Destination Designers Consider: Is HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Really the Future?
– By Ben Cober, director of business development and research
“The newcomers are just looking for the same thing we are; a place to be free, to stake out our dreams, a place with unlimited possibilities.”
Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, reflects in HBO’s hit first season of “Westworld” what the park’s guests seek; and coincidentally, what many of today’s theme park guests seek. But how possible is author Michael Crichton’s vision of theme parks to come? (I’m still waiting on Jurassic Park…) PGAV’s business developer lends his thoughts on the possible and improbable of ‘Westworld’…
What is Westworld?
For those who haven’t yet seen the show, the first season of Westworld premiered on HBO last October, garnering the network’s highest viewership ratings for a premiere since True Detective in 2014, and ranks as the most-watched first season of an HBO original series ever. Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld envisions a Wild West themed park of the distant future catering to the most affluent members of society. Arriving for an undetermined amount of time, guests may take on the role of heroes, villains, or nobodies in a fully-immersive outpost in the historic American West. They may interact with the park’s “hosts” – robotic AI indistinguishable from real people – however they like without fear of repercussion, from developing amorous relationships to murder. To tell you anymore besides the fantastic performances by Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins would make me Mayor of Spoiler City. Here’s the trailer:
Guest Experience is #1
The first thing Westworld gets correct straight off the pitch is the laser focus on the guest experience being the number one priority. Today’s theme parks and resorts make the guest experience, from before arrival until after departure, the number one importance for every aspect of the park. From every attribute of the booking process – down to the curve of the “Order” button online – to the specific script front desk operators use, to the flow of guests, to the type of heirloom tomatoes served in the café salad – everything has to come down to elevating the guest experience. Countless conversations throughout the TV show discuss the importance of the guest experience, and the park operators working as hard as they can to remain invisible throughout it all. Park owners, operators, and designers will only continue to uncover new ways to improve the guest experience, and it will certainly remain the central driving force of park innovation.
Storytelling is Queen
In Westworld, two of the most important and irreplaceable staff positions are those given to the creators of the park’s narrative. The complex storylines of each individual character, and how those connect with each other, are carefully woven into greater stories of the park as a whole. Seamless, expert storytelling is part of the foundation of authenticity, and an immersive experience is nearly impossible to create without it. One of the largest conflicts of the park is when stories need to be rewritten, reallocating resources and leaving loose ends on storylines.
The richest, most memorable experiences at destinations are often the greatest stories they tell and how they are told; and this too is unlikely to change, but only to grow in its intricacy and impressive ability.
Westworld also takes a note from video game story design here as well, as the catalyst for storytelling. As guests to the park enter the main town of Sweetwater, they’re approached by bounty hunters, sheriffs, proprietors, and more to accompany them on certain tasks. Accepting one of these launches an entire story-line, which could be a guests’ complete experience in Westworld. For anyone who’s played hit video games like Skyrim, World of Warcraft, or Fallout, cities within these games are often the hubs of NPCs (non-playable characters) who offer the same kinds of quests that lead to hours of story and gaming.
The Wild West is Popular
While there are many fan theories about where future seasons of Westworld will go, the series premiere set the park in the American Wild West – a popular and exciting frontier. We know for a fact that the Wild West is a remarkably popular theme – not just in the United States, but abroad as well.
Salou, Spain’s Port Aventura is themed in regards to various countries and settings around the world. When PGAV Destinations designed the park in the 1990s, we surveyed thousands of potential future guests about which settings would be most exciting for them to visit. Over and over again, the number one setting on the survey was the American Wild West. This is why Spain’s number one theme park features the “Far West” zone, complete with the Hotel Gold River, Stampida, and other Wild West attractions.
Practical vs. CGI
The events and visuals of Westworld are practical. For its guests, there are no touchscreens, movies, 3D glasses, or audio recordings. Their weapons are real, the fire is real, and the animals and ‘hosts’ are physical, breathing, moving robots.
As PGAV’s Visualization Designer Steve Mohesky said a recent blog post: while the current frontier of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality is exciting, it’s not without numerous limits and challenges. This technology will certainly continue to innovate, advance, and find its various places throughout destinations; however, for the foreseeable future, practical effects and experiences still provide the most authentic thrills, and will probably remain the backbone of destinations for quite some time. This may certainly remain true for authentic, historic attractions.
