A couple of years ago, as a fresh-faced college sophomore proudly brandishing his self-engineered major of “narrative brand promotions,” I had a limpid vision of my impending career. It began with an internship at Walt Disney Imagineering and ended with my induction as a Disney Legend, with my handprints forever enshrined at the Burbank studio. What achievement would merit this honor? Picking up where Walt himself left off and bringing to fruition (in some form or fashion) his vision of EPCOT- a gleaming prototype city of the future.
Three years pass, and I find myself as a young show writer with a tiny toehold in the themed entertainment industry. At the annual D23 summit that year, WDI was preparing to announce a much-anticipated reimagining of the Florida theme park nobly derived from Walt’s city of tomorrow. My ardors were awhirl. Society had been born anew since the last time Disney execs had poured over EPCOT’s original design. In a world where the sum of human intellect is a click away, autonomous electric cars speed down highways, and commercial space travel is a viable industry, surely EPCOT 2.0 would dream with similar daring to its predecessor!
What did Imagineers ultimately unveil? An interactive Moana water attraction, a Mary Poppins ride, a Ralph Break’s the Internet play pavilion, and a new statue of Walt Disney, as if to imply his sacred imprimatur over this new IP playground. I am an incorrigible Disney fan, and a great admirer of Imagineers past and present who understands that a theme park’s telos is to drive revenue. However, when I heard that the most importantly conceived asset in Disney’s vast portfolio was going the way of Fantasyland, it confirmed what I had already begun to sense under the employ of IDEAS. The next evolution of immersive entertainment will not take place in shrines to corporate enterprise, but in the community and home.
Immersive entertainment is a fraught modern term for a nondescript amusement that could refer to anything from a theme park to a virtual reality game to glorified dinner theater. While most see it an invention of the past century, it is as old as recorded history. Our ancient progenitors mastered immersive entertainment by painting their stories on the walls of cave dwellings. They turned their austere homes into storytelling environments. While their cave paintings doubtless provided evenings of fireside amusement, they also reinforced important knowledge. As these troglodytes set out to hunt and gather, they passed under larger-than-life lessons from their ancestors, which enhanced the lens through which they experienced the world.
These antediluvian cave drawings presage more about immersive entertainment’s future than any e-ticket attraction. They provide something more utile than just a fun day at a theme park or a stirring afternoon at the theater. In fact, they transcend the appellation of “entertainment” entirely. Perhaps a more accurate terminology would be “immersive life enhancements.” It’s a working title…
Immersive life enhancements apply the same intentionality, planning, and narrative intent as immersive entertainment. They are similarly conceived with a thorough understanding and attention to the audience experience. However, enhancements diverge entertainment in two very critical ways. First, they are not appointment-based and require no major sacrifice of time or effort on the part of the “audience.” Second, and most importantly, immersive life enhancements are not attractions unto themselves. Rather, they undergird or complement the regular functions of society to heighten an individual’s experience of daily life. More simply said, perhaps we can define Immersive Life Enhancements as the result of Immersive Entertainment applied outside of a theatrical setting.
I live in Celebration, FL, a town built by the Walt Disney Company on the site once intended for EPCOT’s futuristic airport. It has faced some difficulty in adhering to its founding vision, but I still find it an exciting and incontestably successful model for what happens when principles of immersive entertainment breach the hedgerows of suburbia. For those who have never visited Celebration, it is designed with New Urbanist attention to pedestrians. Like most towns, it has sidewalks that run along its streets and boulevards. However, the more popular way to get around Celebration is the system of boardwalks that wind through protected natural areas and connect the residential nodes to main thoroughfares, parks, schools, and commercial districts.
Whether by foot, bike, or scooter, residents traverse these boardwalks constantly immersed in the ever-evolving story of nature. Every day, they walk amid the dramas of life and death, the spectacle of each season’s passage, and the show of forces which shape the landscape. Friends and neighbors share the visual beauty of this setting as they pass one another and stop to chat, creating a powerful, shared experience. On top of all of these philosophical benefits, the boardwalks are an expedient way of getting around town, often more so than the sidewalks. In essence, they fulfill the community’s basic transportation needs while giving individuals an opportunity to more deeply connect with their home and neighbors. Not high-tech or brilliantly clever, much like cave paintings, these boardwalks represent how simple immersive life enhancements can be.
Immersive entertainment will continue to provide needed escapism, pushing the frontiers of technology, storytelling, and media. However, in a pandemic-wracked world, the importance of feeling at peace in your own home and community has only grown. One need only look at the recent superfluity of home lifestyle influencers on Instagram to see the awakening desire to make a normal day a bona fide experience. More and more, people are becoming aware that true contentment does not come from fleeing to fantasy but from improving reality. Walt Disney recognized this truth in the design of EPCOT. While I grow skeptical that his vision will ever be earnestly recognized, I think that the masters of immersive entertainment he continues to inspire have untold potential to bring visionary thinking beyond the berm and back onto the “cave walls.”