A Theme Park Designer Tries to Imagine Nintendo Land
Theme park ride designer David C. Cobb on Nintendo, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and next-gen theme park design.
Since the announcement that Nintendo and Universal are teaming up for upcoming theme park attractions based on the Kyoto giant's most famous properties, gamers and theme park enthusiasts alike have been speculating on what might actually happen. Famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto has promised to bring "the essence of games to the real world." HBO's Westworld has also lead to increased interest in theme park design and the possibilities of that imagined future. To get a sense of where theme parks are, and what we can expect to see, I turned to "dark ride" designer David C. Cobb.
Cobb started out as a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood. Impressed by his extreme enthusiasm for parks, Universal executives convinced him into a design role. Now he's Principal of Creative Development at Thinkwell, a company that builds not only theme park rides but also experiences including children's nature exhibits, Ski Dubai and even the Nixon Presidential library. Dave gave me a quick tour of Thinkwell's Los Angeles warehouse, and we chatted about the parallels between game and theme park design in 2017.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Let's talk about Nintendo's partnership with Universal.
I have no history with Nintendo but I've heard that multiple theme park chains had gone to them in the past with no success... The story was that Nintendo didn't license much and they were very tight with their licenses.
They're known for their quality control. Back in the day Atari almost tanked the gaming industry with too many bad games and then Nintendo showed up with their Nintendo Seal of Quality.
I think the thing that made Nintendo say yes to Universal now was the way Universal handled the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Potter was a sea change in the industry. Universal really created something special in terms of its simulacrum... It's close to Westworld.
And it's been a slow build to that over the years. Up until the 70s or early 80s Disney's attractions were mostly passive—book reports of existing movies that you observed from pirate boats or dune buggies. And that changed with (the Star Wars ride) Star Tours. Star Tours has you play the role of a space tourist, and it was the first attraction to really cast you in a world.
I went opening day in 1987 when I was 17. 30 years later I think a lot of the industry looks at that like a real vector point because it included you in the narrative. Potter took that even farther by selling you magic wands that allow you to interact with the environment and letting you buy school robes. It's not just about the rides: it's about the glue in between the attractions and how you engage people in the world they love. My gut says that was the tipping point for Nintendo. They saw Potter and said "that is a globally renowned brand that's not easy to deal with and Universal handled it very thoughtfully."
It's true that what made Nintendo different early on was their awareness of story. Miyamoto wanted to be a manga artist before he was in game design—he had an interest in story and that translated to taking video games outside gameplay and into narratives.
The other reason that it's really smart for Universal to do this right now is—look at the demo. Everybody that grew up with Nintendo has kids now and that's a huge audience. Universal prides themselves on not being Disney. They have this other take on what a family vacation could be. The Nintendo generation is the next logical audience for them to embrace because Nintendo is as much a family thing as it is a gamer thing. Remember when you were a kid and moms called all game systems Nintendos?
Now you have a whole generation of digital natives, parents in their 30s and 40s who understand that world in a much more profound way. The hard part of that is it's a very high standard. Nintendo has very high standards and so do their fans. What are your guest expectations when you hear the words "Nintendo World?"
Games. That the rides will be games! The second thing is that every person I've talked to wants to know how Mario Kart will manifest.
You and me both! That's probably going to be one of their major attractions. If they don't create that it's a missed opportunity. Everyone knows Mario Kart best because it's a game with ease of access that doesn't take 60 hours of gameplay to understand.
From a technical standpoint what would be the mode of a Mario Kart ride?
The easiest way would be a driving simulator in a box with a screen. But Nintendo already has done so much with motion sensors and video that you sort of already have that. Seems too easy for them to do. I think what people want is to feel Mario Kart in actual space. Those guests would be better served to do something as a physical ride with actual movement. Maybe on a track, but there are already trackless rides like Pooh's Honey Hunt at Tokyo Disney.
That ride is incredible.... Being dragged across a carpet in a giant honey pot...
That ride has more character and surprise because you can't see the track and you don't know where you're gonna go. And the honeypots don't all do the same thing. It feels like it's taking you somewhere with a purpose. Maybe Nintendo will go trackless for Mario Kart.
