Disneyland Paris marks its 30th anniversary with Disney D-Light, which climaxes with 150 colour-changing drones creating a silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s ears. By Caroline Reid and Christian Sylt.

First drone show launched inside a Disney theme park

Disney is renowned for AV innovations in its theme parks. In 1963, it pioneered the use of audio-animatronics – eerily lifelike robots synchronised to speech. Nearly two decades later, Disney gave millions of guests their first taste of 3D with the premiere of Magic Journeys, a film about life through the eyes of a child. And while its latest display of technical wizardry may not seem as ground-breaking, it actually casts an equally powerful spell.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland Paris in April, the park launched a show featuring 150 colour-changing drones that swarm around the centrepiece Sleeping Beauty Castle before the nightly fireworks show.

But calling them drones fails to do them justice. Based on the Parrot BeBop 2 quadcopters (named after their four rotors), the drones feature bespoke software and hardware. Any unnecessary fittings have been stripped away to make the drones as light as possible, allowing them to remain in the air for longer. They weigh just 550 grams – less than a loaf of bread.

Unlike consumer drones, they don’t come with cameras. Instead, nine RGBW LEDs are mounted in a circular array behind a dome on the front. They can change colour and turn on and off simultaneously.

Disney uses them to great effect in its new show. Called Disney D-Light, it is the first drone show inside a Disney park – and it’s a marketing masterstroke.

The display starts like most other Disney shows, as lasers are launched from the castle and psychedelic scenes are beamed on to it, while fountains in front dance in time to a snappy tune. Then, as if by magic, the drones suddenly light up in the shape of a number 30, which ingeniously looks like a giant outline of Mickey Mouse’s ears peering round the castle.

It is a moment made for Instagram and is so spellbinding that it is common to hear the crowd gasp in awe when the drones first light up.

But that’s just the start. Next, the drones form an arc behind the castle that mimics the introduction to Disney’s classic cartoons as they light up one by one to make it look like the path of a shooting star. Cleverly, the lights on the drones dim before they form different shapes, so they seem to appear out of nowhere. At one point, they spread out across the sky and flash on and off rapidly to replicate bursts of fireworks.

The six-minute show’s mesmerising crescendo involves the drones forming a smaller silhouette of Mickey’s ears, which rotates inside an orb of tiny twinkling stars. It has opened up a whole new world for Disneyland Paris.

The theme park complex lies about 20 miles east of Paris and is nestled next to five villages. Out of respect to more than 30,000 local residents, the fireworks displays haven’t been as extravagant as their counterparts at Disney’s parks in the US. Disneyland Paris has had to think outside the box to compete – and the results have been enchanting.

In 2012, the park launched Dreams!, Disney’s first fireworks show featuring projection mapping. Thanks to cutting-edge imaging software, scenes from classic Disney cartoons were beamed ono the castle from 12 4K projectors, and appeared to be flat despite the protrusions and undulations of the tower. 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 that fanned out into a fine mist.

This magic formula 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 mark its 30th anniversary, and louder and longer fireworks displays just weren’t going to cut it.

Drones were a logical alternative, as they are silent and don’t produce ash that could blow on to nearby buildings. Over the past decade, drone shows have become increasingly complex and reliable, but they still aren’t commonplace in theme parks.

Disney’s only previous regular drone displays took place in 2016 above a lake at its shopping and dining district in Orlando, rather than inside the theme parks. But there is good reason for this. Theme parks are crammed with avant-garde architecture that can interfere with the GPS signals bouncing between drones during a show.

It may appear as if the drones in a display are remotely controlled from the ground, but their flight paths are in fact automated, and managed by a central computer system. The drones communicate with each other by GPS, so that they remain the correct distance apart and avoid collisions. Ensuring that these signals aren’t blocked by the 167-foot castle in Disneyland Paris took more than the wave of a magic wand.

“Drones use GPS for their positioning and a dedicated Wi-Fi system,” says Ben Spalding, producer of Disney D-Light. “Any metal structures can, and will, reflect those signals, so you have to test and retest at different times of day, at different frequencies and in different conditions to get it right.”

Disney developed the show with Dronisos, which has created more than 40,000 drone displays. The French company has worked won major worldwide events, such as Expo 2020 Dubai, and collaborated with Disneyland Paris in 2018 on a stunt show featuring a drone-powered flying car.

Spalding says Disney approached Dronisos about the new show about a year ago and development took eight months. Surprisingly, creating a drone show follows a strikingly similar process to making an animated film. “We start with creative brainstorming,” says Spalding. The next step is the design team creating storyboards showing the desired shapes and animations, which are then translated directly into flight paths for the drones to follow. This is done with animation software, which also generates a 3D rendering to view the show from any angle.

For the final stage of development, Disney and Dronisos carried out four drone rehearsals in Bordeaux and 10 at Disneyland Paris. Spalding says these brought their own challenges: “Keeping it secret was the hardest thing, and one of the most important, because it’s what creates that feeling of magic for our guests when they experience the show for the first time.”

Ironically, the pandemic helped Disney maintain secrecy, as 90% of the creative development had to be undertaken online, rather than in the field. “In-park programming is also a major challenge, as we are not alone working at night,” says Spalding. “Having dark time for lights, media and drones is a must, but not always available as we wish.

“We also needed to do a lot of recording, and we are fortunate to have our own recording studio backstage with excellent sound engineers to mix. It gave us the freedom to adjust and recreate when and where needed, as complex shows need adjustments.”

Having a tight team also helped to keep the show under wraps. Spalding says there were only 10 people in the core production team, covering a wide range of specialisms. “They included producers for the overall show, music and audio, as well as lighting and media designers, a production manager, show director, and engineering and support staff,” adds Spalding.

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.

Since the show was launched, Disney has extended it by a few minutes through the addition of a sequence in which Mickey’s ears duplicate themselves as the drones separate into two rows. Spalding says there may be more tweaks to come. “This is a first for us so we are learning every day,” he says. “We like to listen to our guests and their feedback just like with any new show or experience. We could explore different choreography – we’re using only 10% of what the drones are capable at this point, so the possibilities are endless.”

It is easy to imagine Disney using drones to copy its classic shows without needing to build additional infrastructure. One of the most popular performances at its US parks involves a 45-foot robotic dragon battling Mickey Mouse in time to an inspiring musical 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 lit up.

The more drones used, the more detailed the scenes can be. The most elaborate shows feature more than three times as many drones as used in Disney’s show, resulting in images that look like floating advertising banners.

Several factors determine the maximum number of drones that can be used in a display. In order to ensure there is no interference between the GPS signals, each drone needs to be spaced at least a metre apart on take-off. They must also be at least a metre apart when airborne, to prevent interference. This isn’t a problem in clear air, but it’s more of an issue where there are tall buildings or heavy air traffic.

The cost of using drones can also be prohibitive. Dronisos’s outdoor shows start at £33,705 (€40,000) and soar to £252,784 (€300,000) for displays featuring more than 1,000 drones. The lower end of this spectrum is in line with the price of a top-spec nightly theme park fireworks display, though Disney’s drone show may cost less due to the economies of scale of running it regularly. Dronisos hints at this in a statement, which says 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.”

The cost covers everything from choreography and 3D simulations to rehearsals. Up to 15 minutes of drone flight time is included, but 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.

Drone displays make fireworks look old-fashioned in comparison. Combined with Disney’s flair and creativity, it’s a fairytale partnership.

Reference : AVinteractive