The Future Begins October 1st 1982

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

The Future Begins October 1st 1982

(But It Has To All Work The Week Before)

Last time we spoke of Art Frohwerk and engineering at WED Enterprises and how they came together with only two years time to engineer what would become the world's largest private construction project. In those two years, some $800 million would be invested in opening EPCOT Center.

For Walt Disney Productions, this was the riskiest venture since the passing of Walt and his brother Roy. Particularly important was the fact that this was not only Disney's third park, but it was completely unlike its two Magic Kingdom predecessors. The technology and methods used to build EPCOT were totally new and were planned to be used 6 months later Tokyo in the first Disney theme park built outside of the US.

One of the things that made EPCOT Center so challenging was that it was the most technologically advanced projects ever designed. As Card Walker outlined in an address to the Urban Land Institute on October 5, 1976, EPCOT was to be a "demonstration and proving ground for prototype concepts... constantly testing and demonstrating practical applications of new concepts, ideas, and emerging technology from creative centers around the world."

No attraction was more at the center of this technological challenge than Spaceship Earth. There was much beyond the gleam of this 18-story geosphere inspired in part by Buckminster Fuller, and designed with the help of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. It was the inside that counted. To understand how revolutionary the technology within these attractions was, remember that these were the days of The Bell System. This was before AT&T was in divestiture of its regional operating companies. No one was using cell phones, fiber optics was just beginning limited production, CDs were a leading-edge product, the original Apple I computer had only just been made available and we were light years from an iPhone.

Today we think nothing of going online to Orbitz and making an plane or hotel reservation, but the idea of doing so virtually did not occur until Earth Station was opened at the exit to Spaceship Earth. Add to that a complex audio animatronics show, Smellitzers, fiber optic communications, as well as complex lighting and sound systems, and you had a tall order.

Speaking of tall orders—almost all of this technology was to be stacked on top of each other in an 18-story building with an auger-like helix formation with both an upward and downward spiral.

Consider for a moment Spaceship Earth's ride system—Omnimover technology made its introduction nearly 20 years earlier in Progressland at the New York World's Fair. It went on to prove itself in attractions such as the Haunted Mansion, Monsanto's Adventure Through Inner Space and If You Had Wings, presented by Eastern Airlines. One might assume that there was nothing much to making it part of Spaceship Earth. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Omnimovers work great when you're going along a horizontal plane, or even when there is a light incline such as the staircase in the Haunted Mansion. The system could handle about 20 degrees of angle, or one story of elevation change; but going back down from the top of the geosphere, riders would be heading down at a little under 40 degrees of angle. With 16 stories of ride elevation change and that much of an incline going down, Art and the mechanical engineering team had stresses they'd never had to deal with before. The vehicles were designed to be heavy so that when you added riders the differential wasn't as great; to compensate for the weight, extra in-track spring-loaded drive wheels were added to run along the steel platens that were mounted on the bottom of the ride vehicles, this gave it a structure for controlling the traction. Each vehicle was linked by a chain, and there were challenges in controlling and balancing the up and down vectors of force.

The result was that the little wheels on the vehicles that held them on the track and the big drive wheels mounted in the track pathway were wearing and tearing themselves up. On top of this the chains linking the vehicles were breaking and wearing out. Humidity was creating slippage on the drive platens. With angles Imagineers had never had to deal with, it was a very long process of learning to model, measure, and test, while under the pressure of opening day. Normally the Imagineers would test new concepts like this on a test track back at the Imagineering campus in Glendale, California or in the North Shop Area at WDW, but this was thought of as "just another Omnimover," so why bother.

Additionally, Imagineers wanted sound delivered to each vehicle individually. The intent was to have Vic Perrin's narration come on as you entered each scene—but they couldn't just put a CD player on board each vehicle, the technology had not yet become reliable or remote controllable and MP3 players were still a gleam in someone's eye. What was used was an infrared light data transmission system developed by Sennheisser of Germany to convey the audio from alongside the track and trigger it onto a receiver onboard the vehicle when it came 'into view' of a scene. Videodiscs and some solid-state audio was employed throughout to provide the sound source fed to the track-side transmitters. Infrared was new and it was set close to the ride vehicle system to ensure its accuracy for each scene.

Crews going up and down along the track, checking on the ride vehicles, replacing wheels, prying the chain links apart to replace bearings and cleaning the platens were stepping on the sound system all the time, often not realizing the damage they were doing. The sound engineers weren't sure what the problem was—new IR technology, data transmission, distributed stitching from the centralized source, or something unknown.

