How do you keep 27,000 acres of theme parks, resorts and additional property under control? This is a question Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida must answer every day. However lucky for them, they have a bit of Disney Magic up their sleeves: Disney Imagineers. These highly talented individuals use engineering and the child within to improve the overall quality of one of the most popular theme parks in the entire world. The Disney Imagineers are the key to running the most magical place on earth running smoothly and they are continuously improving their skills and ideas every day.
Back in 1965 when Walt Disney was brainstorming ideas for his upcoming Florida project, he never thought that the initial 8,380 acres of swampland he bought would be the ideal family vacation spot in the 21st century. In the process of construction of the new east coast Disney theme park, Walt hired a handful of engineers to help with the sound and light systems for the rides, and this led to the hiring of one David Snyder. When his employment began in 1968, it was only three years before park opening and Snyder was tasked with compiling all the controls for the new rides into one system later called a “show system”.(Heaton) This led to the invention of the DACS or Digital Animation Control System. Before this new system, operating rides, as was already being done at Disneyland in California, was a hassle with many of the controls being far away from each other which delayed the operation of the ride. “That all changed with the Imagineers’ Digital Animation Control System (DACS). It uses a set of buttons and knobs that control and record the animatronics’ movements, freeing programmers from having to strap themselves directly to the machines. DACS not only improved animatronic programming but also daily functions across the parks. Magic Kingdom has continued to utilize DACS for opening doors, controlling lights, and managing cash registers.” (Schmidt) This cut down on the amount of people needed to operate an attraction and shortened the wait time for a majority of attractions in the park. However, while this system was groundbreaking and exciting, it would be slow to be put to use.
By 1972, Walt Disney World had been running for a whole year. Guests were transported into the magical lands of their favorite Disney movies, and they were also enjoying the newness of the park. But behind the scenes, things were not moving fast enough for the Disney Imagineers. In a conversation about the progression of the DACS into the park, David Snyder expressed his frustration to fellow engineer Ed Catmull. While Catmull was visiting Snyder at what would be his future place of employment, he asked Snyder why his new computer program wasn’t being used at the state-of-the-art theme park. “Things move very slow here.” (Ghez, 598) Snyder replied and when interviewed by Didier Ghez in 2011, when Catmull is asked about the progression of the technology his reply still would be “They were just too slow.” (Ghez, 599). Eventually the system was fully integrated into the parks and today, no one can imagine Disney World without these systems.
While the DACS was very useful and seemed to be ahead of its time in 1972, if no upgrades were made to this system, Disney World would not have remained open for 50 years. With new technology being developed every day, the Imagineers have faced some struggles in trying to keep up with the everchanging computer systems. As described by Nathan Schmidt, a writer at All Ears, says, “Throughout their innovation, audio-animatronics have had one critical weakness: they remained largely static and unchanging, making things costly if you wanted to change any of them. But Disney is finding a way around this roadblock by combining animatronics with projection and 3D animation technology.” This means that there have been many updates to the system as time goes on and technology improves. The old system, that used to control many aspects on one computer, has now been split into many different departments and machineries. Rides are no longer controlled from the same room as cash registers for gift shops. Now a ride can be controlled from one handheld tablet and all transactions are handled on a small POS system that is handheld meaning there are fewer people needed to operate an attraction. From this, more employees, deemed cast members by Disney, can be placed at different places in the parks, whether it be aiding a princess meet and greet or appearing in one of the many parades. Additionally, the commands used to turn on lights or close doors that would take multiple steps, can be controlled by the push of a button on a small tablet. This is not the only way that Disney is jumping into the modern world of technology.
