Theme park meet-and-greets take it up a notch

Orlando SentinelOctober 19, 2013 

It might be a lifelong dream for little Susie to meet Cinderella. But for Susie's parents, queuing up in the hot Florida sun to wait for that opportunity could seem more like a nightmare.

Now, Orlando's theme parks are trying to making character "meet and greets" more entertaining and, in some cases, air-conditioned experiences.

A recent, regal example is Princess Fairytale Hall, which opened at Magic Kingdom last month. Four Disney princesses stand by in a lush, indoor setting decked out with Cinderella's glass slipper and oil paintings of the royals.

Visitors like being incorporated into the characters' stories, said Sharon Madill, manager of character strategy for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.

The changes are "all from this philosophy of, 'How do we immerse our guests more into the movie, more into the story?'" she said. "Everything becomes real for the guest."

Peter and Melissa Cain of Toronto checked out Fairytale Hall with their children Abigail, 7, and Aiden, 5, during a weeklong vacation.

Melissa Cain noted details such as flags, open storybooks and the slipper incorporated into the wallpaper design.

For Peter Cain, it was all about the temperature control.

"It was nice surroundings as opposed to standing out in the hot sun," he said.

Disney uses a range of character settings. "Beauty and the Beast" bad guy Gaston roams the New Fantasyland village because he fits in that architecture, Madill said. Sophia the First, a young heroine from Disney Channel, has a simple backdrop that includes a castle at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

At Universal Studios, floats from the Superstar Parade pull double duty as meet-and-greet backdrops. The units and performers maneuver into the park for a musical number before posing for photographs.

"The idea was to create these mini-experiences that would then lead into the more traditional meet and greet, where kids can meet their favorite characters," such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, said Michael Aiello, assistant director of creative development at Universal Orlando.

Nearby, Universal uses a dramatic approach for its Transformers characters. Sirens blare as a warehouse door slowly rises to reveal Optimus Prime, Bumblebee or Megatron, a set of towering, imposing characters.

"You really feel their size and weight standing with them," Aiello said. "That's when a meet and greet is working perfectly -- when you are completely wrapped in a moment."

SeaWorld Orlando brings out fresh characters and aims for an immersive experience during its Halloween Spooktacular event weekends in October, said Michael Fletcher, vice president of entertainment. Performers representing undersea creatures are stationed in aquatic settings for photos and interaction.

Some stops, such as the School of Fish schoolhouse, feature games with kids alongside characters dressed as pumpkin fish, mermaids and roller-skating seaweed.

Having characters that are largely unknown is a challenge, he said, but the park has worked to be consistent with its "Fantasea" storyline for several years.

"It's great that we have guests come back and they're looking forward to seeing these specific characters or their specific favorite thing year after year," Fletcher said.

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