From Nintendo to Minions: How theme parks are becoming more like video games

6 October 2023

I’ve had a thing for video games pretty much my entire life.

Even before I spent countless hours of my childhood playing BurgerTime or Super Mario Bros., my dad told me he would have to drag me out of the arcade kicking and screaming after he let me pretend to play the games inside. He never actually stuck any quarters in the machines, but the flashing lights and loud noises were plenty to keep a toddler entranced.

Now that I’ve practically given away my age, I feel comfortable saying that 40-ish years later, I’m still just as fascinated with video games as I was back then. I’ve seen the industry evolve from 8-bit games with a singular goal and storyline to open-world games with incredibly realistic graphics.

Related: These are the 10 best rides at Universal Orlando

There are many other examples that show how theme park attractions are becoming more like video games, but for me, the most incredible advancement in this gamification of theme parks was stepping into the real-life Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood earlier this year.

From the satisfying “ding” of earning a coin by punching a question block to getting behind the steering wheel of a Mario Kart race, I truly felt as if I had stepped through the TV screen and into my favorite childhood games. It also gave me a chance to indulge my (mostly healthy) competitive spirit.

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In the interest of exploring this trend on a deeper level, I spoke with Victor Lugo, director of immersive experiences for Universal Creative at Universal Orlando Resort, to learn more about how Universal is using this trend to power up its newest attractions and experiences.

Why guests enjoy immersive theme park experiences

Lugo’s team is responsible for driving the creative development of interactive lands like Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood and the new Minion Land at Universal Orlando.

“This includes the rides and attractions, but also the associated journey through the land and any connected toys, games or products,” Lugo told TPG.

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At the new Minion Land at Universal Orlando Resort, for example, you can use the in-app gameplay feature to enhance your experience on the Illumination’s Villain-Con Minion Blast attraction. The app allows you to track your score, customize your blaster, unlock special missions and earn digital awards. It takes the typical theme park experience of being a passive observer in a fixed setting with a predetermined story to becoming an active participant in a world where you can choose your own adventure.

If you’re anything like me, that adventure probably involves harnessing your competitive spirit to max out your points and see your name on the leaderboard.

UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Some theme park guests enjoy sitting back and taking it all in, but others want to be “heroes of their own journey,” according to Lugo. “As gaming, role-playing and immersive spaces become more popular, those people who want to become the hero of their own journey provide an opportunity for us to deliver something that’s extra special and new within the parks,” he said. “We have the ability to immerse people deeper because we put you in the space and make you the hero.”

How do theme parks develop immersive experiences?

“We start with a set of design principles that make sure we don’t ignore the core audience that we are trying to deliver to,” Lugo explained.

Lugo’s team can’t assume that every visitor who comes through the front gates is an experienced gamer. Rather, their goal is to design an experience that is enjoyable for everyone.

“That is the first layer,” he said. “We use that as a baseline, making sure that everybody can come in, understand the rules of the experience, what their objective is and how they can become successful in play.”

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After creating this first layer, Universal does rigorous play testing to make sure people can interact with the experience. From there, Lugo’s team can add more complex layers.

“We start to think about what the repeat guest is going to want, what a hardcore player is going to want or what features we can use to build community … what will get people to continue to talk about that high score or those extra perks and things that we add in the app,” Lugo said.

For example, when riding Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge at Super Nintendo World, a guest with zero video game knowledge can have just as much fun driving through the various scenes as someone who’s really in it to win it. Their goals are different, but they can both have an enjoyable experience because all the elements are there.

Lugo’s team also layers in features that will get people talking about Minion Land or an attraction in hopes they’ll return again and again — and invite their friends to compete alongside them.

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I experienced this firsthand when I returned to Super Nintendo World with my family in tow. We love a little friendly competition, and we had so much fun seeing who could collect the most coins or get the highest score on Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge.

It’s also entirely possible that I texted my friends a photo of my name on the leaderboard after I landed in the “Top 30 Villains” of the day on Villain-Con Minion Blast while at Universal Orlando’s Minion Land.

What’s good for guests is also good for theme parks

It’s clear at this point that I am immediately hooked on any attraction that allows me to best myself and compete against friends and family, but a high score isn’t all I’m after. I am genuinely delighted when I discover something new I didn’t notice on my previous rides.

These immersive attractions are designed to be different each time you ride. In fact, one of the primary advantages of creating attractions like these is the ability to vary the adventure.

“We can add new content, whether that’s seasonally or if Illumination has a new movie coming out, or we can make changes based on the things people love or don’t love,” Lugo said. “That’s very different than a coaster. Once it’s built, the track is locked and you can’t change it. It creates a platform for us to continue to tell stories and grow with our fans … when we can include an experience that’s more personalized to your preferences, your experience becomes better.”

Combine that personalization and the accompanying variability with the desire to master these gamified attractions and share them with friends and family, and you have a recipe for an unforgettable experience that guests will want to keep repeating. For theme parks, that means higher ticket sales as these repeat guests keep passing through the turnstiles.

As Universal and other theme parks introduce new attractions based on movies, video games and other entertainment properties, they are opening up the door to fandoms who may not have previously considered themselves theme park fans.

Looking toward the future

As you may have suspected, the line between theme parks and video games is beginning to blur. Technology continues to progress, allowing theme parks to bring things into the real world that, at one time, you could only encounter on screen. Lugo believes these types of escapades will only become more prevalent.

“The more we continue to build these lands and the more we create playgrounds for people to play in, it leaves an opportunity for us to provide a more immersive experience for guests,” Lugo said.

This will be so much more than an interactive shooter attraction that keeps your score in an app.

“As guests, we have the ability to explore this space. When you add a layer of interactivity and context, be it a challenge or and adventure, it gives you even more incentive to explore the space,” Lugo said. “So I think the future — beyond just an attraction itself — is to really give people incentive to explore the space, interact with the characters, explore the scenery, find all the find hidden things … and go on a more elaborate journey. That, to me, is the future.”

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Lugo added that he hopes visitors will be able to experience all elements of their favorite fantasy world at once.

“I think one day, in a perfect world that will probably happen sooner than later, we will tie the attraction and the land in a way that feels totally seamless,” he said. “We take you on a journey and make sure you have fun, but that connection and that relationship’s gonna get even tighter in the future.”

In a more specific example, he hypothesized: “Maybe there’s a payoff for going on the ride and vice versa, where the content changes on the ride because of what you did in the land. I think we have to use all the opportunities we can to allow people to play and just be the hero.”

Bottom line

As for what that future will bring and when we, as guests, may get to experience it, I have a feeling we need only to look at Universal Orlando’s forthcoming park, Epic Universe. The park is on track to open in 2025, and Orlando’s version of Super Nintendo World has already been confirmed as one of the lands.

When I think of lands like Super Nintendo World and Minion Land, I don’t know how theme parks can become even more immersive than they already are. However, I’m glad there are people like Lugo out there who can execute that vision. I may not be able to dream up the future of theme parks, but I can’t wait to explore whatever they become.

Related reading:

Universal Orlando guide: Tips from frequent visitors
How to use points to save money at Universal Orlando
These are the best hotels at Universal Orlando
The most surprisingly charming hotel I’ve stayed at in years: Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Part luxury, all rock ‘n’ roll: What it’s like at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando

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