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It won’t officially open until late February, but tests have been ongoing for a few weeks now for Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (SotMK), a new interactive in-park game. Cutting right to the chase: it’s a fun game, a worthy addition to the Magic Kingdom, and potentially a harbinger of things to come (especially if WDW is sliding toward a “repeat” audience).

The only other interactive game at WDW so far is Kim Possible, but the two aren’t really very similar. The major similarity is that visitors playing the game travel to a remote corner of the park, activate something in the environment via electronic signal, and then get some kind of response in turn. For Kim Possible, that meant toting about a borrowed cell phone that, when the right combination of buttons were pushed, would trigger an event in the “real world” like a flag being raised or a miniature robot rising out of the woodwork. It provided a thrill in that the environment could be changed. “I made that happen,” marveled every awed child who triggered the event.

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Your key to victory is a card.

By contrast, SotMK is screen-based. You won’t find any moving parts here (perhaps they recognized, belatedly, that there are continuing costs associated with moving parts, and don’t want to duplicate the expense they created in Epcot?) Visitors trigger events that unfold only on screens, though occasionally you’ll find curtains and shades that do move before (and after) the event. The scenes are animated.

In short, you’re battling evil. You’re recruited to help fight the forces of evil in the Magic Kingdom; expect to find good guys like Merlin (from Sword in the Stone—he’s a sorcerer, you know, hence the fit with this game) on your side, and bad guys from all over, like Hades, Scar, Ratcliff, and Dr. Facilier. I like that they used smaller and lesser-known characters throughout the game.

Fantasyland stations

When you sign up at the Firehouse on Main Street (tests are currently Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, often late morning and early afternoon), you get a keycard, a map, and five spell cards.

Adventurers wanted!

The map tells you where you go, though frequent visitors will recognize locations just by the image displayed on screen. The keycard lets the system know who you are, who you’ve already fought, and who you need to fight still. The spell cards, the size of a regular deck of cards, are your “weapons.” When prompted, you hold up a spell card to fight the evil character on screen. During this testing phase, you hold up any old card—it doesn’t matter which one—and you’ll defeat them. Each spell card has its own attack; everything from Prince Phillip’s sword to Pumbaa’s fart. Whatever the action is, you’ll see a cartoon version of the attack on screen, and the enemy will be vanquished. There are two cameras at each station to watch you hold up cards, and they impressively are able to read the actual card you hold up (in fact, they can read an iPhone photo of a card equally well).

Main Street stations

That’s about all the system does right now, and it’s great for five year olds. Those seeking a bit of, uh, “challenge” to the event will have to wait until the “medium” and “hard” levels of difficulty become available when the game goes live for real. For now, it’s all set on “easy” mode, when any card will beat any bad guy. The cards are all different, you see. There are seventy of them, many of them obscure Disney characters, and it’s just awesome to see Disney parks make use of some of the deep resources available to them. I’ve long thought the Disney parks could do a better job of folding in characters from the animated movies. Well, this is one such usage, and I approve.

I was sad to lose the firehouse as a shop, but this is frankly better.

No one knows exactly what will happen once you reach Medium and Hard levels of difficulty, though it’s likely one of the parameters will be your reaction speed. If you’re too slow in raising your card, perhaps the enemy will beat YOU. Or, maybe you’ll have to choose the “right” card. It could be the cards will vary by theme (use a Dalmations card against Cruella, say). Or, it could be that the cards are inherently different based on qualities. Each card has a different score for ATTACK, BOOST, and SHIELD. Perhaps at times you need to defend instead of attack?

Do I want attack now, or boost? Or shield?

Adding both complication and challenge, the system is built to recognize two spell cards at the same time. Even on the easy level, you can hold up two cards simultaneously, and both of them will attack the enemy (at once). Now the different qualities of each card (attack, boost, shield) might indeed come into play.

The official Disney Parks blog let slip just this week that the cards come in different “classes” such as hero, warrior, and princess. It isn’t obvious when you look at the cards how they break out. What you’ll see instead are such symbols as star, moon, or planet (which Disney says correspond to rare, uncommon, and common). That’s all fine and good, but what about the cards with stars or castles instead? Perhaps they are just artifacts of the test?

Sorcerer “training” in the back of the fire house before you start your quest.

Disney says there are only 70 cards. Indeed, each card is labeled [#] out of seventy. You’d think that would be straightforward, but sometimes there is more than one of each number. You think you know what’s up when you get 40/70 (Eve’s Laser Attack)… until you also get 40/70 (Yen Sid’s Sorcerer Hat). Maybe some of these were just used in testing?

The back of the spell cards, and the reverse side of the keycard.

The odds are good that Disney will sell the entire deck of 70 cards when the game is live, but amazingly, they are handing out cards for free right now. You get five spell cards when you check in (they swipe your admission media) and a keycard. If you come back the next day and swipe your card again, you’ll get five more cards. Unlike Kim Possible, this is not a rental situation; you get to keep the cards.

The quality of the cards is a little astounding; they are thick glossy card stock, and they obviously spent a lot of money to print these beauties. I’m flabbergasted that they give you five of these for free, and will keep doing so every day you try again. Clearly, they intend this to be a major event for the park visitor, something akin to a new attraction.

Adventureland stations

For that’s what they envision this as: a new attraction at the Magic Kingdom, completely free (or at least included with your park admission). Seen in that light, the investments in the infrastructure and ongoing costs will likely be seen as minimal in the eyes of Disney. A new dark ride costs millions of dollars, at a minimum, but this thing must have only taken tens of thousands (or maybe a few hundred thousand?) in capital improvements. For such minimal money, they get to tout a new experience at the park—certainly a lot less money than a new ride would have cost. Even less a teeny-tiny ride would cost.

