Published in March 2006

Disney's Imagination: A History Part 1
By David Hatmaker

Disney’s staffers have been stretching technological boundaries for decades.

Editor’s Note: Few in the entertainment segment of our industry have the legacy, to say the least, of the Disney organization. In light of our theme this month—Theme Parks and Attractions—we asked members of the Disney creative staff to offer up a bit of the company’s history as it applies to the use of AV (audio, video and lighting) technology at the parks, most notably Disneyland, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary the same month as Sound & Communications celebrated ours (see our May 2005 issue). This multi-part look back provides insight into how our industry has evolved, and where it is going.

     Although many of us in our industry look forward constantly, our 50th Anniversary at Disneyland has prompted a number of us to fondly look back on our rich history of live entertainment. In order to understand the technological journey that has taken place in Disneyland live entertainment over the last 50 years, it may help to know how it all began.
     When Disneyland first opened in 1955, all technical support elements, including live entertainment, came under the jurisdiction of a department called the Sound Shop. As the years progressed and live entertainment became more important to the Park, an Entertainment Department was created. The Sound Shop was split into two different departments. The first, retaining the name of Sound Shop, was responsible for maintaining all technical elements for our attractions. The second, now named Technical Services, became responsible for the technical portion of live entertainment.

Originally covered with orange groves and comprised of parcels of land owned by 17 different people, Walt Disney purchased 160 acres in Anaheim to build his dream of a place where parents and children could have fun—together.

     At that time (the late 1970s), the department had fewer than 40 technicians, most of whom were part-time. We now employ almost 300 techs, many of whom are full-time. Our techs are members of IATSE 504, which is a Mixed-Craft Local. These technicians have shepherded the Disneyland Resort through a period of expansion unprecedented in our history. Technical Services now acts as a fully functional production unit, engaged in development, design, installation, operation, maintenance and removal of Projects, Shows and Special Events. We also perform design and development for our Parades.
     In looking back, it’s evident that the first 20 years of our history were fairly uneventful, in that live, large-scale entertainment generally was not a large component of the Park, so we have concentrated on those shows or events that have represented true paradigm shifts in equipment or philosophy.
     Our first major leap forward was with the opening of the Electrical Parade in 1972. That was followed by another leap with the opening of the Videopolis nightclub in 1985. The ‘90s marked a major period of advancement with the opening of Fantasmic! (a nighttime effects spectacular) in 1992, Festival of Fools (a large show based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1996 and Light Magic (an effects-driven parade) in 1997. You will see numerous references to those shows throughout our discussion.
     The new millennium finds us stretching technological boundaries with the Hyperion Theatre (opened in 2001), Aladdin (a large show that opened in 2002, based on the film of the same name) and our three newest Entertainment offerings: Remember, Dreams Come True (a pyrotechnics spectacular), Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams (an extravagant parade at Disneyland) and Block Party Bash (a high-energy, interactive parade at Disney’s California Adventure). These projects incorporate a variety of off-the-shelf and proprietary technologies to support our stories.

Walt Disney unveils his plans for Disneyland to a national television audience during the premiere of Disneyland, the television show, October 27, 1954. He’s standing in front of an early rendering by Disney legend Peter Ellenshaw.

     When I began my Disney career in 1987, we had a large inventory of “custom” speaker boxes, amps, crossovers and EQs. For each show or event, we would go to the warehouse and put together a system. We would pull out some subs, low-end boxes, stack on the raw horns, then build our amp racks up. We’d set it all up and test it, then tear it down and load it on a truck. When we were setting up for our shows, we would use a cassette tape recorded from our home turntables, or some of us had CD players and CDs. We would tune our rigs by ear! Steely Dan’s Babylon Sister would make the setup crew crazy. (The first eight bars does get old after awhile.)

Setups Went Faster
     Shortly after I arrived, we purchased a 2"x15" concert rig, with horn in one box. We packaged our amps in two racks so we could easily put out two boxes and subs or four boxes and subs per side. Our setups went much faster. I was able to talk our senior audio engineer/designer into listening to a new speaker from Meyer Sound in Berkeley CA: the UPA-1. I was familiar with this box after using it for the Crystal Cathedral’s The Glory of Christmas. He loved it and we bought 30 units and amps. We became heroic with our show directors!
     One other trick we used at the Crystal Cathedral was forehead micing with Sennheiser MKE2s. A lot of the stage shows at Disneyland were using bigger lavs (Audio-Technica AT831) sewn into costumes, or floor mics “mouse mics”/PZMs. I was able to convince one of our show directors (and technical director) to let me try putting a small omni lav (I think I was able to borrow a Tram because it could be plugged into a Vega VHF pack) into one actress’ wig. There was an immediate paradigm shift: smaller, better-sounding speakers and omni lavs on actors’ faces. We moved the bar way up in themed entertainment and never looked back!
     One day, Meyer Sound’s Bob McCarthy came to Disney to show the SIMM System II. He brought this box to Glendale to show the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) AV department as well as a few of us from Disneyland. It was a real-time FFT analyzer that can “see” into the air. We embraced this technology immediately and were able to quantify our in-park audio systems to elevate them another step. We could find “tired” or non-functioning components quickly.
     Some years later, Sam Berkow showed us SMAART V1 running on a laptop and a small Soundcraft con- sole…another real-time FFT analyzer—on a laptop! Well, in addition to listening to our audio systems with Steely Dan CDs, we began tuning every system we sent out with either SIMM or SMAART. We wanted consistency throughout the park. The Music Department loved what we were doing! No matter what speaker boxes we were using, our systems began having a unified “Disneyland” sound. From venue to venue, show to show, our audio systems were better sounding, more consistent, offered higher quality for our guests and were easier for our mixers to train on.

