Published in April 2006

Disney's Imagination: A History, Part 2
By KC Wilkerson

Disney has been stretching technological boundaries for decades.

Editor’s Note: Last month we featured a discussion of how performance audio has evolved over Disneyland’s 50-year history. This time, we cover how lighting has changed over that period.
     Much like the rest of our industry, live show lighting at Disneyland has experienced phenomenal advancement in the last 20 years. Prior to the ’80s, we utilized a variety of conventional fixtures. Most of our earlier shows were lit with an assortment of PARs, ACL units and Altman lekos, all run by analog dimmers controlled by analog consoles (or, in some cases, banks of wall-mount rheostat dimmers). Things really started to change for us, of course, with the introduction of the moving light.
     Throughout the early ’80s, one of our largest entertainment venues was a stage on the island in the middle of the Rivers of America. Because it truly is an island, all of the lighting, audio and staging gear would have to be loaded onto transfer barges for the trip across the river, then set up on the stage for each individual show or event. Of course, once it was done, the rig would be struck and loaded back onto the barge for its return trip.
     For many years, the river stage was used for New Year’s Eve celebrations, private parties and Grad Nites, with (then current) headliners such as Bobby Brown, Men Without Hats, KC and the Sunshine band, and The Miami Sound Machine. Most of those early shows were lit with a hundred or so PAR cans (controlled by a Celco console) and Morpheus moving lights (controlled by the Morpheus Pan Command desk).

Disney Creative Entertainment Director Steven Davison “performs” the finale from “Remember… Dreams Come True.” Using the skies over Disneyland as its canvas, the show illustrates the power of wishes and dreams and incorporates state-of-the-art pyrotechnics, projection, lighting and sound technologies. “We call it the ultimate Disney E-ticket in the sky,” said Davison.

     Videopolis (now known as Fantasyland Theater), conceived as a space where teen guests could gather and dance, opened in 1985 and was wildly popular. The venue utilized the stage (a concert shed) built for the US Festival in 1983, which was later used by the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and then bought by Disney. The lighting rig consisted of several hundred PAR 56 ACLs and several hundred PAR 64s (in an arrangement that designer Brian Gale once dubbed “The Wall of Blinding Madness”), plus Morpheus Pana-Spot 1 and Pana-Beam 1 fixtures. Lighting control was provided originally by a Kliegl Performer 2 console (for conventionals) and the Morpheus Pan Command console. We also briefly used the ETC Concept console and Strand moving lights (the name of which escapes our historians). Our Followspots were Phoebus Ultra Arcs.
     Fantasyland Theatre has also been home to a number of large stage shows, including tie-ins to Disney Channel programming (Plane Crazy), Disney Films (Dick Tracy’s Diamond Double Cross) and the first version of what was to become the Broadway musical Beauty and The Beast. Each show used lighting technology appropriate for its time period, from the Morpheus Pana-Spots and Pana-Beams for Dick Tracy (1990) through the Vari*lite VL6s used for Animazement (a musical revue in 1998). Along the way, the old Genesis dimmers were replaced with ETC Sensor racks. The current show, Snow White: An Enchanting Musical, has more than 400 conventional fixtures and 21 VL3000 fixtures, controlled by a Wholehog II console. [Sound & Communications covered this installation in our March 2004 issue.—Ed.]
     In 1992, the old island stage was replaced with our nighttime spectacular Fantasmic!. Fantasmic! is a 30-minute show involving a cast and crew of more than 100, various watercraft, pyrotechnics, large props, fountains, projection, fire, smoke and a large lighting rig. The lighting towers for the show, not visible during the day, are concealed in underground bunkers that are opened prior to pre-show checks. The towers themselves are mounted to a single hydraulic cylinder, which rises to 45 feet. On each tower is an assortment of conventional and moving instruments, and at the top of the tower is a followspot position.
     There are 110 conventional fixtures (ETC Source 4 ERSs and Thomas PARs), 31 Data Flash strobe units, strobes and seven Nocturn UV units as well as 58 Morpheus Pana-Spots and 18 Pana-Beams (no, not the same ones we had more than 20 years ago for Videopolis!). Control was provided originally by a Strand Light Palette90 console (replaced in later years by an ETC Obsession III) and a Morpheus Pan Command console (later replaced by a Wholehog II).
     Speaking of the Source Four, 1992 also was the year we first installed them on a show. There was vigorous debate among our historians as to which show this actually was and, sadly, an agreement was not reached. In any case, shortly thereafter, we made a conscious decision to embrace ETC as our ERS, dimmer and “conventional” console of choice.

     The Hunchback of Notre Dame Festival of Fools (1996) marked our first foray into the world of the ETC 70-volt multiplex system. Most of the conventional fixtures in the 250-plus fixture plot were ETC, and the movers were Morpheus Pana-Spots and Pana-Beams. Control was provided by the Expression 2X and the Pan Command console.
     Light Magic (1997), a spectacular parade, contained many firsts. Moving lights (the Irideon AR5) were put on parade floats. The normal parade route fixed lighting of more than 300 fixtures was complemented by almost 100 Vari*Lite VL6s. This project also marked our foray into WYSIWYG and the Wholehog II console. The show did not run for long but, for us, it was a quantum leap forward in our technological progress.
     In 2000, we opened Disney’s California Adventure, which includes the Hyperion Theatre and a show called Steps In Time. Much has been written about the Hyperion in the trades, and justifiably so. [Sound & Communications covered the Hyperion in our September 2001 issue.—Ed] It currently features Aladdin—Live On Stage. Lighting for Aladdin is provided by 28 VL5s, eight VL6s, 36 VL6B Spots, 10 VL 2402s and 10 Martin Mac 2000 Performance Fixtures. All the moving lights are controlled by the GrandMA. There are another 600 or so fixtures, including the conventional units (ETC Source 4 ERS and PARs), cyc units (Strand Iris 3 Cell Units L&E Broad 3 Cells), practicals (internally lit set and/or costume pieces) and chase units, all controlled by an ETC Obsession 2. There are 114 scrollers in the show: Morpheus M Faders and S Faders plus Wybron Color Ram IIs. There are also fiber effects in the show, provided by 20 Martin QXF150 Fibersource units and three TPR fiberoptic illuminators. Other effects include three Rosco Hazemaker units, 10 Nocturn UV fixtures and two GAM Twin Spins.
     Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Play It! (2002) was a unique show for us in that it was lifted from a television show that already had an established “look,” which was faithfully duplicated using 30 VL5s and 06s. Other fixtures included a hundred or so Source 4 ERSs and 16 2K TV fixtures.

