Heard but not seen at Disney: Device helps blind visualize rides
Walt Disney World has rolled out a first-of-its-kind service designed to let even blind guests “see” its famed attractions.
Called “audio description,” the service provides visually impaired vacationers with a narrative depiction of the scenes that unfold as they move through rides such as the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean.
It is the latest feature added to a proprietary, wireless system that Disney World initially developed to help disabled guests. The system also includes features for deaf and hard-of-hearing guests, such as amplified sound and hand-held captions.
“We want to make our rich stories available to everyone,” said Greg Hale, vice president of worldwide safety and accessibility for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
But it has also become something of a side business for Disney.
Through a three-year contract that was recently renewed, Disney licenses the technology to Houston-based Softeq Development Corp., which markets the system to everyone from other tourist attractions to timber companies.
The system relies on a series of remote, infrared sensors and a durable, hand-held device initially built to withstand drops to the ground, rain and other liquid intrusion, and all manner of other punishment dished out during a day in a theme park.
Customers include the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, where a former general manager and the current attractions manager are former Disney World executives, and the Hall at Patriot Place in Foxborough, Mass., a hall of fame dedicated to the New England Patriots football team.
Both of those attractions, like Disney World, use the system to provide services to deaf and blind visitors.
But other types of companies are also interested in buying the hand-held unit itself, which Softeq sells as the rugged “Durateq.”
Trey Litel, Softeq’s vice president of sales and marketing, said Softeq markets the device to forestry and oil companies, industrial-safety businesses and even restaurants interested in point-of-sale systems that allow servers to run credit-card transactions right at their customers’ tables.
Disney earns royalties on the software, which it has patented, and on the hand-held devices, which it developed jointly with Softeq.
Both companies declined to say how much the royalties amount to, but the potential market is significant: For example, Softeq hopes to cultivate clients from among more than 14,000 museums across the country.
Disney first introduced its version of the hand-held device in 2005, but it took company engineers much longer to perfect the audio-description feature. The descriptions must be perfectly synchronized to avoid interrupting an attraction’s primary narration.
Engineers had to make various changes along the way. Tests revealed, for instance, that blind guests were uncomfortable using the original, two-ear headphones because they depend on their sense of sound to guide themselves around. So Disney replaced the headphone with a single earpiece, which allows a guest to leave the other ear unobstructed.
The system’s narration also had to be carefully selected and produced to distinguish it from the other audio encountered in a Disney attraction.
For example, in the Haunted Mansion, where all riders listen to a ghoulishly themed male voice, the audio description produced by the hand-held device is provided by a female voice speaking in even tones.
Disney rolled out the audio descriptions earlier this spring, just before the Easter rush. The company says it is now working on expanding the service to include descriptions of outdoor areas in its theme parks.