Over the 2015 Valentine’s day weekend, I had an opportunity to head down to Del Mar with my girlfriend to attend the travelling Marvel Experience. While the migrating Marvel circus technically isn’t a theme park, it certainly seemed to be testing the waters to gauge public interest for an actual Marvel theme park down the line. That remark isn’t to take anything away from the Marvel Experience in its current incarnation. There were plenty of enjoyable moments throughout my afternoon inside the inflated S.H.I.E.L.D domes, but I found myself constantly wondering if they could have done better, specifically “if they had added this, it would have been so much cooler”. Here is a recounting of that one fateful Valentine’s day where I was recruited to train as an emergency S.H.I.E.L.D agent in Del Mar, California.
For those of you who have never heard of the Marvel Experience (through no fault of your own as there has been little if any marketing), The Marvel Experience is billed as “The world’s first hyper-reality tour”. Produced by Hero Ventures, which specializes in the production of traveling shows, Marvel licensed their lineup of characters for use in the development of 3D and 4D cinematic rides. Visitors take on the role of trainees, civilians recruited by the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D), for emergency training in a world crisis that the Avengers cannot handle themselves. Trainees move through eight stations of activities as they “progress” in their training to become a true Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Once my girlfriend and I arrived at the domes (which were located on a gigantic parking lot adjacent from a race track), we were directed by S.H.I.E.L.D volunteers in branded shirts to lineup directly outside of the dome in our allotted time slots until further instructed. We waited in line for a moderate amount of time before we were allowed to enter into a courtyard of sorts where we registered our names into the S.H.I.E.L.D database for our I.D. cards. If you want a physical card, you have to purchase one for $11 USD in the gift shop, otherwise you’re left with a digital copy which they email you.
The area outside the entrance of the domes is without a doubt the worst part of the entire attraction as there really is absolutely nothing attractive about it in broad daylight. To the naked eye, we could see three air inflated domes with no branding on any sides. They looked sloppy installed and cheap, nothing like what you would imagine from a secret organization capable of technological espionage. Once we completed our I.D. registration, we lined up once again to take a mandated green screen photo before moving outside another tent to lineup again. Keep in mind, this was all to enter the building.
After roughly 45 minutes in a twisting and winding, often confusing line, we finally entered a dark recruiting station dome where we were greeted by none other than Iron Man and She-Hulk on about a half-dozen monitors. Every patron was given a plastic rubbery power band which had inserts for pins. They would later elaborate on the use of that power band as our adventure continued.
These projections are where The Marvel Experience shined brightest. For brief moments, I lost a sense of reality and was actually enamored into the atmosphere which Hero Venture was trying to install into our minds.
Our group of roughly 50-70 potential recruits were moved further into the “S.H.I.E.L.D Mobile Command Center” where we were briefed about the current crisis by Nick Fury and the Avengers on a beautiful wide projected dome. These projections are where The Marvel Experience shined brightest. For brief moments, I lost a sense of reality and was actually enamored into the atmosphere that Hero Venture was trying to install into our minds. There was so much potential here that ultimately made me feel like it was wasted on this first attempt for a Marvel theme park experience. The characters on the projected dome were all 3D CG models, voice acted by relatively compelling voice actors. We, of course, are actual beings of this physical dimension. If the purpose of this Marvel Experience is to take people on an interactive adventure where they play a pivotal part in a fantasy operation, having actual human actors briefing you would add to the illusion. Instead, we were greeted with 3D models reminiscent of graphics from the Playstation 2 that relatively took me out of the illusion I so desperately wanted to stay in.
As with the previous dome, I couldn’t help but view these two training activities as anything more than wasted potential. If the point of The Marvel Experience is to make the Patron into a S.H.I.E.L.D Agent, technological activities like these motion games should have a customizable flavor to it.
Once the briefing ended, the physical activity portion of the tour began. Our group was released into the biggest dome, which was deemed the “Recruit Training Center” where wannabe agents participated in six various activities. Think of it as a more high tech and better interior designed Chuck E Cheese dome. There were two training sessions that were motion based similar to those found on the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect. They were not very responsive and ultimately not very entertaining for adults. Children however should find it more than adequate if they don’t mind waiting in a lengthy line.
