When I was a kid, the Cedar Point theme park had a dark ride entitled Earthquake, loosely based on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Guests would sit in a Model-T and be guided through quaint early 20th century scenes of San Francisco before the buildings would start to sway back and forth. As you got deeper into the ride, the buildings shook more and more violently with pieces almost collapsing on your car. You’d hear people screaming in panic, and the flickering of implied flames highlighted the near-apocalyptic nature of the event.
Having been created in 1960 for another theme park and brought to Cedar Point in 1965, it had all the hallmarks and limitations of 1950s technology. The ride was shuttered in 1984 for a variety of reasons, one of which being that kids were seeing more believable animatronics in places like Chuck E. Cheese’s and found the Earthquake ride stale and comparatively dull.
Theme parks have increasingly been steering away from the dark ride format. Partly due to improved technologies that provide more immersive experiences, and partly because vandalism has always been something of an issue with those dark rides anyway.
But what’s of interest here is that increasing desire to have more immersive experiences. The Earthquake ride was intended to give audiences of the 1960s a more visceral sense of what that experience would have been like. Likewise, the more contemporary Soarin’ ride at some of the Disney theme parks is intended to give modern audiences a more direct sense of flying.
But the stakes have been getting raised more and more. Now, for example, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida is designed to immerse the individual in the entire world. While it still has rides and shops and cafes, just like any other theme park, they have been crafted to more seamlessly blend together to give the impression that you have stepped into another world. (Or, if you’re more cynical, at least a movie set.) As is more typical now, even the specific rides have themed, in-queue entertainment to make the entire experience more comprehensive.
At Star Wars Celebration recently, they provided a few more details on the upcoming Star Wars Land experience, and by all accounts, it is being completed designed with this total immersion thinking in mind. It is being created as if visitors have stepped into a remote trading outpost in the Star Wars universe.
I think we can expect to see more of this type of thing in the coming decade or two. With consumers more interested in experiences instead of goods, and fandom fueling a large portion of entertainment itself, it stands to reason that property owners will see opportunities in giving fans the “ultimate” experience of stepping into their favorite fictional world. We’ve increasingly seen creators become more serious about “world-building” in their fictions, and this is essentially the high-scale commercialization of that. Will we see this happen with all our favorite characters and places? Not likely, but certainly we’ll be seeing more of this with the more popular (i.e. money-making) ones.