Live Active Cultures 

Imagine a future in which a single card eliminates the need to carry keys and wallet … in which you can cut every queue you encounter (if you’ve got the cash) ... in which everything you see, do and eat is planned out months in advance.

This is the future that Walt Disney World is currently spending more than $1 billion to create. As explained by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs during a recent investor conference, the Mouse is in the midst of a decade-long effort to eliminate the things Staggs claims guests dislike most about Disney. The projects, code-named NextGen, will eventually replace current staples of a Walt Disney World vacation: checking in at a hotel, buying theme park passes, collecting Fastpasses. Instead, guests will receive a multi-purpose keycard. Just as restaurants book reservations months in advance, guests could do the same at Disney. They could sign up for a pre-programmed itinerary of attraction activities, and as long as they rode the rides at the times they signed up for, they’d never have to wait in line. Databases would track each visitor’s identity and preferences, allowing attractions to be personalized for an individual experience.

This is where you’re probably expecting me to start passing out the pitchforks and torches, decrying the latest money-grubbing murder of what little spontaneity and egalitarianism was left in the Magic Kingdom. After all, that billion-dollar budget could easily build half a dozen big E-Ticket rides, adding much-needed capacity to the parks. But I’m a big believer that the joy of self-exploration and a crowded day at Disney go together about as well as sangria and sippy cups. And while I am selfishly concerned about how this scheme will end up screwing over annual-pass holders like myself, I’m all for outside-the-box thinking when it comes to improving the average visitor’s expensive experience.

Whether NextGen becomes a boon or bane all boils down to execution, and my Magic Kingdom excursion last week gave me renewed hope in Imagineering’s ability to not mess it up too badly. First, I visited the legendary Haunted Mansion, which has been monkeyed with repeatedly over the past decade; remarkably, every change has been for the better. In the last few years, the classic “grim grinning ghosts” have been gussied up with a floating head, a murderous bride and an Escher-esque staircase. This month, Disney unveiled the latest additions to the mansion, centered around the cemetery outside the ominous attraction. What was once a postage-stamp graveyard of goofy tributes to the ride’s original designers has been expanded into a sprawling interactive playground. (Don’t panic, the original headstones are still on display).

Stylistically, these additions draw more from “Grandpa Marc” Davis’ cartoonish characters than “Brother Claude” Coats’b>creepy art direction, but they certainly don’t “ruin” the ride as some online commenters have complained. Some of the playthings on display, like the pipe organ that spritzes water and the mariner’s crypt that sprays bubbles, mostly serve to keep kids cool on hot days. But a few activities are truly original in the way they approach interactivity within a theme-park queue context. A grouping of busts near the queue entrance is treated like a photo-op by most guests, but read the plaques carefully: The epitaphs present a clever (if simple) Clue-like murder mystery to solve. Even better, a crypt in the rear corner uses digital projection and sophisticated voice recognition to play a rhyming fill-in-the-blank game. Watch the book’s blank pages magically fill with verse, then speak aloud the missing word to complete the poem.

Once inside, there’s an even bigger interactive upgrade at the end of the ride. For 40 years, a trio of hitchhiking ghosts have followed you home with a primitive but effective mirror trick. That finale has been replaced with a new computerized image-recognition system that allowed Gus (the prisoner ghost) to pull off his beard and stick it on my chin. Around me, I saw other guests get decapitated and have their heads switched or blown up like balloons. Although I was concerned about tampering with traditions, these additions happily turned out well enough to induce me to ride twice in a row.

More worrisome was word that, following the demolition of his Toontown home, Mickey was holed up on Main Street USA with a harem of Disney Princesses, and Fastpasses could be used for the first time to gain entry to a character meet-and-greet.b>Now that the new Town Square Theater is open (in a space that once showed the Walt Disney Story), it turns out that this is the most pain-free way to meet the Mouse. I picked up a Fastpass ticket, showed up hours past my appointed time and got in with no problem, despite rumors that missing your appointment meant missing Mickey.

My intimate moment with Mickey,b>who was dressed in a magician’s tuxedo in keeping with the turn-of-the-century theater theme, was a bit too brief. And I wish the exit gift shop kept the theme going by carrying actual magic tricks. Mostly, I miss the days when you could just randomly bump into the characters as you walked around, but that’s been done in Orlando for a decade; you have to go to Disneyland for that delight. In a few years Disney’s age-old switchback queue will fade away, and timed reservations and interactive holding pens will become the new normal. If Haunted Mansion and Town Square Theater are previews of Disney future, we can only hope the rest are as well done.

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