Mak­ing magic

For 25 years, Disneyland Paris has been us­ing tech­nol­ogy to cre­ate amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. T3 speaks to the ride creators to find out what goes into build­ing a new kind of fun

Australian T3 - - MAKING MAGIC - Words: Matt Bolton Pho­tog­ra­phy: Dis­ney

The maxim about any suf­fi­ciently ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy be­ing in­dis­tin­guish­able from magic never holds more true than at Disneyland. Disneyland Paris has been com­bin­ing tech­nol­ogy and theatre since 1992 to cre­ate amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for kids (and adults who like a bit of staged spec­ta­cle in their lives). Re­cently, some of the orig­i­nal at­trac­tions have been through a “re­hab­bing”, where new tech­nol­ogy and old meet. As part of its 25th an­niver­sary celebrations in 2017, Disneyland Paris in­vited T3 to tour the up­graded rides and the most re­cent all-new ride, and speak to the Imag­i­neers about what goes into build­ing and de­vel­op­ing them.

Our guides are Björn Heer­wa­gen and Lau­rent Cayuela. Cayuela is a Show Writer, part of the team that works on con­cepts for at­trac­tions, shows and en­ter­tain­ment. One of his key ar­eas is “show aware­ness” train­ing, which means help­ing to show off the sto­ries at the heart of Disneyland’s at­trac­tions. He’s ex­actly as bub­bly and ef­fu­sive as you’d ex­pect from some­one whose job is to build ex­cite­ment.

Heer­wa­gen is Se­nior Show De­sign & Pro­duc­tion Man­ager, and comes across as much more prag­matic and se­ri­ous-minded, but with a sharp sense of hu­mour that he lets slip every so of­ten. He man­ages al­most ev­ery­thing that goes into build­ing a ride, to the point that he over­sees over 40 dif­fer­ent trades.

It’s quickly clear why they’re here as a dou­ble act – when it comes to mak­ing some­thing in Disneyland, sto­ry­telling and build­ing are com­pletely in­ter­twined. First they cre­ate the story, then find or cre­ate the tech­nol­ogy needed to bring it to life. Heer­wa­gen ex­plains that he also works in a “tag team” with the Art Di­rec­tor, Beth Clap­per­ton, trav­el­ling to trade shows and in­ves­ti­gat­ing ways to re­alise rides to­gether.

Re­hab­bing older at­trac­tions is an espe­cially del­i­cate process, be­cause there’s also the his­tory of the rides to pro­tect. When mod­ernising a ride, the re­sults still have to feel the same to guests who’ve been be­fore, even if a lot has changed. Two of the at­trac­tions that have had makeovers are Pi­rates of the Caribbean and Star Tours. Both were part of the park’s open­ing line-up, based on ver­sions in the Cal­i­for­nian Disneyland, and each has a heady her­itage, too: Star Tours was a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ge­orge Lu­cas, while Pi­rates of the Caribbean was the last ride Walt Dis­ney worked on.

But with Pi­rates now a movie fran­chise, and many more films in the Star­Wars uni­verse, the old ver­sions didn’t cut it any more. As Cayuela ex­plains, “Now, when kids come to the park, they see Pi­rates of the Caribbean and they ex­pect the char­ac­ters from the movies.” And leav­ing kids dis­ap­pointed is not ex­actly in Disneyland’s play­book.

So in 2017, Pi­rates was re­habbed to make changes in ev­ery­thing from the light­ing to the char­ac­ters and the story that threads through it… but not too many changes.

“It’s im­por­tant that guests can’t tell the dif­fer­ent be­tween what’s old and new,” ex­plains Heer­wa­gen. He says they have to “meet the orig­i­nal in­tent” when re­hab­bing, which can

in­form both what they change and what they keep the same. For ex­am­ple, more ad­vanced an­i­ma­tron­ics are avail­able now, such as in the near-real Avatar ro­bots be­ing de­vel­oped for Walt Dis­ney World in Florida, but they can’t sud­denly use ul­tra-real ro­bot­ics for Cap­tain Jack, be­cause he has to ex­ist along­side the 25-year-old char­ac­ters. So a more fit­tingly an­i­mated Jack ap­pears a few times in Pi­rates, in­clud­ing at one point on a pile of 32,000 hand-placed gold coins that hide his mech­a­nisms – be­cause that’s how things were built in Pi­rates.

In other ar­eas, though, it was a chance to fully mod­ernise. The au­dio el­e­ments have been up­graded, with new speak­ers that are placed closer to the an­i­ma­tron­ics, so that the sounds of them shout­ing have a bet­ter sense of pres­ence. The light­ing is all LED – a change be­ing made to all the rides over time, partly be­cause of its heat and en­ergy use ben­e­fits, and partly to unify their sys­tems as much as pos­si­ble. Hav­ing 52 dif­fer­ent at­trac­tions all run­ning off dif­fer­ent sys­tems would be a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare. The use of light­ing has also been tweaked to draw more at­ten­tion to the ac­tion in var­i­ous scenes and dim lights on the scenery.

