Disney has begun populating its parks with autonomous, personality-driven robots

Disney has begun populating its parks with autonomous, personality-driven robots

The process of making a Disney park feel alive is most easily encapsulated in animatronic figures. These hydraulic, pneumatic and now electric figures have been a fixture at Disneyland since the 60s. Since then, massive advancements have been made in control systems, movement architecture and programming. The most advanced animatronic figures like the Na’Vi Shaman in Disney World’s Na’vi River Journey are plain and simply robots. And very sophisticated ones at that.

But not every animatronic in the parks can be a simple pneumatic connected to a bulky master system or a highly advanced and complex robotic masterwork. That’s where the Vyloo come in.

Begun as a project to help populate the park with more interactive elements, the Vyloo are three small alien creatures in a self-contained pod that renders them autonomous. They have moods, interact with guests through non-verbal gestures and cues and are powered by a completely onboard system that can be tuned quickly and left to do its thing.

“What we pitched was a project to try to bring small autonomous animatronic creatures to life. We were really interested in the idea of creating some little guys that could truly respond to and interact with guests,” says Leslie Evans, Senior R&D Imagineer at Disney. She and Alexis Wieland, Executive R&D Imagineer, started the project with the goals to create something that was autonomous, but also created a reaction in the guests that felt like a real emotional relationship. They needed to have a “spectrum of personalities” and then a set of tools that would allow them to dial those attributes up and down before setting them loose on guests.

“I think that a lot of this was coming out of this desire to start thinking about animatronics as actors, so being able to say we want these characters to be shy, we want them to be outgoing ‑‑ trying to define them in terms of personality ‑‑ and then translating all of that into the technical tools that we need to bring the characters to life,” says Evans.

I first saw the Vyloo, then informally called ‘Tiny Life’, on a tour with a Girls Who Code group a year ago. At the time they looked fairly similar, if more ‘plain’. The basic unit is a log with three small creatures, now known as Vyloo, sitting on top of it. The creatures are outfitted with sensors and cameras and the ancillary equipment that allows them to run is completely contained inside their bodies or the log structure. This allows the Vyloo to be incredibly modular. This is unlike most robots in the park, which require attachment to external auxiliary systems that control or manipulate them.

The project had gotten to the point of being able to demo it to groups like the GWC class when the serendipity that happens at Imagineering often kicked in.

“One of the guys from our department had been working on “Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!,” and he was like, “Hey, guys, you really need to come to R&D and see these creatures. I think it would be the perfect thing for the first scene, that queue line in the collector’s collection room,” says Evans.

This interplay between what Imagineering is experimenting with and what gets put in the parks is one of the things that makes the unit such a unique robotics lab. Many times off the shelf parts like Kinect sensors are grabbed and fit to the task, other times specific parts, components or even materials have to be invented and manufactured. Whatever technical hurdles are being overcome are always in service of the story, but the way that they may be put to use isn’t always known at the outset.

The goal of having autonomous robotic units that can easily be placed throughout the parks to create a richer, more interactive environments was half of the goal, and it worked well with the Mission Breakout scene, which features creatures and objects collected by…The Collector, natch. But that was only part of the goal with the project.

“Our characters right now give very polished, perfect performances, but they really are a loop in the sense that they don’t really respond to the guests, so bringing the characters down so they know the guests are there and actually respond appropriately,” says Wieland. “To stay in character is a big part of what we were trying to pull off here, and so moving in that direction is a big part of it. How do we make our characters more visceral in the moment with the guests?”

To that end, the Vyloo are programmed initially with a range of motions and actions they can take – squishing and stretching, cocking their heads, moving their necks around. These actions are then given over to a program that takes in signals from guests by tracking whether they’re looking at them, listening to the guests talk to the Vyloo while they’re staring at their cage and following them with their gaze when they move.

The next phase, which is what the Mission Breakout test is all about, was to learn how the guests interacted with the creatures.

“As we watched them in the park, there’s something really magical about when one of these creatures looks at you. It’s enabling guests to play with our animatronics in a new way that we haven’t seen before, and I think the response to that has been very positive and super exciting that people are playing with these guys,” says Evans.

And those interactions include many things that the team never dreamed of.

“The one which blows me away… [is] guests do these kissy ‘faces and stick their tongues out at them constantly. This is like, “oh, I hadn’t even thought of that,”” says Alexis. “They’re doing interactions that never occurred to me, and that’s part of the reason we’re doing this. It’s fantastic. One of the things we see all the time is people play with them and interact with them. That’s fun, and then they take a step to leave, and it keeps watching them. You see them stop, and move back, and they’re like, ‘oh my God.’”

“It’s really wonderful when that light bulb goes off…the kids get it much quicker than the adults do,” he adds.

To tune those reactions, the team created a sort of game controller on steroids, featuring knobs and sliders that allow them to tune their “attitudes” and awareness. They can be feisty or chill; more interactive or less; hyper or sleepy. Once the tuning is done, they’re set loose on the guests again.

In a moment of further synergy, the Vyloo actually ended up in the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, right after the Milano crash lands on the planet Berhert. Director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, James Gunn, saw the prototypes at Imagineering and loved them — and ended up giving them their name.

