World Science Festival NYC 2008


On Saturday, May 31, 2008, I had the opportunity to attend the first ever World Science Festival held at New York University. One of the headlining events of the five day festival was Saturday’s presentation of “The Science of Disney Imagineering.” To be honest, I was a little skeptical about the Festival since I don’t really have a great interest in science. But whenever you use Disney as an adjective it just makes everything seem that much better. Talk to me about science, and I might doze off. Talk to me about Disney science and I am looking for my bunsen burner.

On to the particulars: “The Science of Disney Imagineering” was a 1 hour presentation which took place in the 850 seat Skirball Center. The presentation was offered at three times during the day and admission was $12 for each presentation. I attended the 10 a.m. presentation as the two later ones were already sold out.

The presentation was broken down into five areas of Imagineering: Roller Coasters (physics), Special Effects, Fireworks (chemical engineering), Computers/Artificial Intelligence and Conservation Biology. Imagineer Scott Trowbridge hosted the event and he was joined for each section by a Imagineer who was trained specifically in that area. For each portion, except for fireworks, audience members were selected to participate in the presentation.


The goal of the presentation was to show how Imagineers use science in almost all areas of the Disney parks. After a brief introduction and video package, roller coaster Imagineer Ric Turner came out and brought with him a “Force Vector Simulator”. It looked as imposing as it sounds, as it can only be described as a sphere with a chair in the middle to which a person is strapped into and spun in all different directions. Ric used a volunteer from the crowd to explain how the Force Vector Simulator works and how Imagineers use G-Forces in different ways to create different ride experiences. Tower of Terror, for example, creates the sensations riders feel by using negative G-forces, while Mission space uses sustained G-forces and the Teacups, well there you are just getting spun in three directions.


After Ric finished, Imagineer Asa Kalama came out to discuss special effects. He talked about how Imagineers are always working to create atmosphere using lighting and acoustics. He demonstrated a speaker that used vibrating molecules at a frequency which made it feel like the sound was coming from inside your head (it worked quite effectively). He also brought out a giant 6 foot fog machine which could shoot fog long distances at a quick rate of speed.


Fireworks were next and the audience was shown how using different chemicals creates the different colors we see in fireworks. This portion also included an explanation of how Disney developed a novel system of firing pyrotechnics using compressed air.

Perhaps my favorite portion of the presentation was the Computer/Artificial Intelligence demonstration. Imagineer Amber Samdahl, explained that originally Imagineers would build models of the theme parks so that they could study how the placement of rides, attractions, stores etc. would work within the park. They still build actual models to some extent but now can use computer technology to build models with greater precision. She demonstrated a computer program by which thousands of persons are created, each having their own unique artificial intelligence and thought process(it would be very similar to “The Sims” series of games). They then use these “people” to study the parks. For example, what would happen to the flow of foot traffic in an area if an object was introduced that blocked the way or conversely if the objected attracted attention. It demonstrated how carefully everything is thought out in the parks from the placement of an attraction all the way down to a soda cart.


The show concluded with a section on the work that Disney does with animal wildlife and biology conservation. Dr. Anne Savage highlighted Disney’s extensive conservation work included the tracking of elephants and sea turtles.

After the presentation all 6 Imagineers stayed in the lobby to answer questions and talk with audience members. This portion alone made the $12 well worth it. It’s not too often that you get a few minutes to talk to an Imagineer, let alone 6 of them. All were quite friendly and eager to talk and even gave detailed advice to the many audience members who asked “how do I become an Imagineer”.

Each audience member also received an Imagineering notebook as they left, since as Scott Trowbridge discussed, all Imagineers carry notebooks with them so they can write down ideas whenever they get them.

Overall the show was very well done and this article only covers about half of what was discussed. It balanced science and entertainment in a way that made it entertaining enough for the children and teenagers that were there while still being informative for the adults. If there is another World Science Festival next year I hope that Disney attends as I would recommend the presentation to both Disney fans and science fans alike.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not mention Lucky the Dinosaur. The famous Disney dinosaur robot was present at the festival. He was located in the outside portion of the festival but I was unable to catch a glimpse of him since it began to rain heavily after the show.


Photos by April Baker ©2008


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