Walt Disney was an innovator. Through his imagination, and the dedication of his ‘Imagineers’ countless new technologies were created for the parks. From audio-animatronics to new track systems for rollercoasters to urban planning Disney never stopped pushing ‘towards the future’.
On December 5th of 2012 Disney released a flying machine unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. A dragon flew, ‘breathed fire’ and defied the imagination as it swooped over the enchanted forest in New Fantasyland. The craft used a parawing for suspension and was propelled by a fan mounted on the back of the creature. The mechanisms were invisible during the night flights where the additional innovations of flapping wings, a moving head, fireworks as fire and an amazing soundtrack turned the craft into the creature . Now Disney wants to take their innovations further with three newly filed US patents. These patents include extensive plans for entertainment devices driven by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAV’s, also known as drones. Disney Drones to be specific.
The similarities you will notice between the dragon and these new creations are largely due to the fact that inventor Robert Scott Trowbridge worked on all of them. Each of the following systems include: “a plurality of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and a ground control system with a processor executing a fleet manager module and with memory storing a different flight plan for each of the UAVs” What this means is that the UAV’s in these systems, will be controlled by a central processor similar to the famous DAX system which would allow for each drone to be independently controlled. The first patent takes this control system and attaches the UAVs to giant marionettes and possibly even moving sets. The marionettes will have a full “body and articulatable appendages” and with them the Imagineers will have fully animated characters at larger than life sizes.
The puppet possibilities aren’t just for the land-based characters however. It seems that some of Disney’s most beloved creations may actually get to fly. “The aerial displays described herein were designed and created because it was understood by the inventors that many characters fly in their stories (such as in a book or movie) but, prior to the inventors’ aerial displays, it was typically not technically feasible to create a flying object that mimics the characters ” In lay terms this means that the Imagineers have wanted to make characters like Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Tinkerbell and even Eliot and Figment, really truly fly, but were limited to the technologies of the past. “This is a significant improvement over prior flying characters, which typically were provided in the form of parade or other blimps/balloons filled with hot air or other gases and that had little and/or awkward articulation of any movable parts .” The Marionettes would still be lighter than air, but with the drones holding the strings, the designs could be true to the original characters in both appearance and mannerisms.
This would also provide an upgrade for the flying characters in the fireworks presentations. “In the past, flying characters were typically suspended in the air using motor-controlled cables or a boom, which severely limited the character’s range and direction of travel and prevented observers from truly believing the character could fly” . While this is less applicable to the fantastic aerial performances seen in the Disneyland shows, it will be a sight to see when Tinkerbell can fly freely over the Magic Kingdom. “The aerial displays allow a show designer to utilize a flying character in numerous environments. For example, the aerial display system may include a marionette that mimics a character but that is much larger than “true size” in order that the flying marionette can be seen by a large number of spectators.” This would mean much better visibility in the parades and firework shows.
The sketches for this patent seem to be depicting plans for the 2015 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party judging by the gigantic Jack Skellington and full Oogie’s mansion set. It seems that the “Boo to you” parade is getting a massive overhaul which might just take the not so scary out of Disney’s Halloween. You can find the sketches at the bottom of this post.
The second new patent is for a series of drone controlled aerial screens “Each of the screens is supportable in a display air space by the UAVs. […] During operation during a display time period, the UAVs execute the flight plans to move and to position the flexible projection screens within the display air space. The flexible projection screens each may include a mesh body configured to have low wind resistance and to provide a projection surface for reflecting light .” Disney could use this system to add even more effects to parades and shows. For example, if a parade included Ariel or Nemo, these screens could be deployed to create an ocean effect over the audience in time with the float. They could be used in shows like Illuminations to provide additional screens for the images seen on the globe. This technology, and the one before it could enhance Fantasmic with the addition of new and flexible projection surfaces more reliable than the water jets. Additionally I can see them being used to create some oft eh effects in the upcoming ‘Rivers of Light’ show in the Animal Kingdom as well as the ‘World of Color’ in the California Adventure taking the shows to new heights.
This system will also allow Disney to enhance their current projections shows like ‘Celebrate the Magic’. “The use of building surfaces allows a display designer to provide a large scale light show or projected display. However, there are major limitations to such a show as it requires use of display or projection surfaces that are fixed in size and location (e.g., static surfaces and this fixed backdrop makes it very difficult to create new effects and shows and can only provide a limited aerial display that may be detrimentally affected by features on or part of the building outer surfaces. […] As a result, there remains a need for new technologies for generating aerial displays such as a display involving projection of light and images into or out of the sky or an air space above an audience of spectators ”. Imagine ‘Celebrate the Magic’ no longer being confined to the surface of the castle. The show could also include aerial projections of characters jumping from the building to the screens surrounding it.
