The Magic Behind the Scenes Aboard the Disney Fantasy

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

The Disney Fantasy set sail on its maiden voyage just this past March, although the order for the construction of the latest in Disney Cruise Line's fleet began back in 2007 in a shipyard in Germany.

Putting together a cruise ship takes a lot more than welding steel, however. And for the people behind the scenes at Walt Disney Imagineering, the seamless cruise experience was years in the making. The massive floating resort uses advanced technology, logistical wizardry, and creative problem-solving to make the ship the wonder that it is.

The "imagineering" of the ship started with its design, with space identified, reserved, and created to hold all of the behind-the-scenes equipment that controls much of the magic. For example, to ensure that everything is loaded onto the ship before its departure, warehouse spaces and management systems are designed for that the crew is immediately notified if anything might be running short. Imagineers also made sure there was enough storage space to hold sets and props for five stage shows, and that omputer software and hardware had enough processing power to animate a talking turtle, or bring the drawings made by 700 guest to life on the fly.

According to Joe Lanzisero, Senior Vice President of Creative for Walt Disney Imagineering, creating the space for the technology for the Animation Magic and Turtle Talk dinner shows at the Animator's Palate restaurant was probably one of the most complicated, technical spaces we've ever done.

"First, it had to be fitted out to allow the puppeteer to see the guests, hear the guests," Lanzisero said. "There are speakers and cameras hidden everywhere that the guests don't see, and then the technical systems for Animation Magic, which were all one-of-a-kind created by our software designers, our computer designers, again all seems invisible to the guests, and it just happens magically in front of their eyes, but if you remove one of those panels of the wall in there…."

There were many logistical complexities involved in creating the Animation Magic show, said Bob Zalk, Show Producer and Director for Walt Disney Imagineering. "That's why it took us about three years to do this show. It's a lot of very powerful software that we designed that enables us to tell... the magic of animation, but as well as just having a guest's character come to life and have a good time," he said. "We talk about this a lot; it's the Disney magic—but a lot of it is a really, really great team, really, really powerful software that can take a 2D image and 20 minutes later it's up there on the screen dancing."

Zalk emphasized the importance of having a very good team to work with in order for the show to succeed. "The challenge in the show, is it needs to be choreographed around dinner…. This [show], even though it's a dinner service, has a very distinct timing because there's two dining services," he said. "So especially for the first dining service, they need to turn that restaurant around for 700 people within 30 minutes, and so the show has to have a distinct beginning and end."

Zalk said the level of the planning of the show was so detailed that they even conducted user tests with the placemat system, where they would bring in various combinations of people—children, parents, families together—to see they would react to the placemat and pens. "We wanted to make it as intuitive as we could," Zalk said. "Then as we got deeper into the show, we realized ‘OK, you're in a 700-seat restaurant. We don't want your drawing to show up at the other corner of the restaurant, so we have to know where you're sitting.' And so that's a magical aspect of the show that we solved that was really actually—for me—one of the cooler aspects of it."

The technology, however, said Lanzisero, should never be apparent. "It shouldn't be guest-facing. It should be invisible," he said.

Despite that goal, though, sometimes it's hard to squeeze everything that you need into the available space. Designing the Walt Disney Theater for five stage productions each week posed an interesting challenge for the Imagineers.

"It is a puzzle, and we do rely a lot on special effects, projection, more immersive things; it's also important to us to try to differentiate the shows so that each experience feels a little bit unique," said Michael Jung, Vice President of Theatrical Development. "But that entire theater is such a gorgeous state-of-the-art venue. To be able to control the ceiling and the panels, that sort of glorious art deco flavor of the theater, but then to be able to transform it with a little bit of Disney magic to bring it alive and bring the performance out into the audience so it can be really immersive and interactive is kind of fun and unique."

Kevin Eld, Vice President of WDI Creative Entertainment added that it was important not to limit themselves during the idea phase. "I think the interesting thing is that as we start to develop these productions and we start to have new ideas, and we start to have crazy ideas about effects that we want to create, we never let ourselves be limited in our thinking by what we know of the other shows," he said. "So the starting point is, go for what you want and try to… put it in or build it in to this kind of theatrical Rubik's Cube that exists within the Walt Disney Theater."

While the theater posed a design puzzle, the storage of all of the sets and props provide yet another puzzle.

"I think probably the most obvious thing to talk about is the choreography of the scenery, particularly when we're changing from one production to another," said Eld. "Every centimeter is absolutely precious, and the choreography backstage for that is almost as impressive as the choreography onstage, to be quite frank."

Jim Urry, Vice President of Entertainment and Port Adventures praised the technicians. "Every night, they have to rotate the show out... Repertory theater has a huge amount of scenic elements. Storage downstairs is very tight, even though it's the largest back house of any stage of any ship afloat. It's still very tight, and so each night they spend two hours changing that whole space over for the next day, and it just happens over and over and over—so they're the unsung heroes," Urry said. "It's a great teamwork—between the cast, the techs, the rehearsal time in Toronto preparing for it—and just having the new rehearsal space in Toronto has allowed us to do a lot more preparation because the space is almost identical to the size of the stage in the theaters."

Supplying the ship with all of the necessities is also a challenge. According to Ozer Balli, Vice President of Hotel Operations, the cruise line orders all necessary food and supplies a week in advance. Once onboard, everything has its own locker or storage space, and is catalogued using scan technology so that the managers can immediately identify such data as the quantity, and location of every item in inventory, as well as when products are sold, so that empty shelves can be quickly restocked.

Cruise ship merchandise is part of the system well before it even lands on the ship. "We have a warehouse in Orlando that is halfway between the airport and the ship that we consolidate a lot of the goods that are going to be coming on the ship," said Balli. "We also stage all of our trucks coming on the ship, so it's all part of the planning, how we load the ship.

For example, if the ship arrives to port at 6:00 a.m., crews start loading within 30 minutes to an hour, and are done by 2:00 in the afternoon. This efficiency is combined with a priority list for what items get loaded off of the trucks. "We stage each one of those trucks in order of… if it's a perishable food, they go on first. If it's a dry goods they can be coming in late. If there's other supplies, general supplies, they are the last trucks," Balli said. The key, noted Balli, is the warehouse management system, which not only prioritizes the trucks in correct stages, but also coordinates two trucks at a time to maximize the use of the ship's two gates. If the two trucks are not carefully synchronized, this could delay the loading process. Balli said, however, that they have built a three-hour buffer into the system to address any delivery issues, since the ship doesn't sail until 5:00 p.m.

Even with everything working as designed, an Imagineer's work is never done. David Duffy, Creative Director of Entertainment and Port Adventures, noted how important it is to continue improving. "It is very important for us to see how our audience, or how our guests are reacting to the product, what's sparking with them, what's maybe not, is a section running too long, is a section running too short, is the music too contemporary, not contemporary enough, whatever the event may be, volume levels of the various shows around the ship, so it is absolutely a continuous improvement process," he said.

So while the technical magic behind the scenes creates a dreamy experience for Disney cruisers, the company is still always looking at ways to improve the experience.

For more interesting tidbits from the staff behind the magic, check out MouseStation Podcast episodes 445 (DCL President Karl Holz, Lanzisero, and Zalk) and 446 (Duffy, Urry, Eld, Jung, and Balli).