Brent Strong, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, spoke with blooloop about the Avengers Campus, which was opened on 4 June 2021 at California Adventure, Disneyland Resort by a host of Marvel stars. The immersive land features a cutting-edge new ride, Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, as well as themed food and beverage offerings such as the Pym Test Kitchen and Pym Tasting Lab.
“An incredibly talented team came together to bring it to life,” says Strong of Avengers Campus. “We were thrilled to open it earlier this summer, and to welcome everybody to come and find the hero within down at California Adventure.”
Bringing the vision to life
Brent Strong has been at Imagineering for 15 years.
“I started my career as an interactive designer,” he says. “I have created interactive experiences at many of our parks around the world, including Toy Story, Midway Mania as well as many experiences inside of Epcot.”
“I’m thrilled to have been a part of the Avengers Campus design team, following the project all the way from first notes on a piece of paper four or five years ago, to opening day, and having the chance to work with so many talented artists, designers, creatives to bring it to life.”
Inspiring the next heroes at Avengers Campus
Avengers Campus is about inspiring and empowering the next generation of heroes. Explaining how that approach was decided and how it is realized, Strong says:
“Whenever we’re starting a brand new process or project, to me, one of the first steps in the process is to figure out what is the wish fulfilment; what is that core creative moment that we’re trying to deliver?
“For the Avengers, there are so many amazing places that we’ve seen in the films, so many characters, so many worlds. But what we really wanted to deliver was this idea that you get to join the Avengers.”
“So every single element of the Avengers Campus – the location that we’ve designed, the experiences that we’ve created, the way that you interact with the characters, all centres around this idea of each of our guests being that next generation of heroes.
“We have built the entire place around this sense of optimism that the world is worth saving, that the world can be a great place. There is a sense of invitation and empowerment: the heroes are looking to you to help make the world a great place and to help protect it.”
New Spidey tech
WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure affords guests the opportunity to live out their Super Hero dreams as they sling webs like Spider-Man. Wearing 3D glasses, their mission is to test-drive a new creation, the WEB Slinger vehicle, putting their web-slinging abilities to the test through innovative technology that recognises body movements and gestures.
“Web Slingers, A Spider-Man Adventure is a brand-new attraction, right at the heart of this new themed land. This taps into that meta-goal of getting to join the Avengers, getting to become a superhero and have your own origin story,” Strong says.
“We knew that a key part of that was giving our guests the opportunity to feel like they have superpowers like their favourite heroes. No power is more desired than Spidey’s web-slinging. Really early on, we decided to work out how we could deliver every guest getting to sling webs, just like Spider-Man.”
The answer lay in technical innovation:
“One of the pieces of technology that we’ve invented for Avengers Campus is a brand new gesture tracking system. Eight guests in a vehicle can, with the help of 3D glasses and this new system that we’ve created, actually have the experience of web-slinging.
“We have an amazing camera array that drives on the vehicle with you. This is able to tell us 60 times a second where every guest’s eyes, shoulders, elbows, and wrists are. When you reach out your hand in real-time, we are able to create virtual webs that emerge from your hand in exactly the direction that you are gesturing.”
Technology should stay behind the scenes
There is a great deal of technology behind the scenes. However, this technology is largely invisible to the guest, Strong says:
“The effect when you’re on the experience is that you just get to sling webs, and to join Spidey on this amazing adventure to save the Campus, and to have a little taste of what it’s like to have those powers.”
The technology is a hybrid of the established and the new.
“It’s a combination of relatively known techniques that we’re putting together in a brand new way; relatively traditional stereo media, combined with physical set work, combined with this gesture recognition system. When you put them all together, it’s a real-world that has these virtual extensions that you can interact with.”
New merch at Avengers Campus
There is also merchandise that can be bought to enhance the experience, in the form of web tech accessories:
“Every person has their own favourite hero. We knew that while Spidey is an aspiration for many, there are other heroes out there whose powers we would love to have as well so we have some web tech accessories and some web tech power bands that allow you to role-play as your own favourite hero.”
“Outside, they have great light and sound capabilities. But when you bring them on the attraction, they change your powers in the attraction to match the hero that you’re role-playing.”
Blending the technical and the creative
The mix of technical and creative, he explains, is always a conversation:
“It’s never that one is in the driver’s seat, and the other one is just following along. It’s always some amazing merger. For instance, the story calls for this, and that inspires the technical folks to come up with new solutions. Or, new solutions are seen by storytellers, who then go, ‘Hey, you know what we could do with that?’
“There had been an ongoing effort to create more dynamic performances from some of our robotic performers. As we were in the early stages of creating Avengers Campus, we realised that we wanted to make sure that when guests saw these heroes, they got to see them in that epic action.”
“We started asking ourselves, ‘How can we help these heroes do amazing stunts that are beyond what any performer could do, beyond what any human could do; stunts that are truly superhuman?’”
The perfect answer lies in the ‘Stuntronics’ android. This is a robotic Spider-Man stunt double that performs breathtaking acrobatic displays, soaring nearly 70 feet in the air in a stunning, gravity-defying performance with no safety nets — or spiderwebs.
“The Stuntronics was the solution to the question of how we could deliver the things that previously had only ever been seen as computer imagery in a movie. It meant we could actually create that in real life, right in front of all of our guests. It blends so perfectly that a lot of people don’t even realise that there’s technology in that moment.”
In terms of innovation, Strong considers the technology he is looking forward to, that hasn’t yet been developed:
“There are so many things that go on to that list,” he says. “One of the interesting truisms of location-based entertainment is that have the opportunity to invent new technologies. But we have the ability to misuse common technologies in amazing ways.
“So many of the experiences that are out there have been assembled from known pieces. Whether it’s a cool display or a military flight simulator. It’s often just a matter of doing it bigger, or differently, or of combining things in novel ways.”
