Disney finds "a whole new world" in WiFi-powered rides

Disney is using an industrial-strength 802.11 wireless network to power its Toy Story Mania! ride

Disney claims its first use of an 802.11 wireless network to operate an amusement park rides is a hit.

Disney is using an industrial-strength 802.11 wireless network to power its Toy Story Mania! ride, which opened last year at both Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif., and its Hollywood Studios in Orlando. Disney plans to open another Toy Story Mania! at its Tokyo Disneyland Resort.

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Disney's famed Imagineering team says Toy Story Mania! is the most high-tech ride they have ever built.

With Toy Story Mania!, riders board peanut-shaped vehicles that seat eight. They wear 3-D glasses and view 3-D images of the characters from the Toy Story movies. Riders pass five classic carnival games and use an onboard shooting device to throw pies, toss rings or otherwise interact in a virtual way with the games. Ten-inch LCD displays on the vehicles show riders how many points they've racked up during each game.

Powering Toy Story Mania! are 154 graphics workstations running Windows XP that are used to render 3-D images on the ride's screens at 60 frames per second. The workstations communicate with each other and with the four gaming systems onboard each vehicle using an industrial-strength wireless network based on 802.11 technology.

The wireless network integrates a huge amount of real-time information gathered from the ride: the exact location of the vehicles within one inch; the rotation of the four turrets on each end of the vehicles; and the pitch, yaw and activity of each onboard shooting device. This information is fed into the graphics workstations so they can accurately render images of pies or rings coming out of the shooting devices at accurate angles and with accurate projectiles.

The wireless 802.11 network is a key component of Toy Story Mania! because it has to keep the visual effects coordinated with the movement of the ride.

"One of the challenges was just getting [the 3-D graphics] flowing smoothly with the vehicle," says John Noonan, technical director of show control systems for Walt Disney Imagineering. "Coordinating all of that information, keeping all of those network messages synchronized, that was a lot of little details to keep coordinated. That was the big challenge with this ride."

Until now, Disney was worried about the reliability of wireless networks for controlling its rides.

"You put 100 people on a wireless network, and it's not going to work predictably," Noonan says. "We had to make it very predictable. We had to guarantee we could handle updates in a 60th of a second...Our network is based on 802.11 technology, but it's the kind of network you'd find in a factory versus a home or office."

Noonan pointed out that the industrial strength wireless network used on Toy Story Mania! is secure. "We had to be careful about security and predictability," he says.

One reason Disney's Imagineering team chose 802.11 wireless technology is that it's proven.

"We don't like to use bleeding-edge things," Noonan says. "We like to stick to technologies that are considered leading-edge....As engineers, we try to minimize the technical risks."

The wireless network powering Toy Story Mania! is working so well that Disney plans to incorporate more wireless networks into its amusement park rides.

"We've had a lot of interest from various engineering teams from both parks," Noonan says. "We have a new attraction coming in Anaheim that's going to use the same network technology."

The success of Toy Story Mania! not only points to the future use of wireless networks in Disney resorts, but it also takes the integration between physical rides and special effects to a whole new level.

"We always integrate the ride and the show to some degree and get the guests involved as much as possible," Noonan says. "If anything, this ride taught us how powerful it can be if you do it really well."

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Carolyn Duffy Marsan

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