Niles: Are Disney and Universal making a big mistake with their new rides?

Disney and Universal might be missing the mark in their attempts to create rides that fans want to experience again and again.

Game-based attractions seem like they would be natural candidates to entice repeat visits. Since every trip on a shooter ride provides a different experience, parks have ordered countless such dark rides over the past two decades.

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But whether the attraction requires you to play with a toy gun, some other device or just by waving your hands, many theme park visitors have grown tired of shooter rides. Disneyland fans responded with a collective yawn when Disney California Adventure opened the interactive Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure ride last year, for example.

“What happened to the days when you could just enjoy an experience without having to ‘shoot’ at something?,” one reader responded when I recently wrote on about interactive attractions.

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I asked my website readers what element on theme park rides most makes them want to ride an attraction again. “Overwhelming detail” was the overwhelming winner, followed by physical sensations. Beloved themes, variable elements and short waits trailed, with interactive elements coming in last, chosen by just 1% of respondents.

And yet, major theme parks continue to announce new shooter rides, with the latest being Universal Studios Florida’s Villain-Con Minion Blast. Opening next summer, it’s going to be yet another screen-based shooter ride, except with visitors playing from a moving walkway rather than sitting in dark-ride vehicles.

Ultimately, as Disney’s Imagineers and other theme park designers are so fond of saying, storytelling drives theme park experiences. Yet too often, fans have been disappointed by the prospect of scoring points on a theme park ride when that game play ends up being a gimmick that distracts them from what should be a more complete experience.

Well-designed interactivity can advance a story rather than standing it its way. Universal’s Great Movie Escape, which opened just weeks ago in Orlando, provides a perfect example. Billed as escape rooms, these “Jurassic World” and “Back to the Future”-themed one-hour adventures are puzzle-driven attractions that deliver the group-based problem-solving experience that make modern video games compelling for so many players. And you don’t have to shoot a thing.

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The concept does not scale, unfortunately. Doing the math based on what I heard from a Universal official, Universal Orlando’s sort-of-escape-rooms can accommodate no more than about 64 guests per hour. With such low capacity, Universal’s Great Movie Escape can exist only as a premium-priced upcharge attraction. But it remains an inspiration for what larger attraction one day might include.

There are no shortcuts to excellence. While shooter rides such as Buzz Lightyear once won fans as something new, that novelty has worn off. Great attractions continue to need the complete package — immersive detail, compelling characters, physical activity and an engaging story — to beat the test of time and become a classic that will keep people coming back to the park.

Anything less just doesn’t score.


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