Disney pulled the plug on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and nobody seemed to notice

A user at one of the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom portals - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
A user at one of the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom portals
Jan. 24 marked the end of an era for Disney Parks. This weekend, Disney pulled the plug on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. The move came just a month before the ninth anniversary of the interactive dispersed attraction that will be remembered for its historic role in the evolution of themed entertainment.

Spread across the Magic Kingdom, the interactive game had 20 automated stations, known as portals, where guests could battle Disney villains using “spell cards.” Multiple missions existed, each using a small handful of portals and requiring around a half-hour to complete.

When it debuted in 2012, Sorcerers was heralded as the future of theme park attractions. The various elements of the attraction had each been used previously, but even now the combination of those elements remains unique among top-tier theme parks.

Two and a half years earlier, Disney had updated the Space Mountain queue to include game stations where guests waiting in line could play short 90-second games while they waited in line. A similar, non-gamified interactive queue opened a year later when the much anticipated Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh debuted in Fantasyland.
An Imagineer works on Space Mountain's interactive queue - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
An Imagineer works on Space Mountain's interactive queue
Sorcerers had interactive, video-based portals similar to those seen in Space Mountain but added wireless interactivity via the cards, which were scanned via a Microsoft Kinect-style camera. The concept drew heavy inspiration from MagiQuest, a standalone attraction that had huge success since debuting in 2005.

In the seven years between MagiQuest's debut and Disney’s Sorcerers game opening, MagiQuest became a major player in themed entertainment, with Great Wolf Lodge partnering and eventually acquiring a majority share in the company. That move helped redefine the water park resort chain.

Disney Imagineers had been developing concepts for a quest-based attraction since the 1990s, when the company worked with the creators of Myst on a stand-alone attraction concept once slated for Bay Lake’s Discovery Island. Ironically, those same creators would work with MagiQuest to develop a digital expansion to the physical attractions. By this point, the Myst project at Imagineering had been canceled.

Unlike the earlier Myst project or MagiQuest, Sorcerers replaced the interaction with physical props with a system that relied heavily on screens, each of which was artfully camouflaged to blend in with the land where it was located.
Disney pulled the plug on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and nobody seemed to notice (7)
Image via Disney
The genius of Sorcerers wasn't digitizing what MagiQuest was doing, but merging it with another trend that was already reshaping Disney Parks. After being introduced during the Millenium Celebration, collectible pins had become a major retail item throughout Disney World. A pin trading booth sat in the middle of Epcot's Future World and the resort's calendar was filled with pin trading events. But with complex cameras required for the new interactive game, the small metal pins wouldn't work.

Disney looked at another popular collectible. In the late '90s and early 2000s, Pokémon had taken over the nation, with schoolchildren and adults alike consumed by the trading card game. Disney replaced the need for multiple players by using screens. Like Pokémon, Disney made the card collecting aspect of Sorcerers a game unto itself.
Some of the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
Some of the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards
Oddly, Disney never fully embraced the collectible side of the cards, instead opting to give them away to any guest requesting them. Cards could be picked up, one pack per guest per day, at the Firehouse on Main Street. The only financial gains from the collectible side of the attraction came from ticket sales, although rare cards were released at special events or occasions. According to industry insider Jim Hill, this led to higher ticket sales at some events, as fans of the game sought these exclusive cards. Disney did sell a board game version of the attraction and card binders could be found in select gift shops.

With MagiQuest and Pokémon leading the way, Disney had tapped into already proven trends to find the perfect harmony of gamification and collectible.

But the now closed attraction should also be remembered for its role in helping usher in a new era of storytelling for the company — one that was just emerging as possible thanks to advances in game engine capabilities.

During a 2014 lecture to UCLA’s Architecture and Urban Design program, Walt Disney Imagineering Vice President of Creative/R&D Scott Trowbridge shared how Disney was looking to add guest interaction to its storytelling.

“I think there's a shift happening in our world that is driven by a lot of things. Technology drives it, culture drives, and society drives it. And it's driving us towards this idea of dynamic experiences, transitional experiences, and, more importantly, with the kind of the digitization of creative and production tools. There's a democratization of the creative process happening. I think driving a lot of interesting ideas in terms of co-creation, fan engagement, audience engagement. And now not only is there technology there to kind of co-create on a massive basis with people, but there's actually a growing expectation of agency and the way people live their lives and the kind of experiences they're having.” 

Trowbridge was brought into Disney Imagineering after helping Universal realize the original Wizarding World. At Disney, he has led multiple projects exploring the idea of dynamic storytelling, ultimately leading to his active role in designing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Trowbridge's comments bear a striking resemblance to ones made two years prior when the lead Imagineer on the Sorcerers project spoke to Inside the Magic.

