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Disney and the New Digital Theme Parks

The Virtual Travis Scott Concert in Fortnite

These days I’m sitting at home thinking about jetting off to Florida and entering the fantasy land of Disney World. We could walk around meeting the characters in Toy Story, travel to the past, or visit countries from around the world. Of course, these experiences are not the real thing but theme park adaptions of them. While we can’t have the real-world experiences of Disney World, there’s a new, and in some ways better, version of theme parks that I can experience at home.

Disney may be the greatest media company of all time, with movies, television, music, retail, and theme parks. It combines these businesses seamlessly so a little girl will fall in love with the movie Frozen, buy an Elsa dress for Halloween, and demand to be taken to Disney World for Christmas to ride the Frozen ride and meet Elsa and Anna.

Disney has always presented the image of mom and apple pie, a throwback to an older, simpler time, where technology was quaint, like brand-new shoes on your horse. But they’ve been at the forefront of technological innovation. Look the way Disney combines technology to open the Magic Kingdom each morning. When Mickey comes off the train, a woman in a costume runs around to words that are piped through a speaker using the sound of Mickey’s voice based on Disney movies.

Movies have always been a technology business. They’re a window into another world. There’s a (probably fictional) story of one of the first movies. People watching an early Lumiére Brothers movie of a train arriving, only to have the audience members run away, fearing for their lives. In the earliest days of Disney pictures, the company combined movies and animation to deliver delightful experiences, like in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland from 1923.

Technology moved the media industry forward in 1955 with the opening of Disneyland. As we moved from movies to theme parks we could interact with these imaginary worlds. Here’s how Disney sees this experience.

Disneyland is an experience involving many moving parts in harmony, like an orchestra. Everything has to be tuned. What you hear, what you smell, what you see, how you see it, the speed at which you assimilate, all of that. Just like a film. It’s choreographed, but how do you choreograph that if you don’t control the camera because the camera is you. It’s you when you come to Disneyland.

An Original Disney Imagineer in Disney’s The Imagineering Story

Online games like Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite offer an even more immersive experience. If you don’t think that theme parks are similar to video games, take a look at their business models. In an interview with the website Stratechery [paywalled], Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who specializes in digital media, talked about how theme parks are microtransactions businesses. It’s less about the theme park admission, and more about all of the little things like buying a Monster’s Inc t-shirt, a Fast Pass, or a themed lunch. When you look at it that way, the parks look more like a freemium iPhone game than a movie studio.

But online games offer so much more than physical theme parks.

They are always “open”, “everywhere”, “full of your friends”, and impervious to COVID-19. These games also boast an even larger (i.e. infinite) number of attractions and rides, none of which need be bound by the laws of physics or the need for physical safety, and all of which can be rapidly updated and personalized. These digital parks also allow for much greater self-expression (e.g. avatars, skins).

Digital Theme Park Platforms: The Most Important Media Businesses of the Future by Matthew Ball

It also empowers kids to do things themself. Look at what my son Blake can do in Fortnite:

I was able to throw a “Fashion Show” the other week. The way to win a Fashion Show is to have really cool stuff that you’ve collected over the years and also to know what I like. The winner of that fashion show was my friend who could breakdance, a move he collected a couple of years ago. As a prize, I bought him a new costume. It was really cool to be able to host my own party for my 10-year-old friends and give out prizes without leaving my house. My dad couldn’t do that when he was my age.

Blake Schlaff on Fortnite Friendships

We are entering a Brave New (and Exciting!) World where people will have access to the ultimate theme park everywhere and any time. People can engage with their favorite characters in totally new ways. Fortnite engaged millions of players with their Travis Scott concert and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” sneak preview. Not only did they watch the media they got to interact with it, flying through the Travis Scott concert and fighting with Star Wars lightsabers. While they’re not a replacement for the in-person experience, they offer a host of coronavirus friendly entertainment. Also, in the future, I can’t wait to see how these worlds become increasingly more integrated.