“But regarding the technology that isn’t quite here, I’m excited for the whole host of technologies that go into individualised media experiences, augmented reality, virtual reality, audio landscapes.
“What I’m interested in is how we create those in a way that doesn’t make them an anti-social experience but allows them to be a social one. I’m excited for the day when our guests come equipped with not just cell phones, but with technologies that allow them to experience unique media playing a unique part in the story, without it getting in the way of that face-to-face communication with the other people they are with.”
Avengers Campus Easter eggs
The Avengers Campus is characterised by incredibly detailed design, with Easter eggs hidden for observant fans using their phones.
“We certainly try to make sure that these worlds are deep, and that there’s something in there for everybody,” says Strong. “All of us are huge fans of the films, the comics, and the theme parks. So we did put in many, many Easter eggs: more, probably, than even I realise.”
“One of my favourite elements we added was a sense of history. The Avengers Campus is, by its nature, optimistic, concerned with growing that next generation of heroes. It’s a very forward-looking place. A lot of our heroes take their inspiration from technology. So, we have labs and the Quinjet aircraft sitting above Avengers Headquarters, and so on.”
A sense of history
“We also wanted to make sure, as we were creating this campus, that it had a sense of history; a sense that it didn’t just open up yesterday, but that it has roots. We worked with our partners at the studios to create a backstory for this place. This goes all the way back to Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father.
“We imagined that this modern Avengers Campus is a redevelopment of one of his old industrial campuses. A place where he was manufacturing his flying cars.”
“If you wander around the campus, you will see all the brand new shiny buildings. But you’ll also turn a corner and suddenly find old brick walls and ghost graphics; you’ll find hidden maps or blueprints that date back to the 1940s. These things give us that subtle layer of history, of reality. They help us to tie these pieces together on multiple levels. Those, I think, are my favourite Easter eggs.
“We make fun for a living,” he adds. “If you’re not having fun doing it, you’re doing it wrong.”
Heroes are everywhere around Avengers Campus
There are a lot of characters to work with in this universe. Strong explains how they have been selected and shown to advantage in Avengers Campus:
“One of the things that we recognised early on in the process of creating this place is that many of these stories take place, not in a galaxy far, far away or once upon a time in a faraway kingdom, but in the here and now. The stories of Iron Man and Thor are examples.
“One of the interesting things that we noted is that almost any location could be a part of an adventure story, as soon as an Avenger walks into the room; in so many ways, it is the heroes that make this world special.”
The team realized, therefore, that they wanted that heroic presence to be everywhere around the Avengers Campus:
“So much of this world is brought to life through the presence of the heroes: Black Panther, Black Widow, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp, Dr Strange, Taskmaster, Thor, Loki, Captain America, and, of course, the Guardians of the Galaxy. We worked to make sure that we had not just great places for our guests to explore, but great places for our guests to interact with these heroes, and to receive that call to action.
“We designed it with an eye towards the future. There are always going to be new heroes that guests want to meet, and that want to train with the Avengers.”
New movies are still being made, and technology is constantly evolving. In terms of the challenges of future-proofing, he comments:
“On the technology side, I don’t think there’s any such thing as future-proofing. The technology moves at exponential paces. The most important thing is making sure that your story isn’t about the technology.”
Technology is what you use to bring an experience to life, but it’s not why the experience exists, says Strong.
“I think that there are many good examples in theme parks around the world of experiences that have held up. Even though the technology is no longer cutting edge, no longer brand new and shiny, the experience still holds together; it’s still true and timeless. A lot of what we’re doing is focused on ensuring that the experience is timeless regardless of how the technology evolves. Even while we use technology to bring experiences like Web Slingers or Spidey to life.”
“That said,” he adds, “We did create Avengers Campus, knowing that there will always be new characters. There will always be new stories that we want to bring to life. We tried to design it with that flexibility in mind.
“One of the things that excites me most is even just in the few months that Avengers Campus has been open and recruits have been visiting, we’ve been able to surprise people by having brand new heroes show up on campus.”
“As Loki was appearing on Disney Plus, Loki was changing his look every week in the park. If you visit Avengers Campus, you might find him running around dodging Death Dealer and interacting with guests.
“What is really exciting is that as this world continues to grow and evolve, our Campus can do the same. The characters that you fall in love with can be there to train side-by-side with you.”
Design challenges of Avengers Campus
Identifying the most challenging aspects of the project, Strong says:
“One of the most challenging aspects was also one of the most amazing blessings. And that is the fact that this universe is home to so many iconic heroes. I could talk to 50 people and get 50 different answers in terms of who is the favourite hero, or who would people want to meet the most, what they would like to do, or where they would like to go.
“It is nearly impossible to try and represent that entire spectrum inside any physical place. But we did our best to try and create experiences that can become gateways. We aimed to create flexibility so that we can continue to evolve and change.”
“The challenge is the sheer scale of the world. It’s knowing that, no matter how many characters we bring to life, no matter how many places we bring to life, we’re going to miss somebody’s favourite. At least for now.”
Turning to the aspect that makes him most proud, he adds:
“We always start with these critical themes: the idea of optimism, that the world is worth saving; the idea of empowerment, that our guests can be a part of creating that better future.
“Our third key theme for the land was one of diversity. This is based on the idea that the Avengers are strong not because they’re uniform, not because they’re all exactly alike. They are strong because they’re unified. They work together, although they come from incredibly different backgrounds; all of them have different abilities, they have different strengths and weaknesses.”
“Being able to express such a diversity of characters, settings and environments, from our ancient sanctum to our high-tech Avengers headquarters, came from having an incredibly diverse team. We have people who come from all different walks of life. Being able to bring that diversity to life on this project was probably my favourite part.”