Home » HOW IT WORKS: 9 Real, Screen-Free, In-Your-Face Physical Effects… And How the Magic’s Made

HOW IT WORKS: 9 Real, Screen-Free, In-Your-Face Physical Effects… And How the Magic’s Made

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we love to look at rides differently. In features across the site, we dissect fan-favorite rides and attractions to reveal the inner workings of Imagineering masterpieces. Along the way, we’ve tracked some of the absolute coolest moments, effects, and encounters you can find in Disney and Universal Parks, like 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.

But for many Imagineering fans, there’s nothing quite like the classics… Even as projection, light, sound, animatronics, and – yes – screens become increasingly prevalent across Disney and Universal Parks, it’s still practical effects – real, tactile, in-your-face, and physical – that seem to leave us astounded. These are the big ones – the effects that are so mesmerizing, surprising, and astounding, even seasoned Imagineering fans may not have recognized the complexity required to make them work. 

Today, we’ve collected just a handful of some of the physical effects we love… true, practical, in-your-face effects that leave guests recoiling, ducking, shrieking, or just staring in awe as no screen can. Note that these effects often serve as big moments in the rides they occupy, so expect spoilers! And for each, we’ll include a video that’s already fast-forwarded to the big moment so you can inspect these effects up close… Which had you fooled? Which are must-sees for leaving first-time guests with their jaws dropped? Which of the hundreds of screen-free physical effects do you love most?

1. The Boulder

Attraction: Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye

The Disneyland-exclusive Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure is widely recognized as one of the best dark rides of all time… and for good reason. The epic journey through the sunken river temple of the Lost Delta isn’t just a stand-out entry in Disney’s ’90s ‘Ride the Movies” era; it’s a masterclass in in-your-face physical effects. After looking into the dark eyes of the lost god Mara, guests face a list of legendary booby traps from suspension bridges over steaming lava pits to explosive laser blasts; collapsing ceilings to blow dart corridors. But c’mon… No Indiana Jones adventure can end without a proper escape from a rolling boulder, can it?

In fact, the grand finale of guests’ off-roading escape from the wrath of Mara is one of the most sensational practical effects at Disney Parks. Pulled into a dark cavern, guests see Indy hanging from a rope above, goading them to make room in the car for him. “Let me in, let me in!” But as he sways, a deep, booming bass signals the arrival of something big. Far off in the distance, shafts of light reveal a massive boulder rolling directly toward guests. Predictably, Indy changes his tune: “Get me out, get me out!” 

As the boulder gains speed, heading right for riders, their trusty troop transport momentarily backs up before apparently realizing that’s… not going to work. As John William’s Raiders score crescendoes, the Jeep shifts into drive and goes pedal to the metal, racing drectly toward the approaching rock – nearly close enough to touch it! – only diverting down a hidden drop at the last possible second as riders instinctively duck! (Let’s see a screen do that!) Falling through the dark, a resounding boom signals the boulder’s end, and indeed, turning a corner, Indy wipes his brow and offers his final goodbye from in front of the cracked, steaming rock: “Next time, you’re on your own!”

Skip right to it by playing the video below… Think you could figure out how it works on your first ride-through?

HOW IT WORKS: The boulder scene in Indiana Jones Adventure is authentically surprising enough to convince most guests that Disney really is releasing a very, very large rock to roll toward riders every 20 seconds or so. The truth is even simpler… even if it still requires precise timing. Inspired by a trip to a park-in-place car wash, Imagineers actually crafted a massive moving set. As the ride’s Jeep enters the scene, it parks in place. It’s the tunnel that moves around the vehicle which – when combined with the motion-simulating capabilities of the EMV ride system – convince riders that the car is backing up. Meanwhile, a separate apparatus with a continuously-spinning boulder approaches, paced perfectly with the sliding tunnel to create a nearly inescapable illusion that looks (and feels) pretty legitimately dangerous, but can effortlessly reset for the next lucky car of riders!

2. The Lightsaber

Attraction: STAR WARS: Rise of the Resistance

Imagineering fans could practically write a doctoral dissertation on STAR WARS: Rise of the Resistance – a ride which we suggest needs a whole new designation above E-Ticket… a “U-Ticket.” The epic attraction makes stunning use of Disney’s trackless dark ride technology, expertly fusing environmental, projection, and physical effects with a few key Audio-Animatronics to create a truly breathtaking experience. More to the point, the ride also has its fair share almost inexplicable effects… including the pair of our favorites: the one-two punch of two near-miss encounters with the ride’s masked antagonist, Kylo Ren.

After their sneaky escape through the First Order’s Star Destroyer is noticed by Kylo, guests’ Droid-piloted prisoner transport vehicles race to escape. Heading for gantry lifts that lead to the ship’s Escape Pods, the fleeing vehicles begin to back into the lifts, only to have Kylo Ren drop from above, ignite his distinctive, crackling, vented, jerry-rigged Lightsaber, and march menacingly toward guests.

