3 Delightfully Low-Tech Effects in It’s A Small World

The complexity of modern theme park rides is sometimes beyond comprehension. Imagine a ride like Test Track, which must cycle through a consistent, steady stream of vehicles, across a ride track that is constantly changing speeds throughout. It famously took them months to get the kinks worked out.

The same with Indiana Jones Adventure, which not only varies its speed, but sticks a motion simulator on top of a moving platform, and then randomizes everything for good measure. The Gringotts coaster at Universal has the same challenges on a massive scale, moving vehicles running every which way, synchronized to film elements.

All it takes is one little hiccup and everything grinds to a halt. The computing power on each individual ride-thru probably involves more calculations than the first moon voyage. And while I love that theme parks continue to push the threshold for effects that can be safely repeated for millions of guests, year after year, I confess I have a soft spot for ride gimmicks that are both exceedingly clever and exceedingly simple.

The Pepper’s Ghost effect in Haunted Mansion may be the most well known. It’s about as simple as you can get — but so extraordinarily effective, almost as if the reflective properties of glass exist for no other reason than to portray ghosts in theme parks.

It’s a Small World turns 50 this year, and while no one thinks of anything in that ride as being high-tech, there are some integral parts of the attraction which actually required some clever mechanical gadgets to pull off. The beauty of these things is that you aren’t even aware of there being a gadget. It’s just part of the scenery that you take for granted. The other cool bit is that since these things are so mechanically simple, they don’t require an atmosphere-controlled data center with a rack of high-speed servers to keep the whole ride from going 101. They just work, baby.

Here are three of my favorites

Spinning and Dipping Magic Carpets

You see multiple versions of these throughout the ride, but the “Asia” room is probably the most obvious. As you float past the Taj Mahal and that weird multi-limbed shadow puppet lady, magic carpets circle over head, while simultaneously rising and falling like galloping horses.

The circling part is easy. It’s just a turntable with cables suspended it from it. It’s easy to take the dipping for granted, but how exactly do they pull that off? Maybe some motors to individually raise and lower each carpet. Motors aren’t exactly high-tech, but there are four carpets on each each turntable, so that’s four motors that might potentially break down. And what if they aren’t synchronized perfectly? Then you have carpets that don’t seem to smoothly follow the same path.

But fortunately the Imagineers came up with an ingeniously simple solution. There’s a little arm up there mounted under the turntable, which turns in the opposite direction. The noses of the carpets are tethered not to the turntable, but to the arm, which continuously shortens and lengthens the various cables by virtue of its offset axis. It keeps the carpets in perfect synchronicity and gives them the undulating motion of a ride on an invisible rollercoaster. It’s a few moving parts, some pulleys, and some cable. Low tech, low maintenance, perfect motion.

A Whole New World

A Whole New World

 One Blazing Sun

There is just one moon and one golden sun, which we have already exposed as being a complete falsehood. But one of my favorite effects is the sun in the South America room, which might also be Mexico, even though that is in North America, but Small World geography never bothered me much.

This sun is actually one of the few dynamic suns in the ride. It has beams which seem to continually radiate light, in spite of the fact that thing is made out of plywood. It’s not done with electronic light controls or programmable armatures, but rather with our familiar old friend, Mr. Turntable.

First you have the static sun, which is just a plywood Mary Blair-esque sun cutout. It sticks out from the wall a bit, with its sunbeams spiraling around it in a series of triangular spines.

Behind it appears to be another cutout sun of the same pattern, but mirrored, so that its spines are angled the opposite direction. As the turntable rotates, it exposes progressively more of the of the sunbeam with each degree, creating an optical illusion that the sun’s rays are pulsating outwards.

Ripsaw Sun

Ripsaw Sun

Cyclist on Tight Rope

I’m actually not sure if this effect has been removed entirely, or has just been under refurbishment lately, but in the last room (Antarctica, where all the children of the world go to suffer a horrible frozen death), you can see a cable strung between the walls across the channel. This cable should be home to a circus performing cyclist doll, who wheels back and forth across the thin thread (the cable is still there by the cyclist has not been seen for awhile).

