Walt Disney World has begun enlisting the help of theme park guests to test the new park-wide interactive experience dubbed Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. Yesterday was the first day in which play testing began with day guests, allowing average attendees to become sorcerers and help stop evil villains from taking over the Magic Kingdom.
I took part in the test, which ran from early in the day until the “magic portals” closed at 4 p.m. A sign was posted outside the Main Street USA Fire Station inviting guests to take part in the game test. Inside, the Fire Station has been made over from a shop into Sorcerer’s Training, which begins with cast members handing guests a set of 5 randomly selected spell cards (there are 70 different cards total), a special key card, and a Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom map. Like any attraction, it’s all included with park admission and yes, guests do get to keep the cards.
Before I get too far into describing the new game’s details, it’s important to note that while many guests had the opportunity to take part in the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom adventure yesterday, it was indeed a test. Not all features of the game were activated yet, so what you see below is merely an introduction to just some of what’s to come. The basics of the game - magic portals, spell cards, key holds, etc. - will remain the same, but I’m told the actual gameplay itself will become far more involved, likened to a role-playing video game. Yesterday’s test was set to “easy” mode throughout the day, but “medium” and “hard” modes will be available in the future, for players who want more out of it. Disney was asking guests to return to the fire house after playing the game and offer their opinions, both to the game’s designers in person as well as by filling out a short questionnaire about the game’s features and playability. Testing will continue on and off in the coming days and weeks until Disney feels the experience is ready for its official debut.
So how does it play? Before describing it, it’s best to head to Fantasyland for a full quest from beginning to end, in the video below. It’s worth noting that one of the portals is rather difficult to see (both in the video and in person) due to the sun’s glare, an issue that I imagine will be corrected by the time the game fully debuts.
Video: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - Maleficent quest in Fantasyland
And another couple full quests, in Adventureland, Liberty Square, and Frontierland (Main Street USA testing had not yet begun):
Video: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - Emperor’s New Groove / Yzma quest in Adventureland
Video: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - Pocahontas quest in in Liberty Square & Frontierland
Now, let’s take a look at what’s in store for those who become Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom…
Merlin (from “The Sword in the Stone”) is the host of the interactive experience. With cards and maps in hand, guests step up to the first magic portal (a flat screen) on which Merlin introduces the dilemma at hand for which he, and Disney’s other heroes and heroines, need guests’ assistance. The game is summarized nicely on the map’s text:
“I created these Mystic Portals to sense the misdeeds of Villains and defeat any Evildoers! On your maps, you will see magic symbols. That is where you will find my Portals. When you are at a Portal and a magic symbol appears, find that symbol on the maps. You must immediately travel to that Portal. Once you find and open a Mystic Portal, stand on the Circle of Power and defeat the realm! That’s all for now! Good luck! I’ll meet up with you along the way. - Merlin”
Across Main Street USA, Adventureland, Liberty Square, Frontierland, and Fantasyland, there are 20 Magic Portals. The map pictured above unfolds to feature each of these lands, indicating where the Magic Portals exist. (See the slideshow at the bottom of this article for the rest of the maps.)
Those who are familiar with the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot may be quick to draw comparisons between this game and that experience, but the two are quite different by design. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom was created by some of the same Disney designers as the Midship Detective Agency aboard the Disney Dream cruise ship and is played in a similar fashion, though with even more structure. Sorcerers does not feature large moving props or projections as the Kim Possible experience does, but instead focuses all players’ attention toward hidden screens at each Magic Portal that appear when players place the key card onto one of many key holes newly added to the park. During Sorcerer Training, Merlin shows players which portal to begin at and each portal subsequently instructs players where to head to next. It’s a completely linear game.
A further look at a few of the Magic Portals scattered throughout the park:
Each Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom quest involves characters from a different Disney film, with multiple quests available in each land, creating high re-playability. Not every player or group playing at each portal will see the same scene unfold. For example, in Fantasyland, in addition to this Sleeping Beauty quest, there is also a quest focused on The Little Mermaid, battling Ursula and her minions. In Adventureland, quests include characters from The Emperor’s New Groove, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Liberty Square / Frontierland quests feature The Princess and the Frog and Pocahontas, among others.
