For a theme park that is one of the biggest and most-visited tourist destinations in the world, it’s not very often something small attracts a whole lot of attention at Walt Disney World.
Sure, everyone loves to talk up the Small World attraction at Magic Kingdom, but it’s small in name only. After all, it has a 1,085-foot canal and more than 250 audio-animatronic characters.
And the only other Walt Disney World attractions that use the word “little” also use the word “mermaid,” too. Go ahead: Ask your six-year-old daughter what a big deal she is.
Everything else that gets the most notice at Disney’s Central Florida resort is, it would seem, as up-sized as the likes of Expedition Everest, Space Mountain or the long lines of Epcot guests waiting to get autographs from the wildly popular “Frozen” characters.
Yet just recently, telecommunications giant AT&T was happy to spread the big news about the small-size pieces of technology now being put to work at Walt Disney World: miniature, hidden-from-view antennas and small-cell technology that will boost cellular coverage throughout the resort.
Granted, though the individual technical components being used might be unobtrusively small compared to the more-commonly recognized cellphone towers that dot the modern landscape, the overall distributed-antenna system (DAS) deployed to link each small component to another at Walt Disney World actually is the largest network of its kind in a single location, according to AT&T.
And the effect of the indoor and outdoor antenna system here — and even at the “little” Disney theme park in Anaheim, where a similar network also has been put in place — can have a huge effect on how effortlessly Disney guests and employees can upload and download data on their phones and tablets.
As if that isn’t big enough news to herald for all the throngs of tourists fond of their Facebook likes and Twitter tweets while inside the park, the fact that such a system is now in place at one of the most aesthetically designed locales in the world would, upon further reflection, seem to suggest that the new system really is a big deal after all.
Rudy Quant, an AT&T supervisor of antenna operations for Florida and Puerto Rico, agrees with such a summation. As one of the AT&T engineers in charge of implementing the new system at Walt Disney World, Quant said the primary goal was extending signal strength and coverage.
But with such a system being put in place at the exquisitely themed Walt Disney World, Quant said, the challenges were large, even if the technical devices were not.
“The onset of what we wanted to accomplish at Walt Disney World was to extend our network in the park — not just for guests but for the employees,” Quant said.
Such a task is one thing with large tower systems alongside an interstate or smaller antenna arrays atop high-rise bank buildings downtown. But at one of the most Imagineered resorts in the world?
“Everything had to be concealed,” Quant said. “As a parkgoer, you will never see any of the equipment.”
There were other challenges, too, he said. One was not knowing the full scope of the capacity that was needed to make things work seamlessly at Walt Disney World. After all, attendance in the Orlando resort’s four theme parks can fluctuate throughout the seasons, and any concrete attendance figures are — like they are at most all Central Florida themed attractions — a closely guarded trade statistic.
Though AT&T had a fairly good idea about capacity, they couldn’t simply set up a system for “X” amount of park guests and employees and then just hope for the best. “That was a big challenge,” Quant said.
Other challenges, he said, included how to keep the system’s electronics adequately cooled and protected from Florida’s incessant summer heat and the state’s intermittent tropical storms.
Atop all of this, Quant said, was the company’s deadline to install the full system and get it up and running: a mere five months.
A distributed antenna system is, as the concept name suggests, an array of smaller, compact antennas to carry cellular signals in place of larger ones, such as multistory cell towers or huge antenna arrays mounted atop tall buildings, municipal water tanks and other such towering structures. The benefits of such a distributed system of smaller antennas in close proximity to one another is that the cellular signal can cover a larger area with greater reliability — even, and especially if, geographic obstacles exist to diminish the signal strength coming from a single, more-powerful antenna.
And the so-called “small cell” technology can be a misnomer, too, if you think only of the size of the instruments used for it. After all, small-cell technology also provides a crucial signal boost in some of the most challenging areas, such as tunnels or other confined spaces.
Anyone who knows anything about Walt Disney World’s Utilidor tunnel system will appreciate just how crucial AT&T’s small-cell technology can be for Disney employees needing to communicate via their mobile devices while on the go from one end of the Magic Kingdom to the other.
The so-called repeaters act, as their name implies, to repeat the cell signal, such as from an outside environment into an enclosed space, like inside a building.
“Small cells and repeaters are used where capacity isn’t a concern,” Quant said, such as inside offices and other work spaces.
More than 100 small cells and repeaters are now used at Walt Disney World, Quant said.
The use of smaller components to boost cellular coverage is a big concept for most cellphone providers and their customers who are seeking an ever-growing amount of data on their personal devices. The Disney Cruise Line even has relied on DAS technology for signal coverage on its ships, too.
Essentially, what all these components that make up the distributed-signal technology do is take existing signal coverage and spread it through the use of low-powered radio access nodes. These nodes can broadcast the signals into specific areas that might be hard to reach, perhaps even impossible, with typical high-power “macrocell” towers one commonly thinks of when thinking about cellular transmissions.
But what comes in a small package of low-power radio frequency has a big effect on cellular coverage, and, as a result of AT&T’s work at the resort, the company’s 3G and 4G LTE network coverage will be greatly expanded, Quant said.
“A small cell is basically a mini cell site … to provide coverage and capacity,” he said. “It’s a very new cutting-edge technology we are using.”
And, he added, AT&T “partnered … with Disney because Disney likes to be on the cutting edge of technology.”
Disney spokesperson Kathleen Prihoda said such cutting-edge technology is used throughout the parks with its guests in mind.
“We are always looking for ways to enhance our guest experience,” Prihoda said. “The work we have done with AT&T and other providers to boost their service on our property helps us do that for the growing number of guests who use mobile devices during their visit.”
Bill Kivler, director of telecom services at Walt Disney World, echoed that sentiment in an online video touting the new system.
“Our goal at all Disney parks and resorts is to provide the best possible guest experience,” Kivler said. “One of those expectations is obviously wireless connectivity, and we worked very hard with AT&T to make sure those expectations were met.”
Another AT&T official in the video goes on to state that both guests and Disney employees should experience “better coverage throughout the resort” and “very fast data speeds.”
In the five-month duration of the project, AT&T installed “enough equipment to probably provide coverage for a small city,” Quant said. Still, don’t expect to see much of it at the parks. The technology is placed throughout the resort in strategic sites where most park guests will probably rarely, if at all, notice it.
The antennas and related devices might be atop structures in DinoLand USA, mounted inside corridor walls at Hollywood Studios or placed atop lighting structures in Tomorrowland. Just don’t expect to readily see an unwieldy antenna jutting out atop, say, Splash Mountain, or an industrial-looking wall-mounted repeater sticking out above the entrance of the Tower of Terror. AT&T engineers and Disney Imagineers worked together to insure that resort guests wouldn’t see such glaring visual aberrations to the themed attractions at the park.
Aside from the current DAS, AT&T said it plans to establish 10 additional cell sites across Walt Disney World property in the future, as well. Right now, the new system has been put in place at all four Disney theme parks here, as well as Downtown Disney and at the Swan and Dolphin resorts, too. About the only place on property where the DAS isn’t found is at Walt Disney World’s two water parks, which isn’t surprising given how regular cell coverage probably is adequate for those who lounge bayside at the Typhoon Lagoon surf pool or Melt-Away Bay at Blizzard Beach.
For now, AT&T will seek to improve the system and fine-tune it as needed, Quant said, adding, “We’ll always try to be ahead of what our traffic demands are.”
Such efforts probably will be evident for tourists who use their mobile devices while at Walt Disney World, as well as the resort’s employees. Just don’t bother looking for it the next time you stroll down Main Street USA.