‘New magic’ at Disneyland: How the iconic theme park is enhancing its content with digital touches

Star Tours, upgraded since 1987 with high-res screens and 3D adventures. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — What is “content?,” I mused while my stomach rose and fell in jerky counterpoint to the Big Thunder Mountain runaway rail car in which I was riding. When content equals story, as it does at Disneyland, it can be an entire theme park.

There may be no better place to observe how digital content has enhanced — or replaced — the physical in storytelling than at the original Disney park in Anaheim. Disneyland was founded in 1955 and effectively invented the concept of the modern theme park, where story is intertwined with attractions.

I decided to test this hypothesis with my inner 8-year-old in tow during my first visit to Disneyland in nearly a decade (though in-between I’ve visited Disney parks in Orlando and Paris).

Disclaimer: I’m not a Disney obsessive, but I am observant. I have a long history as a consumer of Disneyland content going back more than 50 years to my childhood, with in-depth dives as a journalist covering the technology behind Star Tours when it opened in 1987 and Disney’s California Adventure park in 2001.

This trip, I was looking for digital upgrades to the storytelling since my last visit in 2009. Not necessarily show-stopper new attractions or headliner revamps (though there are those), but the subtle. Perhaps so subtle that Disney public relations reps had a hard time coming up with suggestions for me to check out before I arrived.

But they are there, and I noticed.

The author interviews a Walt Disney Imagineer at Star Tours’ 1987 opening. (Frank Catalano Photo)

I’d put the enhancements into three technology buckets: embedded animation/multimedia, digital projections, and CGI characters. It wasn’t always clear to me which technique was being used, or how many were used in combination (I was usually watching them from a moving ride vehicle). But they created incremental improvements that kept even the oldest attractions fresh and, importantly, more in line with out-of-Disneyland viewer expectations.

For example, take Peter Pan’s Flight (opened in 1955) and Alice in Wonderland (1958) in Fantasyland. Both now embed snippets of animation — I would hesitate to call them clips — that appear to be from their namesake animated features for lively illustration as the dark ride vehicles slowly traverse their well-established routes. Film-inspired animation images also play a role in the newer Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough (2008).

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle has animation touches. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Meantime, digital techniques have subtly improved the reality of lightning and faux waterfall, river, and lava flows in attractions as varied as Peter Pan and Disneyland Railroad’s Grand Canyon Diorama and Primeval World (1958/1966). Even the newer, intestine-adjusting Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (1979) coaster has added small digital effects to make a flaming “blast area” riders roll through appear more threatening.

Want more overt effects? Head over to Tomorrowland where Submarine Voyage (1959) evolved into Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (2007) and still keeps evolving. I was impressed with the film-like underwater character interaction of Nemo, Dory, and the other denizens of the deep outside my tiny circular window on my last visit. But this time, I’d swear the characters included references to Finding Dory — a movie that wasn’t released until 2016.

In line for Hyperspace Mountain, a Star Wars content overlay. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

And it’s hard to get more overt than the Star Wars multimedia projected inside Space Mountain (1977) when it undergoes its occasional transformations into Hyperspace Mountain, a content overlay of different digital images and sounds. In effect, digital technology makes it possible to turn what had been a decades-old single-purpose attraction like Space Mountain into multiple seasonal attractions.

For me, the epitome of flexibility is Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. When it opened more than 30 years ago as just Star Tours (before Disney owned the entire Star Wars universe) I interviewed Disney Imagineers who told me the multi-person motion simulators were designed to handle potential updates to their video adventures. That concept was astonishing in a time when it took a then-advanced 386 personal computer to control a single audio-animatronic figure you’d see while waiting in line for the attraction — and that was an improvement from audio-animatronic figures once run by mini-computers.

Now, Star Tours sports stunning high-resolution digital screens, 3D video (added in 2011 when the attraction was fully refreshed), a fully CGI “spokesdroid,” and a bumpy changeable adventure with dozens of variations including, most recently, footage with the First Order. This time, C3PO is your pilot, replacing an original droid pilot voiced by Pee Wee Herman.

Today’s Star Tours pre-show droid took a 386 PC to power in 1987. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Perhaps the poster child for continuous improvement at Disneyland is Abraham Lincoln.

Long before modern digital technology, engineering prowess was key to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (1965). Originally created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the speech-giving 16th President was Walt Disney’s first human audio-animatronic figure. Though the attraction has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, Lincoln himself keeps getting upgrades.

Human audio-animatronics were considered so impressive that in 1987 an Imagineer told me Disney had a technology transfer agreement with the University of Utah. The university knew how to make prosthetics that moved like real human limbs, but Disney knew how to make realistic-looking skin and hair. It was a useful exchange, in service of both medicine and story.

The most advanced 16th President to date. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

The latest Lincoln, updated since my last visit, is based on electronics instead of hydraulics. It’s said to represent the first of a new generation of audio-animatronic figure, autonomatronics, which can incorporate sensors and cameras. This Mr. Lincoln showed more emotion and simply more fluid motion than its predecessors.

It’s all part of figuring out how to “advance the storytelling,” Steve Roach, Walt Disney Imagineering’s executive for creative development, told me after I returned from my visit. “Sometimes a new technology comes along that might not have existed when we originally built an attraction,” he said. “We don’t just add new technology for technology’s sake, but if we have an opportunity to add something new and innovative, as long as it advances the story and is relevant to today’s guests, then we often make those changes.”

The term Imagineers use for that kind of update to a classic attraction, he said, is “new magic.” “Generally, major creative updates are made when attractions are down for an extended refurbishment,” Roach said. “We know that our guests love the attractions at our parks and adding ‘new magic’ gives them something to look forward to for the next time they visit their favorite attractions.”

Not every digital aspect of Disneyland is in a fixed location. Disney does have its free Disneyland mobile app, useful for quickly checking attraction wait times and, for a daily fee, buying a MaxPass with added features (I also like, and use, the inexpensive third-party subscription TouringPlans.com Lines app to help me limit time in line). Disney has announced a new Play Disney Parks app coming this summer with promised location-based in-park experiences, probably also helpful when you’re stuck in a line.

It’s a Small World is visibly untouched by digital content, but not by Stitch. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

It is still possible to find classic Disneyland attractions that haven’t received an obvious digital makeover. The Enchanted Tiki Room is one, though in 1963 it did reflect cutting-edge tech as the first use of audio-animatronics anywhere. It’s a Small World is another, annoying adults and charming children with a masterpiece of an earworm since 1966, now enhanced with traditional Small World-style Disney characters such as Stitch.

Obvious or not, Disneyland’s technology updates seem to be in the spirit of how Walt himself famously described the park. “Disneyland will never be completed,” he said at one point. “It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Or, apparently, as long as there are new technologies that enable what Imagineers hope is ever-more engaging storytelling.