Walt Disney Imagineers Drive Innovation Through Video Game Technology

Video games are changing the way Walt Disney Imagineers make theme park magic.
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Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks are open for a full 24 hours today to celebrate Memorial Day weekend and the official start of the summer tourist seasons.

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As visitors enter these parks, they’ll find a lot of new rides and attractions. Many of the innovations behind today’s high-tech experiences come from inspiration from the video game world. Walt Disney Imagineers come to Disney from all technology fields, including video games.

Jonathan Ackley, project producer and creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, began his career at LucasArts working on PC games like Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road and Curse of Monkey Island. He teamed up with Monkey Island co-lead Larry Ahern to create Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, an interactive role-playing card collecting game experience that uses motion sensor technology to tell an original animated tale throughout kiosks at the park.

“Sometimes you just kind of get hit by lightning,” said Ackley. “I was looking for what a new project could be in the theme park after Kim Possible, and was going over various different game mechanics in video games that exist. I was trying to think, ‘Is there a way that I can express what people are doing with photons in the physical world?’ The idea of card game trading, magical gathering, Pokemon, and that kind of card trading, and said, ‘Yeah, that would be really interesting to do in the real world. What if those cards really could cast spells? What if we had Disney magic and Disney cards that could cast spells?’ From there, we sort of extrapolated out how we could do a full-length role-playing game in a theme park. That became Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.”

Ackley’s currently working on a new A Pirate’s Adventure: Treasures of the Seven Seas in the Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland. The new game, which pushes the technology from Sorcerers even further, stars Captain Jack Sparrow and will open later this year.

At EPCOT in Disney World, there’s a brand new Test Track experience that features real video games. In fact, the entire ride has been redesigned to let guests explore a TRON-like world filled with blacks and neons (although it’s not officially a TRON ride). From the moment visitors enter the queue, they can design their own concept car using touch screen technology.

“All of us designers have grown up in the age of gaming, whether or not they game themselves, or are parents of gamers, so there’s a lot of influence in our culture now with gaming,” said David Hardeman from Walt Disney Imagineering Show Design and Production. “We play games on our phones and tablets, so we knew that that was an important part of entertaining our guests as they wait for attractions these days. At Test Track, we allow them to experience that first-hand through some of the latest touch screen technology that we have available to us.”

After designing a custom vehicle, guests can experience the ride and see their car in action. On the way out of the attraction, they can play their car on a table top multiplayer video game raceway.

“The virtual driving table has a lot of great elements to it,” said Hardeman. “You get the experience of actually driving your vehicle, which you don’t get on the attraction per se. You actually get to test it as though you were driving it around a race track and race against your fellow competitors as well and see how their designs are doing.”

Hardeman is a third generation Imagineer. He said that in the beginning the goal was to use technology to tell a story, but the technology was hidden. In the second generation, Imagineers started to talk a little bit about the Imagineering way and how they do things.

“Now technology is such an everyday part of our lives that we get the benefit of actually showing it off,” said Hardeman. “It’s a little easier in some respects because technology just offers up all kinds of new opportunities for us to use it in different ways.”

There’s an interesting video game story involving Toy Story Midway Mania, which is a 4D ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Disney World and at Disney California Adventure. The ride, which debuted in 2007, features over 150 HP Windows XP PCs. They power everything from the special effects, which include mist and water, to the 56 game screens that have different mini-games. It’s a 3D video game experience that sends guests on cars that stop at different points for virtual target practice. In 2009, Disney Interactive and High Voltage Studios released an actual video game version of the ride for Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

Disney teamed up with Microsoft Studios in November 2011 for Disneyland Adventures, a Kinect-exclusive game for Xbox 360. The game blended Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie in an adventure that spanned a myriad of mini-games featuring attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It’s a way to avoid the lines in the park by flying through the world any time of the year.

Disney Imagineers are working on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the new Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. It will be the culmination of the biggest expansion ever for the park when it opens in 2014. There’s brand new technology being employed to bring the new family coaster to life. The first-of-its-kind mine carts will sway to the left and right as it moves through the attraction. The ride will also feature an interactive queue area like Test Track and the new Dumbo attraction, which allows guests to be entertained while waiting for their turn. Even though the attraction is still well under construction, Imagineers have been riding it virtually for years now in a 3D virtual reality cave in California.

“The Cave is used in various phases of design for Imagineers to experience dimensionally what we’re trying to build,” said Mark Cole, Walt Disney Imagineering Director and Project Manager for the Fantasyland Expansion. “It’s just not a 3D model. You physically can ride through it. We’ve been riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train for two years now. We’ve been testing it in the field, but really dimensionally we’re jumping into the Cave to experience it as our guests will.”

There’s plenty of guests to experience today – and more time than normal to spend in the magic of Disney’s many worlds. Video games will continue to influence, and help Imagineers design, the attractions of tomorrow. Disney is already hard at work on the new Avatar world in Orlando, which is sure to push technology in new directions.

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John Gaudiosi
John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game business for over 20 years for outlets like The Washington Post, Reuters, Fortune, AOL and CNN. He's EIC of video game site Gamerhub.tv.