AutoMatters: Disney Ride Engineering at the D23 Expo

Jan Wagner at Journey into Imagineering
Jan Wagner at Journey into Imagineering

By Jan. R. Wagner

I just spent three incredible days at the D23 Expo 2013. D23 is the official Disney Fan club. Billed as “The Ultimate Disney Fan Event,” this third biannual event is Disney’s equivalent of Comic-Con. It filled the Anaheim Convention Center and was conveniently located close to the Disneyland Resort (I went there to watch the spectacular fireworks show and Fantasmic on Sunday evening, after the D23 Expo ended).

Like at Comic-Con, it was physically impossible to see everything. There were in excess of 250 presentations, panels, concerts, demonstrations, meet-and-greets, screenings and sneak peeks – and they overlapped. My goal for AutoMatters was to seek out something auto-related to share with you. As it turned out, that was easy.

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D23 Expo 2013 - Anaheim Convention Center

I found what I was looking for in the amazing “Journey Into Imagineering” exhibit – an open house in celebration of 60 years of Disney Imagineering. Disney recreated offices and workspaces from Burbank, in minute detail, right down to snacks and typical clutter on the desks, within the Anaheim Convention Center, and staffed them with Disney Imagineers. They demonstrated to us how and where they create the attractions that we see, experience and enjoy at Disney parks worldwide.

For example, we saw the evolution of how Imagineers bring characters to life using Audio-Animatronics: from an old, second generation, electro-mechanical control system that scanned disks that were stacked in a large metal cabinet, to modern computers. Characters included a spooky ghoul, a face without any ‘skin’ (to show the underlying mechanisms) and a smiling Mater. There was a parrot, whose movements we could control, and stretchable ‘skins’ were on display for us to see and touch.

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Spooky ghoul – Audio-Animatronics

In another area an Imagineer was meticulously applying paint to what had been completely unpainted, sculpted panels, transforming them into realistic-looking weathered wood, aged bricks and more.

What I focused my attention on was the Ride Engineering room. In it, we were taken from start to finish in the design process, from sketches and models to a final product: an Autopia car. Here is their process, in their own words:

Start with a safe place to play. The heart of Ride Engineering is the “Sonora Speed Shop.” It hosts informal work sessions, holiday celebrations, lunchtime games and new hire orientations. Most new Imagineers begin their career right here. Absolutely no one is safe from friendly blasts of water at our annual barbecue but we always dress for safety, in the field or at the office.

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Skinless Audio-Animatronics face

Be driven to dream. As anyone could see from our workspace, we love our vehicles! One of our biggest creative challenges is designing a vehicle that is both fun and functional. So, we often begin with very simple sketches. These drawings date from 1954 and the original Tomorrowland Autopia attraction (today our artists work in both traditional and digital mediums).

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Autopia “Dusty” vehicle maquette & engine – Disneyland 1997

Always exhibit model behavior. Today Disneyland’s Autopia boasts 124 vehicles, each with overhead valve engines in one of three body styles: “Sparky” (a stylish sports car), “Dusty” (an off road vehicle), and “Suzy” (a cute coupe). Both digital and physical maquettes (French for scale models) help us explore every angle of a ride vehicle. Oddtopia? Not everything we dream gets built.

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