The Revolution Will Be Themed



In the reading and research I’ve been doing for my upcoming theme park-set novella series, Gone To Wonder, I’ve come to a conclusion: Cory Doctorow is a pretty smart guy.

If you’ve ever read one of his books, you’d probably agree. His science fiction pieces blend relentless enthusiasm with raw, unfettered imagination (note: I don’t consider Little Brother scifi, more like a YA thriller). All the way back to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I’ve been continually impressed with the worlds that he creates. They seem so effortless, familiar but new, and weird. They are also about theme parks, or at least my favorites are.

Both Down and Out and it’s more bizarre, darker cousin, The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, are post-singularity stories where death is curable, technology is magic and terror, and humans are finding they aren’t really human anymore. Sometimes, like in Down and Out, they’re hyperreal versions of humans, doing very human things but in bigger, stranger ways. In TGBBT, Jimmy Yensid (see what he did there?) is stuck in a perpetual state of youth, trying to preserve the vestiges of a future past. And in Makers, my favorite Doctorow book, the heroes are leading a revolution in entertainment and living, brought on by the maker spirit, a helping of nostalgia, and made popular by its fundamental inclusion.

The heart of Makers is that anyone and everyone that wants to create something can share it with the world. They can build a world that others can go inside, interact with, and become a part of it.

This isn’t a commercial for Doctorow’s books. I bring it up because that is my favorite aspect of these novels, and I feel as though it’s starting to come to life. Also Gone To Wonder deals with these same themes.

In Makers, the movement is a reaction to stagnant corporations, but for us now, corporations are leading the way, albeit in very commercial, how-can-this-improve-the-bottom-line ways. What am I talking about? Well, there’s a number of things going on in themed entertainment that have me excited about the future of interactive storytelling. Let’s go over some of the biggies.

Living Character Initiative

Back in 2008, Walt Disney Imagineering teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University to open a R+D lab. The purpose? To advance WDI’s Living Character Initiative. Audio Animatronics go back a long way, all the way to talking tiki birds and dead presidents in the sixties. But there’d been two big problems with them for many years. The first was, for the most part, they had to be bolted to the floor, controlled either by remote computers or local mechanical processes. And second, they were static.

Of course, they moved and talked and had the illusion of life, but they couldn’t engage with guests directly. The LCI aimed to change that. The fruits of the initiative have cropped up all over the place in the parks and at conventions. There’s Lucky the Dinosaur, PUSH, WALL*E, the Amazing Destini, Muppet Mobile Lab, and my favorite proof-of-concept, Otto. Watch the video below for a taste of what might be possible for animatronics in the near future (or should I say autonomotronics? Did I get that right?).

Much of the above you can’t find in the parks anymore, but attractions like Turtle Talk With Crush and the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor are the fruits of the LCI. But there’s another step that I think was bigger than these.

The Living Video Game

Buzz Lightyear’s Astroblasters was a revelation to me. The first time I rode/played it years ago, I was hooked. It’s basically a souped-up laser tag combined with a basic dark ride, but it was freaking fun! That’s been followed up with Toy Story Midway Mania! and experiences like DisneyQuest. Video games have entered the realm of theme parks, and we are better for it. But there’s more.

In Foxboro, MA and Syracuse, NY, a company called 5 Wits has created an immersive, game-like adventure. From their website:

A 5 Wits adventure is a cutting-edge, live-action entertainment venue that immerses participants in realistic, hands-on adventures, challenging them to prove they have what it takes to battle a giant squid (20,000 Leagues) or save the world (Espionage)!

I’m out here in Denver, so I haven’t had a chance to experience them yet, but they are on my list of destinations for sure. The concept is exactly the sort of themed environment that I’m looking for, and the kind I wrote about in Gone To Wonder. In fact, a few years back there was an idea that I would have gone absolutely nuts for, had it been built.

The inimitable Jim Hill had the story on his website, Jim Hill Media, back in 2004 about an idea that surfaced in the halls of WDI to revitalize Discovery Island, in the middle of Disney’s Seven Seas Lagoon in Florida. As a kid in the nineties, and a PC gamer to boot, Myst was huge for me. Seems quaint now, but it was a cool, immersive little game whose appeal was found in inventive puzzles, nonlinearity, and atmosphere up the wazoo. So when I read the article about how Disney wanted to build an 11-acre Myst Island experience (and charge a pretty penny for it!), I was simultaneously buzzing with excitement about the idea and depressed that it never came to fruition. It would have been a game changer!

Now, though, we’ve been seeing some interesting interactive games develop in Disney’s flagship park, the Magic Kingdom. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom combines card games, running around a theme park, and all of those recognizable Disney characters into an experience that transforms the park from a place where you go on rides into a place that you can bring to life with your actions and experience a story staring yourself as the hero. That brings me to what inspired this whole article in the first place: a boy wizard.

Magic Wands

RFID tech gets a bad rap, in my opinion. People are understandable nervous about information being stolen. I myself am a little nervous about it, but more from the viewpoint of I don’t like things I write or do being used to try to sell me stuff (hello, Facebook). For that reason, I’m wary of Disney’s NextGen projects. But I cannot deny that the use of RFID in experiences within a theme park is cool. With a passive scan, a character can know your name. You can walk by a show element that triggers when you pass. Or, in the case of the Wizard World of Harry Potter, you can be a freaking wizard (note: I’m not sure if they are RFID, Wii-mote-like devices, or something else, but regardless they are cool). Watch the video below to see what I mean.

Seriously, Universal Studios will be printing money with this. You mean I can buy a wand, go to certain places in Diagon Alley, a do a magics?


Disney may have had this sort of stuff for a while, with Sorcerers and Agent P and the Midship Detective Agency, but this is a step further. This is one of the most popular franchises on the planet. They created someplace that looks exactly like the movies, and they are now giving you the opportunity to interact with this place as if you were a character within it. We are inside the future, right now.

If you need further proof, read this review from Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider. To quote from the article,

To call this a theme park land diminishes it, for Diagon Alley exceeds anything ever before carrying that label. To fans longing to become part of the stories of their dreams, this is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The big corporations can charge hundreds of dollars for these experiences because they are what the people want. But I don’t see this as the end result. I see this as technology and story combining into something new, something boundless. It is this blending of real and imaginary that inspired Gone To Wonder, which we’ll get to share with you this August. It is the sort of creation I see taking hold of our imaginations and not letting go. It has certainly captured mine.

And it’s my opinion that Doctorow’s works will be viewed as prophetic, if not in the details then in the broad strokes. The spirit of Makers is alive today, and someday soon I believe it will invade the realm of themed entertainment in exciting ways.

It may be that these experiences, these wonders, can only be built by corporations with billion-dollar budgets and the marketing capabilities to draw in paying customers by the millions. But, as in Makers, the ubiquity of powerful technologies may lead to some surprising creations from unlikely people and groups. The total immersion of a place like the Wizarding World is just a starting point for some grand, impossible things to come in this world.

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, indeed.


Header Photo: Maker Faire 2013 by Matt Biddulph, used under Creative Commons License.

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