The engineering director who helps make the magic happen shares how Disney uses enterprise technology in its attractions―and how working in aerospace has served him well.
When people visit Disney parks, one thing they’re sure to appreciate but likely know little about is the degree to which enterprise technology plays a role in making the guest experience so thrilling and immersive. Technologically advanced attractions like Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and other popular Disney theme park experiences are original designs using edge computing, powerful hardware, advanced robotics and control systems, and much more.
We spoke with Michael Tschanz, director of engineering technology and analysis at Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise customer, to discuss what goes into bringing Disney attractions to life. Tschanz and his team run engineering technology and analysis for all parks around the globe, so if it involves engineering technology, Tschanz likely helps support it. And when it comes to edge compute, HPE, as the official server of Walt Disney World Resort, is excited to support Tschanz in his work.
To start, how have things changed over the past few years for Disney from a technology standpoint?
We combine Disney storytelling with some of the latest and groundbreaking advancements in technology. These have always been, and will continue to be, some of the ways we create the most immersive and magical experiences possible for our Guests. We have quite a bit of computer hardware, which goes all the way back to the days when we did early designs of attractions that were based on digital data flowing to a particular show or attraction.
When you think of a place like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, for example, and everything that goes on there, there’s a lot. There’s lighting control, lots of different show items, advanced robotics and control systems—and all of these different things have to come together in a way to create this ubiquitous experience, in a way that keeps the storyline real. To create these experiences, the technology has had to advance over the years. And it’s important that we have servers that can handle processing that volume of data. HPE provides servers that process data at the edge.
Can you tell us about a tool you use in your position to help keep attractions running smoothly?
Our goal at Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, is to provide each Guest with the most immersive experience possible so that our Guests become part of the story. We’re always bringing in new methods and new processes to understand exactly what’s happening in our attractions. We bring in large volumes of data to inform us of the state of our attractions, but bringing in that data can sometimes be challenging because of how much there is. Edge computing helps us overcome this challenge.
How important is edge compute?
Edge compute is one of the main pieces that lets us connect to that data stream I mentioned. When we have everything interconnected, we are able to create these more engaging, immersive experiences. But all these pieces have to work together. That means edge computing is absolutely one of the primary pieces of that pipeline enabling us to manage data.
With edge computing, there’s often a discussion about whether you should be doing more in the cloud, or doing things more locally. What we’ve come to understand is it’s not just about doing one or the other; it’s about a hybrid way of doing things. It’s managing which application or solution works best. Does it work best in the cloud? Or does it work best in a local location as far as an edge computing solution? And you need to make that decision based on good, sound business judgment.
Another question is, what’s the best way to run that data? Is it better to leverage a whole bunch of cores in a cloud perspective, or keep it focused at that edge computing space? Because if you need it, you need it now and you need it real time—and you need to think about that. You can’t just have one blanket solution. Working together and keeping those parts together allows everything to work, and edge computing is absolutely a very important part of that overall compute solution.
Can you talk about a technology that you either recently adopted or created that helps your team support Disney Parks attractions?
There’s a number of them. Take our simulation engine and our simulation architectures. They are one of the ways that support how we develop long-term growth and how we build things. Plus, they help reduce costs and contribute to a faster time to market for new attractions and experiences.
There’s a big push in the world, and not just in what we’re doing but for any company that does things for simulation-based products or model-based designs. This is how all the new aerospace, spacecraft, and everything in between is being developed now. You can’t land a booster in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without doing design and development of this type. I was doing it back in aerospace when I was at Texas Instruments in the early ’90s.
You’ve got to think about how to build something in a space virtually before you actually put it together, because if you don’t, then you’re going to end up building something that doesn’t meet the necessary requirements. Or, in our space for Disney, it may not meet our creative intent. If we’re able to build in a virtual space, the digital pipeline shows how it’s going to function with really rigorous engineering, physics, and math behind it. Then, when we build it, it’s going to look like what we expected from the beginning.
We have been working for some time to build that simulation and model-based design pipeline, and it takes a lot of processing power to do that. So, going back to edge compute, we need a lot of edge processing power. It affects how we think about sharing it with the cloud, too. Sometimes we need those answers right away. Overall, I would say that the simulation engine that we’ve built to help design our attractions has been one of the most significant leaps forward that our team has done.
We talked about edge technology and other industries. Will edge technology grow in importance for you in the coming years?
Absolutely. And this whole conversation—and thinking about how things either run on the edge or in the cloud—makes me think about discussions that were taking place back in the mid-’90s, like having terminals as opposed to a computer desktop capability or something that ran in a data center. These discussions around technology have been around for decades.
As this played out, what we’ve learned overall as technologists is that there’s never a perfect case. There’s always going to be a local requirement to run a very high, compute-intensive application or process other data locally. There’s never going to be enough bandwidth, and there’s never going to be a use case that’s 100 percent cloud-based or 100 percent edge-based.
Again, it comes down to looking at the business decision and what makes the most sense. And I think people are now reconsidering other options as opposed to when there was a prevailing wisdom that we would push everything to the cloud. When we did that, people were looking at things like high-performance image processing, audio processing, or high-data-rate things, and they quickly realized that you couldn’t really do those kinds of use cases in the cloud in real time. That’s where edge processing almost always comes in, because there will only be so much bandwidth that you can ever work with to be able to manage things outside of the edge.
Finally, talk a little bit about Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. What makes that attraction so immersive?
Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is one of the most ambitious, advanced, and immersive experiences in Disney history. The attraction uses multiple ride systems working together to create a seamless story on a cinematic scale. It’s so hard to describe, but it’s one of the most engaging, wonderful experiences you can ever have. It’s a groundbreaking attraction that places you in the middle of a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance, including a faceoff with Kylo Ren. The journey takes you aboard a full-size transport shuttle and then into a nearby Star Destroyer on a thrilling adventure that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. People are genuinely moved by it. Especially if you are a Star Wars aficionado or someone that holds that storyline so close to your heart, because you’re playing out a genuine part of the Star Wars storyline, from beginning to end. I think everybody should get a chance to enjoy it, because it creates exactly what everyone always wants: to be able to step into the films and be immersed with the characters and storylines, just like if we were part of the film itself—none of which could happen without so much of the technology we’ve been talking about.