“For some time past, vessels had been met by ‘an enormous thing,’ a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.”
A (very, very old) spoiler: The enormous thing is a submarine. Today marks the launch of the latest Walkabout Mini Golf course, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The first of three themed after the works of Jules Verne, this one of course tackles his 1870 sci-fi account of a submarine journey around the world. You’ll find the latest trailer below, and can pick the course up on the Meta Quest and Rift Platforms for $2.99 USD.
But how do these courses get made? We recently sat down with Don Carson, Senior Art Director at Mighty Coconut and once Imagineer to talk about his work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the recent Labyrinth course, and where theme parks and mini golf overlap. (You can also find a longer Q&A-style version of our interview with Don Carson on the Developer Blog.)
“I worked for Imagineering [Disney’s research and development team] during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but they assured me when I left Los Angeles that they’d never use me again,” says Don Carson, laughing. “And the only other career I could think of was game design. Then a year into my new job the theme park world went, ‘Yeah, we will use you,’ so I went right on back.”
“I’ve jumped back and forth between games and theme parks ever since.”
Carson joined Mighty Coconut in September 2021, during development of Sweetopia, but the Welcome Island redesign was the first project he worked on from start-to-finish, followed by Labyrinth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Or “followed by” as far as the public is concerned. Development isn’t quite as linear inside Mighty Coconut, and Carson notes that the studio is typically working on seven courses at a time, and that he’s constantly bouncing between them at different stages.
Most of his work takes place early on though, during what Carson calls the “really, really raw beginning” stages, when the course is just conceptual. Often the first step is diving into Google Image searches for inspiration and using MURAL to create sprawling mood boards that the rest of Mighty Coconut can draw on during development. As the course starts to take shape, Carson then moves on to sketching his ideas for specific elements, and hands them off to the team to reference—and (as he’s quick to point out) improve.
“I have to say that Walkabout—every single thing that gets handed off, the next person makes better. A theme park job, you might run it all the way from beginning to end, and you might ride through it and there are a couple of moments that are just cringeworthy,” Carson says, and laughs. “All the Walkabout things I’ve seen, I’m just so incredibly proud of the choices that were made, and they weren’t necessarily mine. It’s the group ensemble way in which we build.”
The timelines are also different—Carson says a typical Walkabout course comes together in months, whereas a theme park attraction takes years to create. That said, theme parks and mini golf have a lot in common.
“Emotionally, the way we approach a themed miniature golf course is very much the way we approach a theme park,” says Carson. “We’re willing to suspend our disbelief and let it take us places, whether it’s a golf course in a pirate village or a pirate-themed ride.”
Suspension of disbelief is tricky though—as anyone who’s temporarily experienced “Presence” in VR knows. There’s a thin line between immersive and artificial, and the key to finding that balance is playing with people’s expectations—both meeting them and subverting them, but in ways that feel natural.
“The worst thing you can do is create something that is vastly different than what people have in mind,” Carson continues. “There’s a standing rule in theme parks, which is ‘Meet expectations, then exceed them.’ When we enter a space, we have expectations as to what it’s going to deliver—and then we can play with those expectations, and bring people into a narrative that we lay out for them, sort of breadcrumbs.”
Those narratives don’t need to be particularly detailed or complicated. Carson gives an example from Walkabout’s El Dorado course. The course features the skeleton of a conquistador who never got his hands on the mythic city’s famed gold. “It’s not important to the game that [the skeleton] is there,” says Carson, “but to the people who are playing—the first person who stumbles on it builds a story in their head, and then they share it with the people who arrive after them.”
Mighty Coconut’s stories have gotten more sophisticated over time though. Labyrinth was the first to adapt an actual story into a Walkabout golf course, and Carson’s experiences creating artificial theme park environments came in handy.
“We are telling a story with 18 chapters—because no matter what, there are going to be 18 holes,” says Carson. “Luckily, Labyrinth is very Alice in Wonderland in that the main character is constantly going from place to place and meeting different characters.”
“We designed the course so that when you turn the corner you’re in a new environment, there’s a new character, a new hole. Turn the corner again, another environment, new character, new hole. Theme parks are like that too. It’s utterly theatrical,” he continues.
