Archive | January, 2014

The Source of Magic at IOA’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

14 Jan

Singing into the wind. Bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. That is the sense of futility I feel when it comes to sharing something insightful that hasn’t already been said about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The entire production is an unqualified success from the Butterbeer to Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans; from the Forbidden Journey to Filch’s Emporium. It’s a feast for the senses worthy of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and cannot fail to delight even the most studious and persnickety of fans.

As much as I gaped, marveled, delighted, and thrilled at everything I was experiencing, there was one detail, which I keep coming back to that crystallizes the strong sensibilities at work here. After having made my way through Hogsmeade a few times, I kept noticing a building with a modest line outside of it. I’m sure with a bit of investigation, or perusing the park map, or asking a cast member, I could have figured out what it was, but I did none of these things, and decided to just allow myself to be surprised. About every ten minutes or so, the doors to the adjoining building would open, about 30 guests would be allowed in, and the doors would close again. Curiosity piqued.

When it was my turn to enter, I found myself in a dark room with walls lined from floor to very tall ceilings with shelves crammed with narrow, rectangular boxes. As I soon discovered, I was in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. A young guest was selected, and the rest of the audience was entertained with ten minutes of immersive theatre. The guest is placed into the position of a young wizard choosing a wand (or being chosen by a wand) and experiencing the necessary trial and error that ensues during the selection process. As we observe, wand/wizard mismatches can have chaotic consequences, and the show is punctuated by tasteful special effects that occur throughout the room. Before long, wand and wizard are well-met, and the guests are ushered into the “real” Ollivander’s where they sell real items in exchange for real money.

So why is it that in a land that features one of the most technologically sophisticated attractions on the planet, an exquisitely themed restaurant complete with a bar that sells real alcohol, and an infinity of detailed exteriors and interiors, I was so taken by this bit at Ollivander’s? The answer is simple. The decision to showcase this particular component of the Harry Potter mythology demonstrates a true respect and understanding for the material and why it resonates with our culture.

Imagine the blank sheet of paper. Now imagine the task of selecting from among the thousands of pages and dozens of hours that comprise the seven, often massive, volumes and eight epic films of the Harry Potter series. At the very least, it’s an awesome undertaking to distill that into a handful of experiences to unify in a themed environment.  However, at the heart of all those pages and frames and at the soul of that phenomenon is the universe of answers suggested by a simple articulation and the question it raises, “The world is a magical place, but what if I could learn to control it?” It’s no accident that Harry Potter takes place in modern-day England and not on another planet, or in the distant past, or a parallel universe. The allure of Harry Potter is the not-so-childlike hope that maybe this could be real. As we live vicariously through the young heroes (and villains) of the story, their entry point into this world that we desire is Ollivander’s. More so than Platform 9 3/4, Ollivander’s is where desire meets destiny, and the realization of one’s dream becomes personal. Selecting this vignette shows tremendous insight and sensitivity to what really matters in this epic story.

However, the execution is equally stunning. It’s a very low-profile attraction, and it’s easy to miss. You can easily enter the real store through an alternate entrance and be none the wiser of what’s happening in the adjoining room. This deliberate understatement in an environment of overload is a very tasteful design decision, and makes the experience feel even more special. Granted, it is somewhat of a holy grail to deliver guests a personalized, intimate experience in theme parks, but the sheer numbers of guests often make this an impractical goal, and tends to be at odds with another hallmark of theme park design: consistency. This makes the choice to use the modality of immersive theatre even more daring. Attractions have been breaking the 4th wall for generations as a technique to kickstart an immersive experience. From the Ghost Host and the talking skull to Indy and Evac, we have been personally invited to enter the story instead of just watch from afar. However, beloved as those characters are, they’re still a step removed from us, no matter how amazing the technology gets. Quite literally bringing Ollivander’s to life creates an impact that is not soon forgotten even if you are not the chosen one (and chances are, at my age, it’s gonna have to be a pretty slow day.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the techniques used at Ollivander’s are unique in the theme park world. The hundreds of cast members at any major park provide a unique and constant presence in myriad interactions that is easily taken for granted, but in fact lies at the core of seamless immersive experiences. However, there is nevertheless a harmony of theme, execution, and restraint at Ollivander’s that is uniquely transcendent, noteworthy, and inspiring. Pure magic.

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Test Track 2.0 = Attractions 2.0

7 Jan

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m really just not into cars that much. Sure, I went through my pre-adolescent fixations with Hot Wheels and The Blue Flame, but as I got older, I grew to see a car as just another option that could get me from point A to point G. That said, I’m not completely immune to their charms; I could probably recite a full traffic school curriculum on account of an inexplicable magnetism for speeding tickets. However, even in a lottery fantasy scenario, a fancy car would still rate pretty low on the list.

Maybe it’s just real cars that I don’t like

Finding myself at Epcot, the day before IAAPA (which is another story entirely,) I surveyed my options and approached Test Track with an academic indifference, knowing that I would ultimately try to experience everything the park had to offer. I understood that the show had been redesigned within the past year, but I had not experienced its previous incarnation, so I really had no idea what to expect.

