Visits to Trader Sam's Grotto Grog, 'The Republic' and NBCUniversal's Hackathon 

click to enlarge Trader Sam's Grotto Grog

Seth Kubersky

Trader Sam's Grotto Grog

When I arrived in Orlando, theme park queues consisted of endless boring switchbacks, and the closest thing to an immersive adult attraction was Club Juana. Today, new advances in interactive entertainment are exploding in area theme parks, bars and even a soon-to-be demolished warehouse. Last weekend I spent 24 hours in the future, getting three sneak peeks into the themed entertainment of tomorrow.

Trader Sam's Grotto Grog at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort

The original Trader Sam's tiki bar in Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel is one of my happiest places on earth, so I was overjoyed to learn an East Coast outpost was being installed in Disney's Polynesian hotel; it was almost enough to forgive their bulldozing of the lobby's iconic waterfalls for a shrugging statue. Apparently I'm not alone, because the new bar's first soft opening on March 28 attracted well over 100 hopeful imbibers an hour before opening.

That's an issue when the bar's interior (which is themed to the hilt with kitschy decor, including castoffs from the Mr. Toad and Maelstrom rides) holds fewer than 50 guests, especially when some stay for hours, ordering all of the signature rum cocktails to experience the special effects triggered by each. I waited about two and a half hours on the outdoor tiki terrace, enjoying live music and full food and beverage service (sans effects), but others behind me waited four hours or more.

With Trader Sam's, Disney found the same magic formula that's made Universal's Harry Potter lands so profitable: create a place where people want to stay and spend money. While paying $18 to $52 for a drink may sound insane, the price includes a generous pour in a sturdy souvenir vessel. My glass HippopotoMai-Tai mug fits well with my vintage tiki barware. If it weren't for the long waits, and the trek to and from Magic Kingdom parking (the hotel has cracked down on locals using their lot), this would become one of my favorite hangouts.

The Republic Fundraiser

I sailed straight from tropical Trader Sam's to the grimly dystopian world of The Republic. The brainchild of Universal associate attraction designer Sarah Elger, this ambitious interactive experience is being installed in an 18,000-square-foot warehouse on Alden Road that's scheduled for demolition by year's end. In the meantime, it is being transformed into a detailed labyrinth of theatrical environments in which a semi-improvised story plays out with the audience's participation.

The Republic opens its doors May 15 with a beta-test run during the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, so Saturday night's fundraiser party was only a taste of the attraction, which is intended to be more like Punchdrunk's interactive Sleep No More theater production than the puzzle escape rooms that have proliferated recently. In each corner of the warehouse, performers kibitzed in character, conveying crumbs of a complex backstory that crosses Greek mythology with Platonic politics.

Over the course of the evening, I watched a couple bicker behind the bar until their fight blew up into a choreographed tango; a man standing next to me was kidnapped and dragged to a back room; a scientist showed his secret weapon for overthrowing the authorities; and a hairy guest was made over in a dress and danced with a drag queen. None of these incidents are likely to be repeated when The Republic actually opens, but they give an idea of what may lie in store.

NBCUniversal Hackathon at Portofino Bay Hotel

More than 40 teams entered last weekend's NBCUniversal Hackathon and had 24 hours to prototype an app or product related to Universal's properties, with many designing technology-based tools to entertain or manipulate theme park guests. The caffeine overload and sleep deprivation to which participants subjected themselves in hope of winning the $10,000 prize wasn't dissimilar from what I've seen people go through during Play-in-a-Day events I've covered, but at least actors don't have to deal with server attacks from Chinese hackers, as some Hackathon competitors did.

Many of the proposals sought to gamify the park-going experience, turning your vacation exploration into an online role-playing game with quests to complete and characters to customize. Participants had access to technology from partners including Jawbone, Pixmob and Oculus, and combined them in interactive scenarios where aiming cellphones, waving wands or just walking around would activate lights and dispense free sodas (I'm not sure how the accountants will like that one). One team even used head-tracking 3-D glasses to transform the Portofino Bay's ballroom into Hogwarts.

With senior Universal designers like T.J. Mannarino on the judging panel, and Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury spotted in attendance, it would be no surprise if some of these concepts showed up in the parks. But while I'm all for alleviating queue boredom, I want experiences that get guests' faces out of their screens. Augmented reality and 3D-printable avatars are awesome, but I found the ideas for audio assistants that help visually impaired park guests navigate (one was prototyped from open-source components for under $40) infinitely more fascinating than yet another digital distraction.

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