Let’s take a peek behind the curtain at some of Disney’s most magical effects!
The Disney Parks are known for creating magic for guests around the world. In fact, the attractions are so detailed that we often find ourselves left with some burning questions about what’s going on behind the scenes. How’d they DO THAT? Let’s take a look at some secrets behind the magic at the Disney Parks!
Pepper’s Ghost Effect
Let’s start off with a classic illusion — the Pepper’s Ghost effect. This trick is found in quite a few places around the Disney Parks, most notably in the Haunted Mansion. But Imagineers weren’t the first ones to use this illusion — the Pepper’s Ghost effect dates all the way back to the 1860s.
The Pepper’s Ghost effect is what causes the ghosts to materialize during the Haunted Mansion’s ballroom scene. And you might be surprised to find out how “low-tech” this impressive illusion is!
Animatronics of the “ghosts” are located directly above and below the doombuggy track, and a large pane of glass is placed between the animatronics and the ballroom. A light is shined on the animatronics, causing their reflection to bounce off the glass, which makes them materialize as ghostly apparitions in the ballroom.
A famously funny goof that showcases the fact that these are reflections can be seen in the ballroom dancers — since it’s reflections, the dancers appear to dance backward! While the Haunted Mansion is the most prominent example of the Pepper’s Ghost effect in the Disney Parks, that’s not the only spooky attraction that utilized this illusion.
Over in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Tower of Terror also uses the Pepper’s Ghost effect to create the ghostly figures of the vanished guests in an early scene on the attraction.
Despite its 150+ year history, the Pepper’s Ghost effect is still a convincing illusion that gives us the goosebumps!
Projection-Mapping and Set Pieces
Another common trick Disney uses to create magic involves combining projection mapping with set pieces. This effect is used in several places throughout the Disney Parks, so let’s take a look at a few of our favorite examples!
The pre-show for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway in Hollywood Studios is a great example of this trick! In the pre-show, guests in the holding area watch a short film in which Goofy is conducting a train.
Suddenly, a pie gets stuck in the train’s steam pipe, causing an “explosion.” This explosion seemingly blows a hole in the wall, revealing the loading area for the attraction.
This illusion is created with a combination of projections and moving set pieces. When the “explosion” happens, a moving projector wall is raised to reveal the opening, and the curved “blow up” pieces around the edges are quickly moved into place to complete the effect.
A similar effect is used to create the truly awesome magic mirror effect in the pre-show for Enchanted Tales with Belle. This attraction is still unavailable following the park closure, but when it’s open, it’s worth a visit just to see this effect!
Before guests enter the show, they’re taken into Maurice’s workshop, which contains a large mirror hanging on the wall. The mirror animates, showing guests the Beast’s castle before it transforms into a door, leading guests toward the attraction!
The projections here are just a distraction. The tech behind the mirror/door is pretty impressive! The projection of the green magic is done with a projector placed out of sight, which hides many of the moving parts of the effect. While the magic happens, the mirror begins to expand.
The mirror frame that is attached to the wall and initially visible has a lot more hidden parts! The additional parts of the picture frame/doorframe are behind the visible wall. Both sides and the bottom of the frame expand, and the mirror slides over as well, revealing an elevator door-style opening to allow guests into the next room.
This incredible magic is all accomplished with the help of dazzling projections that distract from the slowly moving set pieces. It’s a VERY complex and smooth effect that seems to happen right before your eyes.
Dynamic Projection Mapping
Okay, so several attractions use projection mapping in their effects, so what makes dynamic projection mapping different? Let’s head over to Peter Pan’s Flight to take a look!
When the effects are turned on, guests pass by a spot in the queue where their shadow appears to be on the wall in front of them. They’re then able to interact with shadows of several different elements that appear, like ringing bells overhead or interacting with a projected butterfly.
But did you know the “shadows” are actually much more complex than they appear? In fact, they aren’t shadows at all! Sensors placed in the queue capture guests’ movement and this data is then turned into your shadow and projected on the wall in real-time. The interactive elements are rigged in a computer to respond to any “data” (AKA guests!) that comes within a certain range.
If you’ve ever wondered how your “shadow” appeared on the wall without a light source shining directly behind you, now you know!
Classic Theatrical Tricks
Hey, they’re classics for a reason, right?? In fact, even some of Disney’s newest and most high-tech attractions like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance still utilize some classic theatrical tricks!
Throughout Rise of the Resistance, there are several laser and blast effects that show damage caused to the ship by various weapons. For smaller blasts on walls, projections are used to show the impact.
But when significant damage is done, a special type of one-way theatrical fabric is used. When lit from behind, the fabric appears invisible, revealing the hidden “damage.”
This is the same effect that is used for the changing portraits in the Haunted Mansion. The top layer of the portrait is the normal image, printed on theatrical fabric. When the light flashes, the theatrical fabric becomes invisible, revealing the spooky portrait below.
From opening day attractions to new, high-tech additions, rides all over the Disney Parks take advantage of classic theatrical tricks to create magic!
We have to wrap up with one of the original Imagineering tricks — forced perspective. Imagineers use forced perspective to trick our eyes into believing a structure is larger than it actually is.
With forced perspective, elements of buildings or structures become smaller and smaller as they get higher. This tricks your eye into perceiving these elements as farther away, making the structure seem taller. For example, the bricks on Cinderella Castle get smaller and smaller as they go up, making it appear much taller than its actual height of 189 feet.
Forced perspective is also used on Main Street, U.S.A. The second floor is actually shorter than the high ceilinged rooms of the ground floor. But by making the building elements progressively smaller as they go up, the Imagineers have made the second floor appear proportionate to the first.
This trick is also prominently on display in Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The floating mountains appear to tower above guests high in the sky thanks to forced perspective. While they certainly aren’t small, they appear to be much larger than their actual height of 156 feet!
Interestingly, you can see an example of REVERSE forced perspective at Disney World too. The American Adventure in EPCOT’s World Showcase is a nearly five-story building yet appears to be just over two stories. To fit with the architecture of the period, reverse forced perspective was used to make the big building appear smaller. Pretty cool, huh?
Forced perspective helps Imagineers make the Disney Parks all over the world feel larger-than-life to guests!
The Disney Parks excel at creating mind-blowing magic for guests to enjoy. Even lifelong Disney fans (like us!) often find themselves wondering, “How did they do that??” We hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the curtain at some of Disney’s most incredible effects. We’ll see ya real soon, DFB friends!
Which attraction do you think has the most impressive effect? Let us know in the comments!