“Show”ing Off Wdw Technology
Disney is truly the best in show when it comes to the theme park world. They put on an incredible number of theatrical, cinematic, and pyrotechnic performances each day – and Walt Disney World is no exception.
With WDW, the idea of “the show” extends beyond those experiences when guests are seated in a theater watching the action on stage or screen. Once you walk in the gates, you become a living, breathing part of the onstage environment – where carefully constructed sets and expertly trained Cast Members allow guests to indulge in the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy – seamlessly, and seemingly effortlessly.
Ever since the idea for Disneyland came to Walt Disney, his focus was on creating a place for families to escape reality for a while. How better to do that than by crafting spectacle, distraction, and magic at every turn? That legacy has lived on at WDW and today more than ever, technology is an essential part of the equation.
It makes sense that Disney would incorporate film-based attractions in the parks at WDW – after all, the company started out and still excels in the film business.
While the video presentations in Epcot’s China, France, and Canada Pavilions seem a bit dated, The Walt Disney Company was actually responsible for refining and improving Circle-vision 360° technology from the earlier Cineorama and Circlorama techniques.
Today, 3D technology has become a popular addition to cinematic attractions at WDW. Shows like Mickey’s Philharmagic, It’s Tough to Be A Bug, and Muppet*vision 3D incorporate three-dimensional films seen with the aid of special glasses. Going a step further into the 4D
realm, some of these attractions heighten sensory experiences for guest beyond incredible visuals—by adding elements like surround sound, seat motion, scents, and physical effects, like lighting, fog, or bubbles.
Videos are also used in many attractions to entertain guests while waiting in queues, or provide critical safety information prior to riding.
It’s hard to imagine a live performance at WDW without some sort of an unexpected “plus” to make the show that much more memorable.
In Voyage of the Little Mermaid at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we see the use of black light technology in the opening number, effects like bubbles and lighting to make the audience feel as though they are under water, and video combined with live performance and puppetry. Across the park, in For The First Time In Forever, a few performers appear on a rather bare stage – which is brought to life with stunning scenic backdrops projected on a screen behind them – this is a great use of video technology enhancing a live show with backdrops and sets never before possible within the constraints of a 30-minute theme park performance.
In the Magic Kingdom, shows like Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room and Carousel of Progress rely on Audio-animatronics for the bulk of their performance, but show technology once again adds an extra layer of magic – storm effects and a rotating theater, respectively!
Parades are one type of show that Disney is most famous for – and Festival of Fantasy certainly meets the hype. These parade floats really “plus” the experience for viewers – think spinning platforms, animatronics, swaying pendulums, bubbles and smoke, and a dragon that actually breathes fire. But that’s not the most impressive use of modern technology. Many of the intricate headpieces were actually created by 3D printers!
Animal Kingdom has some of the most elaborate shows at WDW. In Festival of the Lion King, the warthog, giraffe, elephant, and lion floats are actually repurposed from their original use in The Lion King Celebration parade at Disneyland. What makes these so remarkable is that they mark the first use of Puppetronics in a parade – this technology combines traditional puppetry with animatronic elements, giving puppeteers a greater range and control over their performance.
Finding Nemo – The Musical also relies heavily on technology. When the show opened, the theatre was upgraded with state-of-the-art sound and lighting technology – and it was enclosed (previously Theater in the Wild was an open air venue). Michael Curry (who was the lead puppet and production designer for The Lion King on Broadway) was brought in to create elaborate puppets – some as big as cars! Video backgrounds, a fly system, bubbles, and more add to the technology used to make this show a must-see at Animal Kingdom!
Walt Disney World comes alive after dark, and while its nighttime spectaculars are famous, they’re not the only reason. Great care is taken to apply special lighting to every land that stays in keeping with the theme of the area, allowing enough light for guest safety, and transforming the park into a whole new world to explore. Specialized lighting fixtures throughout Animal Kingdom’s Asia, up-lighting on the Beast’s Castle, or even effects like the
fiber optic pavement in Future World leave endless possibilities to explore. It’s impossible to think of WDW’S four headliners as a “half-day park” when there’s so much to see once the sun goes down.
