The Walt Disney Company has been at the forefront of cutting-edge theme park technology for decades, ever since the first park in Anaheim, California, was initially conceptualized in the mid-20th century. Through an extraordinary blend of creativity and engineering, Disney Imagineers consistently use art and technology to bring stories to life, immersing theme park-goers in unique ways.
Since 1952, Walt Disney Imagineering has used a variety of methods to achieve different special effects across all of the Disney parks. Technologies such as audio-animatronics, advanced audio systems, ride systems, lighting effects and more are regularly implemented in all of their buildings and attractions.
With that being said, let’s check out some of the technologies Imagineers use to bring the parks to life.
Forced perspective is a trick commonly used to make objects appear larger, smaller or farther away than they really are. It’s often used in photography, but Imagineers cleverly used this concept to create different optical illusions everywhere throughout the Disney parks.
A classic example of this is Main Street USA and its buildings. It is the first area park-goers see when they enter the park. The street is lined with cozy-looking shops styled in a “turn-of-century” theme. As people walk down this street, they get the sense of the buildings being tall, especially with the Sleeping Beauty Castle off in the distance.
The buildings, however, are smaller than they seem. Each building is constructed in a 1:5/8:1/2 scale, with the first floor being a normal size while the second and third floor are 5/8 and 1/2 the size of the first, respectively.
The same can be seen in the Sleeping Beauty Castles in every park. Take the castle in Disneyland Paris, for example. The castle starts out wider on the bottom but becomes narrower the higher up we go. The turrets and spires are elongated to achieve this effect, and the rolling hills leaning against the castle further enhance the sense that the building towers over the land. In reality, this castle only stands at 167 feet in length.
Theme park rides have almost always used tracks to move the people inside the vehicle around an attraction. Railings and other types of boundaries would also be implemented to keep the vehicles on track during the ride. Cue the introduction of trackless technology. In 1994, a primitive version of the technology was introduced at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the Hollywood Tower of Terror ride, which carried the riders down the hallways as they were guided to the drop elevators.
A modern implementation of the technology can be found in rides like Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland. The carriages move across the floor as they go through the various rooms, swiveling toward different points of interest for dramatic effect.
The ride uses a combination of WiFi and RFID to move the vehicles around. Over 200 RFID tags are buried into the floor in order to implement the system. The vehicles are launched in groups of four, sometimes breaking apart or grouping back together again, totally immersing the riders in the events that take place in each room.
The other advantage of the trackless system is the ability to customize the movements of each carriage. Rather than following a strictly linear path, each group of carriages follows a particular path depending on where they were most recently boarded by guests. This offers a unique perspective on the attraction each time guests go on the ride.
One element throughout all of the parks really highlights the magic of Disney’s visual effects: the lighting used in their live shows and attractions. There is a wide array of light fixtures that sets the ambiance of certain areas, which, of course, is much more noticeable indoors or when the sun sets. At night, thousands of LED lights illuminate the Sleeping Beauty Castle, ensuring it’s still the main attraction at the park. Other structures are also cleverly lit, such as the mountains serving as the backdrop for Cars Land. Many of the light sources are hidden from view in order to keep park-goers immersed in the atmosphere.
Perhaps the most special way lighting is used, however, is through the nighttime shows at the Disney parks. Disney’s World of Color at the California Adventure park serves as a great example. Around 1,200 small fountains, each with its own LED ring, were installed in Paradise Bay, and they are able to shoot water up to 200 feet into the air. Combined with lasers, fog and projections, the area lights up in a brilliant array of colors. The fountains are installed on top of an underwater grid with over 18,000 points of control where the colors, light intensity and more can be managed from the control center.
Projection mapping involves superimposing video images onto objects, and the Imagineers manage to use the technology in a way that makes the park rides and even entire structures come to life.
Projection is used to light up the Sleeping Beauty Castle with amazing designs, especially during nighttime shows like Happily Ever After. On rides, projection mapping is used to enhance the visual effects of the attraction, such as the dynamite scene on Big Thunder Railroad. It’s so believable, it feels like one could get burned if they get too close to the flames.
These are but some of the few technologies regularly used by Disney Imagineers in their theme parks. As time goes by, the Imagineers continue to push the envelope of what various technologies can do to achieve amazingly believable effects. And as technology evolves, they keep striving to find new ways to immerse their audience in the magic of storytelling and create unforgettable experiences.