(Photo courtesy of Alyssa Ho)
California School of the Arts

Opinion: My experience taking a Disney tour with an engineer

Disney was strict about the phones. They told each one of us on the tour to drop them into a white plastic baggie, that was then sealed up with tape. Despite this mannerism, they didn’t seem to mind the notes I was taking.

The backstage lot of Disney was quiet, but it was 6 a.m. The sky was still dark indigo and the yellow brush of sun was just painting itself up the horizon.

“This is a construction site,” warned Paula Quintana, a ride systems control engineer and one of our guides for the morning.

She told us to watch for moving vehicles, but really, there were none around besides the bus we had come off of. In fact, there seemed to be almost no one else at all. Behind us, there were just two women, sweeping up nothing but the air in empty and the Cast Member parking lot.

One spotted something however and happily added a single rubber band into her swaying trash bag. In front of us, a long tunnel went under the park in order for employees to get from one side to the other without being seen. Each land was separated. So were the employees.

To our right, there was a tall, chiffon colored building with a lonely poster plastered to its front that advertised the summer opening of Star Wars land, Galaxy’s Edge, whose back was 50 feet to our left. The mountainous set-pieces rose into the air supported by wooden beams. As the sun inched higher, the tan color and rocky patterns of the set began to materialize.

By the time the tour group had entered through two enormous double doors the sky was a lighter pallet of blue, the sun a warm glow. A full-scale Millennium Falcon sat lazily to our right. The buildings were rounded at the top and seemed to be almost sagging without any wind.

Dead droids lined the walkway, quiet, the sky like a backdrop that hung down a stage. It seemed that the only habitants of Batuu were store employees who had arrived a bit too early for work. They leaned against their storefront and conversed about last night’s concert and the weather.

“Every ride, every set takes years and requires large groups of people working toward this common goal,” Quintana explained. “The process involves several phases: creative development, estimates, design, implementation, testing and documentation.”

Like any project, hundreds of engineers, programmers and designers created the set that was laid out in front of me. If I were not here on tour, I wouldn’t have thought twice of the team of innovators who spent months working on just the sandy floor below me, detailed with tire tracks from scavenger rovers. However, this invisible rule was part of the job description.

“If I do need to test a ride, I have to come in at 3 a.m.,” Quintana said.

Disney at dawn was just a playground without any toddlers running around. How seamlessly Disney was able to keep reality away from its visitors and leave them in such awe and satisfaction of a world that was not created by innovators, but rather just existed. They did not question anything at all, because Quintana and our tour itself, operated stealthily at dawn.

Even Quintana didn’t seem to understand what Disney engineers did when she first applied. She explained how the programming platform Disney uses to control its industrial autonomous rides is not even taught in colleges. Nearly all their employees learn on the job. However, Quintana assured that if one was experienced in any programming language (she was accustomed to C++), Disney’s language wouldn’t be too difficult to learn.

As the hour wore on, Galaxy’s Edge seemed to be waking up from the inner workings of its electronics. The droids were still motionless, but there was sound emitting from a grate on the floor. Beeping and whirring and the sound of wind and vibrations from engines poured out of speakers on the walls and in corners.

Nearing the end of the tour, we walked into a bar called Oga’s Cantina. It was circular in shape as empty red booths curved along with it. In the center was a rounded rectangular bar, lit in a fluorescent glow. Hanging from the ceiling were cables and long tubes that rang through the futuristic-looking taps. On the left, there was a stout droid with a set of headphones on. (Do droids even have ears?)

It was silent and still until one of the bartenders dressed in a brown vest costume dug under the bar and flipped a switch. Never before had it occurred to me that the robots were controlled by switches. They were always just “on.” Immediately, the droid blinked its metallic eyes and became DJ R-3X. Music and hard beats blasted through the too-quiet room and I felt sorry for DJ R-3X on the low turnout for his first performance of the day.

By the time we had exited Oga’s Cantina, the sun was a bright yellow and completely turned to shades of color on set from warm to cold. Sunrise had ended, so visitors were flooding in. Fathers with daughters on their shoulders, mothers with children in strollers, and true fans in full Star Wars cosplay costumes.

Then, from my right, two white clone troopers marched down the street. People clogged the roads and filled up every room like air in a balloon, laughing, pointing and shooting pictures. A young boy tried shaking hands with a droid as it spun on its wheels, while some raided the stores, making the Porg puppets fly through the air. The sounds of conversation that burst to life seemed to spark a match through the atmosphere, crackling and comforting.

A tremendously long line was beginning to form for Smuggler’s Run, the only ride in Galaxy’s Edge at the time. I laughed, for I did not miss that aspect of people at Disneyland.

“Working on the project is the most exciting part for me. But once it’s completed, it’s always rewarding seeing people enjoy the outcome and bringing it to life,” Quintana said. “I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s just really cool.”

As more visitors stampeded in, the more our tour was ushered out. We had overstayed our welcome. We weren’t allowed to head back through the large double doors from whence we came, else it would expose the backlot.

However, our guides quickly found another route around. Just like the engineers and designers of Disney, we were behind-the-scenes, and we weren’t supposed to exist any more than the actual planet of Batuu.