Animal Kingdom has extended the idea of specialty area lighting even further with their use of technology to create an “eternal sunset” effect on Kilimanjaro Safaris, which used to close at sundown. Now, guests can ride the attraction well into the night, observing the nocturnal behaviors of many animals. While the strategically placed lighting has received mixed reviews, and some scenes lend themselves better to this altered lighting, it’s definitely an innovative solution, and hopefully one that will evolve over time for a better guest experience.
Along with the expansion of nighttime operation hours for Animal Kingdom, a breathtaking show on the Tree of Life has been added to the mix. Four different vignettes are shown throughout the night using projection mapping technology to play illustrated videos.
Of course, this is not the first use of projection mapping at WDW. For years, Disney has put
on a nightly projection show on Cinderella Castle, under various names (currently, Once Upon a Time). The most recent iteration also uses searchlights, lasers, fire, and even some fireworks during the 19-minute show. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular and the holiday show Jingle Bell Jingle BAM at Disney’s Hollywood Studios use the same projection mapping technology on the Chinese Theater, along with lasers and some fireworks.
Fantasmic! is another spectacular employing a bevy of effects. Live performers, water effects, projection on mist screens, fog, fire, lasers, puppetry, animatronics, music, LED fixtures, lighting effects, boats, and stunts combine in Mickey’s dream about the forces of good and evil. The Hollywood Hills Amphitheatre at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was built with the express purpose of housing Fantasmic! and the necessary technology to run the show, including intake pipes for mist nozzles and the fog system, natural gas lines and flame throwers, pyrotechnics launch areas, a multi-tower lighting system, surround sound, and hydraulic lifts.
At Epcot, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth uses an award-winning combination of pyrotechnics, lighting, and computer technology. The show required several special technologies to be built, including a barge holding a 28-foot globe wrapped in 15,600 LED clusters to play as a video display, an inferno barge featuring a liquid propane system and an air-launch fireworks system, fountain and fireworks barges, state-of-the-art lasers, and programmable moving searchlights, called Synchrolights. Wireless Ethernet, multi-core cables, and over 65 computers are used to control this show each night.
Disney’s premier nightly fireworks display (not to mention, the one that is the most fireworks-centric, with limited additional effects) is Magic Kingdom’s Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams (in the fall you can also see Happy Hallowishes and Holiday
Wishes). While still controlled by a computerized system, this is actually the least technologically sophisticated fireworks show at WDW!
Fun fact: both Wishes and Fantasmic! allow guests to use Glow with the Show and Made with Magic accessories, like wands and Mickey or Minnie ears, to match the color of the action in the performance using infrared technology.
Perhaps pointing the way to future uses of after-dark technology, this Christmas, Intel, and Disney collaborated on Starbright Holidays at Disney Springs – a light show combining 300 drones flying in formation to create shapes in the sky. If that’s where technology is taking us in the not-so-distant future, I can’t wait to see what Disney comes up with next!
THE WHOLE WORLD’S A STAGE…
Other “show” effects are applied throughout the parks, particularly during special events or seasons. Snow falls on Main Street, U.S.A. during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Special effects make the Haunted Mansion extra spooky during Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Spaceship Earth has been transformed into the Death Star.
Magic Bands enable Cast Members to greet you by name – and limited edition Magic Bands have vanity taps that use color and light effects for a special experience.
Even the background music of the parks subtly changes as you move between attractions and lands, enhancing the emotional experience of guests.
There’s no telling what show technology make come into play as WDW unveils Star Wars, Toy Story, and Avatar-inspired lands over the next few years. Technology is advancing more rapidly than ever, and upgrades to Wishes and Illuminations are rumored – as well as speculation over a new nighttime parade for Magic Kingdom. With immersive show technology, like in Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean or interactive “painting” technology in Hong Kong’s version of Paint the Night, there are endless possibilities to what Walt Disney World Imagineers may be planning to delight guests in the future!