When Cayuela ex­plains this, he adds that this is why the queue to Pi­rates of the Caribbean is very dimly lit: it cun­ningly uses the time you’ll spend queue­ing to ad­just your eyes to the light level, so you can see bet­ter in­side.

The queues are where the rides be­gin, in more ways than one. Many at­trac­tions are de­signed to give you a glimpse of the ride it­self near the start of the queue, so you get an idea of what’s to come. But most rides also have a story to them, and this al­ways starts in the queue, even if it’s only more of a light set­ting than a real nar­ra­tive.


Star Tours is one of the rides that has a full-on nar­ra­tive, and had a much more dra­matic re­hab process than Pi­rates. The up­dated ride re­opened ear­lier this year, now named Star Tours – The Ad­ven­ture Con­tin­ues, and though many el­e­ments will be fa­mil­iar to peo­ple who’ve seen it be­fore, Heer­wa­gen says that it was “pretty much gut­ted,” and that they started from scratch with just the shell and ride tech­nol­ogy.

The story starts in the en­trance, de­signed to look like an air­port de­par­ture lounge, where vis­i­tors see R2-D2 and the ship that they’ll be ‘fly­ing’ on, with C-3PO work­ing nearby - these are brand-new an­i­ma­tron­ics. Later, droids work on pro­cess­ing lug­gage, which is shown be­ing scanned in 3D on a screen. These droids can all be low­ered down shafts for main­te­nance, which is ex­tremely

Star Wars in it­self. A cam­era ‘scans’ guests as they go by, which they can in­ter­act with by wav­ing and see­ing them­selves, while nearby a ‘win­dow’ (in re­al­ity, a screen) shows Stormtroop­ers in the sta­tion – a taster of the ride’s up­com­ing story.

The Star Tours ride sec­tion is now 3D, us­ing glasses de­signed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Imag­i­neer­ing team, with the old 35mm pro­jec­tors re­placed by 4K laser sys­tems. It looks stun­ning, but the ge­nius part is that it’s dif­fer­ent every time. There are well over 60 pos­si­ble jour­neys that your ship can take, in lo­ca­tions from var­i­ous films (“Con­ti­nu­ity­wise, I’m sure it is a big night­mare,” Cayuela chuck­les) with char­ac­ters who may or may not pop up dur­ing the jour­ney. This is the ad­van­tage of switch­ing to dig­i­tal, and these trips are all truly ran­dom – when the op­er­a­tor presses ‘go’, the com­puter de­cides what you’ll see, and the dif­fer­ences are huge.

This ac­tu­ally pre­sented a big chal­lenge for Heer­wa­gen’s team, be­cause the ride sill uses the orig­i­nal 25-year-old hy­draulics. Not only was the task of cre­at­ing am­bi­tious new flights dif­fi­cult on older hard­ware, but the sim­u­la­tors aren’t iden­ti­cal any­more – they’ve worn in slightly dif­fer­ent ways over the years – so the move­ment ef­fects had to be in­di­vid­u­ally cal­i­brated on them. The ride in­te­gra­tion team spent 16 weeks rid­ing the sim­u­la­tors get­ting ev­ery­thing right, and is fac­ing an­other three weeks on there in the near fu­ture (they de­cline to say why).

Con­straints like these present in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges for the re­habs – in some cases, the lim­it­ing fac­tor is the phys­i­cal space. “On new builds, you can say, ‘The build­ing’s too small! Make it big­ger,’” says Heer­wa­gen.

“It’s im­por­tant that guests can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween what’s old and new”

But when re­hab­bing the ride Big Thunder Moun­tain, the prob­lem was the op­po­site. “You can’t push the walls, you can’t push the ceil­ing,” he ex­plains.

If there’s elec­tron­ics or some­thing they need to fit in but are strug­gling for space, Heer­wa­gen says there’s only one so­lu­tion: “Team­work. To adapt and minia­turise.”


The most re­cent brand-new at­trac­tion is Rata­touille, and cre­at­ing some­thing from noth­ing is a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence to the re­hab process.

The idea of the ride is that you’re rat size, hav­ing an ad­ven­ture through a restau­rant kitchen. The jour­ney is part phys­i­cal, and part video. You sit in rat-shaped cars, which travel in packs of three. Dur­ing the ride, you move through ar­eas like a gi­ant larder filled with over-sized props, then switch seam­lessly into 3D domed movie dis­plays, and back. There’s even a heated oven and cold re­frig­er­a­tor to pass un­der.

At first, the team ex­plored do­ing the whole thing with phys­i­cal props in­stead of any video, but Heer­wa­gen says this came out “kitsch,” so they had to find an­other way.

“We’re al­lowed to fail a bit,” he says. “It’s only through fail­ure that you get suc­cess.” Though he also adds that, if they’ve started build­ing a ride and some­thing isn’t work­ing, it’s truly rare for ideas to be to­tally ditched:

“Once you’re build­ing you’re too late into the creative process to aban­don it.”

