Students enjoyed a backstage look at the technological wonder of Disney.
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is all about magic.
Then again, it can also be a lot of fun to find out how they do the tricks.
A group of 13 students from the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering recently took a trip to the Magic Kingdom to learn about how Disney uses technology to bring their attractions to life and mold the experiences of their patrons. The trip was part of a class taught by Luddy lecturer Jennifer Terrell, a long-time Disney aficionado who has been impressed with the way the entertainment juggernaut encapsulates so many aspects of informatics and computer science.
“They somehow incorporate every single element of the fields into their parks,” Terrell said. “There is the storytelling, but they also work with a ton of different kinds of information systems from the use of their RFID tags in their Magic bands to thinking about big data analysis to network science and more. Disney World in Florida is not only a good subject to study, but it’s also a good field site for students to get hands-on experience in thinking through what these technologies look like when they’re incorporated into an overall experience for someone in the theme park.”
Students first studied the Disney experience in the classroom, including the history of the theme parks and the initial vision Walt Disney had for how visitors would perceive the parks. Using technology, Disney designers have worked through the decades to make visitors feel like they weren’t riding an attraction but rather an interactive part of it.
“We talked a lot about the use of some very broad categories of technology, such as light and sound and water, and we analyzed the rides and how those technologies were used to shape a visitor’s experience,” Terrell said. “When a park guest goes through their experience of being at Disney World, what is Disney teaching them that is valuable and important? What cultural values are Disney teaching through these experiences? We took a look at Disney as a field site to understand technology’s role in the construction of our culture.”
As a final project, students were asked to analyze YouTube videos of a ride or attraction and try to identify the values Disney was teaching. Then, when they were on-site at Disney World, they were asked to investigate the same ride or show to see how that analysis changed when they experienced it in real life.
“Before visiting, Disney was just a beautiful theme park that I loved,” said informatics sophomore Jennifer Gonzalez. “Going into it this time around with everything I had learned in class, I realized how Disney used different techniques to tell a story. More importantly, how they used technology to educate the public.”
The class also took part in Disney’s youth education series, which offers a slate of workshops that provides a background in both the Disney way of doing things and allows a back-stage look at some of the attractions.
“We participated in a course called ‘Disney’s Approach to Leadership and Teamwork,’ which taught us about teamwork and how to define roles and teams,” Terrell said. “Experiencing formal teamwork training was a great supplement to the course, and that workshop actually took place in an executive meeting room, which is under a large aquarium. So while the workshop was being conducted, we were distracted by sea turtles and fish and sharks and divers. That was an amazing setting.”
Another workshop, “The Evolution of Technology,” was primarily designed for middle school and early high school students, but the Luddy students benefitted from seeing how Disney presents science and technology to younger people. The class included visits to three rides in the Epcot theme park prior to the park opening to the public, allowing students a different perspective than they normally would get if the rides were more crowded.
Finally, the group enjoyed a seven-hour backstage tour of the technology at Disney World.
“We started in Epcot, and we got to go backstage under one of the attractions that tells the story of the founding of the United States,” Terrell said. “The attraction opened in 1982, and they’re still using a mainframe and software from 1982. It was absolutely fascinating to see how they operate these animatronics on a working mainframe from the early 1980s, which isn’t something you expect to see and that is so rare to experience. We got to see costuming and animatronics that were partially disassembled, and it was a great look at the different technologies that go into such an amazing park.”
Chloe Tominac, a junior in informatics, was stunned by the backstage tour.
“You expect Disney to be updated with all the newest technologies, and in many cases, they are,” Tominac said. “But it was interesting to see how much maintenance they have to do on the American Adventure ride to keep it in working condition. You don’t see a lot of operating systems that haven’t been updated.”
The tour also allowed the students to look beyond the magic of their environment.
“The behind-the-scenes tour reminded me that Disney is still a multi-billion dollar company,” said Kassidy Clines, a sophomore in informatics. “When visiting the parks, you can easily get caught up with everything, and you forget you're at a theme park owned by this giant company. By going behind the scenes to locations like maintenance, costuming, and laundry services, you're reminded where you are.”
The workshops triggered a lot of discussion about Disney and its inner workings.
“I wanted them to understand that it’s possible and even encouraged to love something and critique it at the same time,” Terrell said. “We were critical of Disney, but we also loved it. And that’s the orientation I want them to have toward technology. I don’t want them to think they can’t critique something, and I don’t want them to purely celebrate it. I hope they came away with an experience of wrestling with feeling simultaneously amazed by the things that Disney is pulling off and recognizing the places where we do need to be critical and do need to think carefully. I hope they came away with a deeper familiarity of sitting with that discomfort.”
Nina Updike, a junior in informatics, learned that very lesson.
“I learned to not be afraid of analyzing a company I often find to be perfect,” Updike said. “This is important as the world is constantly changing, so it is only natural Disney has flaws with how their company works. I used to hesitate to analyze Disney, but the trip has made me appreciate them more as I have seen many changes they have made to better their relationships with their audiences.”
The trip was more than just educational. Multiple students on the trip have been contacted by recruiters from Disney, and Terrell hopes a partnership between Luddy and Disney can be established.
“We’re right at the beginning of this relationship,” Terrell said. “Right now, we’re working strengthening those relationships. Disney is a very large organization, so the collaboration is still to come. We’re also looking at possibilities to expand beyond Disney because there is so much that can be learned through these kinds of real-world experiences that are a little beyond what most students learn in a classroom.”