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Walt Disney Imagineering is very serious when it comes to play testing

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Walt Disney Imagineering is very serious when it comes to play testing

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Did you hear about the play test that WDI ran at The Magic Kingdom last month? Where the Imagineers used Guests who were waiting in line for a character meet-n-greet right outside of Pooh’s Playful Spot to try out a new entertainment-based queuing system?

Though the Imagineers are being pretty close-mouthed about what they learned from this two day test (which was rumored to have been a dry run for a new style of queue which will be implemented when the “Fantasy Forest” addition to this theme park’s Fantasyland section finally opens in 2012 & 2013), when I spoke with Joe Garlington – WDI’s creative vice president in charge of interactives – back in late 2008 about play tests, he insisted that they played a vital role in Imagineering’s development process.

“Take – for example – what we learned during Kim Possible’s play test back during the Summer of 2006,” Garlington explained. “When we set up the beta versions of World Showcase Adventure in Epcot’s UK & France pavilions, we learned all sorts of things about what worked & what didn’t work for our Guests as a direct result of that field test.”

Kim Possible Game station sign in EPCOT at Walt Disney World
Photo by Jeff Lange

“Like what?,” you ask. Well, according to Joe, one of the very first things that the Imagineers did once the Kim Possible play test was complete was shorten the length-of-play for this interactive game.

“Don’t get me wrong. The kids loved the test version of Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure. They would have played it all day long if they could,” Garlington explained. “But the parents – after an hour of play – were starting to get antsy. They wanted to get back to exploring Epcot, leave the U.K. & France pavilions behind and go see some of the other countries around World Showcase Lagoon.”

So the Imagineers reduced the length of each of the interactive games that Guests would play as part of Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure to 40 - 45 minutes. And based on comments that WDW visitors made in their post-play test surveys, WDI also decided to add a little oomph to each of these games’ finale.

The Glockenspiel clock rings at the Germany Pavilion in EPCOT, a stop in the Kim Possible game
Photo by Jeff Lange

“You remember how – at the end of the Duff Killigan game – you just returned the golf ball?,” Joe continued. “Well, Guests found that experience somewhat unsatisfying. Especially as the end of an interactive game. They expected something bigger, much more fun from Disney. So that’s what we did when we revisited these Kim Possible games after their initial play test. We make sure that they each took less time to play and then ended with a far bigger bang.”

As a direct result of that 2006 round of play tests, when the official version of Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure debuted at Epcot in January of 2009, it quickly became one of the popular attractions at that theme park. With some families spending their entire day wandering around World Showcase, so that they could then play all seven versions of this new interactive game.

“That’s what's great about dealing with the latest generation of Disney theme park Guests. Who are families that actually game together,” Garlington said. “Previously, we had to spend a lot of time in the pre-show explaining how the technology worked, how the game was scored. Which really cut into our story-telling time. But this generation of theme park visitors, they immediately get how the game is played. We don’t have to waste precious time in the pre-show explaining how things work. These Guests just want to get out in the Park and then get their interactive experience started.”

The Germany buildings in EPCOT where Kim Possible gamers will find Professor Dementor
Photo by Jeff Lange

That’s ultimately what Disney’s goal is here. To give its theme park guests a way that they can personalize their experience. Make their time in the Parks something truly unique & individual.

The only problem is … Designing & then creating truly interactive attractions is a lengthy & often expensive process. Take – for example – the five years & tens of millions of dollars that The Walt Disney Company spent on the development of Toy Story Mania!

And then there’s the difficult issue that WDI often deals with. In that they’ll sometimes have an idea / key concept for a great new theme park attraction but then lack the appropriate character to build that attraction around.

Children of all ages enjoy Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin played with Astro Blasters
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Take – for example – Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin / Astro Blasters. As far back as 1975, the Imagineers were toying with building a futuristic ride-thru shooting gallery where Guests would have blasted alien invaders. But WDI had to wait ‘til “Toy Story” came out in November of 1995 before they then had a character who was strong enough & well enough liked by the public that the Imagineers could finally move Tomorrowland’s UFO Shoot-out off of the drawing board.

Which brings us back to the crucial role that the play testing plays at WDI. How the Imagineers want to be absolutely sure that an idea or a concept for a new ride, show and attraction actually works before it’s then okayed for construction inside one of the Company’s theme parks.

Do you remember The Muppet Experiment? That interactive game which had Disneyland Annual Passholders racing all over DCA in December of 2008, using their cell phones & text messaging in an effort to rescue Miss Piggy & pals? That play test had just wrapped up when I sat down to talk with Garlington at WDI. And when I asked Joe why the Imagineers had chosen this particular set of characters to build that game around, his answer was surprisingly candid.

The gang at Muppet Vision 3D were part of the Muppet Experiment interactive game at Disney's California Adventure
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“We chose the Muppets because they were already closely associated with California Adventure. And because the Muppets have done movies & TV shows there were set in all sorts of different time periods, they seemed to be the perfect characters to build a time travel-themed game around,” Joe stated. “As for why we chose the technology that we did for the Muppet Experiment … We’re WDI. We don’t like to repeat ourselves. Plus we liked the idea of Guests using their own phones for this particular interactive experience. Rather than the Kimmunicators that we make Guests use at Epcot when they’re playing World Showcase Adventure.”

