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6. A New Spin On An Old Tale

Hex - The Legend of the Towers entrance

Attraction: HEX: The Legend of the Towers (Alton Towers)What Riders See: Going For A SpinHow It Works: The Drum

HEX is an ingenious dark ride that re-tells a real local legend centered around Alton Tower's historic eponymous estate. That local legend tells of a centuries-old Earl's curse that whenever a branch from the old oak tree would fall, a member of his family would die. It took only one instance of the curse being true for the Earl to chain up the tree's branches in iron chains (all true - the tree can still be seen a few miles from the park). The ride picks up where the story left off, revealing a secret vault hidden in the Towers where the Earl experimented on the single fallen branch.

Stapped in to a massive theatre, a haunting orchestral score begins to reverberate as the theatre slowly swings forward, then back. The pace increases as the swing lurches in larger arcs, revealing more and more of the ancient estate chamber. Finally, the swing slowly turns all the way upside down revealing gnarled roots eating through the chamber's floors, where the knotted tree begins to resemble a face. 

How It Works: Alright. Hex never actually turns riders upside down. While the theatre does rock forward or back by up to 15 degrees, it's the room itself that does most of the turning. Hex is a Vekoma Madhouse, a special kind of dark ride wherein a cylindrical room rotates around a theatre, giving the illusion that riders are flipping upside down. Lots of small family parks have small Madhouse attractions, but Alton Tower's is easily the most well-done and impressive with its massive chamber, moving musical score, and incredible special effects.

7. Enchanted Tales Mirror

Image: Disney

Attraction: Enchanted Tales With Belle (Magic Kingdom)Video: Another Portal

The Enchanted Tales With Belle attaction that opened as part of New Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom in 2012 is really one of the most unique attractions Disney's ever created. At its core, it's just an elaborate character spot. One of the most elaborate meet-and-greets in the world! However, it's as much a walkthrough and a show. The adventure begins in the quaint cottage of Maurice, Belle's father. The cottage is littered with his many inventions and gadgets.

The queue becomes a guided tour when guests are invited into Maurice's workshop to view the most incredible thing: a magic mirror given to him by Belle and the Prince so that he can always visit them in the castle so many miles away in the forest. By repeating some magic words, the mirror begins to stretch as its reflective surface becomes an image of the castle. As the image flies through the castle's turrets, its lands on a doorway. Somehow, the mirror becomes the doorway, splitting down the middle and swinging open into the castle. Guests step into the mirror doorway as it still crackles with green electrical energy.

How It Works: We don't have schematics or anything, but watching the video basically describes the effect. It's just really ridiculously cool, and we can't figure out the minute details of how the mirror is able to stretch and widen without affecting the wall it's hung on. However the effect is achieved, it's marvelous and impressive for kids, and probably even more astounding to their parents who can't just chalk it up to "magic" and be satisfied.

8. The Chamber of Destiny

Attraction: Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye (Disneyland)What Riders See: "You seek the treasure of Mara... Glittering gold!"

The ancient god Mara grants all who visit his temple one of three gifts: either visions of the future, earthly riches, or the waters of timeless youth. As soon as guests board the ride, they face three locked doors, each corresponding to one of Mara's gifts, and each supernaturally locked: the "gold" door is sealed behind a massive vault tumbler; the "water" door is rusted shut; the door to "visions of the future" is obscured by an otherworldly fog. As the god's rumbling bass voice announces his choice, one of the doors begins to glow more brightly. Then, the door comes to life as Mara's infinite powers unseal the passage on.

As the door swings open, it leads into a Chamber of Destiny beyond where riders are due to recieve Mara's gift. As you might imagine, the chamber fits the gift selected, so riders on the "gold" path see a glittering vault of golden treasures; riders on the "water" path see an otherworldly chamber of timeless, ageless frescoes; the Observatory of the Future is filled with infinite stars. All three are presided over by a massive 15 foot tall carving of Mara. If riders glance into his eyes, they open and decay and Mara rescinds his gift... In the "gold" chamber, he rusts; in the "water" chamber, he ages; in the "future" chamber, his third eye turns to a chaotic storm. Cursed to the Gates of Doom, riders are tossed into the collapsing chamber's 6-story tall atrium where the 60-foot crumbling visage of Mara awaits.

How It Works: The truth is, there's only one real pathway on the Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure. Every Jeep takes the same exact course through the temple every time. The illusion of the three chambers is a brilliant and grand one, providing for a unique ride each time, but it's just an illusion. When a vehicle is dispatched from the load area, projectors kick on and scramble the carvings, decorations, and images on three blank doors. On your ride, the door may be the golden vault. But as soon as your car passes through, the projections scramble and the door instead becomes the rusted entrance to the waters of eternal life.

