My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Attraction Special Effects

by Chris Barry, contributing writer
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Why are the folks at Disney Parks the best at what they do? Why do they do it better than any other entertainment company out there? That's a loaded question for sure. I like to think that the true answer to that question is really a non-tangible thing. There's something in the air when I'm walking around Walt Disney World that just makes me completely believe in the magic. It's hard to explain but those of us that are hooked on the place know exactly what I mean. I could go on and on, and I have for the past eight years in this column, about the different things that Disney does better than anyone. However, this time around, I've been thinking about the extra touches in the Disney attractions that make them so special.

I've discussed the little bits of magic in the Disney attractions before. Whether it's the music, the attraction vehicles, the different rooms, or that one awesome defining moment that each attraction has, it all comes together in the end and the results are usually something very special. Sticking with that word, some of the elements that do, in fact, make the Disney attractions so wonderful to experience are the use of special effects.

When Walt wanted to build the original Disney park, Disneyland, he wanted it to be like nothing anyone had ever seen before. As a storyteller, he wanted to take you deeper into the stories that were going to be unfolding live in front of you at Disneyland. The amusement park industry at the time, of course, had no idea how to accomplish what Walt wanted. Not one to give in to the sentiment, "No, you can't do that," Walt turned to his cadre of filmmakers to build his dream park. Along with the filmmakers came the tools of their trade. Set design, lighting, sound, color, costuming, and special effects all came together to create the environments that Walt wanted. They took the magic they made on the silver screen and brought it to life at Disneyland, and eventually at Walt Disney World as well.

Some of these effects are complex and use cutting edge technology, some of them are as old as Disneyland itself, and others harken back to the golden age of movies, theater, and magic shows. Whatever the case, they all do their job and take the attractions to that higher level that Disney has become known for. Let's take a look at what I consider to be the Top 5 Walt Disney World attraction special effects.

5 – The Burning Village in Pirates of the Caribbean


Pirates of the Caribbean at the Magic Kingdom. Photo by Samantha Barry.

Here's an example of a fairly simple effect that is so very effective. When you float into the "burning room" in this classic Walt Disney attraction for the first time, you have to take a moment to wonder, "Are they using real fire in here?" Of course they aren't and we all know that, but it looks so very cool and so very real. The legend has it that when inspecting the original Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, the fire marshal at Disneyland requested that the fire effect have an instant shutdown in case of an actual fire. That way the firefighters wouldn't be confused between the fake fires they could ignore and the real fires they had to fight.

4 – The Rain, Rain, Rain Came Down, Down, Down in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh


Tigger holds on in the rain room. Photo by Chris Barry.

This is a sentimental one for me. Pooh was the first attraction we took our kids to and it's usually the first one we still head to when we head to Walt Disney World. It will always have a special place in my heart and my favorite room in the ride is the "rain room." Once again, we're talking about a very simple combination of audio and lighting effects that are so very effective at transporting you directly into Pooh's world. I love that moment when you enter through those doors and the music and lighting change and the motion of the ride vehicle takes you gently floating through the storm. Just love it.

3 – Flying Over London in Peter Pan's Flight


Ready to fly over London? Photo by Chris Barry.

Here's another sentimental moment for me. I'm always beyond thrilled when we take off out of the Darling home and soar over London at night. It's a beautiful room that uses classic effects imported from the cinematic world. The buildings are all designed with forced perspective, something used very successfully just about everywhere in Walt Disney World. This trick really makes you feel like you're way high over a city when you're actually quite close to the ground. The moving vehicles that randomly appear in the London streets complete the picture. The cars are actually small dots of paint on a bicycle chain-like device once again proving that the simple effects are sometimes the best ones.

2 – Haunted Mansion Ballroom


Residents of Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion are more easily photographed when the doombuggy makes an unscheduled stop. But remember, no flash pictures, please. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

This was a hard one to nail down. The entire Haunted Mansion attraction is just crammed to the rafters with awesome special effects. Here are some choices: the stretching room, the eyes in the wallpaper, the busts that seem to follow you, the "M.C. Escher" staircase room, Madame Leota's floating crystal ball, the changing portraits in the attic—and there are so many more. It was hard to pick just one. However, it's always the ballroom that impresses me the most. The effect, known as "Pepper's Ghost," is quite literally, one of the oldest tricks in the book originating way back in 1862. These are not projections. They are reflections of actual audio-animatronics on a pane of glass set between the room and you and your doom buggy. It's old school special effects and still to this day, is entirely effective.

1 – The First Stop in The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror


The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Photo by Jonathan Heigl.

This is, obviously, my favorite special effect in all of Walt Disney World. Your elevator makes that first stop, the doors open, and you are treated to some excellent high tech effects. You see the five people zapped by lightning and then the whole room turns black and is suddenly illuminated by the stars. It's a fantastic moment that solidifies the storyline of the attraction. The ride would be a total blast without this first stop, but it's this moment, for me, that elevates (sorry) this attraction to super stardom.