As I mentioned in the previous article, there were also the "invisible issues." Previously, the engineers worked with artists and story men, now these same engineers turned to construction crews as well as Disney's own MAPO Shop (named for Mary Poppins), which acted as Disney's manufacturing and production unit. Add to that was the necessity of turning it over to Walt Disney World Operations and Maintenance, who had never seen this voodoo technology—they were used to relays, switches, and tape players.

During this time, the president of all of Walt Disney attractions was none other than legendary Dick Nunis. When Art was flying out to California as a new cast member, he met Dick unexpectedly. Sitting in first class, Art struck up a conversation with the passenger seated next to him. Art was eager to share the exciting things that were happening with his new employer and about an amazing new park known as EPCOT Center. A distinguished-looking white-haired man turned around in the seat in front of him and asked if Art worked at Disney—it was no other than Dick himself. Fortunately Art had said the right things so the first impression was a fair one.

Dick was at EPCOT Center throughout the construction, installation, and start-up process. Each day the key leaders met with him for an on-site progress report, Art attended via radio as "Engineering 1." In these sessions, Art was quick to observe who was surviving and who was crumbling. Dick held everyone's feet to the fire—those who promised the world and then didn't deliver would often walk out feeling like their skin was peeled off. These sessions became even more intense as October 1 opening date neared.

The "If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It" motto became real. Art learned to come to the sessions ready to listen to concerns, be open to ideas, suggest alternative solutions, but mostly to make commitments, and address the realities. This earned him the respect he needed to get from Dick and the other key leaders. It also allowed him to get favors when he needed it most.

One such favor came just a week prior to opening. There was a lot of stress among those who were laboring over Spaceship Earth, but several attractions had challenges incorporating the technology. Art was involved in overseeing them all. Many engineers and technicians were doing amazing work debugging the last minute details of these large-scale integrated systems.

The pressure was on as never before. Engineering 1 (Art) was called on the radio one afternoon and was asked to come to the south end of Spaceship Earth. There the executives met to talk about about the impossible conditions of Spaceship Earth. Testing and demo work was still going on, there were too many loose ends, nothing seemed to work at the same time. Art was informed that the AT&T sponsor was coming in at 10 a.m. the next day and wanted to ride the attraction. Art was asked to give it his personal attention since the lead ride engineer assigned to the attraction was burned-out.

Art started talking to every one of the various team members involved to figure out what was going to make it work quickly and reliably. The engineers were under an amazing amount of stress—Art discovered that the engineer responsible for the audio had had a nervous breakdown. This individual held technical knowledge that no one else had. Art asked one of the other show designers to help him out. Seeing that they were going to labor all night to make this happen, Art made a call to Dick's office and asked for a favor—could he have the kitchens provide enough cheeseburgers, fries and drinks to get them through the evening—delivered at 1:00 a.m.?

Late into the evening, everyone was focused on getting the show up and running. Art walked up and down the ride talking to the crews. The problem wasn't whether anything would work, it was whether anything would work at the same time. Animation people were busily costuming show figures, lighting was still being set, show designers were giving last minute directives and mechanical techs were crawling all over the track and taking apart the drive system to replace parts.

Then 1:00 a.m. came and there were all these cheeseburgers, drinks and fries. Soon it looked like a picnic up and down all 18 floors of the ride corridor. Contractors who were never treated to much of anything were talking about this as being the place to be. Mechanics were relaxing and joking for the first time in weeks. The audio engineer came in and seemed to have a smile, if just for a minute.

By 9:00 a.m. the next morning, the ride was up and running. The sponsor arrived 15 minutes early and boarded the ride. Past the Pharaoh, under the Sistine Chapel, and into outer space—it worked beautifully. The team had succeeded under pressure.

Through it, Art learned two things about deadlines:

First, often the best solutions will come when you care more for the attitudes, not just the technology. Learn how to take breaks and create the conditions for new conversations. Individuals alone can bang their heads against the wall. Invest your thinking, concerns, and challenges with changing the emotional energy. Fresh perspectives will help you see solutions you can't see alone.

Second, be open to alternatives and other ideas/insights. Be sure to remove the barriers others are experiencing. That may consist in providing the tools and resources they need. But it may also be simply someone they can vent to. A leader's role is not to dictate what should happen, but rather act as the support for making it happen. That may be providing something as simple as cheeseburgers, but it can make all the difference in the world.

Having met the deadline, how well did Spaceship Earth and the other attractions operate once the park met its opening day visitors? We'll find the answers to that in our next article that looks at the challenges faced in those first weeks of operation.

Meanwhile, take the time to make the magic in your own business—even if that magic has a deadline behind it.