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters in Tomorrowland allows guests to pilot their very own Star Cruiser through a comical interactive space mission where they twist, turn and fire personal laser cannons for points.

50th Anniversary
     Our 50th Anniversary allowed us the opportunity to open two parades and a nighttime pyrotechnic spectacular at once. Block Party Bash [mentioned by David Hatmaker in the first part of this report, March 2006] at Disney’s California Adventure set a new bar for parade float audio. Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams at Disneyland established new boundaries for parade float lighting.
     This project marks our first time using Expression 250 LPCs (eight of them) on board all floats to control the lighting. The parade features a wide variety of LEDs, including the iColor Cove, iColor Tile and iColor Flex String; the OptiLED Designer Spot; Linear lighting by Quantum; and numerous Color Kinetics fixtures. Other lighting includes the Martin Wizard and several hundred custom strobe heads and controllers from Nova Electronics. Each of the eight floats is treated as a different “show,” which took four months of programming to complete.
     Remember—Dreams Come True takes place in the skies above Disneyland. This show provided a substantial lighting challenge. Tinkerbelle, a flying performer, makes two appearances, flying above the Disneyland castle on a custom rig created by Fisher Technical Services. In order to follow her as she executes numerous turns and dives, Syncrolite provided five 7K fixtures with custom UV lenses. After doing some research, we realized that, for various reasons, no off-the-shelf controller would be capable of tracking the lights to the performer due to the dynamic nature of the flight. Therefore, one light at a time, we used a trackball connected to a Wholehog II to control the pan/tilt values of each fixture and follow Tinkerbelle during her flight.
     We also had an Alcorn McBride Light Cue in line. The Light Cue “snapshots” a DMX value for each frame of SMPTE. Taking the “snapshot” data from the Alcorn McBride unit, we were then able to program cues into the Wholehog II. Additionally, Tinkerbelle’s costume features hundreds of LEDs with 21 channels of wireless control. Below Tinkerbelle, the castle also participates in the show, with a rig comprised of Martin Mac 2000 Profile fixtures and Color Kinetics’ Color Blast and Color Cast LED fixtures. There are also 600 strobes on the façade of the castle and the surrounding trees plus two Mac 200 Profiles used for shooting gobos onto the Matterhorn attraction.

The Future?
     The future? Of course, it looks like we’ll be pursuing many of the same paths as our peers—which means what? You guessed it: convergence and LEDs.
     We have tested different media servers (Martin’s Maxxedia, High End’s Catalyst and the MBox Extreme), and have been encouraged by the overwhelming possibilities they offer. This segment just needs the right creative to really explode.
     With Walt Disney’s Parade Of Dreams and Remember: Dreams Come True, we have jumped, excitedly, into the world of LEDs. LED fixtures just seem to be a natural fit for us, given our tendency to do shows and projects outdoors (and near, or in, water). We hope to see exponential advancements in intensity within the next five to 10 years.
     With moving-head fixtures, none of us really thought, 20 years ago, that we would have such an amazing assortment of them on the market, so to try to predict what will be available 20 years from now is a daunting exercise.
     More than anything, the future of lighting appears to be about control. We’re trying out different consoles (Martin’s Maxxyz, Vari*Lite’s Virtuoso and MA’s GrandMA) as we attempt to envision what the next five to 10 years may hold for us. Although we use much of the same equipment as everyone else, often we are tasked with either getting a piece of gear to do something it was not intended to do, or controlling something that was never meant to be controlled with a lighting desk.
     It is a constant challenge and the subject of much discussion and debate around our offices. In the past, we have opted for a wide variety of approaches, each for its own reasons. We have no reason to believe we won’t continue down that path, choosing unique solutions and the right equipment to help bring our stories to life.
     [Numerous technicians contributed historical information for this report: Thanks go to Joseph Peters, Rory Masseth, Lori Yoshida, Matt Cotter and Mike Layman.]

KC Wilkerson is technical director and lighting designer with Disneyland Resort Entertainment Productions. He started his technical career at Dulles High School in Sugarland TX, as a scenic artist, followed by college on a Technical Theatre scholarship. He joined the Walt Disney Company in 1992 as a stagehand and worked on a variety of projects at Disneyland, all over Southern California and around the globe. He has been involved with more than 200 shows, tours and events, including 50 Years of Magical Memories, The Magical Memories Tour, PremEARS in the Park Tour, Star of Persia (a new musical, 2005), Oogie Boogie’s Nightmare Revue, Block Party Bash World Premiere and REAL—A Night of Worship among many others. His most recent project is lighting the Global Travel and Tourism Summit in Washington DC.

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