"At Disneyland, a jungle must have a jungle landscape. The Rivers of America must be banked by trees which are indigenous to American rivers. And a Living Desert must, in truth, appear as a living desert.”
-Walt Disney, quoted in Jim Korkis, Walt's Words: Quotations of Walt Disney with Sources. Theme Park Press
The Orlando Sentinel reported recently that Disney CEO Bob Iger has “no interest in having theme park visitors strap on virtual reality headsets that block out their view and place them inside a digital world.” Instead of jumping on the virtual reality bandwagon with other parks such as Knott’s Berry Farm, Sea World, and Six Flags, Disney will limit its use of VR devices on attractions to blending the virtual and the real.
Call me old-fashioned, but this seems like a no-brainer. I’m still amazed at the number of guests who spend virtually every minute (no pun intended) of their time visiting a Disney park staring at their smartphones, but at least they maintain some semblance of a connection with the sights, sounds, and other people around them. Many times, I’m sorry to say, it’s dad who is focused on his iPhone and ignoring the kids who are trying to get his attention as they take it all in.
As sad as that is, paying a premium price to enter a park and then donning a VR device to intentionally block out—for even part of the time--every aspect of the real place would be even more of a waste. From the start, visiting the Disney parks has been described as a great way to temporarily leave the real world behind. (Think, for example, of the medallion sign at the train station as you enter the Magic Kingdom: “HERE YOU LEAVE TODAY AND ENTER THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, TOMORROW, AND FANTASY.”) VR could provide a way to temporarily escape the “happiest place on earth,” which you have just entered in order to get away from the real world in the first place? I don’t get it.
It would also defeat what, for many guests, is the primary purpose of visiting the parks: getting to reconnect and enjoy time together with family and friends. Most of us spend enough time fighting the isolationism of email, social media, and other screen time when we’re not on vacation. The parks are (or at least can be) a space where we can enjoy one another’s presence without keeping one eye and half a brain focused on our phones.
Iger is quoted in the Sentinel article as saying, “What we create is an experience that is real […] When you walk into Cars Land, you feel you’re in Radiator Springs because of what we’ve built — not only the attention to the detail, but the scale.” His point, I think, is that Disney Imagineers don’t have to resort to VR in order to transport guests into an alternate reality. Instead, their tools and techniques are more challenging to use but also more effective in making us feel like we are really “there.” This reminded me of the first time we saw the Transformers. Throughout, I couldn’t help being distracted by the over-reliance on CGI for every effect, to the point that the whole movie seemed like a cop-out. As Walt said in a 1964 interview for LOOK magazine, “Novelty wears off quick if you don’t have a good story” (Jim Korkis, Walt’s Words).
I’m glad to hear that at least for now, Disney will resist the urge to substitute spectacle for story and buck the trend to use VR as the tool of choice for creating immersive in-park experiences. Like the ban on selfie-sticks, it will discourage guests from settling for a lesser experience that—whichever side of the screen you’re on—is a poor substitute for actually being there in body and mind. Do you agree with Iger's directive, or should Disney go the route of other parks when it comes to VR? Share your thoughts in the Comment section below.