Expectations for in-person events are high as attendees seek deeply-engaging experiences. The launch of Disney’s Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is already inspiring planners looking to create truly immersive event experiences.
With the return of in-person events, attendees are happy to have the opportunity to connect face-to-face again. But this feeling may be short-lived as expectations increase for enriching events with immersive activities and encounters. Otherwise, event organizers may see attendees opt for online attendance from the comfort of their own homes.
Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, Florida, just raised the bar for immersive experience design by launching Disney’s Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel. More than a hotel, this is an experience where guests can become immersed in a Star Wars adventure over 48-hours.
Inspired by this new addition to Walt Disney World, let’s explore the realm of live-action-role-play, immersive design, and what it means for events.
The Evolution of Immersive Events
Immersive experiences don’t only relate to augmented and virtual reality. They can also describe in-person activities where attendees are involved and engaged. Networking sessions at conferences may positively impact participants, they don’t normally deliver the level of engagement that live-action-role-play (LARP) offers.
In recent years, costume play, or cosplay, people dressing up as characters from a series, movies, books, or graphic novels, has moved from the periphery of social circles to mainstream society with the increasing popularity of events like Comic-Con.
While cosplay plays an important role in what makes Comic-Con exciting for attendees, it is not part of everyone’s experience. With LARP dressing up is an integral part of the experience. Claus Raasted, director at The College of Extraordinary Experience and pioneer of LARP events, describes LARP as “a completely different beast, with a little bit of [cosplay] overlap.”
LARP’s roots are in old-school tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, pretend play, and interactive theatre. “[LARP] is like stepping into a movie, but nobody has the script…So you know who you are, you know what the setting is, but you don’t know what’s gonna happen,” said Raasted.
Essentially, LARP immerses participants into a story, giving them options to decide how it ends via partaking in different activities, all while adopting a character. While LARP may have existed on the fringe for some time, with niche events incorporating it here and there, Disney has taken the experience mainstream.
Taking the concept of LARP to a mainstream audience, Disney’s new Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is the closest thing people will ever experience regarding stepping into a Star Wars movie as one of the characters.
As seen in reviews online, the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser provides people with an immersive, live-action-role-play, themed experience, including everything from food, costumes, and hologram projections to the actual hotel environment itself, activities (hello lightsaber training), and tasks — the experience is something many would have called impossible once upon a time.
Kevin Kirby, executive director at the MPI Foundation, explained that the extent of the immersion developed in accommodations is astounding. As a past executive at Disney and Universal parks, Kirby added, “everything I have read highlights the details created to create story continuity; all day long!”
Disney’s new experience makes ample use of the technology, with much interaction within the environment happening on the Disney Park App. Guests log in to the app to access maps, tools, events, datapad, and for communication; it’s where a lot of the magic happens. Part of the experience involves interacting with other characters on board to develop the back story guests wish to partake in, like assigning allegiance to the first order or the resistance.
This interaction happens at such an immersive level that if someone chooses one aspect of a mission, the actors know what is happening and will stay in character to develop the journey further.
In each room, guests can connect with their own droid, helping them understand the ins and outs of the environment, even knowing what they did during the day on their missions, forming part of the story arch.
Currently, Disney is not hosting events or accepting group bookings for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Nevertheless, Raasted thinks this is a defining moment for the events industry, “[LARP] experiments have been done before…But Disney is now doing it on a massive scale. They’re doing it on a Disney scale.”
So what does this mean for events?
An Untapped Event Engagement Resource: LARP
Live-action-role-play is not new to the events industry; it has existed in pockets for years. However, because experiences like this are now accessible to mainstream audiences, expectations for future events may move in a different direction, resulting in new trends emerging concerning immersive gatherings.
Raasted, who has over 25 years of LARP event experience, says most event planners did not know LARP was an option. But now that is changing. For example, instead of a run-of-the-mill team-building event, in the future, he believes clients will ask to be pirates for four days or run an advertising agency for a weekend or go to wizard school.
Collaboration and connection
Live-action-role-play takes events back to where they were supposed to be — focused on people-centric experiences.
In a LARP setting, planners control the social rules, the design, the physical room, the food, the story, what is allowed, and what is not allowed, creating the perfect environment for collaboration, hyper-focused teachings, and outcomes. Essentially, the dynamics of how people meet change, permitting them to craft a truly unique experience and extract value.
Raasted used the example of a “normal” networking event and how adding another layer can facilitate connection, “Everybody is standing in the room. It’s a little bit awkward. But we all know we’re here to meet new people. [But] If I [ask] everybody to put on a funny hat, the mood changes, everything is easier, more fun. Everybody connects more.” If the simple act of letting people put on a hat shifts the atmosphere, imagine what can happen at a LARP event?
One LARP event that brings this to life is the College of Extraordinary Experiences. Here, participants embark on a 5-night journey at a castle in Poland to learn about experience design in a fully immersive, hands-on environment that fully uses the unique setting.
With LARP events, planners don’t have to use technology at all. At the College of Extraordinary Experiences attendees go on a complete tech break.
In contrast, technology plays a crucial role in Disney’s Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. “With every new attraction, the current technology just ups the ante in how the experience is delivered. And that technology can change significantly in just a few short years. It really is amazing,” Kirby said.
As a storytelling leader, Disney demonstrates how technology can enhance an experience by adding another layer of immersion, becoming a tool for deep engagement and communication.
Cost is a potential downside to hosting LARP events. Disney may not be filling up rooms as quickly as predicted due to the high price of the 48-hour experience. However, Raasted noted that event planners don’t have to go to this level to create impactful LARP events in the industry, “planners can swap canapes for costumes.”
Another aspect to consider is the event audience. Without buy-in, the overall impact of the experience diminishes, potentially resulting in a decrease in value. In other words, planners must know their audience and create a journey that encourages engagement.
Despite Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser currently catering only to leisure visitors, the link between travel experiences and events is undeniable — what impacts one will impact the other sooner or later.
“We are gonna see these things spread…When we look back, we’re gonna see this was a moment of tremendous magnitude because [as] one article reviewer wrote, it will change the way we vacation right now,” said Raasted.
“When meetings and conventions happen, the ability to enhance the storytelling of the conference messaging to dovetail the excitement of being “heroes” or immersing guests into movies that provide escapism is pretty powerful,” said Kirby.
Not everything needs to be a LARP event — that would not make sense. When we talk about meetings and events, we sometimes fail to ask ourselves as an industry what type of experience we are creating.
“There’s [an] underestimated power in changing reality. If people did that a little bit more at meetings, then they’d get different results, even [with] the simple things,” Raasted concluded.