Magician behind a magic kingdom

DN Staff

March 4, 1996

14 Min Read
Magician behind a magic kingdom

Glendale, CA--Were it not for the smile on his face and the gleam of anticipation in his eye, the dapper, elderly gentleman might have looked out of place that day in 1994 as he waited his turn to see the new Disney-MGM Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. After all, he was perhaps two generations older than the others laughing and joking in the long, winding line.

But, the smile was gone as he emerged from the 13-floor, free-fall elevator ride.

"Not scary enough," he said to his companions in his gentle, low-key manner. "Let's make it better."

And with that, the team of engineers and other creative professionals who conceived and developed the ride started taking notes on his suggestions for enhancing lighting, sound, and other elements. The result: a re-designed ride worthy of the "Terror" in its name.

Meet John Hench, the 87-year-old senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, and the man widely regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of this world-renowned organization.

A Walt Disney confidant and lookalike, who in his younger days was occasionally confused with the late entertainment-industry genius, Hench is one of the visionaries who has guided development of hundreds of Disney projects over the last 50-plus years. Chief among them: the many Disney theme parks, a concept the company invented and rules today.

Disneyland alone hosts nearly nine million visitors a year. It, the other Disney theme parks, and their imitators throughout the world, have emerged as a major market for new technology in motors, drives, fluid power, electronics, and other technologies.

The Disney Imagineers are among the creative leaders in the theme park business, says Variety writer Katherine Stalter. "They set the standard for the industry," adds Amusement Business Managing Editor Linda Deckerd.

And setting the standard for the Imagineers is the soft-spoken-but-exacting Hench. Long past the age when most people retire, Hench still works every day. His major current projects include involvement in elements of a new Disney cruise line. The ships are now being built in Genoa, Italy. He also is providing input to the concept for a Disney Institute, where vacationers can take courses in a variety of subjects, including design.

Role model. But, his influence extends far beyond his own projects. The re-design of the Tower of Terror, a project he initially had no responsibility for, is but one example. In an organization that fiercely emphasizes its reliance on teamwork rather than individual celebrities, Hench's name comes up second only to that of Walt Disney himself when staffers talk about their role models and inspirational leaders.

"John is the quintessential Disney designer," says Martin Sklar, president of Walt Disney Imagineering. "The engineering of the Disney theme parks truly is a total team effort, but no one better represents the creative achievements of the team than John Hench."

"He has a great feel for proportion, which is important in functional design," says Don Edgren, former head of engineering at Imagineering. "We wanted him in technical meetings to get his advice on electrical, mechanical, civil, and even landscaping issues."

Adds Dick Wiedenbeck, vice president of utility services at Walt Disney World in Florida, "John has the unique ability to blend the soft and hard sciences, to convert imaginative ideas into something that's possible, given the laws of science."

An artist by training, a designer by profession, and a self-proclaimed tinkerer and lover of technology by inclination, Hench has influenced the teams that achieved many of Imagineering's technical breakthroughs. He was one of the primary creative forces behind everything from the Monorail, to Space Mountain (the first computer-controlled thrill ride), to Spaceship Earth at EPCOT.

"We hunger for his input on design," says Wiedenbeck, the Disney utilities chief in Florida.

The two worked together on parts of the design of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system for the Magic Kingdom. Hench showed the engineering team how to enhance the design of the system to emphasize the advances in conservation and water re-use it represents, and has suggested design of an amusement ride through the system. "He always finds a way to make technology come alive," Wiedenbeck says.

Hands-on creativity. Hench went to work for Walt Disney in 1939 after stints researching motion picture color technology and working in special effects at two different movie studios. He worked on a variety of assignments in the first few years with Disney, and was the lead special-effects designer for the movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which won an Academy Award for his work.

In 1955, he moved to WED Enterprises, as Walt Disney Imagineering was then called, and it was there that his career as a project designer took off. Among his earliest assignments was to help the team designing the Monorail and its successor, the PeopleMover, at the then-new Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. He made the key recommendations that resulted in a lighter, thinner track than initially conceived for the PeopleMover, which was powered by linear induction motors.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the original Monorail system a national historic mechanical engineering landmark. The PeopleMover now carries passengers between terminals at the Houston Intercontinental Airport.

He also was a key member of the team that created Tomorrowland. Among other activities, he helped design the Rocket to the Moon, an amusement ride that let visitors experience many of the sensations, sights, and sounds of a real mission to the moon 14 years before the first Appollo crew went there for real.

