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

ANAHEIM, Calif. — What is “content?,” I mused whereas my abdomen rose and fell in jerky counterpoint to the Massive Thunder Mountain runaway rail automotive by which I used to be using. When content equals story, because it does at Disneyland, it may be a complete theme park.

There could also be no higher place to watch how digital content has enhanced — or changed — the bodily in storytelling than at the authentic Disney park in Anaheim. Disneyland was based in 1955 and successfully invented the idea of the trendy theme park, the place story is intertwined with points of interest.

I made a decision to check this speculation with my interior 8-year-old in tow throughout my first go to to Disneyland in practically a decade (although in-between I’ve visited Disney parks in Orlando and Paris).

Disclaimer: I’m not a Disney obsessive, however I’m observant. I’ve an extended historical past as a shopper of Disneyland content going again greater than 50 years to my childhood, with in-depth dives as a journalist overlaying the expertise behind Star Excursions when it opened in 1987 and Disney’s California Journey park in 2001.

This journey, I used to be on the lookout for digital upgrades to the storytelling since my final go to in 2009. Not essentially show-stopper new points of interest or headliner revamps (although there are these), however the delicate. Maybe so delicate that Disney public relations reps had a tough time developing with options for me to take a look at earlier than I arrived.

However they’re there, and I seen.

I’d put the enhancements into three expertise buckets: embedded animation/multimedia, digital projections, and CGI characters. It wasn’t at all times clear to me which method was getting used, or what number of had been utilized in mixture (I used to be often watching them from a shifting experience automobile). However they created incremental enhancements that saved even the oldest points of interest recent and, importantly, extra in line with out-of-Disneyland viewer expectations.

For instance, take Peter Pan’s Flight (opened in 1955) and Alice in Wonderland (1958) in Fantasyland. Each now embed snippets of animation — I might hesitate to name them clips — that seem like from their namesake animated options for full of life illustration as the dark ride automobiles slowly traverse their well-established routes. Movie-inspired animation photos additionally play a task in the newer Sleeping Magnificence Fortress Walkthrough (2008).

Meantime, digital strategies have subtly improved the actuality of lightning and pretend waterfall, river, and lava flows in points of interest as various as Peter Pan and Disneyland Railroad’s Grand Canyon Diorama and Primeval World (1958/1966). Even the newer, intestine-adjusting Massive Thunder Mountain Railroad (1979) coaster has added small digital results to make a flaming “blast space” riders roll via seem extra threatening.

Need extra overt results? Head over to Tomorrowland the place Submarine Voyage (1959) developed into Discovering Nemo Submarine Voyage (2007) and nonetheless retains evolving. I used to be impressed with the film-like underwater character interplay of Nemo, Dory, and the different denizens of the deep outdoors my tiny round window on my final go to. However this time, I’d swear the characters included references to Discovering Dory — a film that wasn’t launched till 2016.

And it’s exhausting to get extra overt than the Star Wars multimedia projected inside Area Mountain (1977) when it undergoes its occasional transformations into Hyperspace Mountain, a content overlay of various digital photos and sounds. In impact, digital expertise makes it doable to show what had been a decades-old single-purpose attraction like Area Mountain into a number of seasonal points of interest.

For me, the epitome of flexibility is Star Excursions: The Journey Continues. When it opened greater than 30 years in the past as simply Star Excursions (earlier than Disney owned the total Star Wars universe) I interviewed Disney Imagineers who instructed me the multi-person movement simulators had been designed to deal with potential updates to their video adventures. That idea was astonishing in a time when it took a then-advanced 386 personal computer to regulate a single audio-animatronic determine you’d see whereas ready in line for the attraction — and that was an enchancment from audio-animatronic figures as soon as run by mini-computers.

Now, Star Tours sports activities gorgeous high-resolution digital screens, 3D video (added in 2011 when the attraction was absolutely refreshed), a completely CGI “spokesdroid,” and a bumpy changeable journey with dozens of variations together with, most not too long ago, footage with the First Order. This time, C3PO is your pilot, changing an authentic droid pilot voiced by Pee Wee Herman.

Maybe the poster youngster for steady enchancment at Disneyland is Abraham Lincoln.

Lengthy earlier than trendy digital expertise, engineering prowess was key to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (1965). Initially created for the 1964 New York World’s Honest, the speech-giving sixteenth President was Walt Disney’s first human audio-animatronic determine. Although the attraction has waxed and waned in reputation over the years, Lincoln himself retains getting upgrades.

Human audio-animatronics had been thought of so spectacular that in 1987 an Imagineer instructed me Disney had a expertise switch settlement with the College of Utah. The college knew methods to make prosthetics that moved like actual human limbs, however Disney knew methods to make realistic-looking pores and skin and hair. It was a helpful change, in service of each drugs and story.

The newest Lincoln, up to date since my final go to, is based mostly on electronics as an alternative of hydraulics. It’s mentioned to signify the first of a brand new technology of audio-animatronic determine, autonomatronics, which may incorporate sensors and cameras. This Mr. Lincoln confirmed extra emotion and easily extra fluid movement than its predecessors.

It’s all a part of determining methods to “advance the storytelling,” Steve Roach, Walt Disney Imagineering’s govt for artistic improvement, instructed me after I returned from my go to. “Typically a brand new expertise comes alongside that may not have existed once we initially constructed an attraction,” he mentioned. “We don’t simply add new expertise for expertise’s sake, but when we’ve got a possibility so as to add one thing new and revolutionary, so long as it advances the story and is related to in the present day’s visitors, then we frequently make these modifications.”

The time period Imagineers use for that type of replace to a basic attraction, he mentioned, is “new magic.” “Typically, main artistic updates are made when points of interest are down for an prolonged refurbishment,” Roach mentioned. “We all know that our visitors love the points of interest at our parks and including ‘new magic’ offers them one thing to look ahead to for the subsequent time they go to their favourite points of interest.”

Not each digital facet of Disneyland is in a hard and fast location. Disney does have its free Disneyland mobile app, helpful for rapidly checking attraction wait instances and, for a each day price, shopping for a MaxPass with added options (I additionally like, and use, the cheap third-party subscription TouringPlans.com Lines app to assist me restrict time in line). Disney has introduced a brand new Play Disney Parks app coming this summer time with promised location-based in-park experiences, most likely additionally useful while you’re caught in a line.

It is nonetheless doable to seek out basic Disneyland points of interest that haven’t obtained an apparent digital makeover. The Enchanted Tiki Room is one, although in 1963 it did mirror cutting-edge tech as the first use of audio-animatronics anyplace. It’s a Small World is one other, annoying adults and charming youngsters with a masterpiece of an earworm since 1966, now enhanced with conventional Small World-style Disney characters equivalent to Sew.

Apparent or not, Disneyland’s expertise updates appear to be in the spirit of how Walt himself famously described the park. “Disneyland won’t ever be accomplished,” he mentioned at one level. “It would proceed to develop so long as there is creativeness left in the world.” Or, apparently, so long as there are new applied sciences that allow what Imagineers hope is ever-more partaking storytelling.


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