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The fantastical meets the practical.

Although mechanical engineers at Walt Disney World have used standard design tools and industrial equipment since the resort opened 25 years ago, the rides and storybook heroes they create go beyond the everyday world to bring children's dreams to life.

In a land where even a parking-lot tram can spark a child's imagination and a boat ride to Tom Sawyer's Island goes beyond basic transportation, engineers must do more than create mass-transit systems and paddleboats. At Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., mechanical engineers and thousands of other workers also create the magic that transforms robots into larger-than-life storybook heroes and monorail rides into an expedition to another time and place. Above all, they must extend Disney World's geographic borders in Orlando to encompass the wonders of the world - with the aid, of course, of the powerful imaginations of the children of all ages who have flocked there since the resort opened in 1973.

In the quarter-century since, Disney World has grown from two hotels and a single theme park to 16 hotels and three parks sprawling over 30,000 acres. Yet even as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the resort is still very much a work in progress. The team of mechanical engineers who work at Disney World, including those in the company's Ride and Show Engineering Division, use familiar engineering tools - such as CAD software, concurrent engineering, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), hydraulics systems, and electric motors - continue extending the realm of the imagination at the theme parks that set the standard for the entertainment industry.

The process of transforming PLCs and hydraulic systems into a ride that captivates young and old alike involves something akin to a magician's sleight of hand, so engineers at the resort have been understandably reluctant to share the secrets of their success. In exclusive interviews with Mechanical Engineering magazine, Disney World Ride and Show engineers - many of whom are ASME members - give an inside look at what it takes to get a ride off the ground or warm a child's heart.


The Ride and Show Division exists to provide technical and engineering support to the rides, attractions, and transportation systems in Disney World. This includes parades, rides like Space Mountain, and transportation ranging from sleek monorails and parking-lot trams to the paddle wheeler Liberty Belle that sails around Tom Sawyer's Island.

Mechanical engineering expertise is essential to Ride and Show's mission. "Because every project we get from the creative staffs at Walt Disney is so unique, there's nothing we can pick out of a catalog - we have to build from scratch," said Greg Hale, director of Ride and Show Engineering. "In addition, we have to design equipment that can withstand duty cycles much tougher than other entertainment venues, because we run our attractions up to 16 hours a day, 365 days a year. That can put the stress of a 20-year Broadway run on stage equipment in a single year."

Typically, Ride and Show engineers are given projects by Wait Disney Imagineering, which develops the rides, and Wait Disney Entertainment, the group responsible for live entertainment. "Lately, we have gotten involved in the early planning stages of these projects to point out the costs of ideas to the creative teams so that they can tweak their designs," Hale said.

The Ride and Show engineers use concurrent engineering to meet tight deadlines and allow the extensive testing in the prototype phase that their high-duty cycles require. Once the attraction is installed, the engineers also maintain the attraction during its service life, something rare in conventional industrial engineering.

Flexibility is a watchword at Ride and Show, where engineers may work on an audio-animatronic figure, a fireworks display, and a roller coaster on the same day. "Fortunately, because we never build the same thing twice, we have developed a body of knowledge on what works that we can apply to our new projects and parks, such as Disneyland Paris," Hale said. "Twenty-two Ride and Show engineers helped open the Paris park."

A selection of recent Ride and Show projects can illustrate the breadth of the group's tasks. They include a monster that battled Mickey Mouse, parades featuring demons and Greek deities, a sparring robot, and two technologies that help hearing-impaired patrons enjoy Disney World.


A Ride and Show project with a particularly tight deadline was Mickey's Magical Fountain Monster, created to kick off the Splashtacular Show and to commemorate President Clinton's proclamation of National Kids' Day on Nov. 17, 1993. Five thousand disadvantaged children from around the world were flown to Disney World to attend the show.

