American Dreams

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is celebrating the “Year of a Million Dreams” in 2008. Appropriately, the audio and lighting engineers at EPCOT's America Gardens Theatre think the venue's new systems are a “dream.”

The America Gardens amphitheatre, located across the World Showcase Promenade from the American Adventure Pavilion, sports a new L-Acoustics line array and Meyer Sound PSW-6 subs. A Yamaha PM1D digital mixer, along with the lighting console and a number of video monitors, sit in an enclosed control booth at front-of-house. “The techs enjoy the front-of-house booth because they can actually see the stage instead of only seeing part of the deck through the trees,” says Bill Ferrara, principal lighting designer for Walt Disney Entertainment.

A lighting package that includes a combination of 185 ETC Source Four 36° ellipsoidals and eight Source Four 50° ellipsoidals, 24 Source Four PAR NSP fixtures, 270 Source Four PAR MFLs, 78 Source Four PAR WFLs, and 32 PixelRange Pixel Arc C LED units carries the 1,800-seat open air theatre from heavy-hitting rock concerts to the famous Candlelight Processional held every holiday season. The technical engineer on duty during this spring's Flower Power concert series at EPCOT cited the ease of use and clarity of sound as his two favorite aspects of the new equipment, calling the systems “a thrill to use.”

America Gardens' History

When the AmGard Theatre was first built, it was simply a concrete platform that overlooked the World Showcase Lagoon. “We did shows, but we had to bring any equipment and sets with us,” explains Joseph Knapp, principal audio and video designer for Walt Disney Entertainment. “Everything was mobile. When the show's run was over, the pieces would go away, and the theatre would return to its innocuous state of concrete.”

In 1993, backstage and wing space were added, along with an overhang that would protect the stage and many of the audience members during the famous, almost-daily Florida rainstorms. The theatre had turned into a true amphitheatre, with permanent audio and lighting fixtures to host a variety of shows, and the multipurpose system worked well for more than a decade.

Today's America Gardens Theatre was designed to host even more diverse acts, from theatrical, music-based performances, to rock concerts. Versatility was a key factor for both the audio and lighting systems, especially because of the quick turnaround times between different performances. Ferrara notes that, in going from the Eat-to-the-Beat concert series in November to the Candlelight Processional beginning the day after Thanksgiving, the team usually has about 10 nights to prepare. “There's just enough time to load-in, focus, tweak the programming, and rehearse. If we lose a day, we fall way behind,” he says.

This summer's performances will see the theatre hosting a series of bands covering classic rock hits, made famous by performers such as The Eagles, Bon Jovi, and Billy Joel, as well as the Flower Power ‘60s and ‘70s concert series. The venue also regularly hosts guest speakers.

The holiday Candlelight Processional, held in the theatre every December since 1993, is a mainstay of the venue and was definitely on Knapp's mind when he and Ferrara spearheaded the new audio and lighting design and installation, completed by a team of Disney technicians. The Candlelight performance features a 400-voice choir — the members of which form a “Living Christmas Tree” — and appearances from celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris, Kirk Cameron, and Gary Sinise, who were among the narrators for last year's show.

Knapp and Al Oestreich, systems specialist for Walt Disney Entertainment, both emphasize that there was nothing wrong with the old systems in the venue, but it was time to update the audio and lighting systems to reflect the changing needs of the venue. “We were retiring a system that had served its purpose for several years and did it quite nicely,” Oestreich says, and Ferrara agrees. In reference to the Candlelight Processional, he explains, “The show hasn't really changed as a result of improvements to the venue. It just runs more smoothly.”

Three-Phased Audio Improvements

Knapp notes that the AmGard Theatre's technical systems were in competition with other departments in order to receive funds for the upgrades. In order to get budget approval, a three-phase approach was adopted. The audio upgrades began with the outer ring of speakers, which now includes four L-Acoustics ARCS four-speaker clusters, just beneath the overhang, powered by L-Acoustics LA24A amps. The same model speakers and amps were selected for the primary front-of-house system, with four clusters of two speakers hung along the downstage edge of the stage. “With a 120' wide stage,” Oestreich says, “we couldn't get by with just a simple left and right.” L-Acoustics 112Ps act as near-field fills. “It's basically two independent systems,” Oestreich explains. “Because the acoustic characteristics are a little different under the rooftop, we wanted total flexibility — the ability to support any show that comes in — in whatever way it requires.”

Knapp and his team received assistance from L-Acoustics in the design of the system. “We ran a profile here at Disney and sent it to L-Acoustics for the manufacturer's point of view,” he recalls. “You only want to hang the boxes once.” L-Acoustics SB28 subs sit to the right of the clusters along the outer ring, providing “pavement-pounding” bass for rock concerts. They are powered by networkable LA-8 amps with onboard DSP processing from L-Acoustics. Meyer PSW6 subs were retained from the previous install and used beneath the roof, as were Meyer UM1-A wedge monitors on the stage floor. Two-way 15" MSL2s were retained for special events in other areas of the Disney World resort.

The theatre's microphone collection includes a full complement of touring mics from AKG, Crown, Electro-Voice, and Shure. “We need a mic array that will complement whatever band comes in,” Knapp says. “We look at the touring acts' riders to make sure we have those makes and models available to us.” The Candlelight show uses Schoeps mics, flown over the stage, out of the audience's view. “During that show, especially, PA is meant to be heard, not seen, and the Schoeps hanging mics lend themselves to that,” Oestreich says.