Once on the other side, lighting, projections, and sounds reset to create the illusion of a different chamber. For example, statues of women pouring vases of water are lit in the water chamber, but left dark in the future room. Frescoes of ancient people reverting to beautiful youth are back-lit scrims in the gold room, making them see-through to reveal golden statues on the other side. The simple effect is a 21st century replacement for the astounding original, where the entire three-door chamber would pivot left or right to select different doors each time. The effect was grand, but apparently damanged and discontinued. The astounding projection work is impressive in its own right, and we're hopeful that one day it will combine with the return of the sliding room, too. 

9. The Fantasmic Disappearing Mouse

Fantasmic

Attraction: Fantasmic! at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood StudiosVideo: View from the front and a side view

While almost all of Fantasmic! is tear-inducing, fantastical wonder after wonder for Disney fans, there are a few really impressive moments. From towering, fire-spewing dragon animatronics that appear on stage in less than a minute to two massive full-sized sailing ships and dancing fountains, there's a lot of magic behind Disney's ultra-successful and beloved nighttime show.

But one thing we've got to point out is that appearing and disappearing mouse. To start the show, revolving lights disorient and distract the audience. That's on purpose, because Mickey appears instantaneously under a spotlight in a fraction of a second. The show ends similarly, with Mickey conducting fireworks and fountains from a high perch against the night sky before "magically" being enveloped by sparks and re-appearing the very next second on the ground. The mouse, reveling in the audience's "oohs" and "aahs" at the moment, squeaks, "Some imagination, huh?" Before disappearing in another fraction of a second burst of light.

How It Works: How does the main Mouse appear and disappear so quickly? Mickey is attached to a high speed lift (no different than many music artist's stage shows) that allows him to "pop up" and "disappear" beneath the stage literally in a second or less. The ultra-quick moment is also disguised by pyrotechnics and a punch in the musical score that only further enchant audiences to leave them in disbelief. Whatever the case, it really does feel magical in the moment, and if that lift really is fast enough to drop Mickey into the stage in the flash of a firework, I hope he's holding onto his ears.

10. Brain Fire

Image: Universal

Attraction: Revenge of the Mummy (Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Singapore)

The Modern Marvel: Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Florida was billed as the world's first psychological thrill ride. It's not a stretch since the attraction is part coaster, part dark ride and features flames, bugs, darkness, bright lights, and one of the most incredible animatronic figures in the world. The big moment, though is the ride's "fake unload station." Just when it seems you've returned to the station to disembark and view your ride photo, Imhotep appears one last time and sucks the soul out of your ride operator.

"Death is only the beginning!" he shrieks, looking up. Guests eyes follow as a burst of flame catches the ceiling on fire, churning out across the ceiling in waves. The heat is intense but only momentary as the train is launched a second, surprise time and dives down into a misty inferno pit for a second half of the coaster.

How It Works: The unique trick is known as "brain fire" for its billowing, undulating appearance that sort of seems like bubbling lava, but upside down and on the ceiling. Unlike any other kind of flame, brain fire spreads horizontally across a surface, billowing as it tries to fight upward. Whatever the case, it's a brilliant effect powered by natural gas. The temperature at the ceiling is a balmy 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature that guests feel below is 107 (three degrees cooler than the legal limit). It only lasts a second, as the ride then accelerates and drops into an churning misty inferno, but the brief encounter with brain fire ignites a sincere and innate panic response in the human brain.

Conclusion

Theme parks are in the business of illusion. From the earliest days of dark rides and beyond, the idea has been to confuse, confuddle, and bedazzle guests with tricks of the light and other special effects that make simple feats seem impossible. It takes a lot of precision to keep these special effect working, and even more work to keep them looking easy to do and astounding. 

What do you think of these effects? Any big special effects we've forgotten that need researched and explained? Or can you see right through these "magical" moments for the moving parts and tricks that make them happen?

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Comments

According to a night-vision POV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjOyfbq5HBA, the magical dust of Mystic Manor is lasers projected on very thin canvas in first and last scenes. Otherwise, it's only laser projected on walls.

Based on the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyKE7LZO7bY, where the idol was filmed with night-vision, it does indeed retreat down into its stand extremely quickly.

Got the Enchanted Tales mirror figured out.

The sides move only the width of the frame. This means that the sides are only moving from hanging on the side of the doorway to all the way over on the doorway. Nothing else moves there.

The top never moves, so everything stays in place.

The bottom goes into the floor. If you look down when you walk over it, you can see it.

All of this I figured out myself.
Thanks to Gerry Hernandez for the rest, below (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrzXAmVQVo8).
The wall is actually two walls. The top half is stationary and hollow, while the bottom half moves into the ground for walk-through, and into the top half for mirror time.

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