One look at the cable’s thickness and you can see that this actually is kind of an incredible feat. The have some kind of animatronic-mannequin-whatever literally cycling a tightrope over a boatful of guests. One might be tempted to assume that the guy is anchored to rope, but it’s clear that he’s moving back and forth. Why are they so sure that he won’t fall off?

Part of it is balance. The cyclist himself is probably very light. He carries a long pole crossways, upon which two other acrobats are dangling from each end. These guys are probably weighted so that their heaviest mass is actually drooping down below the wire, the sheer force of gravity keeping them firmly tugged down so that one of them can’t suddenly shift above the wire and upset the applecart. It’s a simple system of counterbalances.

That’s all well and good, but how does the cyclist then move back and forth? Do they have a little motor in there making the guy pedal? As we’ve already said, complex motors are prone to break down, and this one would need to keep the cyclist moving backwards and forwards, always hitting his mark.

But fortunately the answer is much simpler, and even though there is a motor involved, it’s basically back to gravity.

One end of the cable is designed to raise and lower between a span of about twelve inches on the wall. Lower the cable and you create an incline, the cyclist starts rolling downhill. Raise the cable and you’ve now reversed the incline. He cycles backwards the way he came. It keeps him moving along the same path.

No cyclist pictured, but you can see the slit in the wall where the cable is raised and lowered.

No cyclist pictured, but you can see the slit in the wall where the cable is raised and lowered. That faint white line cutting diagonal across the top half of the picture is the tight rope.


None of these three tricks are all that spectacular when you look at them, but the cleverness of them has always fascinated me. Check them out the next time you’re on the ride.


This Sad and Lonely Crocodile Will Eat You

I think I read somewhere that journeys into the jungle are supposed to be dark and intense. Nobody ever says “I’ve returned fresh from the jungle.” They always come back half-starved, half-mad, half-naked, and half-bumpy from parasitic insects. But I’m starting to get suspicious about the Jungle Cruise. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like some scenes are less than realistic.

For instance, the Nile and Amazon and the Mekong rivers don’t actually connect in real life. I can’t believe the Imagineers did not construct a story device to cover this clear logic flaw. If it were me, I would have had a better transition rather than just “Now we’re on the Mekong.” Seriously, how hard would it have been to introduce a little exposition to smooth that over?

"Now the engineer will put you into hypersleep. Don't worry, it will only seem like a second or two to you."

“Now the engineer will put you into hypersleep. Don’t worry, it will only seem like a second or two to you.”

And other scenes are not so realistic as well.

We had a little argument going in the Parkeology offices a few months back — one I’m going to drag out into the public, because there’s nothing more interesting than reading about two park geeks bickering like old women on the internet.

It all stems from a wonderful little video that has been making the rounds for awhile now. This thing is pure beauty, one of the best films I’ve seen this summer next to Guardians of the Galaxy and watching Michael Bay abuse my childhood (because hey, I wasn’t using those memories anyway). It’s a restored home movie of Walt Disney World from 1972 courtesy of our friends at retrodisneyworld.com. It is jaw-dropping.

There’s a lot I would like to comment on about this film, but one thing that really blew me away was a shot of the Jungle Cruise at the 9:15 mark.

If you watch the clip, it is of a crocodile in the Indian Elephant Bathing Pool, who happens to be literally gushing fluid from some kind of tear ducts behind his optical orbs. And then the film moves on to a showering elephant, which is totally unrealistic. Elephants are notoriously stinky.

We tried to find an explanation for this crocodile from 1972, which boiled down to two camps. One was that the animatronic had sprung a hydraulic leak. The other correct view (my view) is that the crocodile is weeping crocodile tears.

The notion of crocodile tears may or may not be a myth. Now the phrase means something like faking pain in order to lure unsuspecting victims close enough to be eaten — in which case Dinorama is a good example.

But nobody seems to really believe this. And even if they did subscribe to some sort of reptilian saline secretion, they certainly wouldn’t buy the idea of a crocodile blubbering like the Bellagio Fountain, dousing elephants with a bucketful of sorrowful lachryma.

Yet as far back as the 14th century, explorers were raving about these deceptive beasts. As described in the awesomely-titled Curious Creatures in Zoology:

In that country and by all Inde be great plenty of cockodrills. These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.

