The Technology Behind The Rides At Wdw
Disney is the world’s leader in theme park ride technology. That has been true since Walt got the idea for creating Disneyland way back in the 1950s.
To understand what goes into the ride technology at Walt Disney World, we have to jump in the time machine and go back to when it all began…
WALT DISNEY – INVENTOR
No, I’m not talking about 1955, I’m talking about going all the way back to the 1930s—taking a look at Walt Disney, the inventor.
There is no doubt that Walt Disney was one of the most influential and creative minds of his, or any, time. Walt was the pioneer of animated film, live television, feature length family films, and a whole lot more.
But Walt had another side that is not talked about as much. That’s the inventor side. Walt was a true innovator and inventor. When he wanted to create movement in his animations, he invented a new type of camera. When it came to animation technology, Walt was the leader in innovation and invention.
When it came to theme park technology, Walt was in a class all his own.
TECHNOLOGY IN TODAY’S RIDES
So just what did Walt create that’s in today’s rides at Walt Disney World? Thought you’d never ask.
Everyone knows that Walt Disney pioneered robotic technology. Right? Yes, he did, only he called it Audio-animatronics. Really Audio-animatronics is just a fancy word for robot.
Look around Walt Disney World today. Audio-animatronic figures are everywhere. From the classics like the Hall of Presidents (where it all started), to the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Carousel of Progress, they all contain figures that were designed by Walt and his team.
Through the years, the technology behind the Audio-animatronic figures has gotten better and better, but the basic concept is still found even in the newest rides, like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
Walt’s Other Inventions
OK, what else did Walt invent? Let’s see… How about the modern day roller coaster? Yes, Disney pioneered roller coaster design with the first use of tubular steel track when the Matterhorn Bobsleds were introduced in 1959. All of the Walt Disney World roller coasters are built with tubed track technology.
Oh, and you know those “Circle-vision 360°” movies in Epcot and China? Walt had a hand in those creating one called America the Beautiful in 1955. Yes, 1955.
Walt was truly the inspiration for pretty much all of the theme park technology we see today at Walt Disney World.
No we’re not done yet. Let’s talk about today’s technology. It’s really incredible.
I could talk for hours about the ride technologies that make the rides at Walt Disney World work, but I’ll try to keep it down to fewer than 100 pages. Let’s dive in…
The Need for Speed
When Disneyland opened, it didn’t have any “thrill” rides. Walt wasn’t totally convinced that they would work in his Disneyland. He was skeptical until the Matterhorn Bobsleds opened in 1959. The Matterhorn was a big hit and Walt started thinking about how to incorporate “thrill” rides into the parks.
“Thrill” rides are an area where Disney has excelled with technology.
When you talk about technology and “thrill” rides at Walt Disney World, you have to start with Space Mountain. Space Mountain was definitely Disney’s first big roller coaster ride.
Space Mountain was actually the first computer-controlled roller coaster in the world. In fact, Walt wanted to build Space Mountain in Disneyland but the technology wasn’t up to it yet. They had to wait eleven years for the technology to catch up to Walt’s dream.
Believe it or not, Space Mountain is the slowest “thrill” ride at Walt Disney World. It just seems faster than the others because of one low-tech trick: turing off the lights makes it seem like you are moving faster than you really are.
Space Mountain reaches a top speed of 28 miles per hour. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is 30mph. Splash Mountain hits a top speed of around 40mph on the drop. High tech meets low tech.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Probably the most sophisticated ride at Walt Disney World is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. It truly is a “Modern Marvel” of technology.
There are a whole bunch of systems that go into making the Tower of Terror one of the most thrilling rides anywhere, but let’s just look at the 2 “biggies.”
Let’s start with the ride vehicle. Disney is pretty well known for putting it’s ride vehicles on tracks, but that’s not how the ride vehicles on the Tower of Terror work. They are Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVS), which move independently and are internally battery powered.
The AGVS are guided by signals from wires built into the floor of the building. They follow a preplanned route and send location information back to the main computer via the Wi-fi system in the building.
