Disney’s $13 Million Drone Extravaganza


Disney has spent an estimated $13 million on a new drone show at its theme park complex in Paris which premiered on Saturday and features Marvel Comics characters such as Iron Man and Spider-Man.

Called Avengers: Power The Night, the eight-minute show is a whole new world for Disney. It is the theme park giant’s first daily drone show featuring Marvel characters and, unlike its previous displays, this one creates 3D shapes which seem to twist and turn in mid-air. It’s more than a high-tech trick as the 500 drones take the form of props which play a role in the show itself.

Fittingly, the show can be seen from courtyard of the movie-themed Walt Disney

Studios park at Disneyland Paris and the action begins when the sun goes down. The backdrop for the spectacle is suitably cinematic. It is held high above the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a soaring skyscraper that looks like it has come from the golden age of cinema and is home to a gut-wrenching drop ride.

As the stirring soundtrack to Marvel’s Avengers movies echoes around the courtyard, projections of the costumed characters are beamed onto the tower and move in time to the music. They are arty representations of the heroes rather than footage of the A Listers who play them on the silver screen but the effect is no less mesmerising.

Thanks to some technical wizardry, the images appear to be flat despite being beamed onto balconies and balustrades. Footage shows Marvel’s sorcerer supreme, Doctor Strange, conjuring up a portal which then appears in mid-air thanks to the drones. Just like in the movies, it heralds the entrance of a string of super heroes.

Thor’s hammer glides by and spins around in a proud demonstration of the fully-3D floating objects created by the drones. Cleverly, their lights dim when they change from one shape to another so they seemingly appear out of nowhere. There’s a huge cheer when Captain America slings his shield on the tower and it then appears to sail through the sky as the drones light up.

The projections don’t just show scenes, they interact with the tower itself as scratches by the Black Panther appear to cut into its concrete structure. Fireworks are even integrated into the proceedings and erupt from the side of the soaring structure at the precise point where expert marksman Hawkeye fires an arrow in the footage. It doesn’t stop there as the Avengers’ android, Vision, is shown firing a green laser which perfectly coincides with an actual laser beaming out of the tower.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the drones turn into the bald head of Avengers architect Nick Fury which slowly spins in the sky before morphing into the team’s logo in a final hurrah. As the images are in 3D they can be seen from a wide angle which maximises the show’s capacity and prevents the center of the courtyard from getting crammed. There was a magic formula for pulling it off.

“We start with creative brainstorming,” says Ben Spalding, Disney’s design wizard who dreamed up the Avengers show. Spalding is a 30-year veteran of Disneyland Paris and has been behind some of its most spellbinding shows. “Everything starts with an idea and foundational planning – what do we want to accomplish, how long do we want the performance to be, when will it happen and how far can we go, creatively speaking.”

That leads to the design team creating storyboards showing the desired shapes and animations at the different points in the show. Animation software then generates a 3D rendering to virtually view the show from any angle and translate it into flight paths for the drones to follow.

They aren’t the kind of drones you find in the toy aisle of Target. Based on the Parrot BeBop 2 quadcopters (named after their four rotors), the drones have bespoke software and hardware. The cameras, which are common on consumer drones, have been replaced with multi-coloured LED lights and all other unnecessary fittings have been stripped away. The objective is to make them as light as possible so that they can remain in the air for longer. At just 550 grams they weigh less than a loaf of bread but cost much more.

Disneyland Paris developed the Avengers show in partnership with its official technology provider, the French company Dronisos. Since it was founded in 2016 Dronisos has developed more than 50,000 displays including ones at the Dollywood theme park and Expo 2020 Dubai.

Spalding says that in 2018 Disneyland Paris “first worked with Dronisos on the Marvel: Super Heroes United show at Walt Disney Studios Park to produce an indoor drone effect on the stage.” As Forbes reported, this Marvel-themed stunt show featured a drone-powered flying car and it set the scene for a deeper partnership between Disneyland Paris and Dronisos.

This began two years ago when Disneyland Paris started searching for a way to celebrate its 30th anniversary without making a bang. The theme park complex lies around 20 miles to the east of Paris and is nestled next to five villages. Out of respect to more than 30,000 local residents, its fireworks displays aren’t as noisy as their counterparts at Disney’s parks in the United States. Instead, Disneyland Paris has had to think outside the box to make a splash and in 2012 it became the Mouse’s first park to pioneer projection mapping in a fireworks show to make up for its more limited pyrotechnics.

Thanks to cutting-edge imaging software, scenes from classic Disney cartoons were beamed onto the castle from 12 4K projectors. The footage was timed to a stirring score as well as dancing lasers, flamethrowers, fireworks and further scenes shown on fountains at the foot of the castle which fanned out into a fine mist.

This format has since been refined at Disneyland Paris and replicated in son et lumière shows at its sister parks around the world. Disneyland Paris needed to come up with something new to cast a spell on its 30th birthday in 2022 and a louder and longer fireworks display wouldn’t fit the bill. Instead it turned to Dronisos as the protagonists of its shows are silent and don’t produce any ash which can blow onto nearby buildings.

Over the past decade drone shows have become increasingly complex and reliable but still aren’t commonplace in theme parks. The first regular drone displays that Disney had previously organised took place in 2016 above a lake at its shopping and dining district in Orlando rather than inside its theme parks there. It is no surprise.