Jonathon Ackley has a background in video game design and robotic toys. One of his first projects at Disney was the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure scavenger hunt at Epcot. This interactive scavenger hunt is viewed as the precursor to Sorcerers. For Ackley, Sorcerers was different because of the agency given to players. “[W]hat we’re doing with what we call these ‘immersive experiences’ is we’re making the guests the main character in the Disney story,” Ackley explained to Inside the Magic. “So, it’s classic Disney storytelling, but we’re sort of changing the role of the guest to be the main character instead of somebody passing through the world.”
A map showing the four Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom portals found within Adventureland - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
A map showing the four Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom portals found within Adventureland
While the two have never been officially linked, the collecting and individual gameplay concept was foundational to another major move by Disney. Disney Infinity was a bold video game concept that was announced 11 months after Sorcerers’ debut. It’s no surprise that the theme park attraction is so similar to a video game. The very design of Sorcerers has its roots in Ackley’s earlier video game design knowledge. This gamification of storytelling via both collectible game pieces and interactive portals remains unique among top tier theme parks.

Jonathan Ledbetter teaches human factor psychology at Indiana University. He previously worked for Disney and focused his Ph.D. dissertation on interactivity within attraction queues. He spoke to Orlando Weekly regarding the historic role Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has played in theme park design.

“Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom was outside of a typical attraction, you know, it was sort of attraction within itself. The gamification of it made it unique. One of the things that kept a lot of people really interested in coming back for more is because they had multi-levels. It wasn't just a one and done experience. If you go back and think about the interactive scavenger hunt found at Epcot, there, you know, once you got through most of the stories, it was done. There isn’t a lot of repeatability there, whereas, in Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, you can achieve certain levels. You power up on some of your cards. And the cards themselves become a type of game. They give you a certain set of cards, and then you want to collect them all; some are rarer than others. It really entices you to keep coming back for more because maybe you'll get that one rare card. With the different cards and multiple levels, it’s a brand-new experience each and every time. That's what's been so fascinating about Sorcerers. It's very much two-way interactive. What happens on the screen depends on which cards you present.”
Disney pulled the plug on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and nobody seemed to notice (5)
Image via Disney

The multiple levels, various cards, and interactive portals combined to make Sorcerers unique, even by today’s theme park standards, says Ledbetter.

“When you think of gamification, it's really just providing motivation and incentive to continue an experience. Gamification really came around strong in education and training because they're looking into ways to motivate students to learn and be engaged in the material versus just being bored with the material. Things like badges, or even a virtual patch, people like to achieve those rewards,” explains Ledbetter. “Going back to the theme park, we've seen some similar things to that with rides like Buzz Lightyear or Toy Story Mania…but we've not seen anything to the level of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. It's quite interesting how you have all the different cards, and the difficulty can do different things. I mean, it's a complex game to be in a setting like a theme park.”

The complexity of the game may have proven to be part of its downfall. The gamification works well for locals or repeat visitors, but Magic Kingdom, the most visited theme park globally, sees fewer regular visitors than other Disney parks, such as Disneyland in California. According to Ledbetter, this may have played a role in its demise. “I think it would work better at parks like Disneyland, where you get much more of local guests coming back versus at Disney World.” He notes that WDW is seeing an uptick in locals right now, though it’s unclear if it’s enough to sustain attractions designed for repeat visitors.
Game portals, like this one on Main Street, were designed to blend in with their land. - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
Game portals, like this one on Main Street, were designed to blend in with their land.
By the time the attraction had debuted, Disney Imagineers were already testing a scavenger hunt-like experience that allowed for multi-day adventures better suited for on-site guests. The test games led guests from a resort lobby into the theme park, where they would interact with actors, other guests and special props. The interactive storylines could be commingled and provide a more immersive experience by using more dynamic actors and evolving storylines. The inability to scale up these offerings forced Disney to abandon many aspects of it until they could more accurately predict player movements. This technology would eventually see its way into Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Rumors point to Disney adding other themed multi-day experiences in a similar vein to the Star Wars-themed one.
click to enlarge A scene on the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
A scene on the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser
Sorcerers required a large amount of infrastructure, but the technology had begun to age over time. The cameras struggled to make out certain cards, and the audio system was a constant source of distraction for nearby guests. There were also issues with integrating the portals in their respective lands due to the large video screens that always seemed out of place in certain areas such as Liberty Square and Adventureland.