Though the prison transports barely make it onto the lift before Kylo can reach them, they haven’t truly escaped. As the lift begins to descend, a rare moment of tranquility seems to punctuate the high-stress escape plan… until Kylo’s Lightsaber pierces through the lift’s top as it descends, effortlessly carving through its ceiling like butter. The ride’s on-board R-5 Droids recoil in terror, only narrowly escaping as the lift comes to rest. Think a screen could ellicit the same response from riders? 

HOW IT WORKS: Though you can probably tell that Kylo himself is brought to life via Musion-style projection effects (and a screen that physically advances toward guests!), his Lightsaber is an ingenious physical effect. The sword actually does ignite and advances down a corridor toward guests, swinging perfectly in-sync with the advancing Kylo projection. Thanks to the moving screen and the very real light given off by the physical Lightsaber, the moment feels dimensional and real in a way a standard screen alone couldn’t.

Believe it or not, the gasp-inducing moment on the elevator is actually one of the simplest effects on the list. The affected section of the lift’s ceiling is really a very large panel with a semi-circular crescent cutout initially pivoted out of view from guests. On cue, the panel rotates just enough for a Lightsaber blade to pierce through the start of the cutout. Then, then panel simply rotates, with more and more of the cutout revealed, seemingly in the Lightsaber’s wake. Projection effects add to the appearance of a hot blade melting a path, but the most convincing sensory input has to be the crackling, chaotic, sawing blade itself… actually produced by the imperfect saber spinning as the panel rotates.

3. The Vortex

Attraction: Poseidon’s Fury

When Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, the park was proudly billed not just as Universal’s first real attempt to match Disney, but as “the world’s most technologically-advanced theme park.” Filled with cutting-edge animatronics, brand new ride systems, and sensationally-embedded 21st century experiences, the park was a triumph. But among its opening day anchors stood the curiously-confused special effects show, Poseidon’s Fury: Escape from the Lost City. One of the few totally original, IP-free attraction invented for the ambitious park, Poseidon’s Fury ended up being a bit of a mythical mess. In fact, we dove deep into the puzzling production of Universal’s waterlogged walkthrough in its own dedicated feature – Declassified Disaster: Poseidon’s Fury.

Even the “improved” version (which debuted after a hasty and complete rewrite in 2001) tends to leave guests nearly speechless… but there’s one moment that’s worth talking about. Sealed into an ancient chamber by a reawakened villain who seeks Poseidon’s Trident, guests’ fates fall into the hands of a guardian goddess who can only offer a path deeper into the temple… by way of a lost ancient connection to the ocean. As a mesmerizing stone doorway rotates its massive locks and rolls aside, the portal is formed… a bridge that passes through a dizzying vortex formed entirely of really-for-real water.

HOW IT WORKS: The Vortex is easily one of the most powerfully impressive practical effects in Orlando today, even if the mechanics are fairly straightforward. It’s a 40-foot long tunnel with an 18-foot diameter. As the gate rolls aside, water jets activate, creating a tidal wave that overtakes the bridge, building in velocity until fast enough to “stick” to the cylinder’s wall. Yep, you can even reach out and touch it… but your hand will quickly be ejected by the 100-mile-per-hour jets. The absolutely iconic effect (and the pretty darn cool moments that preceed it) are goosebumps-inducing enough to make even the most hardened insider feel a swell of emotion… and so far, to keep Poseidon’s Fury open as the last IP-free attraction at the Universal Orlando Resort… Gulp.

4. The Dementor

Attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

By far the most sought-after ride at Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is an absolutely astounding technological marvel and a must-see marvel for generations of Potter fans. Okay, technically, it’s also kind of a narrative mess. But even as guests zip incoherently from scene to scene on a breakneck tour of the Hogwarts grounds for fleeting face-to-face encounters with just about every bad guy from the seven-book series, one encounter reigns supreme. 

When their stormy tour of the Quidditch Pitch is interrupted by a dark cloud of descending Dementors, guests find themselves (yes, somewhat incoherently) pulled into the Chamber of Secrets. There, roosting among its dark stone statues reside hoardes of the cloaked horror creatures, rasping and reaching for riders. Even still, one particularly startling scene sees a Dementor float out of the shadows and follow guests’ reversing benches, literally following them around a turn, hand outstretched as it sucks out their souls. Sheesh! (When it’s working, guests then pass through a mist curtain where they physically see their souls being drawn out of them…) On Forbidden Journey, it’s not unusual to get uncomfortably close to Dragons, Womping Willows, and Acromantulas… but the Dementor’s pursuit of guests is staggering and surprising.

