New tricks for Magic Kingdom
By Heather Alexander
BBC News, Disney World, Florida http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/shared/img/999999.gif Once upon a time the rides in Disney World's Magic Kingdom provided thrills aplenty, promising tales of pirates and the chance to dive 20,000 leagues under the sea.
But today's children, weaned on the Wii, Second Life and DVD "Easter eggs", look for more than the roller coasters and jerky automatons that entertained the youth of the 1970s.
"The emerging generation expects more immersive, personal and interactive experiences in every facet of their lives," says Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering.
It's a fact Disney had to face when it created its newest attractions for the Florida theme park.
To demonstrate how the company is adapting to the era of interactivity I was shown around two new rides: Kim Possible (currently in testing) and Toy Story Mania, which opened last year.
Toy Story Mania is basically a giant 3D video game. Riders board a car and are driven through and parked in front of a series of video screens. The task: to shoot objects as they fall or fly out of the screen.
The 3D glasses mean objects do seem to come right out at you, and are sometimes accompanied by a fourth dimension: a blast of wind in your face or, in the case of water balloons, riders actually get wet.
Many elements of a traditional video game have been deliberately incorporated - particularly incentives to try again - although the hour-long queue might put visitors off. There is also a highest score board so people can compete through the day against everyone in the park.
It is also designed so no two games are the same - firing at certain spots on the screen causes different scenarios to play out.
Just like Super Mario, in Bo Peep's Balloon Pop you can set off a whole raft of new high scoring targets by hitting specific spots in the sky. This opens the door for players to trade secrets as they do for other games.
Kim Possible is an even more personal experience.
Designed for "tweens" and early teens, it is based on the Disney Channel's Emmy award-winning cartoon about th eponymous crime-fighting teenager.
Players report to a booth and are handed a fake mobile phone. When they switch it on characters from the cartoon appear to tell them they have been recruited for Kim's latest mission.
As they navigate through, prompts tell visitors to go to certain spots in the park where the signal from the phone makes messages appear to help them with the quest. At one point a stuffed parrot comes to life to give players the latest clue. The idea is to have different missions to play in seven of the countries of Disney's Epcot Center.
Kim Possible is due to launch early 2009 and more interactivity will follow - the next addition will be an American Idol-type karaoke attraction.
They have definitely come a long way since Disneyland's first rides; there were gas-powered cars that all broke by the end of the first day and donkey rides through Frontierland.
This adaptation is impressive and perhaps does herald a significant change.
Disney led the way in animation for decades giving it the material to fill its parks with fantastic characters but with the dawn of computers the company lagged behind. But in 2006 the old stalwart bought hot digital imaging studio Pixar, creators of Toy Story.
So is the young technology-savvy upstart dragging the old classic into the new world? The new rides at Disney World would suggest so.
When Walt Disney pioneered the way to colour animation he did it because he wanted to make cartoons more real. Now with the company increasing production of 3D films, it seems that is the way forward in that quest.
Bolt was the first film to be made from the start for 3D and a deal has been signed with Imax for a Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge which is scheduled for release at the end of this year.
3D versions of Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story 1 and 2 are in the pipeline as well.
As for the theme parks, the imagineers are well known for saying that by the time we see a technology in their rides, they have already taken it even further behind the scenes in development.
Maybe the next decade will see total immersion Disney. For the meantime I just hope someone comes up with an alternative to those less than stylish 3D glasses...