I’m no Harry Potter fanatic. But I understand that zillions of others—including my wife, my 15-year-old daughter, and my 13-year-old son—are transported by the work of J. K. Rowling. When the Gordon family recently visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (at Universal Studios), I didn’t bring Harry Potter and the Goblet of Franchising Revenue. Instead, I schlepped to Florida Aharon Appelfeld’s peerless novel of a slowly Nazified resort town, Badenheim 1939. Was I registering a slight protest by carrying a decidedly non-Rowling-based text? Could be. Mea culpa. In any case, I can say that Badenheim 1939 is well worth reading, and proved a real tonic to the lighter resort-based family fun.
The trip didn’t alter my old-school literary tastes, but the Wizarding World, and the surrounding Universal Studios environs, did provide me with some thoughts on the evolving nature of travel. Join me on this journey through a series of amusement park insights…
The prevailing trend, at Universal Studios, are rides that simulate a thrilling experience. This is chiefly done by putting riders in a “chase” situation. The thrill ride experience is something quite apart from the normal modes of travel: business and pleasure. It does not merely seek to get us to a place in a certain time or with a certain level of comfort. Instead, it pushes us to the seeming precipice of danger, then yanks us back to seeming safety. We get chased by Dementors. We face a 400-foot drop in The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man® ride. We careen off the rails of a virtual Krustyland rollercoaster. The car shakes. The dragon breathes warm fire at us. We seem nearly to flip upside down and then get spritzed by water, upon splashing into the ocean. It’s the commercialized version of the hero’s journey, in which the spectator is run through a simulated Scylla and Charybdis.
Not everyone is prepared for thrill mode. I don’t naturally seek it out, though my son does—and in our family, I became his default companion. What I learned, after going on one adventure after another, is the necessity of adopting the thrill mode mindset.
There’s much that can be done with that mindset. I realized, from my Universal Studios experience, that we’ve only begun to explore what recreational transportation might be. The idea of creating entertaining travel simulations, through various technological and psychological sleights of hand, is intriguing. Companies are now creating products to bring the thrill mode into one’s home. Will it be possible, one day, to create “rides” using, say, connected Lay-Z-Boy chairs and projection computing and high-end stereos in the super home theater of the future? Could we go on a Universal Studios-style adventure without ever leaving our living rooms? I can easily imagine it.
Travel Isn’t Always Physical
If you take the train from Diagon Alley to Hogsmead, at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you take two trips. The first one, the physical one, is a short rail ride. The second one, the fictional one, the one you see and hear and feel, is the one that matters. On this trip, you’re ushered into a train compartment just like ones in the Harry Potter movies (luggage racks with nets above; frosted glass on the doors), and are then shown, via projection computing, scenery out the window—There’s Hagrid! Look Harry and Ron are flying around in a car! I see Hogwarts!—while the doors of the carriage reveal the shadows of Potter characters (“Looks like a bunch of First Years!”) and an escaped chocolate spider creeps along the glass. Have I mentioned the sweeping soundtrack that makes us feel like we’re in our own movie?
It’s somewhat disconcerting to move through real space while being only able to perceive a fictional journey. But this feels like our Virtual Reality future. I can see, say, airlines using VR to give passengers a chance to escape being bound into their chairs for lengthy flights. And while we’re all upset about the recent self-driving car fatality, and the people in the autonomous vehicle business have paused, this won’t last forever. In fact, as they consider making their cars safer, they’re likely also thinking about giving passengers the option of “going elsewhere” when they go on the road. Makes me recall the time Continuum, the innovation design firm I work for, was introduced to music spatialization, which used VR to beam people into a strange musical environment that one navigated by looking around via glances—“looktivation” and “looktiportation.”
We’re talking, of course, about non-spatial trips. These virtual journeys do seem, in fact, like a drug. Is it far-fetched to suggest that this kind of thing might be used to, say, relieve suffering in a clinical context? I don’t think so. Some are already looking into VR’s healthcare applications.
Redesigning the Line
You wait—a lot—at Universal Studios. There is, of course, the Official Universal Orlando Resort™ App, which my son constantly checked to assess wait times, but we still sat in innumerable slow lines.
Of course, line frustration has a function: it enhances people’s sense of relief and gratitude when they finally board the ride. At one point in amusement park history, thrill seekers were completely enchanted with, say, the futuristic corridors of Space Mountain, which made it feel like they were really pilots descending into the guts of some futuristic vehicle. Nowadays, few amusement park visitors are entirely satisfied by staring at the décor on a barely moving line (though, to be fair, Universal Studios did a good job designing the corridors of Hogwarts, with their living portrait paintings, and the Daily Planet newsroom, featuring half-eaten food, rotary phones, and even the odd typewriter).
The thing to keep in mind: Universal Studios owns some great IP, and because of that, those annoying, snaking lines were a different kind of experience. In fact, the Simpsons ride and the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon both featured multiple monitors that ran clips from each show. We laughed, out loud, watching these clips, and they really put us in the appropriate mood.
The rides that offered relevant, high-quality videos provided us the most enjoyable waiting experiences (this is to be contrasted with the annoying Universal Studios infomercial which played on the shuttle bus and then was the default program on the hotel room TV). Properly curated video can accomplish two important things. One: by giving those in line some worthwhile distraction, it can override the physical frustrations of standing around waiting. Two: if the video is properly aligned to the theme of the upcoming experience (the Simpsons clips, for instance, were theme-parked themed), it can mentally prepare us for the ride ahead.
Marrying Narration to Experience Design
Which brings us to the importance of narration. What I saw at the Wizarding World suggested that, in the future, experience and narration are going to merge. Right now, you have to know the Harry Potter books and films before you can have the experience, but this is still a kind of 20th Century thinking. Disneyland thinking. One day, crazy experiential rides may well become part of the creative process for authors and publishing houses. Perhaps they will start prototyping with VR apps and then, if there is (or could be) sufficient consumer interest, build out the full-fledged simulators.
Who can say where this will go. Will the marriage of narration and thrill ride become a single, multi-layered experience? Will it be a Total Recall sort of deal? Who knows. What’s certain is that there’s a ton of investment here.
The real trick, of course, is to match superior storytelling and superb experience design. Such a pairing is much easier to imagine than to execute—and not every book can, or should, become a ride (please leave Badenheim 1939 alone!). But the rides that are grounded in compelling stories, and the ones that are carefully designed with the rider in mind, have a great shot at being truly thrilling.