- Annika Santhanam
Characters Come to Life! How Disney Technology is Enhancing Theme Park Immersion
The Disney Parks are known as the most magical places on Earth, from the amazing structures within the park to the interactive rides that guests love. But their magic actually comes from a very practical source - technology!
Disney’s technology has become the basis for the most interactive elements of the theme parks, from the wristbands guests use to enter the park to the animated characters within the rides. In recent years, Disney technology has focused on making the characters themselves come to life. Disney Imagineers (the engineers behind the parks) have contributed to significant advancements in immersing guests in the worlds within the theme parks. Let’s take a look at some of the innovative technology behind Disney’s magic!
Disney’s animatronic technology has allowed characters only seen on screen to become almost living members of each of the theme parks. One of the homes of some of the most impressive animatronics is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge within Disney World in Orlando, Florida. As you walk through Galaxy’s Edge, multiple Star Wars droids beep and turn their heads towards guests. The droids not only look just like the ones in the movies, but guests are able to use the Galaxy’s Edge iOS app, dubbed the Datapad, to interact with the robots - talk about intergalactic communication! The Datapad utilizes Bluetooth technology to connect with nearby animatronic droids, allowing users to activate some of the droids to get them to beep and move around.
Additionally, within each of the rides at Galaxy’s Edge, more animatronics immerse riders into the Star Wars universe. In the Rise of the Resistance ride, Disney utilizes multiple animatronics, including a realistic BB-8 droid rolling around in one of the rooms and ultra-realistic moving and talking models of characters including Kylo Ren and Lieutenant Beck - guests feel as if they’re standing next to the characters in real life thanks to their advanced, human-like movements.
The animatronics are part of a series of Hybrid A1000 Animatronics, which have become the more realistic characters within the rides in Galaxy’s Edge and Avengers Campus. First developed in the 1980s, Disney has transitioned from hydraulic motors that power movement to electric motors and actuators, creating fluid facial and body movements. Additionally, Disney has implemented “pancake” motors, which are extremely flat and versatile motors that allow Imagineers to create realistic movements for multiple parts of the animatronics. Today, the electric movement and pancake motors have created stunning animatronics that look almost like real, human actors - Hondo Ohnaka on Galaxy’s Edge even walks and talks simultaneously thanks to this technology!
While Disney World has its fair share of amazing animatronics, Disneyland California is now boasting one of the most advanced pieces of technology employed by the theme parks: stuntronics! As the name may imply, this is a combination of stunt actors and animatronics. Rather than having human stunt actors perform dangerous stunts in the park or in the rides, Disneyland California has created human-like robots that perform the stunts instead. Guests can see one of the first stuntronics used by the park in Avengers Campus, where a stuntronic version of Spiderman flips through the air from one building to the other.
The interesting thing about this stuntronic is that it doesn’t always land safely - oftentimes, the release mechanism that allows the stuntronic to swing and fly through the air can malfunction, but Disney has fail safes in case it doesn’t fall in the right place or crashes into the opposite building. The robot connects to audio that is played out loud, and Spiderman’s quick quips often make up for any malfunctions! Despite some errors with the system, the stuntronic is still super impressive - most guests can’t even tell that it’s a robot and not an actual person!
Animatronics in the parks often have set dialogue to fit with the plot or theme of the rides, but did you know that other Disney attractions often let guests have real-time conversations with characters?
If you’ve ever wanted to talk to Mike and Sully from Monsters, Inc., or even to Crush from Finding Nemo, now’s your chance! Disney has taken advantage of new facial motion-capture technology to create one-of-a-kind experiences for guests. In the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, Mike and Sully crack jokes submitted by the audience and even hold conversations with audience members - hidden voice actors for each character utilize a motion-capture machine that tracks their mouth movements in order to match what they’re saying to the animated expressions of Mike and Sully on screen. The same technology is used in Turtle Talk with Crush, where the sea turtle Crush from Finding Nemo holds conversations and answers questions with audience members. Another hidden operator performing Crush’s voice has their facial movements tracked and mirrored in Crush’s animation!
Facial motion-capture often works with a series of points plotted on a user’s face. These points correlate to the rigging that is built into the animated character that will be displayed on screen - based on the characters’ design, this rigging could cause their eyebrows, mouth, eyes, or more to change shape in order to show different expressions. As the voice actor talks, the points on their face will move, and the movement is tracked through the motion capture device. These points then correlate to the rigging points of the animated character, allowing the animation to move in the same way the voice actor does!
Disney has evolved into a technological superpower over the past couple of years, and guests love how interactive and magical the park is with the effects of this technology. Guests can live in the world of their favorite characters and even interact with them, an opportunity that has only arisen in the past couple of years! As Disney continues to use new technology - including virtual and augmented reality - in its upcoming rides and attractions, guests will be sure to enter a whole new world of magic. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more articles!