7. The Fire
Attraction: Pirates of the Caribbean
We had to leave at least one entry on this list to discuss the spectacular effects found in Disney's two masterpieces of the 1960s – Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Given that the latter featured heavily in our look at 10 "How'd They Do That?" Effects that Amaze Us, it makes good sense to pay tribute to the former here, and to one of the most famous physical effects in any theme park attraction.
After sailing through reflective bayous, past garden parties, into forgotten caverns, and through a pirate's musical raid on a Caribbean village, guests witness the aftermath of the town's pillaging. As the invaders continue their comical looting to the tune of "Yo Ho (A Pirates Life for Me)", the Caribbean town they've taken begins to burn down around them. With flames seemingly licking at their heels, the pirates are none the wiser. Of course, in more than fifty years, the fire hasn't actually done any damage, which is a true testament to the effect's longevity... and its realism.
HOW IT WORKS: The "fire" effect on Pirates is astonishingly cool, and it's achieved pretty simply. Developed by illusion mastermind Yale Gracey (credited with many of Mansion's most legendary effects), the "fire" is achieved with reflective fabric material strung up inside the town's buildings. Lighting, mist, fog, fans, and sound effects then create the illusion of a crackling, burning, perpetual fire.
Because the ingenious illusion is actually quite simple, it has spread across Internet discussion boards for Disney Parks, Halloween, and DIY enthusiasts, inspiring some home decor imitations that have ended up in 911 calls from concerned neighbors. In fact, the effect is so convincing that way back in 1967, the the Anaheim Fire Chief famously requested that Imagineers have the effect automatically shut off when the ride's fire alarm is tripped to ensure that firefighters spend time extinguishing the real flames and not Gracey's.
8. The Portable Hole
Attraction: Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin
Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin is perhaps the most underappreciated and overlooked of Disney Parks dark rides, in part because it's inspired by the oft-forgotten 1988 Touchstone Pictures classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and in another part because Walt Disney World doesn't have it. Located in Toontown at Disneyland (and Tokyo Disneyland), the dark ride sends guests careening through the cartoon capers of Roger Rabbit's Hollywood underworld with nefarious weasels and their Toon-erasing "Dip." It's filled with fun gags and blink-or-you'll-miss-it jokes (made all the better by its free-spinning Teacup-style cab vehicles).
In fact, the ride's finale takes place in a warehouse filled with classic cartoon gags of old, from whack-o hammers to cream pies delivered by spring hands. But one of the ride's most underrated yet jaw-dropping visual tricks plays on the classic cartoon gags of old: the Portable Hole (think, Wile E. Coyote opening an Acme-branded black circle sticker, slapping it on a rockface to imitate a tunnel, then being astounded when Road Runner actually runs right through it).
With guests headed for a dead end in the warehouse and seemingly no escape from the evil gangster weasels, Roger Rabbit appears ahead with black circles of varying sizes draped over crates, yelling, "I've got a Portable Hole! I'll save you!" And with a cartoonishly-stretched arm, he presses a massive black circle against a solid brick wall... which the cabs then pass effortlessly through! You've got to see it to believe it:
HOW IT WORKS: The "Portable Hole" gag is – you guessed it – brilliant in its simplicity! It may take a few rides (or watches), but eventually you'll catch on... The "Portable Hole" is, of course, a painted flat connected to a black tunnel that cabs pass through. Still, that black hole itself really is pulled away from the wall as guests' cabs approach. The "hole" flat is oriented parallel to approaching guests, while the extended tunnel wall that's viewed perpendicular to the ride path is disguised with a mirror, creating the illusion that the brick wall repeats "behind" the hole. The entire tunnel apparatus starts telescoped out. As each cab nears, it's pulled back into the wall, extending Roger's cartoon arm. If it's tough to describe, it must've been even tougher to design!
9. The Exploding Wall
Attraction: Mystic Manor
There's a reason that the anchor attraction of Hong Kong Disneyland earned its own in-depth special feature – Modern Marvels: Mystic Manor – and why it ranks among our Best Rides of the Century (So Far) and our "Bucket List" Disney Parks Attractions... Primarily because the 2013 dark ride is basically a "best of" Imagineering masterpiece, fusing every trick of the trade and storytelling ace Disney's learned in the last six decades. But it also introduced some new effects of its own.
Throughout their "tour" of Lord Henry Mystic's estate, guests follow a trail of magical music dust that inexplicably floats from room to room, bringing the home's international collection of oddities to life. But it's in the epic Chinese Salon that the magic builds to its crescendo. As the ride's Mystic Magneto Electric Carriages helplessly spin around a central monkey statue, growing wind begins to tear tapestries and paintings from the walls. It all culminates in the total destruction of the room when the energy explodes out an entire wall, tearing the home's relics (and its mischievious monkey Albert) right out of the home!
HOW IT WORKS: Like much of the ride, the finale of Mystic Manor is a careful fusion of practical, screen-based, and projection-accentuated effects, but it's the physical that so sells the illusion. On command, the wall of the Salon explodes outward in the form of puzzle-cut panels that flip out of view, revealing a screen beyond. The instantaneous effect really gives the dimensional impression that the room has lost a wall (because, I mean, it has). Sure, projection plays a major role in this effect... but it's the physical fracturing of the wall that makes it real. A screen alone wouldn't convey the same dynamics, and the practical effect is jaw-dropping.
But the most impressive part of the effect is one so subtle, most guests probably don't notice... As the energy in the room builds and the wall begins to buckle, an extravagent vase on a nearby table begins to shake. When the wall explodes outward, the vase goes with it, being torn from the table by wind and disappearing through the gaping hole. It's then heard "shattering" and its broken remnants blow away in the wind (via projection). The effect is somewhat subtle, but serves to sell the illusion.
(As you probably recognize, the effect is so cool, it quickly entered Imagineering's portfolio of tricks and was used on their next "best of" masterpiece, Rise of the Resistance... And like Mystic Manor, the Galaxy's Edge ride similarly uses practical effects to reinforce the projection-accentuated effect by having loose tubes "pulled' toward the vacuum of space created by an exploding wall on the Star Destroyer; subtle, but massively important to the illusion.)
Ultimately, these nine effects barely scratch the surface of the real, physical, practical effects that bring Disney and Universal rides to life. There are hundreds and hundreds of practical effects that leave guests speechless every single day. And even now, when projection and screens seem to have infiltrated theme parks in irreversible ways, physical effects remain at the top of designers' portfolios. After all, no screen can recreate the physical sensation roiling fire on Revenge of the Mummy; no projection can capture the emotional wallop of seeing Abraham Lincoln stand before you; without physical effects, Runaway Railway's "folding factory" wouldn't leave guests speechless.
For those reasons, physical effects, too, are just part of the story. So we encourage you to continue your journey through Theme Park Tourist's features, and make the jump to our lists of 10 of Must-See Projection-Based Effects, 10 "How'd They Do That?" Effects that Amaze Us, 10 BIG Scenic Reveals That Give Us Goosebumps, and of course, our popular list of the 25 Most Incredible Audio-Animatronics on Earth, where the journey into special effects continues...