A capacity crowd was treated to a treasure trove of Disneyland lore on October 18, when resident Don Swetz addressed the Video Club’s General Meeting on “Disneyland Behind the Scenes.” Originally a cop, then employed in the space industry, Don began putting the “magic” in the Magic Kingdom in 1974, and he still serves there as a consultant. The technical changes Don has overseen during these years have been huge.
Everything in the park was run mechanically when Don joined the Disneyland sound department in 1974. One of his early jobs was cleaning tape heads, but he immediately began looking for ways to make improvements using microprocessors and designing new input and output boards.
In 1979, Don was put in charge of a new group called Special Projects. Their first job was overhauling Disneyland’s famous fireworks, then set off each night by hand. Don’s team greatly reduced risks with computer controls. Next, his group introduced a main-gate computer to count the incoming crowd – information which, he explained, “saved Disneyland millions of dollars” by more accurately determining daily staff needs.
Showing some of his control devices to the audience, Don recalled the flickering lanterns he designed for the Haunted Mansion. This invention was later used for the Main Street Electrical Parade and throughout the park. He also automated wait-time clocks.
In 2001, Don left his job to meet family needs, but in 2004 Disney called him back to build interfaces for the commercially-designed computers used to control rides. In a fail-safe plan, he explained, all Disneyland rides “have three computers watching over them.” Each ride also has its own power generator. In other safety work, Don and his associates, designed fire and security systems for the park.
Eventually, Don became what he calls “the Underwriters Laboratories for Disneyland.” He designed and built power supplies and panels, interfacing with the software engineers as the hardware specialist. When LED lighting came out, Don achieved significant savings by introducing it early on.
Like a kid in a candy store, Don shared the same enthusiasm with his Video Club audience that he must have applied to his Disneyland inventions. Among his many contributions were the green-eyed rats and red-eyes bats in the Pirates of the Caribbean – features which proved so popular that they were added elsewhere in the park. He also created the fireflies in the Blue Bayou, as well as special light and sound effects when “things blow up in the water.” Don’s lighting proved “too realistic” when local firemen were called to the Pirates of the Caribbean. The firemen were unable to find the fire until the special effects were turned off.
A bit of a maverick, Don routinely went against company policy by adding his own initials when etching copper circuit boards – a practice that later won a law suit when Disney boards were illegally copied.
Looking ahead, Don predicted, “There won’t be many more movable rides in the future” since such rides require heavy maintenance. The new direction in theme parks, he said, is in the audience’s mind “with touch screens and computer graphics.”