Original Electrical Parade
     Here’s a bit of fun looking back. I was able to talk with (and work with) guys who had originally set up the Disneyland Electrical Parade (perhaps the most viewed parade in history). When it originally debuted in 1972, the parade had the first show-control system in existence. A Berkey Colortran “computerized” lighting console, if I recall correctly, was used to trigger audio, lighting and machinery to operate the parade. One of our sound-shop technicians figured out that the console’s control output of 0-10V could be configured to control some ITC radio-station VCAs, two of which were available per each parade zone. In front of the VCAs was a custom Disneyland router controlled by the console’s “non-dim” outputs.
     The Disneyland parade route is about 2000 feet long and is divided into multiple zones, each ranging from 70 to 100 feet long. In each zone, music can be sourced to move as each parade float enters or exits that zone. The source available to each zone was from one of six available cart machines (triggered from the Colortran) that would play pre-show announcements, etc., and program audio from one of two 16-track analog tape machines (a primary Studer and a backup Ampex) using 12-inch reels of two-inch tape running 15ips (no noise reduction). There was also a TASCAM four-track that could be hard patched into the system and operated manually as a last-ditch backup. The speakers were custom 70V two-way 12-inchers powered by Crown 70V amps that performed admirably for a number of years.
     The difference between our parade route(s) then and now is like night and day. Both parks feature LCS routers/mixers with proprietary show-control software (DECS: Disney Entertainment Control System), various digital playback devices and IQ-controlled Crown amplifiers. Disneyland speaker systems include EAW custom passive KF-300WP and Disneyland-designed subwoofers. Disney’s California Adventure speakers include biamped EAW KF-300WP, AS-300, UB-82, SB-1000, SB-250 and custom WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering) concrete in-ground subwoofers.

This Disneyland classic premiered June 17, 1972. The parade featured one-half million tiny lights on floats themed mostly around classic Disney films. Renamed “Disney’s Electrical Parade,” this beloved tradition is now featured at Disney’s California Adventure during the Summer.

     Fantasmic! had some interesting firsts. This was the first project we created that would attempt to intertwine audio with lighting, gas, smoke, pyro, film projection and water, not to mention 60 performers. The audio system was huge! We used a lot of EAW KF850s, KF600, KF300, SB850, SB1000, Crest/Nexus-controlled amplifiers, and Meyer Sound UPA-1As, and CQ-2s. Version 1 of our audio control had a proprietary DECS computer-scripting cue controller, a Synthesis controlling router and audio/video sourced from two jam-synced (black burst synced) Pioneer laserdisc players.
    Four audio tracks were taken from one machine and four more from the other. Only one video source was taken, and the other was a redundant backup. There was not an audio console in the system path. We found that the show ran great this way, and was consistent night to night. But, when we wanted to use the system for special events going through Synthesis to set levels, it was not very fast. A mixer was added to the path to help speed up our special events. Subsequent iterations have seen Synthesis going away and Peavey MediaMatrix being installed. In its current form, LCS is installed as the router/mixer/EQ and some audio movements have been put in using space maps. LCS wild tracks are now the playback medium.
     The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Festival of Fools was a large-scale show that signaled a dramatic paradigm shift for our live-entertainment product. When the production team pitched the idea, we (the design team) thought, “Wow! This can be done with a lot of time and planning.” As it turned out, we had only six months to design, purchase, install and rehearse a show that had barely been story- boarded.
     The show director said he was looking for “theater in the round and theater around you” in the 2½-acre performance arena. Actors would have to be sourced so the audience would know where the cast members were on the stage. I knew that none of the traditional consoles we had would fit the bill. As fate would have it, one week prior to learning about the Festival of Fools, I had been given a “non-disclosure” viewing of a new Yamaha console: the 02R.
     We created a performance space consisting of six zones into which we could “steer” audio sources or actors. Each zone had roughly the same complement of speakers that were tuned with a SIMM II system to ensure that they were frequency- and level-accurate, zone to zone. The Disney Music Department brought several ADAT machines to the venue and we “posted” the show through the sound system. The 02R took the sources (two ADAT tape playback devices: 16 channels plus 16 RF mics) and routed the various actors’ mics around the stage. The FOH engineer would mix on a Yamaha PM3500 analog console with the channel direct outs being fed to the 02R. The ADAT machines would supply SMPTE to the 02R so we had frame-accurate mixing of the tape tracks as well as microphone routing. It sounds so simple now!
     It was the first 02R shipped with Studio Manager V1 for Mac only (our IS department had just said we could no longer purchase Macs). We (or anyone else as far as I know) had never used recallable program changes, et. al., dynamic automation in a live show! We were also the first to install the Crest CKS series amplifiers, as well as the first install for the Shure UHF series wireless. This show was an excellent example of us being on the leading edge of emerging and “pre-emerging” technologies.