“When we saw the prototypes at Imagineering R&D Headquarters we were all blown away. Such fantastic creations. The colors were a little too muted for the Guardians of the Galaxy world though, so we tweaked the design and made them a little more flamboyant to fit the Guardians aesthetic. Then I got to name them! I love the Vyloos and would love nothing more than to have one as a pet!”

All of this started off with a bright yellow puppet that Evans describes as ‘dirt-simple’ and made of spare fur and wooden rods, but still says was “cute”.

“With the puppet, we worked with a puppeteer here who’s unbelievably talented and really helped give this project life in a way that can’t be understated. He was critical to the success. We did hours of study with this thing where we would say, “How do you say hi if you’re really shy, but you’re also kind of curious?” We would record all of these motions that we did with the puppet. A lot of times we’d start off in this very analog way. It helps us get a bunch of creative intent defined quickly.

Suddenly, we have all this footage of all of these different personalities. How would they say hi? How do they get surprised? What do they do if you walk away from them? From that, we started to tease out, “This is a ton of data. How do we simplify this down into a prototype system that we could build to try to show the power of some of these simple interactions?” ‑‑ saying hi, what happens when you leave, what happens when you get startled, if there’s animatronics around you, how do I feel about my friends?

We did a huge pass at defining a wide range of that, and then from there, pared down. “What’s the critical stuff that we really need for this first minimum viable product, a kind of animatronic that we’d put out in the first pass?”

From there, the emotional shorthand was fit into as simple a set of gestures as possible to limit the complexity of the creatures. One of the most effective of these is what the team refers to as the ‘squash and stretch’ — the act of pushing its head down into its body to squish or craning the neck to stretch out. This simple action took the place of a lot of emotional cues that humans use like eyebrows or facial muscles.

Once the Vyloo made it into the queue, there were changes to be made too to compensate for the loudness of the environment, the relative attentiveness or lack thereof of the guests and more.

As with every project that makes it out of Imagineering, the primary goal of the Vyloo and the creatures that will come after it is to crank up the delight factor of guests to Disney’s various parks. As a component of that, the robots that Disney is building need to become more interactive and able to be viewed from close up, with convincing interchanges of emotion and communication.

The future of robotics at Disney is thick with emotional context, autonomy and interactivity. It’s focusing incredibly heavily on the emotional quotient of robots, rather than seeking pure efficiencies. But at the same time it needs to make robots that withstand incredible scrutiny from millions of visitors, are robust enough to operate with near perfect uptime 14 hours a day all year long for years.

It’s this unique blend of disciplines that are all driven by an ego-light ‘whatever it takes’ mentality that make it one of the most exciting robotics labs in the world. The Vyloo are a relatively low-key addition to the arsenal of attractions in the park, but they telegraph a great amount of cool things to come for Disney fans, as well as some overall learnings for the robotics industry about the power of emotion and interactivity in increasing efficiency and coexistence with robots.


Rumored New Disney Park Would Be Different From All the Others

If the vintage roots of Space Mountain, high-flying joy of Astro Orbitor, and retro futurism of rides like the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover are among the highlights of your trips to Disney World or Disneyland, Japan may very well be the next place you should visit.

News broke over the weekend on TDRExplorer with details of a brand new park exclusive to Tokyo Disney Resort that may be on its way. According to Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, plans are being finalized for a space and flight-inspired theme park called Tokyo DisneySky that could possibly open within the next four years.

Tokyo Disney parks

Taro Hama/Getty Images


Tokyo Disney Resort is currently home to two parks: Tokyo Disneyland, which is derived from the design of Disneyland Park in California, and Tokyo DisneySea, a standalone location with attractions, lands, and entertainment that appear nowhere else. Similar to Tokyo DisneySea’s aquatic inspiration, which features lands within a harbor, port, island, and mermaid lagoon, the supposed Tokyo DisneySky would touch on outer space, aerodynamic flight, and futuristic travel — and be the only one of its kind in the world.

Moving walkways would transport guests from place to place — likely as a riff on Disney’s Omnimover-style boarding or the PeopleMover ride system — and while no specific attractions have yet been announced, a jet plane simulator is said to be part of it. With an emphasis on technology, it would also be the first park without paper ticketing of any kind; guests would use a smartphone app to enter.

Tokyo Disney Resort is rumored to be repurposing a parking lot for the project, and with its footprint being significantly smaller than Tokyo’s two others, theme park enthusiasts are speculating one thing will set this expansion apart from all other Disney parks: they’ll build upwards. Multi-story buildings, ride atop rides, vertical attractions — it could all fit perfectly within the horizon-gazing theme. It’s possible, too, that Tokyo DisneySky could serve as an overseas home to an additional location of a Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed land, which is set on a remote planetary outpost, or possibly Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opened at Walt Disney World last Spring. Both fit the theme, and it’s not as though it hasn’t been brought up before; Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger teased the idea of additional Avatar expansions back in September.

“On Feb. 4, 2018, there were articles on Tokyo Disney Resort expansion, etc. posted by the media, however, none of the contents were announced by our company. Following our release on April 27, 2016 named ‘TDL/TDS Future Development Plans,’ we are considering various development strategies for 2021 and after to further enhance values of TDR as a whole.”

