The idea of unmanned aerial vehicles hovering over Walt Disney World en masse is enough to create a profound feeling of unease. But relax, everybody. It’s just part of the fun. In its estimable wisdom, the FAA has granted Disney a four-year permit to deploy drones at its theme parks. By the end of this month, the drones will be incorporated into a holiday-themed, nighttime lighting display at Disney Springs, an outdoor shopping center at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. There’s already a teaser video for it on YouTube.
Though this is all meant to be whimsical, there is something undeniably unsettling about it, too. The drones are controlled by a team of technicians in a NASA-like control room that could be thousands of miles away. Yes, they’re creating Christmas magic, but they could also be calling in an airstrike. And then the drones themselves hover over the earth in a perfect spiral pattern, generating a low humming noise. Sure, it’s eventually revealed to be a giant floating Christmas tree, but it resembles an alien invasion.
There is a surprisingly involved history behind this. The drone project dates back to 2014, when Disney submitted a patent to use programmable drones as replacements for fireworks, light shows, and balloons. But the FAA has strict rules about the use of these unmanned vehicles, so Disney had to apply for a special temporary waiver to use them on its own grounds. And it gets weirder: Disney already has a no-fly zone over its parks. It was the company’s way of preventing advertisers from flying over the Magic Kingdom with banners, but it also prevented Disney from using drones on its own property. So in order to make this holiday light show a reality, Disney had to apply for permission to violate its own no-fly zone.