See…and Hear…and Talk to Ya Real Soon – Disney’s Steps into Guest Interaction

Hullo, Gentle Readers. It’ll probably shock no one to hear that I vastly prefer face-to-face interaction to long-distance communication, despite the fact that I write a column on Le Interwebs. I will always prefer the intimacy of a tabletop game of D&D to any MMORPG, and I’d rather talk with someone face-to-face over a Skype chat, or even a phone call.

When it comes to my love of Disney, I’ve been developing a fascination with the ways in which the company has been trying to make everything more interactive. Since I’m planning a trip to Disney World in October with my nephew, I thought I might share some of Disney’s amazing steps into making their characters more interactive with you all.

The Walk-Around Characters

Ever see footage of the opening day of Disneyland? To help celebrate this amazing event, Walt borrowed costumed performers of his own characters from the Ice Capades so that Mickey, Donald, Pinocchio, and others could parade through the streets. Kids could see their favorite Disney cartoons characters seemingly come to life…or maybe not. Those costumes were pretty dang freaky!

Over the years, the costumes have become more refined, and they really do look more and more like living representations of the various characters. Some characters, like the various Princesses, are played simply by actors. These are usually referred to as “Face” characters, since the performer’s real features are showing. The obvious advantage of these characters is that they can interact live with guests. Not only can Cinderella pose for a picture with you, she can ask your name, about your day, give you advice about being a princess, and so on.

These performers do a wonderful job of staying in character. Look on YouTube for footage of a little girl hugging Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother from Cinderella. Lady Tremaine looks horrified and stands stiffly, waiting for it to be over. It’s hilarious. Likewise, during Star Wars Days when Darth Maul showed up, there’s footage of someone offering him a flower. He stares at it a moment, then reaches out and crushes it. Brilliant improvisational acting by the performers!

So the next logical question Disney must’ve started pondering is, “How do we make it so that the classic Disney characters such as Mickey, Donald, and the others could interact in the same way a Face character does? Well, a couple of years ago, they took a big step. They were able to use Disney animatronic technology to animate the features of the masks. Suddenly, during the big stage shows, Mickey would blink, and his mouth and facial expressions would follow the script of what was happening in the show. When he spoke, his mouth would move. It was absolutely amazing!

The next step? Well, following the success of interactive shows like Turtle Talk with Crush (see below), and given that Mickey has a distinctive voice, the next steps would seem to be a character that could not only be animatronically animated but could interact in real time with the guests. Hard to believe? Check out this link and then come back.

Pretty astonishing stuff, isn’t it? Imagine when it becomes the norm for these walk-around characters, and, suddenly, the Mickey you see walking down Main Street USA comes over and starts talking to you. An idea that seemed like utter fantasy not all that far back suddenly seems pretty possible.

Mom? The Turtle Is Talking to Me!

The first piece of this puzzle I can think of is still an amazing attraction. Disney debuted “Turtle Talk with Crush” at Epcot in 2004. Guests enter into a theater located in the Living Seas pavilion. One wall of the theater appeared to have a large window looking out into the ocean. Given that the Living Seas is a huge aquarium full of similar windows, this doesn’t really tax the imagination. Once the guests are seated, the presenter in the theater gets the group to call for Crush, the sea turtle from Finding Nemo. It’s then clear that the “window” is a screen, as an animated Crush swims up and begins to address the “humans in the human tank”.

What is not immediately apparent is that Crush can actually hear and see the people in the audience. He responds to audience questions with both factual information about sea turtles and with dialogue worthy of the movie character’s sense of humor. He addresses specific people in the audience, commenting on what they’re wearing, hair color, and so on, so it’s clear this is not a stock set of responses that someone is pressing a button to voice. These are live performers with quick wits, keen improvisational skills, and a mean Crush voice. The footage is out there if you want to see it.

Similar technology is used in the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, where the audience gets to help Mike Wazowski fill the quota of laughter to power Monstropolis. Audience members can text jokes to the monster stand-up comedians, and the monsters will react live to what’s being said, as well as potentially include those jokes in their acts. It really shows that Disney understands how much their customers enjoy this kind of interaction. It allows guests to become immersed…to not just see a character or a show but to become part of the whole mythology of that character’s world.

We’re All Sorcerer’s Apprentices Now

So with the boundaries between audience and show blurring, what happens next? Well, it’s already happening, really. A few years ago, at Epcot, we got to play a game based on Kim Possible while we walked around Epcot’s World Showcase. When you played, you took the role of a secret agent. You were given a special cel phone that you carried around, and you had to solve puzzles and locate clues in the Epcot country area the game was set in. The cel phone would send us messages from Kim, her sidekick Ron, and their tech and info expert Wade. What made the game unique was that there were elements of it fitting right into the terrain of Epcot…clues in plain sight that then became amazing in the context of the game.

For example, in Germany, the cel phone might activate a wall of singing beer steins that were related to the story. In England, using the cel phone in the typically British phone booth released an actual golf ball, which we then used in the golf ball washer in the nearby sports store to learn a passcode. We then used this passcode to get a special clue that we had to say to the vendors at the tea shop, and so on. It blurred the line, not just between guest and show, but also between scenery and show. Windows, phone booths, and stores became more than they appeared, just like that.

While Kim Possible (who isn’t exactly in the limelight) has given way to Phineas and Ferb, the newest version of this concept has quietly slipped onstage at the Magic Kingdom itself. The new game is called Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and it casts the players (the guests) in the role of heroic wizards, pitting them against all of Disney’s most dastardly villains. The weapons? Collectible cards with spells and statistics on them. Yes, that’s right…it’s Disney, the RPG/CCG.

Merlin recruits new Sorcerers to match spell-talent against Disney villains like Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas, Scar from the Lion King, and Jafar from Aladdin. They’re all under the mastery of Hades, master of the underworld, from Hercules. If Hades wins, he’ll rule the Magic Kingdom. But presumably, we’re not about to let that happen, now are we?

When you’re battling a villain, you use cards that the park provides you with. They’re in sealed packs like a pack of Magic the Gathering, and they each have their own stats. Spells like “Robin Hood’s Magic Arrow” or “Tiana’s Hot Sauce” allow you to cast spells against those nasty villains, hopefully defeating them. There are 8 missions, and, once all 8 missions are completed, players can go after Hades himself. Who needs rides? What’s better than a Disney “movie” where you’re the main character?

I bought a few sealed packs of the cards for my friend Jay as a birthday present, and we’re looking forward to trying the game out when we go down there in October. No doubt I’ll report later.

In Closing…

Disney has always been pretty good about keeping themselves ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering a pretty spectacular show for their guests. With the advent of new technologies, they’re showing that they know what we want by providing unique experiences. No longer are guests at the parks on the outside looking in. We’re slowly becoming part of the show ourselves, and that makes for one exciting ride.

Your Turn

Do you think these new advances are cool or creepy? Have you ever made a personal connection with a Disney character like this? Have you played Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom? Wanna trade cards? Let us all know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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