While the latest experiences are *so* cool and futuristic, you’re also being tracked more than ever.
id you know that the technology for the flameless candle–the thing you’ve given your mom three years in a row for Christmas–was invented by The Walt Disney Co.? And, no, QVC wasn’t the original plan. Disney Imagineer Gary Schnuckle created the flickering fakes for The Haunted Mansion attraction so that scenes inside could have realistic, eerie lighting without, you know, being a total fire hazard. It’s one example in a long list of firsts for the mouse house, especially when designing attractions and experiences.
Disney’s always been a tech company, though; in previous decades, that tech magic has often come from movie magic or even literal magic tricks to pull off effects on rides. But these days, Disney Parks look more like an MIT lab with wearable electronics, exoskeleton robots, and drone armies. And Imagineers, Disney’s highly secretive team of engineers, artists, and designers, know that’s where the real magic is. Here’s a look at what’s rolling out now and very soon at Disney theme parks around the world, from a 150-strong drone show overshadowing fireworks at Disneyland Paris to the new MagicBands at Walt Disney World that sync your body to the fireworks show.
Move Over, Fireworks. It’s All About Drones Now.
Sorry, fireworks. You had a great run for over one thousand years, but drones are the future, baby. I’m pretty sure a bug flew in my mouth while I was watching the Disney D-Light show at Disneyland Paris because I was completely stunned, mouth agape, jaw-dropped the entire time.
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The seven-minute show in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle was created for the park’s 30th-anniversary celebration this year. But it’s also a milestone because no Disney park has used drones for guests yet. There have been smaller stunts with drones at media events, but nothing public-facing. The wait was worth it because it’s absolutely mesmerizing. At night, you don’t see drones. You just see dancing and synchronized lights like jumbo bioluminescent fireflies.
“Imagine that you can take power over the stars and arrange them as you want to draw things in the sky,” said Laurent Perchais, CEO of Dronios, the technology provider for the show based in Bordeaux. The company partnered with Disney Live Entertainment and spent eight months creating the spectacular that soars up to 262 feet high.
And for all the grandiose, something major isn’t there: loud, constant booms. With drones, you get a magical, colorful display in the sky without the worry and/or risk that your preschooler isn’t going to like it. Drones might even make nighttime shows more accessible for sensory-avoiding and neurodivergent guests. The music is still loud, but there’s no canon-vibration-through-your-chest feeling.
The most iconic scene from the show is when the drones move to form the silhouette of Mickey Mouse, but then the shape turns ever-so-slightly to become a “30” with the “3” forming one ear and face. And it is impressive. But perhaps the most magical effect is the twinkling the drones do behind the castle. It plays with scale and looks as if a hundred wishing stars have flown in from space. Like the 30th campaign, this show will go away. But “the future of drones in Disneyland Paris is bright,” said Ben Spalding, show producer of Disney D-Light. “You can be sure there will be more coming to the skies above Disneyland Paris.”
A Magic Wand on Your Wrist
Remember when Google said we’d all be wearing Google Glass? Yeah, that didn’t happen. But the MagicBand has been en vogue for nearly a decade at Disney World. And it’s only getting smarter. This summer, Disney rolled out the next class of bracelets: MagicBand+. These have all the features of existing MagicBands, such as loading park tickets, credit cards, and room keys into one seamless, all-knowing bracelet that you just tap around the resort, but now it unlocks hidden gems and surprise experiences throughout the parks.
Part of the magic is new gesture recognition technology. It allows you to interact with enchanted pieces such as the golden Fab 50 statues scattered throughout all four theme parks in celebration of the resort’s 50th anniversary. If you visit the Mickey Mouse statue and wave, he’ll talk to you. Even better: If you have the park’s app (My Disney Experience) downloaded, it knows and remembers if you’ve visited specific statues. And there may or may not be extra surprise content on your phone after visiting. But if anyone should be hyped about buying MagicBand+, it’s Star Wars fans. The bands pair with the other app you should have on your phone before visiting Disney World, Play Disney Parks, for an augmented reality romp through Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge called Batuu Bounty Hunters.
But here’s what makes these new MagicBands that much more magical: They sync with nighttime fireworks shows. And they just know that you’re there. During shows such as EPCOT’s Harmonius, the bands will interact with the fireworks and displays. And not just by lighting up in cute colors (which they do). They also feature “haptic vibrations” that let you “feel the magic.” Don’t worry. It’s not a zap. Just a gentle motion that layers another sensory experience into the already sensory explosions that are Disney World’s nighttime shows.
A New Era of Coasters
A recent trend in the coaster world has been the story coaster, the idea that a rollercoaster can still have scene vignettes and an overall story arc in addition to being a fast thrill ride. And Disney World’s latest coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, is definitely an Easter egg-packed Marvel story. But Disney’s also been tinkering with the ride vehicle itself. The indoor coaster at EPCOT features brand-new, patented cars called an Omnicoaster that move in a way never before seen in the theme park industry. It rotates. While you’re already in motion on the track. But it’s not a Tilt-A-Whirl puke fest. It’s logic-defyingly smooth and intentional.
“Imagine that you can take power over the stars and arrange them as you want to draw things in the sky.”