Guests playing for the first time will wind up with whatever quest and characters they’re given. My first quest featured The Emperor’s New Groove, a movie I’m not terribly fond of, making the experience less enjoyable than had I received Aladdin. Likewise, as I helped Pocahontas in her battle in Liberty Square, I couldn’t help but be jealous of seeing others taking on Dr. Facilier with the help of Mama Odie from The Princess and the Frog. Fortunately, like with the Kim Possible adventure at Epcot, savvy players can request certain quests or characters when beginning at Sorcerer Training.
But what of the actual gameplay? Is it fun? Well, in this test, I wasn’t able to get a good sense of what Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is truly all about. Upon returning to the Fire Station to offer my thoughts, I was asked if I noticed that my spells became more powerful as I played longer. I didn’t. Apparently this is one of the many features that will be tweaked, allowing repeat players to deal more damage to their foes.
Spells are rather amusing, each unique to the character on the card. In my deck, Thumper pounds villains with a Mighty Thump, with a flurry of footprints appearing on the screen. Belle dumps a Mountain Blizzard onto enemies. Mowgli thwaps evildoers with a vine. And Mushu spits a rather wimpy, but effective ball of fire. But it seems that Thumper’s thumps and Mushu’s flames will grow stronger the longer I play - a reason to keep coming back.
To pull back the curtain a bit, gameplay is tracked via the key card. While each spell card is nothing more than a printed card, each key card contains an embedded RFID chip that tracks players’ movements and achievements. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
When held up to the light, faint horizontal and vertical lines running parallel to the borders of the card are revealed, showing the embedded chip inside, capable of storing enough information to continue the gameplay between Magic Portals. Apparently these cards will even keep a game active for a week, allowing visitors who want to ride rides, park hop, or come back another day to continue where they left off at their convenience - a big plus over the confinements of carrying around the Kim Possible “Kimmunicator,” which requires battery power and turns off after a period of not being used. Moreover, players who veer off course during an adventure, either on purpose or by accident, winding up at the wrong portal, will be assisted to the correct location, as seen in the video below.
Video: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - Magic Portal assistance
Despite the game being open to testing with guests, Disney wasn’t ready to reveal all details surrounding the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom experience. Just how players will move from easy to medium and hard difficulty levels remains to be seen, as does how the different values on the spell cards (attack, boost, and shield) work in the actual gameplay. It was also noticed by some players that two cards could be wielded at once, a technique that only sometimes seemed to work in battle. I also heard that it’s possible for players to lose the game, if spells aren’t cast in a timely manner. Villains can actually win, defeating players, like in any actual video game. It will be a nice touch giving some actual meaning to casting spells, instead of offering the usual “everyone’s a winner” take that Disney often does.
It is indeed fun to hunt around the Magic Kingdom, discovering new corners of the park that are now equipped with Magic Portals, waiting to be opened by the touch of a card. It empowers guests, moving them from a passive theme park experience into an active role, allowing them to participate in the magic, rather than just observing. While most people enjoy a good roller coaster, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom allows those wanting to actually “do” something in the park to engage in an activity that offers a sense of accomplishment in the end. And in true Disney fashion, all of the scenes that unfold within each portal have been created with the utmost care, featuring high-quality animation and voice acting that looks and feels straight out of an animated feature film.
But amidst the good there are still certainly a few technical issues yet to work out. Beyond the obvious sun glare issue mentioned above, it wasn’t always easy or quick to get the game to recognize that I was holding up a spell card. Sometimes I had to show the card multiple times before it realized I was attacking. Other times I had to move it around, up and down, left and right, for it to finally catch on. Guests are supposed to stand on the “Circle of Power” while presenting the spell cards, but I often found getting a bit closer and holding the card at kid-height helped.
