Theme Park Engineering:
Alcorn McBride Inc. is the leading manufacturer of show control, audio and video equipment for the theme park industry. The company is staffed almost entirely by engineers, many with Disney experience, who have come to Alcorn McBride to satisfy their drive to develop exciting new products for the world’s theme parks.
Steve Alcorn, the company’s president, describes his first exposure to the theme park industry this way: "In 1982 my wife, Linda, had already been a show control engineer with Walt Disney Imagineering for several years, and was designing the electronic show control systems for several pavilions at Epcot Center. Knowing that the job would ultimately take her from our home in Southern California to Orlando for many months of installation work, I signed on to help with the design of American Adventure."
Sent to Florida on a two-week business trip in June of 1982, Steve didn’t make it back to California for almost two years. Following the October 1st opening he was made the company’s first System’s Engineer, and managed the electronic, software and mechanical engineers working on the Imagination pavilion. During this period he met a number of the engineers who today comprise Alcorn McBride’s staff.
Back in California, he became the Chief Operating Officer at Linn Electronics, the electronic music instrument manufacturer that invented the digital drum machine. At Linn he met many recording artists, and developed valuable contacts throughout the music industry.
In 1986 Steve founded Alcorn McBride as a one-man engineering company in the Southern California suburb of Westlake Village. With less than $5000 in the bank, Steve began by providing consulting services to his contacts in the theme park and music industry. He designed a number of electronic musical instruments for companies such as 360 Systems and Akai. He also managed the development of a state of the art figure animation system for one of the largest theme park companies.
Alcorn McBride initially focused on three areas: contract electronic product development for other companies; project engineering of new theme park attractions; and development of audio/video products that would belong to Alcorn McBride, for use in their own projects, or sale to others.
As the company grew, Steve gradually brought in other engineers who had worked for him in the past. Most had Disney experience, and many had also worked in the electronic music industry. In 1989 the entire company moved to Orlando, largely because the employees valued the more relaxed lifestyle and better environment. Alcorn McBride initially occupied rented space in an industrial park, then in 1992 purchased an office building.
The philosophy of the company remains engineering oriented, with other services contracted out in order to keep overhead low. This allows the employees to focus their creative energy on the company’s primary strength: engineering. It is Alcorn McBride’s Engineers, who often see new business opportunities when working in the field, who conceive most of the new products. Their concepts are discussed in weekly engineering meetings, where everyone tries to shoot down or improve their ideas. The surviving concepts are bounced off of potential customers by the sales manager, and those that stick are quickly turned into prototype hardware, then programmed and field tested. Brochures and manuals are printed, and trade shows scheduled. The total product development cycle is usually just three to six months, rather than the year or two industry norm. This keeps the company agile, and allows a $3 million a year company to offer more than twenty different products, most off-the-shelf.
The Alcorn McBride staff has grown to employ 12 engineers and support people, and keeps another twenty or thirty contract manufacturing people busy full time assembling and testing products. The company’s revenues continue to be divided into the same three areas originally targeted in 1986:
Contract Product Development – During the past decade Alcorn McBride has designed a diverse range of products for various industries, ranging from high security access and alarm systems for airports and prisons to real estate lock boxes and intelligent thermostats. In the early years contract product development was nearly 100% of the business, but it has now taken a lesser role as the theme park business has grown. Last year’s contract product development revenues were about 10% of gross revenues.
Project Engineering of New Theme Park Attractions – Alcorn McBride has provided control systems and programming for attractions at nearly all of the world’s major theme parks. Contractually the company is not permitted to reveal the nature of many of these projects, but they include most of the big name attractions of the past several years. Projects that can be discussed include the design and programming of Space Shuttle Landing Simulators for NASA’s Space Center Houston, ride control programming for several World’s Fairs, Silicon Graphics based driving simulators, and show control systems for nearly every major Las Vegas casino. Project Engineering generates about 25% of the company’s revenues.
Audio/Video Products – Originally developed for a project at the Los Angeles Zoo, Alcorn McBride’s show controllers have become a standard throughout much of the theme park industry. Nearly every attraction at Orlando theme parks includes Alcorn McBride control or playback equipment. One soon-to-open Orlando attraction uses Alcorn McBride products to play video in a vehicle traveling at 60mph! The thing that makes the company’s products unique is their highly durable, zero maintenance design. Avoiding tape (which wears out) and even optical discs (which require cleaning), Alcorn McBride’s products are designed to operate for more than the seven-year design life of most theme park attractions, with no maintenance whatsoever. Audio/Video products now account for well over half the company’s revenues.
The company’s greatest success has been its Digital Video Machine, a hardback book-sized box that plays three hours of high quality video and audio. The Digital Video Machine offers all the advantages of Laser Disc and DVD (Digital Video Disc) players, with near-instantaneous access times. The product was originally developed for theme parks, kiosks and museums, but has recently broken out into the retailing market and is finding wide application in department stores, malls, and other consumer environments. Now distributed in Europe, Australia and the Orient, the Digital Video Machine has doubled Alcorn McBride’s revenues in the past year.
With the success of the Digital Video Machine, Alcorn McBride’s engineers gained new respect for the revenue possibilities of the retail industry, and developed the Digital Video Machine 2. This revolutionary product not only provides zero maintenance video and audio playback, but it allows the video to be transferred over Ethernet, the electrical connection used by most company’s office networks. That means that the Digital Video Machine 2 can be connected to any business’ local area network, or even updated across the Internet. For example, new advertising can be inserted into a video display in a retail store as easily as browsing the web. Imagine updating the video in a department store’s clothing department from halfway around the world!
Alcorn McBride previewed the Digital Video Machine 2 at the 1997 International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions show in Orlando in November. Since that time, thousands of the players have been shipped worldwide for use in theme parks, world expos, museums, and themed retail and restaurants.
During that same period, Alcorn McBride engineers also developed a 24-bit version of their Digital Binloop theatrical multi-track player, an MP-3 audio player, and several other new products.
The latest Alcorn McBride product pushes the video envelope even farther. The Digital Video Machine HD plays video back at up to 1920 x 1080 resolution, and at nearly three times the bandwidth of US HDTV broadcast. Backordered three months before the first shipment, the DVM/HD is now deployed worldwide, and is expected to exceed all other Alcorn McBride product revenues within the next year.
But for Alcorn McBride’s engineers, that’s just the beginning of their foray into high definition video. As a member of the SMPTE working committee on digital cinema, they’re already at work on their next creation…