If you’ve been to either a Disney or Universal theme park in the last decade or so, odds are you’ve come across an attraction that makes heavy use of screens. They’re nothing new, but in past they were more often used as supplements. But lately it seems like there’s been a growing trend of new high tech rides relying more and more on large screens where traditionally practical sets and props would have been used. Why do many theme park fans look down on screens, and what can be done to improve them?
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One of the inherent benefits of screen technology in rides, that we’ve only really begun to see put to use at Disney, is that it’s also easier to replace what we see on the screen. Changing a scene no longer means swapping out a slew of animatronics and redressing a set. It just means replacing one video file with another. This presents an opportunity where Disney could update and refresh rides at a rate that wouldn’t have been practical 20 years ago.
Imagine if these screen heavy rides saw not just temporary overlays, but massive new permanent changes every 3 or 4 years. The physical ride experience itself wouldn’t change as much, but the visuals that work with it would be new and fresh. We’re already seeing this with Star Tours. Disney created a new special scene for The Force Awakens and then another one for The Last Jedi. When their respective films were released the rides were locked into the new scenes for guests, and after a few months they were entered into regular rotation with all the other scenes the ride was already known for. Within two years the ride had seen just as many permanent additions to the experience.
We’re also seeing it in another form over in California with Guardians of the Galaxy: Monsters After Dark. The seasonal Halloween overlay is one in which Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout transforms every night from it’s default story to a monster-centric story. Different pre-show, different music, and different visuals on all the screens.
But why stop there? Imagine if this approach was taken to other screen-heavy rides at the parks. Imagine if Disney got into the habit of changing the locations in Soarin’ every 3 years, introducing a whole new set of famous landmarks to fly over. Or how about Rock n Roller Coaster with Aerosmith. Really, the biggest elements of the ride that make it Aerosmith specific is the music played on the ride, and the on-screen pre-show played beforehand. What’s stopping them from introducing a new band every few years with all new music? Mission Space is another attraction primed for such an approach. With the same core concept of the centrifugal motion simulation, we could have a new Mission Orange that takes us to other far off locations like Europa, while Mission Green plots a new course around the earth that shows us new countries we haven’t yet visited.
The idea isn’t limited to just the big main screens of rides either. Supplemental experiences can be altered and updated too. It’s been 11 years since screens were introduced to the ride experience of Spaceship Earth, and in over a decade the interactive ending hasn’t undergone any real changes. Spaceship Earth would still fundamentally be Spaceship Earth, even if the interactive ending offered new options and outcomes.
Some might say this shouldn’t happen because there are too many guests out there who want to experience the “true” version of the ride when they visit, and that it’d be wrong to rob them of that. It’s one of the arguments made for why we don’t see many seasonal overlays for attractions in Walt Disney World. But maybe it’s time we embrace the idea of the “true” version of a ride being one that always evolves and improves. Not an overlay or special event. Just a ride that was made to change over time.