This continues a series of guest columns on how technology is reshaping hobbies and passions – basket weaving, rugby – whatever.
This time it is Jim Holincheck who I worked with at my startup Iq4hire, and is now a very well respected Gartner analyst. He writes about his frequent visits to the theme parks in Orlando. In fact, when he joined Gartner I kidded him it was because their annual conference on the Disney campus would add to his other trips there.
“My first trip to Walt Disney World (WDW) was in December of 1990 with my then-girlfriend (now wife, Cynthia) who had been going there since the year after it opened. I proposed to her on that trip, and we have been back many times since for vacations and conferences, so you can consider Disney a hobby for us.The photo was taken at the Disney Institute where we signed up for a course in animation. Yes, those vintage terminals should tell you it was a long time ago.
WDW was a much simpler place in 1990 – truly a “small world” compared to the bustling metropolis it has become. Today, Disney weddings and engagements are big business – with all kinds of variations which could include cruises or couture touches. You can buy engagement packages with castle backgrounds and even those with fireworks streaking by when the lady says “yes”. Back then, however, I prepared by reading a Disney travel guide and struggled to find a placeholder ring (we would later pick out the real engagement ring together) and plan a suitable proposal.
In addition, at that point, there were only two major theme parks - Disney World and Epcot. Disney's MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) was a fraction of its current size because it had only recently opened. Downtown Disney was the far smaller Disney Village Marketplace, and the on-property resorts were much less extensive. For a first time visitor, it was still overwhelming. My wife was a veteran, though, and we planned a great trip.
A few years later, I had the good fortune to do a consulting engagement for Disney. Given the passage of time, I think it is safe to reveal that I was on site for two days and I spent much of that time in a conference room. The thing I remember the most was a 3-D model hanging on the wall of the conference room that showed plans of future developments at the WDW resort. I wish we had camera phones back then. It showed all sorts of potential projects, including a monorail extension connecting the Epcot resorts (as you can see some of the plans did not come to pass).
At the time, I thought it was pretty cool. Still do today. Of course, today without signing any long non-disclosure documents in legalese, Google Earth visitors can wander through much of the virtual Disney World at ground level. To create the virtual tour, Disney photographers shot 100,000 photographs. They were turned into 1,500 three-dimensional models of everything from Cinderella Castle to park benches.
I would have really liked the monorail extension to have happened as I stay in the Epcot resort area almost every year for the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo. The hotels themselves are brimming with new tech such as the iHome which allows guests to play their iPod directly through the clock radio in the guestroom and wake to favorite songs instead of alarm buzzers. The monorail is still a great example of leading-edge technology deployed at Disney (as well as a reminder that sometimes cost effective technology -- buses in this case -- can trump cooler technologies).
There are many other technology innovations pioneered by Disney. Disney invented the multiplane camera in 1937, which allowed animated features to have more of a 3-D effect. In 1961, it created Audio-Animatronics, a form of robotics that mimics the live action of people and animals -- think the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Today, there are many technology innovations used in the Disney theme parks from biometric hand-scanners for park admission passes to Fastpass (a system that allows guests to make a "reservation" for a specific attraction that optimizes the queuing of guests) to more interactive attractions like "Turtle Talk with Crush". The video below provides a snippet of an animated character having a real-time conversation with WDW guests.
And of course, Disney now owns ABC and ESPN and continues to make all kinds of animated movies (and distribute others like Finding Nemo made by Pixar) and games with dazzling technology we could talk about for days. The characters from the movies magically seem to find themselves on Main Street in WDW a short while later. I always wonder how they decide which of the growing cast of characters gets the honor of being part of their annual Christmas Day parade tradition.
Most of the time the technology is just seamlessly woven into the guest experience. You do not even think about it being there. It improves that experience. Isn't that the way technology should be?”