Nerd Guru

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Classic Nerd Guru: Restrictions breed creativity

Note: This article originally ran on February 13, 2007, is slightly edited for reprint in an effort to share previously published ideas with new readers.

Do you ever feel like you could do more if only you had a higher budget?

Have you thought your project would be better if management or preexisting conditions hadn't shackled how you really wanted to do things?

Wish you could take advantage of that cool new technology, only it's not approved for use by your company yet?

We all run into restrictions during the course of a project and they are usually the source of a lot of frustration. Limiting factors can make things more complicated than they otherwise would be, but they also breed creativity. Such was the case in the 1960s when Disney Imagineers began to expand Disneyland.

Most people have been to a version of the Haunted Mansion at a Disney park somewhere in the world. You are led into a dark, creepy room. The Disney cast member closes the door and a recorded spiel begins to tell you that the parlor you just entered is inhabited by 999 happy haunts (there's room for 1,000, any volunteers?). The walls of the room depict previous guests in paintings. The lights get dark, there are scary noises, and then the room appears to stretch.

It's a cool effect that sets the scene nicely before you proceed onto your "doom buggy" for the remainder of your ride, but did you ever wonder why the room stretches? It isn't for the sake of the effect, as you might expect. A key restriction in the original version of the ride at Disneyland in California is why. Disney Imagineers used a physical limitation they could not change to come up with an effect that turned out to be a trademark of the ride and duplicated in other versions despite the absence of the same pre-existing problem.

From an early age, Walt Disney was fascinated with trains. So much so, he had a well-known and very elaborate scale model train in his back yard for many years before Disneyland's opening in 1955. When the plans for a theme park were being created, among the things that Walt insisted upon was that their be a train route that encircled the park.

The effect of this is that the train track, which can be seen in Figure 1 as the inner circuit that encompasses park (the outer one was a service road that no longer exists in its entirety), restricts the amount of real estate available for attractions. As Disneyland began to expand, this space limitation became a problem.

For the Haunted Mansion, the stretching room provides the solution. The room doesn't stretch up as the visual illusion would have you believe. Instead, the entire room is great big elevator that takes guests below the elevation of the train tracks. As you enter or exit that room (in the California version), look down and you should be able to see a noticeable elevator threshold.

The hallway that connects the stretching rooms (there are two of them) to the doom buggy loading area runs directly beneath the railroad tracks. Once you are loaded into your buggy, you are in a structure that is outside the bounds of the railroad tracks for a majority of the ride. This approach is used in several places throughout Disneyland to maximize space inside the tracks without limiting the size of the attractions.

The stretching room effect proved to be so popular with guests, it was replicated in all other versions of the attractions despite the absence of the train tracks limitation. At Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Florida, for example, the room really does stretch up to achieve the same effect.

When you have unlimited resources, you can afford to be sloppy with your designs. Restrictions introduce a set of rules that you cannot change and are forced to be creative in order to come up with a solution. In many cases, as what happened to Disney Imagineers when designing the Haunted Mansion, this forces you to come up with a better solution despite the limitations being placed upon you.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 8:17 AM   1 comments


At 4:26 PM, Blogger Liz said...

I love this post. I am pretty sure I read the one about the haunted mansion before...but its great to see it again. Good job.


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