Taking a Ride: After Walt

Walt did not invent technology. He did embrace it, though. But what he was most famous for is some else…

And something much simpler:

Combining stories with theme parks.

Sounds as simple a duo as “Batman and Robin,” doesn’t it?

But Walt Disney was the first to show how theme park guests would love these two together.

Walt is generally given credit for how that started…

And to this day, you might be surprised at tracing this back.

It is still the best example of Walt Disney creativity that endures to this day when you get your Disney World tickets…

No guessing…but it’s a humble one:

“It’s a Small World.”

The ride that really started it all.

But that’s only the beginning. And much more is on the way when it comes to tech. Much more and much higher tech.

In the future, you might be able to take rides on coasters and other attractions and control their movements in the easiest way possible.

Just by moving your hands. Or arms.

Sort of like picking up an object off the floor.

The park of the future promises to be even more exciting than it is today.

If you wonder why…

Once you get your Universal Studios Orlando tickets or other theme park entrance passes, you will no longer encounter a strung out series of shops, rides and entertainment.

Instead, you will find a nonstop flood of experiences. They will all relate to each other.

The goal for technology is harder to explain but it boils down to this:

Taking you to a new world

To transform you into another world.

But more on that later…

Amusement parks have come a long way since Small World.

And even farther since Coney Island’s Switchback Railway roller coaster ushered in the “gravity pleasure ride” industry in 1884.

Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in the United Arab Emirates is now said to be the world’s fastest coaster.

That ride accelerates to 149 mph in just 4.5 seconds.

The world’s tallest is the 570 foot Skyscraper planned in Orlando, set to open to the public in 2017.

Not a lot of advanced tech in Small World, is there?

What is even more startling about this type of technology coming to theme parks, it is not exactly designed for you. The reader.

We should also add that a glimpse into the future of what you will be riding comes from perhaps an unlikely source.

The future rests on really young rider

A theme park mainly for 12-year-olds. And younger.

Not for readers such as you. But more on that later.

First, before we see where it’s going, we need to see what it’s been.

Coasters and other rides have made a long journey from Small World.

Just a couple of hundred characters (300 in fact) audio-animatronic singing dolls. Wearing costumes from around the world.

You probably saw it in Orlando but it started at the original park in California.

But you may not have known it goes back every farther:

Try the UJNICEF New York Fair more than half a century ago.

Small World was an immediate hit. And there are still today bloggers and others who recall hearing the familiar theme song over and over when the ride occasionally gets stuck.

Technological reasons, of course.

But what we’re going to explore today is where technology is taking theme parks.

But to understand where technology is going, you have to know a little of the past.

The long-time symbol of the fair grounds that led to theme parks was the carousel.

A famous wood carver, Charles Looff, started it when he attached his wooden carved animals to a moving platform. Around and around they went in New York fair grounds.

Tech growth was inevitable

The carousel may lack the speed and technology of most modern attractions, but is still beloved by visitors of all ages around the world.

It became another symbol. But much was still ahead.

That was followed by the Ferris Wheel, which was also limited technologically as well.

There may be riders today who have never seen a wooden coaster but they were common in the early 1900s.

They were somewhat tame in those days. A common version was only 40 feet tall.

A company that made bobsleds, Matterhorn, introduced steel designs. What that meant for you, the riders, was that the track could be bent in any direction.

Loops and corkscrews.

This has a Disney connection. No, he did not invent them.

Walt knew what a coaster should be like

But his original concept was to give you the same experience as tobogganing down a snowy hill.

And the first of these new steel coasters were at Disney in California.

As you might imagine, they received the same kind of excited giddiness as new and faster present-day coasters do.

From all this came what you may know as “dark rides.”

They used to be ghost trains or even “Tunnels of Love” for couples.

But in addition to stories, Disneyland was again a pioneer.

What might be called the battle of the roller coasters (read: higher, bigger, faster) prompted competition between modern day theme parks.

Multi-sensory attractions were the inevitable next step in theme parks.

A good example of that was “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man,” as seen by holders of Universal Studios Orlando tickets (proving if you ever doubted it…that Disney was far from the only park adding new technology to entice new riders).

Spider submerges riders in 3D virtual reality.

As you know if you have been on it, you move in a car through city streets and over buildings. There’s a simulated 400 foot drop. Oops.

So what’s coming up next?

In general, a major principle is that parks are getting away from passive amusements.

Riders will take control

The trend is towards more participation by guests.

To create meaningful and memorable trips, amusement parks will be transforming their attractions from passive amusements into full-on participatory adventures

This might be termed “really sinking the guest into the story,” says Cynthia Sharpe, the senior director of Cultural Attractions & Research at the Thinkwell Group.

She adds:

“Several of our projects are leveraging novel approaches and technology to guest engagement. We’re already seeing the rise of boutique experiences, like small-group escape games, Ollivander’s Wand Shop at Universal, and highly interactive meet-and-greets like ‘Enchanted Tales with Belle’ at Disney.”

