Walkabout Mini Golf ShangriLa

What Virtual Worlds Can Learn from Theme Parks (and Why Brands Should Care)

By Don Carson, Senior Art Director at Mighty Coconut
Guest Opinion Article

If you have a sense that virtual reality is having a moment, there is good reason. With 10 million Oculus headsets sold (1) and brands from Disney to Nike to indie creators looking to get in on the action (2), the VR trend is catching the attention of boardrooms and creative shops alike. But not everyone is so certain. As companies weigh their options, there’s something about experience design to be learned.

Each new technological leap can feel like a threat to an old way of doing business. In the mid-1990’s the emergence of 3D video games caused the theme park industry (and the intellectual property owners they represent) to worry that as games became more visually immersive that their park visitors might choose these digital worlds over visiting their physical parks. Their initial knee-jerk response was to offer new attractions that include more game interactions like scoring and “things to shoot at”. It was later realized that what theme parks offer is unique and that people crave to physically be together.

Now we have virtual reality or the “metaverse” and physical place-makers are drawing a line in the sand (3) as if there are sides to be taken, whether you are for or against the existence of virtual world-building. Elon Musk has recently mocked the idea of the “metaverse” while AMC Theaters is preparing to outfit their spaces with virtual reality equipment (4). In reality, VR isn’t here to replace the physical world, rather it offers a new platform for expressing the same principles we use in theme park, game, architecture, and theatrical design. Where AR/VR fits into our lives has yet to be figured out but we do have some glimpses into what that might look like.

What we’re discovering is that the combination of lovely settings and simple game mechanics that anyone can master moments after logging into a game suggests the true potential of VR in our lives: intuitiveness, comfort, and placemaking. As the content available for VR headsets grows we are starting to see games like Walkabout Mini Golf, and Demeo offer not only gameplay but a themed context for their players to interact with each other. In the case of Walkabout Mini Golf, the Twitter buzz for this game is as much about how remote family members are reconnecting despite the years and distance between them. The fact that what initially brought these people together was something as simple as a round of golf.

While we watch this mad rush as industries do their best to own what the metaverse will and will not become, the simple conclusion is that it has the potential to bring us together within a context, whether it is a game, film, or just hanging out. The design principles used to create story-driven theme park experiences apply here as well. Again, giving us a place to be that includes rich visuals and activities to do together all within a narrative that we can participate in is what is so compelling to people of all experiences. A relevant example is our just-announced partnership with The Jim Henson Company to create a 36-hole virtual course based on the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth where fans can gather and express themselves. Never before have they been able to inhabit this beloved realm.

Now, IP owners without the desire or the funds to construct and operate a physical destination have the opportunity to transport their audience into the worlds they wish to create, and as with a successful theme park attraction, these experiences are less about the games they might play there but represent a rich backdrop for people to meet and interact within.

While one can understand being so averse to staking a claim to a branded physical attraction, where the costs and risks are so high from the outset and ongoing, the reasons for licensors with engaged audiences to carve out a place in the virtual world for their fans to gather, connect, and create memories around their IPs are plentiful. The investment is relatively low and the possibilities are truly endless.

Whether there is a place in theme parks—and other physical entertainment destinations—for VR, I would say not yet. But that doesn’t mean virtual experiences shouldn’t be part of the continuum of their relationship to the brand. The themed entertainment industry knows so much about how to bring people together within stories that can be crafted through the design of the environments they will inhabit. VR can learn from these luminaries and vice versa. And IP owners have a rich soil to plant new experiences within, at a price point well below that of a physical destination and with the potential of reaching a global audience. As for theme parks, they still offer something VR cannot, and that is a shared experience physically with others. Still, leveraging the design techniques found in theme parks could greatly enhance how virtual places are designed and experienced into the future.

All IP owners in the entertainment, sports and recreation industries needn’t rush into virtual reality, but they would be foolish not to learn from it. If my career designing experiences has taught me anything it is that stories can be told and audiences can be moved through the thoughtful design of themed places, whether they are physical or virtual.

Don Carson

About the Author
Don Carson is a concept designer and Senior Art Director at Mighty Coconut, the studio behind Walkabout Mini Golf. He has worked in the theme park and computer game industries, notably as a Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, art directing projects like Splash Mountain, Mickey’s Toontown and Blizzard Beach.

(1) The Verge: Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 has shipped 10 million units, according to Qualcomm
(2) Adweek: Why the Metaverse Will Reshape Digital Marketing For Decades to Come
(3) Theme Park Insider: Why I Don’t Want to Live in a Metaverse
(4) PYMNTS: AMC Wants to Turn Its Movie Theaters Into Virtual Concert Venues

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Theme Park Magazine. Do you have an opinion to share with Theme Park Magazine readers? We invite you to send it to Theme Park Magazine via news@themeparkmagazine.com.

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