I live in Downtown Los Angeles. And for the past few years I have enjoyed walking by the convention center when Stan Lee’s L.A. Comic Con is in town.

By Sam Gennaweysam gennawey disney visual contradictions

Imagine thousands of people dressed as their favorite characters. The best part? When a bunch of people are dressed as the same character and they come together for group photos. Amazing work that these kids have produced. But that is not the focus of this column.

Instead, I would like to report on my findings from a panel discussion called Geeks With Grey Hair Presents: Future Fandom Immersion. Now the two geeks in question are Jenny Seelman Stiven and Jonathan Tavss. They were joined by Brian Crosby (Marvel), Chick Russell (Universal and Disney), Madison Rhoades (Cross Roads Escape Games), and Matt Motschenbacher (21st Century Fox).

The focus of the discussion was on the benefits of immersive environments based on popular intellectual properties. Now one would think that this topic would be on the top of the list for many of the Comic Con participants. After all, the meeting room could seat a couple of hundred people. That was the size of the crowd in the workshop about drawing Captain America prior to the Fandom Immersion panel. However, once that crowd left, only a dozen or so people remained and many of them were family members. Too bad.

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Defining immersion at L.A. Comic Con

Jonathan asked the group to define immersion. Replies included that an immersive environment takes you out of reality by removing the 4th wall and creating a holistic experience. In today’s world, you are no longer a passive viewer but an active participant. That everything has a story. Brian suggested that the guest becomes the protagonist, the hero, something that Walt Disney tried and failed with when he first built Disneyland. All of the participants agreed that we have moved to a world where everybody must become the star, if only for a few moments.

The few attendees in the audience were dressed as their favorite characters and it was decided that Cosplay is an immersive experience. Some of the panelists suggested that theme parks could become the sets that Cosplayers could use to enjoy their own stories. There were no operations people in the audience to tell the panelist that adults dressing up is now frowned upon. Maybe this is a new opportunity?

Fandom immersion and themed environments

That led to the question of the role that fans play today in the creation of themed environments. Within the design firms, the idea is to find people that are passionate about the IP but can find the balance between the superfan and the average person that has no clue. Marvel’s approach is to be “intrusive” and not be wedded to the theme park canons. Chick suggested that the best course of action is to design for the non-fan and to hide Easter eggs in the attraction for the superfan. Assume the guest knows nothing about the characters.

Madison has a different challenge. For her escape rooms, she always feels bad when somebody cannot figure out the puzzle. This is something they monitor very closely. The idea is to balance the challenge against the risk of failure. She does this by limiting the sizestan lee's LA comic con logo jpeg (1) of groups.

The  L.A. Comic Con panel was asked what theme park experience really stuck with them over their career. For Chick, it was Star Tours. Madison felt strongly about Delusion, an interactive horror play that was not a passive experience. Matt was influenced by a Renisance Faire in his younger days. Brian cited the atmosphere at Disneyland and the moment he realized that the same building could have two different facades depending on the theming. Jenny mentioned an old favorite of mine; Myst.

Horror and the future

Of course, with such a prestigious panel, a great question to ask was about their horror stories. Matt still has nightmares and breaks out in cold sweats when he thinks about X-Men: Apocalypse. Brian had a tough time with the Ironman ride at Hong Kong Disneyland. The combination of three-languages and the unavailability to use Robert Downey Jr. made this a tough task. Sometimes it is the expectations from the IP holder. When Universal agreed to make a Transformers ride, Paramount expected real robots. No robot could move the way they did in the movies therefore a 3D film was used.

So, what is the future going to look like? Madison suggested that adventure games where you are the star is a real possibility. Chick thought that VR had some positive qualities but was hesitant to endorse the technology. Matt struggles with making his Marvel projects different from Disney’s Marvel projects. Brian was hoping to connect all the Disney Marvel experiences together in some way so that the they can exist within the same thematic universe. He also mentioned that Antman and the Wasp will soon be getting rides in Hong Kong.

We are at a crossroads. Many are asking if theme parks are obsolete. After this panel discussion, one must admit that they are not. Nowhere else can one experience such an immersive environment. The technology is getting there. More importantly, the idea of group experience works best in a themed environment. And that is the secret.

Pandora image courtesy Disney