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Park operators vs. design creatives: the battle of COVID-19    

Shanghai Disney theme park recovery after COVID-19 shared experiences

Ever since theme parks began, there has always been a healthy conflict between those who operate and those who innovate. As the industry reopens post-COVID-19, can both work together to save the shared experience?

By Eddie Sotto

Eddie SottoThose who truly are masters of operating are focused on refining their process, eliminating any waste, constantly observing and improving. They elevate the running of a park into a fine art. Operators are pressured by fiscal goals, improving guest satisfaction, or both – which at times are at odds.

I had the experience of being an Imagineer in the trenches at Disneyland. This meant that I saw the real trials and tribulations operators inherit from the designs we finally inflict on them. It gave me a deep respect for the other side, as we call it, as every design must function and meet its audience. That experience is both gratifying and humbling all at once.

Repetition vs. no sequels

The great operators I have worked with remind me of a Samurai warrior. One who is deeply centred on the perfection of motion, repeating the swing of his weapon to the point of obsession. Repeating the process and training others to do the same no better or worse is a marvel.

The other half of this conflict lies in the fertile creative mind of the Imagineer. Iteration and experimentation are in their DNA. Repetition is the last thing we are interested in. Disney legend and Imagineering President, Marty Sklar inscribed that very advice to me as a mandate upon his retirement: “Eddie- Make no “sequels”, this was Walt…always moving on!”

Marty Sklar no sequels Disney

To the operator, the almost never-ending quest to explore options, thwarting convention and questioning those mastered practices can be a deep frustration. To me, it’s a trial and error journey toward the next plateau of “wow”, something truly different and amazing.

At some point, you mature into your own sense of what is enough: when to put the pencil down and find a sense of balance. I learned that you can’t open something you never finish.

So the two cultures co-exist in a world of eternal conflict between the one’s desire to refine and repeat, and the other’s passion for breakthrough or radical change. In a healthy design community, there is a champion, a master arbiter that actually knows what the goals are and calls time at the exact nexus between what works and what wows.

Michael Eisner was one such arbiter. When the financial masterminds found every reason to say the company could not afford to build Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, Eisner decreed “we can’t afford not to!”

Shared experiences post-COVID – going it alone?

So here we are, immersed in COVID-19 where masks and distancing have scrapped many of the best moments of shared experiences. For instance, parades, character meet-ups, fireworks, etc. Not to mention capacity, wounded sporting events, concerts, cruises, and more.

Shared experiences COVID 19 queues Shanghai Disney

Fewer guests can’t pay less, hence perceived value hurts desire to return. Venue operators are left to struggle with the situation. Their DNA tells them to master the moving target of compliance, and they do. Meanwhile, on the emotional side, the shared experience itself is dying a death of 1000 masks.

Distanced from design?

What is truly lacking here is the creative balance. Where are the breakthroughs? What is needed is not a refinement of a broken experience, like cuter masks, or a distancing app, but rather a stunning technical and experiential breakthrough that guests will come back for.

We formed a combined team of medical experts, engineers and designers to help operators solve it long term.

Girl in mask Shanghai Disney

Operators run the show, but don’t always understand what makes the audience laugh or cry. So, the loss of the hug of a character or a parade is trivialized. Merely buying thermometers or other catalogue solutions is not the answer here either. The need to solve the problem, with an experience worth paying for, is what’s needed.

We see a fast death spiral as a result of COVID-19, here unless we do something immediately to save shared experiences. Cardboard fans in a stadium or drive-in concerts are a desperate gimmick, not a business model. Instead of addressing the symptoms short term with band-aids, we need to develop a mask free solution to save it in the coming quarters.

Will vaccines solve it?

Vaccines exist for other diseases and yet the viruses are still out there. Plus, not all will even take them. The new normal of pandemic fear is more deeply engrained in today’s psyche than going back in the water was after seeing Jaws. That was 45 years ago and it was a rubber shark!

The new normal of pandemic fear is deeply engrained in today’s psyche

The TSA still screens for terror, although the threat has been low for years. Reassurance is part of this equation and will linger after the virus has gone.

Bringing back shared experiences – COVID screening versus masking

We’re now busy raising the bar high, intent on unmasking the hospital practices that ruin these experiences. We are instead replacing them with a fun, above medical standard COVID-19 screening test at the point of entry. Like an airport terminal does for security.

Then, each cleared guests is placed in a safety bubble of experiences, where they can have fun, and not worry about the health of others. Here, they can enjoy events like they used to, together.

Lund Gruppen Kongeparken family on coaster

Is it too good to be true? There are several nearly immediate result COVID-19 tests that are becoming market-ready and are in testing now. These use either saliva, breath, molecules, or even sound waves to screen and clear us of specifically COVID-19. Or a future pandemic.

To eliminate hassle we then add the magic to these processes to make the screening fun, reassuring and something seamless as part of your park, cruise or stadium visit. Imagination and “wow” with technology applied within.

This is what we call futureproofing. We will bring back the value and fun that people will pay for.  What company wants to go through this ever again?

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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