Pokemon Go, Tony Baxter, and the war on attention: a looming paradigm shift in theme parks?

The times are a-changing in the theme park world. They have been for many years, but the grind has been slow. The viral popularity of Pokemon Go represents a seismic event akin to an earthquake, suddenly revealing what has actually been building for some time. The theme park experience as we have known it may indeed be heading for a no-return alteration, and the fault lies squarely with our mobile devices.

When I first beheld the amazing queue for the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland in 1995, I was in awe of its complexity, its attention to detail, its determination to hide tiny details that would take us visitors decades to fully uncover and decode. I was delighted. This was it; the apotheosis of the Disney queue. Disney lines had long been distinctive from the competition because they functioned as “act one” of the story. They were immersive. You had something to look at while in line; this wasn’t just a bare switchback. There was theming from the beginning, and attention was paid to materials, designs, colors, textures, and everything else that creates a mood and tone right when you join the line. This queue represented the very pinnacle of the Disney accomplishment. It made me tingle to imagine what other new queues awaited us in the future.

Alas, the next few years at Disneyland were fallow of large rides needing such elaborate queues. The next big development was FASTPASS, which started in 1999 and spread the next year to Disneyland. Then as now, I was reluctant to embrace the ride-reservation concept partly because of the entire queue problem–everyone was now skipping the first act of the story. Would you want to miss the first reel of a movie? Over the next dozen years, FASTPASS started to become a built-in part of the planning process for new attractions. Knowing that a large chunk of the riders would be skipping that “first reel” of the story, increasingly Imagineers held back on including major chunks of narrative in the queue, thus making the experience a bit more bland for everyone.

As those attractions opened, I recall expressing some dismay that the grandeur of the Indiana Jones queue was never again repeated (or even attempted as a pale imitation). The fan community was fairly vocal in its agreement, and I’ll never forget the comment Tony Baxter, the Imagineer behind the great Indiana Jones queue, made in those years when FASTPASS attractions were becoming the norm with shorter and less elaborate queues. He claimed that the major challenge Imagineers had was competing with the distractions posed by mobile phones. If memory serves, his comment came before iPhones debuted in 2005, meaning he was talking about flip phones (and SMS texting), not web surfing and apps, let alone “augmented reality” games like Pokemon Go. Way back in the early 2000s, Tony knew that the digital “weapons of mass distraction” were making life difficult for Imagineers. How could they compete with interactivity like those early flip phones?

They tried. There are “smaller” interactions in standby queues–think about the motion-sensing walls at Soarin in Orlando, or the video-screen crab that reacts to visitors’ pointing gestures at the Mermaid ride in the Magic Kingdom. At Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom, they installed actual games at permanent kiosks along the standby line. And a major basis of the NextGen technology (which later became Magic Bands) is interactivity, saying “goodbye” by name in Small World, or engraving your own name on an animated tombstone at the conclusion of Haunted Mansion. But this level of interactivity is narrow, focused, and ultimately way less pervasive than those phones.

The main reason for the phones winning the war on attention was not Disney’s failure of imagination so much as the evolution of the smartphone. Those flip phones of the early 2000s did not stop with SMS. With the smartphone we got web browsing, and then they quickly added games in the forms of apps that were way more engrossing than even themed walls of a queue. Disney, not to mention its competitors that do much less with theme in the queues, has been losing this war for a long time.

Enter Pokemon Go. Until recently, “augmented reality” meant something more like a value-added tour. Point your smartphone camera at the Parthenon, and an AR app would enable you to see pop-up text (or video) ready to be clicked so you could get more information. Useful for tourists, maybe, but nothing earth-shattering. The amazing viral popularity of Pokemon Go represents a game-changer. If you ask me, the game succeeds not for its AR qualities (most third party tutorials urge you to turn off the camera, in fact, and just play in a cartoon world to make it easier), but instead for its geo-tracking properties, and the fact that the game mechanics make collecting fun, and turns players into “completists” who want more, more, more. But that’s beside the point. The massive popularity of the app is the point.

While at Six Flags Over Texas earlier this week, I rode the steam train that encircled the park and watched thoughtfully as one of the old-time Autopia-style cars chugged by on its track. At the wheel was a boy, perhaps 7 years old, intent on driving, and having a great time. His part of the picture could have been taken fifty years ago. However, at his side was his father, who was paying no attention to the ride whatsoever, as he was glued to his smartphone. I knew instantly what he was doing, because I realized with a start that I had been doing it myself on this very same ride an hour earlier: he was checking into the Pokestops accessible from this area. And in the process, he was missing virtually all of the ride.

