The Problem With Immersion (And The Lost Art Of Suspending Our Disbelief)

If you're even vaguely into theme parks you'll have seen this word thrown around at an increasingly alarming rate to the point where it's almost become a parody of itself: immersive. This new attraction is so IMMERSIVE. I felt so IMMERSED in this new land. The music and special effects were so IMMERSIVE. And so on. But, what the heck does immersive really mean anyway?

In a theme park context, we use immersive to describe an attraction that does such a good job combining the theming, ride system, music and sound, SFX and everything else in between that we forget the real world exists as we are completely wrapped up in the world this theme park attraction is creating for us. We're really under the sea exploring tropical reefs, or battling some monster plaguing a village, or bravely hunting ghost in a a creepy old haunted house. Fully immersed. 

That's what we tell ourselves anyway, but here's my beef with the word and its inferred meaning in a theme park context: can we ever be truly immersed in an attraction? The answer to that is of course no, unless maybe we're having a delusional episode in which case I would advise leaving the theme park and calling an ambulance ASAP. No matter how great the theming is, how brilliantly realistic the ambient sound is, how fantastic a storyline, we always know deep down that we paid for a ticket to be there experiencing it and at some point near the start of our day we walked through the turnstiles to begin our adventure. It's that dose of reality that bookends these immersive activities that for me mean no attraction can ever be 100% immersive. 

And therefore I find it baffling when we see theme park fans nitpicking ridiculous things because they're 'not immersive'. It's like suspension of disbelief has all but disappeared in this day and age. We see it with films too: YouTube channels like CinemaSins and their 'Everything Wrong With...' series go out of their way to overanalyse media to point out things that just wouldn't happen in the real world and therefore the media is dumb. And yes, I know these things aren't intended to be taken literally and are meant to be a bit of fun, but my fear is that line is just so blurred now one often forgets that we're supposed to overlook glaringly obvious 'real world' plot holes in order to let the media do its thing so that we can, you know, enjoy it? 

We see the very same thing happening with theme parks, many fans often forgetting that not all parks have the mega-budgets of the Disney and Universals of the world. Even when these theme park behemoths are concerned, there are parts of their attractions that just cannot be fully immersive. At the end of the day no matter how much you want to convince me that I have been shrunken down to the size of a rat scampering around the restaurants of Paris, I'm pretty sure real rats don't glide along slick black floors and dance with one another, nor are they made of plastic. But there are enough cues there that I'm willing to play along and accept that we're playing make believe so that I can fully enjoy the experience as intended, as opposed to going out of my way to count just how many projectors are on display if I squint hard enough and purposely avert my gaze from the position it is being artistically directed towards. 

Disney in particular can limit themselves where the question of immersion is concerned, particularly when it comes to thrill rides. Unless the theme calls for a vehicle design itself, it's very hard to convince riders that the 'boarding the roller coaster' part makes sense in terms of an immersive narrative. It's why things like Big Thunder Mountain and its trains, Expedition Everest with its old tea train, Rock n RollerCoaster where we're boarding a limousine to get across town and beat the LA traffic, all make sense but are grounded in the 'real world' and don't allow for deeper levels of fantasy, lest we get too avant garde. And the thing with going too avant garde is you leave your storyline down to the riders' interpretation, meaning less narrative control for the ride designers, something the Imagineers are wont to do. And so we get stuck with these kind of..almost boring/normal ride vehicles for the sake of narrative consistency. And immersion. 

And yes, I KNOW we're the pedantic internet generation who adore picking stuff apart. We love a good Buzzfeed article pointing out continuity errors or a rogue Starbucks cup left on a Winterfell table. There's something enjoyable about the GOTCHA-ness of discovering such errors, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't found a little glee in them myself, but is that joy of nit-picking greater than the joy of allowing myself to believe for a second that I am really on a quest or an adventure on the back of a dragon or chasing a waterfall or something? Absolutely not. And I truly believe I'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who genuinely prefers the former. 

It's a slippery slope I've found - once you start purposely looking around in attractions and away from the position your gaze is intended to be you not only go against the grain of the attraction directors' vision but you do yourself a disservice too. You never experience the ride as intended if you go in with this motive of finding those real-world reminders that determine an attraction to be 'not immersive!!', and yet the concept of true immersion in a theme park isn't actually achievable, so really what is even the point?

This isn't a call for us to allow attractions to be a little more rough around the edges. Like the next theme park fan the less 'real-world' reminders I can see when I'm enjoying a day out at a theme park the better. But we have GOT to stop purposely looking for things that 'break immersion' and fall back in love with the beauty of giving one's self up to that suspension of disbelief. 


What do you think? Can a ride ever be truly immersive? Do you care if a ride is immersive or not? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to have a chat!

Talk later xoxo,