Rich Hill, the senior designer at Sally Corporation, adds thisL

“In the future, once guests pass through the turnstiles, they should have a nonstop flood of experiences that all relate to one another. Guests will no longer wait in long lines because the attractions will flow into one another seamlessly.”

What this new technology will do for you?

Imagine being Superman

You will fly like Superman, seeing the world as he views it. Credit virtual reality.

An example will be right here in Orlando at Universal.

You will come face-to-face with a 30 foot tall King Kong at Skull Island, a coming attraction (there was a recent preview showing).

Thanks to virtual reality, as well as other technology, you will be playing roles.

And experiencing dramatic events. And confrontations like the King Kong meeting.

This should have a particularly dramatic impact on coasters.

“In terms of virtual reality, this has the chance to revolutionize the roller coaster experience,” said Colleen Mangone, director of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

She describes it this way:

“The guests physically ride the roller coaster while wearing the virtual reality headsets. So their visual line follows a story line or they could be accompanying a superhero. They are flying next to the superhero and as the superhero dives down, the coaster is diving down.

So now we come to this:

That’s only a general trend.

Peering into the theme park future

What’s ahead?

We don’t know but when we asked others, one answer was not the Disney or Universal initiatives.


Huh? A park for 12-year-olds? Even younger?

A lot of observers are citing Lego’s teaming up with a small Canadian company called Triotech to create a ride that will be seen much more in the future.

Triotech’s technology is called Maestro.

What it does is not that complicated:

It creates a ride that lets you control the outcome of the adventure just by using your hands.

No handheld devices needed.

NINJAGO The Ride is based on the LEGO story of four young ninjas. The heroes are trained in the art of Spinjitzu.

What exactly is this new technology and how will it change future rides?

What riders will like is simply that their only weapons will be their hands. Ala ninjas.

Their hands will launch fireballs and lightning (well, not exactly like real-life ninjas but this is not total reality).

“With the help of some deft karate chops, a well-placed fireball hurled at ferocious villains and a set of 3-D glasses, Legoland is hoping to upend the hyper-competitive world of theme park attractions — for now,” said one news story.

How it works

Ninjago riders are seated in four-person vehicles. They wear 3-D glasses. They are trained under master Wu to beat off a legion of enemies.

Good ones, too. Snakes. Ghost. Skeltons.

Using hand movements, guests hurl virtual projectiles such as spheres of lightning at animated creatures that appear to jump out of 30-foot screens.

Along the way, there are special effects. Dangling spiders and skeltons, among others.

A touch of genius about the ride is that you can compete with friends and family.

Dashboards in the vehicles track the riders’ scores.

This is obviously intended to encourage repeat riders.

People can compete with friends and family, a feature that Legoland hopes will encourage repeat visits.

Ninjago has been tried out in the California LEGOLAND at Carlsbad.

The 4-D dark ride will be the first in North America to use hand gestures in place of physical devices to control the outcome of the action.

How is Triotech able to get this affect?

Software includes lap-bar sensors. They can calculate where riders are aiming their hands.

Gives new meaning to the idea ‘Hands on’

The effect is nothing is programmed. Everything happens in real time.

Sensory effects such as heat, smoke and wind will enhance the 3-1/2-minute virtual journey through skeleton-filled caves and lava streams.

Legoland’s sister park in Denmark opened the same ride earlier this year.

Will it come to the Florida version?

Predictions are eventually, yes. Though no timetable has been set.

Versions of it are expected at all of the parks.

But the principles are also expected to be imitated just about anywhere. And everywhere.

Already, some examples of this are showing up.

At Universal’s Harry Potter attractions, riders can use interactive wands with “special powers” to cast spells or unlock clues during a treasury hunt.

A company called Dynamic Attractions has been leading the way for new coaster elements.

Their SFX Coaster has four engineering advances that are said never to have been together on a ride.

But its biggest advances is that these are all synchronized with highly advanced media.

Park-goers want more than a train on a track

“Thrill-seekers want more than just a train on a track,” Peter Schnabel, Dynamic Attractions President, referring to traditional roller coasters. “We’ve combined spectacular storytelling and eye-popping special effects with the most technically advanced ride. This has the amusement industry’s top draws, dark rides and roller coasters, in one unbelievable experience. It is the first of its kind in an entirely new category of rides.”

The breakthrough technologies are said to include these four:

The vehicle and the section of track below it rotate 360 degrees…at the same time rocking up and down.

The vehicle drops perpendicular to the direction it is traveling.

Rides feel as if the vehicle is free falling. But then it lifts up again.

The track tilts up and down. Similar to a seesaw motion.

Years of research and development have gone into creating the new attraction. The company brought together leading structural engineers, award winning film makers and technicians.

“It was unusual to have these dramatically different disciplines together in the same room,” explains Schnabel. “But we found that their ideas challenged each other. The results are innovations that are year’s ahead of the industry.”

Will it be seen in action at parks?

Of course. And soon.

What would Walt think of all this?

You have to wonder.

But he would certainly like it. ###