Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration granted Disneyland and Walt Disney World — both FAA-designated no-fly zones, mind you — with a special exemption that permits the parks to operate semi-autonomous drones. Essentially, the waiver, which expires in 2020 and can be revoked at any time, allows domestic Disney theme parks to maintain their cherished no-fly zone status while opening up the airspace above them to “multiple small unmanned aircraft systems” during the daytime and evening hours.

Since the announcement, the Mouse-devoted have been waiting anxiously to find out what exactly Disney plans to do with its newfound drone-approved status. How exactly will Disney Imagineers — the design, architecture and engineering wizards responsible for the “magic” at Disney Parks and Resorts — put drones to work?

As a method of happiness-enforcing aerial surveillance?

As a newfangled way of delivering Dole Whips and churros to famished park guests?

As a swarm of terrifying robo-Tinkerbell clones that regularly descend upon Fantasyland for awkward photo ops?

While Disney Drones won’t be fulfilling any of these roles (nor will they help to manipulated an army of nightmarish, blimp-sized marionettes envisioned by the company back in 2014), they will play a starring role in an upcoming choreographed aerial light show titled “Starbright Holidays — an Intel Collaboration.”


This special nighttime “holiday experience” will involve 300 LED-equipped drones swooping and sailing through the air in unison above Disney Springs (née Downtown Disney), a lakeside shopping and entertainment complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. According to the official Disney Parks blog, the performances will be “accompanied by an original Disney arrangement of classic holiday songs recorded by a full orchestra.”

It’s not yet known how frequently the Christmas music-soundtracked show — already likened to a “beautiful alien invasion” — will be performed or when it will officially debut. As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, a five-minute “rehearsal” was staged at Disney Springs earlier this week.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen LED-equipped flying robots perform an intricate aerial ballet across a darkened sky. But this is the first time Disney has attempted such a feat and, as such, it promises to be quite the spectacle. It’s also certainly the first time that hundreds of unmanned flying machines have been used to form a giant Christmas tree.

According to a press statement issued by Silicon Valley-based semiconductor chip behemoth Intel, “Starbright Holidays” marks the first time that a “show-drone performance of this scale” has been staged in the United States. It also marks the public debut of the Intel Shooting Star, a newly developed lightweight unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — “a quadcopter show drone” — festooned with built-in LED lights than can be programmed to illuminate the night sky in upwards of 4 billion color combinations. While Intel has designed drones and dabbled in large-scale dancing drone performances before, Shooting Star is the first drone designed by the company specifically for synchronized light shows like “Starbright Holiday.”

Intel's Shooting Star show drone Developed specifically for entertainment purposes, Intel's LED-studded Shooting Star quadcopters are super lightweight and can fly for up 20 minutes at a time. (Photo: Intel)

Disney and Intel reportedly spent five months working together to develop the show, although Shooting Star drones will not remain exclusive to Disney. The Sentinel notes that all 300 drones used in each performance of "Starbright Holidays" are controlled by a single computer. Launched from a parking lot behind the west end of Disney Springs, the total fleet consists of 700 drones. (Naturally, you need backups at the ready in case a drone overheats and needs to be taken out of service like a cast member dressed as Winnie the Pooh on a 110-degree Central Florida afternoon.)

About the size of and weighing a little less than a standard volleyball, the foam and plastic Shooting Star drones can fly for up to 20 minutes — that’s almost twice as long as the Magic Kingdom’s beloved Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks show.

Which brings us to the big question: will drones ultimately replace fireworks at Walt Disney World and other Disney parks?

Intel's Shooting Star show drones perform in Disney World's Starbright Holidays light show. While firm performance dates have yet to be announced, the 'Starbright Holidays' at Disney Springs in Florida is being promoted as the largest-scale show drone spectacle in the U.S. (Photo: Intel)

Not to fret Disney purists — the nightly fireworks aren’t likely going anywhere anytime soon. But as Josh Walden, general manager for new technologies at Intel, explains to Quartz, buzzing ‘bots do have distinct advantages over traditional pyrotechnics:

Walden told Quartz that Intel’s Shooting Star drones won’t necessarily replace traditional fireworks displays — they offer something different, and can be used in conjunction with fireworks. But, he said, they are more environmentally friendly in the long run, as they can be used multiple times. They’ll also likely set fewer things (or people) on fire than fireworks tend to.

On that note, Sally French at MarketWatch notes that Intel’s show drones could indeed prove to be safer than fireworks, which sent 10,500 folks to emergency rooms across the country in 2014. Although a number of freak — and sometimes fatal — incidents have occurred at Walt Disney World over the years, very few have involved fireworks. However, falling embers from the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular show did spark a fire that lead to the evacuation and a brief shut-down of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride in November 2014. In a gruesome roundup of deaths and accidents at Walt Disney World, the Orlando Sentinel also notes that exploding fireworks burned six park-goers during a New Year’s Eve celebration in 1999.

Of course, most visitors to Walt Disney World in the coming weeks will likely spend little to no time worrying about the scant possibility of being maimed by a malfunctioning quadcopter. After all, they’ll be too busy gazing upwards above Lake Buena Vista, eyes agog and mouths hanging open in wonderment as hundreds of robotic orbs paint the sky with festive holiday color.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Disney World to debut LED-lit dancing drones
Not to worry, nightly fireworks shows at Disney World aren't going anywhere ... yet.