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Theme Parks : Making (Audiovisual) Waves at Disney

chad emerson theme park interviewsDon Dorsey (above right)  is an audio production consultant and a designer and director of fireworks and nighttime spectacular shows with over 3 decades of experience working for and with Disney.  It is estimated that his  audio work  for Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade has been heard by over 150 million Disney park guests around the world to date. 

Blooloop’s Chad Emerson caught up with Don to talk  sound, vision and Disney…

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Emerson:  You’ve held a wide variety of interesting positions in the amusement industry.  Share with us how you got started in the industry and with Disney in particular.

Don Dorsey:  In college I was on a path towards becoming a composer.  I was studying piano, orchestration and acoustics while learning electronic music and working with music groups making studio recordings.  I was interested in popular and classical music as well as technology so I did serious music in college and popular music for fun.  I was in awe of George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Alan Parsons and heavily influenced by the music of The Beatles. 

In the summer of 1972 I had heard of this thing called the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland and decided to check it out one night.  It completely mesmerized me and re-focused my career thinking towards combining music with entertainment and technology.  At that moment I didn't know exactly what that meant or how I was going to accomplish it, but that one experience firmly determined my direction. 

I continued my music studies but stepped up my work with electronics and recording.  In the course of doing that, I met and became friends with the Los Angeles area sales rep for Moog synthesizers and did some demonstration work for him.  When Disney Entertainment producer Jack Wagner came to him looking for someone with the skills to replace Paul Beaver (who had been Disney’s go-to guy for synth work but had passed away unexpectedly), the rep put Jack in touch with me.  I began as Jack’s protégé doing electronic music and studio engineering work for Disney and that evolved into a contract position that has lasted 35 years and led to many different kinds of projects besides audio and music work, including show design and direction, entertainment R&D, show programming and control system software design.

Emerson:   What are some interesting facts that you think most readers would not know about the different Epcot lagoon shows?

Dorsey:  The very first production was called Carnaval du Lumiere and debuted unannounced on October 21, 1982 to an enthusiastic crowd of about one dozen brave souls who hadn’t been scared off by the rain.  The often-reported first performance on October 23 never actually happened due to continued bad weather.  The show featured an all-electronic symphonic score by me, but the projection technology used was weak and difficult to see.  Disney management quickly determined the show would not be continued and it was aparade at disney world resort at night time ctually seen publically less than five times.  Adam Bezark and I teamed up to pitch a concept for re-staging the hardware from that show so Disney could have a production to open the following summer.  Disney green-lighted our idea and that’s how I made the move from just music to lagoon show direction.  That show, A New World Fantasy, evolved into another reinvention by Adam and I for the summer of 1984 titled Laserphonic Fantasy when we reformatted the whole show from proscenium presentation to in-the-round. 

Laserphonic Fantasy featured laser graphics projected on curtains of water mist – an early version of what would later become the popular “water screens” used today in shows like Fantasmic! and World of Color.  During some early laser testing at Imagineering we noticed some dust particles floating through the beams and wondered what effect a mist of water drops would produce.  We grabbed a spray bottle of something and started playing around.  The diamond-like quality where the beam met the water drops inspired us to test the concept with full scale scanning lasers at Epcot.  It was a stunning effect and we put it in the show. Laserphonic Fantasy was also the first use of scanned laser images with discontinuous lines (“blanking”).  The use of lasers on water drops in the air is used extensively in the new World of Color show at Disney California Adventure; exactly the same type of effect that we did back in 1984, but now with much better, less expensive and full-color lasers. 

Emerson: Looking back, what was the most challenging project you worked on and why?

Dorsey:  Thematically, the most challenging was coming up with the right Millennium show for Epcot.  The show had to have an appropriate message for the 15-month Millennium celebration, but then live on unchanged for at least another nine years after that was over.  Finding a generic message that transcended any particular moment led me to the broader story of Earth as home to all peoples, and the specific idea of Earth itself telling that story.  I intentionally kept any “message” out of the show and let viewers decide for themselves how to interpret the meaning.  The only literal thematic statement the show makes is one simple, inarguable fact about humanity: We Go On. 

The most technically challenging project was creating and programming environmental light shows for National Harbor near Washington D.C.  There are two completely different physical presentations of the same soundtrack in different areas of the property.  One is choreographed in a linear fashion; LED-lit banners on light poles along the piers and walkways.  The other is choreographed in 3D space on LED ornaments mounted in trees along a main boulevard.  Both presentations cover very large physical spaces and have to make visual sense from any point of view.  It’s impossible to see the complete scope of either presentation, but it is possible to see parts of both simultaneously.  Because of that they have to work both independently and in visual reflections of earth disney show fireworks nightharmony.  The banners were programmed easily with a traditional lighting console, but the trees were the real challenge.  There are 24 fixtures in each tree, 24 trees in each city block and no two trees were alike.  Think of it as a gigantic display where the pixels are randomly arrayed in 3D space instead of in neat 2D lines and rows.  After the fixtures were mounted, we had to map each one precisely in 3D space so we could create visually smooth movement in any axis.  I devised a way to place 3D information into a 2D video frame so I could use video tools instead of a light board to create the actual show programming.  A media server then drives the show and maps the custom media to each LED’s unique position along the boulevard.  This process enabled me to generate shows very quickly and to revise and tweak them easily.

Emerson :  What project are you most proud of the end result?

Dorsey:  I have always wanted to create something that inspired an audience in the same way that first Electrical Parade in 1972 had inspired me.  Over the years I’ve worked on many fun and successful shows, but nothing has come close to the impact of Reflections of Earth (right).  So far the show has been seen by an estimated 75 million people since it opened in October of 1999.  I still get email and letters from people who tell me how much the show has meant for them and their families.  I had a fantastic production team to work with and an unbelievably fantastic score by Gavin Greenaway.  There’s no doubt it will be hard to top this.

Emerson:  Reflecting on your amusement industry career, share with us an example of an event or two that really shaped your philosophy for a great show experience.

Dorsey:  Music was a really strong influence as I was growing up.  I would listen to records and make up stories to go with the music.  I drew pictures, made puppets, built cardboard cities and put on shows with other kids in the neighborhood, all driven by music from my father’s record collection.  But no matter how hard we tried the shows were always better in my imagination than in real life.  I think the reason the Electrical Parade encounter affected me so strongly was that the music perfectly matched the actual visual experience.  If the music isn’t right, the total experience can’t be right.  I think about all my projects musically and design the emotional story first.  A good piece of music follows basic story form so it’s easy to use one to inspire the other. 

Emerson:  Let’s say that it’s a beautiful summer afternoon in Orange County.  How would you spend your ideal day at the area’s theme parks?

Dorsey:  The first thought that comes to mind is actually an accounting term; first in, last out!  I want to see and do as much as humanly possible in a single day from rope drop to lights out.  I want to experience the park as one of the crowd and a member of the audience.  The best perspective on what makes good entertainment comes from just being entertained.

Images: kind courtesy Disney

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