The use of screens meant each portal could feature multiple storylines and interactions, but the intrusion into the theme they created was a disadvantage. By using the screens, Disney removed the need for players to interact with one another. When Universal debuted their interactive wands in 2014, they opted for no screens, instead using physical props. The Potter wands also provide less interaction than the dozens of different cards used in Sorcerers. Unlike the bulky MagiQuest wands, Universal uses a camera system similar to Sorcerers. Despite receiving more attention, the wand interactions provide far less agency and outcomes than the cards used in the Magic Kingdom attraction, but this hasn't stopped tourists from embracing them. While Disney was handing out Sorcerers cards for free, Universal was charging nearly $50 for wands, with long lines of guests eager to purchase them.

Disney has divorced the collectible aspect from the game experience. In Galaxy’s Edge, any guest can visit Savi's Workshop to hand-build a customized lightsaber, no gameplay needed. The lightsabers have been compared to Universal's wands and they cost roughly twice as much. Even the location of the lightsaber workshop has a hidden in plain sight aesthetic that draws direct comparisons to Universal's Diagon Alley. But the lightsabers offer extremely limited interactivity, even when compared to the wands. Droids that could interact with the land were promised ahead of the opening of Galaxy's Edge but so far that and the other interactive elements of the land haven't been realized in any significant way. There are indications more interactivity will be rolled out at a later date, but these elements remain turned off. For now, the "democratization" of guests guiding their own story relies on a handful of actors roaming the land and the video game-like Millennium Falcon attraction.

In recent years, as interactivity became more complex, Disney cut out the costly infrastructure required. They shifted much of the co-creation storytelling experience onto people’s cellphones. When Disney promoted the new mobile offerings, they made sure to draw a direct line from Ackley's earlier work. Disney replaced the Space Mountain games with similar ones on the Disney Parks app. The games are unlocked once someone is in line for the attraction. Similar games and app-based entertainment have been rolling out for other attractions as well. The pinnacle of this would debut within Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where an interactive mobile game would allow visitors to engage with elements within the land. Mashable declared the app Disney's "secret weapon for immersion." But none of the mobile offerings seem to have taken off in the same way physical games such as Sorcerers once did. Few guests seem to even know the mobile interactivity exists and even fewer engage with it.
click to enlarge The Disney Parks official app now includes themed games, quick bite videos, and other entertainment designed to immerse guests into the parks. - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
The Disney Parks official app now includes themed games, quick bite videos, and other entertainment designed to immerse guests into the parks.
Ledbetter points to the fact that we already use smart devices on a regular basis to kill time, so doing it in a theme park doesn’t seem that unique or special. “I think a lot of it has to do with what level of immersion that you feel within the story. Now we want to enter the physical world of that attraction. It's a form of escapism. Having the gamification attached to your phone really doesn't seem any different than outside of the theme park. You know, we have games already on our phones. So why is it anything novel or interesting? It's almost a jarring effect because it's something from the outside world.”

This, he thinks, is why the Potter wands have been so successful despite their limited storytelling abilities.

“Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter using the wands is very effective because it's a separate device that doesn't exist in our world outside of that themed environment," Ledbetter says. “When you look at different levels of immersion, and engagement, and escapism, as you increase the level of theming into the story and try to harmonize a lot of those different themed elements, and as long as they're cohesive, then we feel much more immersed. It's very similar to the simple thing that started with Disneyland. They wanted to create a berm because they wanted to make sure that the outside world didn't enter the park. They wanted to maintain and control the experience. So, the more things you bring from the outside world into that themed world, it starts to lose some of that impressiveness and escapism.”

Even while Disney continues to promote the Galaxy’s Edge Datapad app, there’s no indication it will be a major aspect of the multi-day experience. Instead, the experience will have guests visit the theme park lands to interact with actors and elements. By limiting the number of guests and pre-destining where they will go within the land, the new experience will address one of the primary criticisms of Sorcerers.

Early on, when the game was still very popular, long lines would often be found at each portal. These lines did dissipate over time, but on busier days could still be occasionally seen. In recent years the interactive game has been overlooked as new offerings, like Galaxy's Edge, fill Disney's marketing efforts. That will only grow stronger as we inch closer to the opening of the Galactic Starcruise experience. Still, Disney’s return to these non-mobile in-park experiences gives some hope to a future iteration of Sorcerers.

For now, Disney hasn’t announced what will replace the game and the 20 portals scattered around the Magic Kingdom. Ledbetter admits he’s sad that he won’t be able to play the game one last time. “It's a bit heartbreaking to see it go. Even though parts of it haven’t aged well, it was very innovative when it debuted.”

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