Aesthetics were important in selecting all the equipment for the venue. With its colonial American design, the amphitheatre helps set the mood for the entire American Pavilion at EPCOT. The horizontal design of the L-Acoustics speakers helps them remain unobtrusive, tucked into the ceiling. “It was important to keep everything up and out of sight so that we're not in the way of the visual presentation,” Knapp says.

Fiber Optics Improve The Sound

A significant upgrade was made with the implementation of an Optocore LX4AP fiber optic network device in lieu of copper wire runs. “To get from the back of the house to the front would have required running about 600' of copper wire,” Oestreich explains. “When you're running a signal that long, you get weird phasing out of the signal. It's harder to get a natural sound.” Using fiber optics eliminates phase transience, along with any electrical ground loop issues. Meanwhile, the Optocore system will work with other mixing consoles in the future, a luxury the venue wouldn't have if they ran fiber directly through the Yamaha PM1D FOH console. “We didn't want to back ourselves into a corner,” Oestreich says.

At this time, however, the staff is happy with the flexibility of the PM1D. Once again, the unique technical requirements of the Candlelight Processional became a motivating factor in the selection of the console. “We needed something with a multitude of inputs because the choir uses handheld mics and the orchestra is mic'd,” Knapp explains. “We also needed total flexibility of outputs.”

In the past, signals were sub-mixed from the stage through an analog console. “We set up monitors, but the engineer couldn't really hear the result of the mix,” Knapp remembers. The PM1D allows the engineer to put all the inputs on one console. “The control console lends itself to being split in half,” Knapp says. “The sub-mix engineer mixes the orchestra, but the FOH engineer is right next to him, looking at the show, bringing the voices in and making sure the orchestra is tucked in correctly.” The digital console also saves time during sound checks, because information can be preset for each show.

Knapp also notes that most engineers are familiar with the console, making it an easy transition for touring acts that bring their own FOH engineers. Almost every venue in the Disney parks uses a Yamaha digital console with similar interfaces, making it easy to cross-train engineers in different venues.

Versatility In Lighting Design

Many of the lighting equipment decisions were also driven by the Candlelight Processional, along with a need for versatility, according to Ferrara. “We have the flexibility to light Candlelight and rock bands with essentially the same rig,” he says. “In a perfect world, I would have two completely different rigs in the air for these two different kinds of events.”

While Candlelight requires even washes of light, the rock concert series requires focused, individual light beams. “The negative space gives the beams their dramatic impact,” Ferrara says. A highly flexible lighting rig and a “well-oiled production machine,” as Ferrara refers to his staff, make quick-turnaround times for shows possible. “There is no substitute for a good plan,” he says.

With regard to the lighting upgrades, Ferrara calls the PixelArc C LED wash fixtures and ETC Source Fours the “workhorse fixtures of the rig,” although a new white cyc backdrop helps make the lighting pop. “The visual impact is dramatic,” Ferrara says of both enhancements. “The LEDs have already proven their worth, but when we got a new white cyc backdrop to project on, the colors are so vibrant that I actually have to pull some of the programming back a bit. We didn't realize how much the old drop had faded until we hung the new one and saw what a difference the clean white sheet made.” The basic dimmers and hanging positions stayed the same, making the upgrades more of a “refurbishment of the existing infrastructure,” according to Ferrara.

The new rig includes PixelRange Pixel Arc C LED units, Vari-Lite VL500s and VL3000 spots, a huge array of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, and Diversitronics DS-5ET Superstar drop strobes. A homemade three-circuit light curtain, using C7 lamps, provides a single-layer star curtain, and rope lights act as recessed safety lighting to define the edge of the stage and stairs for the performers. “I love the zoom, color-mixing, and intensity I get from the VL3000s, especially when I layer multiple gobos,” Ferrara notes.

Fitting the array of lights, speakers, and subs into the limited space above the stage was a challenge. The stage measures 100' wide and 50' deep, with a pipe grid that trims fixtures out approximately 17' from the deck. “Joe [Knapp] and I always fight over needing the same space,” Ferrara says with a laugh. “Actually, we work very well together and ultimately always do what's best for the venue and its shows. We knew where audio needed to be, and what we wanted to do with the lighting worked out pretty well within those parameters. The biggest discovery was just how extremely tight it is to squeeze a boom lift around the new FOH booth and down into the house.”

America Gardens Theatre relies on a High End Systems Wholehog 2 lighting console to control its shows. “I like the console for its intuitive nature,” Ferrara states. He adds that he often makes use of the Insert Mark function to choose when moving light attributes are preset in the dark, and when a moving light motion begins.

Just as the PM1D and other digital Yamaha consoles are frequently specified in Disney World's venues, the Wholehog 2 console is common across Walt Disney properties. This type of standardization is important for training purposes and also because it is cost-effective to keep spares on hand. “To call for a back-up console or fixture on a moment's notice and be able to plug-and-play is very important to us,” Ferrara says. “We don't ever want to lose a show or offer a lesser experience due to faulty equipment, so we rely on a support system that can only be effective if there are built-in redundancies.”

The Wholehog 2 permits that same level of flexibility required for the Candlelight Processional as well as for the more on-the-fly operation of a fast-paced rock concert. “In a rock concert, we feature the lighting technology with a more dynamic and powerful approach,” Ferrara says. “The lighting takes a greater role to elevate the show into more of a spectacle.”

EPCOT is a convergence of cultures and, at the America Gardens Theatre, the convergence of audio and lighting technology makes a variety of performances possible. “We can do almost anything with this system,” Knapp concludes.

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