It was one of many projects where his hands-on approach was critical to success. "A disgruntled electrical contractor had sabotaged the wiring," he recalls. Hench and a technician spent the night before opening day crawling through the bowels of the rocket ship, locating and splicing wires.

Such activities come naturally to Hench, who had built his own radios, restored bicycles, taken apart automotive engines, and serviced his own motorcycle in his youth. "I like to do things with my hands," says Hench. "In fact, I don't even know how to solve a problem until I actually get my hands into it."

That roll-up-your-sleeves approach, plus his voracious reading on all kinds of technical topics, have given him the knowledge and skills to analyze technical problems and see solutions others might miss. Conceiving a thinner rail for the monorail was but one of many examples. Another involved design of the geodesic dome at EPCOT in Florida.

The developers had said they could only provide .75 of a dome, not a complete sphere, that the dome would not support any weight, and that the ride inside would have to be self-supporting. After listening to their rationale at a design-review meeting, Hench sketched a new design on the spot. He drew a flat line to represent the ground "or whatever else we would support the ride on," he recalls. Then, he sketched the ride on top of that with legs to support it. "I asked if we could hang the remaining .25 of the sphere below the platform supporting the entire ride structure to complete the dome." The design team looked at the sketch, made a few calculations, and agreed it could be done.

"John can get to the heart of a design issue faster than anyone," says Imagineering President Sklar. Former engineering chief Edgren describes him as a doodler who sits in meetings such as the one on the dome doing sketches while others talk. "Then, he makes suggestions that give the engineering team a whole different feeling for what it will take to complete the project. He provides inspirational fire."

How does he manage to do that? His colleagues say it's because of his contagious enthusiasm and all-consuming curiosity. Sklar relates that he once asked Hench's secretary to give him a list of the magazines the designer took home to read over the weekend. "There were 52, including one in French," he says, "and they covered a wide range of topics, from architecture to engineering to fashion."

He is also very demanding, but in a way that brings out the best in others, says former Disney field worker Bob Jolley, who coordinated design details for EPCOT and other attractions. Jolley and Hench used to give training seminars for Disney project workers who were about to go into the field. "Whenever he spoke, people listened intently," Jolley recalls.

An eye for detail. Hench freely admits that he got his own inspiration from Walt Disney, whose bust he has in his office. "I've always been detail-oriented," he says, "but I learned the connections between details from Walt."

The two made frequent visits together to NASA, automotive companies, Bell Labs, and research facilities at GE, among other places, to seek out the latest materials and other technologies they might use at the various theme parks. "Walt was always looking for new technology and new materials he could use," Hench recalls, "and we got many ideas from those visits."

For example, the idea for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) came out of those visits. Walt typically would ask when he could buy something made from the new materials he was seeing. When told there may be no market, Disney saw he could become a middleman, introducing new materials to the public through theme parks. "He believed an actual experience with a new idea was far better than just reading about it," says Hench, who was one of his right-hand persons in the effort to bring about the experience.

"Walt laid out the blueprint for those parks, but he only lived long enough to walk through one of them," says Sklar. "John Hench has been involved in all of them, and articulates the philosophy, design intent, and culture of the theme-park business better than anyone."

Resident philosopher. Walt Disney was a doer, says Sklar, but Hench is both a doer and a philosopher. That aspect of his personality has been evident throughout his career, both in his dealings with other Imagineering team members and suppliers on various projects, and in his dealings with the public.

Hench himself recalls the time Disney asked him to answer a complaint from a mother whose child was freightened by the witch in a ride through Snow White's castle. Quoting from the author Margaret Mead on how ancient civilizations devised terrifying challenges to teach survival skills to young tribe members, he told the mother her child would be better able to handle real-world dangers as a result of experiencing the simulated threats in a theme park.

"We trick your system in rides, and even I get scared sometimes despite the fact that I know how the ride works," Hench says. "But when the ride is over, we have a new respect for ourselves. We say, 'I could feel that. It really got to me. I'm alive.'"

He is in love with life and with people, and they return the affection. Walk through the halls of Imagineering with him and you'll notice that virtually everyone who passes greets him warmly. "This is a people business," he says, "and if you like people it will show in your work and people will keep coming back."

