When Disney World opened in 1971, it was the first theme park to have continuously playing ambient music on pathways between attractions. The music was there simply to be enjoyable, but it had an unintended side effect: previously ignored parts of the park, like pathways and ride queues, suddenly gained supporting roles in defining the park’s experience. The escape from reality into the fantasy of the rides no longer stopped when the rides ended. Ambient music made the park truly become an experience in itself.
It is a humid summer day at JFK Airport in New York City. I’m following Mr Q as he slowly walks down the aisle toward the back of our plane, which is headed to Orlando, Florida. His movements are tired, his body is lanky, and he breathes with a slight asthmatic wheeze which -- for a split second -- reminds me of Darth Vader. I watch in surprise as he effortlessly lifts his heavy luggage and jolts it into the overhead bin. He turns around, smiles brightly, and says, “are you sitting next to me? Need any help with your luggage?”
Under normal circumstances, I would have assumed the old man sitting next to me was just another retiree going back home to Florida. The last thing I would have guessed was that this wrinkly 81-year-old played an instrumental role in the development of the modern theme park. Mr. Q was Disney’s audio experience engineer, and he designed the original ambient music system for Disney World in 1968. We started discussing his career, and I was struck by the intense passion he still has for his former occupation. He felt it necessary to assure me multiple times that ambient sound was one of the most important parts of the park:
To get the original audio system at Disney World to work, engineers simply attached large speakers to several hundred light-posts randomly scattered throughout the park. It worked reasonably well, and in the decades since, the process has changed very little. For most theme parks, this is how audio systems are still built. But for the happiest place on Earth, and for Mr Q, it wasn’t good enough: it turns out, there is actually a minor flaw with this system. Because the speakers are placed on arbitrarily-positioned light-posts throughout the park, the volume of the music slightly fluctuates as visitors walk along pathways. As they get closer to a speaker, the music gets louder, and as they walk away, it gets quieter.
Mr Q begins to teach me about theme park philosophy as we fly off the coast of South Carolina. Disney World is a manufactured experience. Its environment is more ‘real’ than reality, and that’s part of why it’s such an exciting place. Everything in the park -- from leaves stapled onto trees for covering up empty holes to artificial rocks in the planters -- has been carefully and deliberately designed and placed for the sole pursuit of achieving the perfect environment. When a visitor’s eyes scan the park and see everything in perfect harmony with his expectations, he is overcome with the feeling of bliss. “This is what makes Disneyland the happiest place on Earth,” Mr Q tells me, “This is why people love Disney parks.”
Our plane is preparing for its initial descent, so Mr Q explains hurriedly how the Disney World team fixed the speaker volume problem. For an “unnoticeable annoyance,” the lengths they went to are quite remarkable.
In the mid 1990’s, the park started researching the problem. It would eventually find no existing solution, so the engineers had to design and construct, on their own, one of the most complex and advanced audio systems ever built. The work paid off: today, as you walk through Disney World, the volume of the ambient music does not change. Ever. More than 15,000 speakers have been positioned using complex algorithms to ensure that the sound plays within a range of just a couple decibels throughout the entire park. It is quite a technical feat acoustically, electrically, and mathematically.
As we land, I ask Mr Q what he considers the highlight of his career. He describes how he wrote some software for “manufacturing emotion” with the thousands of new speakers in the park. The system he built can slowly change the style of the music across a distance without the visitor noticing. As a person walks from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland, for example, each of the hundreds of speakers slowly fades in different melodies at different frequencies so that at any point you can stop and enjoy a fully accurate piece of music, but by the time you walk 400 feet, the entire song has changed and no one has noticed.