Universal's Superstar Parade

Smart Monkeys, Inc. Creates Groundbreaking Solutions for Universal Studios Orlando’s New Lagoon Show and Parade

Miami, FL (2012) – When Universal Studios Orlando wanted to create a completely new nighttime “lagoon show” called Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular and add Universal’s Superstar Parade to its roster of daytime activities, they sought out Smart Monkeys, Inc. to design a system capable of running both attractions off the same show control system and operating them from a single control booth. The result: a groundbreaking system never before implemented in the AV arena.

Since the Smart Monkeys, Inc. team has been implementing show control for the resort’s lagoon show for a number of years, it was the logical choice to create a custom system to meet the very different needs of a moving parade with floats and live performances and a water-based video and pyrotechnics extravaganza.

Universal’s Superstar Parade is a new daily parade featuring some of today’s most beloved characters and stories, including the minions from “Despicable Me,” E.B. from “Hop,” and Nickelodeon’s Dora and Diego and SpongeBob SquarePants. The parade winds its way through the streets of Universal Studios Orlando with larger-than-life floats and hundreds of energetic street performers.

Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular celebrates 100 years of movie memories from some of the studios’ most iconic films with powerful and emotional moments displayed on water curtains within the lagoon; colorful fountains and pyrotechnics enhance the show narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Smart Monkeys, Inc. was charged with designing show control and audio and video playback for both attractions as well as head-end control for the parade floats. In addition, the company was tasked with designing the control booth layout and engineering the control room. Building flexibility into the system was key so attractions can be continually updated with holiday versions or special event content.

“We had a number of design challenges with this project,” says Alan Anderson who served as lead designer and project manager for Smart Monkeys, Inc. “Redundancy was critical for a high- availability system that has to run every day of the year and never fail. Also, one system needed to run two different types of show; prep for one show could begin while the other show was running. And the system had to be weather-resistant: Everything is isolated on fiber runs so there is no copper out of the control booth that might act as a lightning conductor.”

Enterprise-Level IT Backbone Debuts

Of all those design challenges redundancy was perhaps the biggest concern. It could have taken the conventional form of two complete systems running in parallel: The primary system switching to the back up in case of failure. But Smart Monkeys, Inc. opted for a new methodology, implemented for the first time ever for a show.

The methodology uses an enterprise-level IT structure as the backbone. “We have two enterprise-level Dell servers running virtualization software. That allows us to run virtual machines inside VMWare VSphere,” the industry-leading cloud computing virtualization operating system, says Anderson. “The Vsphere platform enables us to be fault tolerant; it can manage the switch from one machine to the other seamlessly without anybody noticing it.” VSphere contains 10 virtual control machines that run multiples of Windows, Windows 7 Pro and Linux Ubuntu for utilities, show control, the database engine and geo-location system. Network Attached Storage provides centralized backup for each machine.

The solution devised by Smart Monkeys, Inc. replaces 10 machines plus storage units, which would have consumed two full racks of equipment in the control room. The enterprise-level approach occupies just six rack units (RUs) instead. “We save space, use less power, are fault tolerant and have virtualized machines for easy management,” Anderson points out. “And everything is fully networked: no old-school serial ports on the back of the machines.”

Although this approach is often used in the IT arena, the AV industry has been slow to embrace advances in the IT field, notes Anderson. “Smart Monkeys, Inc. has been using virtualized machines for programming on our own computers for the last four years. Now we’ve taken that tool and turned it into the system itself. It’s ideal for high-availability systems: You need it and it’s there. And it’s very flexible for updates and changes.”

The control room is located on the edge of the Lagoon and alongside the parade route on an elevated dock-like structure. It has two levels: the control booth is upstairs; the control room with server racks and fiber distribution is downstairs. The Universal Entertainment technical staff operates the Medialon Manager V6 Pro show control system; a user-friendly GUI permits easy set up and configuration.

Lagoon Show Demands Complex Solutions

Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular, the latest version of the lagoon show, features water curtains, water screens and colorful fountains. 9 Christie Roadster HD18K projectors are used to display video content three barges outfitted with water curtains as well as 4 independent water screens. Fountains are illuminated and dance in synch with the show, and fireworks light up the night sky. Everything is choreographed to a musical score.

Smart Monkeys, Inc. selected a modular Harris Platinum MX Matrix to convert the video signals to fibre and extend them to the projector locations. “The signals come in HDSDI, go out fibre and convert back to video at the other end for projection,” Anderson explains. “This process removes a single point of failure – the converter – since we do the matrixing and converting in the same unit. It also allows us to have a multi-viewer built in: We can see all the inputs and outputs and return feeds or view the video in one stream with the projector looping the signal back to the video matrix.”