"He teaches all of us by example, and explains the reasons behind design decisions clearly and simply," says Sklar. "Listening to him and observing what he does is worth several years of schooling."

No 'pixie dust' here

Forget Tinkerbelle. The magic at Disney theme parks has nothing to do with Pixie Dust and everything to do with the blend of creative imagination and engineering that emanates from Walt Disney Imagineering.

The organization is the master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, and project management subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. Its activities involve everything from producing the tiniest wink of an eye for an Audio-Animatronics(R) pirate to master planning the major systems that help run an entire project such as the Disneyland Paris Resort.

Imagineers call on the entire gamut of technologies typically used by OEM design engineers, including digital electronics, materials, motion control, computers, and hydraulic and pneumatic power.

Although the Disney Corp. adapted its PeopleMover for the Houston Airport, it has not licensed any other new technology its Imagineers have developed. If it did, the licensing could be a lucrative business. The Imagineering team holds many patents and has more than 50 others pending in such areas as special effects, ride systems, interactive technology, live entertainment, fiberoptics, and advanced audio systems.

Among the major projects of technical significance:

* Space Mountain and Big Thunder, both roller coasters. They use industry-standard track and rolling stock, but the Imagineers developed control systems and track layouts that provide for up to 12 vehicles on the track at any time, vs three at other parks, and a capacity of almost two times the industry norm.

* Splash Mountain, which includes 50 boats running for 2,400/hr capacity. That requires two boats in the drop zone at the same time, which in turn requires quick computer processing and highly precise brakes.

* Indiana Jones Adventure, the first three-degrees-of-freedom motion base on a variable moving vehicle. It has multiple computer programs for each vehicle randomly selected with RF communication to the show control to match the show with the ride.-

* The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a free-fall effect without horizontal runout. The fall and rise motion profile is under total computer control, with the final drop exceeding 0 g.

* American Adventure (EPCOT), the coordination of multiple scenes moving back and forth, side to side, and up and down. Contains hydraulically actuated Audio Animatronics figures.-

* Great Movie Ride (in the Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World). The wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz scene boasts advanced Audio-Animatronics figure-technology.

* Animation programming techniques.

* Circle-Vision camera technology.

How they put the terror in the Tower

You're touring a long-abandoned landmark, the Hollywood Tower Hotel, when you unexpectedly find yourself in a service elevator in the boiler room. The doors close and you begin a terrifying journey into the Fifth Dimension that culminates in a sudden terrifying plunge from the 13th floor.

Welcome to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which won the Engineers' Council 1995 Engineering Project Achievement Award. The elevators are actually wheeled, battery-powered vehicles. On- and off-board processors control the movement of the system. Battery and charging systems use state-of-the-art technology tailored to the charge/discharge cycle of the 22-passenger vehicles. Major components in-clude high-strength steel, aluminum alloy, and composites.

The ride demonstrates the feasibility of "smart" vehicle systems. But, the original concept was to make it a typical free-fall ride within a large hotel-style attraction. When the Walt Disney Imagineers considered the engineering challenges--capacity, footprint, and modification to incorporate motion in three planes rather than two--they revised the concept.

They knew they could solve the capacity problems with two rides rather than one. But, there was no answer to the question of finding room for runout given the size of the building. And, motion in three planes would require taking the ride cabin on and off lifts and drops, which was prohibitively expensive at the safety levels they demanded.

Among technical innovations they implemented:

* Use of a winch drive instead of a typical elevator traction system. The winch provides the solid connection required for the acceleration and torque in the ride. A traditional slip-traction system would experience slippage in the same conditions.

* A closed-loop hoist rope arrangement to provide for cabin pull down that achieves a rate of change of acceleration of 8g/sec. and .18 negative g in the fall zone. Unlike a simple elevator system in which a cabin is suspended by a hoist rope, the Tower of Terror hoist ropes also extend below the cabin and return back up the shaft to terminate at the top. That arrangement enables the entire roping system to be preloaded, allowing downward acceleration rates exceeding that of a free fall without generating slack in the hoist ropes.

* A drive motor that develops 110,000 ft. lbs of torque, 4,000 hp, and uses regeneration for deceleration control. This is not a standard elevator motor. Imagineers had tested the elevator motor models used in some of the world's tallest buildings, but found their performance met less than 25% of the acceleration and torque requirements of the ride.

* An entirely new position and speed control system, which is 10 times faster than in any other Imagineering attraction.

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like