In February, my family of four went to Disney World for the first time. This trip is a rite of passage for many Americans, some of whom save for months or even years for it. Thanks to my wife’s planning, which was aided by an army of bloggers and YouTubers, we were able to experience a lot of the park.
There were times, however, when it felt like more of a military operation than a casual family vacation. Here is an abbreviated version of our schedule:
- Wake up at 0700 and secure the earliest possible Individual Lightning Lane (ILL) reservation for ride A using the app.
- Acquire transport to the park at 0745, before the gates open. Stare territorially at the other over-prepared family units.
- When the rope drops at 0800, sprint.
- Hit ride B at 0815 before the line gets too long, then swing back to ride A just in time to make the pre-scheduled reservation time.
- As soon as you’ve scanned in to board ride A, book a Lightning Lane (LL) for ride C, or risk a several hour wait with the 6 and 8-year-old.
- Repeat these steps until one or more members of your party are unable to continue.
As a group, we needed to be a synchronized machine, and we failed – spectacularly. There were tantrums. We got lost. We missed reservations. But there were also a few moments that blew me away. The design, engineering, and creativity that went into the experiences provided fodder for my internet deep dives for several weeks. This issue is devoted to some of those explorations.
We're taking a break from rubber stories this week – if you missed one you can find them here.
In the Members' Slack, the community chooses the books we cover in the reading group. James' deep dive into Disney's tech inspired our next read: The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering by Leslie Iwerks. Discussions start 2023-06-30, join us and stretch your imagination!
- SpaceX is hiring a senior starship engineer in Brownsville, TX.
- Shaper is hiring a lead embedded application software engineer in SF.
- Wherefour is hiring a remote senior rails engineer in the US or Canada.
- MIT Climate Grand Challenges is hiring a program director for textiles in Cambridge, MA.
- If you're hiring designers, engineers, and operators, you can promote the roles you're hiring for here.
The drinking water system is massive, so monitoring pipe conditions and predicting potential maintenance or failures has been next to impossible — until now. Robots are on the way to help keep the water flowing, and even help us to conserve it. Check out how ACWA-ROBOTICS is leading the charge.
PLANNING & STRATEGY.
My family’s park experience reminded me of this wonderful 2-hour documentary on the Fastpass system. Disney introduced Fastpass in 1999 to increase the average number of rides visitors enjoyed and decrease overall wait times. By all accounts, it achieved these goals. However, one of the key challenges highlighted in the documentary is that the system tended to favor experienced parkgoers, who learned how to exploit it to ride many more amusements than average. Inexperienced parkgoers didn’t know, for example, that if you stayed at a Disney resort you got a 30-day head start on Fastpass reservations, or that you could secure an extra reservation by using a special app or on-site kiosk. So while the average number of rides per visit was higher, the distribution skewed toward the tails.
Disney no longer uses Fastpass, but I can’t imagine inexperienced guests fare much better with the new Genie+/Lightning Lane system. After paying for Genie+, there is a mad dash at 7:00 AM to secure Lightning Lane (LL) reservations. The most popular rides incur an additional fee for Individual Lightning Lane (ILL) passes, and are even harder to get. After participating in it, and spending an hour trying to understand it for this issue, I still don’t completely get how Genie+ works. To be fair, queue management is a complex discipline and there are no perfect solutions. The reality is that Disney provides a compelling experience and lots of people are willing to navigate its complexity to experience the “magic.”I used one of my first ILLs to ride the much-hyped Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, but was surprised to find that my favorite ride of the trip was a similar but lesser-known attraction called Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. It is a trackless dark ride based on this retro series. Dark rides are indoor amusements that guide riders through a series of illuminated scenes and originated in the 1800s with tunnels of love and haunted houses. The Runaway Railway uses a mind boggling suite of projection mappings and robotics technology to create a truly immersive experience. If you don’t mind spoilers, this video does an amazing job of walking through each portion of the ride and explaining its technical sophistication.
MAKING & MANUFACTURING.
What first struck me about Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway was the trackless ride vehicles. While traditional dark rides move guests along a fixed track, these vehicles use RFID, WiFi, and a local positioning system to dynamically navigate the indoor environment. It turns out that there are many advantages to this approach:
- Experience designers can use non-linear paths through the environment to surprise and delight riders.
- Maintenance is easier because park staff doesn’t need to stop the ride to remove a vehicle from service.
- There are safety benefits as the vehicles can be instructed to stop by the nearest exit in the event of an emergency.
Disney is secretive about its supply chains, but these trackless vehicles are rumored to have been manufactured by Detroit-based Roush Industries. Roush began as a provider of engineering, product development, and fabrication services to the automotive industry, but has since expanded more broadly. They now support aerospace, defense, oil and gas, as well as the entertainment industry. Their amusements division has grown rapidly since it was created in 2007, and works for Universal Studios, Seaworld, as well as Disney. Roush even helped design and manufacture Google’s first fleet of self-driving prototype vehicles.
DISTRIBUTION & LOGISTICS.
