At first glance, many guests might think that Walt Disney Imagineers -- the wizards responsible for envisioning and creating the Walt Disney World Resort theme park attractions -- are all creative masterminds with blue-sky ideas that constantly bubble over like nervous energy.
Looking closer, however, one discovers that complex mathematics, physics and science are a major part of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) projects. And that a slide rule, calculator and computer are vital tools complementing the out-of-the-box dreaming for which Disney is famous.
Left Brain, Right Brain
The most recent -- and "terror"fying -- example of this unique talent blend is the latest incarnation of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™, the 13-story thrill ride at Disney-MGM Studios that features high-speed, fright-filled ascents and descents within a haunted hotel façade.
When Walt Disney Imagineers suggested the idea of adding more terror to the Tower, they knew it would require a perfect marriage of creativity and mathematics.
Enter Theron Skees and Michael Tschanz, the WDI "dream team" designated to make it reality.
As the WDI creative show producer for Disney-MGM Studios, Skees works with lighting and interior designers, conceptualists, writers and architects on every creative aspect of the theme park. Skees also has an extensive background in sculpting, thematic painting and design.
Tschanz, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering, found his calling in applied mathematics and started his career at a large technology corporation in Texas where he developed simulations and performed systems analyses on graphics supercomputers.
Also an accomplished pianist and music director, Tschanz joined Disney in 1997, working for the Scientific Systems arm of WDI. He's a self-described hi-tech "geek" who tackles a world of probabilities, algorithms and software systems. As a principal software engineer for Scientific Systems, Tschanz works with three-dimensional simulations, real-time control algorithms and systems modeling.
"Some have called us a two-headed monster," laughs Tschanz, "but it is a great complement of left brain and right brain skills."
The combination of those skills produced what Skees and Tschanz call "Tower of Terror 4," signifying the fourth time (since its debut in 1994) that the attraction has reopened with a new ride and drop sequence. Each time, more thrills and special effects were added.
The Tower is in Control
This time, Skees and Tschanz actually placed the attraction in control, as the complex computer system randomly chooses which ups and downs guests will experience. In addition, more special effects were added, making Tower of Terror one of the most advanced multi-sensory attractions anywhere in the world.
While Skees and his team brainstormed ways to surprise guests like never before -- with ghostly apparitions, 3-D sounds, surprising smells and making the elevator vehicle move in different ways -- Tschanz kept his computer running non-stop, inputting data and meticulously measuring variables such as ride time, drop time and -- his personal favorite -- "air time."
Math + Creativity = Terror
Call it "math-magic," but Tschanz's meticulous studies resulted in the technology and capabilities of Tower of Terror being pushed farther than ever before. Knowing Skees was busy pumping more surprises than ever into the attraction's storyline, Tschanz's mission from the outset was to create an out-of-this-world experience using digits and denominators to complement the illusion and effects.
"Through analysis, you want to push these systems and get as much as you possibly can out of them because you're going to get a better guest experience out of them. Also, creative (Skees' team) is going to be happier with the final product, and then our guests will be really happy," Tschanz says. "Everybody's going to win. It's certainly harder and takes more time to do that, but you end up with a much better product in the end."
Skees and Tschanz, along with their respective teams, spent approximately two years on the redesign of Tower of Terror, pouring through multiple mock-ups, computer models, creative designs and reams of data.
Since the attraction was open to park guests during the day, the teams had to work around the clock, spending many late nights inside the dark elevator shafts. Skees and Tschanz often found themselves strapped inside the elevator cars for up to three hours at a time as new drop sequences were tested and studied. Tschanz estimates he rode the attraction nearly 3,000 times during the project.
The result, they agree, exceeded even their lofty expectations.
Like proud parents of a New Year's baby, Tschanz and Skees proudly watched as their attraction debuted on Dec. 31, 2002.
"With the different ride profiles, this was like having multiple attractions in one project," says Skees. "We are extremely fortunate to have a very flexible storyline and a reprogrammable ride system on this attraction. Those two elements gave us a great opportunity to reinvent the way we tell that story and gave us a greater canvas to paint on.
But Can it Predict Lottery Numbers?
As Tower of Terror sends thrills and chills through brave Disney guests, Tschanz and Skees hear their share of shrieks and screams coming from the cavernous elevator shafts. And they're also hearing lots of questions. The number-one question people ask? "Which ride profile will be next?"
"When we say the Tower is now in control, that is 100 percent accurate," Tschanz says. "The very moment that the elevator is entering the shaft, the computer decides what is going to happen. It decides which experience it picks.
"As far as which one is next, the sequence does not go in any order and then just start over. The Tower actually has a random number generator that's based on modulo functions," he says. "It is a totally random set of numbers. We don't know and even the ride operators don't know. Really, only the Tower knows."