philip lelyveld The world of entertainment technology


‘New magic’ at Disneyland: How the iconic theme park is enhancing its content with digital touches

20180602_181025-1260x945I’d put the enhancements into three technology buckets: embedded animation/multimedia, digital projections, and CGI characters. It wasn’t always clear to me which technique was being used, or how many were used in combination (I was usually watching them from a moving ride vehicle). But they created incremental improvements that kept even the oldest attractions fresh and, importantly, more in line with out-of-Disneyland viewer expectations.


For me, the epitome of flexibility is Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. When it opened more than 30 years ago as just Star Tours (before Disney owned the entire Star Wars universe) I interviewed Disney Imagineers who told me the multi-person motion simulators were designed to handle potential updates to their video adventures. That concept was astonishing in a time when it took a then-advanced 386 personal computer to control a single audio-animatronic figure you’d see while waiting in line for the attraction — and that was an improvement from audio-animatronic figures once run by mini-computers.

Now, Star Tours sports stunning high-resolution digital screens, 3D video (added in 2011 when the attraction was fully refreshed), a fully CGI “spokesdroid,” and a bumpy changeable adventure with dozens of variations including, most recently, footage with the First Order. This time, C3PO is your pilot, replacing an original droid pilot voiced by Pee Wee Herman.

The latest Lincoln, updated since my last visit, is based on electronics instead of hydraulics. It’s said to represent the first of a new generation of audio-animatronic figure, autonomatronics, which can incorporate sensors and cameras. This Mr. Lincoln showed more emotion and simply more fluid motion than its predecessors.

Not every digital aspect of Disneyland is in a fixed location. Disney does have its free Disneyland mobile app, useful for quickly checking attraction wait times and, for a daily fee, buying a MaxPass with added features (I also like, and use, the inexpensive third-party subscription Lines app to help me limit time in line). Disney has announced a new Play Disney Parks app coming this summer with promised location-based in-park experiences, probably also helpful when you’re stuck in a line.

It is still possible to find classic Disneyland attractions that haven’t received an obvious digital makeover. The Enchanted Tiki Room is one, though in 1963 it did reflect cutting-edge tech as the first use of audio-animatronics anywhere. It’s a Small World is another, annoying adults and charming children with a masterpiece of an earworm since 1966, now enhanced with traditional Small World-style Disney characters such as Stitch.

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