How Disney uses virtual reality to build new parks and rides

August 13, 2015, 9:11 PM UTC
Courtesy of Disney PR/Walt Disney Imagineering

Disney World guests have been able to play virtual reality games like Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride since 1998. But Disney (DIS) uses VR for more than entertainment.

Over the past nine years, Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) has developed its own VR technology to help build everything from new theme park attractions to new hotel suites.

WDI has a digital immersive showroom (DISH) in the backlot area of Epcot in Orlando, Fla., and a next generation version, dubbed Deep Dish, at WDI headquarters in Glendale, Calif. The Orlando DISH uses high definition projectors and focuses on three walls, and the Deep Dish in Glendale uses 4K visuals (four times the visual fidelity of HD) along with a fourth wall and a floor projector for nearly full immersion.

Walking into a DISH room is like walking into a holodeck. You start in a large empty white room. But once you put on the 3D glasses and the tracking monitor and the lights go out, the room becomes a life-sized 3D version of the Bora Bora Bungalows at Polynesian Village Resort that you can walk through and see from multiple angles as you move around. Multiple people can stay close to the person with the tracking monitor to get the same perspective. With large groups, the monitor remains stationary in the center of the room.


According to Mark Mine, creative technology executive at WDI’s Creative Technology Studio, the technology also allows the two DISH rooms to link up so participants on both coasts can experience the same walkthrough.

“We have a proud 60-year tradition of using physical models to help our designers visualize, work on, and figure out how to build our theme parks and attractions, but now we’ve gotten into the whole virtual reality realm with interactive real-time computer graphics to help us analyze and understand the things that we’re designing,” Mine says. “The physical models continue to be a big part of our design process, but the virtual models have very distinctive advantages, particularly when you want to experience what the guest is going to see when they walk through a new land or ride a new attraction or stay in a new hotel room.”

Mine says this behind-the-scenes DISH VR has helped WDI create new attractions that feature more technology than ever before.

“We have free-ranging vehicles, integrated media, and interactive characters that respond to the guests,” Mine says. “All of these things are very difficult for us to figure out just using physical models. These virtual capabilities help us to figure out these very complicated new attractions that we’re designing.”

WDI is currently using VR to work on a new Shanghai Disneyland theme park, a new Avatar Land for Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, a new Iron Man Experience for Hong Kong Disneyland, and new Star Wars attractions for multiple parks.

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