The latest revelations can be somewhat substantiated by Tokyo Disney Resort’s decade-long $4.5-billion investment and confirmed multi-year expansion across both parks. Soarin’, the popular ride at Epcot and Disney California Adventure parks, will soon make its way to Tokyo DisneySea, while a “Beauty and The Beast”-themed land and innovative ride, “Big Hero 6” attraction, and new entertainment and meet-and-greet locations will open at Tokyo Disneyland through 2020. A planned “Frozen”-themed port at Tokyo DisneySea was initially confirmed, but has not appeared in press materials following its announcement.

Disney launches campaign to take the word ‘princess’ back from the brats

PRINCESSES have been getting a bad rap – so much so that Disney Australia is today launching a campaign to reinvent the term “princess”.

Grace Thomas, 4, and Ruby Fitzsimmons, 4, from Mudgeeraba, dress up as princesses. Picture: Nigel Hallett

Once upon a time, children believed the Disney princess to be inspirational, a positive role model. Fast-forward a couple of generations and the term now conjures up images of an overindulged spoilt brat.

New research by Disney Australia shows most children aged four to six-years-old still love to dress up as their favourite character, such as Belle or Moana, and love to call themselves “princess”.

This fades fast as they grow older and by the time they hit 10 to 12, almost 50 per cent said they would be offended to be called a princess.

Parents admitted they used the term “princess” negatively when their kids were behaving badly.

“Across generations, Disney princesses have been ­portrayed as resilient, strong, optimistic and kind,” Disney Australia chief executive Kylie Watson-Wheeler said.

“We want to empower young girls and boys to again embrace the inspiring qualities of princesses and admire the strong character traits of modern characters such as Anna (from Frozen), Belle and Moana to help re-frame the discussion.”

Disney wants to reclaim the word “princess” and make the term inspirational again. Popular Disney princess Moana is pictured.

Brisbane psychologist Dr Judith Locke said it was good for small children to dress up and use their imagination as it helped promote development.

“It is a shame the word princess has been linked with bratty, spoilt behaviour because real princesses in the modern world are hard-working, strong, independent women,” Dr Locke said.

“Things are changing and it is good that Disney women are portrayed as capable and courageous. Kids don’t want to see them as weak damsels in distress, relying on being beautiful and having expensive gowns.


Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars: CEO Bob Iger says Disney’s streaming service will be able to compete with Netflix

Chief executive officer and chairman of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse look on before ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), November 27, 2017 in New York City.

Disney CEO: Young people are subscribing to traditional, cheaper cable packages  

Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger said the company’s yet-to-be-launched direct-to-consumer service will be able to hold its own against streaming giant Netflix.

The Walt Disney Company is home to box office powerhouses Marvel, Pixar and “Star Wars.” In an earnings call on Tuesday, Iger explained that Disney doesn’t need to spend a lot on trial and error to make hit content for its new service because it already owns the rights to such valuable properties.

“When you go to market with “Star Wars” movies, Disney movies, Pixar movies, Marvel-branded and branded television shows under those umbrellas … that will give us the ability to probably spend less than if we had gone to market with a direct-to-consumer service without these brands,” Iger said.

Disney knows it already has shows and movies that consumers want and are actively seeking. By making those exclusively available on its streaming service, Disney doesn’t face the same pressure to outbid other companies in the content spending race. In January, Netflix said it plans on spending between $7.5 billion and $8 billion on content in 2018 alone.

Instead, the entertainment giant can focus on developing its existing franchises and originals. In August, Disney said it would be pulling its movies from Netflix in 2019, when it plans to launch its own streaming platform. The news sent Netflix shares down 4 percent in extended trading.

Besides the nostalgic benefits of Disney’s original movies, there’s plenty of new content on the horizon. Iger said Tuesday that “Black Panther” ticket presales were “outpacing every other superhero movie ever made, driven in part to the phenomenal reaction to the premiere last week.”


Disney Has Hired the Showrunners of ‘Game of Thrones’ to Develop a Series of New ‘Star Wars’ Films

It’s a big week at Lucasfilm.

Just a day after unveiling the long-awaited teaser trailer to its next film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Disney-owned production company announced it has hired the creative minds behind the biggest show on this planet to write and produce a brand-new series of Star Wars movies.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are the show runners (as well as writers and directors) of Game of Thrones, which will be wrapping up with its last season airing in 2019. The pair had been expected to get to work on another program for HBO—an alternative history series titled Confederate—which was instantly hit with backlash when it was announced last July.

That show is not yet in active production, but Benioff and Weiss clearly have bigger plans on that twin sun horizon. Similar to Rian Johnson’s mysterious new trilogy announced during a Disney earnings call (DIS, -1.34%) last November, the Weiss and Benioff-penned films will operate outside the episodic “Skywalker Saga,” which would include Disney’s recent productions, The Force Awakens in 2015 and The Last Jedi in 2017. Disney and Lucasfilm haven’t offered any further details as to what these movies will cover or even how many there will be. It’s possible they could also function as a group of standalone films, like 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

However, there is a glaring issue that cannot be ignored with this announcement: Lucasfilm has yet to hire a woman or person of color to helm one of its blockbuster films.

Questions about that issue came up repeatedly during the The Last Jedi press tour in December, with Johnson effectively answering on behalf of the studio that that is something he wants to see happen soon. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy got into some hot water over the topic in late 2016, initially saying in an interview withVariety that the studio wants to hire a female filmmaker to direct a Star Wars movie, but adding that “they’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience.” She clarified soon thereafter that “we have every intention of giving someone an opportunity.”

