Home » 8 Classic Disney Attractions Plussed By PROJECTION Technology

8 Classic Disney Attractions Plussed By PROJECTION Technology

In the world of Disney Parks, there’s one element that it all comes back to: storytelling. Now, a new tool is becoming part of Imagineering’s toolbox. Historically, Disney rides tell beloved stories – both original and well-loved – using magnificent physical sets (think Haunted Mansion) and outstanding Audio Animatronics figures (think Pirates of the Caribbean) that bring stories to life and surround us in the settings and characters we love.

But throughout the 2000s, a new technology began to creep into Disney Parks: projection. The simple idea of projecting images has always been a part of entertainment. But now, Disney is incorporating this technology through texture-mapped systems. Think, for example, of the castle shows performed at Magic Kingdom or on Disneyland’s “it’s a small world” where images projected onto uneven surfaces (like castle turrets) look like a smooth, consistent image to onlookers standing at the right vantage point. 

Here, we’ve collected eight attractions that have incorporated projection technologies with the hopes of improving and expanding upon the stories told. The question is, does this new projection initiative spell doom for classic rides? Or is this technology a smart and innovative way to “plus” existing attractions to keep them current while maintaining what makes them classic? Let us know… 

1. Alice In Wonderland

Location: Disneyland Park
The Effect: A Wonderland that goes on and on 
Video: An “after-and-before” of the ride experience with projections on the left.

The original Alice in Wonderland dark ride debuted in Disneyland’s Fantasyland in 1958, just three years after the park’s opening. Like the rest of Fantasyland, it was given a massive overhaul in 1983 and updated with several new scenes. In 2014, with Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary fast approaching, rumors began to swirl that the Fantasyland classics from Walt’s era would get another facelift, each injected with a bit of modern innovation and technological wonder.

Alice In Wonderland was the guinea pig. Using new, sophisticated projections and 21st century lighting effects, the world of Wonderland got a little deeper. Right away, guests press through the door to Wonderland and witness a field laid out in front of them with Alice chasing the White Rabbit. Throughout the ride, projected flowers exist right alongside animatronic ones, extending the world and creating a more kinetic and fluid experience. The Cheshire Cat’s camouflage looks wildly realistic. Static set pieces were replaced by animated Cards.

Altogether, Alice in Wonderland’s thoughtful renovation set a precedent: the technology incorporated was purposeful. It enhanced the experience. What should’ve been maintained was, and where improvements were possible, projections did the job. The result is a ride still as classic as ever, but infused with the best technologies that 2015 could offer; a roadmap for other renovations.

2. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Location: Disneyland Park
The Effect: An explosive finale
Video: The final lift hill begins around 2:50. 

Occasionally, Disney will give its coasters a good tune-up. And then some. In the case of Big Thunder Mountain, that meant completely closing the E-ticket attraction for 14 months beginning in 2013. Disney’s team then completely dismantled the coaster, had entirely new track pieces fabricated, and then put the ride back together from scratch. (Imagine your local park demolishing a ride just to rebuild it exactly in new materials, all in the name of the guest experience and upkeep.)

The talk of the town, though, was the ride’s explosively improved finale. The third of the coaster’s three lift hills has always been concealed inside of the mountain’s core. For most of its life, that final lift hill was filled with large red rock pieces that rumbled and shook as if the train were caught deep inside a tunnel during a devastating earthquake. The effect was a humble piece of Imagineering that was exhilarating when the ride first opened in 1979. But more was needed.

Now, when the train enters that final lift, it’s still caught in a catastrophe. But this time, it’s not an earthquake. The entire length of the lift hill’s tunnel has been mapped for projection, beginning at the base where a spilled and flaming lantern has lit trails of fuses. The train presses on up the lift as the threatening sparks chase right alongside, each igniting TNT tucked into the mountain’s walls. The explosives blast one at a time, expelling smoke onto the train until they finally meet at the mother lode atop the lift hill. When it blows, the mountain rumbles and a massive bank of pressurized fog blasts at the train, enveloping it as it crests the hill and continues along the snaking course.

So far, the explosive finale is exclusive to Disneyland Park and Disneyland Paris, though we should hope the other two Big Thunder Mountains in the world follow suit. It’s a wild finale, and just like Alice, it’s a genuine improvement, not just a change for the sake of change.  

3. Indiana Jones Adventure

Location: Disneyland Park
The Effect: Three doors lead to your destiny… if you keep your eyes closed.
Video: POV of the ride with the Visions of the Future path selected

The Disneyland exclusive Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure – Temple of the Forbidden Eye is, without a doubt, one of the greatest examples of theme park storytelling on Earth. As the legend goes, the ancient forgotten Temple was built to honor the lost god Mara. Any who made the pilgrimage to Mara’s temple would earn one of three gifts: timeless youth, earthly riches, or visions of the future. But the legend also warns: anyone who looks into the dark and corroded Eyes of Mara will… well… Don’t look.

It’s a chilling tale that sets up one of the greatest effects in Disney Parks. On board old converted troop transports, guests turn the corner from the loading station and face three locked doors – one for each gift. Mara announces which gift he’s selected for riders. The corresponding door glows, unlocks, and swings open into the Hall of Promise with Mara’s glowing eyes tempting them to look. That Hall of Promise is personalized to each of the doors, so every “path” is a different experience.

Of course, the whole effect is achieved pretty simply. There’s really only one path and one working door. The other two doors are just props. The ride used to give the appearance of three different paths by physically rotating the massive set to make it seems as if guests were traveling through the left, center, or right door, with the lights and props in the Hall of Promise quickly adjusting to match the selected door. Unfortunately, that staggering and completely convincing effect ranks among our list of 13 Abandoned, Broken, and Canceled Special Effects at Disney Parks. Luckily, that fresh projection technology allows the Chamber of Destiny and the Hall of Promise leap forward to the 21st century.

4. The Haunted Mansion

Location: Disneyland Park
The Effect: A forgotten spirit rematerializes
Video: Extreme low-light POV video of the Hatbox Ghost scene

Projections don’t just bring environments to life; they can create characters

When the Haunted Mansion opened in 1969, one of its most famous residents was one guests never got to see. In the Mansion’s attic stood the genuinely creepy Hatbox Ghost – to our count, one of the 10 Greatest Original Characters Created Just for Disney Parks. The frail, skeletal, eerie figure stood, hunched over with a cane, wearing a large top hat and carrying a hatbox. Every few seconds, the ghost’s head would disappear from its shoulders and re-appear inside of the hatbox before returning to its body once again.

In terms of technology, the effect was simple. Two heads, with only one lit at a time. The problem, Imagineers quickly discovered is that – while it worked in isolation in Imagineering’s Glendale test environment – ambient light of the Mansion’s attic scene was enough to keep both heads visible. Before the ride even opened to the public, the Hatbox Ghost disappeared. But he wasn’t gone. He continued to be featured in the well-known Haunted Mansion vinyl record released to promote the ride, and through the years, Disney happily acknowledged him on merchandise. He became a sort of cult figure for Disney Fans: a lost character, a never-before-seen effect, and (perhaps most interestingly) a rare miss for designers.

In May, 2015 as part of Disneyland’s nostalgic 60th celebration, the happy haunt rematerialized inside the Mansion, this time owing his appearance to 21st century projection technology. Now, the Hatbox Ghost waits within the mansion’s attic as before, but the flawless effect is absolutely stunning and has been met with wild acclaim from fans.

5. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Location: Magic Kingdom
The Effect: The Dwarfs sing along
Video: Disney Imagineering Behind-The-Scenes video

The same technology behind the Hatbox Ghost is to thank for the outstanding animatronics inside of Magic Kingdom’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The newest family coaster at Walt Disney World isn’t all thrills. Part of the ride is a charming dark ride section (meant, in part, to replace Snow White’s Scary Adventures) carrying guests through the active gem mine from the film.

However, the animatronic dwarfs at work in the mines aren’t the 1971 originals from the Snow White dark ride (though those figures do make an appearance later on in the ride). The new figures are unimaginably fluid, moving gracefully and realistically. But the real wow moment is in their faces. The Seven Dwarfs are brought to life through internal projections – each of their heads contains a projector that casts the character’s face onto the blank head.

What this means is that the figures inside of the mine can blink, look around, sing along, and speak with perfect, spot-on animation that an animatronic simply couldn’t muster. The faces are astounding works of innovation and earned the Dwarfs a spot on our countdown of the top 20 animatronics in the world.

6. Mystic Manor

Location: Hong Kong Disneyland
The Effect:
An ancient storm and musical magic (…or magical music)
Video: POV video of queue and ride. The scene in question begins at 10:25. 

Considered by some to be the best modern dark ride Disney’s designed, we explored the in-depth story of Hong Kong Disneyland’s Modern Marvel: Mystic Manor in its own in-depth feature. A compelling original tale (and part of Disney’s S.E.A. – The Society of Explorers and Adventurers), the ride places guests in the museum-like residence of the eccentric Lord Henry Mystic, whose collection of treasures is on display for all. Mystic invites guests aboard trackless “Magneto-Electric Carriages” that traverse the manor to gaze in awe at the adventurer’s cultural collections.

There’s just one problem: Mystic’s trustworthy sidekick, Albert the monkey. Albert can’t seem to keep his hands off of Mystic’s newest acquisition: a music box said to grant life to the lifeless. When Albert pulls an “Abu” and opens the music box, its enchanted tones begin to awaken the artifacts around the home, twinkling through rooms of Greek, Polynesian, Medieval, Nordic, and Egyptian relics.

But the big finale happens in the Chinese room where priceless tapestries and drums hang on the walls with a monkey statue in the center. As the vehicles glide in, the monkey is brought to life and begins conducting a wind storm. The gusts of wind carry the tapestries and music notes in circles as the vehicles spin. The monkey casts lightning against the walls until one shatters, sending Albert flying through the air outside of the Manor. The incredible finale can really only be understood by seeing it, but without projections, it simply wouldn’t be possible.

7. Fantasmic

Location: Disneyland Park
The Effect: A living canvas
Video: Mickey falls asleep

Disneyland’s Fantasmic has been a headlining, anchor attraction of the park since its 1992 debut. A fusion of fireworks, fountains, floats, music, and Las Vegas spectacle, the unbelievable show follows Mickey Mouse on a journey deeper and deeper into his imagination, encountering “mysteries and magic; visions fantastic leading to strange and wondrous dreams.” Before the end of the 25 minute spectacle, Fantasmic becomes a battle between good and evil and Disney’s nefarious Villains set out to turn Mickey’s dreams into a nightmare.

Over the decades, Fantasmic has been pretty continuously “plussed” with new effects, including a 45-foot tall, 18,000 pound firebreathing Maleficent that joined the cast in 2009 – one of the 25 Best Audio-Animatronics on Earth.

When Disney briefly closed the Rivers of America in 2016 to begin construction on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, designers took the opportunity to retool Fantasmic with new scenes and to completely cover the Tom Sawyer Island stage and backdrop with projection mapping. While many fans contend that the new scenes actually detract from the show, the projection work – when it’s done right – adds to the show’s abstract, otherworldly, dreamlike, setting-free feel. Such is the case in the show’s first minute when Mickey enters his own dream in a column of light and – upon recognizing the powers of his imagination – gasps and draws all of the lights on the stage toward him… a moment that can illicit goosebumps.

8. Jungle Cruise: Wildlife Expedition

Location: Tokyo Disneyland
The Effect:
Living legends

The Jungle Cruise was one of the opening day attractions at Disneyland way back in 1955. In each subsequent version of the ride – in Orlando, Tokyo, and Hong Kong – it’s been slightly reimagined. Yet for the most part, the tried-and-true attraction is simply a staple. 

However, in 2014, Tokyo Disneyland did something radical: they reimagined what the Jungle Cruise could be. The renamed Jungle Cruise: Wildlife Expedition added a new orchestral score, special effects, and nighttime lighting to the ride. But one of the most talked-about effects was the simple reinvention of the temple scene that Magic Kingdom guests will recognize. As the boat enters the temple, stunning projections ignite torches and bring the ancient carvings on the temple walls to life. With a burst of “magic,” the temple walls are restored to their former glory, with timeless portraits of wildlife coming alive around guests.

It’s yet another example of how completely new signature moments can be made of simple scenes thanks to the power of projection.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think? Is projection the new wave? Can this technology be used to supplement existing rides and attractions to extend the story in new ways?

Or has Disney invested too heavily in this technology? Have projections become a fix-all that Disney may use instead of building physical sets or animatronics? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!