Entertainment Technology Explained

The Magic of Disney: How Technology Makes It Happen

James Frew 04-01-2018

Just the mention of the word Disney conjures up images of fairy tales, the golden age of cinema, theme parks, and for many, a lot of happiness and fond memories. The company is nearing its centenary, but that hasn’t stopped it from being at the forefront of technological development. You might think the mouse’s tech credentials have been shaped since 2005 when Bob Iger took the reins.


However, the company has a history of investing in cutting edge tech. Pixar is one of the most notable Disney success stories, ushering in a new age of cinema and digital animation. Not every technology is as influential though, so what magic has the world’s most famous mouse been working on behind the scenes?

The Robots Are Coming

Although Disney found success in animation, the company found international acclaim following the opening of the Disneyland theme park in 1955. Since then it has seen over 650 million guests, more than any other theme park in the world. Even as early as 1959 Disney took the technological lead, opening the Disneyland Monorail System — the first monorail in the Western Hemisphere. Technology is important, but so is the overall guest experience, with theatrical terminology used highlight that a visit to the park is supposed to feel like a performance.

This combination of theatre and tech collided in a Disney patent for a “soft body robot for physical interactions with humans.” Throughout the patent, the researchers describe the characteristics of a friendly robot that would perform tasks similar to those of the other Disneyland characters What Happens When Robots Can Do All the Jobs? Robots are getting smarter fast -- what happens when they can do every job better and cheaper than human beings? Read More .

Interestingly, the patent was filed a year after Disney’s Big Hero 6 was released, featuring a soft, friendly robot known as Baymax. The patent was filed in 2015, and to date Disney has not commented on whether they are currently developing the robots. However, the dream of meeting Baymax in the (silicone) flesh may be closer than you imagine.


The Mouse and the Blockchain

Bitcoin has undergone a transformation in the past few years. Once it was associated with the murkier side of the internet, the dark web. Now, it is a mainstream investment and speculative financial asset. The blockchain that powers the cryptocurrency is the technological breakthrough, and Disney hasn’t let that pass them by. In 2014, they went big into the blockchain with their own platform, Dragonchain.

Just as Ethereum has found its place in the market as a smart contracts platform, Dragonchain was envisioned as a “blockchain of blockchains.” The platform would allow other businesses to develop their own blockchain on top of Dragonchain to privately manage their own assets. The company ultimately decided that it would be best to open source the project Open Source vs. Free Software: What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter? Many assume "open source" and "free software" mean the same thing but that's not true. It's in your best interest to know what the differences are. Read More . This allowed for the creation of the Dragonchain Foundation (DF) who hope to commercialize the platform. The DF held an initial coin offering (ICO) towards the end of 2017, eventually raising over $13 million to be used in developing the platform.

The Magic on Your Wrist

Wearables like smart watches and glasses seem like such a good idea. The small devices let you decouple from your phone’s screen while keeping the tech benefits close by.

However, many wearables suffer the same malady: no true purpose. That’s not a criticism that can be levelled at Disney’s MagicBand. Disneyland has always been about the “magic” of the experience, with guests made to feel special. The MagicBand is the 21st century’s extension of that goal. Waterproof and customizable, the rubber wristband is a digital multi-tool, packing a lot of features into its lightweight package.


They are primarily intended as park tickets and contactless payment devices, but include a whole suite of innovative features. It stores your FastPass+ reservations, an optimized route around the park based on your favorite attractions, and your hotel key. All of this is packed onto a device that has a battery life of two years — more than enough for even the most enthusiastic Disney fans. If you misplace your MagicBand, then guest services can remotely deactivate your missing band and offer a new one on the spot.

The Magic in Your Eyes

Disney is a sprawling, incredibly successful entertainment and media company, but it wasn’t always that way. Way back in 1928, Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse, the company’s ubiquitous animated mascot. Then came the 1937 release of the studio’s first feature length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In a landmark achievement it was the first ever cel animated full-length feature. Almost 60 years later, they ushered in a new era of digital animation with their collaboration on Pixar’s Toy Story.

Pixar’s RenderMan image rendering technology was what initially gave the small studio their competitive edge. The shorts that appear before every Pixar film are a canvas for experimentation in adapting and improving their animation tech. The hyper-realistic animation created for Piper showed that Pixar is still at the forefront of digital animation.

To be certain that you really did enjoy their latest movie, Disney has begun work on audience facial recognition. The tech is powered by artificial intelligence to scan the faces of the audience and interpret the viewer’s emotion. While this could conjure up themes of dystopian surveillance How Facial Recognition Search Is Destroying Your Privacy Is facial recognition really part of a surveillance state and a form of oppression and control? Or is it more useful than that? Read More , it should give Disney enough data to make the best film they can for you to enjoy.


What’s Next for the Techie Mouse?

Despite all these technological investments and innovations, Iger has so far declined to appoint a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). He noted this was to allow each of the companies to be innovative on their own without central control. While this has led to a lot of success stories, there have been a few notable failures too.

The NFC-powered Disney Infinity gaming platform was discontinued. The browser-based social network/virtual game Club Penguin was also shut down, but replaced with the mobile-first Club Penguin Island. However, whether it’s shaping Star Wars for a new generation, taking on Netflix, or expanding their media empire, Disney seems intent on propelling Mickey into the 21st century.

Of course, you can always indulge in a bit of nostalgia anytime with some of the wonderful Disney-themed products available. They make great gifts for Disney fans The 13 Best Gifts for Disney Fans Need to buy a gift for the Disney fan in your life? Here are the best gifts for Disney fans. Read More ! Getting a Disney+ subscription is also a good idea. (If you already have one that you’re ready to give up, here’s how to cancel your Disney+ subscription How to Cancel Your Disney+ Subscription If you've had your fill of Disney+ it may be time to cancel your subscription. In this article, we explain how to cancel Disney+. Read More .)

Related topics: Blockchain, Computer Animation, Filmmaking.

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  1. Taostl
    January 9, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    As a correction for anyone reading. Disney's only contribution to Toy Story was distribution for its early films. Prior to the purchase of Pixar, Disney did not make any of the Pixar films. In fact Pixar's lead visionary, John Lasseter first made a 3d short film while working briefly at Disney, and was fired for it. Unable to work for Disney, he eventually went on to found Pixar, which was initially conceived of as a hardware company targeting government and medical imaging markets. Ed Catmul, the CEO of Pixar is now also the head of Disney.

    • James Frew
      January 9, 2018 at 11:03 pm

      It's less of a correction, more of an additional comment. Nevertheless, its interesting background information for anyone interested in the Disney/Pixar business. Should also note that Ed Catmul is the head of Disney Animation Studios, not the head of Disney itself.