Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot appears onstage at the National Inventors Hall of Fame awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot Reflects on Being Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

By Zach Johnson

With more than 100 lifetime patents, The Walt Disney Company’s most prolific inventor, Lanny Smoot—the Disney Research Fellow and Imagineer behind numerous astonishing special effects at Disney parks around the world—was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame last week.

Smoot is the first Disney Imagineer to receive this prestigious recognition and only the second individual from The Walt Disney Company to be inducted—the first being Walt Disney himself, honored posthumously in 2000 for the multiplane camera.

“I am proud and excited, and at the same time humbled, because this amazing honor has also been bestowed upon the likes of Thomas Edison,” Smoot says. “Bringing it a little closer to home, it was also given to personal heroes of mine, like Jim West, inventor of the electret microphone that we all carry in our cell phones and laptops—and, bringing it even closer, to Walt Disney himself, whose vision is still the guiding light for all of my colleagues at The Walt Disney Company.”

Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot points to his name in the National Inventors Hall of Fame during the Illumination Ceremony.
Courtesy of the National Inventors Hall of Fame

For Smoot, getting to attend the dinner, ceremony, and after party with other luminaries was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A standout moment “was to walk across the stage and have the (very heavy) medal bestowed upon me, topping off the event and making it ‘real’ in some ways,” he says. Smoot adds that another highlight “was that I might become a better role model for young people, especially those who look like me, to consider careers in engineering, the sciences, and invention and have as much fun as I have had in doing so.”

In choosing which patent to list during his National Inventors Hall of Fame induction, Smoot selected one related to “Where’s the Fire?”. The interactive exhibit—which was featured in the Innoventions Pavilion at EPCOT for nearly 10 years—aimed to educate guests on both fire safety and the importance of fire prevention through engaging challenges.

“‘Where’s the Fire?’… was almost completely based on this single patent, which demonstrates the power of invention!” Smoot explains. “The interactive attraction allowed guests and families to use ‘X-Ray flashlights’ to see through the walls of faux homes, and to root out safety hazards. It was, of course, entertaining for our guests, but it also contributed towards them having safer lives. The combination of Disney entertainment, and the novel use of cutting-edge technology is always a part of the ‘Disney difference.'”

In the past 45 years, Smoot has demonstrated both imagination and skill, working as a theatrical technology creator, inventor, electrical engineer, scientist, and researcher, resulting in an impressive collection of 106 patents—74 of which were created during his 25 years at The Walt Disney Company.

Smoot is also the recipient of multiple awards and honors, including three Thea Awards from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) for his work on fan-favorite attractions and experiences, such as Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland Park and Kim Possible: World Showcase Adventure at EPCOT. His expertise in theatrical technology earned him the esteemed title of TEA Master in 2020.

Needless to say, Smoot’s inventions—from the state-of-the-art extendable lightsaber used by Disney Live Entertainment to the Magic Playfloor aboard Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy ships—have created a multitude of magical moments for guests.

“One of the mottos of the Imagineers is, ‘We make the magic!’ We continuously use our imagination, and our technical skills in service of creating the entertaining, exciting, and often educating attractions that our guests enjoy,” Smoot says. “Before coming to Imagineering, I enjoyed a successful career in telecom research [at Bell Labs and later Bellcore in New Jersey], and I valued the freedom to create based on my continuing curiosity about what technology can do. Imagineering turbocharges that type of freedom and gave me an even wider canvas for my technical skills. Being a Fellow recognizes that I have made significant contributions to the Imagineering mission, and that I am trusted to continue in that crusade. Having the title means, ‘Keep doing what you are doing! We trust you that it will be good!'”

Currently, Smoot is working with other Disney Imagineers on the HoloTile Floor—the world’s first, and only, multi-person, omni-directional, modular, expandable treadmill floor.

“Its ability to move an unlimited number of people or objects on its surface in any direction, enables whole new applications,” Smoot says. “For instance, multiple persons in virtual reality headsets can stroll through real or fantastical locations, all in a physically small space, without bumping into each other or walking off the Floor. The HoloTile Floor could also be embedded in theatrical stages to allow performers to dance in ways that would elude the most talented performers standing on an ordinary stage. It can also be used as a design tool, to allow Imagineers to walk through their creations before they are even built.”

And Smoot is just getting started. “I love getting the ‘How do they do that?’ reactions from our theme park guests, and I remain curious about how far we can take technology in service of entertainment, so I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing,” he says. “Next project!”