Lanny Smoot: Disney’s most famous ‘imagineer’ after Walt set to be inducted into inventors hall of fame

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 1, 2024 5:33 AM EDT
Legendary Walt Disney imagineer and inventor, Lanny Smoot
Legendary Walt Disney imagineer and inventor, Lanny Smoot. Credit: The Disney Company

Disney research fellow and imagineer (image and illustration engineer) Lanny Smoot, renowned for his mind-blowing special effects, is set to be inducted into the esteemed National Inventors Hall of Fame.

This prestigious recognition marks a significant milestone for Smoot as he becomes the first Disney imagineer in the modern era to receive such an honor. Historically, he is only the second individual from The Walt Disney Company to be inducted, with the first being the legendary Walt Disney himself, who was posthumously honored for his groundbreaking work on the multiplane camera.

With an illustrious career spanning over 45 years, Smoot has excelled as a theatrical technology creator, inventor, electrical engineer, scientist, and researcher. His relentless pursuit of innovation has resulted in an impressive collection of over 100 patents, a remarkable feat achieved by only a select few inventors. Notably, 74 of these patents were created during his 25-year career at The Walt Disney Company, further solidifying his invaluable contributions to the technology and entertainment space.

“At Disney Experiences, we’re committed to world-class storytelling, creativity, and innovation in everything we do, and Lanny Smoot embodies every one of those ideals,” said Josh D’Amaro, Chairman, of Disney Experiences. “As Disney’s most prolific inventor, Lanny continues to amaze all of us with his artistic ingenuity, technical expertise, and endless imagination.”

Smoot’s contributions to Disney’s theme parks and experiences worldwide have been remarkable. He has played a pivotal role in creating iconic special effects and technical marvels that have captivated guests. From Madame Leota’s mesmerizing ability to float in the Séance Room at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion to the state-of-the-art extendable lightsaber used by Disney Live Entertainment, Lanny’s innovative creations have left a lasting impression.

When asked to select his patents for the National Inventors Hall of Fame induction, Lanny chose “Where’s the Fire?” This interactive exhibit, previously featured at EPCOT from 2004 to 2014, “educates guests on fire safety and the importance of fire prevention.” Through engaging challenges and the use of Lanny’s innovative technology, guests “were able to shine a special flashlight device on the walls of a house to identify fire dangers and understand how to prevent them in the future.

“As a life-long inventor, I am excited, delighted, and humbled to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,” Lanny shared. “To be included alongside my childhood hero, Thomas Edison, and my lifelong role model, Jim West — the inventor of the electret microphone, is both exciting and humbling. And as someone who’s had the privilege of working at The Walt Disney Company, it’s especially meaningful to know that Walt Disney himself is also an inductee.”

Born in 1955, Smoot spent his formative years in Brooklyn, New York, where he developed a deep interest in innovation. His enthusiasm for crafting and inventing emerged at a young age, thanks to his father’s influence. A vivid childhood recollection of Lanny’s creativity involved his father coming home with a battery, an electric bell, and a light bulb, which he ingeniously connected to make the bell ring and the bulb illuminate. This pivotal moment ignited Lanny’s career trajectory. Subsequently, he dedicated himself to acquiring extensive knowledge in the science and engineering fields to transform his family and the world.

Smoot enrolled at Brooklyn Technical High School and became a recipient of the Bell Labs Engineering Scholarship, which granted him a complete tuition waiver to Columbia University. Additionally, he had the opportunity to work at Bell Labs during the summer with the assurance of a full-time job with the company upon completing his studies. After obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, Lanny commenced his professional journey with Bell Labs in 1978.

In 1998, Disney representatives approached Lanny, expressing interest in this camera. Lanny agreed to manage the company’s research arm on Long Island, New York and later relocated to California when the research group moved. Ever since, Lanny has emerged as Disney’s most productive inventor, pioneering innovative technologies that enable the company and the wider theatrical community to craft state-of-the-art experiences, illusions, and entertainment.

Today, as a Disney Research Fellow, Lanny embodies the pinnacle of technical research accomplishment at the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) Research & Development.

On August 3, 2021, Lanny accomplished a remarkable feat by receiving his 100th career patent from the US Patent and Trademark Office. This achievement is unprecedented within The Walt Disney Company, making Lanny the first individual to reach such a milestone. His 100th patent, numbered 11,080,779 and titled “Systems and Methods of Presenting a Multi-Media Entertainment in a Venue,” is a testament to his ingenuity and creativity. This accomplishment places Lanny among the most prolific Black inventors in American history, as measured by the number of patents granted. Lanny’s inventions have left an indelible mark on Disney’s theme parks, attractions, resort hotels, and cruise ships, enriching the experiences of countless guests and paving the way for future innovations.