The big elevator shaft where all the drops happen is truly amazing. The up and down motion is controlled by a huge (12-feet wide, 7-feet high, and 35-feet long) Linear Induction Motor (LIM) system located in the top of the shaft. These are the same type motors that power a couple of other rides at Walt Disney World. (Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, and Tomorrowland Transit Authority.)
Not only is there a motor at the top of the shaft, there is another system at the bottom of the shaft that helps pull the ride vehicles down, so you actually fall faster than gravity would pull you. (Next time you ride, try putting a coin on your knee and you’ll see it float in front of you because you’re dropping faster than gravity is pulling the coin down.)
If you want to get really geeky about the tech in the Tower of Terror check out - http://www.industrytap.com/engineering-disneys-tower-of-terror-ride/5209
THE TECHNOLOGY OF ANIMALS
In 1998, Disney stepped into a whole new world of technology. That was the technology of blending live animals with live humans.
Oh yes, there is a whole lot of technology that goes into dealing with animals.
Of course, there is the care and feeding of animals, which is fascinating. Just go back sometime and go through Rafiki’s Planet Watch to see what goes into taking care of all of the animals.
The most fascinating use of technology with the animals may be something you don’t even see. This technology is featured prominently in Kilimanjaro Safaris, and that’s the technology of keeping animals inside their designated spaces.
Some animals don’t work and play well together, no matter what all the Disney movies say. One of Disney’s first major tasks was to build a place where animals could be seen but where they wouldn’t eat each other.
Kilimanjaro Safaris does this by using walls, ditches, and barriers that have been built into the Savannah to look natural. Some of them you see, and some you don’t.
There was also the challenge of keeping the animals in places where they are visible from the ride vehicles. For example, lions are shy. They don’t like to be seen. Disney had to design a way to get the lions to stay in a place where guests could view them.
For this, Disney uses a number of different strategies. For the lions, it’s temperature control. There is an area where air is pumped and that draws the lions to that area (where they can be seen!).
You’ll see giraffes going to the trees and eating from the feeder boxes located up in the trees. It’s a fascinating use of technology.
DIGITAL MAPPING AND PROJECTION
Disney’s most recent advance in technology has come in the use of projection and digital mapping. Disney has always been a leader in display technology, but lately it’s taking it to a whole new level.
Disney has been using digital mapping to change the way Audio-animatronics are created. You can see this in two of the newest rides at Walt Disney World.
When the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opened, the mine scene was truly amazing. The faces of the dwarfs seemed to shine. This was accomplished by adding a digitally created face to the normal audio animatronic figures. This allows for the characters make very realistic facial motions.
Digital mapping was taken to a whole new level in the new Frozen Ever After attraction. There are some mind blowing scenes, especially during the “Let it go” section of the ride.
You can also see this new technology in the Haunted Mansion in several scenes. Digital projection is the next big thing in Disney technology.
THE FUTURE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER
Speaking of the next big thing, let’s finish up by talking about the future. In many ways the future is already here.
In just a few months Pandora - The World of Avatar will open in Animal Kingdom. There is some really exciting technology being built into Pandora.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Disney released a video showing some of the new leaps in technology that will be featured in Pandora. The next generation of Audio-animatronics looks incredible and almost lifelike.
The display technology that will make you feel like you can interact with the bioluminescent forest. And Disney has filed a patent for plants that can actually react to humans. This is crazy.
Just a short walk from Pandora, Disney will be unveiling new technologies when Rivers of Light opens (finally!). Disney will be pushing the envelope of using light and water together to create beautiful effects.
They’ve been doing this for a while with Fantasmic!, but this is a whole new level of special effects.
It’s widely speculated that a virtual reality (VR) attraction featuring Wreck It Ralph will be coming to the area currently occupied by Stitch’s Great Escape in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. Also, it’s rumored that a VR attraction featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy will be replacing Ellen’s Energy Adventure in Epcot.
It’s going to be fun to watch the future of technology in the rides at Walt Disney World.
Technology in rides is fascinating, and Disney is the best in the world at developing it. What sets Disney apart, and the same thing that made Walt Disney so special, is the ability to use technology to tell a great story. Yes, Walt was a great inventor, but most of all he was an incredible storyteller.
It’s fitting that the parks that bear his name are full of attractions that tell wonderful stories and use incredible technology to do it!