It almost looked like Lucasfilm was finally going to make some progress on this front when rumors swirled in January after Reed Moreno, director and executive producer on Hulu’s acclaimed hit The Handmaid’s Tale, said she had a meeting with Kennedy. But after buzz quickly took over social media and Star Wars Reddit forums, Moreno quickly shot down rumors that she had made any kind of deal or plans.

Disney and Lucasfilm have been lauded, deservedly so, for pushing to diversify its casting choices and center the last three of its Star Wars films around two female protagonists—much to the applause of critics and most audience goers, but also the chagrin of a sub-sect of Internet trolls, who responded maliciously by trying to tank the Rotten Tomatoes audience score for The Last Jedi.

As Kennedy described in Tuesday’s announcement, Weiss and Benioff are “some of the best storytellers working today,” and Game of Thrones is a testament to that. Surely, fans will happily hand over their money for tickets—but they likely would for any movie with the words Star Wars attached to it. (You only have to look at the historical box office success of the much-derided Prequel Trilogy to know that is true.) Without a doubt, Disney and Lucasfilm have the financial security to take more chances with the franchise, and one would hope they would take advantage of that opportunity with a more diverse group of storytellers—sooner rather than later.


Disney Earnings Beat Estimates, but Fall Short on Revenue

The Walt Disney Co. on Tuesday reported fiscal first-quarter earnings of $1.89 per share, beating earnings estimates but falling short of expectations on revenue.

The better-than-expected earnings was in part due to the recently enacted federal tax changes, creating a one-time $1.6 billion boost to the company, Disney executives said during a call with analysts.

The Burbank-based media conglomerate reported revenues of $15.35 billion, up 4% from the same period last year, but short of the $15.5 billion analysts had been expecting. Net income was $4.4 billion, up 78% from the same quarter last year.

The earnings report comes amid a widespread market contraction that saw the Dow plungemore than 1,100 points on Monday, but by Tuesday, Wall Street had rebounded somewhat. It’s also the first report since Disney announced in mid-December that it would buy film and television assets from Fox, in a deal valued at $52.4 billion.

Iger did not divulge many details about the pending acquisition, starting out the call addressing the status of the deal.

“The regulatory process has begun,” Iger said, adding that in several weeks he has met with business leaders at Fox to gain insight into their operations. “I’m even more enthusiastic about the businesses we are acquiring and the management teams leading them.”

Iger said the acquisition of Fox’s film and TV assets will “deliver more content and production capabilities,” adding that it “will greatly diversify our businesses geographically.”

The deal is expected to beef up Disney’s library ahead of the launch of a Disney-branded streaming service launching in late 2019. Iger on Tuesday also revealed the monthly subscription cost of its forthcoming ESPN Plus streaming app, debuting this spring. The service will cost $4.99 a month. It will feature an array of sports in a new app that will feature personalized news and other content, Iger said.

Across its divisions, Disney reported that revenues for media networks, studio and consumer products were slightly down or flat. Parks and resorts reported a 13% rise in revenue from the same quarter last year.

The decline in revenues for media networks was largely due to lower advertising revenue, higher programming costs and lower operating income from program sales, said Disney chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy. ESPN, which has been suffering from a loss of cable subscribers, saw ad revenue decline 11% in the fiscal first-quarter, McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, the studio division saw relatively flat revenues of $2.5 billion. Among the releases in the current quarter were “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which has made a cumulative $1.3 billion globally at the box office. But compared with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” is trailing the domestic box office haul at the same juncture by nearly $300 million.

Revenue for consumer products were also down, declining 2% to $1.5 billion, the company said.

Shortly before the earnings report, Disney announced that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” will be writing and producing a new “Star Wars” film series.

Shares of Disney rose more than 2.6% Tuesday in after-hours trading to $109 a share. It closed Tuesday up 1.4% to $106.17.


Disney’s 300,000-Square-Foot Bet On Sports

On Jan. 12 ,Walt Disney World Resort opened the doors to the latest development at its resort complex near Orlando, Florida. It’s not a new theme park, show or ride but it’s just as crucial to getting guests through the turnstiles.

Mentioning Walt Disney World conjures up images of Cinderella castle, waves of wide-eyed little kids and roller coasters. Sport doesn’t usually spring to mind but it should.

Alongside Walt Disney World’s four theme parks, two water parks and more than 26 hotels is one of the world’s biggest and most innovative sports facilities. It bears the name of ESPN, the sports broadcasting behemoth owned by the Hearst Corporation and Disney, which holds an 80% stake in it.

The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex spans 220 acres and has facilities that have hosted over 70 types of sports. There’s a 9,500-seat ballpark, 16 softball fields, 18 multi-purpose outdoor fields, a track and field complex, 10 tennis courts and three indoor arenas. It has a unique business model which has stood the test of time as the complex turns 21 this year.

ESPN Wide World of Sports

The revenue of the complex comes from event registration, gate sales, merchandise, food and beverage and event and facility sponsorship but that’s just the start. The facilities at the Wide World of Sports are all aimed at youth events and there is good reason for this. As the athletes are young they inevitably come with their family members who watch them. That brings business to Disney’s on-site hotels and its parks as the competitors and their families tend to visit them once the events are over. It has had a magic touch.

The Wide World of Sports hosts more than 100 events annually with highlights in recent years including the NFL Pro Bowl Week and the Invictus Games. The events attract more than 150,000 athletes, coaches and fans throughout the year and research shows that the majority of them would not have visited the parks if it were not for the sports complex. It hasn’t just enchanted a male audience and, testimony to this, one of the biggest events held there is the Universal Cheerleaders Association National High School Cheerleading Championship.

Run by cheerleading giant Varsity Brands, it is the most prestigious event of its kind. It attracts more than 700 teams from 33 states and is the only national championship endorsed by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Indeed, Varsity’s seven major events at the Wide World of Sports are so successful that they were among the driving forces behind Disney’s new star attraction.

Despite its scale, the Wide World of Sports is still expanding and just over two weeks ago threw the doors open to an 8,000-seat 300,000 square foot multi-purpose indoor arena which is four times bigger than the current flagship there. It is one of the world’s largest venues designed specifically for hosting cheer and dance team events and is much more than just four walls and a roof.

“The configuration is very interesting,” says Faron Kelley, Vice President of Sports at Walt Disney World Resort. “We worked with our stakeholders at Varsity to design a building that would be uniquely equipped to handle the needs of their events. So there are two large adjacent buildings that they use as warm-up spaces. Each of those can actually accommodate six cheerleading groups warming up. The building itself is designed so it can be divided into four quadrants so we can have four competitions happening simultaneously then change the configuration to do finals where we have just one large space with 8,000 seats in the round.” It was born out of necessity.

Every year  tens of thousands of athletes and spectators visit Walt Disney World as a result of the Wide World of Sports hosting more than seven cheer and dance team events through its collaboration with Varsity Brands and youth football organization Pop Warner. Kelley says that the Varsity national championship events alone had become so popular that none of the existing venues could host them all. Until now.

“The impetus for the new building was the cheerleading business that we have. It has grown so large that we had to erect large football field-sized tents to accommodate the event.” This stood in stark contrast to the rest of the Wide World of Sports.

The complex shares the quality standards that Disney is famous for. It was designed by the same wizards who build its cutting-edge theme park rides and it doesn’t take much time to see that this is no Mickey Mouse facility. Its tall terracotta towers, porticoes and palm tree-lined pathways resemble those found in Mediterranean towns and give visitors a regal sense of arrival.

There are no cracked tiles on the walls or flickering lights. It is spotlessly-clean and instead of having a purely functional design it’s crammed with details. Up close it can be seen that the wrought-iron railings there form the shapes of baseball bats and inside the ballpark clubhouse even the light fixtures resemble ballplayers. The new arena has a similar sparkle.

ESPN Wide World of Sports

“Guests are coming here for a world championship event but because of the sheer numbers we have had them in temporary facilities for a few years. With the new arena we will be able to provide an even higher level of Disney guest service for this experience,” says Kelley. “Guest satisfaction is hugely important.”

The new arena should get competitors in the mood before they even set foot on the property. It sits right at the entrance and above its doorway is a huge sweeping arch which looks like it has come from a Roman amphitheatre.

Some of the athletes who will use it are used to the very best. In recent years, the Wide World of Sports has hosted practice events for teams in the three primary professional sports leagues including the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team which holds its spring training there in March. It makes the complex even more special for young athletes as it gives them an opportunity to train on the same ground as their heroes.

When the complex was only in the planning stages the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was so convinced by its potential that it relocated its headquarters to Disney World and committed to staging more than 50 national events there annually. The AAU hosts 26 national basketball events there every year as well as others in volleyball, baseball, track and field and wrestling. It makes the venue a honey-pot for talent.

The top college coaches and college scouts from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) come to the AAU national championships to recruit the best high school talent before each season begins. The Wide World of Sports is even home to the NBA’s new Jr NBA World Championships, a first-of-its-kind global youth basketball tournament for elite boys and girls from around the world aged 14 and under. It is because of this ethos that many famous sporting names, such as former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt and ex-NBA star Yao Ming, began their careers competing there in youth events.

The list of stars and athletes who have trained or visited the Wide World of Sports reads like a roll call of champions including Lionel Messi, Kaka, Serena and Venus Williams, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Mia Hamm, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan. They are some of the most discerning stars in sport which is why the facilities are of such a high standard.

The complex is covered with nearly 105 acres of Bermuda sports turf but this isn’t any old grass. With daily downpours common in Orlando’s clammy climate, the turf has a 1% slope to enhance drainage systems which can remove 2 to 3 inches of rainfall per hour. The venue even has two data tracking weather stations to provide up-to-the-minute information about meteorological activity which could affect play.

Inside the three arenas it is similarly state-of-the-art. The sports flooring in the HP Fieldhouse arena is made from two types of imported environmentally protected hardwood incorporating a shock absorption system and the venue is cooled by two of the largest air conditioning units in Walt Disney World. Kelley says the same level of thought went into the new arena.

“What’s interesting about the new facility compared to the other two is that they both have permanent hardwood floors for basketball, volleyball and that type of thing so we are not able to put ice on top. Here we have a concrete floor so should we decide to get into ice sports we have the possibility to do that.”

Ice hockey is one of the few sports which doesn’t currently have a home at the Wide World of Sports but that’s not the only reason why the new arena is on track to become its new MVP. It is also big enough to host more than six regulation basketball courts, six regulation volleyball courts or concerts with space for spectators in the central court as well as the seats.

“It is exciting because it isn’t just cheer, it’s basketball, it’s volleyball and e-sports. We are absolutely looking at e-sports and it’s a wonderful venue for that,” says Kelley.

Indeed, in addition to having the services of the Wide World of Sports at its disposal, the arena is kitted out with multi-purpose facilities. There’s an attached box office, built-in loges and judges’ boxes with seating for approximately 70 people, seven concession stands and 35 concession points of sale which will offer specialities such as hazelnut churros and Greek Dogs.

ESPN Wide World of Sports

The new arena is a full-service venue with a built-in Box Office

Kelley says the success of the new arena will be judged on the events held there. It doesn’t just allow the Wide World of Sports to host more events but also larger ones which weren’t previously possible. “When we say we can offer more than 18 basketball courts or volleyball courts on a single site location, event partners are like ‘there aren’t very many places in the world that can do that.’ So it’s that volume play matched with the quality play. That is the real differentiator for us.”

Its appeal stretches far outside Florida. “The three biggest sports from an international standpoint are cheer, soccer and baseball,” says Kelley. “That’s where we see our biggest international draw. We have an international soccer tournament and an international baseball tournament. Both of those draw from 20 to 30 different countries. Cheer can draw from up to 40 different countries. There are cheer tournaments where we have teams coming from Asia and all across the world.”

Disney welcomes the competitors and their families with open arms and even creates bespoke packages for them. For example, they can get special packages at a discounted group rate which helps to make it more affordable for athletes, coaches and families to come to Disney World.

It has given Disney a slice of the sports tourism market which is one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel. Estimated visitor spending associated with sports events in the United States came to $10.5 billion in 2016 according to the latest ‘Sport Tourism: A State of the Industry Report’ by trade body the National Association of Sports Commissions. It revealed that total spending on sports tourism accelerated by 10% on the previous year and by a staggering 26.1% between 2012 and 2016.

National Association of Sports Commissions

According to the National Association of Sports Commissions total spending on sports tourism accelerated by 26.1% between 2012 and 2016

The Wide World of Sports hosts events throughout the year but it maximises the impact by cleverly timing some them to coincide with the slower times of the year.

For instance, in November and December there’s the Disney Soccer Showcase which is the biggest youth soccer tournament in the US featuring more than 500 teams from over 20 countries. Then, between January and November, Walt Disney World hosts four endurance events which are known as runDisney race weekends. Their official titles are the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend presented by Cigna, the Star Wars Half Marathon – The Dark Side, the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend presented by Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend presented by MISFIT.

These events don’t just attract a crowd which wouldn’t otherwise visit the parks, they boost attendance when it would usually be quieter and that really is a happy ending.


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Tokyo Disney owner’s operating profit likely rose 4% in April-Dec

Tokyo DisneySea attracts visitors with special shows, in which many characters from Pixar animated movies appear. (Photo by Sachiko Kishida)


TOKYO — Tokyo Disney Resort operator Oriental Land likely saw its group operating profit rise 4% in the April-December period from a year earlier to around 96 billion yen ($884 million), as seasonal events drew more visitors.

Despite earnings being in line with company expectations, Oriental Land will likely keep unchanged its full-year projections for lower sales and operating profit. The full-year projection will be announced on Tuesday alongside figures for the nine-month period.

In April-December, sales likely rose about 2% to around 370 billion yen. The company has said it expects the number of visitors to fall in the current business year from the prior one, in which it held 15th-anniversary events for Tokyo DisneySea. But the number of visitors appears to be holding steady so far. Bad weather affected many days in October, but November and December attracted many visitors thanks to Christmas-related events.

Earnings were lifted mainly by new seasonal events. On top of its popular Christmas events, the company launched shows featuring the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies at Tokyo DisneySea during the summer, attracting movie fans and young men.

Sales of souvenirs and other goods were also brisk. In addition to regular items, many customers picked up snowman-like stuffed Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters that they can customize with special hats, sweaters and other accessories. Such purchases helped earnings.

For the year through March, Oriental Land expects sales of 469.3 billion yen, down 2% from the previous year, and operating profit of 100.1 billion yen, down 11%. The estimates will likely stay unchanged due to the severe winter weather sweeping the country in recent weeks.


16 trips every Disney lover needs to take in their lifetime

Angel Falls in Venezuela (L) and the fictional Paradise Falls as seen in Pixar’s “Up” (R).
Alice Nerr/ Shutterstock
  • Many Disney animated film locations are based on or inspired by real-life destinations.
  • Paradise Falls from Pixar’s “Up” was based on the real Angel Falls in Venezuela.
  • Both Cinderella’s Castle and Sleeping Beauty’s castle were inspired by Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.

The most iconic Disney movie settings don’t just come from animators’ imaginations; they are usually inspired by actual places.

From the fjords in Norway that influenced the design of the Arendelle kingdom in “Frozen,” to the real-life Cinderella’s Castle that can be found in Bavaria, Germany, INSIDER has rounded up 16 of the most popular Disney movie locations that you can visit in real life.

Keep scrolling to start your bucket list of Disney-inspired destinations that every fan should see in their lifetime.

The Neuschwanstein Castle is a 19th-century palace overlooking the Bavarian Alps.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany.
 Canadastock/ Shutterstock

The pointed towers and turrets of this castle, which was built for the 19th-century Bavarian king, Ludwig II, are instantly recognizable to Disney fans.

Both Cinderella’s castle and Sleeping Beauty’s castle were modeled after Neuschwanstein.

The castle as seen in “Cinderella.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Neuschwanstein Castle is said to have been the major inspiration for Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty’s castles, both on and off the screen.

In Disney World, you can see how closely the real and fictional castles resemble each other.

The Notre Dame cathedral is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Paris.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
 Maziarz/ Shutterstock

The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is well-known as the setting for Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” novel.

In Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” hunchback Quasimodo lives in the 14th-century cathedral.

Notre Dame cathedral in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

The 226-foot cathedral with its two towers and iconic stained glass windows wasrecreated by Disney animators in the 1996 movie.

Chillon Castle is a medieval chateau on the coast of Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Chillon Castle in Montreux, Switzerland.
 cge2010/ Shutterstock

Chillon Castle — or the Château de Chillon — is a medieval fortress on the shores of Lake Geneva that was built in 1150, and was known for housing its prisoners below sea-level.

Prince Eric’s castle in “The Little Mermaid” looks almost identical to Chillon Castle.

Prince Eric’s castle in “The Little Mermaid.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

The details of Prince Eric’s home — down to the color scheme and arched bridge that juts out into the water — are borrowed from the Swiss fortress.

In Quebec, architects rebuild the “Hotel de Glace,” which is made entirely out of ice, every winter.

The Hotel de Glace in Quebec, Canada.
 serkan senturk/ Shutterstock

The Nordic-style Hotel de Glace is a popular Canadian tourist attractions in the winter.

Guests can stay in one of 45 rooms, including a “Frozen”-themed room with an Olaf snowman.

The ice hotel inspired Queen Elsa’s magical ice palace in Disney’s “Frozen.”

Elsa’s ice palace in “Frozen.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

“Frozen” directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee visited the Hotel de Glace for inspiration several years before the movie was released. When Queen Elsa sings “Let It Go,” you can see how much the ice hotel influenced the design of her frozen palace.

The hotel even partnered with Walt Disney Studios to host a press junket when “Frozen” was released in 2013.

The scenery in “Frozen” was inspired by Norwegian landscapes, especially Norway’s Nærøyfjord.

The Nærøyfjord or “Narrow Fjord” in Aurland, Norway.
 Jorge Lascar/ Flickr

There are many Nordic references in Disney’s “Frozen,” but one of the most obvious influences is Nærøyfjord, the most narrow fjord in the world, which is surrounded on both sides by mountains more than a half a mile tall.

“Frozen’s” kingdom of Arendelle looks like it was built in the middle of the Nærøyfjord.

The fictional kingdom of Arendelle in “Frozen.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Arendelle’s setting so closely resembles Norway’s fjords that the Adventures by Disneyvacation program created a “Frozen”-themed vacation package to Norway.

Le Mont Saint-Michel is an island commune off the northwest coast of France topped by a 16th-century abbey.

Le Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France.
 Kanuman/ Shutterstock

This French commune may look like a castle, but Le Mont Saint-Michel was actually built as an abbey in the 11th century. More than a millennium later, the UNESCO World Heritage site is still open to visitors.

Animators were inspired by the French island commune when they designed the kingdom in “Tangled.”

The king and queen’s castle in “Tangled.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

The tall spires of Corona castle from Rapunzel’s kingdom in “Tangled” were modeled after Le Mont Saint-Michel’s abbey.

The Taj Mahal in Agra is one of the most recognizable landmarks in India.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India.
 f11photo/ Shutterstock

The Taj Mahal resembles a royal palace, but it was actually built in the 17th century as a mausoleum and a tribute to the Shah Jahan’s late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Now it’s considered one of the seven new wonders of the world.

The Sultan’s Palace in “Aladdin’s” fictional city of Agrabah was created with the Taj Mahal in mind.

The Sultan’s palace in “Aladdin.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Besides the obvious resemblance of the Sultan’s palace to the Taj Mahal, the name of the fictional city in “Aladdin” is Agrabah — a nod to the Taj Mahal’s home in Agra.

The tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the world is Angel Falls in Canaima National Park, Venezuela.

Angel Falls in Venezuela.
 Alice Nerr/ Shutterstock

Located in the Guayana highlands, Angel Falls is 15 times taller than Niagara Falls. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the many waterfalls found in the Tepuis, or “tabletop mountains,” of Venezuela.

In Disney/Pixar’s “Up,” the fictional Paradise Falls strongly resemble the real waterfalls in Venezuela.

Paradise Falls in Pixar’s “Up.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

The team behind Disney/Pixar’s “Up” visited Angel Falls during film production, making notes and sketches of the waterfall, which would become the visual centerpiece of the movie.

See the waterfall for yourself by booking an adventure tour of the isolated Tepuis region in Venezuela.

Alsace, France, is known for its small, colorful villages, like Ribeauville.

Ribeauville in Alsace, France.
 OliverS./ Shutterstock

The small towns in the Alsace region of France are known for their whimsical architecture.

Ribeauville— one of the oldest medieval towns in Alsace — looks like a real-life fairytale setting.

The provincial town in “Beauty and the Beast” was inspired by real French villages like Ribeauville.

