Interview: Imagineer Jonathan Ackley details the creation of ‘Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom’ at Walt Disney World

in Disney, Entertainment, Featured, Magic Kingdom, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

The newest interactive experience at Walt Disney World debuted last week, pitting guests against Disney villains in a virtual battle to save the Magic Kingdom theme park. It’s called Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and it gives guests magic spells in the form of trading cards to aid in their quests to defeat (among others) Jafar, Ursula, Maleficent, Dr. Facilier, and the villain ultimately behind it all, Hades. Of course, all the battle takes place virtually, in a technology-driven role-playing video game of sorts, centered in screens secretly tucked away throughout the park. It’s an experience like no other in Disney’s theme parks and one that’s been years in the making.

Interactivity is a growing trend among Disney attractions, with newer rides like Toy Story Midway Mania and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin both based on the concept, and older rides like The Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain being retrofitted with “scene one” interactive elements, offering guests a chance to “play” before riding. But fans of the traditional passive Disney experience – you wait, you sit, you watch – have recently wondered just why Disney is emphasizing these interactive experiences so much lately, particularly at Walt Disney World.

The Sorcerer behind ‘Sorcerers’

Creating new Disney attractions is always a team effort, with Walt Disney Imagineers spending countless manhours designing, developing, and even conjuring up a bit of magic, to form what is ultimately a one-of-a-kind experience. But in the case of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, there is just one man who not only came up with the idea, but also led his team of Imagineers to see it through to its Feb. 22 completion.

His name is Jonathan Ackley and his formal title is Project Producer & Creative Director at Walt Disney Imagineering. But to fully understand the whys and hows of creating Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, it’s helpful to take a peek into Ackley’s background and experience, both at Disney and beforehand.

Before Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, Ackley was:

  • Creative Director for the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot (It’s the attraction to which Sorcerers is most often compared. More on that below.)
  • Concept Designer for “Midship Detective Agency” on the Disney Dream cruise ship
  • Game Designer for the “Menehune Adventure Trail” at Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii
  • Design Director for the Tokyo Disney Sea attraction “The Leonardo Challenge.”
  • His Disney credits also include R&D consulting at Walt Disney Imagineering, with projects including mobile technology and interactive television. And before his time at Disney, Ackley helped create the popular LEGO Mindstorms programmable robotics and the even more popular Lucasarts point-and-click adventure series in the ’90s that includes games like The Curse of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, and Sam and Max Hit the Road.

    It’s clear from his project history that Ackley has a passion for interactive gaming, one that he has brought to Disney’s theme parks and even cruise ships with great success. And his latest project is one of the most ambitious yet.


    You can listen to my full interview with Imagineer Jonathan Ackley in Show 360 of the Inside the Magic podcast below (starting roughly 35 minutes in) and/or read on for a transcript, with a few additional thoughts:


    How and why was ‘Sorcerers’ created?

    Imagineer Jonathan Ackley describes Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom as a “trading card role-playing game come to life.” But despite his experience in the highly-technical world of computer programming, Ackley insists the creation of the new experience was rooted in what Disney does best: storytelling.

    Why did you decide to add a park-wide interactive game to Walt Disney World?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “When Walt came up with his idea for Disneyland, his idea was that he would allow our guests to enter the world of his movies and clearly that was a good idea – very popular. But mostly, you sort of travel through the world of the movies and so what we’re doing with what we call these ‘immersive experiences’ is we’re making the guests the main character in the Disney story. 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. […] [We’re] taking those things that people love from the trading card games or from online role-playing games and bringing it out into the real world and really making use of the great Disney place-making. That’s really where no other company can really compete. We have these tremendous, essentially, sets for the movie stories.”

    When did you begin working on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “I was sort of hit by lightning four years ago as I was sitting at my desk and I was looking at different gameplay mechanics. Then we came up with a rough concept and then a partner of mine, Chris Purvis, took it and, he was in R&D at that point, and I had moved out of R&D, so he and his team put together a technology mock-up, which was very compelling and sort of proved the case that it was in fact possible.”