Now it’s YOUR turn to battle evil!

Is it comparable? In some ways, the visitor will like SotMK actually better than a new ride. For one thing, it’s aimed at kids—not everything is aimed at kids these days, so that’s a plus. That there are different levels of difficulty is also a bonus. Basically, there’s something for everyone. On easy mode, the game is a breeze. It’s too easy for anyone over seven years old, but those UNDER seven will love it. We don’t know yet what the medium and hard levels will be like, but the early indications are that it will be like a role-playing game (RPG), with qualities such as attack and defense highlighted. That could be extremely cool. The whole world is gravitating toward game-based activities anyway, so for Disney to lead the way in theme parks is in keeping with tradition, since Disney usually leads the way in everything else. It doesn’t hurt that the animations have the look/feel of Dragon’s Lair anyway.

Perhaps the biggest reason SotMK might be well-received, though, is that it’s so involved. To finish one assignment is to polish off the villain in one land (Main Street, or Adventureland, or Fantasyland, or Liberty Square/Frontierland), but you are given the option to keep going if you want after you finish each land. To do all of them, even on the easy level, would take about 2-3 hours. Let that soak in for a second. Space Mountain takes all of 2.5 minutes to be finished, but SotMK will take up to three hours. If you wanted to play the medium and hard levels too, it would take even longer. That puts the investment of even a few hundred thousand dollars into perspective. Sixty million for sixty seconds, or half of a million for 10,000 seconds? The math certainly looks compelling on paper.

Liberty Square / Frontierland stations

The user experience may be less compelling—I suspect people will have differing reactions to this, in part based on their natural receptivity to games and game-like activities in a theme park. For my part, I think it’s pretty cool. If the non-easy levels involve any challenge at all, the coolness factor will only rise.

Are there any downsides? Perhaps. Like Kim Possible, the game is sometimes loud. Too loud for the passers-by, who might be startled by the sudden noise (the “back of card” spell is particularly too loud). It can be a bit disruptive, even though they tried to find out of the way places for the window “portals” in most cases.

This portal under the train station also incorporates tributes to company history.

This is clearly the first step in Disney’s foray into “Next Generation” technologies that take the concept of a theme park to the next level. It’s not about traditional experiences so much as newer experiences, ones that are partly (or fully?) immersed in the digital world, or perhaps exploitive of “augmented reality” technologies that could yet be plumbed in games to come.

I don’t think a lot of potential visitors from around the country will make plans to visit Walt Disney World as a result of things like SotMK. But I do think it’s possible they will come anyway for their annual visit, try out this new offering, and conclude that Disney is not only staying with the times, they are leaps and bounds ahead of the local Six Flags park. That will keep people coming back for future visits.

Time to start another quest in Frontierland.

Even beyond that, Disney is likely aiming squarely at the return-visitors crowd with this offering. SotMK can’t accommodate tens of thousands of visitors per day. The true number they can handle in one day is probably only in the hundreds, so we’re not even talking a majority of visitors, but rather a fraction.

So who exactly are they targeting? I think it’s most likely they are aiming at the repeat visitor. Specifically, they are aiming at those who have seen the parks over and over again. Chief among such visitors would be the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) owners, who often come every single year. They have a long-term contract, but would get restless if they don’t see a reason to come every year. A typical DVC member will take things slowly in the park and not rush from ride to ride—exactly the sort of person who would benefit from a three-hour experience in the park, don’t you think? In fact, it seems unlikely that a ‘day tourist’ would want to invest three full hours in the extended “true-life” video game (to borrow a phrase from Walt’s day), now that we think about it. It’s only the frequent visitor (and we must lump in the local annual passholder in that group) who will get truly excited about this offering.

I only hope that “FINISH HIM” never makes it into the game…

But that’s OK, too. Disney World needs to meet the needs of its various stakeholders, and for too long the locals, regulars, and DVC members have played second fiddle to the first-time visitors. They need a bone every so often as well. It helps that the spell cards are doled out only five at a time, but can be kept as souvenirs. You had better believe that a black market for trading the cards will spring up immediately, if it hasn’t already. The locals eat up this kind of thing.

Dude, do you have a Thumper to trade?

In fact, it’s just possible that SotMK marks a shift in the thinking of Walt Disney World management. Instead of targeting only infrequent visitors, as has been their wont for decades now, perhaps they will start to pay equal heed to the needs of the returning folks who come time and again. WDW will never be a “locals” park, but it is increasingly frequented by people who have been there before (this is partly due to the spectacular success of the DVC program over the past decade). And they have needs too. As they get increasingly vocal, we can expect their goals to be targeted more and more. SotMK may only be the beginning.

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Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

© 2012 Kevin Yee

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Readers are invited to join Kevin on Facebook, where he offers regular "Where in Walt Disney World" photo quizzes.

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Kevin’s Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Jason’s Disneyland Almanac (co-written with Jason Schultz) is an exhaustive listing of every day in Disneyland history, from 1955 to 2010. You’ll find park operating hours, weather and temperatures, and openings and closings of any park attraction, shop, or restaurant… for every day in the park’s history.
  • The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.
  • Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted.
  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis a full-color, hardcover interactive children’s book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Memberprovides the first authentic glimpse of what it’s like to work at Disneyland.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.