LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Disney universe is populated by a countless array of heroes and villains. Think Simba and Scar, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Cruella De Vil and the 101 Dalmatians.
They're the stars of screen, stage and page, and it has been in those venues that Disney-philes traditionally have come into contact with the characters they most loved or loved to hate.
But the Mouse House is taking it a step further these days, affording Walt Disney World visitors not only the opportunity to see their favorite characters but to interact with them in new and unique ways.
The latest generation of Disney theme park-goers — young and technologically savvy — wants more than just to be in Disney World.
They want to be in Disney's world.
And Disney in recent years has been more than happy to accommodate that desire.
It introduced a pair of problem-solving contests at Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Epcot parks; added new interactive queues to a number of popular existing attractions, among them "Dumbo the Flying Elephant," ''The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" and the "Haunted Mansion"; began offering the "My Disney Experience" mobile application; and amped up the pin and Vinylmation offerings and trading opportunities throughout the parks.
"The trend is very much to creating a much more interactive experience, because that's what young kids want," said Lou Mongello, a Disney World expert who hosts the weekly "WDW Radio Show" podcast. "They don't want to sit back and watch a show."
"I think we are at the very early stages of a huge shift in guests' experience," Mongello said, standing in Epcot's U.K. pavilion, only steps from where a handful of kids and their families were playing the "Agent P's World Showcase Adventure" game.
Featuring characters from the popular Disney Channel animated series, "Phineas & Ferb," the "Agent P" game transforms participants into secret agents, provides them with a "high-tech secret agent device" — basically a cellphone — and asks them to scour the World Showcase section of the park for clues as they try to help the heroic Agent P defeat his nemesis, the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz.
Like its Epcot counterpart, "Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom" also is part high-tech scavenger hunt, part problem-solving contest.
Participants become apprentice sorcerers and, armed with special spell cards, do battle with some of Disney's most famous animated villains — Jafar from "Aladdin" and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" among them — who show up on LED screens scattered across the park.
"What you're seeing is video-game style immersion and depth, but now applied to" the Disney parks, said Jonathan Ackley, a member of the Walt Disney Imagineering team that developed the games. Ackley joined Disney from LucasArts, where he developed adventure-style video games.
Based in California, Ackley recently made the trip to Florida and walked through the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland section, watching with a big smile as his game was being played.
"What these immersive experiences do is make the guests the hero in the story and allow our guests to play the role that people only usually get to watch in movies or on TV," he said.
Nearby, Patrick Smith, 8, of Metairie, La., readied his cards for battle.
Patrick's father, Mike, said he's a fan of the game simply because his son is.
"We spent an entire day playing this," Mike Smith said. "If it keeps him occupied, that's good by me."
Disney officials were not willing to provide the numbers of or percentage of park visitors who play the two interactive games, which are free with the price of admission, but they say their popularity has exceeded expectations.
The same could be said of pin trading, which began at Disney World in 1999, and, according to merchandising spokesman Steven Miller, was only expected to be a 15- to 18-month program.
"We really had no idea . whether people would be interested in this," he said.
Well, they were, and now, 14 years later, Miller said 19,000 employees, or "cast members" as they're known, trade pins with guests on any given day at Walt Disney World.
Pin trading has become as customary a sight at Disney World as Mickey and Minnie.
The way it works is this: Guests are entitled to any pin on a cast member's lanyard, as long as they present an official Disney pin in trade. It's not uncommon to stroll down Main Street, U.S.A., and witness guests sidling up to Disney employees and scrutinizing their pin-laden lanyards before pointing out the specific piece of metal they want.
Vinylmation trading, meanwhile, is not as prevalent, but has its own rabid following.
The 3-inch collectible figures represent classic characters, attractions or icons inspired by Disney parks and resorts and can be traded at a number of retail stores throughout Disney World.
The introduction of the "Sorcerers" and "Agent P" games, the continued emphasis on pin and Vinylmation trading, the new ride queues, the new app and the like have had the effect of making "the parks much more alive," Mongello said.
"At its most basic level, the mom and the dad and their two-and-a-half kids come here to enjoy the attractions, meet the princesses, enjoy the food, and as you start to peel some of those layers back, there's a lot more detail, a lot more depth, there's a lot more story," he said. "And I think they want that. They want an enhanced, interactive experience."
Disney isn't done adding those experiences.
Next up is another interactive quest, "A Pirate's Adventure: Treasures of the Seven Seas," which is in testing and takes place not far from the iconic "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction in the Magic Kingdom.
"We're not afraid to try crazy new things," Ackley said, laughing.