The Walt Disney Company is known for creating magical experiences for guests of all ages — but have you ever thought about how those Disney experiences are made? Creators and innovators like National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductee Lanny Smoot make that magic happen by developing theatrical technologies, special effects, and interactive attractions!
Read on to learn more about Smoot and the many technological advancements he’s made, and you’ll see why he’s been named one of our 2024 Hall of Fame Inductees.
Born Dec. 13, 1955, Smoot became fascinated with the process of invention early on, while growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
When his father brought home a battery, light bulb and electric bell, and wired them up so that the bell would ring and the bulb would light, Smoot was fascinated, and inspired to learn all he could about electricity, electronics, science and ultimately engineering.
“I think what's most important about me is I'm continuously curious,” Smoot said in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “I'm really interested in technology, but always wondering what I can do that is new, that no one else has done.”
Smoot’s parents encouraged him to follow his continuous curiosity, instilling in him a confidence to explore and experiment, as well as a desire to contribute to the world.
“My path was paved by people who believed in me,” Smoot shared. “I was an inventor (albeit a tiny one!), when I was young, and in some ways doing a smaller version of what I’m doing now. I just have more sophisticated tools, and a much larger technology canvas available to me, but I’m the same creative kid inside!”
While attending Brooklyn Technical High School, Smoot was named a Bell Labs Engineering Scholar, earning a full scholarship to Columbia University, summer work at Bell Labs and a guarantee of full-time work with the company after graduation. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, and then began his career with Bell Labs in 1978.
While at Bell Labs, Smoot invented some of the first fiber-optic transmission technologies to be widely used in the Bell Telephone system. Later, he moved to Bellcore, which was founded following the breakup of the Bell System. There, he invented the first high-quality, large-screen video teleconferencing system, the “VideoWindow,” which ultimately was showcased at the Smithsonian Institution’s “Information Age” exhibit. Another of his inventions at Bellcore was the “Electronic Panning Camera” prototype, which allowed an unlimited number of users to control their individual views of remotely televised sites.
Disney representatives, who were interested in this camera, approached Smoot with a job offer in 1998. He accepted their offer, a choice that would prove pivotal in Smoot’s innovative career.
Smoot first managed Disney’s research arm in Long Island, New York, and when the research group later relocated, Smoot moved to California. He since has become Disney’s most prolific inventor.
His work includes forward-thinking technologies that allow the company, as well as the theatrical community at large, to create cutting-edge experiences, illusions, and entertainment.
One example of Smoot’s wide-ranging Disney innovations is the “Where’s the Fire?” attraction, which was at EPCOT from 2004 through 2014. By aiming “X-ray flashlights” at the walls of life-sized model rooms, guests could see wall surfaces “melt” away to reveal safety hazards.
“It was a learning experience for people,” Smoot explained. “It taught park guests how to keep their houses safe. People have actually sent notes in saying, ‘I learned to be careful with things that could cause fires.’”
To encourage repeat theme park visits, Smoot helped develop some of the first interactive scavenger hunts, in which guests interacted with technologies throughout the park using devices Smoot had designed and/or patented.
Smoot also has also made inventions for the Disney Cruise Line, including a technology for interactive displays with touch interfaces. The Magic PlayFloor is a great example of this kind of technology. This multi-paneled, interactive floor surface could change what it displayed in response to children’s movements.
Yet other exciting innovations patented by Smoot and his team are realistic, extendable and retractable lightsabers and separately, a lightsaber experience that enabled users to battle a training remote and deflect laser blasts, just as Luke Skywalker does in the “Star Wars” movies.
With these and many other technological advancements, Smoot has not only created unforgettable experiences for Disney guests, but has also paved the way for even more innovative attractions and experiences in the future.
In 2021, Smoot earned his 100th career patent — a first for anyone at Disney.
Influencing the Future
Smoot is now a Disney Research Fellow, the highest technical honor at the company. The recipient of three Thea Awards from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), he was named a TEA Master in 2020.
As he looks to the future, Smoot supports greater diversity and collaboration among innovators from different backgrounds: “I believe that collaboration is always necessary to be successful (finding other creative persons who complement your own skills) and I believe that every person has a special talent, sometimes multiple talents. We need to seek out people (often persons who have been overlooked in the past), who have amazing talents and bring them into the creative and technical sphere. By bringing in new voices and viewpoints we create a better product that resonates with a wider audience in every way.”
Meet More of Our Inspiring 2024 Inductees
To learn more about the new National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees whose stories will inspire generations through our events, museum exhibits and invention education programs, visit our website.