The first thing that got my attention was that the queue temporarily deposits you into a room filled with touchscreen kiosks. I picked up an RFID card, tagged into the kiosk, and found myself designing a car by balancing four fundamental characteristics: Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power. OK, design is a bit of an exaggeration; from a technical standpoint, it’s more of a sophisticated menu system that allows you to select from a number of pre-designed models based on your personal preferences. Still, this type of interactivity was a first for me in a queue.

Sammy approves of Test Track

Before boarding the ride itself, I tagged my RFID card and “uploaded” my designed vehicle into the ride vehicle. The narrative of the ride is that you are testing your vehicle on a specialized track. Each phase of the ride tests a different characteristic, and features a monitor that ranks the uploaded vehicles, which makes the experience feel very personalized in an unexpected way. The ride itself was beautifully designed with a streamlined aesthetic that felt convincingly contemporary and even a bit futuristic, which is no small feat in the context of the dynamic technological wonderland of daily life. The Power test is essentially a speed trial that hits a speed of 65 MPH, making Test Track one of the fastest rides in the Disney universe. As the vehicle approached the unloading area, I thought the ride had a little bit of everything including high-speed thrills, and I felt pleasantly surprised, wondering what I would ride next. Little did I suspect that the experience was far from over.

Not a popular option in the 9-13 demographic

As I exited the vehicle, the first thing I noticed was that the younger riders, especially the boys, were FREAKING OUT! In a good way! Kids were tugging at their parents, begging to ride again before their feet had even hit the platform, and by the look on the parents’ faces, I could tell that this was not the first such request of the day. Boys were swaggering about how their car dominated the Power test (although low marks on the Efficiency test were conveniently ignored.) There was a buzz of infectious and uplifting energy that felt very special. Test Track is not a superlative thrill ride, doesn’t feature any fictional characters, and is not necessarily an icon of themed design, but these young riders showed a level of pride, ownership, and excitement that would be a high point in any designer’s career. I sought the exit so that I could get back in line and check it out again, but that turned out to be not as easy as I would have expected.

Play at your own risk

The first post-show area features a giant screen where I tagged my RFID card and saw my vehicle’s aggregate score compared to those of the other riders around me, along with a Daily Best. I noted with some disappointment that I was about 15 points shy of the Daily Best. The irrationally competitive side of me that mercilessly crushes anonymous opponents in in-flight, seat-embedded trivia games wanted the most Efficient, Capable, Powerful, Responsive car in all of Epcot on that November day. It had to be buried somewhere in that design kiosk and I was going to find it! I continued toward the exit with renewed intent.

And entered another room with touchscreen kiosks that I almost blew right past, but it was early in the day and I couldn’t resist those screens. At these kiosks, I designed a commercial by mashing up a narrator, music style, setting, and vehicle attribute into a short animation featuring my car, which I emailed straight from the kiosk. Mine was a cowboy talking about how powerful my car was while jumping around on the moon with a disco soundtrack. It was so much fun, I did it twice before heading toward the exit.

And found myself in yet another area with even more kiosks that allowed me to customize the look and performance of my car to a much greater degree than the queue kiosks. I fell into another rabbit hole doing this for a while, uploaded my design to my card, and brought it to another interface where I uploaded it to a virtual simulator and drove it around a video track. At this point, I started to realize that there was a possibility that I might spend all day at Test Track and I hadn’t even set foot inside the World Showcase yet.

Weird

I segued into another area that was essentially a giant showroom for Chevrolet, the sponsor of the ride. I spent the least amount of time here since, you know, I’m not a car guy. However, I couldn’t help noticing that people were actually stopping to take pictures in front of the cars and check them out. Personal preferences aside, GM is a perfectly capable industry leader when it comes to making automobiles. However, GM cars do not have the fantasy appeal of  Ferrari or Porsche or Lamborghini, but at this point in the experience, I was starting to feel pretty good about Chevy. Corporate sponsorship of attractions goes all the way back to Walt, but I cannot remember a more symbiotic and positive example. Finally, after all this, the exit through retail felt gentle and inoffensive instead of the harsh return to semi-reality that it can sometimes be.

Leaked concept art for Test Track 3.0

To my surprise, not only did I like Test Track, but I loved it, and my enthusiasm extended above and beyond the ride itself. While many attractions provide a “best-case scenario” approach to the decidedly mundane and obligatory aspects of waiting in line and exiting, Test Track engages and involves you at every turn. From an experience design standpoint, there is not a single wasted opportunity to entertain and delight the guest. In fact, the ride itself is less of an inflection point in a humdrum routine, and feels like one of the many components of the overall experience, albeit one that is markedly visceral.

In the past year, I had the privilege of experiencing some of the most outstanding attractions in the themed entertainment world, including mind-blowing experiences at Universal Studios Hollywood, Islands of Adventure, and Cars Land at DCA. While those parks feature unforgettable, world-class, game-changing achievements, there is something about Test Track that announces the true future potential of experience design. I am a strong believer in the potential of interactive technology to take immersive experiences to a new level, but as designers, we must always be mindful of not letting the tail wag the dog. In my opinion, Test Track not only strikes a harmonious balance between technological innovation and thoughtful storytelling, but does so in a bold and fearless fashion that has truly raised the bar for the industry.

I never did figure out how to design the best car of the day, but my happy memory of the experience made me start counting the days until my own kids will be old enough to ride it with me and take a crack at it.

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