AutoMatters: Disney Ride Engineering at the D23 Expo


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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

Take it for a spin. We create full-size models of our attraction vehicles, along with prototypes for testing. Of course, Walt always had his own personal Autopia vehicle, perfect for riding in style!

Steer towards new successes. Each new attraction inspires us to race to the next great experience... The Radiator Springs racers ride system (just over 1 mile) used three million pounds of steel. It took 150 truckloads to deliver the ride track and switches to the site! Our global fleet of “zoom” buggies includes petrol-powered, hybrid and electric vehicles. Hong Kong Disneyland’s Autopia vehicles are powered by four batteries, which charge every time the vehicle passes through the station.

Radiator Springs Racers and Cars Land in Disney California Adventure reflect the Disney Imagineers’ attention to each and every detail. They feature scenic vistas and neon-lit shops on Route 66, the Cadillac Range mountains (reminiscent of “Cadillac Ranch” in Texas), peaceful Ornament Valley and the Radiator Falls waterfall, trailer tipping, the cartoonish expressions on the ‘faces’ of Lightning McQueen, Mater and the gang from Pixar’s “Cars” films, service at Luigi’s Casa Della Tires or ‘painting’ at Ramone’s House of Body Art, and the high speed, on-track excitement of the big race.

As always, please write to me at with your comments and suggestions.

Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #293 AutoMatters