Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. Anyone who has ever worked for “The Mouse” can recite these Four Keys of guest experience with cultish zeal. Working as a Walt Disney World cast member, I observed that these four pillars support the larger pediment of an unspoken key called Repeatability. This means that no matter when guests ride It’s a Small World, they will hear the same song in the same languages in the same sequence until the lunacy sets in.
Theme Parks, museums, brand activations, and other popular experiences must be prepared support efficient throughput of several hundred to several thousands of guests a day. Passive experiences like dark rides are reliable and entertaining experiences that can expediently move shoulder-to-shoulder queues of guests. Still, even with the most advanced ride and show systems, experience designers face challenges making vehicles full of guests feel like characters in the story rather than voyeurs. Today, those body-packed lines of yore have utterly vanished. COVID 19 has compelled us to reevaluate literally every breath we take. Yet humans continue to adapt our multifaceted lifestyles to the new reality. Experiential entertainment has been no exception, and new industrywide capacity limitations intended to stop the spread may prove a fortuitous boon to the experience designer.
Coronavirus struck experiential entertainment in the middle of an ongoing evolution from a spectator’s media to a participant’s media. In a world where our phones control the rise and fall of civilization, we’ve come to expect agency in every aspect of our lives including entertainment. With capacities sliced into once-unthinkable quotients, there is blue sky to imagine experiences where guests can drive their own arcs and outcomes.
This new paradigm looks especially propitious to the myriad new immersive walk-through experiences, which have become competitive with traditional ride and show. From strip mall escape rooms to the cosplay paradise of Evermore Park, E-Ticket thrills are no longer just big-budget coasters. They are role playing interactives, atmospheric entertainment, and picture-perfect settings with high appeal to the Instagram generation. As opposed to a static portfolio of rides, these environments let guests to define their experience based with the roles they play and the personal lore they build upon with each visit. Limited capacities give guests more physical and psychological space to suspend disbelief and assume a character in these three-dimensional narrative milieux. Smaller crowds also mean fewer strangers wandering in and out of photographs, making these already photogenic locations even more “Insta-worthy.”
This pandemic is not forever. There will come a day when boatloads of shoulder-to-shoulder guests undertake “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.” Repeatability is likely to remain a part of the themed entertainment lexicon for the foreseeable future. However, guests who experienced a Magic Kingdom where they could capture the impossible castle photo and walk onto major attractions will not forget that exclusivity. When major parks return to normal capacity, guests will look to a new generation of entertainment to meet that desire for primacy and agency in their stories.
Evergreen experiences sensitive to the needs of the individual are both a necessity and an inclination in the post-COVID reality of experience design. While still hazy and nebulous, it is a fascinating horizon that will fundamentally change the way humans interact with stories. I’ll see you there!