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The Tinker Bell Drone that Disneyland Almost Got

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Over the past week or so, there have been a number of stories out there about media companies and drone technology. With TMZ insisting that it wasn't really in the market for a celebrity-seeking missile, Missouri NPR affiliate KBIA revealed that it had in fact launched its own drone program. Which Scott Pham, KBIA's content director said that he hoped to " ... use this technology to tell stories."

Well, as it turns out Pham wasn't the only one who saw the dramatic possibilities in remotely controlled aircraft. Back in the early 1980s, Walt Disney Imagineering actually test flew a drone-like device that -- if the company's lawyers had actually allowed this thing to take to the air nightly over Disneyland Park -- would have brought Peter Pan's pixie pal Tinker Bell to life in a whole new way.

You see, ever since June of 1961, the nightly fireworks display at the Happiest Place on Earth has been kicked off by Tink dramatically appearing high in the sky above Disneyland. Only that's not really a fairy flitting around Sleeping Beauty Castle, but, rather, an undersized stuntwoman dressed in a Tinker Bell costume who's sliding down this cable that's been strung from the top of Matterhorn to a backstage area between Fantasyland and Frontierland. This brave woman's nightly "flight" ends as she smashes into this full-sized mattress that's being held up by two burly Disneyland cast members who are just out of sight of the thousands of tourists below.

Well, after 20 years of having a smallish stuntperson try and pass herself off as a petit pixie in this nighttime show, the Imagineers began looking for other ways to send Tinker Bell soaring through the skies over Disneyland; some other sort of technology that would then allow this Disney Fairy to look as though she really was flying around and above Sleeping Beauty Castle rather than sliding down a pretty obvious piece of wire.

And what with all of the small gas-powered helicopters that came on the marketplace in the early 1980s, the Imagineers got an idea. They then hot-glued one of these remote controlled flying machines to the back of an acrylic shell that had been previously used in a small female Audio Animatronic. (To be specific, the Imagineers had taken the diminutive Alice in Wonderland AA figure which used to appear in the "Mickey Mouse Revue" attraction at WDW's Magic Kingdom. And then -- after pulling out all of her high-tech inner workings -- they also removed Alice's classic costume, long blonde hair and flesh-colored outer covering, leaving only this Audio Animatronic's empty, hard clear plastic shell).

The Imagineers now filled the body cavity of this see-through plastic female form with Christmas twinkle lights. They then turned all of those lights on, powered up the remote control helicopter which had been glued to this AA figure's back and sent this crudely crafted faux Disney Fairy aloft.

According to WDI, vets were actually at Disneyland on the night of Tinker Bell's flight test and personally observed this drone-like device hovering high over Fantasyland this prototype high-tech pixie had plenty of potential. All of those Christmas lights twinkling inside of that clear plastic made it look as though there really was this creature made out of pixie dust zooming through the sky over Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Okay. So the drone coming from the engine of that gas-powered remote controlled helicopter which had been hot-glued to Tinker Bell's back was a little loud. But the Imagineers were confident that the boom of the fireworks (more importantly, the musical soundtrack for "Fantasy in the Sky," which blared throughout Disneyland park whenever this pyrotechnic display was being presented) would be more than enough to cover that engine noise. So they demonstrated their prototype to the park's managers, who immediately loved this idea. Mostly because operating a remote controlled, gas-powered Tinker Bell was going to be infinitely cheaper than hiring a human being and having to pay them stunt pay to jump off Matterhorn Mountain nightly. (It's been said that each time a cast member jumps off of this Disneyland icon dressed as Peter Pan's pal and slides down that wire towards Fantasyland/Frontierland, they're paid $650 for their efforts).

So Disneyland's managers took the drone-like Tinker Bell prototype to the company's attorneys, who promptly rejected the idea for a variety of safety-related reasons. Chief among them being that, what if the cast member who was guiding this gas-powered pixie suddenly lost control of this remotely controlled helicopter-driven device? Imagine all of the negative publicity that this theme park would incur if this high-tech Tinker Bell were to fall into the crowd below and accidentally injure a child or a family while they were visiting Disneyland.

The Imagineers protested, insisting that -- with sufficient research and development, as well as plenty of in-park practice -- it would eventually be possible for them to safely fly a remote controlled Tinker Bell high above the crowds who were visiting Disneyland. But in the end, the company's attorneys won. And this drone-like device never actually made it off of Disney's drawing boards.

Which isn't to say that the Imagineers ever really backed away from the idea of using technology as a way to plus Tinker Bell's gravity-driven flight above Disneyland Park. Just in time for this theme park's 50th anniversary in 2005, WDI had a new computer-controlled system installed which then allowed this human-sized fairy to "fly" back and forth 65 feet above Sleeping Beauty Castle.

And this computer-controlled system worked so well that in 2009 Disneyland actually doubled down. That summer, they presented "Magical," a new fireworks extravaganza which had two beloved Disney characters -- Tinker Bell and Dumbo -- flying over that theme park nightly. And for the Fall of 2009, Disneyland presents "Halloween Screams," which had Zero (i.e. the ghost dog that Jack Skellington had as a pet in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas) floating high above Fantasyland.

And speaking of Fantasyland -- it would appear that Walt Disney World is also about to get into the magical flying creature business. As part of this week's grand opening of the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland, the Imagineers will be unveiling a dragon-shaped Ultralight, which will then periodically fly over this part of the theme park and entertain the guests below, as this pilot-driven vehicle soars overhead, flaps its wings, roars and shoots fire out of its mouth.

Admittedly this is very cool sounding. But this pilot-driven dragon-shaped Ultralight obviously isn't an unmanned drone. So will we ever see this sort of technology being used inside of the Disney theme parks?

The way I hear it, what with The Walt Disney Company's recent acquisition of Lucasfilm, Ltd. (which means that a wave of new Star Wars-inspired rides, shows and attractions will soon begin rolling into Disney theme parks worldwide) not to mention that "James Cameron's World of Avatar" area, which is now in the works for Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida, the Imagineers have all sorts of story-driven reasons that they can now use to justify bringing this sort of remote controlled figures into the Company's Parks and Resorts.

So rather than continue to drone on and on about this topic, my advice is to keep your eyes open the next time you visit a Disney theme park. Because the next character that you interact with may not be some teenager in a Tinker Bell costume, but rather a remote controlled R2D2 or WALL-E who moves and sounds just as you remember these characters doing in their movies.