The cars rotate you like a cinema camera as you go through the coaster for optimum viewing of 60-foot screens, gigantic projections that look like CGI in real life, and all the superhero action that ensues. At its core, it’s the omnivehicle from The Haunted Mansion (which was also groundbreaking for its time) but 2.0 and as a suped-up hot rod. “We honor and embrace our history, but we’re not content with it,” said Disney Imagineer Marcus “Flounder” Hurst.
Bringing More Characters to Life
Disney tech is synonymous with animatronics. And they’ve come a long way. New ride animatronics, such as Frozen Ever After, don’t even have faces. (It’s just a blank void that I hope to God I never have to see.) Digital mapping is projected onto the animatronic for an almost too-real face. But that’s nothing compared to Disney’s advancements in free-roaming robots. There are already free-roaming characters such as R2-D2 and stunt shows with a robot Spider-Man at Disneyland, but there’s a limit with size.
Scale is the law at Disney, meaning that characters played by actors have very specific height requirements. But what about enormous characters like The Hulk or Ursula when she goes all King Kong? How do you bring characters like that to life without making human actors feel like Atlas? You don’t. You create exoskeleton robots. Dubbed “Project EXO,” these lightweight frames are like jacked-up monster truck character suits. The new technology, teased last year at Destination D23, features the ability to move and control arms, hands, and fingers from the inside. Yep, just like Avatar. No word yet on a launch or complete prototype, but based on a purple hand photographed in this New York Times story, fans speculate we could finally see Thanos battle it out against the Avengers in the parks.
Who cares about plushies and popcorn buckets? The best souvenirs at Disneyland and Disney World are on your phone. In the last couple of years, Disney’s PhotoPass service has rolled out so many MagicShots, aka augmented reality photos, that put you in the same shot as iconic Disney characters. But MagicShots have become a much larger content empire with new experiences that are just as popular as the attractions.
There are 360-degree photos, super zoom videos, nighttime Mickey-shaped bokeh, and so much more. Fourteen attractions at Disney World now feature some kind of capture, from augmented reality photos (like hitchhiking ghosts in The Haunted Mansion) to mini-movies (like the moment you drop on the Tower of Terror). It all appears in the My Disney Experience app. And sometimes, you get bonus content or photo frames depending on which park you visit. It’s like when U2 dropped a whole album onto your phone, except it’s actually welcome because it’s Mickey Mouse and not Surprise Bono.
Matt Clark, product manager of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products, says the most impressive new augmented reality comes with Disney’s Genie+ premium service. You get a whole suite of surprise filters, from “Grogu using the Force to wave at you when you smile” to transforming Cinderella Castle into the birthday cake design from the 25th-anniversary celebration in1996. “It recreates a nostalgic moment for guests to experience again,” he said.
Really, Really Smart Hotel Rooms
More and more hospitality brands are adding smart devices, from tablets to personal assistants, in hotel rooms, and the trend has finally come to Disney. Resorts at Disney World will roll out Hey Disney! in rooms later this year. The Mickey-shaped devices are actually all Amazon Echoes but you won’t be chatting with Alexa. It’s all about Disney characters with more than 1,000 “magical interactions,” from jokes to bedtime stories that kids will love. But there’s also a customer service element that adults will love. Built on the Alexa for Hospitality framework, you can ask Hey Disney! things like park show times or just extra pillows.
Disney has its own proprietary artificial intelligence, too. And you can see it in action aboard Star Wars: Galactic Star cruiser, an immersive hotel experience on select sailings. But don’t call it a voice assistant. D3-09 is a fully-fledged character. In each ship cabin (aka your hotel room in space), a panel on the wall features a comms screen and camera with this chatty droid. And by chatty, I mean totally articulate and sentient within the Star Wars universe. This is so much more than asking Siri what’s the weather today. D3-09 knows everything about Star Wars, and you can have full-on conversations with it. I was blown away at how nuanced and seemingly aware of human emotion D3-09 is. But unlike a human, D3-09 doesn’t sleep, so it’s there if you have a random question about lightsabers at three in the morning. D3-09 is always on.
Cool, Creepy, or Straight Up Terminator Vibes?
This new wave of tech creates many more layers of entertainment and personalized magic to a day in the parks. But some might ask, “Is the experience worth the additional surveillance and data collection?” How much monitoring are we OK with for the sake of amusement? There’s something Orwellian about being observed, whether it’s government CCTV or a dark-vision camera in a Disney line. And at Disney Parks, you’re under constant observation, from security officers disguised as janitors throughout the parks to guest relation files and notes on individuals that can be shared with Cast Members. It’s all outlined in the pages of agreements you accept when you buy tickets, but most people never actually read them.
The human observation doesn’t bother me. In fact, it’s reassuring. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I feel safer at a Disney Park than anywhere else on the planet. Especially in the U.S., where shootings at movie theaters, malls, and other attractions have become common, I welcome the observation at Disney. I’m calm at Disney because I know that I am being watched–along with every other person in attendance.
It’s the AI listening that some might find a little too Westworld. But you can opt-out of several layers. You don’t have to use Disney’s Wi-Fi, though it is free and fast. For Star Wars: Galactic Star cruiser, if D3-09 is featured during your cruise, you can ask guest relations to turn it off ahead of your trip. And as for an Amazon Echo being in your Disney hotel room, there’s always a good old-fashioned off switch. And a plug to pull.