So will The Muppet Experiment interactive game someday return to DCA? Or – for that matter – will that new queuing system that was play tested at the Magic Kingdom last month actually be implemented when WDW’s Fantasy Forest expansion area opens in 2012 & 2013? Again, WDI’s being pretty tight lipped about all that. But Garlington (when we talked, anyway) was very pretty straightforward about what he thought the future of interactive rides, shows and attractions at the Disney theme parks might be.

“We’re always looking for ways that the Guest can impact the flow of the show. Where their actions then personalized the entertainment, make their experience special & unique,” Joe concluded. “Toy Story Mania and Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interactivity. What we’re looking to do in the future at the Parks.”

The Disney Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure
Photo by Jeff Lange

So what do you folks think? Are you actually looking forward to this next generation of Disney theme park rides, shows and attractions? Or are you worried that all of this emphasis on interactivity & personalization will then get in the way of the magic & the story-telling?

Your thoughts?

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  • It sounds like they've got some neat ideas they're tossing around and testing out. I think, if implemented correctly, they will help draw people, especially the younger generation more into the attractions and the story line.

    The thing I worry about is the overhead and maintenance all of these new next gen interactive features are going require. With the addition of new technologies, inevitably there will be failures and ongoing repairs that will need to be made. Adding all of these new features will add a whole new layer of maintenance requirements to an already slim (lean) maintenance/operations staff. I hate to be the fly in the soup and point out their past failures, but the last thing I want to see is another Yeti in constant "B" mode, or a new interactive feature that doesn't work the way it was intended.

  • Have theme park guests really become so manic that they require all of this "interactive" nonsense in order to enjoy their visit to Disneyland or WDW? For me the joy has always been in walking around the parks at my leisure, taking in the many appealing sights and sounds created by the previous (and better) generation of Disney Imagineers, in the way of settings, costumes, colour and background music. Why do some kids and their equally infantile parents need to be hyped up all the time, now texting and chatting on their cell phones to participate to the fullest at a Disney park?

  • It'll get better, or worse. Tickets, guest passes, may take the form of wristbands or pins with RFID chips embedded that will identify you and your location, personalize attractions to your preferences, unlock doors and prompt audioanimatronics to greet you by name, or other devices to text you a reminder haven't made a dinner reservation yet and tables are available at ... you get the idea.

  • I was more concerned over the comment of having to wait until you found a character to build the ride around. This reasoning would mean no Pirates, no Mansion, no Small World, no Space Mt, no Big Thunder, etc,etc,etc. It's been possible for many years to build a great ride with no interactivity, no Kuka arms, no Harry Potter characters.

    I don't buy the whole, "look everyone's playing as a family." I think it's mostly thankful parents relieved that their tweener isn't complaining about being bored. Do certain demographics love it - absolutely. Have the Imagineers assigned to it done the best they could - certainly. But it didn't get the green light for those reasons. This type of "attraction" is cheaper in development, construction, and staffing.

    Florida's Princess addition needs one major family-friendly ride - think Small World. Large capacity, emphasis on magical instead of scary, long 20 minute air conditioned ride. Here's my low-cost answer to interactivity. Any kids that come in and want to meet the princesses - slap a sticker on those kids with their names written in bold ink. The princesses will greet them by name - everyone's happy.

  • Just build better rides and good theme parks.

  • This post was mentioned on Twitter by JimHillMedia: Walt #Disney #Imagineering is very serious when it comes to play testing http://goo.gl/fb/bHmy #themagickingdom

  • I think it comes down to how the technology is used. One of my favorite things about my Verizon navigator is being able to give directions when I may not know an area so well (people ask me all the time for directions). I don't quite get the whole "technology as insular experience". It's much more fun when you bounce it off others

  • "Did you hear about the play test that WDI ran at The Magic Kingdom last month? Where the Imagineers used Guests who were waiting in line for a character meet-n-greet right outside of Pooh’s Playful Spot to try out a new entertainment-based queuing system?"

    And here I thought the article would be about getting rid of FastPass, which is still cutting, no matter how you try to tart it up.

  • I think the idea is horrible. What, the parks don't have enough to look at and experience without throwing in a video game? What happened to immersing yourself into the surroundings, the ambience, the fantasy? That isn't ENOUGH to engage the imaginations of kids?

    If it isn't, then there's no point in taking the brats to the parks in the first place. Just buy them a Wii and lock them into their bedrooms.

  • I can't say I would look forward to these kind of attractions. You have to use a cell phone? You get to shoot at monitors? Oh look you can use a computer.

    I'm sorry, but I don't think of those things as worth going to theme park for. These days I can have that experience and not leave my house.

    WDI needs to put more energy into experiences that you cannot get anywhere else.

    I'll take POTC, HM, SmallW and etc. over these low cost attractions.

    I would rather see a Kim Possible dark ride(getting to see Drakkin doing his defeat dance, LOL). Do it in a format similar to Snow White or Peter Pan, what ever happened to WDI doing that stuff?

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