Disney was an early adopter of VR - and still is. The entertainment giant's IP can be found everywhere; from marketing 360-degree videos, to arcade style games, to free-roam out-of-home experiences. But VR will not hold the key to the future of Disney Parks.
It's important to note Disney has a long history developing virtual reality experiences, namely with DisneyQuest, which opened in 1998 and closed last year. DisneyQuest's bold excution made for an idea before its time. The plans for expansion were unsuccessful and the technology was not yet ready.
The newest area at Disney Parks, named Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, represents a new opportunity to bring cutting-edge immersive technology to the park. Although the headsets, content, and graphics cards are primed for consumer and commercial adoption, head-worn VR will not be the main attraction at a Disney Park.
Inside the parks, Disney has invested in immersive theater for decades from Honey I Shrunk the Audience to Star Tours to the more recent ride at The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Though these attractions vary in concept and design, they are iterations of immersions. The Seas with Nemo & Friends is the closest to a CAVE VR experience, using digital screens placed around the audience to simulate being underwater.
The newest Star Wars-themed pavilions coming to both California and Florida parks have confirmed plans for interactive simulators featuring the Millennium Falcon. Another ride that has yet to be revealed will "make guests feel like they're inside a hangar bay" on a First Order Star Destroyer "built on a scale we've never done before." Disney has yet to confirm further details about the ride but if attendees will be transported into space, immersive tech will be needed, most likely in the form of a CAVE or similar display.
Going forward, Disney will look to update this experience. CAVE technology has held up over time, not aging as significantly as the Aladdin’s Magic Carpet VR experience at DisneyQuest. Content has also been refreshed frequently with Star Tours adding in new chapters to the experience as franchise films are released. This, however, isn't as significant a factor as the number of attendees that can finish the experience within an hour.
Currently, VR takes too long to onboard consumers to an experience. The initial training period is currently longer than Disney can manage, with employees needing to work closely with users to understand not only how the technology works, but what they will experience. This can become even more complicated when catering to international tourists.
Last year, Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger discussed why headsets may take away from the overall experience and feel of the parks.
“What we create is an experience that is real,” Iger said at the University of Southern California in 2017. “When you walk into Cars Land, you feel you’re in Radiator Springs because of what we’ve built—not only the attention to the detail, but the scale.”
Disney has focused on not only immersion but presence, which is why augmented and mixed reality better complement what the entertainment giant has built to date in the parks. How better to immerse visitors in the futuristic world of Star Wars than with holograms and augmented reality?
Head-worn virtual reality may not be in the cards for Disney Park attractions in the near future, but the technology has a long way to go and the door could open again. As standalone HMDs advance in fidelity and experience, headsets could make their way back to the parks. Another factor is consumer experience. Consumer knowledge of VR technology and overall experience will decrease onboarding.
The timeless nature of the Disney Parks experience is owed to the immersion which goes beyond the rides. Disney Parks will never be driven by attractions alone and Disney won't sacrifice their "magic" to incorporate the latest technology.