The final patent is for a series of drones with LED lights attached that could be deployed to create light shows by acting like a series of pixels in the sky. The patent states that these drones could be deployed over one of Disney’s many lakes. “In the entertainment industry, there are many applications where it is desirable to provide an aerial display. For example, an amusement park may have a lagoon or other open space over which it is desired to present a display to entertain visitors”  These drones could be added to Illuminations to enhance that show, or be ‘launched’ over Fantasmic to add to the spectacle. Disney could even create ‘firework’ displays over the Seven Seas lagoon without needing a barge. The addition of the Flixels would also allow for more flexibility for seasonal shows that could be changed with a program switch rather than having to replace and reload the fireworks. This could even allow for ‘regular’ showings and ‘holiday’ showings of fireworks displays and the like to be presented in the same night.
Now the reason I keep mentioning fireworks is that a couple of the images show the flixels, making the shape of a Mickey head over Cinderella’s Castle, and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland. This image has caused some speculation that the flixels will be used in some capacity in the shows that center on these castles. Namely the stage shows in WDW as well as Wishes and Magical.
As the writers of Inquisitr.com pointed out in their hilariously tongue-in-cheek assessment of the dangers of Disney Drones: “fireworks can be unpredictable because of wind and rain. Drones could overcome more inclement weather than traditional fireworks, which would result in less cancelled shows ”. Flixel fireworks could replace some of the shells launched close to the castle during certain shows. If they are maneuverable enough they could even be pulled back for segments that require traditional launched fireworks to work. The changeover would have three benefits that I can think of currently. First, having these ‘flixelworks’ in the show would greatly reduce the number of required water cannons and shells used. Not only would this be cheaper in the long run, it would also reduce the amount of space closed down during the shows. This would mean more prime viewing areas and less crowding in front of the castle. Secondly, the drones could be deployed at multiple points around the castle and project the same effects simultaneously making it easier to see the show from other parts of the park. The third benefit ties back with the flying principle behind the marionettes.
I’d like to make one thing very clear, I love Wishes, and I do not think that a new show based on the developments above should replace that iconic and much beloved show. I for one would be heart broken if it did. I merely think that the advent of the Flixelworks could allow for even more magic in the show. For example, if you mix the marionette UAVs with the Flixelworks, Wishes could now have a Tinkerbell that flies up and over or around the castle with a trail of glittering pixie dust behind her. Flixelworks set up further from the castle would provide for better vantage points and less smoke. And the drones would allow for more control and predictability. Imagine that when Genie rises up over the castle, you could actually have a sparkling-yet-recognizable version of Genie setting off fireworks instead of a series of blue bursts that aren’t maintained. The possibilities are endless, and if Disney does this right they can make something wonderful into something of pure magic. That being said, Disney needs to also be aware of how many fans would be heartbroken if they ruined the show with too many new effects, or if they decided to replace it all together.
The possibilities for these technologies are endless, terrifying Halloween applications aside. They could bring Dumbo, Tinkerbell and Genie to life. They could take shows like ‘Celebrate the Magic’ and make them literally fly off the ‘page’. Captain Hook’s ship cold fly, Ariel could ‘swim’, and even Buzz Lightyear could get a boost to infinity and beyond. These advances could help create seasonal shows and even enhance beloved classics like wishes. Imagine how you would feel if you could see an Elephant fly, Elsa’s ice castle grow out of the ground or even 45,000 lanterns floating over Cinderella’s castle. Wouldn’t that be magical?
 Dvice. Disney Unveils Flying Fire Breathing Dragon. http://www.dvice.com/2012-12-12/disney-unveils-flying-fire-breathing-mechanical-dragon
 US Patent 20140231590 http://www.google.com/patents/US20140231590?
 US Patent 8286907 https://www.google.com/patents/US8286907?
 US Patent 20140233099 http://www.google.com/patents/US20140233099?
 US Patent 20140236388. http://www.google.com/patents/US20140236388?
 Disney to Unleashes Drones On Theme Parks, Mankind’s Future is in doubt. http://www.inquisitr.com/1442798/disney-to-unleash-drones-on-theme-parks-mankinds-future-in-doubt/
Munarriz, Rick Aristotle. Magic Kindgom’s Future Magic May Be Managed by Drones. http://www.dailyfinance.com/2014/09/05/disney-drones-theme-park-patents/ Online Available. 9-5-2014.