Physical Theoreticals

Don’t Touch That: Enhancing The Post-COVID Interactive Theme Park Experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the course of the themed entertainment industry. Theme parks now have a new complex concern surrounding the health and safety of their guests and employees. Upon reviewing published literature and current practices in place, the project identified functional performance requirements for supporting immersion and engagement while also promoting safe distancing and touchless interaction in the queue areas of attractions. This is represented by a prototype and implemented in a hypothetical themed attraction. By creating this system, guests will be able to stay six feet away from each other, while engaging in an immersive narrative. This major research project explores functional performance and usability that was reviewed and by industry professionals. Expert feedback was offered and implemented within final design and conclusion. The prototype proposed is a tangible example of an immersive, touchless interaction with a design approach that is feasible, appealing and merits further consideration and development.
About the Author
Emily Lê

Emily is a storyteller at heart with a strong passion in themed entertainment. During her undergraduate experience she focused within the realm of electronic art by means of visual design and video production. At Colorado State University she was able to combine her passions of new media and social justice through various projects. She is a strong supporter of technology and new media being a productive way to encourage dialogue and tell stories of those not often seen or heard. Since receiving her BFA in 2016, Emily moved to Orlando, Florida where she worked as a cast member in various roles at Walt Disney World. There, she was fully encompassed in the world of themed entertainment and knew this was the industry where she would like to grow her career. Always a lover of fantastical worlds, Emily finds joy in creating engaging environments and immersive stories.

About the Project


The global pandemic of 2020 has changed the course of the themed entertainment industry. Executives around the world have had to rethink their strategy for operations and design in their properties. Companies like the Walt Disney Company had shut down their global parks for the first time since their creation. COVID-19 is a threat  to any business that relies for its appeal on  immersive and interactive elements. The draw of theme parks is the opportunity for guests to fully engage with tangible experiences and be immersed in their favourite stories. Due to the nature of a theme park, guests are prone to being close to one another, whether that be in an attraction, restaurant, or retail space. Therefore, a theme park can be a generous breeding ground for an airborne respiratory virus that is spread through interpersonal proximity and potentially surface contact.

Current COVID-19 precautions in Disney Springs (July 2020)

Research Question

Are there digital technologies that could promote physical distancing while maintaining or enhancing interaction, immersion, and engagement?

Background and Intent

Queues are an integral part of any theme park. They assist with guest flow and crowd mitigation. Unfortunately, they also are prone to guests and employees being in close quarters. These spaces are an optimal opportunity to introduce new tactics and technology to enhance safety measures in regards to social distancing.

Eight Guidelines to Queue Design (Ledbetter et al., 2013):

  • A queue design needs to foster engagement.
  • The queue environment should maintain the guests’ level of interest in the attraction.
  • Queue environments should support positive effects.
  • Comfort should not be overlooked in queues.
  • Visually separate inequitable wait times within queues.
  • Line layout should facilitate interpersonal interaction.
  • Guests should be adequately informed about the wait duration.

Understanding these guidelines will help design a prototype that will provide an example of a touchless interactive element easily integrated to the design of a queue for a themed attraction. 

Conceptual Application (The Curse of Nemo)

Early concept art for Discover Atlantis interactive queue by Keegan Toscano

Discover Atlantis is a hypothetical ride themed around the story of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Within the queue there are various activities for guests to experience, to keep them preoccupied during their wait. For this research, The Curse of Nemo, an interactive prototype was created to showcase how touchless technology can encourage social distancing guidelines within a queue, while also keeping guests immersed in the narrative of an attraction.

As guests are grouped within the queue, each will be assigned to a different plinth. Using Arduino and Ultrasonic Sensor technology, the sensor will start identifying the motion and distance of the guests moving forward. These will cue various reactions assigned to the different motions until the guests are less than two feet in front of the plinth. To ensure, many of the senses are being stimulated, the reactions will appear through an LCD screen on the plinth, make sound in the speakers, and the “shell”, itself, will use visual cues through RGB light. 

Once the guests are within two feet of the plinth, the “shell” will begin storytelling and give more context to the attraction and interactive queue space. A key feature within this interaction is that once guests are within the two foot distance in front of the sensor, if they move out of that proximity the “shell” will react negatively, encouraging them to stay in the designated space.

Relying on storytelling and immersive narrative, this interaction will keep the guests entertained and six feet apart from other groups. It will also help with operations and throughput as the Curse of Nemo will be the start of the guests’ interactive adventure, leading them to the next activity found throughout the room. Due to time and resource constraints, more interactive elements, unfortunately could not be fully fleshed out.


Curse of Nemo renderings by Keegan Toscano

Although the Curse of Nemo is specifically themed to the Discover Atlantis attraction, the technology and principal of the interactive activity can be applied to various areas of a theme park. The Curse of Nemo, and interactive applications similar, have the ability to enhance the guest experience at theme parks for a post-pandemic world. It is an example of how touchless, interactive, narrative-driven elements can, not only encourage play and immersive activity for guest enjoyment, but also address the challenges of operating a theme park during the middle of a pandemic and thereafter. Even after a vaccine has been implemented and numbers of those affected by COVID-19 start to decline, there is no telling how people will respond to the “new normal”. Creating new forms of immersive experiences will be the key to moving forward within theme parks. Touchless storytelling is just the beginning for themed entertainment and embracing life at six feet apart.

As we now have seen, the live and themed entertainment industries have taken a huge hit with the current state of the world. After all, how do you create engaging and deeply immersive physical experiences when you're not allowed within 6 feet of another person? As multi billion dollar companies started announcing the closing of their properties, inspiration hit. In an industry that I have strived so long to expand my passions within, why not use my skills and research to benefit its future? Sensor based interactives are nothing new and have been enjoyed by many for years. Their principles and technologies can easily be transferred into the themed experience, not only for overall guest engagement but also promoting health and safety practices, in other words, touchless storytelling. So, I hope with my research and study I can contribute to the larger conversation of what the future of immersive, narrative-driven experiences look like.