Are we being shown behind the curtain too often?
In the age of social media, podcast interviews, and streaming services, fans of almost all forms of popular entertainment are constantly granted exclusive first looks, ‘making of’ documentaries, and numerous other peeks behind the curtain of their favourite television shows, films, albums, music videos, and even theme park attractions. The latter draws a particularly obsessive following, who seem to want to simultaneously maintain the illusion for themselves, while understanding — and often critiquing — the finer details behind the ride, show or experience in question.
Is such a balance possible, and if so, how much behind-the-scenes access is too much? For decades, network television specials have granted viewers the opportunity to see the inner workings of much-hyped new rides around the time of their launch. As streaming services like Disney+ increasingly recognise the crossover of interest between their theme parks and on-screen entertainment offerings, documentary series like The Imagineering Story, Behind The Attraction, and One Day at Disney are perfectly positioned to introduce fans to the creative and technical experts behind the imagined worlds they love to visit. This has both fuelled, and been fuelled by, the legions of followers of an array of official and unofficial blogs, websites, YouTube channels, and podcasts, dedicated to deconstructing and appreciating the art of themed entertainment design.
However, all this unprecedented access reminds me just how good an experience — or put another way, just how convincing an illusion — needs to be, to withstand such scrutiny from all angles. From the guest’s perspective, is it possible that knowing almost everything about a new attraction before it even opens could ruin the magic before it’s had a chance to reel them in?
The recent launch of the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser provides a useful example.
I’m not in marketing, though I have worked in public relations for the last ten years, but it is interesting to think about how the rollout of a brand new, first-of-its-kind immersive attraction could have been done differently, and what effect that might have had on the public’s perception.
From a distance, the product itself looks incredible, with a highly-skilled, meticulously-trained cast, by all accounts, responsible for delivering much of the magic, as is often the case in themed entertainment (a point noted by Walt Disney himself when discussing the creation of Disneyland; “it takes people to make the dream a reality”). However, in place of the usually carefully-choreographed announcement and gradual unveiling of a large-scale park expansion, ride or show, was something a little less sure of itself.
Choosing to share only a select few pieces of concept art until a couple of months prior to launch when some short, interview-style video clips featuring the imagineers behind the project began to surface, felt like a strange decision, but perhaps one that might have come from those on the team who were pushing to provide less specific detail on the final experience. It occurred to me quite early on that a team as proven and trusted as Walt Disney Imagineering, working with an IP as beloved as Star Wars, should feel confident enough in whatever their creation would become that they could provide less, rather than more, advance detail on the what the experience actually was, and still maintain significant interest among fans and followers. My own curiosity was piqued at the moment I saw the classic movie-like poster, shared on the Disney Parks blog, the brief, tantalising description of a ‘two-night adventure,’ and the revelation that a scale model of the Halcyon ship was on display in the Hollywood Studios theme park. Surely, I thought, this was all any Star Wars fan would need to know to part with a significant amount of money? To go to space!
Not once did it occur to me that anyone would think this was a hotel. Not once, anywhere, was the experience described via official channels as a ‘hotel’. However, a handful of outlets decided that was all it was — an expensive, themed resort getaway— and the ‘Star Wars Hotel’ label started to stick. I have nothing to do with this project, yet I spent the last few months of 2021 explaining to my friends and family over numerous dinners that Disney and Lucasfilm were definitely not building a hotel; they were creating an experience. I wonder if an equivalent to the infamous ‘Nahtazu’ advertising campaign around the launch of Animal Kingdom might have been useful for this project too, to help steer the expectations of the media and public back on course.
Early in 2022, as the date for the first voyage approached, and following several brief walkarounds with TV personalities and a number of hit-and-miss pieces of filmed content set onboard the Galactic Starcruiser released through official channels, it was time to let the media in.
There was always, always going to be a slew of content from influencers and news outlets the second the embargo lifted on Feb. 25 after the media previews. But what if that content — often poor quality, shot on iPhones, and failing to capture much of the experience itself — had been restricted to still photos only, aside from a pre-approved selection of professional film crews? Perhaps the internet wouldn’t now be flooded with shaky video clips from a variety of angles, which fans who were already uncertain about the Starcruiser are now turning to, to find out exactly what unfolds behind those opaque windows, and to eventually make a decision about booking. Perhaps for the majority of fans, the experience would still be shrouded in mystery — a remaining chapter in the Star Wars saga they haven’t yet had the chance to witness, but someday would be able to live through themselves.
The gamble would have been even bigger than it already was, but the payoff could have been huge. Taking a leaf out of the book of the immersive theatre companies whose number Disney is aiming to join might have been an idea; the website for Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More tells you almost nothing about the production, and the page for The Burnt City tells you even less, yet the former is a must-do when visiting New York City, and the latter, though pre-opening at the time of writing, is booked up for several months.
Personally, I would like to try and avoid spoilers ahead of an inevitable stay on the ship, or indeed any in-depth immersive experience, but the temptation to seek them out— like the force — is strong.
Of course, it could be argued that this is not a new phenomenon at all; the creation of the original Disneyland was shown in some detail in what might be described as the original behind-the-scenes theme park film, the Pre-Opening Report from Disneyland, on July 13th, 1955. However, given that this was at a time when viewers and potential guests had no idea quite what to expect from the actual park when it opened, and before the mass of user-generated content across social media, it’s probably an unfair comparison to the type of coverage surrounding the opening of a new park, land, or attraction today.
The trick, I suspect, is for creative teams like WDI, Universal Creative, and the associated marketing and PR departments who presumably insist on giving fans ‘just a glimpse,’ to stay at least one or two steps ahead of guests every step of the way, which of course, they usually do.
As for the Galactic Starcruiser; I’m fairly confident it will be a success, and probably the first of several multi-day, overnight immersive experiences to be developed by major theme parks and entertainment brands over the coming years. I am particularly looking forward to hearing just a little about one of them, and being excited enough to make a booking based on limited information; an irresistibly mysterious lack of real details.
With all that said: if you enjoyed The Imagineering Story, you may enjoy the following documentaries from recent years: