There seems to be a particular affection for most things Disney within the geek community. Maybe because we know that behind the princesses and pirates at the parks there’s amazingly engineered technology. And there’s something cool and geeky about technology that’s been designed and implemented to make people happy.
So it was with great excitement this last Thursday and Friday I was invited down to Disney’s Imagineering headquarters to see what they have in the works for their new cruise ship, the Disney Dream.
I have to admit, I have never taken a cruise, and I felt a little out of place as most of the other press invited to the event were travel writers, or even more focused cruise writers. Indeed, I learned more about cruise travel in a 24-hour period than I’d ever known. And one of the most interesting things I learned – from the journalists, not the Disney PR folks – is that Disney delivers the best family cruising experience, hands down.
Disney has two existing cruise ships, the Magic and the Wonder, running cruises around the Caribbean (and soon, the Mexican Riviera). But now under construction is a third ship, the Dream, which will outsize and out-tech both of its sisters. But what do I mean about technology on a cruise ship? Well, let me tell you:
Virtual Portholes: It’s a fact of ship design that some staterooms will be “interior” staterooms, meaning they don’t share a wall with the outside hull of the ship, and therefore don’t have win- err, portholes. But the interior staterooms on the Dream will. Each stateroom will have a 30″ round HD screen mounted on one wall, feeding live video from a series of cameras mounted around the perimeter of the boat. No matter what direction the Dream is sailing, or what time of day, passengers will see what’s visible outside in the specific direction they are facing in the stateroom, as if they were looking at an actual porthole. And to add to the Disney magic, each screen will have random characters from Disney properties matted into the video feed doing appropriate things: the house from Up! floating by, or a starfish from Finding Nemo holding on to wave hello. Disney reps say that many people, when offered an upgrade to rooms with actual portholes, decline in favor of the virtual ones.
Interactive Dance Floor: It’s not so much a dance floor as a play floor, and we got to see it in action. A 14′ square grid of high-definition screens under heavy glass so you can stand, walk, run and jump on them, the floor’s perimeter is a series of touch pads allowing players to stand around it and control games that are projected on the screens. There are more than a dozen Disney-themed games that involve shooting stuff, jumping over stuff or even altering the virtual balance of the floor to move objects around, each with multiple difficulty levels so they can be challenging for kids from 7 to 17 years (or, ahem, older).
Enchanted Art Work: There’s going to be art all over the ship, but some of it will be more than meets the eye. More than 20 pieces of art will actually be screens that will change art depending upon the time of day or the location the ship is. Too mundane? How about the art being able to sense when people are standing in front of it, and start animations? Still “blah?” Well, then how about a detective adventure for families taking them all over the ship using special bar-coded cards to unlock secret animations in the enchanted art and allowing them to actually control things in the art to discover clues and solve a mystery? Yeah, thought that would get your attention!
Interacting With Virtual Characters: At most of the Disney theme parts there are shows where a virtual Disney character (for example, Crush from Finding Nemo) will talk and interact with kids in the audience in real time (using, we imagine, a sophisticated motion-capture rig, multiple cameras, hidden mics and a voice actor somewhere off-stage). This is being brought to the Dream in a powerful new way. Crush will be a regular visitor to the kids club areas during the day on the ship, meeting and talking to the kids play there on video screens. But then, in the evening, he’ll show up in the Animators’ Palette dining room as well. The room seats 700 diners, and has over 100 video screens on its walls, including more than 20 103″ screens. As dinner is served and eaten, Crush and other characters will interact with guests in 9 different seating zones. But the magic happens when Crush calls out by name and interacts with kids whom he met earlier in the day, or on the cruise, in the play areas, and recalls specific details of those interactions. I can only imagine what technology they’re using behind the scenes (creating a database of kids on the cruise using video and facial recognition?), but how magical will it seem to the kids?
Skyline – the Bar in Any City: The Skyline lounge (for grown-ups only) has it’s own cool piece of technology, not unlike the virtual portholes. It has no actual windows, but has screens where windows would be behind the bar and on the opposite wall. The screens project what the view would be like if you were sitting in a lounge at the top of a skyscraper in one of many cities around the world. The city will change from time to time, and the view will always been time-accurate.
There’s plenty more that doesn’t necessarily fit into a list of cool technology – like the amazing waterslide that shoots you through a clear tub out past the edge of the ship and over the ocean – but you can check that stuff out for yourself at the Disney Cruises website, or their new Facebook page.
The Disney Dream sets sale in January, 2011 from Port Canaveral, Florida, and they’re taking reservations now. I think my family already knows what we’re doing next summer.
[Disclosure and thanks to the folks at Disney Cruise Lines for inviting GeekDad to the special press event. They flew me down to L.A., and put me up for one night.]