Today, when we speak of big-budget blockbuster games, often the conversation turns to whether the interactive work offers an “open world.” Essentially, this is the ability to explore at one’s own pace, to pick and choose various objectives, and bask in the storytelling provided by the environment and its characters rather than follow a clearly defined plot. The goal is to create the illusion of choice — a carefully developed video game that slyly transfers the sensation of authorship to the player.
The elaborate Pirates of the Caribbean, despite being on a fixed moving boat, has long given me such a sensation. While the ride has been updated over the years to include references to the Johnny Depp-starring films — and to turn a former captured female pirate into the star of a once-outdated scene — much is largely left to the imagination, and many a set piece remains unexplained. Even the chronology of the ride can be debated, as we traverse mystical caverns — after first encountering an unidentified home on the bayou — and then cruise through a town in the midst of pillage full of dozens of stories for us to follow.
Should we be able to get out of the boat and walk around, we could trail the path of an auctioneer or go investigate some rum-drunk cats. What’s up with the dude in the barrel? How did these pirates land in jail? One could dig into the lore of Walt Disney Imagineering for answers or simply view the ride as one of endless discovery.
No wonder game designer/USC lecturer Scott Rogers once gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference titled “Everything I learned about level design I learned from Disneyland,” citing how the map and layout of Pirates of the Caribbean shaped his designs for “Pac-Man World.” Says Rogers today, “That’s when I realized that a video game level design was just a Disneyland attraction.”
When Disneyland in 2019 opened the largest single land expansion in its history with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the focus of the area was the nearly 20-minute attraction Rise of the Resistance, one that due to COVID-19 restrictions will be slightly shortened by having guests skip some pre-boarding show scenes. Rise of the Resistance is a triumph in themed entertainment design, a mix of old-fashioned dark ride theatrics with lessons from immersive theater that aim to make guests feel like more active participants.
It’s also in incredibly high demand, requiring wannabe riders to try to snag a boarding pass via the Disneyland app. But while one waits — or tries to not be bummed about not getting on — don’t overlook the Play Disney Parks app, which is hiding a relatively robust exploration-focused mobile game that works only in Galaxy’s Edge. By completing simple puzzles — aligning radio waves, connecting shapes without crossing wires — one can unlock interaction opportunities inside the land, such as causing a droid to chirp or a ship to steam.
But the real objective is to get guests walking around and viewing the entire land as walk-in board game, a platform in which guests can concoct their own “Star Wars"-inspired storylines. Too often, in a theme park land we rush from line to line, shop to shop, but the Star Wars: Datapad encourages us to appreciate the wonders of design: to admire the hand-carved rock formations and ornate starships and to take a moment to realize a fantastical environment is just an excuse to daydream.
One of the benefits of Disneyland getting a major land expansion via Galaxy’s Edge was a spruce-up for the rest of the park, from Sleeping Beauty Castle — now brighter, bolder and more overtly referencing the ink of the original animated work — to a fresh coat of paint and a few new illusions for the Haunted Mansion, a project that was completed during the pandemic.
In these pandemic times, queues for rides are required to be outside. So get to know the details that go into building a façade. The Haunted Mansion, for instance, is no simple white building.
“Part of this was to refresh the exterior and get it back to its original condition — a Southern-style mansion with various shades of white that are used to create a shadow technique,” says Disney’s Michele Hobbs, who managed the Haunted Mansion refurbishment. “It’s to evoke a feeling of depth.”