Is Disney’s Secret Tomorrowland the Future of Entertainment?

The Tomorrowland Exhibit at D23

Over the past weekend, the D23 Expo (think Comic-Con for Disney nerds) hit the Anaheim Convention Center, angering fans and press alike by not announcing any new Disney projects, focusing instead on celebrating the 60th anniversary of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s division dedicated to “bringing the impossible to life.”

What’s funny is that while most people focused on the lack of Avatar, Marvel or Star Wars – related attraction announcements, most everyone missed out on the fact that Walt Disney Imagineering actually debuted a new “attraction” over the weekend – one designed specifically for convention guests.

Built around the upcoming Brad Bird movie Tomorrowland, this secret attraction featured rides, a story where you became the hero and interacted directly with characters and even included a souvenir for those who made it to the end of the ride.

It’s called The Optimist and I had a chance to experience it. Far more thrilling than any roller coaster, this new, albeit temporary, ride, not only hinted at what Disney’s thoughts are about the future of theme parks, but also gave me some great insights and inspiration on how these ideas can be applied to digital entertainment as well.

There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

Like any Disney attraction, The Optimist sets out to tell a story – in this case, the story of Walt Disney himself. Everyone knows Uncle Walt was fascinated by the future and dreamed of using his Disney projects to solve the problems of tomorrow – whether it was incorporating a monorail into the park or dreaming of an experimental city, but what if there was more to Disney’s plans than simple entertainment? What if Walt and his team of Imagineers were not just dreaming of the future, but building it?

And what if they weren’t the only ones working towards a “great big beautiful tomorrow?”

At it’s heart, The Optimist is an alternate-reality game or ARG. Using ARG’s as marketing has been around for a while – games like Halo and shows like Lost (It should be no surprise that Damon Lindelof is involved in the new Tomorrowland movie) have used them in the past, but this is the first time Disney has tried its hand at it – and in doing so, they have invented something entirely new – a completely immersive storytelling experience.

The attraction breaks up into three parts, each part a little more involved.

The 1952 Archive

The Tomorrowland Exhibit at D23

At the most casual level, a Tomorrowland exhibit was available on the D23 Expo floor. It purports to be about the mysterious 1952 box that filmmaker Brad Bird discovered in the Walt Disney archives which serves as the inspiration for the new movie and features an iPad audio tour — which you can download here. There are artifacts and mysterious recordings and photos, all hinting at a Society of Optimists (also called “Plus Ultra”) that has included Jules Verne, Henry Ford, Nicola Tesla, Amelia Earheart and Walt Disney among its members.

Sketches of Audio-Animatronics designed for mining and construction, vague warnings of some future disaster and a blueprints of a mysterious chamber underneath It’s a Small World fill the exhibit, which cleverly spends much of its time trying to convince viewers that any speculation about what it all means would be frivolous.

The Society of Optimists

The next step down the rabbit hole, designed for those willing to devote some time to unlocking these secrets, starts with a mysterious ad for a booth at the Expo called Disney Cartography, run by a man named Wallace. You can find him on Twitter at @DCartography. The ad has a code on it and if you decided to go to Wallace’s booth and tell him the code, he would start talking about Walt’s vision of the future and a message he wants us to discover. At that point, you receive a map with one side showing some unrealized Disney projects (like Ray Bradbury’s Space Pavilion for EPCOT) and on the other, a very stylized map of Disneyland.

With a few additional instructions, you’re off – meeting other “Optimists” and decoding clues around the expo.

Some of these quests wind up being very cool – for instance, at one point, you discover a secret symbol that can only be revealed in black light (which you only discover by seeing the original painting of Disneyland — which actually shows what the park would look like at night under black light). Truthfully, at first I had little interest in wasting my time on a scavenger hunt, but at each point in the experience, mysterious strangers would appear to help out, or an Imagineer (wearing a strange Tomorrowland pin) would come up and take interest in what we were doing. These “characters” made you feel like you were part of something bigger and by the time we discovered our next stop was in Disneyland Park itself, we were basically running over as fast as we could to meet our “agent.”

