Starbucks but nicer.
You wonder what the point of this is, since in most cities, you’d be able to find places with more genuine atmosphere and history and quality than any of these ersatz venues; you could go to a great Caribbean restaurant, followed up by a bar with real character, and then (if you’re not in the UK), a good independent cafe. The two things you’d be missing are:
a) The fact that on the Magic, these venues are all a maximum of 5 minutes apart and completely safe
b) While they may lack genuine character, they are probably closer to the Platonic ideal of such venues held in the average American’s mind
Take Palo, for example. Palo appears to have been drawn directly out of the minds of millions of North Americans, just like Dumbledore using his wand to draw memories out of people in Harry Potter (I couldn’t think of a suitable Disney analogy). A silver-tongued maitre’d guides you inside with humorous tales of his travels, past all sorts of expensive looking wines and knick-knacks in cabinets, past an open kitchen (so you can see that you aren’t sharing the same food as everyone else on the cruise), to a table served by incredibly attentive waiters with perfect knowledge of the menu, always giving you appetisers and jokes, etc, etc. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2”
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting about my 11 night Mediterranean cruise on the Disney Magic, and other Disney-related thoughts. I’m also (slowly) uploading photos to my Flickr.
On a Disney cruise, you never stop hearing about the fantastic time you’re having. Wasn’t last night’s Captain’s dinner just delicious? Didn’t you love Naples? The movie tonight is going to be simply stunning! Let’s give another round of applause to our cast for such an amazing show!
Most passengers on my cruise did, in fact, think that the dinner was delicious; they did love Naples; and they were more than happy to give a standing ovation to the cast for every show. It’s not as if they needed to be reminded of this, so why were the Disney cast members so insistent that everyone know they’re having a great time?
Here’s why. Try this experiment – find a pen or pencil, put it in your mouth and bite it for a minute.
How do you feel? A bit foolish or embarrassed, probably – but maybe a little happier, as well. The simple act of making yourself smile can actually improve your mood. It won’t take away a bad mood, but it can tip the balance from feeling indifferent to feeling happier. It can turn an indifferent or sulky teenager into a mildly impressed one, and of course, it can turn the average Disney fan into a devoted follower.
Disney understands the secret of great advertising. They don’t just want people to buy Disney products – they want them to be happy about what they’ve already bought, so they’ll buy more in the future. And a Disney cruise isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a brilliant opportunity to sell more Disney products – including movies, DVDs, games, toys, theme park tickets, clothes, and of course, more cruises – to a captive audience.
This may sound awful, but here’s the thing: the food on a Disney cruise isn’t bad. The ports – and the shows – range from average to amazing, the cast members are pretty good, the service and facilities are excellent, and the ship is by far the finest-looking cruise ship I’ve seen. Disney has plenty to be proud of. And so, just as Steve Jobs is fond of describing the iPad – a very good device, though not without its flaws – as ‘magical’, ‘revolutionary’, and ‘unbelieveable’, Disney wants you to believe that its cruises – very good, though far from perfect – are just as magical.
(While plenty of other brands regularly exaggerate the quality of their beers, cars, soap, underwear, etc, in their life-changing abilities, people seem to be less bothered by them than by offenders like Apple and Disney. I think there are two factors behind this: firstly, unlike most other companies, it really does seem like they mean it when they say their products are magical. Secondly, there are an awful lot of people out there how really do believe these claims. These two factors combined are enough to enrage millions of anti-fanboys around the world).
The cruise I went on with my girlfriend was an 11 night tour of the Mediterranean on the DCL Disney Magic, departing from Barcelona and visiting Malta, Tunisia, Naples, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Ajaccio (in Corsica), and Villefranche.
A basic cabin costs around $2000 per person, but thanks to a tip from HotUKDeals, we found tickets for half the price – a great bargain (probably due to the recession). We’d only been on one cruise before, with my parents to Cork (yes, in Ireland) last year. I found it to be a pretty interesting experience – after all, any ship with 4000 passengers and its own rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, and countless restaurants and pools, is bound to be interesting from at least a logistical, engineering, and cultural perspective. Plus it was pretty relaxing. So I wasn’t turned off from the idea of cruising. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1”