I’m standing in the middle of a quarter-dark studio floor. To my right, a Disney Imagineer pecks at a keyboard and keeps glancing upward. In front of me, on an elevated platform, Disney Princess Tiana has exchanged her gown for khakis and a pith helmet and is mouthing something I can’t hear.

The Imagineer near me is working on one of the dozens (yes, dozens) of audio-animatronics that will inhabit Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, the forthcoming ride at the company’s Anaheim and Orlando theme parks that will take the place of the old Splash Mountain attraction. While most of the other Imagineers in the room sit just a couple feet away from the animatronics they’re working on, this particular Tiana is on scaffolding for a reason.

One of the goals of this ride is for theme-park goers to feel as if Tiana is talking to them directly. So, positioning the princess up high gives Imagineers the same perspective future riders will have as they pass her going up the first hill of the ride.

A dozen feet away, Tiana’s friend Lottie waves vigorously with an infectious grin in a manner so lifelike it’s hard to believe she’s made up of robotic components and silicon. And behind me, a jaw-dropping animatronic of Mama Odie moves her hands and wrists fluidly as she welcomes visitors and shoos her pet snake and personal assistant Juju away from a plate of beignets.

Welcome to the Candy Shop, a nickname for the building on the Imagineering campus where the animatronics that are so crucial to Disney’s theme parks are born. It’s a place few get to see—but one that will play a critical role as the company plans one of the biggest expansions in its history. 

A page from Walt’s Playbook

In 1954, one year before Disneyland would open to the public, Walt Disney launched a bold, unique way to build awareness of his upcoming theme park: He brought the public behind the scenes.

From 1954-1958, ABC would air Walt Disney’s Disneyland, a show that not only helped finance the park, but acted as a marketing vehicle for it, with Walt himself showcasing the construction of certain attractions and talking about how the park would be. A separate program, covering the live opening of Disneyland, which aired in 1955 and featured Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan, was viewed by more than 90 million people.

The strategy, of course, worked. Disneyland was (and remains) a tremendous success and paved the way for additional Disney theme parks worldwide. Now, as the company prepares to spend $60 billion on expansions of those parks, it’s hoping Walt’s strategy still has legs in the 21st century.

Disney invited Fast Company and a handful of others inside the Walt Disney Imagineering campus—a location that’s normally off-limits. It’s the creative heart of the company, where new ideas are dreamed up, the audio-animatronics you see on rides are created and the parks’ magic begins to come to life.

At the same time, the company has launched a Web-based series on YouTube called We Call It Imagineering, once again talking directly to potential park-goers.

Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro [Photo: Disney]

“I consider this place to be hallowed ground,” said CEO Bob Iger, in comments made during our tour of the facility. “If I could, I’d spend a lot more time here, but I have other things to do.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. Over the past few months, Iger has had to fend off two proxy fights, oversee massive cost-cutting at the company, coordinate the buyout of the shares of Hulu that Disney didn’t already own, and begin (again) the hunt for his own successor.

Meanwhile, Universal Orlando Resort has unveiled a major park expansion, coming in 2025. The 750-acre Universal Epic Universe will feature five new worlds, dedicated to Harry Potter, Nintendo, How to Train Your Dragon, and more, including a 500-room hotel directly adjacent to the park.

In many ways, the stakes have never been higher for Disney. 

Moving beyond audio-animatronics

The Imagineering headquarters building at 1401 Flower Street is fairly nondescript. You’ll spot a giant “hidden Mickey” (the Easter egg-like representations of the company’s mascot that are subtly inserted into random locations on rides, buildings, and more throughout the parks) carved into the ceiling when you walk in. If you stroll a little further, you’ll find yourself in Monorail Hallway, a neon-lit stretch where moving images in “windows” on the wall create the illusion of riding on the popular park attraction.

The real magic happens a few buildings away, though, at research and development. This, says Bruce Vaughn, head of Disney Imagineering, is “kind of a wizard shop inside a wizard shop—one of the coolest places in the entertainment industry.”

Inside the lobby, a sculpture of Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid sits on a shelf and wears a pair of VR goggles. And the chief purpose of the Imagineers who work there is to create the impossible.

It’s a blue-sky operation, where technology is invented without a story in mind. Once the tech is functional, the Imagineers can share it with storytellers who can find a way to incorporate it into everything from attractions to restaurants to parades.

Lanny Smoot [Photo: Disney]

Take, for instance, the HoloTile floor that Imagineer Lanny Smoot (the first Imagineer to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame) has created. A magical walkway that moves in any direction and at any speed (from a stroll to a sprint), it’s a creation that seems initially suited for virtual reality. But Smoot, who has more than 100 patents to his name, said he has met with people in Disney’s theater division to discuss use cases and showcased how a chair could be moved on it via remote control, which opens up potential attraction applications.

Smoot is a Disney legend. His ideas gave Madame Leota the ability to “float” in the Haunted Mansion, and he created the extendable lightsaber used by Disney Live Entertainment (and coveted by all Star Wars fans who saw D’Amaro ignite it at D23 in 2022).


[Image: Disney]

A few feet away, the robotics division is working on the next generation of characters that could be in the parks someday. It’s here that the BD-X droids were created—small, personality-intense, nearly autonomous droids that are currently appearing at Disneyland’s Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. Imagineer Moritz Bacher, who has helped create the BD-X droids, says it took less than a year to go from concept to experimental, but functional, droid.

“It’s not about robots, it’s characters we want to build,” he said.

