A Peek Behind the Curtain at Walt Disney Imagineering’s R&D Lab

As part of the National Inventor Hall of Fame announcement ceremony, invited guests were given a tour of Walt Disney Imagineering — including their R&D lab where the most cutting edge technology is being developed for the Disney Experiences of the future. This rare glimpse behind the curtain is a bit overwhelming as the possibilities for some of the boundary-pushing innovations highlights that Disney is always trying to make the impossible a reality.

It is no secret that Disney fans have been frustrated by the slow ramp up of new projects being announced at the domestic resorts in California and Florida. While Disney has opened major experiences internationally, Disneyland and Walt Disney World only have Tiana’s Bayou Adventure as major new attractions currently under construction. However, with Disney’s announcement of a planned $60 billion dollar investment over 10 years across domestic and  international parks as well as cruise ships, it appears that we are on the cusp on unprecedented growth.

That growth starts at Walt Disney Imagineering, where artists and engineers are dreaming up how they will tell stories across new attractions and entertainment offerings. During the tour, we were able to see some of what they are working on in areas such as robotics and a pretty nifty interactive floor. Along the way, each presenter had a glimmer in their eye that showed how much they loved showing off their toys as well as the passion they have to push the boundaries on what a Disney experience can be.

Earlier this year, Imagineering displayed a work-in-progress version of one of their new technologies. At SXSW, they presented a robotic bunny that was able to pick herself up after a tumble, while connecting to the audience on an emotional level. Continuing their work, that team went on to create the Duke Weaselton robot that recently stunned the invited guests at the opening of the Zootopia themed land in Shanghai Disneyland. 

A lot of computer programming and engineering went into creating this special moment, even though they were able to dream, design, and build the apparatus within a matter of months. But beyond the technological wizardry, they were able to work with an animator who worked on the character in the film to use their software to bring the character to life. It is mind blowing that Imagineering has developed tools that can be engineering marvels while also having the emotional connection in such a brief period of time.

Another robotic innovation was on display which recently had a playtest inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. These charismatic droids can walk, jump, and even stay standing when being pushed, while also displaying the emotions that are a hallmark of Star Wars droids. These color coded BD units (short for buddy units) each have their own character and charm as they explore their surroundings and react to their environments in real time. It is a testament to the personal connection that Imaginners can create as most of those on the tour just wanted to pet the head of these adorable characters. You could see people transitioning from wondering how they worked to just wanting to play with their new friends.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was presented by National Inventor Hall of Fame inductee Lanny Smoot himself. The man behind the floating Madame Leota, the extendable lightsaber, and over 100 patents has his latest dream on display. The HoloTile floor is an omnidirectional modular technology that is able to keep multiple people in place by sensing where you will walk and guiding you back into place like a treadmill. Even in its development phase, the applications that were on display were endless. Imagineers could use it in the development process to walk through VR mockups of their creations. Dancers can use it to create innovative and exhilarating moves if placed at the base of a stage. Place a regular chair on the floor and you have a trackless ride vehicle that can move in every direction. We also got to see it be used as the base of an interactive droid game where the player guides a droid on a screen by walking through a virtual maze. Those strong in the force can summon and repel objects placed on the floor by using gestures. Seemingly miraculously, multiple people can be on the floor doing various things and the floor reacts to each individual's movements.

While Imagineering isn’t quite ready to say when and where we will see this technology in the parks, the potential it has to create new experiences is only limited by their imagination. Much like the audio-animatronic figure and the omnimover ride vehicle, the HoloTile has the potential to be a theme park innovation that could inspire new stories in new ways for generations to come.

Between the theme park shutdowns and the on-again off-again relocation, it has been a tough few years for Walt Disney Imagineering. But despite the challenges, they have never stopped innovating and pushing the boundaries of using technology in immersive storytelling. With the upcoming investment, and the passion on display in Glendale, the next golden age of Disney theme park experiences may be just around the corner. As any Disney historian will tell you, the greatest innovations come from the ashes of tough times, if the recent tour of Imagineering is any indication, the next few years are going to be one heck of a ride.