I have to admit that this article got harder to write once I started digging into it. There are just too many wonderful effects to choose from. Don't you love the moment in Space Mountain when you enter that second tube and the lighting and sound make you feel like you're going so much faster than you actually are? Does the Ben Franklin audio-animatronic really walk up stairs in the American Adventure? How did they get those Finding Nemo characters to swim in the same tank with real fish? Isn't it cool when Pooh falls asleep and drifts off into the Heffalumps and Woozles room? What about the disappearing butterfly in Journey into Imagination? How could I forget the amazing new Tinker Bell effects in the Peter Pan queue? Snow on Main Street U.S.A.? The smell of Rome burning in Spaceship Earth? Dare I say, the smell of Stitch's chili dog burp? The list goes on and on.

The special effects are one of the key elements that make Disney attractions stand apart from everything else. Whether it's as simple as some paint on a bike chain or as complex as the latest projection technology, for decades now Disney has been using special effects to transform their attractions from ordinary to extraordinary.

What started out on the back lots and soundstages of the Walt Disney Studios found a home in the Disney theme parks throughout the world. When he was conjuring up Disneyland, Walt was right to look to his filmmakers and artisans to make that all-important difference in his new creation. From the looks of this list, we're still reaping the benefits of that foresight each and every time we venture into a Disney park.

 

Comments

  1. By Dave1313

    Good choices, but it's so hard to pick just 5! Off the top of my head, I'll suggest the following 2 contenders.

    In the realm of (seemingly simple, yet not obvious) optical trickery, I'd suggest the stars as you descend backwards in Spaceship Earth. I won't pretend I know exactly how far the strings of lights simulating the stars actually go, but I'm sure it's not as high as our eyes give us the impression.

    I realize you probably intentionally skipped high tech 3d movie simulator type stuff, but for me the Star Tours scene where you end in the Naboo Hangar is the best effect of that particular ride, though it's hard to compare it to other attractions.

    -Dave

  2. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave1313 View Post
    Good choices, but it's so hard to pick just 5! Off the top of my head, I'll suggest the following 2 contenders.

    In the realm of (seemingly simple, yet not obvious) optical trickery, I'd suggest the stars as you descend backwards in Spaceship Earth. I won't pretend I know exactly how far the strings of lights simulating the stars actually go, but I'm sure it's not as high as our eyes give us the impression.

    I realize you probably intentionally skipped high tech 3d movie simulator type stuff, but for me the Star Tours scene where you end in the Naboo Hangar is the best effect of that particular ride, though it's hard to compare it to other attractions.

    -Dave


    It seems like I went a bit more with practical effects than high tech for sure, but the 3D and 4D at Disney is second to none. Mickey's Philharmagic is my favorite.

    I do love the stars in Spaceship Earth!

  3. By jms1969

    Wow...this is a tough one. There are so many choices, I think there's actually room for two lists here - great Atmospheres, and great individual Effects. In my mind, the Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh rides don't have top quality individual effects, there are just a lot of individual effects (some very simple and all amazingly creative) that combine to create a great Atmosphere, making you feel totally immersed. The other three are great individual effects, with the fire at Pirates (and apparently the Ballroom at Haunted Mansion - I didn't realize that tech was that old!) demonstrating that something doesn't need to be high tech to be great, and Tower of Terror being an example of a very high-tech effect. With so many choices, it's hard to compare all of the options and come up with a top five, but I do think that some part of Soarin' should be included somewhere - possibly the scent effects, but more likely the general flying effect and sensation of height the ride is built around. If I had to pick a specific moment, I'd say flying over the mountain with the horse riders and having the valley open up below you is my favorite individual effect, but you could pick a bunch of other moments (orange grove, golf ball, Disneyland, etc.) . I'm looking forward to seeing the new version of this ride in digital - it should be amazing and, while I'll miss my old favorite moments, I'm very excited to see the new effects I'm sure Disney will come up with.

  4. By ToasterBoy

    My favorite has got to be Teddi Barra on her swing. That's a big animatronic bear...on a swing...above your heads.

  5. By SimbaOne

    The yeti (when it was working) would have easily been my number one.

  6. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by SimbaOne View Post
    The yeti (when it was working) would have easily been my number one.

    That thought immediately made me think of the Fantasmic Dragon in Disneyland, but then I remembered the article was FL based, so I guess the California version of the dragon might not count here.

  7. By xezat

    For me, the first stop is nice on the Tower of Terror, but the big "OMG" moment was always the second stop, when the elevator all of a sudden starts moving forward. Elevators just don't do that, and on my first ever ride of it I remember being so excited. Then of course every subsequent ride of the one at California Adventure felt half-baked at best just because it didn't include that magical bit (kinda how I prefer the Pirates ride at Disneyland over the Florida one).

    Phillarmonic and Star Tours are probably on my list over Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh, though that's probably more because I was brought up in the era of big special effects and while I do like the practical ones of those rides, the other two are just more fun for me.

  8. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by xezat View Post
    ...............

    Phillarmonic and Star Tours are probably on my list over Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh, though that's probably more because I was brought up in the era of big special effects and while I do like the practical ones of those rides, the other two are just more fun for me.

    I love the end of Philharmagic with the mixture of SFX and real animatronics with Donald's tush and kicking feet hanging out from the broken rear wall of the theater. Short, but sweet!

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