Disney Imagineering offers rare glimpse of new inventions

WalletPop was given rare access to Walt Disney Imagineering, the Los Angeles-area think tank where creative and technical geniuses invent new gizmos for the Disney theme park and cruise ship empire. Almost no non-Disney people are admitted. There's a strict no-camera policy, and all guests are badged and escorted through the drafting offices and black-curtained testing rooms, lest any trade secrets seep out and wreck that famous Disney "magic."

So why as I invited? In January, Disney Cruise Line will launch its first new ship in more than a decade, the Disney Dream. Building a fresh 4,000-passenger ship from beam to beam has opened the door to new entertainment inventions. It also means the Mouse needs to fill a lot more cabins than it has in the past, and a simple way to do that is to drum up excitement for the one-of-a-kind amusements in store for this new family vacation destination.

Although any of these inventions -- all of which are included in the price of a cruise -- could be adapted and retro-fitted into the two existing Disney ships, the Magic and the Wonder, don't count on it happening soon. The modern cruise industry is all about the promotion of the newest and the coolest, and by having these inventions exclusively, the Dream will guarantee it fills its staterooms, and makes its money back, first.

Disney has already announced a 765-foot deck-top water slide, Aquaduck, but the line isn't nearly done rolling out the hype. At the Imagineering campus in Glendale, and at a second anonymous-looking warehouse facility near Burbank airport, the Imagineers unveiled their latest works-in-progress. Here's what those entertainment wizards are concocting for the Dream:


Virtual Portholes
The line announced last fall that its cheapest cabins, the windowless interior staterooms, would be jazzed up with a clever new innovation: screens that transmit live HD pictures of the ocean passing by the ship. Periodically, Disney characters will silently appear in the false window (which guests can switch off if they want) before wandering out of view.

The idea is a gift to budget travelers, since it takes the least desirable cruise ship real estate -- the inside cabin ghetto comprising 12% of all staterooms -- and turns it into one of the coolest cabin categories of the ship. In fact, said a Disney Cruise Line rep, some customers prefer these cabins in early bookings for the ship. "Lots of times, when they were offered complimentary upgrades, they don't want to upgrade."

In Glendale, I got a first look at the technology, a larger-than-expected, two-foot-wide round window embedded in a plywood mock-up of a stateroom, and powered by a 42-inch monitor.

Designers, led by Imagineer Bob Zalk (a veteran of Epcot's "The American Adventure" and "Mission: Space," among other attractions) are toying with how to seamlessly insert various Disney characters into the natural scenery passing by. Nearby, a wall of nearly two dozen ideas, a smaller selection of a yet-to-be-determined library of many, showed the potential: a glimpse of the floating house from Up, Mickey and Minnie from their late-'20s short "Plane Crazy," Peter Pan and the kids, Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh carried aloft by balloons, and other flight-ready characters.

Some seemed perfectly natural (Peach the starfish from Finding Nemo, sucking onto the glass), while other concepts were still being appraised: Would there be a way to program nighttime appearances (Aladdin and Jasmine on a magic carpet ride, or fireworks), and some for stormy weather? Would some appear when the ship was docked in port, and some only when out to sea? And should they be timed to appear more frequently when cabins are likely to be occupied, such as in the morning or just before dinner?

The ship will be outfitted with a still-unannounced number of cameras, so that interior stateroom guests will have a sea view that corresponds to their section of the vessel -- port or starboard, fore or aft. Animations will play randomly, so what's being seen in one cabin will not be seen simultaneously in the next one, although all will pull from the same library of scenes, most of which will be lifted (rotoscoped) from their original movie sources.

Enchanted Art
Groups of kids aged 5 to 12 are being brought in to rigorously "play-test" the next few concepts, all of which will appear as part of the standard fare (no extra charges) on the Dream. Although there's plenty of art on board, from photographs to Disney-themed paintings, 22 of the pieces behind glass will have a surprising secret. If you stand in front of them long enough, the seemingly fused image will come to life. The fun will be in figuring out which still image is actually rigged with surprises -- technology has advanced to the point where you can't really tell at a glance that you're looking at a computerized screen.

WalletPop was shown a few of them by Associate Interactive Show Producer Estefania Pickens, who seemed tickled to be able to finally show members of the public the product of her team's whimsy.

In one, a black-and-white photograph of Walt Disney on a 1941 goodwill tour in Rio de Janeiro is invaded by some of his animated birds from the movie that resulted from the trip, Saludos Amigos. In another, an apparently still image from an early Mickey-and-Goofy animated short comes momentarily to life, resulting in one of several gags, which change each time guests watch again.

There was also a faux travel poster, for the Caribbean, which swirls to life to a romantic harp sting. Two adjacent "oil paintings," of a pirate ship and a Caribbean fort, will do battle across the air.

