At the end of the day, theme parks are in the business of deception. Of course, we don't mean shoddy business practices and questionable pricing schemes. We mean that, from the earliest days, rides have sought to bamboozle and impress riders with simple tricks. Just using light, sound, and special effects, stories can come to life in awe-inspiring moments that cause guests to say, "How'd they do that?!"
Here, we've collected 10 of the most confounding special effects we could think of from today's big rides. We're sure there are others, but we're just too speechless right now to think of them. For a few of these special effects, we're able to give you a little insight into how they work. For others, we're just not sure.
Either way, we've linked each entry to a YouTube video fast-forwarded to the special effect's starring moment, as well as any behind-the-scenes videos we could uncover that explain the effect. It should go without saying that major spoilers lay beyond, in the videos and in the entries. If you'd rather not know, don't read a word farther. Still with us? Okay. Read on and tell us which of these secrets left you speechless and which were easy enough to know in your first ride-through.
1. The Disappearing Cursed Idol
The Story: New Years Eve, 1899. The boisterous Harrison Hightower is throwing his annual New Years Eve gala to celebrate the scores of ancient artifacts he's "collected" (read: stolen) over the course of the year. His newest find is the supposedly-cursed African idol, Shiriki Utundu. Mr. Hightower, though, is not afraid of the idol's legend. To prove it, he puts his cigar out on Shiriki's head before retiring to his penthouse. Suffice it to say, the elevator never made it to the thirteenth story...
Now, it's the 1920s. New York is roaring, but the Hightower Hotel still sits, abandoned, with sparking elevator cables near the city's port. To save the historic hotel from the wrecking ball, the New York preservation society is running tours of the so-called "Tower of Terror," including a look into Hightower's Hotel, where Shiriki still stands on an elegant marble column over his desk.
This, of course, is the pre-show for Tokyo DisneySea's one-of-a-kind Modern Marvel: Tower of Terror, replacing the Twilight Zone-tinged "library" scene in the other two Towers worldwide... but something here is different. After a stained glass window comes to life and tells the tale, Shiriki awakens. As horrifying music-box music plays, his eyes scan the crowd. Shiriki cackles and the lights dim, leaving only its Cheshire Cat-like smile as the rest of its body turns to stars. In a micro-second, the lights come up and Shiriki is gone, ready to meet you farther into the hotel.
How It Works: The surprising effect is surprisingly simple. As you might imagine, the Shiriki Utundu statue disappears by sinking down into the pedestal at what must exceed free-fall speed. The literal fraction of a second between the idol being overcome with sparkles and its disappearance are a shock. In person, it's sincerely a stunning event that feels inexplicable.
2. The 40-Story Freefall
Attraction: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (Universal's Islands of Adventure)
What Guests See: Video
How It Works: Video
The Story: That dastardly Doc Ock and his Sinister Syndicate are at it again. This time, they've stolen the Statue of Liberty thanks to a glowing green Antigravity Cannon. When you stumble (loudly) into their secret warehouse, the villains race off to stop you from escaping with their secrets. As Doc Ock fires, he levitates Lady Liberty's giant glowing head directly over you as you narrowly escape. But not for long. The ride's exciting conclusion sees the good Doctor hit his target, as your helpless SCOOP begins to rise up through the skyscrapers with Spider-Man climbing behind, "Wait up! You're not insured for this!"
Ultimately, what goes up must come down, and after a ringside floating seat to Spidey's showdown, the Antigravity Cannon reverses. The SCOOP slams against a rooftops and ricochets, falling precariously to the earth below as riders scream and grab for the safety restraint. Of course, a last-minute web catches you as you hurtle down and plops you back onto the road for a congratulatory finale.
How It Works: Despite appearances, the big, 400 foot finale fall in Universal's starring anchor attraction and Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man only moves guests a few inches. The convincing trick of the "simulated freefall" might be common now thanks to its re-use on Transformers, Reign of Kong, Escape from Gringotts, the Lost Legend: Curse of DarKastle, and Ratatouille: The Adventure, but Spider-Man was the first and genuinely wowed audiences even unto today with the precise digital and practical effect.
The sophisticated process begins with the levitation, wherein air, dropping physical set pieces paired with precise and subtle "weightless" motion simultation combine with screens to produce a surprisingly effective feeling of rising. Likewise, the "fall" takes place on a wrap-around two-story screen that envelopes the SCOOP, leaving riders completely captive to the illusion as perfectly programs motion, wind, and and leaning, swinging, slamming vehicle base give the sincere impression of a weightless fall. All it takes are a few physical effects and your mind fills in the rest!
