Tourists crowding onto Walt Disney World's new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction this week in Florida got a glimpse of a new direction for theme parks looking to upgrade old technology.
Walt Disney Co. has removed classic attractions such as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and Snow White's Scary Adventures — with their creaky electric vehicles, decades-old mechanical figurines and glowing, painted backdrops — from the Fantasyland area in the Magic Kingdom park in Orlando.
In their place it built the mine train, an entirely new ride system that combines elements of a roller coaster and the classic themed dark rides, with audio-animatronic figures considered the most lifelike in the industry. Nearby, similar animatronic technology brings to life Lumiere, the candlestick character from "Beauty and the Beast," in the new Enchanted Tales With Belle attraction.
This is part of a drive by theme parks to keep their attractions relevant in an age when video game graphics have outpaced anything Walt Disney imagined decades ago. At the same time, the parks can't rely only on stomach-churning thrill rides. They need rides that appeal to children, parents and grandparents, who often travel together to the parks.
Elements of the new technology are making their way into Disney's Anaheim parks and can be seen in the faces of the characters of the Radiator Springs Racers attraction in California Adventure.
Disney will use it "where it fits with the story we want to tell," said Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the arm of the company that designs and builds its attractions. He declined to talk about specific future projects.
The Florida ride looks to appeal to a broad cross-section of park visitors, he said.
"We wanted to create a family experience that would bring to life the dwarfs in a way that we could not have done before," Vaughn said. "Snow White has a deep history with the company, and we didn't want to lose that."
Released in 1937, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was the company's first feature-length film, and the story has played a central role in Disney theme parks.
Across town, rival park operator Universal Studios Florida plans to open its Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts ride this summer. The attraction combines elements of a coaster, elaborate sets, 3-D film and special effects. Although it's expected to be more intense than Disney's mine train, it also is aimed at families.
"Family rides are particularly important in this day and age," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., an industry consulting firm in Cincinnati. "They get great reception no matter where they are.... They tell a story, and the guests like to repeat, because you can't absorb it all on the first ride."
Disney's mine train attraction was built on part of the location once occupied by the Magic Kingdom's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, a ride that closed 20 years ago. Disney called the new ride the centerpiece of a massive refurbishment and expansion of the Fantasyland section of the park.
The attraction is built into a wooded hill, evocative of the mine entrance in the animated film. The line snakes into the hill where a long queue provides activities for parkgoers as they wait for the three-minute ride. During the first few days, waits lasted up to two hours.
Mindful of how phone-based games such as "Bejeweled" and "Candy Crush Saga" keep people occupied, Disney designers incorporated a jewel-matching video game in one section of the line.
By swiping across screens embedded in faux water troughs, guests can hunt and sort the types of gems they will see the dwarfs mining. Later in the line, guests can pass their hands under wooden water spigots, carved as animal heads, to trigger musical notes that can be blended into a song from the Snow White film. Another area enables visitors to spin wooden-looking barrels to make images of each dwarf appear. Guests working together can get enough barrels spinning to generate the big payoff — an image of Snow White.
They then board a roller coaster train designed to look like a string of mine cars. But unlike a typical coaster, each of the cars swings back and forth as the train zips through curves on the track. At one point there is a sudden, 40 foot drop.
The system, which Disney developed in conjunction with Vekoma Rides Manufacturing, a Dutch coaster company, is smooth and quiet. The designers have engineered out the traditional clicketyclack and vibration that characterizes coasters. This lets the riders to experience the music from the film classic and scenes filled with Snow White, the seven dwarfs and forest critters on the ride.
After zipping at speeds of about 30 miles per hour through the hillside, the train slows and enters the cavern where the dwarfs are mining jewels. There, riders see a new generation of audio-animatronic figures. The faces contain an internal projection system that enables Disney to better replicate the faces and expressions that viewers are familiar with from the Snow White film.
Vaughn said the projection technology allowed the designers to mate the distinct personality of each dwarf with his facial expressions.
Such advances enable new rides to make better use of projection, new forms of robotics and materials, he said.
"All of this comes together to bring to life characters that people know so well," Vaughn said.
This type of technology is needed in ride development because an audience conditioned by three-dimensional films, elaborate special effects and detailed video games expects an interactive experience, Vaughn said.
Disney plans to use the projection system that animates the faces of the dwarfs in one project in Anaheim's Disneyland, said Jim Hill, a contributor to the "Unofficial Guide, Walt Disney World 2014" who writes frequently about theme parks.
"Going forward, this will be how Disney tries to do characters in dark rides," Hill said. "When they bring the Alice in Wonderland ride back online at Disneyland later this year, you will see the projected face in the Red Queen figure."
Hill liked Disney's mine train ride.
"It is a clever system," he said. "What other company would reach back to a film released almost 80 years to build a ride? This is not something that was five minutes ago."