During this test, the biggest concern I had was wondering exactly what the point of the game was. Sure, I was wandering back and forth through the themed lands of the Magic Kingdom triggering “portals” to open up and watching fun character-filled scenes unfold in front of me, but I never felt any true sense of achievement. There was no point total and no skill involved. But that goes back to not all game features being enabled and that all games yesterday were set to “easy” mode. I imagine for children, simply opening up portals and watching characters do funny things on a screen is enough for a magical experience. But for older Disney fans like myself, the hard level may be prove to be far more enjoyable in the future, depending on what additional features are added. That much has yet to be revealed.
The most disappointing aspect of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom to me was the lack of real props. In Liberty Square, a couple of curtains parted to reveal the Magic Portal behind it. In Frontierland, a Wanted poster turned into the Magic Portal and a skull’s eyes lit up green above it. But these rather mundane actions pale in comparison to the talking parrot, exploding rocket, and water-squirting statue triggered in the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot.
If Kim Possible set the bar for interactive games in the parks, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has lowered it, heavily relying on hidden screens. It works well on the Disney Dream ship, as seemingly ordinary artwork becomes enchanted when playing the Midship Detective Agency. But in a theme park, guests expect more than cleverly disguised video screens. (Or, at least, I do.)
I’ve heard the reason for basing the game on screens is so it can be updated regularly, keeping the content fresh and allowing frequent players to experience new quests more often, something nearly impossible with the Kim Possible adventure. In practice, however, that’s not likely to happen. When Toy Story Midway Mania opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios - a ride where most of the time is spent looking at screens - Imagineers said the game would be updated often to keep it fresh. That has only happened once since it debuted in 2008. I fear Sorcerers would follow the same slow timeline.
Two more practical problems exist with Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. The lands of the Magic Kingdom each feature themed background music and sound effects, enhancing the ambiance of the fantasy environments. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom encroaches on this carefully crafted environment, emitting its own loud sound effects, music, and character voices from each Magic Portal. In the area just behind Cinderella Castle, three Magic Portals now exist within a few feet of each other, each seemingly louder than the next. Standing in the once relatively peaceful castle courtyard now results in overhearing a cacophony of crashes, bangs, and evil laughter of Maleficent and Ursula.
Likewise, crowd flow is an issue with the game, not only because each portal inevitably will form an impromptu queue of players waiting to continue their adventures but also because some Portals are placed directly in walkways. While waiting for one portal in Adventureland (pictured below), I watched as several guests and cast members debated whether to pass between a young player and the Portal he was intensely watching or wait until the action had finished, causing a bottleneck.
Curious crowds gathered around each of the Portals, forming excessively busy areas, even blocking some doorways. The volume issue can, and surely will, be corrected to some extent. But the crowding will surely only get worse as more players try to access a limited number of Portals.
Interactivity appears to be the future of Disney’s theme parks and each introduction of an interactive element is becoming more involved and intricate than its predecessor. While it’s impossible to form a full opinion of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom based solely on this first day of guest testing, it is clear to see the direction in which Disney is headed with the game. It is indeed a game, not just an interactive experience. Much like racking up points by shooting targets on Toy Story Midway Mania, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is inviting theme park guests to engage in a virtual battle against Villains, planning character-assisted attacks and building up a fuller deck of spell cards to help defeat the evildoers. Presumably, when all the gameplay elements are activated, including featuring harder difficulty settings and utilizing the spell card points, players will find an in-depth role-playing game hidden within the park that trumps any RPG played on a home console. No Xbox or Nintendo game can rival the thrill of actually walking through a fantasy world and assisting familiar characters in a battle. But does such an active and involved game truly enhance the experience of being at a theme park? Or does the average tourist simply want to be playfully spooked by The Haunted Mansion and thrilled by Splash Mountain while on vacation? Only time and a few trips through Magic Portals will tell.
Unannounced testing will continue on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom until Disney is ready to officially debut the game. I heard that tests will resume on Thursday of this week, though earlier or later is possible. The game’s designers are likely currently sifting through all the guest comments they received as well as the data they obtained from observing guests play in order to improve the experience before the next round of tests begins. Downfalls aside, I am eager to play Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom again, if only to enjoy scenes from characters and films I like much more. Next time, I’ll definitely request The Princess and the Frog as my starting point. Watch out, Dr. Facilier. This sorcerer-in-training is coming for you!
More photos from Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom: