You might say that the Disneyland Resort’s newest dark ride has been 22 years in the making. That’s because an attraction based on Disney’s animated hit The Little Mermaid has been on the Imagineers’ wish list since the film’s release in 1989. Wishes became reality when plans were announced in 2007, and The Little Mermaid—Ariel’s Undersea Adventure opened June 3 at Disney California Adventure, part of a revamp of the theme park’s Paradise Pier area. Its Florida counterpart is scheduled to open late this year in Fantasyland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
The film won Academy Awards for best original score, by Alan Menken, and best song, “Under the Sea,” music by Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman. “Early on, we decided we’d base this attraction on major songs,” says Larry Nikolai, show designer and creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). “We hit all the major ones—the ones people hum in their seats.” Accordingly, vignettes on the 5∏-minute ride, one of Disney’s longest, play out to “Part of Your World,” showing an Audio-Animatronic® figure of Ariel with her “gadgets and gizmos;” “Under the Sea,” with crab Sebastian leading a sea-creature orchestra and chorus extolling the virtues of underwater life in a scene totaling 128 characters; “Kiss the Girl,” a romantic scene of Eric and Ariel under a full moon; and “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” sung by the villainous Ursula. Riders glide by in vehicles sculpted to look like clamshells, via the constant-motion Omnimover conveyance system.
Classic met contemporary when it came to the design, construction, and implementation of those vignettes. “Our project was asked to embrace BIM—Building Information Modeling—and IPD—Integrated Project Delivery,” says Chris Crump, principal show production designer, who was in charge of those aspects. “It was innovative to have the entire attraction be committed to that general project mandate.” For the BIM methodology, Crump explains, the architecture, model, ride, and other WDI groups used Autodesk Navisworks® software to work in a 3D format, where any department could view what was happening at any given time. The overall IPD strategy meant that the numerous design elements involved, from architecture and animation to electrical and plumbing, could model systems earlier than on previous projects and departments could communicate with each other more effectively.
Imagineers used the 3D software to design the building housing the attraction, whose façade incorporates the entrance rotunda from the site’s previous attraction and features relief carvings of mermaids, a statue of King Triton, and other sea-themed details. Inside, projected animated bubbles, a rising waterline shown on the back of the vehicle in front of each rider, and an overhead scene of Ariel swimming, accompanied by fan blasts of cold ocean air, create the feeling of being immersed underwater. “The underwater setting provided one of the attraction’s greatest challenges, especially the way Ariel’s hair moves,” Crump notes. “It was a real departure. We’d never spent that much time and trouble on hair. It had to look as if it were floating.” It took about two years to get the animation right, Nikolai says, but actually, “You had to go back 22 years. We were able to draw on [the film’s] research. They had suspended models in water and had also studied astronaut Sally Ride. Film animator Glen Keane commented that her hair didn’t move much when she was suspended; it moved in a mass. It’s a subtle move, rather than her hair flying around.”
Most of the process, he adds, “was back and forth between engineering and plastics. We could move one part of her hair and find a terrible wrinkling, so we’d talk about what we could do to stop it from happening.” Wrinkling was also one of the issues for another challenging aspect: creating the skin for the figures of Ariel, her father Triton, and Ursula, particularly crucial as so much of it is exposed. “We experimented with plastics for two to three years,” Nikolai says. “These figures are all prototypes. We’d build a figure, try a skin formulation, and if it didn’t work, start again.” The base of the skin was silicone, mixed with two or three other chemicals in various proportions that eventually produced the desired smoothness and flexibility.
Ursula’s figure, 7∏' tall and 12' wide, sports huge, bare arms and moves with a “squash-and-stretch” function in her torso, adapted from animation principles that create realistic movements and facilitated by the silicone. “They’re mechanical thrusts,” says Nikolai. “She has a bounce.” The sea witch wears a black spandex corset that stretches up and down with her body, and is set in a blacklight show environment that Crump calls, “very forgiving.” The figures were created not by the customary “bench building” method, but by using computer scans of the sculptures, with an animator adding layer upon layer of graphic design. The process allowed for experimentation of form and structure. “If you needed a mouth or eye movement, you could get it,” Crump says. “It became an industrial engineering effort.”
“We loved working on the show,” Crump says. “We had a talented, huge group.” As for Ariel’s Undersea Adventure riders, Nikolai says that their familiarity with the film makes up for the gaps inevitable when condensing a movie into an attraction. “Our guests are so acquainted with it,” he says. “It becomes a visit with friends.”
Michael Valentino of WDI designed the lighting for the attraction. “Although the entire attraction was challenging to light, the most problematic was scene five,” says Valentino. “Dozens of animated figures are singing the song ‘Under the Sea,’ and naturally, this is all to take place under water. What became an issue in this scene was that, to stay true to the artwork in the film, the scenery is painted in warm brown tones. In the other underwater scenes in this attraction, I washed the scenery with dark blue and then layered a lighter color blue ripple effect on top. This worked well in these scenes because they were painted in blues.”
That same lighting approach, unfortunately, didn’t work as well with the warm brown paint palette for the “Under the Sea” scene. Under work lights, Valentino says the scenery looks “a little bit like a desert scene in a Roadrunner cartoon. Throwing a blue wash on the set was turning it gray and producing a fog-like bounce light. The bounce light was raising the light level to a point where there wasn’t any separation between the characters and the scenic elements. To make matters worse, the ripples were getting lost. So, I had a washed out, too bright, gray, ripple-less scene.”
At that point, Valentino says he went back to the old lighting adage, “If your lighting isn’t working, start turning things off.” He turned off approximately 90% of the dark blue wash, leaving just enough in shadowy areas to set the mood. “I then turned off all of the ripple projectors,” he adds. “I now had a scene with the animated figures nicely lit and some blue toners that worked. I then started adding back some of the ripple lights, but only in areas where there weren’t any other lights. This allowed me to have few ripples that were more visible and read better.” Among his lighting instruments are chandeliers, marquee lights, lamp posts, sconces, pendants, and surface-mounted downlights, as well as various fluorescent sources, string lights, and strip lighting. Valentino also makes use of 88 ellipsoidals—19°, 26°, and 36°—as well as RGB LED 12" linear wash fixtures, 3" Fresnels, and UV metal halide and LED units.
The last thing Valentino added was a Rosco X-Effects projector—among more than 50 various effects projectors—with an almost blacklight blue-colored ripple effect. “This is not really obvious to the audience. What it does do is add an incredibly rich color to the scene that moves across the scenery. From a lighting point of view, I feel it’s the magic in the scene,” the designer says. “Problematic and challenging as it was, there is still nothing better than lighting a bunch of singing and dancing fish.”