In the fall of 2007, Disneyland announced a five-year plan to transform large portions of its Disney California Adventure Park to deliver a more immersive experience for guests. The culmination of that process is the creation of the 12-acre Cars Land, which brings to life the world of Radiator Springs, made famous in the two Disney Pixar Cars movies. While visitors will be dazzled by the site’s 280,000 square feet of rockwork towering over three new attractions—Radiator Springs Racers, Luigi’s Flying Tires, and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree—equally awesome is the construction process and technology Disney used to make the ambitious design a reality. Cars Land represents a departure from the company’s traditional project approach of “design, bid, build”; its team instead combined traditional planning methods with new digital tools to tackle the project collaboratively with contractors and subcontractors. It’s a switch that served all parties well during the complex construction process, and the end product is so intricately composed that park visitors might not stop to think about how it was put together.
In Cars Land, the big draw (or e-ticket attraction, in Disney-speak) is Radiator Springs Racers. Guests board six passenger vehicles and enjoy a slow road trip through the foothills of Ornament Valley (inspired by Monument Valley in Utah) and through the immense show building—where they go into town and meet all their favorite characters from Cars—and then they join a race against another car.
“It’s going to be one of those classic attractions in the history of our parks that we’ve done really, really well,” Cars Land project manager Jim Kearns says. Helping Kearns deliver on the attraction’s thrills was the use of virtual design, which allowed Disney to model the track precisely and coordinate its construction with care.
“When our design subcontractors where brought on board by our general contractors, they modeled all of their systems in our BIM [building information modeling] tool,” Kearns says. “This helped us to avoid the classic problems—such as where you have a piece of duct going through a steel beam.”
Disney’s project partners also used the BIM tool for a lot of prefabrication and preassembly of the parts that make up the ride, including the thousands of linear feet of track. “With an eighth of an inch to spare, the last pieces dropped in, and it was done,” Kearns says. “It’s a big challenge to go all the way around and to find out that it fits in as it’s supposed to.”
Other computer-visualization software was a huge help in constructing Cars Land’s surrounding Ornament Valley rockwork. Through the use of modeling programs such as Navisworks and Autodesk, Disney created a digital replica of the stone formation, and a steel contractor then relied on the model when fabricating the terrain’s steel substructure. “Basically, everything from the concrete up was all modeled virtually,” Kearns says. “If you look at the scale of what we were trying to do, there was no other way to build that in the timeline that we had to do that work.”
All the modeling programs especially came in handy when Disney mapped out Cars Land’s subsurface systems, all of which had to be designed with future inspections and upkeep in mind. This was the case with Luigi’s Flying Tires, where visitors are seated in a tire vehicle that hovers, kept afloat by large fans built underground. Disney media relations representative Frank Reifsnyder describes it as “being on a giant air hockey table.” Thanks to the modeling programs—and 3-D visualization software created by the Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Technology Group—Disney was able to optimize the layout of this and other attractions in dozens of subtle ways without sacrificing access to maintenance areas.
Cars Land’s massive Ornament Valley backdrop is, according to Kearns, “not only a feature; it sets the tone for the creative content of the land.”
A huge undertaking, the rock wall began as a small concept model. From there, over the course of nine months, it was redone as a half-inch-scale foam model that was then articulated, painted, and made up to represent the final product. “The scale was pretty significant in our model bays, on an area of 20–30 feet inside a model space,” Kearns says.
While faux-rockwork is nothing new to Disney parks, Kearns says that the company has always tried to evolve its methods. In the old days it would use measured pieces of aluminium foil to estimate surface sizes, but the digital tools that the company used for Ornament Valley—including a white-light scanner that mapped the surface for Disney’s computers—are far more precise.
Finally, the surface of the full-size backdrop was put together by plaster artisans, and then painters, led by an art director, got up close to the face of the feature and added detailing and coloring. “As much as we love the tech, you can’t detach yourself from the artistic component,” Kearns says.
According to Kearns, Disney does test mock-ups before building its attractions in full. “We don’t want to bank all of our money into something we hope will work,” he says. For Luigi’s Flying Tires, for example, Disney and its partners built a full-scale mock-up of one of the plate-floor modules. Kearns says that this was done to answer a number of questions: Were the calculations correct on the fan sizes? Would the vehicle perform? Would it be fun? “We wanted there to be no surprises when we went into the field,” he says.
For Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, where a trailer is whipped through a series of circles and figure eights by a baby tractor, a mock-up was pulled through its paces in one of the Disney parking lots. Also, a portion of the ride floor was eventually created at the advice of Disney’s ride vendor partner. “Some of the technology that was going to be used was not the same as on previous rides,” Kearns says. “We invested, learned a lot, and that was translated into the final product.”
For Disney, a principal goal with all its attractions is that they have to be safe. Kearns says there’s a significant acceptance test and adjust protocol that all rides have to go through, and elaborate instrumentation helps validate that each design has been installed and is operating in the intended way.
In the case of Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, Disney completed exhaustive cycling of the attraction by having its ride vendor partner take an assembled piece and run it for a very extended period to watch for behavioral characteristics.
“There isn’t an attraction where we don’t learn something during that process and make some slight alterations,” Kearns says. “It needs to be reliable. All of these attractions receive a huge layer of cycling of components—and a look from an industrial-engineering perspective—so, at the end of the day, we have a long lifecycle with the stuff that we build.”
Such care in the planning of the attractions, including the cycling experiments, the test models, the scale models, and the original computer imaging, is part of why patrons return again and again to Disney in the first place. The park and its creators know how to enchant, and it involves creating an experience so seamless that visitors remain blissfully unaware of the site’s technical realities, however marvelous they might also be. ABQ