A bit further down the way, Imagineers Tony Dohi and Morgan Pope, who created the Spider-Man stuntronic at the center of a regular show at Disney’s California Adventure, are working on androids that can make closer connections with guests.

The first trial of this was at last year’s SXSW, when a bare-bones Judy Hopps from Zootopia crawled out of a crate and tried to roller skate. It got laughs, but when Pope scooped her up on his shoulders (which was really a way to get the robot off stage smoothly), it brought a wave of “Awwws” from the audience. That’s when they knew they could make guests have an emotional attachment to machinery.

They upped the stakes in December with a Duke Weaselton robot/animatronic interrupting D’Amaro at the opening of Shanghai Disney’s Zootopia attraction.

@disneyparks

Breaking news from Zootopia 👀🦊 #Disney #DisneyParks #ShanghaiDisneyland #Zootopia #DukeWeaselton #Technology #Imagineers #STEM #Robotics

♬ original sound – Disney Parks

Whether it’s clumsy bunnies, curious intergalactic droids, or Disney princesses, the idea is the same, says Vaughn.

“We use all these amazing tools and buildings and roller coasters and landscape design ultimately to evoke a very particular emotion, which has to do with safety, reassurance, happiness, gathering, and doing things together,” he says. “I think we do it in a unique way.”


[Image: Disney]

What’s on the near-term horizon?

The creations of the R&D department might not make it to the park for years, if ever. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, though, will be up and running by the end of 2024.

This will be the first of many new rides and attractions appearing in the Disney parks in the coming years. It’s the first step of a $60 billion capital expenditure that’s set to take place over the next 10 years at the Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products division, which oversees its theme park holdings.

The animatronics for the Orlando version of the ride are already in Florida, with installation and testing underway. There’s still no opening date for the attraction, but Ted Robledo, executive creative director, says work is “past the 80% mark.” For the Disneyland version of the ride, the animatronics are still at Imagineering’s Glendale, California, studios.

The characters are as lifelike as the Na’vi River Journey Shaman at Pandora—World of Avatar in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, maybe more so. And the sense of connection that Imagineers are trying to create is unprecedented. For instance, the crew working in Orlando deliberately didn’t put pupils on some of the animatronics there until those characters were in place, so they could position exactly where those “critters,” as they call them, would be looking.

Tiana, in the ride’s story, is on a search in a Louisiana bayou for animal musicians to play at a party and will appear several times throughout the attraction. Louis the alligator will make several appearances, of course, but he wasn’t completely put together yet in some of the models we saw.

Hidden Mickeys are sometimes truly hidden, by the way. On the metal frame of Louis’s body, amid the wires and gears, is the familiar cut outline of the Mouse’s head and ears. It will be covered by fabric so guests will never get a chance to see it.  

[Photo: Disney]

A $60 billion bet on the future

There’s a lot more to Imagineering than audio-animatronics and blue-sky units. Sometimes, it’s little elements in the park that add to the immersion, like the busts in the Haunted Mansion or new characters. 

That brand of magic typically starts in the Blaine Gibson Sculpting Studio. As you enter, you pass a sign, “This is a closed set,” with a drawing of Mickey in a police uniform holding up his hand in a “stop” motion. Close by, another sign shows Pete, Mickey’s arch-nemesis, scowling at you with the words, “Absolutely No Photography!” 

Inside the studio, you’re surrounded by wall-to-wall sculptures of everything from the Country Bears to pirates to U.S. presidents. Patrick Simmons, who created the in-park representation of Hondo Ohnaka on the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride, walks us through his creative process. After a scale clay sculpture is created, it’s then scanned and made into a digital file, where height adjustments can more easily be made. From there, it’s over to the foundry, where it becomes a bronze statue. The process can take more than a year, depending on the level of detail and size of the statue. 

[Photo: Disney]

Simmons, who sometimes juggles up to three projects at once, recently worked on the Dreammaker statue of Walt that recently appeared in the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, and “It was a little intimidating,” he admits, but when he was asked to move out of his comfort zone of characters, he didn’t hesitate. 

Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, knows something about being out of a comfort zone. It will be his job to oversee that $60 billion expansion of the parks. 

The genesis for that unprecedented investment came, in part, from a 2023 meeting with Iger.

“About a year ago,” D’Amaro said, “I found myself in Bob’s office, and we were talking about the last 100 years and everything that had happened in our products around the world. And we talked about the number of stories we hadn’t been able to tell yet and the number of acres we have available that we can exercise and the number of fans out there who would want to participate in that. Bob looked at me and said, ‘Go.’”

So far two big initiatives have been announced for two Orlando theme parks, but the timeline for them has been nebulous.

In Walt Disney World, the area beyond Big Thunder Mountain Railroad will house an expansion bigger than Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora—The World of Avatar. Over at Animal Kingdom, a new land that incorporates experiences inspired by the Encanto and Indiana Jones films is underway. Disney will likely reveal more details about its longer-term plans for the two new lands at its D23 fan event in August.

While those are significant expansions, the price tag on them won’t come close to $60 billion. Iger says that’s deliberate. Disney, like the Pirates of the Caribbean, plans to keep its powder dry, stockpiling some of that cash for the next big thing.

“We have a fairly good idea of what’s being built near term, but we’re purposefully not allocated all [of the earmarked money] because, who knows? In five years, we could end up with a giant hit movie—think Frozen—that we may want to mine as an attraction or a hotel or a restaurant in our parks,” said Iger. “So, you want to maintain some flexibility.”

Share.

Comments are closed.