Af­ter the de­ci­sion to use pro­jec­tion video was made, there was an­other chal­lenge: mak­ing that work on the ride’s scale. Huge domed screens that fill the vi­sion are used, and these were cre­ated spe­cially for the ride, which meant de­vel­op­ing suit­able cus­tom op­tics for the pro­jec­tors.

For this level of de­vel­op­ment, full-scale mock-ups of key parts of the ride are built. In this case, screens were built in Glen­dale, Cal­i­for­nia, and Pixar an­i­ma­tors were in­vited from their base in Emeryville to view the re­sults, and give feed­back on how the an­i­ma­tion looked. These meet­ings had a hugely ben­e­fi­cial im­pact on the de­vel­op­ment of the pro­jec­tors, and meant that the Pixar an­i­ma­tors could cre­ate new scenes that were cus­tomised for the screens.

The pro­jec­tors in Rata­touille are lamp­based rather than Star Tours’ laser sys­tem, be­cause a few years ago, laser wasn’t at the stan­dard Dis­ney re­quired, though it has since reached it. Rata­touille’s build­ings were go­ing up while the screens were still be­ing pol­ished. They could have waited, but like any creative en­deav­our, rides are never fin­ished, only opened – you have to draw a line in the sand, says Heer­wa­gen.

The 3D glasses used in Disneyland were de­vel­oped for Rata­touille – they’re the same as used in Star Tours. The team de­signed them for eas­ier stack­ing, so that more could be shut­tled around the park. They’re cleaned us­ing a spe­cially de­vel­oped ul­tra­sound sys­tem, which is all housed within the Rata­touille build­ings.

An­other first for the park is Rata­touille’s rat cars, which don’t run on rails. They’re guided by GPS, and the rea­son is that each pack of three em­u­lates the scur­ry­ing of rats through­out the ride, cross­ing over each other’s paths and mix­ing up the or­der as you go through the ride – there are ac­tu­ally 72 dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble routes your car can take, so just like Star Tours, you’ll end up with a slightly dif­fer­ent story to any­one else who vis­its. This seems to be a big fo­cus for Dis­ney that new tech­nol­ogy al­lows – the flex­i­bil­ity for ev­ery­one to have a unique ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Rata­touille guided car tech­nol­ogy is based on ex­ist­ing stan­dards for au­to­mated ware­houses, and was run­ning on a test track in Chicago for a year, be­fore an­other eight months of test­ing and in­te­gra­tion in the ride. Safety is para­mount, nat­u­rally – cars stop dead if they go more than 1.5m off course.


What’s the hard­est part of all this work? “Tim­ing,” Heer­wa­gen says sim­ply. On the open­ing of Rata­touille, he was tin­ker­ing with the foun­tain out­side an hour be­fore open­ing. On the other hand, Pi­rates was the eas­i­est re-open­ing he’d ever had – his team wasn’t even work­ing late the night be­fore.

Heer­wa­gen says his team is al­ways cu­ri­ous and try­ing new things out. Even the sub­tlest things like weath­ered-ef­fect paints don’t ap­pear by magic – the team is al­ways work­ing on long-term test­ing of tech­niques and tech­nol­ogy up­grades so they can leap on un­ex­pected ad­vances. One ex­am­ple was the rise of dig­i­tal au­dio: dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of Space Moun­tain, they were able to add on-board au­dio to the cars be­cause they could play sound from a hard drive for the first time – tape didn’t sur­vive the rat­tling. It wasn’t planned, but they jumped on it as soon as it be­came vi­able. Still, even those new pos­si­bil­i­ties have to be right.

Vir­tual re­al­ity might seem like an ob­vi­ous route for a mag­i­cal Dis­ney ex­pe­ri­ence in the fu­ture, but Heer­wa­gen is pretty cool on it. “It has to en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence,” he ex­plains. “We can’t just re­place some­thing with it.” Given that it’s a lim­ited so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence, he says they would hap­pily use VR, but only if it was the only way to achieve the story they’re look­ing to tell. That’s the Dis­ney way.

“We’re al­lowed to fail a bit… it’s only through fail­ure that you get suc­cess”

The sign for Gusteau’s is low­ered into place out­side Rataouille. To make it look Pixar-like, all the straight lines in the ‘Parisian’ square are crooked

A trip past the ra­di­a­tor in Rata­touille brings a chill – the air-con sys­tem is used to blast cold air here. Later in the ride, an oven gen­tly heats you up

One of Pi­rates of the Caribbean’s most fa­mous scenes goes from con­cept (top) to in-progress re­al­ity (above) – the pro­gram­ming tech doesn’t look quite as mod­ern now as it did at the time…

Star Tours has been out­fit­ted with brand-new an­i­ma­tronic char­ac­ters and up-to-date laser pro­jec­tion. Disneyland can some­times use off-the-shelf sys­tems, but will usu­ally still need to cus­tomise them

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