TV show The Imagineering Story and book Magic Journey by Kevin P. Rafferty show just how much academic research goes on at the home of Mickey Mouse, says Chris Stokel-Walker
24 June 2020
A Disney dwarf gets some attention in The Imagineering Story
The Imagineering Story
Available on Disney+
THINK of Disney and you may conjure up images of sometimes saccharine animated films and enchantingly unreal theme parks. What probably doesn’t spring to mind is a huge research organisation. Yet the firm’s science and technology has thrilled, enthralled and spooked generations of children and adults.
Disney calls its researchers “imagineers” and its California-based research team the Imagineering department, hence the titles of new Disney+ documentary series The Imagineering Story and book Magic Journey: My fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering career by Kevin Rafferty.
Throughout its history, the Imagineering department has registered more than 300 patents. In 2019 alone, it was granted 74.
It invented the first daily operating monorail system in the US, installed at Disneyland in California in 1959, the world’s first audio-animatronic figures in 1963 and the world’s first computer-controlled thrill ride, in the form of Disney World’s Space Mountain in 1975. The team also put together the world’s first radio frequency identification wristbands to act as payment and queueing systems in 2014.
“We do have big tech chops,” Jon Snoddy, who leads the 3000-strong Imagineering team, told New Scientist. The team’s ethos, though, is that its work should go under the radar, he says. “We’ll often hire someone with a PhD in physics and tell them: ‘You’re going to do some of the most amazing work you’ll do in your entire career, and if people notice it, we’ve failed.’”
When Rafferty, who rose over his career to become executive creative director in the Imagineering department, joined Walt Disney, there was a sign in the department that simply said: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”
“An animatronic robot is flung from a trebuchet before moving mid-air in a way reminiscent of Spider-Man”
The firm is a significant contributor to academic research papers as well. Disney Research, the company’s academic-facing branch, has submitted 20 papers to major academic conferences since the start of 2019.
One of the final episodes of The Imagineering Story looks at the future. It shows a life-sized animatronic robot being flung from a trebuchet before moving mid-air in a way eerily reminiscent of Spider-Man, a character from the Marvel superhero universe that Disney bought in 2009.
The project, developed under the name “Stuntronics”, was the result of three years’ work by a team of 15, and will be used in the new Avengers Campus at the Disney California Adventure Park, due to reopen in July. The flying robot is a breathtaking moment.
Other innovations the team is working on include artificial intelligence-controlled animatronics to interact with park guests in character and augmented reality glasses to provide unique experiences for riders on roller coasters.
“We also have a whole pipeline of stuff that’s hard to describe,” says Snoddy. “We live for the moment when the audience look at something and don’t have words to describe it because they’ve never seen anything like it.”
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