Immersive technology is making it the most magical time in history to visit a theme park

Technology that disappears.
Technology that disappears.
Image: AP Photo/John Raoux
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When Disney opened its flagship park, Magic Kingdom, back in 1971 in Florida, part of the magic came from eliminating the outside world. It was designed so that park-goers couldn’t see other sections of the park when they travelled through its so-called “lands.”

In Disney’s latest expansion, Pandora—The World of Avatar, which opened in the company’s Florida-based Animal Kingdom park in May, it can be easy to forget that you’re on still Earth—walking beneath a series of floating mountains, riding along the Na’vi River through a bioluminescent forest, and devouring “extra-terrestrial” burgers and green, alien beer.

More more than a mere ride, each element feeds a broader narrative designed to transport park-goers into the alien world of James Cameron’s Avatar—still the top grossing film of all time. It’s one of a number of new and upcoming theme-park experiences around the world that use the latest technology to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.

Disney is following up its Avatar-inspired land with two massive Star Wars-themed lands, slated to open in 2019. Universal Studios’s new water park in Florida, Volcano Bay, is experimenting with a system that eliminates standing in line. And outside of the US, theme-park development is booming in China and other parts of Asia.

“The biggest trend that you’re seeing now and going to see is the ability to blur the lines between reality and fantasy through technology,” Shawn McCoy, vice president of Jack Rouse Associates, a firm that designed theme parks like Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Legoland, tells Quartz.

All this development is making for a very exciting—and expensive—time to travel the world’s amusement parks.

Money from muggles

Pandora is case in point. The rides, the floating mountain system at the heart of the park, and the hundreds of plants displayed throughout, are all custom designed and computer-programmed to create a believably alien world. The two main rides—a river tour through the land’s bioluminescent forest and a virtual-reality experience that takes customers through Pandora on the back of a banshee—bring park-goers further into that environment.

It’s Disney’s answer to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened at the Universal Studios park in Orlando, Florida in 2010 and set a high bar for new themed lands. Before then, entertainment properties like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jaws, and Terminator were usually confined to one or two attractions within a park. But Universal proved that entire lands could be erected around a single property, if done right.

At the Universal Orlando Resort, customers can stroll through the village of Hogsmeade, enjoy a swig of Butterbeer, shop for wands, browse magical storefronts, and walk the halls of Hogwarts, just like in the books and movies. And, after a 2014 expansion, they can ride the Hogwarts Express into the magical town of Diagon Alley.

“When you walk in, we don’t want to think that you’re in a theme park that happens to have a ride based on a movie you love,” said McCoy. “You’re stepping into that world.”

All of these experiences cost a lot of money. Wands are an extra $25 to $50. Butterbeer is $7. That’s on top of the $165+ single-day general-admission ticket, which gets you into both sections of the Harry Potter-themed land. The price of general admission at many major theme parks including some of Disney and Universal’s biggest locations is also on the rise (paywall).

Last year, attendance dipped 1% worldwide at the top 25 theme parks, including many of those run by Disney, according to a report (pdf) by trade group Themed Entertainment Association and the engineering firm AECOM.

Yet, revenue and profits at Universal and Disney parks stayed strong. These new parks are meant to make sure they stay that way. Much like music festivals sell experiences to people who wouldn’t normally pay for music otherwise, so movie studios are selling you the chance to experience these fantasy worlds in person.

Universal’s operating income tied to its parks business grew 43% last year, because more people visited and spent more money at its resorts.

“Prices are rising higher than inflation, but they can say they’re offering a lot more for what they’re charging than in the past,”said John Gerner, a theme-park consultant with Leisure Business Advisors, of companies like Disney and Universal. “And that’s a good argument.”

Pandora, which Disney spent six years and estimated $500 million developing (paywall), will be the next test of whether this robust model of world building can be extended to other entertainment properties. If successful, it could give theme-park operators a new edge.

“You can now totally refresh and reinvent the park so that it’s evergreen, so that it’s always got the latest [intellectual properties] that people like,” Gerner says.

Major theme parks like those run by Disney and Universal usually have five to seven themed areas, he adds. This would allow those operators to replace those sections of the park every few years—giving customers more a reason to come back. “So 20 years later, the entire park is different,” he said, “without having to build an entirely new park, which is a lot more expensive.”

A galaxy far, far away (in Florida)

Next up are the Star Wars-themed lands, which will open in Disneyland in California and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida in 2019. The two 14-acre lands are Disney’s largest single-themed expansions ever. They’ll introduce park-goers to a new planet in the Star Wars universe, and keep the 40-year-old franchise going for years to come. Early concept art and photos from the construction set revealed familiar ships like the Millennium Falcon and famous weaponry like the AT-AT walkers.

More details are expected to be released next month at the D23 Expo, a bi-annual Disney fan event.

Not to be outdone by Disney, Universal Studios opened a new themed water park in Florida this year called Volcano Bay. For this one, Universal created its own lore of the fictional Waturi people, who made their home on the park’s volcanic island. On top of water slides and attractions, the park boasts virtual lines. Instead of physically queuing up, attendees can do so electronically with a wristband that tells them when it’s time to ride.

The system is a work in progress. Park-goers can only wait in one virtual line at a time. Some have complained about having to wait two or more hours without being able to do anything else in the park, which was still under construction when it opened. And others have said there’s an additional 30-minute wait after being called up.

But the possibilities, if Universal can get this right, are intriguing. Imagine never having to stand in line for a ride again. It could bring back some of the magic that gets lost when waiting three hours in the sweltering heat for a two-minute rollercoaster.

New this year is also the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in Europe, which just opened at Ferrari Land in Port Aventura, Spain. Cirque du Soleil is also building a stunning new park in Mexico that’s slated to open in 2018. And theme-park development is booming in Asia.

North America has a handful of theme-park expansions per year. But in Asia, new attractions and expansions are opening in water parks, theme parks, and other entertainment destinations every other month, said Stefan “The Theme Park Guy” Zwanzger, who has visited more than 350 parks around the world. ”When you take Asia as a whole there’s more activity here than anywhere else,” Zwanzger said.

Ticket sales in China are expected to eclipse the US and Japan by 2020, making China the world’s top theme-park market, Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM forecasted. “It’s simply a matter of arithmetic—China’s market is four times the population of the US,” the report said. There’s also a growing middle class there that’s looking for these kinds of experiences.

Disney invested an estimated $5.5 billion in Shanghai Disney, which opened to the public last summer. And it’s expanding of Tokyo Disney for 2020. Universal is also opening a $3.3 billion park (paywall) in Beijing that year. The next great innovations in theme-park design could very well come from the East.