    Ackley went on to explain to me the many steps required to create an experience like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. From the idea phase, it began with a design document, followed by concept design and feasibility testing, and finally production and installation. The four-year process required a “cast of at least hundreds” throughout the development cycle. Ackley couldn’t compare it to the development of a Disney ride, as he has not worked on one, but he did say it’s “equivalent” in terms of creativity and effort, though ultimately admitting, “Obviously we’re not putting buildings in the ground.”

    But what of the notion that Disney attractions are leaning toward interactive experiences in favor of traditional dark rides and theater shows? Many park regulars prefer the latter, wondering if Disney intends to emphasize interactivity in all of its new attractions. Ackley insists Disney is not leaving behind its roots.

    Has recent guest feedback told you visitors are looking for a more active role than a traditional passive ride experience?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “One of the things we want to make clear is that we’re still building those classic experiences. […] But I think that there are people like me out there who ever since I was a 7-year-old kid have wondered why I can’t shoot back at the pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean – who do want to engage. So I think we’re now serving what previously has been an unserved constituency. We are putting the focus on technology and interactivity because that’s what I’m interested in, but there’s also some great classic attractions coming up soon. I think it’s a balance and I think one of the great things about Disney is that we are willing to innovate and try risky projects and then not just try them but go ahead and put the resources in needed to make them a success.”

    The components that form the interactive elements of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom are the trading cards – spell cards – that guests use to play the game. Each features a different Disney character, each with his or her own unique spell.

    How did you decide which characters and spells to include and how many laughs were had while doing so?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “A lot of laughs. We had a lot of fun. There are so many great characters to pick from and I certainly hope in the future we have a chance to come up with more of them. That’s certainly one of the most fun exercises because there are great characters and great attributes and funny things that can happen when the spells go off on the screen.”


    Gameplay

    Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is more than a typical Disney experience. It’s a game, but a game for which the rules have not been entirely clear. But guests playing should not become frustrated, instead embracing the challenge.

    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “Part of the game is intuiting what the rules are, because we’re not announcing what the rules are – which spells work against which villain.”

    Walt Disney Imagineering has on purpose withheld all of the details behind how its gameplay works, inviting guests to discover them while playing. And no two experiences are exactly alike.

    Imagineer Jonathan Ackley demonstrates casts a spell using a trading card in Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.

    Is there a skill to be developed in the game?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “It varies depending on the difficulty level. We go from the easy level – the majority of our theme park guests will prefer the easy level because it requires less of a time commitment. But then there are the people who want depth – the locals and the hardcore gamers – who are going to come back over and over again and they’re going to want a skill component to it. But obviously the more difficult we make it, the longer the experience. So what we’re doing is you sort of have to put in your time. You’ll have to play through on easy before you can play through on medium, then yo’ll have to play through on medium before you can play through on hard – at least that’s how we’re currently running it. And let me tell you: Hard is very difficult.”

    How do guests know which spell cards to play and when?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “I’m not going to talk too much about the other stats on the cards, because we’re not ready to talk about that yet, but right underneath the title of the spell, where it says attack and boost and shield, there’s a word above those three values. It’s something like ‘wishful’ or ‘quick’ or ‘energy’ or ‘charming’. Those are the specific spell types that you need to be looking at to tell which spells are best for the villains and then you also have to watch what’s going on on the screen to tell whether your spell is effective or not.”

    Video: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom – Adventureland quest (during testing)


    Comparisons and Concerns

    Since Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom first began guest testing earlier this month, fans – particularly Disney theme park regulars – were both excited to play the new game, but also raising many concerns, even complaints, about what the experience does and does not involve. In sitting down to chat with Jonathan Ackley, I wanted to be sure to address all of those major concerns and give him a chance to explain how Disney has proactively worked to ensure the experience is not only new and fun, but also fits in with the rest of the park.

    What feedback have you received in the first few weeks of testing Sorcerers?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “A ton of repeat play. A ton of locals have been playing – they really love it. The response from collectors has been enthusiastic. There are people who just really want to collect all 70 cards. And I think It’s building a community of these traders and these sorcerers.”