The narration and music tracks are distributed by an audio matrix designed and programmed by Thinkwell Design Group. Ovation 3.0 media servers from Merging Technologies provides high- quality audio playback and time code that dynamically drives subsystems, such as the main and backup lighting systems, designed by Universal, main and backup video played back by Alcorn McBride Digital Binloop HD, and the pyrotechnics.

Audio First for New Parade

Universal’s Superstar Parade added audio complexities to the show control system Smart Monkeys, Inc. developed. “The parade moves along a route and has different audio on the floats than off the board – but everything has to be in synch,” notes Anderson. The control booth controls the underlying music track; speakers along the parade route are hardwired to the booth.

“Each float is themed and has its own audio content,” says Anderson. “Thanks to GPS we know where each float is within a foot of its location. Based on where it is in the park, we bring up its themed audio in the parade route speakers and fade it out as they go through each zone. We can calculate the speed at which the floats are moving so we can open up zones ahead of it.”

Smart Monkeys, Inc. Stephan Villet notes that the company spent a year designing and testing new systems for the parade. It teamed with Merging Technologies to develop a new version of the Ovation server with functions that sustain the synch feature through GPS. Individual Ovations onboard each float control the audio track for that float; they run as slaves to the Ovation in the control room and are synchronized to time code over a wireless network. The entire system is in synch with a GPS clock to guarantee that the time reference is the same for all devices.

Although the Ovation slaves on the floats could easily remain in synch with the master Ovation synchronizing the resort events, Merging Technologies had to specifically support the need of the floats to start and stop along the parade route as live performances took place, “then remain in perfect sync” when getting underway again, says Dominique Brulhart, head of software engineering at Merging Technologies.

The Ovation server on each float plays back 8-10 music tracks plus voiceover and distributes time code local to the float to choreograph lighting, animatronics, videowall content and streamer cannons. An Alcorn McBride V16 Pro handles show control elements on board, including animatronics and bubble machines; an Alcorn McBride LightCue Pro manages lighting control; and Allen Bradley Micrologix 1100 PLC with Nematron 7" Touch Screens for the Drivers and Maintenance personnel.

Like the enterprise-level IT solution for show control, Smart Monkeys, Inc. marked another first by achieving audio synch with GPS as the reference. “GPS has been used for many things in AV but not for calculating synchronization,” Anderson points out. “No one has done a calculated synch based on GPS references. We’re not broadcasting time code but the status of cues and the differential data of cues based on GPS time.”

The concept is something that Smart Monkeys, Inc. has been toying with for some time. “If you just have a linear parade with no stops for performances you broadcast time code,” Anderson explains. “But in this parade the floats stop, we trigger different music, they dance, fire off streamer cannons, then they roll again. So we need to be able to control how and what to play back in a nonlinear fashion on the board and off the board – in perfect synch.”

“The concept we developed has proved to be robust and fits the client’s requirements,” notes Brulhart. “The real challenges we had to face were related to the GPS and wireless technologies involved and the unexpected perturbations we observed during the final integration phase. We had to work on improving the global resilience of the system to these perturbations and are now very satisfied with the results.

“It’s been a real pleasure working with the Smart Monkeys, Inc. team. Our interactions have always been very constructive and efficient; even during the most stressful moments everybody remained calm and focused. We’re looking forward to working on other projects with them.”

In configuring a solid communications network to send and receive data, Smart Monkeys, Inc. used 900 MHz modems over a long-distance range instead of WiFi. An added bonus to the modems: They can’t be disrupted by devices widely used by the public such as smart phones.

Establishing a Model for the Future

According to Anderson, it was “a huge learning process testing new techniques” for the Universal lagoon show and parade but they have been performing “flawlessly” since the shows debuted. Although some elements of the project were very case-specific others can be integrated into approaches for future projects.

“The virtualization of the control system, for example,” he says. “That backbone is fundamental for flexibility and reliability in any large-scale project we do.” Pushing the envelope for Universal to implement systems never before used in the AV industry made the project “that much more interesting,” he notes. “We don’t do cookie-cutter systems. We respond to the needs of the clients. The Universal project led to some groundbreaking solutions to take forward and use elsewhere.”

At Smart Monkeys, Inc. Mitchell Schuh was the engineer on site and lead programmer; he also participated in the project design. DJ Cole was in charge of all the network design, engineering and programming plus the wireless functions and all the database management for geo-location. Arnaud Guerin was the show control programmer. Jim Janninck of Timber Strings engineered the racks in the control room and onboard the floats.