Truth in Safety
In Westworld, it’s almost impossible for guests to be hurt. If they find themselves in a shootout, the hosts fire blanks or rubber bullets. Explosions are carefully timed and distanced as to not hurt the guests. Knives and poison have no effect, although the guests can get in physical tussles with the hosts and sustain some bruises.
For the most part, this is true now and could be continued to be refined as parks advance. Park Wild West shootouts currently fire blanks; exciting shows like Waterworld at Universal Studios carefully time and distance real fire explosions as to not hurt anyone. And although he’s big and buff, Disney World’s Gaston is not allowed to wrestle with anyone.
In Westworld, this knowledge of safety causes guests to take risks and actions they wouldn’t otherwise, knowing that they’ll be fine, no matter what. This strengthens the experience, and helps them become more immersed in the park, finding their true inner hero (or villain). However, in today’s parks, safety warnings are posted at every turn, and reinforced by layers of regulators and employees. On one hand, this “dilutes” the experience, especially as guests enjoy rides that take them through “dangerous” stories, such as Jurassic Park or the Tower of Terror, while knowing they’re perfectly safe. On the other hand, we’ve seen that these warnings and barriers can sometimes “dare” guests to take risks the park doesn’t wish them to take, therefore suffering catastrophic injury from climbing fences or riding rides despite physical safety warnings. Westworld has it right – theme parks can protect guests from nearly everything except themselves.
Where are the Staff?
It’s true that much of the Westworld park is automated, and the “attractions” within the park are all robots. However, there should be far more staff operating throughout the park behind the scenes. As the largest employer in Orange County, Disneyland roughly employs 23,000 people, with an additional 3,500 contract workers [citation]. At any given time in Westworld, we see about a dozen people in the control room, double that in the repair and programming laboratories, and a small board of directors. While the future’s automation will certainly lead to reduced labor forces, as the Economist discussed shortly before the show’s airing, it’s unlikely we’d see such a massive reduction in this setting. It’s true that the ideal day capacity of Westworld might be lower than Disneyland’s; however, with a much larger footprint and the fact that we can’t distinguish guests from hosts, we the viewers don’t truly know.
Where’s the Regulation?
In Westworld, it seems that the only oversight the park has is the Board of Directors. This doesn’t seem quite accurate. With today’s public constantly pushing for more transparency, it’s unlikely that a paid destination of this magnitude would have such little investigation and oversight. Today’s theme parks are reviewed and influenced by:
- Guest posts on social media
- Guest reviews on numerous travel sites
- Informal media like industry bloggers
- Formal media such as trade, city, state, and national publications
- Operational regulation by OSHA
- Industry standards from national organizations like IAAPA, the American Society for Testing and Materials, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission
- Food quality standards by the FSIS, FDA, and CDC.
While many business managers might salivate at the idea of little regulation and oversight, this is a pretty unlikely future scenario for theme parks operating so independently and clandestinely.
Fully Autonomous Hosts
Of course the main allure and excitement of Westworld are the ‘hosts:’ Robots infused with artificial intelligence and human “reveries” that make them nearly indistinguishable from real humans. They engage in conversations and activities completely independent from the guests, but can engage them at any time in philosophical conversation or practical activities – from farming to bank robbery.
Unfortunately, this seamless creation of human-like life, indistinguishable from the real, and quickly repairable, is probably the farthest off innovation Westworld dreams up. While there have been remarkable advances in autonomous (technically programmed) robots – from the University of Science and Technology of China’s Jia Jia, to Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, to Honda’s Asimo – all of these are quite far from what Westworld presents us with. While theme parks will continue to have real and CGI hosts – from digital projections to the pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean – Westworld’s hosts will remain the thing of fiction for now. Not to mention the ethical and transcendental crises of AI achieving singularity, as Stephen Hawking warns and Terminator portrays.
Westworld demonstrates an exciting, creative, beautiful world for the future of theme parks; and while some ideas are strongly rooted in today’s reality and will continue to advance, some are just the things of wonderful imagination. What do you think? What innovations of Westworld may come to pass? Which do you think we’ll never see?
**Special thanks to PGAV Destinations’ Director of Zoological and Aquarium Planning and Design Stacey Ludlum for her assistance in the “Truth in Safety” reflection.