(Left) Amp room at Fantasyland Theatre in 1997. (Right) Technicians installing EAW KF861 line arrays at Fantasyland Theatre in 1997.

The First ‘Dark Theater’
     Early in the planning phase of our newest Disneyland Resort theme park (Disney’s California Adventure—DCA), Walt Disney Imagineering invited Disneyland Entertainment to participate in the design of the company’s first “dark theater,” which was to be a jewel at the resort. It was being planned to house 2000 seats, to stage two shows at any one time, to be able to show major motion pictures and to be used for special “hard-ticket” special events. The Resort got all of those desires and more.
     The Hyperion Theater has received rave reviews from critics and entertainment peers, as well as the many guests who have witnessed our many stage shows. It features a left/center/right audio system that is controlled by a 120-channel Yamaha PM1D (the first installation for this line of consoles). The acoustics in the theater are “dead as a doornail,” with no measurable RT60. Environmental space can be added via a matrix of ceiling-mounted microphones and surround speakers. Currently, Aladdin the Musical is playing on stage with 28 mics in use for the 40-minute stage show. [Editor’s Note: Sound & Communications featured the Hyperion Theater installation in our September 2001 issue.]
     Shortly after DCA opened, we were tasked with bringing the streets of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot (one of DCA’s “lands”) to life. The design team wanted many tech elements to be included in what was to be called “Streetmosphere,” but did not want to see (or build) technician mix locations. We went to work to integrate wireless control with existing hardware. What we came up with was an AMX wireless controller controlling mixers such as the Yamaha 01V96, Roland AR200s, minidisk players as well as triggering show automation elements and lighting. The AMX coding is done in-house and includes serial interfaces as well as MIDI and switches. Today, the operator holds an AMX touchscreen (about the size of a novel), and can stand inconspicuously among the guests and “mix” or control the show. This is now the standard of how we set up atmosphere shows at the Resort.

Another Paradigm Shift
     This past year brought us another paradigm shift. The “Block Party Bash” features 80 dancers and the Pixar characters in a high-energy, interactive parade, driven by a dynamic pop soundtrack. Previously, our parade floats had 24VDC amplifiers providing power to various speakers hidden by art pieces. This new higher-energy show required more volume and punch. The new Meyer Sound M1D was mocked up on a test float/battery rig. It ran at full-tilt pink noise for 12 hours off the available inverted battery system.
     The M1Ds were employed in clusters of two with approximately eight units on each float. Various conventional non-powered subwoofers were used for extended low end (600HPs were not available at install time). Crown 8810 processors are installed on each float for mixing, EQing and system control. Additionally, the six floats were linked via a Wireless G network to make the rehearsal process easier.
     The electronics are not accessible when the floats are in show mode, with 80 dancers and dozens of characters careening on and off the various set pieces. Typically, in the past, we would be forced to wait until the end of the rehearsal to make any changes to the system. Now, changes could be made in real time, and the Production Team could then A/B the change to approve it.
     As far as what is in store for us, I think that the future of audio at the Disneyland Resort is all about envelopment and interactivity. It would be cool if each guest could somehow hear our shows his own way: a little louder for some and, perhaps, a little softer for others. I still hope that, some day, someone will invent the “reverb eliminator,” an intelligent omni lav mic that doesn’t feed back, and auto-fixes pitch or an array of speakers that I can dial in the amount of throw, then, die off at 60dB per foot.
     Coming up: Chuck Davis, senior technical director, Disneyland Resort Entertainment Productions, will detail the evolution of video in Disneyland live entertainment, and KC Wilkerson, technical director, Disneyland Resort Entertainment Productions, will cov-er live show lighting.

David Hatmaker, technical director, Disneyland Resort Entertainment Productions, began his audio career while attending Oxnard (CA) High School, when he founded Trinity Sound Works, a regional sound company. He attended California State University Long Beach, receiving a BA in music, and then worked as an audio technician/mixer for Knott’s Berry Farm and The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Beginning his Disney career in 1987 as a mixer at the Tomorrowland “Coke” Terrace, Hatmaker has provided audio designs for various stage shows and special events. He is a member of AES and NAMM.

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