At Disney, creating the themed rides and attractions we all know and love has been a feat of engineering so unique the company has its own name for it: Imagineering. In 1952, Walt Disney founded WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, Inc.) to oversee the development of Disneyland. In the decades since, those Imagineering teams have designed and implemented a huge variety of magical experiences with complex engineering at their core. What makes Disney’s attractions unique is that despite using newer and newer technologies to accomplish their tasks, they do their best to hide that tech to encourage immersion into the worlds they create. British sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke proposed that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Where Disney Parks are concerned, magic is the goal, and advanced technology is their means of achieving it.
Last month, I got to go to Disney World with my wife and her family. I’m a big fan of thrill rides, and frankly, I was a little worried that Disney would be too lightweight for me, especially in the company of three young nephews. I quickly discovered that even the easy rides were fascinating, because it was the first time I’d been to a Disney Park since becoming an engineer, and boy did I have a lot of questions! Each night, I went back to the hotel and researched how certain rides were made. How did Avatar: Flight of Passage make me feel like I was really flying around Pandora on the back of a winged banshee? And why did I feel like I had found my purpose in life? (I’m not crying, you’re crying.) How long has Disney been using trackless ride systems, and are these AGV’s or AMR’s? Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance was an amazing dark ride that hurdled us around a very realistic Star Wars set for what was without a doubt the most immersive experiential ride I’ve encountered to date. Despite being caught up in the illusion of the ride, I still found myself looking at the other vehicles on the ride and noting their near-perfect following of a path through the set despite a lack of rails of any kind. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d seen this kind of automation before but in a vastly different setting.
AGV’s vs. AMR’s
At work, an engineer on my team is testing out the use of two Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) for material handling in a manufacturing environment. In this particular setup, the two robots will transport finished goods across a long, narrow cleanroom and convey the goods through a pass-through to material handlers on the outside. This saves human operators the hassle of pushing carts across the room hundreds of times a day. And if something gets in its way, it simply moves around it. AMRs have localized positioning systems and proximity sensors so they always know where they are, where they’re supposed to go, and if there’s anything in the way. Because of these features, AMRs are great for path-independent autonomous movement. So is this the same tech I was seeing at Disney World? Well, not quite.
For theme park rides like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and the horizontal movement in The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney uses Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs). These are like simpler versions of AMRs and predate them significantly. While AMRs can change course to reach a final destination, AGVs are programmed to take a specific course and are guided by buried magnetic strips, RFID tags, or beacons. While this isn’t quite as handy for manufacturing, it actually works better in theme park rides for one reason: the journey is just as important as the destination. Most theme park rides are not path-independent, and this is especially true of dark rides (rides that take a passenger through a series of lit scenes to create a narrative). AGVs work great because their motion is repeatable, and the ability to change course to accommodate for obstacles in the path is not necessary. If there’s an obstacle on a trackless ride that shouldn’t be there, there’s something wrong with the ride, and the vehicle should not just try to work around it! To be clear, AGVs still have sensors to prevent crashing into something in their path. They just don’t have the tech to find a new path.
After a bit of research, it became clear to me that Disney’s been using AGVs for quite some time, and I was just never aware of it. You know the way the elevator car in Tower of Terror moves down the hallway before tossing you up and down? That’s an AGV moving you from the beginning of the ride to the shaft that’s equipped to lift you 16 stories and drop you faster than gravity. Tower of Terror is older than I am, and it’s not even the first ride to use AGVs.
Despite all that I discovered about the reasons to stick with AGVs as opposed to adopting the new AMRs for dark rides, I still wonder, is there room for AMRs at Disney Parks? I found the answer on DisneyFoodBlogs.com of all places. The article is called Disney World is About To Be Invaded By Robots…And You’re Going To Love It! and it was actually a very compelling read! The author, Quincy Stanford, dug up some interesting patents in which Disney appears to be developing autonomous robots designed to interact with people at the park. Just have a look at the descriptions of these patents:
- Interactive Autonomous Robot Configured for Deployment Within a Social Environment
- Interactive Autonomous Robot Configured for Programmatic Interpretations of Social Cues
- Interactive Autonomous Robot Configured with In-Character Safety Response Protocols
I’m not going to dive deep into this, because the article itself is fairly informative, but I find this new development incredibly intriguing. Even as an adult human with 25 years of interacting in social environments, interpreting social cues, and acting safely, I can struggle to do all three of those things in large crowds, especially with Disney nuts all around me. I can only imagine how challenging it will be to design a robot to do all of that autonomously. Of course, a little magic won’t hurt, and that’s what Imagineering is all about!
If you’re interested in learning more about Disney Imagineering, I recommend the documentary series “The Imagineering Story” on Disney+. I’ll be publishing more articles about engineering at Disney Parks in the future, too. Above all else, I think we can both agree that the best way to experience the magic of Imagineering would be a bit of hands-on learning. Go on. You deserve it.