According to its creators in Walt Disney Entertainment, the Magical Fountain Monster was an alien pet that would rise from the ground to its full height of 35 feet, appearing from behind tree cover to threaten Minnie Mouse. Mickey's armed guards would fire on the beast to no effect, leaving it up to the intrepid Mickey to battle and ultimately vanquish the creature.

The seven-week deadline was cinched tighter by the fact that the monster had to work the first time; there would be no time to rebuild it if it failed during testing.

The solution was combining concurrent engineering with a conservative design philosophy, according to staff engineer Mario Scarabino, an ASME member. Scarabino led the design team that was responsible for the monster's mechanical system. They met with counterparts from maintenance, operations, control design, software support, and Disney World's central shops at 7 A.M. each morning for the duration of the project. More than 100 engineers and machinists worked on the project.

"We first broke the basic structure of the monster down into nine different designs: hydraulics, dynamic analysis, blade arms, head, base and structure, calculation and testing, self-leveling head, design, and configuration management," Hale said. "Each day, someone work, ed on a new assembly using AutoCAD 12 and submitted it to the configuration management team. We built an assembly at night and the next day began a fresh assembly. This eliminated any interference between engineers claiming the same space."

Parts already designed and manufactured for John Deere backhoes were cut and welded to provide the base structure of the monster. To build in redundant systems, Vickers dual hydraulic cylinders were used to give motion to the machine's head, arms, and body. The cylinders were equipped with proportional control valves to provide the requisite degree of control over the hydraulic system. The hydraulic power unit and head were supplied by an outside vendor.

A hydraulic lift raised the monster, while a turret rotated it on its base. Hydraulics also moved the blade arms, moved the head from side to side and up and down, and opened and closed its massive jaw. The torso could also move up and down relative to the body.

The monster thrilled audiences beginning on day one, and continued to do so for six months as part of Splashtacular. It was honorably retired to stand guard at the gates of the Ride and Show Engineering Division building in Orlando.

"This project demonstrated to me that getting the right group of people with the right experience and commitment makes it possible to do the impossible," Scarabino said. "The team put in 110 percent; plenty of engineers who started work at 7 A.M. kept working on a demonstration through to 10 A.M. the following day."


A volunteer effort undertaken by Ride and Show engineers, in addition to their regular assignments, was the design and fabrication of the Ride and Show Bot robot for the FIRST national high school robotics competition, organized by Dean Kaman of FIRST in Manchester, N.H., and co-sponsored by ASME. Held at Disney World's Epcot every April, the competition of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is designed to foster interest in the sciences among the 10,000 high-school-age participants and spectators who attended the event at Epcot.

According to the contest's rules, three robots at a time demonstrate their capabilities in 2-minute rounds held in a ring surrounded by spectators. FIRST asked Ride and Show to design a noncompeting robot replace one machine if it gets damaged or otherwise knocked out of action. This was to prevent teams from fielding only two robots at once to obtain an unfair advantage over their competitors.

This "placebo" robot would have to fit the same specifications as the competing machines - have a 36-inch footprint, be no more than 48 inches high at the start of the round, weigh no more than 120 pounds, and be controlled by radio signals. Like the student inventors, the Ride and Show engineers were given six weeks to design, test, and build the finished robot. "We held weekly meetings and decided to take a three-tiered approach: completing the drive unit, the animated show effects, and the outer cover," said Wayne Scantling, an ASME member and senior mechanical project engineer in the Project Engineering Group, who led the team that designed the Ride and Show Bot.

Small Parts Inc. in Miami Lake, Fla., a subsidiary of FIRST, provided the drive motors and chains needed for the drive unit. Ride and Show engineers used AutoCAD software from Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., to lay out various drive scenarios, and decided that reduction sprockets were the most effective drive configuration. "We built a wooden prototype, tested it, and proceeded to build the real thing," Scantling said.

At the same time, other Disney volunteers worked on animated effects such as a puffball gun. They connected a PLC to the valving on a compressed nitrogen and carbon dioxide system. Radio commands signaled the PLC to actuate the valve, releasing gas that fired the spongelike ammunition into the audience. The gun itself was adapted from a store-bought Nerf Cannon.

