Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Field Trip: Backstage Disneyland

When I told friends and family that my class was going to get to go on a backstage tour of Disneyland to learn about their audio & other tech systems, I think they may have thought I was reading them a page from my dream journal. I have had a longstanding love of theme park history and design that started when I was a kid visiting Disneyland--asking Cast Members (the Disney term for "employees") annoying questions, using terrible dial-up internet to scour the ‘net for ride show scripts, reading every book on Imagineering that I could, and eventually keeping lists and notes and spreadsheets about how the park has changed over time and how it might operate. (Okay, maybe it was a little bit of an obsession. It's fine.) 

(Ah, I should quickly interject here that I'll be using a lot of parentheses in the post ahead--I was perhaps a touch too excited in revisiting the trip & wound up with a lot of vaguely-related sidenotes...sorry about that!)

Getting to combine theatre tech with this longstanding fascination is something I was looking forward to for weeks, so I am happy to report that when the day finally came, it somehow managed to surpass my already-high expectations.

Because Disney has some somewhat strict policies re: secrecy of backstage magic, there’s a limit to what I can share, but here’s a breakdown (sorta) of the day:
  • We started out at TDA (Team Disney Anaheim, a giant complex of what seemed to be primarily administrative buildings) and met our host, Jerry, who is an Entertainment Manager for Technical Services and whose history with the company goes back almost 25 years across a variety of roles! (We also discovered that I have photographic proof of having met him while he performed one of these roles in the late 90s, which was WILD, but due to Disney Magic reasons I’m not sure if I can share much more about that here, unfortunately…
  • We saw where the fireworks get shot off every night behind ToonTown--for the last 15 years or so, Disneyland has been using a somewhat unique technology to set off their fireworks which significantly reduces both the smoke and noise produced by the show. (If you’re at all interested in the history of their fireworks show and how they used to be set off, as well as how Disney pioneered the use of music synchronization with pyrotechnics, I highly recommend giving this podcast episode a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1DRHSCuqyI
  • We also saw where the parade floats are all kept when not “on-stage” and learned how audio gets distributed to (and from) them. (There were a number of Entertainment and Imagineering employees also gathered in the warehouse to test out a future parade addition, but that one is definitely going to need to stay a secret for now.)
  • The very first steps we took “on-stage” were somewhere most of us hadn’t had a chance to see yet: the brand-new Galaxy’s Edge expansion! It was gorgeous, the complexity of the audio alone was kind of mind-blowing, it really contributes a lot to the storytelling the land is able to pull off. I got to talk to a Stormtrooper who snuck up on me and accused me of having Rebel sympathies (and who, we learned, uses a crazy sophisticated system to talk to people in a way that allows them to personalize every single interaction while keeping a consistent voice, more Disney magic I probably shouldn’t divulge here) AND try the infamous Blue Milk. (It was $8, VERY sweet, and had a texture that turned out to be deeply polarizing among those who sampled it.) 
Backstage photos at Disney are very against the rules, so this is, unfortunately,
one of the few photos we have from the day. At least we look very cool in it?
  • We visited the venue for Mickey’s Magical Map in the large outdoor Fantasyland Theatre venue (which, fun fact, initially started out as a teen night club in the 1980s, more info on that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqgJ0N99eGg) and got to take a peek into the booth of the theatre before watching the show, chatting a bit with the show’s audio technician and stage manager. It was a good show, but because of the noise of the nearby passing train and our lovely VIP seats (which had our backs against a pretty reflective wall) the overall mix of the show was pretty loud. It took us a minute to recover. (I personally loved watching the little kids get totally enthralled in the action onstage, though.)
Waiting for the show to start! (I think? I am just now noticing that Garrett and
Jack are very focused on something up front...)
  • Lunch! We took a break from walking around the park, and grabbed a bite backstage at one of the Cast Member eateries backstage.
  • AUDIO CENTRAL. Okay, again, not sure how much I can divulge here, but the bulk of the audio for the park (especially for parades and other outdoor shows, area music, etc.) is controlled from one very fancy room sitting right above one of the guest-accessible levels of a Main Street, USA building. And when I say fancy, I mean that it sort of resembled a TV show art director’s idea of what a theme park command center might look like--shades all drawn, two people behind glass at giant control desks with many monitors flashing different numbers and graphs, a wall of video feeds and light-up maps of both Disneyland and Disney’s Californa Adventure…et cetera. (I just found an old Disney Parks Blog post about Audio Central that is relevant here, though it is 5 years old and they have since doubled the size of the facility and apparently updated a ton of the gear. Check it out: https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2014/03/behind-the-sounds-inside-audio-central-at-disney-california-adventure-park/)
  • Backstage at Frozen in the Hyperion Theatre in Disney’s California Adventure! Because it was a “dark day,” we did not get to see any action happening, but it did mean that we got to walk around the entire theatre without worrying about a huge time crunch. We saw the set-pieces and crazy costumes backstage (sidenote: the troll costumes are TERRIFYING without any actors inside of them), learned how some of their very intense automated lighting tracking worked, and walked all around the house of the theatre--clapping and marveling at how remarkably acoustically dead of a space the designers of the theater managed to make.
  • Finally, we got back to Disneyland and walked through the park to see parts of the Christmas parade that was running at the time. It was pretty neat to see in action all of the technical elements we had even learning about all day, and a nice way to put a bow on the end of the day.
This blog post is now approximately 4 times longer than I was told it should be, so I’m going to go ahead and wrap things up now. TL:DR? Theme parks are very cool and very technologically complicated! And we got to go learn about it for a day!

I leave you now with a photo of these two outrageously photogenic Disneyland ducks:

It's amazing how advanced Disney's Audio-Animatronic tech
has gotten over the years!

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