The first session we participated in was a Hulk-based training in which you punch and clap at a screen. The other motion based training was an Iron Man flight simulator which sounded more fun than it actually was. As with the previous dome, I couldn’t help but view these two training activities as anything more than wasted potential. If the point of The Marvel Experience is to make the Patron into a S.H.I.E.L.D Agent, technological activities like these motion games should have a customizable flavor to it. At Disneyland in California there is a Marvel zone where park-goers stand in front of a motion sensor game similar to the ones found in The Marvel Experience. In that Iron Man game, his armor flies onto the user’s body through the user’s motions. Something to that extent would have been more desirable rather than controlling The Incredible Hulk swatting robots flying at you in a short lackluster game.
Between training areas, there were small tablets everywhere with little activities, such as re-coloring the costumes of your favorite Marvel heroes. These were purely inserted to occupy the attention span of children while they waited in line for the next activity. While it was a nice touch to include these “spot-warmers” as I call them, they really served no purpose in the bigger picture. Instead of re-coloring parts of a hero’s costume, why not allow users to design and color their own S.H.I.E.L.D uniform? Just a few basic collection of parts and colors for users to mix and match would have been satisfactory. I’m sounding like a broken record now, but the purpose of this experience is to immerse the people into believing they were at a S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters training to become an agent. If the activities were more personal, it would only add to the experience. The heroes should only accent the experience, not dominate it.
Aside from the two motion sessions, there was a Black Widow laser maze which was my personal favorite. You enter a small room with laser beams and you have to hit two buttons spread along the four walls without touching the lasers. This is what I imagine a S.H.I.E.L.D agent would have to be accustomed to in the espionage business. To no surprise, it was the longest line we waited in.
There was also a 3D holo-blaster training which was your run-of-the mill “shoot at a project screen with a bunch of people” game that can be classified in the same category as those Toy Story rides at Disneyland, but without the actual moving ride. My girlfriend was ecstatic to train with Spider-Man in a rock climbing simulation. It was pretty enjoyable for what it was and kids absolutely love these activities. The last training session was a hero summoning simulator where you stand on a mat and make a specific pose that brings a designated hero dropping onto the projected screen. Nothing to write home about for anyone above the age of 10.
After we completed “basic training”, we boarded a quinjet to meet up with Iron Fist and She-Hulk to train some more in a dome that reminded me of the X-Men’s Danger Room. Like viewing the stars at a planetarium, this 360 degree dome projected the next portion of our adventure and boy was it quite an experience. I won’t go into the content of the mission but this portion of the trip was what patrons paid for. The 3D 360 degree dome was quickly followed by a hangar briefing which goes with the story. We quickly exited into the final stretch of our adventure in a gigantic theater dome. Gigantic as in I-Max style seating and ceiling to floor screen. The finale was the 4D ride that this event billed itself to be unique on. I appreciated it to a certain degree for it’s originality and incorporation of the viewers into the event unfolding in front of us.
When we finally finished our mission, we exited into none other than a gift shop which featured plenty of Marvel merchandise. Unfortunately, there were only a small portion of gear exclusive to The Marvel Experience. You had your S.H.I.E.L.D and H.Y.D.R.A branded t-shirts, the option to purchase your S.H.I.E.L.D card and the green screen portrait (which you took before you entered), and a $5 pack of power pins to attach to your power band. Each pack contains five pins with the insignia of random Marvel heroes. The power bands were neat, but like most of my experience, it felt unpolished and unrefined.
When we exited the last dome, we were shocked to see how amazing the headquarters looked at night time. Where it was plain, white domes in daylight, rotating colored lights with the S.H.I.E.L.D emblem now shined upon. It was like we were in a completely different location. Quite impressive and a nice way to walk out of.
While cost-effective measures were probably taken, one has to wonder whether there could have been more relevant activities that would have been more beneficial to the experience.
For all the things The Marvel Experience did right, it still fell way short of what it should have been. The theory of this traveling attraction was right on, but the execution was half-baked at best. Each stop reportedly cost $2.5 million to set up, with four American cities on the tour (Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco). While cost-effective measures were probably taken, one has to wonder whether there could have been more relevant activities that would have been more beneficial to the experience. With that said, for a first attempt at a theme park of sorts based on a superhero property, The Marvel Experience has shown much promise for potential future iterations.
If you have children who absolutely love superheroes and theme parks, taking them to The Marvel Experience is a no brainer. Tickets begin around the $35+ per person range and that is a small price to pay for a family outing.
For more information visit their website: http://themarvelexperiencetour.com/