All over the park, we encountered people playing the game. There was little dismay at the unthemed switchback lines, because there were Pokemon popping into existence around us and thus no time to get bored. Many of the Pokestops had lures on them, meaning there was no shortage of Pokemon to collect, so there was plenty to keep one occupied.

In fact, amusement parks (and here Disney is no exception) are riddled with Pokestops. Acre for acre, theme parks seem to be the best places on the planet to collect Pokeballs and capture Pokemon, especially compared to neighborhoods or even regional malls that have far less digital action. Long term, this may well drive more local attendance at amusement and theme parks.

Pokestops at Six Flags Over Texas

Pokestops at Six Flags Over Texas

But back to Tony Baxter. Disney’s problem is deeper than keeping the visitor’s attention while standing in line. That battle may already be lost. The battle now may be keeping the visitor’s attention while on the ride itself. Even before Pokemon Go this was starting to be a problem, with people using their glowing screens on the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and other rides, as though the rides were boring compared to the instant gratification offered by Instagram or Periscope. I think it’s a no-brainer that we’ll start to see people increasingly playing Pokemon Go, and whatever viral sensation comes next, while on the rides themselves.

But with challenge also comes opportunity. Rather than fight the ubiquity of smart devices and short attention spans, Disney could (and arguably should) instead try to leverage them, and turn them to their advantage. Sure, that could mean Sorcerer-type games on your own device. In fact, the Perry (Phineas and Ferb) game at Epcot recently started letting you use your own device, as it’s now browser-based. But that is only the beginning. For one thing, the Perry game is aimed at small children, while Pokemon Go is actually played by quite a few adults. It’s a different beast.

If Niantic (the company behind the Pokemon Go app) can do something clever, engrossing, and addictive with the geo-location and GPS features of a smartphone, then Disney could do it, too. Yes, Pokemon had nostalgia behind it, but Disney has Intellectual Property bar none. Why not a Mickey and friends game? Something with Indiana Jones? Or the mega-popular Star Wars franchise? There are literally hundreds of recognizable characters and sidekicks from the various movies, too, not to mention the eminently marketable and bankable Disney Princesses.

Disney might even profitably get users to turn the camera, and thus the AR, back on. Their theme parks are iconic in a way that the Outback Steakhouse at your local mall isn’t, so a Disney parks app in the vein of Pokemon Go might give players a reason to be in the parks and turn on the AR part of the game after all.

Watching the towering Pokestops and the neverending parade of people passing me exclaiming “An Eevee!” or “That’s now a Valor gym!”, I had the distinct feeling that theme parks might change permanently as a result of this digital invasion. I don’t know that I can sketch what the future will bring from this, but I have the creeping suspicion that the changes will be fundamental.

In hindsight, we’ve been inching toward this moment since the apex of the themed queue in 1995. I suppose I could make an argument for Universal’s Dueling Dragons (which opened in 1999 at Islands of Adventure) as an equally immersive queue, but the larger point is, this has been long in coming. The minor evolutions in technology have taken a seismic leap forward with this one viral app, and the genie is now out of the bottle.

Ultimately, we may be seeing a shift in what theme parks try to do. Walt’s Disneyland was there to offer escapism and a mild sort of education. We’ve already seen the “education” side drift further and further from the central mission (just look at the changes in Epcot since it opened), and increasingly even regular “escapism” now means specifically one type, namely, “re-enacting Disney animated movies”–an idea that used to be restricted to just Fantasyland, but now seems entrenched in every corner of every Disney park. How will the introduction of immersive GPS (or AR-based) apps alter the landscape further? It’s an open question, of course. I doubt we’ll see a return to “education.” But we might also see a drift from immersion into Disney animated films. We might see more branching content, more individualized experiences. We might see more of us, the visitors, helping to create the reality, in much the same way that Web 1.0 (consuming content) gave way to Web 2.0 (creating content). Or it might be something totally different we can’t yet anticipate. The point is, I have a hunch it will be *different*. Business as usual won’t cut it in the future. We may be at the start of a paradigm shift that will later seem inevitable.


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