Other early concepts, which are being overseen by Principal Concept Designer Greg Butkus (a veteran of the high-concept DisneyQuest mini-theme park of custom virtual games) include doodles from Andy's room from Toy Story, gags based on the Silly Symphony short "Flowers and Trees," and a version of The Little Mermaid rendered by a collage artist.

Detective Adventure Game
Because the ship must amuse guests for several days, unlike theme park attractions which are exhausted in minutes, some Enchanted Art has been programmed with a second twist: two find-the-clues family detective games. Guests sign in for the game (free) at a central kiosk and are given a card printed with a unique icon and a map to the Enchanted Art that responds to their card. Families or kids roam the ship, finding the clues in any order, before completing them all.

When each unique card is held in front of the painting, sensors read it and the painting comes alive with animated clues, games, and puzzles, that must be solved to find the answer of their chosen detective case. (Currently, "The Case of the Missing Puppies," a riff on 101 Dalmatians, and the Mickey-themed "The Cast of the Stolen Painting" -- although all names are still works in progress.)

In one clue, when the icon card is rotated, a corresponding animated key is twisted into a lock, opening a door. In another, pulling the card back activates an animated magnet as it tosses aside metal objects to reveal a hidden map. Each case will have six possible suspects -- Disney villains, of course -- and each time the game is played, a different villain will be the culprit.

Magic Play-Floor
In the Lab and the Club, the two main kids' areas, there will be a newly invented Play-Floor. In this invention, 28 wide-screen HD panels are laid in a square grid on the floor, like a game board or a disco floor, and ringed with LED-lit sensors.

By standing on the sensors, which can detect motion, proximity, and weight, up to 32 kids can play games together. Associate Concept Designer Daniel Klainbaum, a young Imagineer whose enthusiasm for the huge gizmo made me think he might have a passionate streak for gaming, showed me how to work the floor and set me loose with a few other adults. It took a few minutes to get the hang of it, but soon enough I'd broken a light sweat and still managed to lose.

There will eventually be 12 to 14 games, each with variable difficulty levels, and the kids' areas counselors will be the masters of the technology. WalletPop was shown three test games: Stitch's Laser Jump, an ever-complicating jump rope simulator; Tron's Virus Attack, in which players must repel an advance puck by firing at it; and Rhino Roll, which simulates an enormous labyrinth-style ball table maze.

Disney may be all about speaking to the little child in all of us, but the array of engineering know-how required to assemble these concepts is very grown-up indeed. For all the rigorous abuse is will take and the dense technology required to power it, the 15-foot square play area is just five inches deep, which was a requirement given the strictures of the ship's dimensions.

Living Characters at Animator's Palate
Regular visitors to the Disney theme parks know about Turtle Talk with Crush, the attraction in which audiences gather before a screen to directly communicate with a fully and seamlessly animated Crush from Finding Nemo. He sees the audience and asks them questions, and his animated form shows full expression and changes in posture as he listens and responds.

The so-called "Living Characters" technology, which amounts to what it must be like to have a conversation with your television, is a keystone of modern Disney Parks attractions strategy. Several permanent park features have already been built to capitalize on the technology, including one based on Monsters, Inc., at Walt Disney World. In these cases, they're finished in a few minutes as the next batch of people is ushered into the room.

On the new Dream ship, though, an entire restaurant will be dedicated to guest conversations with virtual characters. The 700-seat flagship dining hall, the Animator's Palate, will be ringed with 129 monitors, many of them 103-inch diagonal wide-screen HD displays, and 20 minutes after dinner service begins, characters from Finding Nemo will swim into view and chatter with guests while they eat, rotating from area to area so that everyone gets their own face-to-fin time. (Hopefully, the menu won't include fish.)

At a warehouse in Tujunga, near the Burbank Airport, a full-scale mock-up of the restaurant has been built -- plywood and paper trompe l'oeil represent the final decor, and towers of powerful computers rise like walls behind technicians tapping on banks of laptops and monitors. (Nearby in the same facility, workers tinker behind wooden flats branded "Mystic Manor," which is Hong Kong Disneyland's version of the Haunted Mansion, also under development.)

Expanding Turtle Talk with Crush into an hour-long, multi-area, multi-character extravaganza is a head-swimmingly complicated undertaking. The particulars of this show are still secret, though, and Disney wouldn't show us the under-the-hood specs that actually power the Living Characters trick.

I could hear the voice of the actor playing Crush in a nearby area, and I noticed a lag time of a fraction of a second between when he spoke and when Crush brought his words to us with full-bodied animation -- but, honoring a time-worn Disney custom, the Imagineers refused to acknowledge that trickery was at play. To them, Crush was real, and he was talking to us. The audience hadn't entered the theater, but the show had already started.

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