I love Disney parks.
I love the attention to details, the way they make use of space, and how every minute of everyday someone somewhere in the park is working on keeping things clean and in working order. I have even taken full advantage of their products as result of their "corporate" purchases. I've taken my kids to visited Thor and Captain America, have ridden on Star Tours, and am likely part of the reason they feel the need to own all the world’s stories and fictional characters.
I don’t, however, want them to own everything, and frankly the thought is a little scary. Recently, The Walt Disney Company got stockholder approval to go ahead with the multi-billion dollar purchase of Fox Studios assets like Marvel's X-Men, and The Simpsons, primarily for being able create more movie and television content. I understand why they want to do this, but I don’t like it. I don’t want to eventually see bad boys like Deadpool and Logan get a that over-hyped Disney attention. Deadpool is hyping himself up just fine on his own.
Meanwhile, I keep reading this possible purchase shouldn’t affect the properties under Marvel, Fox, and others offered at competing parks. I can only hope this is the case.
In the meantime, it's important to remember Disney still doesn't own everything.
Instead of worrying about the House of Mouse’s monopoly on fun, we should take advantage of the choices we have to visit and support non-Disney attractions, from the most obvious competition, Universal, down to smaller, independent immersive experiences.
Universal Studios Tour in Los Angeles used to be a glorified visit to a movie set people visted to kill a day before or after they went to Disneyland. They boasted primarily that movie tram ride and the now-closed Jaws ride with the sharky jump scare.
Today, however, Universal Studios has not only stepped up their game, they are a destination you can make a full trip out of without ever thinking of Disney. There are parks on both coasts (Hollywood and Orlando), as well as in Japan and Singapore.
This is where I have to give Marvel props as a company for making sure they get to keep properties in Universal's Islands of Adventure, with very distinct attractions. They’ve also taken advantage of big screen draws like Jurassic Park, King Kong, Dreamworks characters, Transformers and Fast and Furious for attractions.
There’s also that teeny little addition called The Wizard World of Harry Potter that first opened in Florida in 2010, causing the Disney Empire to sense a great disturbance in The Force. When the Universal Hollywood park opened its own Wizarding World in 2016, its park numbers jumped to 8.1 million visitors that year, according to their annual report. Check out some of these muggle-pleasing details:
Additionally, Universal wears the “Haunting Season” crown thanks to their Halloween Horror Nights intended for teens and adults. During the fall, all three Universal Parks offer nightmarish experiences for guest that have included themes like Walking Dead, Tales from the Crypt, Jason and Freddy, American Werewolf in London, Predator and more. They try to change their offerings each year, with one of this year’s most anticipated houses based on Stranger Things.
Universal may have taken a tip from Disney on making things bigger and better, but they certainly have their own unique vibe.
And, yes, the Hollywood location still offers that "world famous" studio tour.
The original Legoland Park has been operating in Denmark since 1968 with second in Windsor, England in 1996. It wasn't until 1999 that that U.S. got its first park near San Diego. Since then, Legoland Parks have popped up worldwide in Dubai, Japan, Malaysia and Germany. Florida got a beach resort in 2011, and a park is coming to New York in 2020.
Legoland Resorts are owned partially by LEGO, and by the massive British-based company Merlin Entertainments, who also own popular attractions in the UK such the London Eye, Madame Tussands, Alton Towers Resort, and a ton of other family entertainment destinations.
There are also LEGO Holiday Villages, building workshops, Sea Life aquariums, water parks and most notably plenty of examples of how creative you can get with LEGO bricks. They've even branched out with smaller indoor Legoland Discover Centres in several cities. The original park in Denmark also upped the ante with a first Ninjago themed lodge.
Their official site says the parks are designed for families with kids age 2-12 in mind, but since classic LEGO sets often boasts they are suitable for ”ages 4 to 99,” I tend to take their suggestions with a grain of salt. Just be aware of choking hazards and watch where you step.
If you want to avoid the bigger "corporate" owned attractions, there is something totally different that is gaining attenion:
Meow Wolf is a perfect example of how artistic minds, can mix creativity with business sense and cause amazing, crazy, wonderful things.
This artist-built immersive experience is currently Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most popular attraction, with their first full-time experience, House of Eternal Return, occupying a former bowling alley acquire for them by a very supportive — and wealthy — friend: Game of Thrones author and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin.
The premise of the experience starts in what looks like a “normal” home, but soon leads the visitor into a several new realms and dimensions. You get the sensation of jumping into storybook worlds and alien planets, shrinking into inner space, and darting back and forth millions of years in time. There’s also a working 1980s style arcade hidden within the experience.
Meow Wolf is an experience that can be taken at the most basic level of wandering wonder through different worlds taking in the colors, lights and shapes, to taking part in an eerie and pretty complicated X-Files-meets-Labyrinth mystery, where the visitor must try and discover what happened to the former occupants of this home…as well as to the home itself. If you want to take the time, there are hidden passages to explore, journals to read, areas to climb and crawl through and secrets to discover. Most of the main areas are also accessible to those with limited mobility, so no one has to miss out.
This, to me, is what happens with an artistic collective realizes the importance of entrepreneurship and marketing, without losing the soul and heart of an artist. Everything is completely unique and artist made from the music represented in each environment, to creatures found within the worlds.
This doesn't mean they aren’t growing. I visited Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return last summer in Santa Fe, and in just a year, they’ve created an online store, made an appearance at South By Southwest, and are currently in the process of opening up the “Area 15” immersive experience, retail and entertainment complex in Las Vegas in 2019. There will also be an entirely new Meow Wolf adventure in Denver in 2020.
I would love to see their vision continue to grow and find new cities to call home, but I also want them to remain what they are right now: a group of artists sharing their creations with people of all ages and supporting artists from everywhere and of all genres who want to do the same.
Their own bio on their official site gets right to the point:
“We make art,” it says. “… really big, immersive, and fun art for everyone…or something like that.”
I’m not going to avoid all things Disney, but even those big dreamers need to remain challenged. There needs to be competition. There needs to be artistic rivals running neck and neck with all those who offer family attractions giving people more choices for memory-making adventures.
That’s the beauty of creativity; it's for everyone.
Header image Meow Wolf images by Rick Tate
Legoland Hotel Image ©Legoland Parks