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Disney is tapping into Star Wars, Marvel, and more to upgrade its theme parks

It’s a big world after all: how Disney is expanding its global theme-park business.

Disney is tapping into Star Wars, Marvel, and more to upgrade its theme parks
[Illustration: <a href="https://bjornoberg.com".Björn Öberg]

The opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction at California’s Disneyland next month marks the biggest move Disney has made to enhance its global theme-park business. The company, which posted a $4.5 billion operating profit last year for its parks and resorts division, is expanding its six resort complexes, upgrading older attractions, and capitalizing on the valuable intellectual property of its movie franchises. “We’re using everything from robotics and machine learning to augmented reality and autonomous vehicles to create the next generation of immersive, experiential storytelling,” says Bob Chapek, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products. Below, a look at Disney’s plans to keep us amused.

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New Galaxies

In addition to next month’s opening of a 14-acre Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area in Disneyland, a Star Wars area of the same size will arrive this fall at Orlando’s Disney World (already the size of San Francisco). Marvel-themed areas are planned for Disneyland (in 2020), followed by Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Flights of Fancy

To create new thrills, Disney is marrying physical and virtual experiences. For the two-year-old Avatar Flight of Passage ride, at Disney World, viewers sit on a seat that subtly swerves to simulate the feeling of flying on a breathing “banshee” creature from the movie. Riders watch a big-screen video that is supplemented with physical tricks: Wind blows on viewers’ faces; various scents accompany them through a forest. At Shanghai Disneyland, the newest iteration of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction incorporates immersive screens and a realistic cannon battle. For the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride, set to open at Disney World, the company’s engineers are employing sophisticated projection mapping to play videos on the surrounding walls, which will create the illusion of a 3D experience—no glasses required.

Epic Collaborations

One of the centerpieces of the new Star Wars areas is the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride, which lets guests pilot the starship through a video rendering that will respond in real time to their actions. Disney collaborated with chipmaker Nvidia and Fortnite parent Epic Games to develop the ride’s powerful gaming engine. Disney also worked with entertainment company the Void to create VR experiences featuring Star Wars and Wreck-It Ralph, currently at Disney World and Disneyland.

Out-of-This-World Hospitality

A new Star Wars–themed hotel, opening at Disney World, will let guests live out their cosplay fantasies. Visitors will board a starship filled with characters from the movies. The windows of the hotel will include an optics system that shows guests views of the surrounding “galaxies.” At the park itself, diners will be able to visit the Star Wars–inspired Oga’s Cantina bar. A space-themed restaurant is also set to open at Epcot later this year. Guests will reach it via an elevator that simulates the journey to a space station, where they will be able to eat in a starry landscape created by advanced imaging technology.

Realistic Robots

Disney’s Avatar-themed area in Orlando features an ultra-expressive animatronic version of the blue Na’vi, the humanlike creatures in the film. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, meanwhile, has  droids and aliens that interact with visitors. One of them, called Dok-Ondar, is programmed with a randomized set of motions that change based on his “mood” and other events throughout the day. Disney’s Imagineering R&D lab has developed “Stuntronics” robots able to make real-time decisions—such as judging distance using laser rangefinders—while flying more than 60 feet in the air to perform tricks, including a somersault. The Imagineers plan to incorporate them into theme-park rides and shows.

Playful Applications

The Play Disney Parks mobile app, introduced last summer, uses Bluetooth technology and location services to keep guests entertained with interactive games while they’re waiting in line. At Peter Pan’s Flight at Disneyland, for example, players can use their phones to make Tinkerbell “appear” inside a lantern. Disney’s new Star Wars areas are fully integrated with the app: Visitors can use their phones to translate a galactic language, learn what’s inside containers stashed throughout the park, and activate special effects.

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