Belle’s “quiet village” in “Beauty and the Beast.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Multiple towns in the Alsace, France, region claim to be the visual inspiration for Belle’s quaint French village in “Beauty and the Beast.” Ribeauville and the neighboring Riquewihr are two of the most cited examples.

Ribeauville even has a town square that looks like it could fit right in with Belle’s opening musical number.

The French Château de Chambord was constructed as a Renaissance castle in the 16th century.

The Château de Chambord at Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France.
 gumbao/ Shutterstock

The Château de Chambord— a French castle originally built as an elaborate hunting lodge — is surrounded by 5,440 acres of formal French gardens and wineries. Today, the castle is a very expensive wedding venue.

The Beast’s castle in both the 1991 and 2017 versions of “Beauty and the Beast” was architecturally inspired by Chateau de Chambord.

The Beast’s castle in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

During production of Disney’s first “Beauty and the Beast” movie, Disney animator Glen Keane and his team visited the Chateau de Chambord.

“It was an ominous, impressive place with all of these spires and just standing there before us,” Keane said in a behind-the-scenes DVD special. “I thought, ‘this is the Beast’s castle. This is where he lives.'”

China’s Forbidden City — a 15th-century palace complex — is a major tourist attraction in Beijing.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China.
 testing/ Shutterstock

China’s Forbidden City is the largest ancient palace in the world, with 980 buildings covering 180 acres. When it was inhabited, the mysterious palace was home to 24 emperors over two dynasties.

Even though the UNESCO World Heritage site was originally “forbidden” to ordinary Chinese citizens, now anyone can book a tour of the giant palace.

In “Mulan,” the Imperial Palace where the emperor lives looks very similar to this real Chinese landmark.

The Imperial Palace in “Mulan.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

In Disney’s “Mulan,” the emperor lives behind the walls of the Imperial Palace. You can see just how much Disney animators were inspired by the Forbidden City.

Dunnottar Castle is the remains of a medieval fortress near Stonehaven, Scotland.

Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
 Esposito Photography/ Shutterstock

Since the 3rd century, generations of churches and castles have been built, invaded and destroyed in the location where Dunnottar currently stands. The remaining ruins are mostly from the 15th century.

After a visit to Scotland, Disney/Pixar animators modeled Merida’s castle in “Brave” after Dunnottar.

Castle DunBroch as seen in Disney/Pixar’s “Brave.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

In 2006 and 2007, the animation team behind Disney/Pixar’s “Brave” visited Scotland.

Originally, Merida’s castle was supposed to be a loch in the Scottish Highlands, butaccording to Scotland’s tourism website, once the animators saw Dunnottar Castle in person, they completely changed their plans for Castle DunBroch.

Machu Picchu is what remains of an ancient Incan citadel in the Andes Mountains of Peru.

Machu Picchu in Peru.
 Iryna Savina/ Shutterstock

Historians believe that Machu Picchu’s mysterious ruins were once an Incan royal estate or holy site. However, the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the 16th century all but eradicated them, leaving this five-mile site as one of the only reminders of their civilization.

In “The Emperor’s New Groove,” the hills of Pacha’s home village were animated to look like the mountain peaks surrounding Machu Picchu.

Pacha’s village in “The Emperor’s New Groove.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

The village’s resemblance to Machu Picchu is not the only reference to Incan civilization in “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

Visitors to Machu Picchu often run into the wild llamas of the Andes Mountains, just like Emperor Kuzco.

The Louisiana Bayou is home to miles of swampland, alligators, and Cajun culture.

A bayou alligator.

New Orleans visitors can take air boat tours of the swamplands that are such an inherent part of Louisiana culture.

In “The Princess and the Frog,” Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen spend most of their time in the bayou trying to break Naveen’s curse.

A trumpet-playing bayou alligator in “The Princess and the Frog.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Even though it’s a New Orleans story, most of “The Princess and the Frog” takes place in the surrounding bayou.

Pixar founder John Lasseter toured the bayou during his research trip to New Orleans and said that “so much of [what we learned] ended up in the movie.”

Grand Central Terminal is a transportation hub in New York City known for its arched ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
 Oliver Foerstner/ Shutterstock

Grand Central Terminal is one of the most iconic New York City landmarks, and attracts millions of commuters and tourists every year.

Game Central Station in “Wreck it Ralph” is a nod to Grand Central Terminal.

Game Central Station in “Wreck it Ralph.”
 Screenshot courtesy of Disney

In Disney’s “Wreck it Ralph,” the transportation hub is called Game Central Station— a playful reference to Grand Central Station. The vaulted ceilings and high windows look almost identical to the real station, but instead of commuters, this fictional station transports video game characters to their consoles.

Sherwood Forest is a 450-acre royal forest in England known as the legendary setting of the Robin Hood stories.

A statue of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire, England.
Nilfanion/ Wikimedia Commons

Sherwood Forest was formed during the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, and was a popular hunting forest during the medieval period. Best known as the backdrop for the iconic tales of Robin Hood and his merry men, the forest today is a protected national park.

Sherwood Forest is Robin Hood’s home in Disney’s version of the tale too.

Robin Hood and Little John in Sherwood Forest in Disney’s “Robin Hood.”
Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Like every other “Robin Hood” story, Disney’s animated classic takes place in Sherwood Forest: the fox outlaw’s hideout from the evil Prince John.


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