Mining old Disney projects yielded gold for the "roboteers," who borrowed an animated head originally designed to demonstrate animation techniques to visitors. The engineers used a pneumatic cylinder, activated by compressed gas released by a solenoid, to raise and lower the head.

"One of our audio technicians looked at the head and said, 'The lips move, this head should talk,'" Scantling said. "He designed an audio system and synchronized the movement of the lips with the words on an electronic program so that the robot would appear to be speaking to the audience."

Another piece of parallel engineering was creating the pyramidal cover, or body, of the Ride and Show Bot. The first material choice, Thermoform Kydex, would have taken too long to mold, so the design team used moldable plastic, filled it with fiberglass, then removed the fiberglass with acetone. Holes were cut for the head, speakers, and grills.

The tightness of the deadline can be gauged by the fact that the Ride and Show Bot was completed scant hours before the competition. "This project taught us the value of teamwork," Scantling said. "The real reward was seeing the pride on the faces of the design team when we put the robot through its paces."

Scantling, a graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, said the variety of design work at Disney is the high point of his job. "In many mechanical engineering firms, you can get cubby-holed - for example, performing analysis over and over or designing gimbals. At Disney, I work on an audio-animatronic figure one day, a catenary wire system the next, then a roller-coaster thrill ride. This enables us to hone and utilize all our engineering skills to the fullest. You have to be good at everything."


Some of the most spectacular Disney Ride and Show projects come out of the Live Show Design Department, which builds the parades, stage sets, and props for Disney parks. Marie Renniker, a specialist in the Live Show Design Department at Ride and Show, worked on the Spectromagic parade that was introduced in October 1991 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Disney World and is still a favorite. It features many of the characters created by Walt Disney Studios in classic films including Fantasia, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid. Disney built 40 floats in six months, convincing Renniker that "with enough time and money, anything is possible."

A major challenge on Spectromagic, Renniker said, was the Chernobog float. Chernobog is the demon that bursts from a mountain during the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Fantasia. This effect was created by unfurling 17-foot-wide steel wings from the body of the demon, which when folded gives the creature the appearance of a mountain.

"We used AutoCAD to perform some 3-D modeling, and designed the wings to open in three sections, with one wing opening to the front, the other to the back," Renniker said. "It was important to get the wings to open smoothly, so we used programmable logic controllers to aid this."

A more recent project for Renniker and her colleagues was the Hercules Parade, which made its debut with the opening of the Hercules animated feature film in June. Naturally enough, the toughest float to build was Hades, the villain of the piece. An actor plays the lord of the Underworld in a barker's booth in front of a large Hades caricature, encouraging the audience to come to the Underworld.

"We gave the big Hades spinning hands by painting hands on sheet metal fiats spun on reversible motors," Renniker said. Mine cars behind the Hades statue, each carrying one of the Three Fates, chase after their single eye, mounted in another cart. Because virtually everything on the Hades float wobbles (to signify the shaky moral fiber of the inhabitants), wear is a issue, and that was dealt with by plenty of replacement parts. A live actor performs on the Hades float, so engineers equipped the barker's booth with a button to shut down the entire parade and facilitate his exit in case of emergency.

On another float, a huge statue of Zeus, king of the gods and Hercules's father, turns his 4-foot-tall head via hydraulic cylinders to watch the Nine Muses perform and look at a marionette he manipulates from his arm. "It was a real challenge finding the right angle for Zeus's wrist to move smoothly," Renniker said, "so we used a linear actuator, which enabled us to tweak the wrist's motion as needed."

Renniker welcomes the challenges that come her way in Live Show Design: "In conventional engineering, you may build something and then build it again 100 times, which takes the novelty out of it. Here, we finish something, and then we build something completely different."


