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Best Imagineering Tricks at Walt Disney World

Imagineers demonstrate their skill in new ways each day. They could enhance an attraction with something as straightforward as claw marks in the theater for Country Bear Jamboree. Alternately, they could build an entire mountain…or Spaceship Earth. At Walt Disney World, every attraction demonstrates the genius of Disney’s prized creative team. Some tower above the rest, though. Here are the best Imagineering tricks at Walt Disney World.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad’s explosives

Did you know that park guests cause explosions on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad several times a day? No, they don’t earn a permanent spot on government watch lists for this behavior. Instead, it’s something that Disney fully encourages.

A few years ago, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad got plussed up as part of a refurbishment. As part of the package, sticks of dynamite populate the line queue and the side of the mountain. Guests will notice them the most toward the end of the ride, as explosions trigger. But you can blow stuff up on your own, too.

At a certain point in the line queue, you’ll walk past interactive cranks and detonators. Once you crank the device to its maximum capacity (look at the gauge), push the detonator. Alert viewers will receive the reward of a cloud of smoke on the man-made mountain. Yes, you’ve just blown up a small part of Magic Kingdom! Congrats?

Frozen Ever After’s faces

The advent of digital mapping has redefined the level of detail available. Imagineers previously constructed Audio-Animatronics (AAs) to look as human as possible. Sure, they accomplished some spectacular designs, but everyone could tell that the artificial beings were, well, artificial.

As demonstrated in The Imagineering Story, Disney can create full 3D animatronics now. Using computers, one group of Imagineers digitally maps the robot’s design in remarkable detail. Then, when another team constructs the faces, they’re capable of much more vibrant detail.

Imagineers invented this technology for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and it required several different groups to work together jointly. Otherwise, none of this would be possible.

The most impressive facial techniques are on display when guests visit Arendelle. Imagineers have brought the characters of Frozen to life on this ride. As your boat floats down the river, you’ll intuit precisely what the various animals and humans are thinking merely by their expressions.

Sven’s wondering why he licked that thing, Elsa’s frustrated by circumstance and ready to let go, and Anna’s feeling the connection to her dear sister. It’s a powerful representation of how far Audio-Animatronics have come since the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Haunted Mansion ballroom scene

During the 19th century, John Henry Pepper performed a trick so unimaginable that it spawned a saying. Whenever you hear “done with mirrors,” someone is acknowledging Pepper’s genius. More precisely, you’re admiring Pepper’s Ghost.

Pepper experimented with a theory about identical rooms. He noticed that a perfectly angled mirror could cause a bleeding effect. Objects from one room would reflect into the other, presuming that he angled the mirror correctly. This idea became a staple of carnival mirror rooms, and it also provides the basis for one of the most beloved Imagineering tricks ever.

As your Doom Buggy carries you through Haunted Mansion, you’ll stumble on a ballroom sequence. The patrons at this party change in number, depending on the moment. Some appear as disappearing ghosts, a chilling thought on a scary ride. They’re not really vanishing, though.

A hidden room called a blue room permanently houses all of these options. Plexiglas reflects the images into the ballroom thanks to the refraction of light. Imagineers dim the lights in the blue room to hide all them from sight.

When the moment arrives for the ghosts to appear, the lights gradually increase in the hidden room via dimmer switch techniques. Suddenly, the ballroom includes a bunch of party crashers! It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, yet Imagineers found a way to perfect it.

Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run’s Hondo Ohnaka

We’ve already discussed the brilliance of Audio-Animatronics. Still, I must mention one of the latest models, as it feels like a higher level of AA. In fact, in the videogame parlance, Hondo Ohnaka stakes a claim as the AA’s final form.

When you reach the end of the line queue on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, you encounter a pirate named Hondo who must be okay. Otherwise, Chewbacca wouldn’t align with him, right? It seems that Hondo has a mission for you, as he covets some coaxium that doesn’t legally belong to him. You’re there to retrieve the illicit cargo and escape with your life.

You’ll never question Ohnaka’s existence during the encounter. This automaton comes with such immersive believability that you’ll fixate on his words, not his artificial movements.

To everyone that meets him, Hondo Ohnaka is real, an alien holed up on Batuu for his safety. You understand that he’s a bad guy, but your moral discomfort highlights the conversation, not the fact that you’re getting manipulated by a robot.

Peter Pan’s Flight magical queue

When you lack a FastPass, you’ll wait at least 45 minutes to ride Peter Pan’s Flight. The middle part of the line flies by, no pun intended, because you’re having so much fun that you’ll hate to leave the area.

A few years ago, Imagineers plussed the bedroom of the Darling children. It legitimately offers some of the greatest tricks anywhere on the Disney campus. In fact, this section delivers so much satisfaction that I couldn’t pick just one.

You’ll play with shadows on the walls. Disney has somehow created a technology that recognizes your hand movements and other gestures. When you wave your arms, you’ll attract shadow butterflies. Eventually, they’ll get bored and fly away, which somehow feels heartbreaking.

Tinker Bell joins you in the bedroom. You’ll know this when various objects grow noisier. The sights and sounds that you watch represent a tiny fairy frolicking mischievously. Later, you’ll know that it’s her when sparkling lights appear on the wall.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Darlings’ bedroom provides so much entertainment that I’m always bummed to leave. Sure, I want to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, but I’d be okay with spending an hour exploring the room thoroughly.

Be Our Guest Restaurant’s tiny castle

Whenever you visit New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, the line of sight draws you to Beast’s Castle, the landmark that sits atop an artificial mountain. When you gaze at this construct, your imagination fills in some blanks that it shouldn’t. Imagineers are tricking you, and you don’t even realize it.

You know from experience that Imagineers build man-made mountains that cast a long shadow over the landscape. Magic Kingdom alone houses four different gigantic mountains. Since you know that they’re capable of this feat, you make the same assumption about Beast’s Castle. Only, you’re wrong.

Imagineers employ forced perspective to create the illusion of a large castle. As you can tell from the picture, the construction worker’s head reaches the parapets of the towers. Yes, that’s only one part of the structure, but it demonstrates the point. Beast’s Castle looks titanic from a distance. Up close, it’s easy to tell that this is one of the smallest castles that Disney’s ever built.

By the way, Disney had a pragmatic reason for this tactic. Park officials didn’t want to block views of existing structures like Cinderella Castle from other spots on the Walt Disney World campus. A small castle solves this problem.

Soarin’ Erector set

You’ve really got to hand it to Imagineers. These folks can find inspiration anywhere. One of them, Mark Sumner, discovered that a potential project had stymied him. He knew that Disney officials desired an E-ticket attraction at Disney California Adventure, and his bosses had informed of plans to build the largest IMAX screen of its kind ever.

Unfortunately, nobody could figure out how to simulate the sensation of flight by using regular technology. During a family visit, Sumner started scrounging through his old toys and rediscovered his old Erector set. At that moment, his epiphany changed the course of theme park history.

The Disney employee recognized that the Erector set performed the exact actions he needed for Soarin’. So, he presented his idea to his superiors, and they agreed to construct what is tantamount to the world’s largest Erector set. It matches perfectly with the gigantic IMAX screen, as three levels of guests can watch the same show simultaneously.

Mechanical Imagineering tricks rarely get discussed since they’re not sexy. However, turning a children’s toy into one of the greatest theme park attractions ever definitely qualifies as a triumph of the highest order.