Theme parks are crammed with avant-garde architecture which can interfere with the GPS signals bouncing between drones during a show. It may seem like drones in a display are all remotely-controlled from the ground but actually their flight path is automated and managed by a central computer system. The drones communicate with each other by GPS so that they stay just the right distance apart and avoid collisions.

Spalding says it is “much more difficult” to ensure that these signals don’t get blocked in a drone show next to a physical structure than in clear air. Dronisos’ proprietary Symphony simulation software was the magic touch that Disney needed as it ensures that the drones stay one meter apart in the air in order to prevent any interference between their GPS signals.

Even though the shows are computer-controlled, a pilot has to be present at all times to carry out technical checks, ensure the flight area is clear and give the final green light. Dronisos recruited four pilots who use a detailed dashboard display on a ground control station to prepare the drones for flight. Each drone receives a unique flight path from ground control and they are all monitored in flight over a local, encrypted network for maximum safety.

With this in place, Disney D-Light, the first drone show inside a Disney theme park, was cleared for take-off. It launched in the fairytale-themed Disneyland Paris park in March last year, just in time for its 30th anniversary the following month. Disney D-Light still plays to this day and features 150 drones which make basic, but ingenious shapes. They include a number 30 which looks like a giant outline of Mickey Mouse’s famous ears peering round the centerpiece castle.

Spalding says that Disney D-Light was developed by a core team of just ten people covering everything from music and audio production as well as lighting and media design to engineering and support staff. Development took eight months and he says that “the creation of the show was 90% done online virtually, which was the new norm.”

The show was named “Best Live Entertainment 2022” at the Park World Excellence Awards last year and has been such a success that it has been extended with a sequence which sees Mickey’s ears magically duplicate themselves as the drones separate into two rows. “The initial plan was to create a special moment of 90 seconds, which grew to 6 minutes and 31 seconds. We always want to please and surprise our guests and I think that we have gone way above expectations,” says Spalding.

He adds that Disney D-Light only uses 10% of what the drones are capable of and the first indication of this came to light in July last year when the doors swung open to Avengers Campus at Walt Disney Studios. This new land is the first stage of a $2 billion expansion plan which was revealed in the Express newspaper in 2017.

Avengers Campus immerses guests in the worlds of Marvel’s movies and it features fastidious attention to detail. The land looks like an avant-garde science park and was supposedly built on the site of old factories. Fake crumbling brickwork, complete with faded paint on it, can be seen behind the futuristic facades. The highlight is a Spider-Man simulator which uses motion-sensing cameras and 3D screens to give guests the impression that they are shooting virtual webs from their wrists.

To celebrate the opening of the land, Disney held a one-off drone display featuring some of the shapes that are at the heart of the new show. The big difference is that they were flat rather than being in 3D. There is good reason for this.

At the time, Disneyland Paris was using far fewer drones as Spalding recently revealed. “Through Avengers: Power the Light, we are going from 150 drones to 500,” he said. The higher the number of drones, the more detailed the images they can create and in turn, the more angles they can be seen from. It comes at quite a cost.

According to the Dronisos website, the cost of a show featuring 500 drones starts at $136,000 (€125,000). The Avengers show runs for a total of 95 days which would give a total cost of $12.9 million though it could be less than that due to the economies of scale of running it regularly. Dronisos hints at this in a statement which says that it has “an option for permanent/recurring drone shows for theme parks, circuses, etc. These are tailor-made shows and the price will depend on the requirements.”

It adds that “there are no fixed price brackets for drone light shows as every show is tailor-made specifically for a particular event. Many factors like the country hosting the show, whether the show is indoors or outdoors, and the overall budget are all taken into consideration when designing a show.”

While an estimated cost of $12.9 million may sound like a lot, it would only represent 0.8% of the expenses of Disneyland Paris’ main operating company, Euro Disney Associés in 2021, according to its latest financial statements. It shows that it takes much more than the wave of a magic wand to create magic for Disney’s guests.

Dronisos says that its cost covers everything from choreography and 3D simulations to rehearsals. Up to 15 minutes of drone flight time is included and extending this isn’t as simple as inserting new scenes. It is all down to battery life.

The lighter the drone, the less power it needs to remain in the air. However, the heavier the battery, the more power it has and the longer it can fly. It is a fine balance but an important one as Disney’s fireworks displays typically last three times longer than its drone show.

As the saying goes, ‘quality, not quantity’ and there is no doubt that drone displays make fireworks look old-fashioned in comparison. Spalding says that what drives him is “doing something that has never been done before, and getting to do this with the Disneyland Paris team. Keeping it secret for as long as possible and being able to be the first to share our work.”

His team has clearly got to grips with the new technology as he says that it took just three months to produce the Avengers show. It is easy to imagine Disneyland Paris using drones in future to reinvent classic shows without needing to build additional infrastructure.

One of the most popular performances at Disney’s parks in the United States sees a 45-foot robotic dragon battling Mickey Mouse in time to an inspiring score. Not only could drones be used to recreate the dragon but it would have a dramatic sense of reveal. It would even be possible for its glowing eyes to glint in the night sky before the rest of it lights up. That really would be a happy ending to the day.

Forbes Business

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