Blackouts aren't an option at this California

May 1, 2001
ANAHEIM, Calif. In Disney's new California Adventure theme park, lighting design doesn't stop just because the lights are on and the gates are open. For Walt Disney Imagineering's principal show lighting designer, Michael Valentino, opening day is just another day in the tweaking and fussing that goes on every day at Disney theme parks worldwide. This park is completely different at night than it

ANAHEIM, Calif. — In Disney's new California Adventure theme park, lighting design doesn't stop just because the lights are on and the gates are open.

For Walt Disney Imagineering's principal show lighting designer, Michael Valentino, opening day is just another day in the tweaking and fussing that goes on every day at Disney theme parks worldwide.

“This park is completely different at night than it is during the day,” Valentino said, speaking by phone from Disneyland Paris, where he was resetting lights in various attractions. “California Adventure is a good example of a different architecture from Disneyland — it's all outdoors. We're using lots of colors and neon in really broad strokes.”


Disney's new 55-acre park opened in February. Already it has changed the skyline of Anaheim with its un-Disney-like roller coaster, “California Screamin,'” and its interior structure lit up in a deep-purplish blue at night.

The roller coaster is a nod to the old-fashioned wooden roller coasters found on California's piers, although nothing about this iron roller coaster could be confused as old-fashioned. To achieve the traditional effect of having point source light bulbs along the track, instead of using an incandescent source that would burn out in months, Valentino found a fixture that used a cluster of long-life LED sources mounted in a 3- to 4-inch diameter egg strobe conical prism lens.

“A cluster of LEDs pointing forward has no off-access viewing, so we needed something that would have off-access viewing,” he said. “With the egg strobe, the light disperses.”

Walt Disney Imagineering, or WDI, employs its own lighting designers. All of the designers on the California Adventure project came from theatrical lighting backgrounds. The lighting designers become involved in the project at the close of what WDI calls its “blue sky” phase. By this time, the concept of each attraction has been determined. WDI's lighting designers don't design for any space that guests don't visit, such as back-of-house staff areas. The design phase for a given attraction at a Disney theme park can take anywhere from one to one-and-a-half years. Since design began in 1996, four main designers worked on California Adventure, each responsible for a different land: Hollywood Pictures Backlot, Paradise Pier and Golden State.

“We tell stories with our attraction and it's the job of show lighting to help tell that story and enhance that story,” said Valentino, whose first project for Disney was a redesign of Disneyland's Fantasyland in 1983. He left Disney briefly before coming back full-time in 1987.


Since Disney attractions are most always based on a story concept, the lighting designers don't approach their projects like normal buildings. For a ride like “Soarin' Over California,” where guests are taken on a simulated hang-gliding IMAX movie ride through various California landscapes, the ride is contained in an old California air strip and hanger.

“We have a layer of lights that may have been there in the beginning, as part of the hanger,” he said, referring to high-bay fixtures in the hanger interior that acts as a queuing area. “We are using landscape fixtures as indicator lights and, to define the edge of the space (inside the ride), we use burial uplights as landing strip lights.”

Will Hastings, a show lighting designer for WDI, was responsible for Soarin's design, as well as all other attractions within the Golden State area of the park.

“The attraction is really about the movie,” Hastings said from his office in WDI's Burbank headquarters, where he has worked for the past three years on California Adventure. “Your job as a lighting designer is to set the mood and build anticipation. We wanted to give the guest the feeling that something spectacular was about to happen.”

The attractions are constantly evolving during construction phase. With Soarin', Hastings said some pieces they found for the queuing area — such as a large propeller to hang on a wall — weren't found until construction began, but they still had to provide lighting for them.

“Our theme parks never stay the same,” Hastings said. “We want to add a whole series of art pieces to Soarin' that we couldn't afford on opening day.”

With Soarin', most of the light fixtures used in the project came off the shelf, with a few modifications. However, WDI does have employees who design theme fixtures to help the design staff out when they can't find the right fixture.

“We use fixtures from all over the world,” Valentino said. “We have an edict within the company to be as energy efficient as possible, but we have to understand we are in a theatrical setting. Energy-efficient sources have a longer lamp life and that cuts down on our maintenance.”


An aspect of maintenance always on the minds of theme park designers is vandalism. With thousands of guests squeezing through each attraction every day, any fixture accessible to their hands is touched. Hastings said WDI has established a Show Quality Standards group whose job it is to look at how light fixtures are actually used, whether it's as a landing pedestal for birds or as a potentially dangerous hot box.