In addition to the new animatronics and projections that make the rides more realistic, there are new systems to ease the burden of checking into resorts on Disney property. Instead of waiting in line in the resort lobby, guests can check in from the My Disney Experience app from their mobile device. Additionally, instead of a room key that can get easily lost or demagnetized, guests can opt for a new Disney technology called a MagicBand. “Now, every guest to Disney World gets a MagicBand, a wristband that is equipped with RFID technology and a long-range radio. These bands communicate with thousands of sensors and stream real-time data to hundreds of systems that make the entertainment venue a giant computer. The bands act as hotel keys, credit cards, tickets, FastPasses and more. With a simple swipe of the band across sensors located throughout the park, the giant system knows where you are, what you’re doing and what you need.” (Marr). Disney is not pressing the brakes there, in addition to the mobile check in and MagicBands, Disney has equipped their cast members with a special set of tools to ensure guest satisfaction. In an interview with Sean O’Neill, Gary Daniels, vice president of Disney’s digital experience, said:
“We have something we call a guest service suite, which is a set of software technologies that help a cast member perform their role and support anything they need to do to help to help the guests,” Daniels said. At some of the resorts in Disney Parks, staff no longer stay behind front desks to use computers but instead use tablet devices on the go. The company claims to have put a lot of thought into the user interface for these tablets to make it easier for staff to interact with guests, asking personal and conversational questions. (O’Neill).
Even the newest piece of Disney technology, Disney Genie, is making the organization of family vacation a breeze. “Another mobile-first example is coming “soon” and is called “Disney Genie.” Guests will be able to use their mobile phones to share their interests – such as a princess-themed day at Magic Kingdom Park or a gastronomic themed trip to Epcot — and Disney’s “genie” will provide customized itineraries that solve the planning dilemma of the ideal order or timing of an itinerary. The tool will offer a few curated itineraries with lots of visual help to help guests make the most of their vacation.” (O’Neill). In summation, the Imagineers at Disney World take a look at every detail that may make a dream vacation go awry and produce a well thought solution to the issue. They also find ways to bring the magic to all attractions in the park, whether it is upgrading the light systems or making the controls for the attractions easier, so more guests can come and go with ease. The job of these Imagineers never gets easier and never stops. With technology improving every day, mechanisms in the park become outdated every day. These brilliant characters in the storybook that was rightfully entitled “The Florida Project” by its creator, make a difference in the maintenance and improvement on the parks. Without them, the fate of Walt Disney’s east coast dream, would be dark and doomed. Imagineers are one of the reasons that the park has been open for 50 years and they are the reasons for the light in a child’s eye when they walk down Main Street. Without Imagineers, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida would never have come close to the magical place we know it to be.
“74. David Snyder on Programming the Computer Systems for Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center” The Tomorrow Society Podcast from David Heaton, 24 June 2019 https://tomorrowsociety.com/david-snyder-disney-podcast/
Fickley-Baker, Jennifer. “Imagineers Use Innovative Technology to Build New Fantasyland” Disney Parks, https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2011/08/imagineers-use-innovative-technology-to-build-new-fantasyland/
Ghez, Didier. “Ed Catmull.” Walt’s People. Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him, Xlibris Corporation, 2011, pp. 595–599.
Marr, Bernard. “Disney Uses Big Data, IOT and Machine Learning to Boost Customer Experience.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Aug. 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2017/08/24/disney-uses-big-data-iot-and-machine-learning-to-boost-customer-experience/?sh=74f9eeb83387.
O’Neill, Sean. “Disney Parks Plan to Greet Returning Guests with New Digital Tech for Phones.” Skift, Skift, 15 June 2021, skift.com/2021/06/15/disney-parks-plan-to-greet-returning-guests-with-new-digital-tech-for-phones/.
Schmidt, Nathan. “Taking a Look Back at the History of Animatronics in the Disney Parks” All Ears, https://allears.net/2020/03/30/taking-a-look-back-at-the-history-of-animatronics-in-the-disney-parks/.Accessed 14 March 2022
Caitlyn is a first-year student at Wilkes University majoring in Pre-Pharmacy studies. In her extra time, she works at DePietro’s Hometown Pharmacy in Dunmore, PA. While not at school or working, Caitlyn enjoys spending time with her Labrador retriever CeCe and watching Philadelphia Phillies baseball games