The Disneyland leg of the experience required working with fellow “Optimists” as the puzzle could not be solved by one map alone. Imagine meeting a random stranger, realizing that we had to go to Esmerelda, the fortune teller on Main Street for our next clue and deciphering from her fortune that we needed somehow to sneak onto the Lily Belle – the custom furnished car Walt created for his wife. Once on board, more clues and mysterious messages led us to another agent, who finally snuck us into the Main Street Cinema.

The Optimist journey ends

With all the clues assembled, our new group of intrepid explorers “activated” the cinema, where the silent films flicked off and an inspiring video message from The Society of Optimists congratulated us for proving our worth — and welcoming us into its ranks as a member. Finally, a small softly-lit wooden platform arose holding the strange Tomorrowland pins we had seen all weekend – one for each of us.

For the hardcore – an online game began six weeks before the expo, taking people to Walt’s favorite haunts around L.A. to discover clues, while helping out a young filmmaker seeking out her grandfather’s past. I didn’t get to take part in this leg of the experience, but there’s a great write-up of it at Inside the Magic.

Building a Better Tomorrowland

I know, I know, a lot of this sounds uber-geeky, but in the moment, the spirit of discovery, adventure and the thrill of meeting new people along the way created a Disney experience like none other. It points towards a new kind of theme park entertainment and a new direction for the entertainment industry as a whole. While Universal has been kicking Mickey Mouse’s butt in recent years with their Harry Potter and Transformers attractions, it seems Disney is moving beyond the 3-4 minute “ride” and developing a new way for guests to live out fantasies and adventures.

They’ve experimented with this format with the Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdom Card Game and Pirate’s Adventure – both interactive scavenger hunts, but The Optimist is the most fully thought out version of this new breed of themed entertainment. Rather than try to win the theme park wars with bigger and faster rides, Walt Disney Imagineering, through The Optimist, announced its intentions to rethink what a theme park can be in the 21st Century.

Building a Better Tomorrowland – Online

What struck me throughout the experience was how much of what Disney was doing, applied to digital entertainment as well. I’ve long argued that digital entertainment is destined to look more like a theme park than a movie theater – with multiple persistent experiences that you share with others and that have varying levels of commitment – and The Optimist covered all these bases in spades.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It’s not just about content, but how you discover the content. The Optimist made use of existing attractions, like the Disney Railroad and The Main Street Cinema, but presented them in new and novel ways. In digital entertainment we often talk about discoverability, but rarely talk about the storytelling behind that discoverability. What is the narrative we want to tell as we move users from one piece of content or platform to another?
  • Casual, Connected, Committed – The Optimist had something for everyone – from the casual browser to the die-hard fan. Unlike TV or film, digital entertainment isn’t something you sit down and watch, it’s something you experience and interact with. To be successful, it needs to be just as rewarding for the person who will look at it for 5 minutes during a coffee break as it is for the person who wants to make it a part of their life. There needs to be doorways between each level that draws users in deeper.
  • Digital Entertainment is Social Entertainment – You could not complete The Optimist without the help of other players. They become characters, as do you, and the experience takes on a life of its own. There’s a reason the most successful folks on YouTube are the ones who create relationships with their audiences. It’s a tricky thing to pull off – nothing is more gimmicky than artificial human interaction. The Optimist succeeded because it kept the interaction authentic and responded to the users.
  • Reward Users – It’s amazing how much emotional value I found myself putting in that weird little Tomorrowland pin once I received it. Having seen WDI Chief Creative Executive Bruce Vaughn wearing one earlier, as well as other Disney luminaries, invested it with real meaning and a sense of belonging. On the internet, everyone loves a badge, but the lesson here isn’t just to give away rewards, but to invest them with emotional meaning.

I’m still thinking more about how to apply these lessons to my own work, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the project or on how digital entertainment can learn from theme park experiences. Also, if you’re a fellow Optimist, I’d love to connect!

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