Guest service is a cornerstone of Disney design philosophy. Ride and Show engineers were working to make Disney World more accessible to disabled guests long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990. "For example, when Epcot opened in 1982, we designed assistive-listening systems for hearing-impaired patrons, in English and several foreign languages," Hale said.

Over the past three years, infrared-based assistive-listening systems have been retrofitted and installed in numerous Disney World attractions, including Beauty and the Beast and other theatrical shows in the Disney-MGM Studios, the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom, and outdoor shows such as American Gardens in Epcot and Pioneer Hall at the Fort Wilderness Resort.

"We make a composite audio track for each of these shows, focusing on the most important sounds and effects," said Doug Petrino, a senior audiovisual designer at Ride and Show. The composite audio track is placed in a playback machine with the original soundtrack, and during the show the composite track is fed to a transmitter that converts the sound to infrared signals. "The transmitter sends its infrared signals to radiators that we mount throughout the theater or outdoor stage so that the infrared signals will reach hearing-impaired guests wherever they are sitting or standing," he said. In the case of outdoor shows, canopies were installed to prevent the infrared in sunlight from interfering with the transmission.

The hearing-impaired guests use a handheld infrared receiver they are given when entering the park to capture the infrared signals. "A light-emitting diode mounted under a lens in the unit picks up the infrared light, decodes it into audio, and after amplification sends it to headphones the guest wears." Disney World's international clientele can select composite sound tracks recorded in English, French, German, and Spanish.

The biggest challenge Petrino faced in such projects was equipping the Carousel of Progress in the Magic Kingdom. Seated guests are rotated around six fixed stages, halting in turn to view each show individually. "A problem that arose was keeping the infrared signal from one stage overlapping into another. We solved this by careful placement of the infrared radiators," Petrino said.

Some visitors have hearing impairments that are too severe to be alleviated by assistive listening. This is why Clive Adams, an electronic engineer and senior systems engineer at Ride and Show, developed an infrared-based closed-captioning system. Disney engineers began installing Adams's guest-activated captioning system in 1996 in attractions equipped with more than one video monitor, so hearing-impaired patrons can view the written text of the narration being spoken on one of the monitors.

Although Adams is a 15-year veteran designer of Disney audio, video, and laser shows, including The Little Mermaid and Laserphonic, the closed-caption system was his first project to assist guests with disabilities. "When designing the system, I tried to put myself in a hearing-impaired person's place who wanted to enjoy the park to his or her fullest," he said.

Attractions equipped with the system include the Wonders of Life and The Living Seas in Epcot, the Carousel of Progress and Alien Encounter in the Magic Kingdom, and Tower of Terror and Muppet Theater 3D in the Disney-MGM Studios.

At each park's guest-services counter, visitors receive the infrared transmitter Adams designed. They aim the 1 1/2- by 3-inch device at the marked closed-caption video screen and press the switch. This sends an infrared signal to a special receiver and decodes line 21 on the video screen, causing translucent text to appear. A built-in latch system keeps the signal on after the guest has triggered the switch to prevent the switch from being turned off accidentally. When guests turn the switch on, they also activate a timer that will turn off the infrared signal at the end of the narration.

An early design concern was accommodating the different lengths of time the narration runs on different shows. "I solved this by equipping the transmitter/receivers with dip switches that enabled me to adjust the timer to match the specific narration," Adams said.

As Ride and Show engineers ponder the demands of a new century, they are looking beyond their own resources. "Because Disney World has grown so much, it's getting harder for Ride and Show Engineering to keep up with the many demands on our services," Hale said. "The challenge will be to leverage what we know to what expertise outside vendors can offer."

If the last quarter-century is any indication, extending the Disney family may mean sharing some tricks. Even so, the legendary Disney sleight of hand seems sure to dazzle young and old alike for many years to come.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Society of Mechanical Engineers
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:design tools and equipment used by mechanical engineers at Walt Disney World
Author:Valenti, Michael
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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