- One patent covers drones that would be used to lift large aerial marionettes in the air. Several drones would be attached to the body and articulated appendages, running preprogrammed routes. Holy Pinocchio! (One illustration accompanying the patent shows Jack Skellington.)
- Another patent would find a fleet of drones raising flexible mesh screens where projectors would be able to blast images and other effects onto the moving surfaces. Patent images show these large projector screens canvassing high above the park's signature castles, where Disney presently hosts its nighttime fireworks displays.
- The third patent covers drones as floating pixels. They aren't carrying Disney characters or mesh screens this time. The unmanned aircraft vehicles would instead be equipped with multicolored lights and other effects that could be used to illuminate the sky, likely in sync to a symphonic score of Disney classic songs.
Disney tested drones out two years ago with the opening of the New Fantasyland expansion at Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Florida.
In the days leading up to the official opening of the most ambitious expansion in the park's history, Disney's blog teased about dragon sightings, culminating in an actual flying dragon that wowed travel journalists and bloggers who were invited to the after-hours grand opening.
Daytime guests never got to see the dragon in action. Despite the initial hype, the unmanned aircraft vehicle dolled up as an audio-animatronic dragon was limited in its watch over New Fantasyland. Was the dragon unreliable? Were there concerns that park guests would freak out if they saw the winged creature in action? Were there safety concerns that the dragon would falter or crash into something and come plunging into a sea of patrons?
The dragon didn't live long, but Disney filed the three patent applications just two months later. Sooner or later, Disney's going to raise the bar with drones enhancing its entertainment.
Disney isn't afraid to spend big money on technology that enhances the theme park experience. It spent a reported $1 billion last year to roll out MyMagic+ scanning technology that allows guests donning RFID bracelets to reserve ride times, enter the park and eventually receive tailored experiences.
When Disney adds a new ride, it may not be as thrilling as the coasters and thrill rides that rival theme parks and regional amusement park operators are adding, but it can invest in the richly themed experiences that make Disney's gated attractions unique.
Isn't that what it's doing here with the drones? Isn't Disney going where no rival has gone before or likely to go in the near future? Cedar Fair (FUN) and Six Flags (SIX) aren't going to be investing in unmanned aircraft vehicles to entertain folks clicking through their turnstiles. They can't. They don't generate the annual attendance and revenue per customer to justify the tech expense.
They will be watching all the same. Disney is under no obligation to go through with its drone dream, but it doesn't make sense to back down after having come this far. This investment in technology will be able to deliver unique entertainment that can be modified quickly and cheaply to provide fresh applications. It's not just Peter Pan or Dumbo that will be flying at Disney's theme parks, and with that comes the family entertainment giant's even bigger dream of flying itself.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.