    Is it fair to compare Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom to the other Disney experiences you’ve recently worked on, the Midship Detective Agency and the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “They’re related. I actually pitched the idea for Midship Detective Agency after we started work on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. Technologically, they are very dissimilar. They have different goals. I would say that Midship Detective Agency is pretty much a classic adventure game, which is really more about discovery and exploration, whereas Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has many different mechanics going on. We’ve got a role-playing mechanic, because your character grows and becomes more strong. We have the trading card mechanic, meaning that you can gather more spells and trade them with other guests in the park – which is a really fun side effect of the game.”

    The Midship Detective Agency aboard the Disney Dream cruise ship.

    Why was it decided to base Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom on screens rather than physical elements and effects like Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “We’d already done Kim Possible. We wanted to come up with something different. Obviously with the photonic magic-based system we can deliver different adventures in the same location and with a big, large-size portal we can do a lot more with it in terms of the animation. […] Mostly we don’t necessarily want to repeat ourselves and we want to try new and different things.”

    Have you addressed the game’s noise level interfering with its surroundings?
    “The audio mix was really only done very recently. I don’t think that currently they’re at a level that they’re going to distract anybody. It’s a very noisy park and pretty much right now they’re tuned so that you can only hear them when you’re standing right on that Circle of Power. Early on, it was louder than it is now. […] We have park art directors and sound technicians and sound directors and everybody’s concern was making sure that the levels work for the experience and impinge on the park itself.”

    A guest plays Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom in Frontierland.

    How will you deal with the lines forming in front of each magic portal?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “In terms of the lines, we’ve pretty much addressed that. You can have lines of 2 or 3 and occasionally you’ll have lines longer. The magic in the Sorcerers system actually actively distributes people to where they should be. But we have this unfortunate thing called ‘human free will’ and if they stop for a half-hour to have lunch and then they come back in, it’s not like putting people on a conveyor belt in a building. When I have seen lines briefly, they go away after 5 minutes because the Sorcerers system recognizes that there’s a backup and then they move people out of the way and then the line is gone. […] All the missions are designed so that we can drop out one of the story points without actually affecting the overall story. So we can shorten the experience when required.”

    Specifically addressing the notion that Imagineers have shown a disregard for the Magic Kingdom park, its history, and its themed environments, Ackley added:
    “You read things and you hear things and there are these concerns and I think what I hope that people understand is that the concerns they have for the park are the very same concerns that we have developing an attraction. We’re not just megalomaniacally thinking about the attraction that we’re installing. We’re looking at the whole Magic Kingdom experience and trying to improve it for everybody.”


    Future of ‘Sorcerers’

    With last week’s official debut of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, many are left wondering if the experience is truly complete in its current state or if there will be more to it in the future. Though Disney has not announced any specific plans, Ackley doesn’t rule it out.

    Will Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom expand to New Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, or even a home version of the game?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “I’ve been focused just on making version 1.0 as good as it can be. Maybe now that it’s done and we can sit back and rest a little bit and look back and see what else we can do with the system, maybe we’ll look at that.”

    Are there any plans to integrate figurines (a la Skylanders) or any other gameplay aspects, or is Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom strictly a trading card game?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “Right now Sorcerers is a playing card game. So that’s as far as I’ve envisioned it.”

    Is Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom complete?
    JONATHAN ACKLEY: “As Walt said, Disneyland will never be done. It’s not like as Imagineers we put something in the park and then walk away and say, ‘It’s your problem now.’ I think we’ll continue to look at it and if we need to make changes we’ll make changes.”


    Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom made its official debut on Feb. 22, 2012 and is now open for all guests to enjoy at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park. Like any of Disney’s attractions, the game is included with park admission, as are the spell cards needed to play.

    Tune in to Show 360 of our Inside the Magic podcast for the full interview with Jonathan Ackley, including these questions and a few more. To see more of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, don’t miss our preview article from early guest testing.


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