High-tech amusement park keeps special-needs guests connected

Delivering uninterrupted wireless coverage throughout a 25-acre park wasn't easy, but it's necessary to help keep the guests at Morgan's Wonderland safe. The Austin, Texas, theme park, which just kicked off its second season, hosts thousands of special-needs children, adults and their families. Each guest wears an RFID wristband that not only tracks their location in the park but also links to critical personal information, such as medical conditions and allergies.

"Throughout the park there are RFID readers that are positioned to provide an in-house GPS," says Brandon Zumwalt, president of Internet Contrasts, a systems integrator that partnered with Morgan's Wonderland to design and build the park's IT infrastructure. Visitors can scan their wristbands at one of the park's five kiosks and find out where a missing member of their party is, for instance, or locate a particular exhibit, or leave messages for people in their group.

The RFID system is just one element of the park's high-tech infrastructure, which includes IP video surveillance, emergency notification systems, wireless access for visitors, and a fiber network that carries a slew of voice, data and multimedia applications.

Alcatel-Lucent provided the core network infrastructure for Morgan's Wonderland, which opened its doors in April 2010. The park is the brainchild of philanthropist Gordon Hartman, who initiated the nonprofit project after realizing that most theme parks don't cater to people like his daughter Morgan who have special needs.

In its first season, more than 100,000 people visited from 47 U.S. states and 13 countries to enjoy the park's attractions, including rides, interactive exhibits, a pirate-themed island, fishing dock, and an amphitheater for concerts and events. All the amenities are designed for accessibility, so children and adults with physical and cognitive difficulties can enjoy the attractions as well as those without disabilities.

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For the IT team, one challenge was racing to design the network, even as construction was beginning at the park and building foundations were about to be poured. "We attended construction meetings, and we were sitting there elbow-to-elbow with the guy laying concrete, because he needed to know where we wanted to come out of the ground with conduit," Zumwalt recalls.

The team specified an Ethernet ring network rather than traditional hub-and-spoke configuration, based on a ring of 12 strands of fiber laid around the park. That way if there's a fiber cut or a switch needs to be taken down for maintenance, there's no interruption of service, Zumwalt says. The park's voice and data traffic -- which includes alarm systems, lighting controls, park exhibits and security cameras -- can flow around the other side of the ring.

Using the ring topology was the "perfect way to decrease their implementation costs, because we reduced the amount of fiber the park had to use compared to hub and spoke," says John Matthews, a systems engineer at Alcatel-Lucent. "We also increased the redundancy by providing a ring and making sure that every location has a least two ways out to the backbone."

The network has to conform to a number of security standards, Zumwalt says. Because on-site merchants handle credit card transactions, the network needs to be PCI-compliant, for instance. The network also adheres to HIPAA regulations since the park collects some medical information about guests.

Traffic segmentation and authentication features built into Alcatel-Lucent's OmniSwitch 6850 and 6855 switches allow the park to give network access to guests and to third-parties using the amphitheater and conference facilities. In all, the infrastructure supports 17 virtual LANs for IT and telephony services including point-of-sale systems, workstations, IP cameras, VoIP, guest wireless, lighting controls and digital signage.

"We had a unique goal of securing their network while also keeping it as open as possible," Matthews says. "When a person plugs into the network, it knows who it is via the MAC address and places them in the appropriate VLAN, so you don't have the RFID tags getting into same VLAN as the point-of-sale system, for instance."

Another critical feature of the Alcatel-Lucent switches is the ability to supply power over Ethernet (PoE) to devices such as security cameras and VoIP phones. That saved the team from having to install power outlets everywhere during construction, and it makes it easy to relocate security cameras and phone as demands change, Zumwalt says.

In deploying the equipment, the IT team had to be thrifty about the real estate space it consumed. There's a small data room in the main administration building that houses virtualized servers running on IBM BladeCenter systems. Throughout the park, switches are hidden in non-climate-controlled boxes designed to blend into the landscape. The hardened OmniSwitch devices were selected in part for their ruggedness, since they need to be able to withstand the temperature extremes of the south Texas climate, Zumwalt says. Summertime heat can hit triple digits, and with the heat of the electronics factored in, the temperature inside the switch cabinets can top 125 degrees.

Looking ahead, there's plenty of room for bandwidth growth as development around the park and adjacent soccer facility (which uses the same network infrastructure) continues. Morgan's Wonderland is currently using two out of 12 strands of the installed fiber, which leaves another 5GB bandwidth capacity available.

"They've got 10 more strands to tap into," Zumwalt says. "From a long-term perspective, they could go another 20 years without having to lay another cable."

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