The secret to Disneyland's anniversary spectaculars? Tinker Bell pixie dust and one-of-a-kind tech

On Road Trip 2015, CNET peeks behind the curtain of the nighttime parade and fireworks show at "the happiest place on Earth" -- and finds innovation 60 years in the making.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
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Check out all the places we've been on CNET's Road Trip 2015.

ANAHEIM, California -- On Disneyland's Main Street USA thoroughfare, a throng of visitors stream past Donald Duck as excited kids line up to hug him, their voices raised to be heard over the carnival music and hurly-burly outside the theme park's Opera House.

But inside, park technology guru Chuck Davis stands in a dark second-floor room. Blackout shades can't quite block the California sunshine at the edges of the windows. Six computer-packed workstations face a wall of flat-screen monitors, with a glass-enclosed bank of black servers crunching data at their backs.

This is the nerve center of Disneyland, where Davis' tech dreams come true.

To mark the park's 60th anniversary, the Walt Disney Co. revamped Disneyland Resort's nighttime celebrations, which it refers to as "spectaculars:" the electrical parade, fireworks display and water show that visitors stake out spots to watch hours before it starts. Davis and his team were tasked with turning the creative aspirations for the shows into reality. That meant tackling first-of-its-kind technological effects, the latest stride in Disneyland's legacy of innovation.

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Disneyland's "Paint the Night" parade has more than 1.5 million sources of light. Nick Golebiewski

"We do the stuff that nobody ever does," Davis said.

In the early years of Disneyland, that meant audio-animatronics and the operation of the country's first daily monorail system. Today, it manifests in things like the spectaculars' projection mapping technology that transforms Disneyland structures into Mount Wannahockaloogie from "Finding Nemo" or Pride Rock from "The Lion King."

It also has fans flocking here. With the nighttime spectaculars as the centerpieces of Disneyland's 60th anniversary celebration, the company this week reported the park had its best quarter of attendance and profit ever.

Painting the night

The park's electric-light parade kicks off the spectaculars every evening. Called "Paint the Night," it's the first parade illuminated almost entirely with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Including video screens, the parade contains more than 1.5 million sources of light -- that's one blinking speck for every person in a city the size of Philadelphia. Even the costumes worn by performers dancing in the parade have their own system of lighting controls.

Some of the parade's unique technologies have unusual inspirations. In the section of the parade based on the Pixar movie "Cars," a float of Mack the truck stretches 54 feet long -- the longest vehicle in the lineup. Mack pulls a trailer with a 3D display containing more than 26,000 light orbs. As the orbs glow in synchronized patterns, they create three-dimensional pictures inside.

Watch this: Behind-the-scenes of Disneyland's 60th Anniversary

The unlikely original inspiration: an installation at Burning Man, the yearly weeklong art festival in the Nevada desert more prone to attracting half-naked hippies than folks looking for family-friendly entertainment.

The floats in "Paint the Night" are also all synced with their own music and tracked by GPS to ensure textbook precision in every performance every night. "We use high-reliability industrial controls, things that they use to control robots on assembly lines," Davis said. "Those things work 24 hours a day, seven days a week churning out automobiles. They ought to be OK for two hours a day getting a float down a parade."

At Disneyland, thank cutting-edge tech for nighttime magic (pictures)

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A splashy celebration

Across the main gates, visitors to Disneyland's sister park -- Disney California Adventure -- watch the nightly water show. Remade for the 60th anniversary, "World of Color - Celebrate" takes place in the park's lagoon dominated by a gigantic Mickey Mouse Ferris wheel. It is marked by a 380-foot-wide "screen" created by high-powered jets that spray fans of water and mist into the air. They create what Davis calls the largest such projection in the world. It has 30 million pixels, compared with the 2 million found in a standard high-definition television image.

That means, essentially, beaming a movie onto a screen made of moving water that's longer than a football field -- including the end zones.

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The "World of Color" program can create a 380-foot screen with jets of water and mist. Nick Golebiewski

The water screen takes on live characteristics, changing shapes, creating special effects, and interacting with other media elements in the show: color, lasers, fog and fire -- even the light-up Mickey ears on the hats of people sitting in the audience. Disney developed a radio frequency system, the same basic technology that you use with your television remote, to sync the ears on the Mickey hats with flashes of color during the show.

But fire is what underscores Davis' favorite section in the new "World of Color"-- though its fundamental appeal to Davis stems from his long "Star Wars" fan status. As the John Williams march theme music begins to play, a plume of flame rises more than 100 feet into the air. It's powerful enough for people in the crowds to feel a blaze of heat across their faces.

"We worked for a year to get that to work, and to work safely," Davis said.

An explosive finale

Back in Disneyland proper, the spectaculars end with the third show, a fireworks display above Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the heart of the park called "Disneyland Forever." But the performance involves more than exploding shells fired into the air. With what's known as projection mapping technology, the program shoots moving images onto structures in the park stretching from the central castle nearly to the main entrance.

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Disneyland's fireworks display uses projecting mapping to beam animation on complicated building facades. Nick Golebiewski

In a development process that took five years, Disney wanted to transform its park castles with video projections that can interact with them -- a balloon bouncing along a battlement on one of the towers, or water splashing as it pours down its side. The challenge: "Our castles are not big flat buildings," Davis said. The company scans the castle and other structures to create a three-dimensional digital model, which is then uploaded into mapping software and a video server. That allows 3D artists to virtually "paint on it," Davis said. "We can apply live things, we would sort of shrink-wrap them onto the castle."

That programming, along with 17 specialized projectors that Disney helped develop with a vendor, means the fireworks show takes place in the sky above the castle but also on its facade, as well as the buildings along Main Street USA and the mountain that houses the Matterhorn Bobsleds roller coaster. The projections create the illusion that Matterhorn Mountain is a volcano with glowing, flowing lava, and make the buildings along Main Street appear to bounce and wiggle with the music.

"We don't want you sitting there, with your arms folded and your legs crossed watching it," he said. "We want you to be a part of it."

At the start of the fireworks show, one particularly brave entertainer in an illuminated Tinker Bell costume flits around the park's iconic castle, whizzing 75 feet in the air to re-create that moment familiar to anyone who has watched the intro to a Disney movie.

A Disneyland official is quick to point out, however, that it's not the largest fly rig in the world that gives Tinker Bell her lift.

It's magic pixie dust. Of course.