There’s an ebb and flow to the pacing as well. The Labyrinth course builds to the climax, the point where Sarah escapes from Jareth and the whole construct of the labyrinth itself starts to crumble. It makes for an impressive and awe-inspiring 18th hole—and that’s on purpose. As you’ve likely noticed if you’ve played multiple Walkabout courses, the 18th hole is always designed to be special.
Less obvious is the fact that the 9th hole is also given extra attention, a “nice mid-point experience” as Carson puts it. “The rest is a variety of things. We accordion large places and small places—so I’m contained, then I’m moving into a larger space, then I’m contained again. Always giving you variety and a sense of ‘I’ve arrived.’”
“And sometimes we just want a nice simple hole,” says Carson. “You don’t want every one of them to be super challenging. You just want a pleasant environment where you get to feel like you’re good at golf, which I’m not.” He laughs.
Of course, Labyrinth was also the first Walkabout course to feature characters. “We went into Labyrinth thinking, ‘Well, we might put a character in,’ but as soon as we started designing the spaces—we can’t leave Ludo out. We’ve got to have Hoggle.”
But again, Walkabout differed from more traditional games and erred more on the side of theme parks. You’re not conversing with Ludo or Hoggle, per se. They simply exist in the space with you, alive but otherwise occupied.
“It has that sort of theme park vignette feel—I see this character and they’re doing the thing I expect them to do,” says Carson, “but what I think surprised us is that the fact he doesn’t interact with us doesn’t ruin the experience. There’s actually something kind of lovely about it.”
The main benefit to VR? If you stand in front of Hoggle, he walks right through you. “Something we would never want to happen in a theme park, but in the virtual world it gets a pass.”
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea takes place entirely within the Nautilus, the book’s iconic submarine. It’s a very different type of course from Labyrinth, with different development challenges. Labyrinth takes you place to place, always changing, always evolving. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? It takes place in confined quarters.
“Most courses, we get away with murder,” says Carson, talking about how Labyrinth distorts and plays with 3D space. But 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? “We have a container, and we filled every square inch of that tube,” he continues.
Each room is packed full of small details, and none more so than the Salon, or “the big room with the big organ” as Carson puts it. “That’s the core of the Nautilus, and we wanted to have multiple holes in it, so you approach up high and constantly sort-of peer back into it. And we want to be able to see outside too, so there’s big old windows bringing in caustic light that’s shining off all the interior surfaces.”
And then there’s the squid. If you’ve read Verne’s book, you know the sub is attacked by a giant squid. That squid becomes an oppressive presence in Walkabout’s recreation, with tentacles that hover outside the window as you try to hit par in the Salon. Ominous.
In keeping with Walkabout’s design philosophy though, you proceed from the Salon straight into the Engine Room. Tight quarters, densely packed. Variety.
“My favorite part is when you’re in ‘God mode’, you get this sort-of Wes Anderson, wall-removed, dollhouse version of absolutely everything going on inside that very complex sub. That came out really nice,” says Carson.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is out now, but there’s a lot more Walkabout to come. The long-awaited Myst course is on its way soon, as are two more Jules Verne adaptations coming next year. Busy times for what’s quickly become one of the most beloved and iconic VR games.
“I think the secret sauce of Walkabout is that only one person can play at a time. There’s a lot of standing around talking—and what you’re talking about has very little to do with the environment you’re in. It’s about how your day was, the kids,” says Carson. “We get just as many complimentary emails from people saying they reconnected with their dad [in Walkabout] as we do saying ‘Hey, we had a really great game.’”
The golf is almost incidental. Almost—but not quite. The fact that the golf is really, really good definitely keeps people coming back, and it’s that balance that makes Walkabout Mini Golf so alluring as it heads into its third year. Here’s hoping Mighty Coconut keeps the surprises coming in 2023.
Or as Carson might put it, “Meeting expectations, then exceeding them.”
Ready for 18 Holes Under The Sea? You can pick up Walkabout Mini Golf’s new 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea course now on both the Meta Quest and Rift Platforms. And if you want to read more, we’ve got the rest of our interview with Don Carson (plus some additional concept art) over on the Developer Blog in Q&A format!