At The Walt Disney Company, Lanny Smoot, with over 100 lifetime patents, has developed interactive attractions, special effects, new concepts for ride vehicles, and numerous other technological advancements for Disney’s theme parks, attractions, resort hotels and cruise ships, creating magical guest experiences and driving innovation for future attractions.
Born in 1955, Smoot grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and became fascinated with invention during his childhood. One of his earliest childhood memories is when his father brought home a battery, an electric bell and a light bulb, and he wired them together so that the bell would ring and the bulb would light. That light lit up Smoot’s career. From then on, he learned all he could about science and engineering. In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame®, Smoot described himself as “continuously curious.” He said his parents had absolute confidence in him and gave him the freedom to follow his curiosity.
“My path was paved by people who believed in me,” said Smoot. He developed the desire to invent, as well as the drive to contribute, both to his family and to the world around him.
Smoot attended Brooklyn Technical High School and was selected as a Bell Labs Engineering Scholar, earning a full scholarship to Columbia University, summer work at Bell Labs and a guarantee of full-time employment with the company after graduation. Upon earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, he began his career with Bell Labs in 1978.
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, founded following the breakup of the Bell System, where he became the company’s patent leader and a Bellcore Fellow, the company’s highest technical honor. 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. Smoot also holds patents on some of the first video streaming systems. One of his many inventions at Bellcore was the “Electronic Panning Camera” prototype, which allowed an unlimited number of users to control their individual views of a remotely televised site.
In 1998, Smoot was approached by Disney representatives who had taken an interest in this camera, and he accepted their offer to manage the company’s research arm on Long Island, New York. He later moved to California when the research group relocated.
Smoot has since become Disney’s most prolific inventor. He has developed forward-thinking technologies that allow the company, and the theatrical community at large, to create cutting-edge experiences, illusions and entertainment.
Among Smoot’s many 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 saw wall surfaces “melt” away to reveal safety hazards, learning how to make their own homes safer. Smoot also holds patents on many other interactive systems including the “Interactive Koi Ponds” at the Crystal Lotus Restaurant at the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel and the Power City interactive attraction at EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth.
To encourage repeat visits, Smoot helped develop technologies for some of the first interactive scavenger hunts at Disney Parks, including “Kim Possible: World Showcase Adventure” at EPCOT and “Fortress Explorations” at Tokyo DisneySea. For Disney Cruise Line, Smoot helped create the interactive, multi-paneled floor surfaces that magically respond to children’s movements.
More recently, Smoot and his team have patented the realistic, extendable and retractable lightsaber that was used in the “Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser” multi-day, immersive experience. In a separate patented invention, he created an entire interactive lightsaber experience, also at “Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser,” that enabled guests to battle a training droid and deflect laser blasts like those seen in the “Star Wars” movies.
The recipient of three Thea Awards from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), Smoot was named a TEA Master in 2020. He is a Disney Research Fellow, the highest technical honor at the company, and in 2021, he earned his 100th career patent — a first for anyone at Disney.
Looking toward the future, Smoot plans to keep inventing, and he supports greater diversity and collaboration among innovators. “I chose technology myself, but I believe that every person has a special talent, sometimes multiple talents, and I would love to see a world that exposes more life choices to all people so that their natural talents can bloom.”