For the plaza in front of Soarin', Hastings said he had originally wanted to use runway lights. However, they proved to be a trip hazard. Instead, he specified a flush-mounted, in-grade LED fixture that gives the required runway appearance.

Disney's attention to maintenance and the cleanliness of its parks is legendary. To keep their designs true to their intent throughout the life of an attraction, WDI's lighting designers meticulously document each light fixture. Aside from as-built drawings, the designers provide complete fixture schedules with lamp types and wattages, cut sheets, written specifications, as well as the dimmer level the light was set at originally.

As theme parks find ways to entice people back for repeat visits, newer attractions often use complex technology to offer a guest an experience they can't get anywhere else. In the attraction, “It's Tough to be a Bug,” based on Disney's “It's a Bug's Life” movie, guests are given the full high-tech treatment with a 3-D movie that combines with live interactive elements to create a total environment. While lighting plays an integral role in the attraction, it's not imperative for Valentino that the newest lighting technology always be used.

“I always tell my new lighting designers, if you can use an A-lamp and a lampholder instead of a PAR can, use the A-lamp and lampholder,” he said. “Always choose the simplest thing possible to get the effect. The reason is long-term maintenance.”

“It's Tough to be a Bug” required much coordination with electrical contractors on the lighting designer's part.

“HVAC, sprinklers, audio speakers and lighting all gravitate to the same location,” Valentino said. “We are always making adjustments in the field.”

A good portion of the designer's work is carried out in the test and adjust phase of construction, when the lights are focused, the colors are set and the dimmers are balanced.

“It's one thing to have the fixture there, it's another to make it work,” Valentino said.


The Bug show was what Disney calls a “rock” attraction, in that guests feel as if they are entering a cave crawling with bugs and life. The project begins as sketches. Eventually, a foam model is carved exactly to scale. A lighting designer will come in and work with the model designer to tell them where they want lights. All of this information is then transferred to drawings, which Valentino says requires “a lot of notes.”

Once in construction, a rebar and pencil-rod skeleton is made. Mesh and lath are applied next to get the initial shape. At that point, the lighting designers come in with red spray paint to mark where the lights should go. A piece of metal strut is welded on as a structure to mount lights.

“That's a daily job, working with the lath and cement people,” Valentino said. “If you miss a day, they are going to lath and plaster over that part you wanted for your light.”

Craig Pierce, who as a senior show lighting designer took the lead on the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, says that WDI's team approach involves the lighting designers in much more than lighting. In the Hollywood Pictures Backlot's Disney Animation building, coordination with other disciplines became a driving force.

“We did as many two-dimensional and three-dimensional models as we could,” said Pierce, who's been with WDI since 1997. ‘Ultimately, it came down to a lot of people standing in the field and going ‘oops’ and making their adjustments.”

In a concession to flexibility, a tension grid of aircraft cables mounted in a 2-inch grid pattern was used as a ceiling in the animation building's library. Pierce said the surface became walkable above the ceiling, yet lights could be hung and aimed as necessary without any loss in light quality.

Sometimes the story demands that the designers employ new technology. In the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, a mural of a futuristic city that acts as a backdrop for an outside dining area is lit with futuristic neon lampposts. The lampposts are really an off-the-shelf product of neon sculpture from Architectural Cathode Lighting.

“They are very fun fixtures,” Valentino said, “and we need to be cutting edge as far as knowing what's out there.”

Although it may be considered cutting edge, for practical reasons each light fixture at California Adventure is connected to a dimmer through a park-wide lighting control system WDI developed with Electronic Theatre Controls. This enables designers and maintenance staff to know exactly where each fixture is within the park, if it is functioning, if the light is set to a program, and even if there has been a drop in wattage.

“I could be here in France and, through the network, I could phone in and turn off all the lights in California Adventure,” Valentino jokes.

The system is set up with various nodes that communicate to dimmer racks throughout the park in each attraction's electrical room. These nodes have their own programs and can function normally without the park's master control computer.

“Good show lighting is one of the best ways to get a bang for your buck in a theme park,” Pierce said. “Michael's thought on the park was he wanted people to say, ‘It was a great looking park, but you gotta see it at night.’”

Russell Fortmeyer is an engineer with Arup, Los Angeles.

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Russell Fortmeyer

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