• Anna Whitford

The Most Virtual Place on Earth

In an era where contact is a liability, how does an industry primarily based on in-person experiences redefine itself?

In early 2020, Disney furloughed over half of its workforce, around 100,000, as cases surged (Daniel Slim/AFP).

From practical effects to live actors, themed entertainment has always relied on people. On any given day at a theme park, guests may expect to see greeters in the street, cast members in character, live actors in shows, and parades. Cast members run everything from restaurants to rides to behind-the-scenes operations. At themed restaurants, customer-waitstaff interaction is the core of the experience. Guests are invited into a world unlike their own. They interact with the sights, smells, and sounds to fully immerse themselves in themed entertainment.

Themed entertainment and guests go hand-in-hand; without guests, themed entertainment is nothing.

From local escape rooms to regional museums to national and international theme parks, at the core of the experience is human interaction. Of course, this is why themed entertainment floundered during the pandemic.


But first, what is themed entertainment? Themed entertainment is a general term for any experiential attraction. It encompasses everything from theme parks to museums to smaller-scale entertainment venues. Themed entertainment can come in the form of a stage show or an Egyptian-themed restaurant—or even a Chuck E.Cheese. The glue that binds together all different kinds of themed entertainment is that themed entertainment operates with the goal of immersing guests into a new and exciting world. Music, color, interior design, landscaping, and architecture all come together to create the physical aspects of a good attraction. However, in many attractions guest interaction is also a key component.


Enter, COVID-19. There is no denying that during the COVID-19 pandemic, themed entertainment was hit especially hard. Just look at the overall numbers. Since the pandemic started, Disney has let go over 32,000 employees. And Disney is one of the bigger players in the theme park industry with diversified revenue streams. In contrast, local themed entertainment venues may never open their doors again as small businesses have been heavily hit by the pandemic.

It's logical that an industry primarily based on in-person experiences will be negatively impacted by an event that limits in-person interaction. Consider escape rooms, which put groups of people in a small room and ask guests to solve puzzles in order to “escape” the room. Themed restaurants or dinner shows require strangers to eat in a room together. Amusement parks require people to meander along in large crowds. Each of these is an example of why themed entertainment isn’t a COVID-19 compatible activity.

But while it’s obvious that theme parks aren't exactly doing well, the better question is how are they adapting? How does an industry primarily based on in-person experiences redefine itself?

Themed entertainment and digitalization have long had a complicated relationship. Sure, digital elements have been used in theme parks. For example, simulators are a common attraction in many theme parks. Yet, the industry is hesitant to go entirely digital. Theme park attractions often use practical effects. For instance, Walt Disney World’s Mickey's Philharmagic and The National WWII Museum Beyond All Boundaries both employ animatronics, smells, smoke, and surround-sound to create environments far more immersive than a typical theatre.


National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey is another attraction that relies mostly on digital media. This attraction is an immersive museum that takes guests through the seas of the world entirely utilizing screens and projection mapping, letting guests swim with schools of fish and stand next to a humpback whale. However, the attraction still employs practical effects like robotic sea plants, temperature control, and music to fully transport guests into the ocean.

Even before COVID-19, National Geographic's Ocean Odyssey relied almost entirely on digital media (Viator).

Now, themed entertainment is facing a major problem: how do they create pandemic-safe experiences? One way is to cut down on human contact. Since its reopening, Walt Disney World has relied on virtual queuing and food ordering. Using the MyDisney app, guests can “line up” for an attraction and simply arrive at a designated time. Similarly, they can order food ahead of time and pick it up as take-out dining. These are simple ways to decrease contact.

But, as many guests have brought up: if theme parks aren’t operating as usual, why go?

Another way to limit exposure to the virus is to have minimal or no contact. Haunted houses are a staple of the Halloween season, yet with COVID-19, they were not safe to operate. Scream n’ Stream rose to the occasion as an entirely drive-through haunted house. Scream n’ Stream used both live actors and props, but because guests were kept far enough away from actors, the activity was pandemic safe. Similarly, virtual escape rooms have become more popular during the pandemic. Virtual escape rooms use a program like Zoom to put participants “in” the room, while only one staff member is actually in the room.

A final way is to go entirely digital. AR and VR have existed for several years now, and better yet both are becoming more affordable. VR games like No Man's Sky and Half-Life: Alyx have shown that creating an entirely digital immersive world is possible. While themed entertainment hasn’t quite caught on yet, games like National Geographics’ Explore use Oculus Rift to transport users into a themed world of adventure, allowing users to hike, kayak, and ice pick their way through the wilderness.

The AR and VR markets surged during COVID-19, bolstered by big name support like Facebook (David Morris/Getty).

With many (functional) alternatives to traditional themed entertainment, we now start to ponder what the future will look like. Will Oculus Rift truly replace traditional entertainment?


In short, probably not.


It’s easy to say that the era of traditional magic is gone and that Oculus has come as the theme park killer. However, this is not actually true. While digital experiences are becoming more common in theme parks, from simulators to virtual queuing, they will likely never replace themed entertainment experiences.

Workers in the industry say that theme parks rely on suspension of disbelief. The act of entering a theme park or themed entertainment establishment removes the user from the outside world and transports them into a new world.

While this may be achieved with drive-thru haunted houses, it is harder to achieve in a virtual escape room, and it is even harder to achieve with an Oculus Rift. As technology becomes better, so will the possibility to create newer, better, and more immersive experiences, but the core of themed entertainment remains the interaction between humans and the environment around them. Until this interaction is perfectly replicable in the digital space, themed entertainment is here to stay in the physical plane.


Cover: Disneyland Resort Rev.

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