While riding the Runaway Railway, I kept imagining that I was strapped to one of the robots used in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. Originally introduced to their distribution centers following the acquisition of Kiva Systems in 2012, these squat robots move shelves of goods to packing stations, where workers retrieve the appropriate item and ship it. It turns out that the core technologies powering industrial robots and trackless amusements are similar.
Roving industrial robots like those used at Amazon are generally referred to as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). AGVs travel along predetermined paths using barcodes, RFID tags, magnetic strips, or another type of beacon. If something blocks the path, the robot will stop and wait for the obstacle to be cleared, rather than navigate around it. This limitation is part of the reason why humans aren’t allowed in the areas where these robots operate. Rides like Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway operate in a similar way.
Another class of vehicle is the Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMRs), which is not path dependent. These robots are programmed with a map of the facilities in which they operate and equipped with sensor arrays to determine their local position. If they encounter an obstruction, an AMR uses a set of algorithms to move around it and return to its mission. Interestingly, both Amazon and Disney are exploring ways to use AMR technology. Last year, Amazon Robotics debuted Proteus, a robot that can operate alongside humans in warehousing and manufacturing environments. Disney has filed several patents for social robots that would use a form of AMR. I find it interesting to see how core robotics technology is being used in such different industries.
MAINTENANCE, REPAIR & OPERATIONS.
After grabbing lunch one day, I wondered how trash works at Disney World. There are tens of thousands of people eating, drinking, and generally producing garbage. I hoped that there would be an interesting process making it all work, and was not disappointed – there are trash tubes, people!
Disney parks have many trash cans. Some people are passionate about them. Early on, Walt Disney created a rule that no park visitor should need to walk more than 10 meters to find one. There are an estimated 120 bins in Frontierland, and it is the smallest of the five themed areas at Magic Kingdom. Trash is constantly collected by staff members and taken to drop points, where it is whisked away via pneumatic tube. The system rockets trash through the 50 cm-diameter tubes at nearly 100 km/h to a central area, where it is compressed, then incinerated. This Automated Vacuum Collection System has been at Disney World since its inception and was a first of its kind for the United States.
The trash drop is invisible to guests as it takes place in the Utilidor network of tunnels, a fascinating piece of park infrastructure (map) that is hidden by design. According to legend, Walt Disney lamented watching an employee in a cowboy costume walk through Tomorrowland to get to his post in Frontierland, destroying the immersion. When designing Disney World, he created a huge series of tunnels beneath the park for staff and maintenance use, covering 36,000 square meters.
Interestingly, the tunnels are not technically underground as the water table in Florida doesn’t allow for it. Engineers built the tunnels above ground, then buried them under dirt removed from the nearby Seven Seas Lagoon. There is a slight incline when entering Magic Kingdom as visitors climb above the buried tunnels.
INSPECTION, TESTING & ANALYSIS.
Last week, Apple and Meta announced new mixed reality (AR and VR) headsets. Both companies are making substantial investments in what they view as the next frontier of personal computing. We’ve had a great time discussing the potential of these devices in the Members’ Slack, and as someone who develops VR experiences, it’s a topic close to my heart.
There is a strong connection between amusement design and the virtual experiences such headsets enable. My absolute favorite VR title right now is Walkabout Mini Golf by developer Mighty Coconut. It pretends to be a simple miniature golf sim, but they have actually created a series of virtual theme parks that you can enjoy with friends. One recent release allows players to explore the Lost City of Atlantis and my favorite course is set in UpsideTown, where gravity works in strange ways. There are even licensed courses that celebrate Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and the 90s video game Myst. You play mini golf, yes, but these are lovingly crafted themed worlds.
I was being literal when I said Mighty Coconut is in the virtual theme park business. Their art director is a former Disney Imagineer named Don Carson, who worked on such experiences as Splash Mountain and Mickey’s Toontown. Don is explicit about how he applies theme park design principles to the virtual worlds he creates. In his Museum of Environment Storytelling, he walks viewers through a virtual environment and highlights the way objects, space, and different arrangements of the two can tell a story. For example, one way to trigger emotion (in physical and virtual spaces) is to funnel patrons through a narrow corridor, into an expansive room with widely spaced walls and vaulted ceilings. In architecture, this is sometimes referred to as “compression” and “release” and it tends to elicit awe. In another virtual tour, Carson demonstrates how the same techniques used to manage attention in dark rides can help guide players through virtual spaces. It is stunning to me how transferable physical design ideas are to virtual spaces. I suspect this will become more important if Apple and Meta are right about the future of computing.
Inspired by our recent trip, my son and I have enjoyed playing Planet Coaster. It is a simulation-style game where you take control of (or design) a theme park and manage staffing, maintenance, amusement placement, and pricing, among many other things. If you are into this type of game, I’d recommend giving it a try. My advice: don’t forget the trash cans. Things go badly when you forget the trash cans. I’ve not found out how to implement tubes yet, though.
Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks to Jeffrey McGrew, Randy Plemel, Brian Potter, Alex Animashaun, Nick Foley, and Ed Paradis for sharing their knowledge of architecture with me.
p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.