3. The Portal to Atlantis
The Story: When an evil high priest locks you and your tour group into the ancient stone vault of Poseidon's Fury, there appears to be no way out. "Unless," the priest's disembodied voice hisses, "you find Poseidon's trident." Little does he know that finding the ancient pitchfork among the temple's ruins only serves to awaken a protective Guardian of the Temple. "We want to go home," our tour guide begs.
"Alas, the dark one has sealed with chamber with a locking spell impervious to my magic. The way home is now impossible. But all is not lost. I can provide you with safe passage deeper into this temple, into the Chamber of Poseidon. Are you brave enough to make the passage under?" Let's hope, because the goddess begins spinning a massive rolling cartuche with Poseidon's likeness carved into it. Once the mesmerizing circles align, a tumbler drops into place and a rolling door reveals a 40 foot long, 18 foot diameter tunnel with water swirling around it. Your destination is on the other side of the incredible water vortex... you walk through its center.
How It Works: The Poseidon's Fury vortex was one piece of the pie that gave Islands of Adventure its "most technologically advanced theme park on Earth" moniker when the park opened in 1999. The effect is achieved by blasting water at 100 miles per hour (the speed needed for it to adhere to the tunnel's wide diameter) as guests step along a bridge through the tunnel's center. You can touch the water, but it'll blast your hand right back out. The effect is totally stunning and the attraction's absolute highlight.
4. Mystical Music Dust
The Story: When Mystic Manor opened in 2013, fans around the globe instantly called it one of Disney's best rides ever. The ride takes guests on a tour of the tropical estate of Lord Henry Mystic. Mystic is quite proud of his collection of antiquities, but none have caught his eye quite like his newly-arrived Music Box. Legend has it that the music that emenates from the jewel encrusted box has the power to grant life to the lifeless. Of course, that's all silly superstition... We love the ride so much, it earned its own full, in-depth history and ridethrough in our newest series, Modern Marvels: Mystic Manor.
As much as the music box has caught Lord Mystic's eye, it's also caught the eye of his sidekick, Albert the monkey (who makes our countdown of the most amazing animatronics on Earth). When Albert touches the box, it creaks open as music escapes, in the form of a floating, effervescent, otherworldly glowing dust.
The dust spreads throughout the mansion, floating over riders' heads and touching artifacts throughout his collection. The dust's starring role, though, is in the big finale, where it pulses through the home and absolutely fills the cataloguing room as it's sucked back into the music box to set everything right. The dust is pulled overhead and spirals into the box. How does the magical dust float in mid-air, appearing in front of animatronics and scenery and even moving over riders' heads?
How It Works: This is an amazing one... When the lights fall in the Cataloguing room, a transparent mesh curtain falls from the ceiling and dips down into the open Music Box. Lasers are projected onto the mesh, which is invisible to our eyes. The lasers projected onto the transparent material make it appear that the magical glow of the Music Box is hovering in mid-air. Even knowing that the transparent sheet is there, it's simply beyond our perception to see it! The "music" races off further into the mansion where simple laser projections continue the illusion that the magical dust is following us. During the finale, the music collects once again as it's sucked back down into the Music Box. When a few glitters of the dust try to escape, a last bolt of electricity is projected on the sheet, roping in the final particles as the box seals. Then, the sheet quickly rises out of view and the lights return to normal.
5. Haunted Mansion Ballroom
The first half of the Haunted Mansion is an eerie trip through a mansion of spooky settings. After Madame Leota's seance, however, the spirits begin to materialize. Their big debut is in the magnificent ballroom scene, where guests in their Doom Buggies glide along a balcony overlooking a regal ball below. The dancers and diners seem to glow with a ghastly, otherworldly, translucent style. They disappear and re-appear effortlessly as they dance across the ballroom floor.
How It Works: If you're a hardcore Disney fan today, you probably remember being absolutely bamboozled by the Haunted Mansion ballroom as a kid. The trick seems impossible, or at least impossibly high-tech. In reality, it's perhaps the oldest trick in the book, and one of the most well-known secrets of Disney Parks. The effect, known as Pepper's Ghost, dates back to the 1500s. In the 500 years since its invention, the effect hasn't changed much, and Disney didn't do any major overhauls to the simple trick.
What you're seeing are actually reflections of a ghostly dance (with animatronics on turntables located below the ride track), reflecting off a massive sheet of glass that separates the Doom Buggies (and the animatronics below them) from the dance floor scenery. By turning lights on and off, the "ghosts" seem to disappear. It sounds a lot more confusing than it is, and once you get a grasp on how it happens, you can actually make some physical sense of the effect while riding.
You can see the same effect all over the dark ride world, just usually on a much smaller scale. Even at the Disneyland Resort, Pepper's Ghost effects are used in Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully to the Rescue, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Pinocchio's Daring Journey.