HOW IT WORKS: One of the things that makes Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey so inexplicable is its ride system, with highly sophisticated KUKA Robo Arms attached to continuously-moving bases on a dark ride track. “Joints” at the robotic equivalent of an elbow and wrist allow riders to be tipped, spun, swung, dangled, and flipped along the way – a sensation most riders are unlikely to have ever experienced before. Believe it or not, the Dementor (and the Womping Willow, for that matter) is actually on its own KUKA Arm, able to “float” before guests and follow their route before silently swinging back into the shadows to repeat the close encounter with the next riders. A single KUKA Robo Arm is also used on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Know where? 

5. The Mirror

Attraction: Enchanted Tales with Belle

Many fans are quick to decry Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland expansion as a bit of a let-down, trading the Lost Legend: Snow White’s Scary Adventures for just two new rides: Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. But for all it’s earned the scorn of some, Enchanted Tales with Belle is a surprisingly charming attraction in its own right; a 21st century “Play & Greet” fusing a walkthrough, a show, and a meet-and-greet in an experience the whole family can enjoy. And in fact, this unassuming (and staggeringly low-capacity) experience contains an effect that is downright breathtaking.

Guests queue in the whimsical gardens and wacky workshops in the provincial French cottage of Belle and her father. So in order to “transport” guests to the Beast’s castle (and, for continuity buffs, to the day when Belle should be wearing that meet-and-greet-friendly yellow dress), a little magic is needed. In this case, it’s a magic mirror hanging on the wall of Maurice’s workshop. With a call-and-response request from eager families, Maurice’s workshop is overcome with a supernatural green magic, which emanates from the mirror’s golden frame. The mirror is overcome with an image of the Beast’s castle, and as the magical view flies through the forest and to the castle’s front gate, the mirror inexplicably grows.

The mirror stretches and skews, somehow expanding beyond its original width and all the way to the floor as the glass is filled with the castle’s wooden doorway. As the wooden doors swing open, the mirror has become a magical portal. Crackling green energy on the other side reveals the darkened corridors of the castle beyond – a magical shortcut that leads guests to the castle library on the day Belle and the Beast fell in love. (Cue “Beauty and the Beast.”) What follows is a surprisingly low-tech mini-show starring guests, but the magic mirror’s transformation is downright perplexing enough to leave even parents wondering what happened…

HOW IT WORKS: Like many of the tricks on our list, the mirror is surprisingly simple once you know how it works – perhaps best seen in this video. In this case, the frame is the key. Only the top central part of the frame is fixed in place. The rest of the frame telescopes outward from it, both horizontally (expanding to the width of the opening beyond) and vertically (lowering the bottom frame and the lower section of wall into the ground entirely). While guests are mesmerized by the projection effects, the glass mirror slides aside, centering an elevator-style split between panels. As animation shows the wooden doors swinging inward, the glass panels split, receding into either side of the wall where they and the gap made by the sinking lower frame edge are quickly covered and guests are ushered inside. 

6. The Plane

Attraction: WATERWORLD

In the post-apocolyptic 1995 film Waterworld, melted ice caps have turned Earth into an oceanic wasteland with endless seas sailed by massive, man-made “atolls” made of scrap metal, where the desperate remains of humanity search for the mythical “Dryland.” Of course, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the Kevin Costner sci-fi flick Despite its lofty premise and being the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, Waterworld turned out to be waterlogged, failing to recoup its massive costs and sinking Universal’s fortunes. That said, the studio did salvage one thing from the film: the 1995 water stunt show of the same name that originated at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Though Floridian Universal fans may be surprised to hear it, WATERWORLD: A Live Sea War Spectacular is literally an anchor attraction at every other Universal Resort to this day (including Hollywood, Japan, Singapore, and even the under-construction Beijing park). The show is your classic mix of water ski stunts, explosions, gunfire, zip lines, high dives, audience interaction, and – of course! – a “Splash Zone.” The show’s most iconic stunt, though, is its grand finale, when a full seaplane comes in front a landing by exploding through the atoll’s wall and literally crashing into the arena’s pool of water in a shower of sparks and an audience-drenching wave of water.

HOW IT WORKS: The seaplane effect is so amazing because it’s literally, sincerely real. There’s no track and no strings. In fact, the seaplane effect has to be aborted if high winds might cause the plane to veer of course in its really-for-real flight! The plane itself is a three-quarter scale creation, but weighs in at nearly 3,000 pounds. It’s launched via an upward hydraulic launch system (patented by Universal) that accelerates it to 30-miles per hour in a blink, erupting through a false wall atop the set and freefalling into the pool below. After the cheering audiences clears, a crane (built right into the metallic atoll set) lifts the plane and manuevers it back onto its hidden behind-the-scenes launcher. 

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…