Miyamoto himself said that the Nintendo parks will be about bringing the essence of games to the real world. He didn't say games, he said the essence of games.
The other thing that Nintendo games offer is customization. Games like Animal Crossing where you get to be a mayor or Kirby where you eat monsters that let you choose to breathe ice or be a fireball. A whole new level of user activity is expected.
Yeah, personal agency is a huge part of Nintendo; creating your mii for example. If you look at Potter—the online identities of Pottermore (where you get sorted into houses and find out your patronus) ripples offline into the Wizarding World park. So parks are already almost there. And this whole idea of user created content in a physical space is at the center of how you address a gaming audience because gamers have an expectation of agency and customization.
There's also this speculation that you could go to the park with your Switch or 3Ds and impact the experience...
I bet they're looking into things like that. Other experiments with technology overlays have happened. Probably the best one was at Epcot, now themed to Phineas and Ferb that you play on a phone. You go through spy missions and it unlocks effects throughout Epcot. That started back in 2008.
So it's been done but never on an attraction scale. Maybe your Pokémon Go sign in is recognized on rides? I'm betting Universal goes in hard with mobile for Nintendo because Nintendo's the right brand for it. Mobile phones don't fit in Harry Potter. You don't want to be holding a cell phone in a wizarding world. But digital technology fits fine in a gaming world.
What's the first theme park ride you remember that--
Haunted Mansion! Haunted Mansion... Full Stop.
OK! What was the first theme park ride you remember that incorporated a gaming element?
Oh! Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin which was a shooting gallery combined with a dark ride. You also got a score. Seeing that was what lead to one of my first big jobs in the industry, which was Men In Black: Alien Attack for Universal Orlando.
Is there a person who has the high score on Men In Black: Alien Attack?
I'm sure it's some 12 year old with a season pass to the park. I used to be pretty good at that game, I could get 5 or 6 hundred thousand points. But now there are generations of kids with season passes who max it out all the time. There isn't really a high score because there's a limit—999999.
The problem is I can't make an attraction that's only for gamers because the audience would be too small. I can't make a game that's too complicated that people can't learn in the first 15 seconds of a ride. Rides are 4 minutes max. If a ride was an arcade game we'd need you to learn it in one quarter.
Conveyance is a term that's used a lot in games.
It's an engagement pyramid, and you're trying to seduce people up the pyramid. We use a swimming analogy for theme parks. A theme park audience is made up of waders, swimmers, and divers. The widest audience is waders—they want to dip their toe in and have a really good experience for the $120 they just spent to get in.
Next is swimmers (analogous to gamers) and divers (analogous to hardcore gamers.) You have to have something for all three of those audiences. Then there are merpeople who've drowned in theme parks and grown gills! You're gonna piss the merpeople off no matter what you do but they're still gonna buy a ticket.
Miyamoto himself said that the Nintendo parks will be about bringing the essence of games to the real world. He didn't say games, he said the essence of games. To me, that's a clue that the ride experiences will have gaming elements but won't be fully complex games because of the waders. And demographic problems are just the tip of the iceberg. You also have to think about capacity. A good theme park attraction has to move 2000 people an hour. Pushing that many people through a building get's really complicated.
What would be an example of an experience you include for more serious fans?
In the Men In Black ride there are a number of hidden targets. Winks from the film. There's one set off to the side that's hard to see with Frank the pug. If you know the movie you know Frank's an alien. He's a target and he's worth a lot of points. The Men In Black ride, unlike the Buzz Lightyear ride, has multiple endings. You get different messages from Will Smith. The highest rank you can get is Galaxy Defender, where you hear angels sing and you get your MiB suit.
I hadn't really noticed how all the rides of today incorporate the guest into a narrative.
Not just the rides. My first trip to Wizarding World Orlando, I walk behind the 3 Broomsticks restaurant and I see a table full of kids in school robes with their heads in books. Who reads books at a theme park? I walked up and asked what they were reading. They were doing their homework. Wait what? They explained they went to the junior high right behind the park and have season passes. Their parents let them come to the park and do their homework. They're doing their real homework in a fake school in cosplay. Universal didn't design that into the park but it's happening.
