T here I was, strapped into the commander’s chair of a spacecraft ready to be launched into space, staring through a narrow portal with only a postage stamp view of a blue sky. Suddenly, my seat fully reclined until all I could do was look straight up.

Then off I went, a pulse-racing liftoff

followed by a brief sensation of weightlessness, all part of a four-minute, asteroid-dodging dash to Mars.

Oh, by the way, this was only a ride. It’s called Mission:Space, the latest attraction at Disney’s Epcot Centre. It is, I’m told, the closest any of us will get to a NASA space launch experience.

It’s one of the biggest Disney projects in years, intended to inject a little excitement into the entertainment colussus’s sagging fortunes. And it might just redefine corporate partnership.

It’s notable because of the level of IT involvement:

Walt Disney Co. partner Hewlett-Packard collaborated in the elements of technological design, the ride control system and an advanced training lab, all part of the 45,000-square-foot attraction.

There may be a lot more at stake than this elaborate ride. Top HP executives on hand for the launch, inluding CEO Carly Fiorina, crowed about not only this project, but a newly signed 10-year “”strategic alliance”” with Disney.

So far, the deal is mostly about IT. Hewlett-Packard supplied 13,000 printers, 10,000 Intel-based servers and 70,000 PCs to Disney worldwide. And this may yet become one of those mammoth outsourcing deals in which HP would manage all of Disney’s IT infrastructure.

Beyond that, I think this will usher in a new era of partnerships between vendors and their customers.

“”You are rarely an exclusive supplier,”” said Jeffrey Clarke, Hewlett-Packard’s now-departed executive vice-president of global operations.

“”What you are is a strategic alliance partner. That gives you the ability to have executive access and more strategic relationships.””

It’s quite common for top brands to work together. Disney, for example, already has such agreements with General Motors and Coca Cola. But when it’s about cars and soda pop, there’s only so far these agreements can go. An IT partnership can go in any number of directions, and can take on greater significance.

Already, Hewlett-Packard is hoping its partnership will lead to much more, including a full range of consumer entertainment experiences delivered over the Web.

Some of the ventures on the table include customized newspapers, distribution of secure digital content through a range of channels, Web sites rich with multimedia content and the like.

How about taking the 3-D experience now offered at Magic Kingdom, and finding some way to deliver it over the Web?

Only time will tell if this deal will live up to expectations. After all, many partnership deals stumble out of the starting gate, dazzled by the possibilities but unable to focus on delivering products or services that consumers actually want.

But this is an alliance that could yet take off. And if it does, it could change the way we think about technology partnerships.

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