How the ambient sound at Walt Disney World works

Noah sez, "An interview with the man who designed the ambient sound at Disney World, ensuring a constant experience rather than one that ends with the end of the ride. It was initially a little uneven, with sound changing volumes depending on where you stood, so they used algorithms to position 15,000 speakers around the park so that the levels would never change."

I like the way there's often running water or waterfalls between different soundscapes to act as a white-noise buffer. It's subtle but incredibly effective. You almost never hear two contrasting soundscapes at once.

In the mid 1990's, the park started researching the problem. It would eventually find no existing solution, so the engineers had to design and construct, on their own, one of the most complex and advanced audio systems ever built. The work paid off: today, as you walk through Disney World, the volume of the ambient music does not change. Ever. More than 15,000 speakers have been positioned using complex algorithms to ensure that the sound plays within a range of just a couple decibels throughout the entire park. It is quite a technical feat acoustically, electrically, and mathematically.

As we land, I ask Mr Q what he considers the highlight of his career. He describes how he wrote some software for "manufacturing emotion" with the thousands of new speakers in the park. The system he built can slowly change the style of the music across a distance without the visitor noticing. As a person walks from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland, for example, each of the hundreds of speakers slowly fades in different melodies at different frequencies so that at any point you can stop and enjoy a fully accurate piece of music, but by the time you walk 400 feet, the entire song has changed and no one has noticed.

How Mr. Q Manufactured Emotion (Thanks, Noah!)


  1. This is simultaneously incredibly awesome and deeply eerie. I’ll have to pay close attention next time I visit. On another note, this sounds like a development that operators of shopping malls should pay attention to. The competing soundscapes in a mall itself, not to mention all the different stores, can be overwhelming to say the least. Seems like even a much less ambitious project to level out the chaotic holiday din would go a long way to a) keep people shopping and b) reduce the weird acts of hostility holiday shopping inspires.

    1. You make me LOL w/this remark…
      I haven’t been to WDW since age 10 but I hope that, by the time I have kids to take there, this kind of ambient sound technology will be even more advanced and awesome

  2. I don’t think much of Disney’s content, but I’m always in awe of their engineering – they are one of those companies that just gets it so right, and consistently and deliberately so.

  3. Nice story. You realize exactly how complete and seamless the system is when they’re doing something other than soundscapes. For the Disney Marathon, they have the entire of Magic Kingdom doing the same high-enegy techno soundtrack. It’s *great* for running and motivation, but it’s eerie hearing the same thing from *everywhere* (even the carousel) as you make your way through the park.

  4. One need only leave the property and go over to Universal (especially Islands of Adventure) to fully appreciate the nice work done by Disney. IofA is a horrible, headache-inducing sonic attack. I can’t quite recall wanting to escape somewhere so much as IofA.

  5. I was quite aware of the change in background music the first time we walked into Adventureland, crossing over the bridge and hearing the music slowly change. Even on my fifth day of visiting the parks, I was still aware of the design of the places as much as the entertainment value. The shift from the main street / castle area music to the jungle / adventure music was something that my family hadn’t noticed, and I convinced one of them to go back and forth over the bridge with me a few times to check it out.

    Now I want to go back again. Curse you, Cory!

  6. Music you can’t get away from? Oh boy!

    (On a side note, the zombie apocalypse is started when an engineer changes the settings, so all speakers play “It’s a Small World” simultaneously. Moo ha-ha!)

    1. “(On a side note, the zombie apocalypse is started when an engineer changes the settings, so all speakers play “It’s a Small World” simultaneously. Moo ha-ha!)”

      Rule #1 for folks who work after hours at Disney: Don’t piss off the sound engineers. Imagine spending six hours cleaning the Happiest Place on Earth while an eerie voice follows you around moaning “dead men tell no tales.”

  7. i think the best thing they could do to help out the music in malls on the holiday is NOT play christmas music. Hearing 15 different recordings of “here comes santa claus” in one day will incite violent thoughts in any sane person.

    of course the other smart thing to do is finish your shopping before december.

  8. Spider Robinson uses the same thing in his novel “The Free Lunch.” At the Dreamworld park in the book, the creators used ambient sound to enhance mood, and had the sound pitched so that it was virtually undetectable. The main character points out that he noticed when he came to the park with a Walkman, and it just wasn’t the same.

    Spider says in the foreward that the story was inspired by a trip to Disney (I forget if it was DL or WDW).

  9. I wish someone would apply this technology to airports so you can hear the flight and boarding information for your flight only rather than every gate in sight.

  10. This is interesting, I admit, but sometimes I think Cory’s fascination with all things Disney is kinda weird.

  11. Love this.

    Wondering about feasibility of a nightclub that uses similar sound coherency ideas: the chillout space would be rhythmically synced to the dance floor.

    No more of that clash of beats and vibes when you are straddling two rooms, and the bass that bleeds through into the quiet spaces would be an integrated part of the soundtrack of said room.

    Obviously would be hard with traditional djs. Need Ableton Live laptop ops performing live in each room, somehow synching with each other.

    Wouldn’t be that difficult, would it?

  12. A few years ago while at Disney I heard Blondies’s “Heart of Glass” coming from one of the hidden speakers. I was surprised and amused that they didn’t censor the controversial “pain in the ass” line.

  13. When I worked at Imagineering, we got a tour of the sound room at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It was a big clean room full of huge plex hoppers. Inside the hoppers, I kid you not, were miles of audio tapes, just coiling around inside them like snakes while they ran endlessly past the pickup heads. Apparently it was better to just let them pile up in there, than to try to run them on looped reels — because the tapes were hours and hours long. Each hopper contained the ambient sound for an entire land.

    It was a weird and wonderful analog approach, before all you kids got digital.

  14. There’s a quote I remember from college, and maybe I made this up because I can’t remember who to attribute it, and it goes, “When fascism comes to the United States it will look like Mickey Mouse.”

    Name the person who said that and message me.

  15. This is super cool! The ‘line’ between soundscapes is much more pronounced at the newer parks like California Adventure and the Japanese ones than at the older ones.

    It is actually quite awesome to find the spots where you can take a few steps to transition between completely different music and sounds. If the imagineers who did this read this: Super duper duper coolio!

  16. Bible dipped in LSD? Check.
    Month Long Disney World Passes? Check.
    Incommensurate desire to submerge oneself in total artificiality? I didn’t believe it at first either but was eventaully convinced by a friend she’d actaully done it, so;

  17. Club & Mobile DJs Have Been Doing This For Along Time !!!

    I Can Make You Dance, Or I Can Make You Go Get A Drink !!!

    Ya Just Have To Read The Crowd & Know Your Music…

    In The Theme Park The Guy Has No Variables So Its EASY TO MAKE THE MUSIC WORK FROM SCENE TO SCENE Or From Scape To Scape…

    I Would So Love To Have A Job Like That !!!

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