Disney doesn't allow adults to go into parks in costume. Do you think that's gonna change?
That got a lot of press a couple years back when this girl in Florida got kicked out of the park for looking too much like a "real" Tinkerbell. Disney didn't want her confused with the park sanctioned Tinkerbell. Disney doesn't want you taking pictures with a skeezy knock off Peter Pan.
On a strange but very related note; When I was at Tokyo Disney a little boy came up to me, took my hand and started talking to me in Japanese. I didn't know what he was saying at first but it turned out he thought I was Peter Pan. I was wearing a green shirt and (as you may know) Tokyo Disney flies in white actors to play their white characters. So perhaps for that kid, green shirt plus white boy equaled Peter Pan. It was disconcerting.
But back to Tinkerbell girl; She got on the news crying saying her dreams were ruined. You can laugh if you want but she's our audience now. Our audience has accepted cosplay and agency. Now you have things like Disneybounding which is an intersection of street fashion and Disney fandom. It's a way to cosplay without it being a costume so you can go in the park.
Disney has not co-opted Disneybounding probably because they know if they do the kids will drop it. But their entire marketing campaign a year after I first saw Disneybounding take off was #showusyourdisneyside, where adults could pose in Disney-ish ways using an app. It wasn't Disney bounding but it was winking at that audience.
Then there are Disney social clubs—Disney fans who are not into cosplay, but who have an affinity for Disney and California car culture or Latino culture. They make club names like "Mickey's Heartless" or "The Tomorrowlanders" and they make patches on biker outfits and denim vests that they wear for meetups.
At first, a lot of people thought Disney was letting gangs in the park and totally over-reacted. But all of this stuff is in service of user created content in which users change on their terms. And Universal and Disney are allowing it.
Westworld was a very adult roleplaying theme park. Has there been anything even remotely like that? Not in terms of robotics but just the adult nature?
You know, the closest thing I can think of is Sleep No More. It's an immersive telling of Macbeth across six floors of a building. It's not for kids—there's blood, murder, and nudity. It's a piece of theater but it's a very different type of theater that's about the experience of moving around. The narrative is secondary. It's mostly a choreography piece with the audience.
Video games have been slowly moving away from being marketed as just escapist entertainment. Even older games are being recognized for commenting on "real" issues. Final Fantasy VII is now viewed as analogous to our current political climate. Hyper Light Drifter was an expression of the designer's experience with congenital heart disease. Has there ever been theme park elements that address social issues?
I'll tell you this much, from a dramaturgical standpoint we do think about social issues in park design. Like, hey, does the pilot of your shuttlecraft in this simulator ride really have to be a white guy? A lot of people have not understood why they're doing Avatar at Animal Kingdom. Love or hate the movie there is a reason that they're doing it there.
From the beginning Animal Kingdom was supposed to have an ecological conservation standpoint. Avatar is about the destruction of natural habitat in an alien ecosystem. So it fits Animal Kingdom. The analogy I use for haters is Cars Land at California Adventure. Cars is not my favorite Pixar film but it's a beautifully done environment.
Last question. What's your biggest hope for the future of theme parks?
My hope is that we get to a point where there is room for a lower capacity higher personalization attraction or world. It's easy to say Westworld. It's not that I want to be a cowboy and have sex with robots! But I want something that allows me that level of roleplay.
I want to lean forward a little more and be a character in a story even as I walk around. There have been experiments in that here and there. Knott's Berry Farm did a LARP called Ghosttown Alive. It was essentially living theater that ran for the day and involved the audience as townsfolk. The problem is these experiences are a very high cost with very low through point.
Unless they charge people a million dollars like on Westworld .
Right. But there's going to be a tipping point where technology is cheap enough and the audience is big enough and the location is right where we can foster something that's more Westworldy. I'm not talking robots as much as the quality of the thematic immersion that involves you in the story. There are generations of gamers, LARPers, and cosplayers who don't just like that stuff... They're starting to require it.
My white whale would be the Shire. I want to be a hobbit! I want to live that story in every look, feel, taste, smell and ride experience. Hopefully, it might happen! Who knows.