How Disney's B-Modes Allow the Show to Go On

May 23, 2022, 5:55 PM · What happens when something actually goes wrong on a theme park ride? Forget the narrative device that creates an opportunity for someone or something to save the day. Let's talk about what happens immediately after an actual mechanical failure on a theme park attraction.

Your initial thought might be, "well, the ride goes down, obviously." But parks do not spend millions of dollars to have their attractions close after every malfunction. Designers who wish to enjoy long careers in this business build redundancies into their ride and show systems.

Today, I want to focus on the show side. Let's talk about B-modes.

Perhaps the most terrifying phrase for a forward-looking manager might be "single point of failure." Imagine spending enough money to set you up comfortably for the rest of your life on a complex new product knowing that the whole thing could fail - perhaps for hours, perhaps for days, perhaps forever - if a single part breaks. Who wants the stress of worrying about that?

Successful big products instead rely on fail-safes and redundancies to keep things working even if individual elements fail. When I worked attractions at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, every attraction I worked had a list of show elements and what we should do if they failed. For most, we just wrote up the failure and hoped that someone eventually would approve it for repair. But each attraction had a small number of critical show elements, whose failure would mean closing the attraction until what was broken got fixed.

(My favorite example? When Henry peed his pants at the Country Bear Jamboree.)

Sometime after I left Disney, Imagineers started creating failsafes for even these important show elements. And thus was the "B-mode" born.

A B-mode is an alternate show element that plays in the place of a failed regular, or "A-mode," show element. In an ideal world, guests would never see a B-mode. So parks are not going to drop money developing one unless the loss of a particular A-mode element would be especially harmful to the park's operating capacity and guest satisfaction.

It didn't take Disney World long to swap a hydraulic line and change Henry's pants on the Country Bear Jamboree. And, frankly, not that many park guests cared too much about the singing bear show being down for an hour or two while cast members made those changes. So the Country Bears are not a good candidate for a B-mode. Those are reserved for the biggest, most popular and most complex attractions.

Perhaps Disney's most famous B-mode is the "Disco Yeti" on Expedition Everest, or, as its full name says, Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. The whole reason why Everest is "forbidden" in its Disney's Animal Kingdom form is the presence of a Yeti within that mountain. That makes the Yeti an essential show element for the attraction.

When the animated Yeti broke years ago, Imagineers faced a tough decision. Spend millions and take a popular attraction down for at least a year to rebuild the animatronic, or find another way to make the broken, now-static Yeti an engaging character on the ride.

Disney chose to bathe the Yeti in a flashing light, creating an illusion of movement by the massive creature driven to attack those who disturb it. Fans dubbed the solution "Disco Yeti," but its presence has not kept Expedition Everest from remaining one of the best-rated attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Strike that. The Disco Yeti has allowed Expedition Everest to remain one of the best-rated attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort, for without this alternate mode, Everest would become a lesser attraction, stripped of its storyline and its great jump scare within.

It might be unfair to label Disco Yeti as a B-mode at this point, since the animated Yeti likely never is coming back. The B-mode has become the only mode on Everest. But several other Disney attractions maintain B-modes that activate from time to time as their attractions' default elements fail.

The one that I hear people seeing the most often is in the final Kylo Ren scene on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disneyland. Originally presented as a mix of animatronics, practical effects, and screen media, in its B-mode, this climatic attack becomes almost entirely media-driven.

Screen media is Disney's go-to alternative for the other two B-modes I have seen most frequently in the parks. On Na'vi River Journey in Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Shaman of Songs animatronic is replaced by a screen version when that immense and complicated Audio Animatronic fails.

And on Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout at Disney California Adventure, a video preshow plays when the animatronic version of Rocket Raccoon cannot answer his call time in the briefing room from which guests make their way to the final queues before boarding the gantries on that Marvel-themed drop ride.

In each case, switching to the B-mode allows the attraction to remain operational even after it loses a major story element. None of these three attractions would provide anywhere near as rewarding, or comprehensible, an experience if the entire scene where the B-mode plays was cut. Their loss would be immediate downtimes under the old rules.

Given the complexity of these animation elements, those downtimes would be long - perhaps days or weeks - if Disney did not have an alternate version of the scene to offer in the meantime. So even if a B-mode isn't as good as the fully functioning "A-mode" version of an attraction, it certainly beats having the attraction be closed... or stripped of a key story moment.

What do you think about B-modes on theme park attractions? Do you find their presence a disappointment or a relief? What other B-modes have you seen?

Replies (2)

May 23, 2022 at 8:55 PM

It's not just Disney. I've seen B-mode for the Imhotep AA on Revenge of the Mummy in Orlando. There, they just added some projection effects to the closed sarcophagus.

The most hilarious use of B-mode still has to be the Three Caballeros plywood cutouts at Epcot. They didn't even try on that one.

May 24, 2022 at 9:14 AM

Some attraction B-modes do make you wonder though, that if designers knew certain critical show elements cannot perform 100% of the time, then why weren't the resources and effort expended to develop a B-mode used to made the A-mode more reliable?

I understand why B-modes exist and why there should be a contingency for every anticipated situation. The more technically complicated attractions become, the less likely they can perform 100% of the time, but far too many B-modes are a result of an unanticipated failure in engineering or a lack of reliability from a system that was not properly designed.

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