My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Attraction Special Effectsby Chris Barry, contributing writer
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
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
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
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
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
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.