Now I have a special fondness for English that sounds as if it were written a long time ago back when men thought the moon was made of cheese, and the one good thing that has come out of this debate is that I will henceforth call these creatures “cockodrills” from now until the end of my life. But one thing is for certain: the idea of crocodile tears is at least consistent with beasts from the wild jungles of India, and since is the bathing pool of Indian Elephants, a super-soaker cockodrill is perhaps a reasonable inclusion.

Everyone knows the moon is made of Eric Idle.

Everyone knows the moon is made of Eric Idle.

One of the coolest aspects about this cockodrill is that it existed in 1972, but I never noticed the weeping until I watched the video. I knew there was a cockodrill in the ride scene, but I figured he must have gotten replaced or broken over time. But when I rode Jungle Cruise last week, I made a point to look out for him and sure enough, he’s still there, and still spouting off on cue like Tammy Faye Bakker.

This parkeologist's camera captured the cockodrill in breathtaking, non-weeping action -- in full-on blurred-sasquatch mode. Are the tears real or myth?

This parkeologist’s camera captured the cockodrill in breathtaking, non-weeping action — in full-on blurred-sasquatch mode. Are the tears real or myth?

How I never noticed him before, I don’t know. I must have been distracted by all those wacky skinny-dipping elephants. The cockodrill is somewhat relegated to background scenery, tucked off on the left side of the boat just as you exit the sunken temple. He’s got a couple of juvenile elephants nearby, so maybe he’s hoping for a snack. But his jaws still open and his eyebrows are still crying.

Give him a look the next time you ride. He really is making quite a mess of himself.


Big, ugly “temporary” things

We have made it to number 8 on our top ten list of the biggest park controversies.To catch up on the earlier entries click here.

Today we look at a trend that started in the late 1990’s and in one case still plagues us today.

8) Cakes and Wands and Hats OH MY!

Back in 1996 in order to celebrate the resorts 25th anniversary Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom was painted pink, covered with faux fondant, mock candles, synthetic sprinkles and turned into something roughly emulating an 18-story birthday cake. Shane hated it… a lot… but most people actually enjoyed it. While it lasted a bit too long (15 months) Disney did return the castle to its original appearance in a fairly timely manner and all was well. Very few normal (***cough***Shane) people minded it and many quite enjoyed it.


Garish? – yes… but it was only short term. Sadly it created a monster.

The park was setting attendance records during this period and Disney assumed at least a portion of the popularity was due to the novel idea of defacing a park icon. BING! A light bulb went off and suddenly desecrating the resorts most cherished landmarks was all the rage.


For a while they really got off on vandalizing park icons… in this case literally.

In 1999 a colossal, unsightly, exposed raw steel structure most reminiscent of an industrial construction crane was erected arcing over Spaceship Earth. It loomed above the park; it dwarfed the once majestic sphere now cowering below the crane. Somehow the edifice was made even worse when a primitive Mickey Mouse hand holding a magic wand was bolted to the side. Shockingly Disney was still not done; above the flat glove fashioned out of sheet metal Disney added the number 2000 covered in red glitter, sparkly red stars sprinkled off the wand onto Spaceship Earth itself. It was horrific.


Gorgeous! You can hardly see the supporting structure at all.

Fans were told that this was a temporary salute to the turn of the millennium. It was ugly, out of scale, out of place and really a slap in the face to all EPCOT Center was originally intended to be. But the worst offense was that Disney’s idea of temporary was roughly eight years. For the better part of a decade this unsightly mess lorded over the park as jolly park managers congratulated themselves (no doubt slapping each other on the back while hoisting glasses of aged scotch served neat).


Yea, it looks like we should start screwing around with this…

The wand was finally, begrudgingly removed in 2007 once a new sponsor took over the attraction. For that eight-year stretch many fans vocally complained about the monstrosity… but not only did Disney pay them no heed… they actually upped their icon destroying game!

Sorcerers Hat

In and of itself it is “OK” but as they say in real estate… location, location, location.

In 2001 high on the “success” of the massive wand Disney constructed a 122-foot tall Sorcerer’s hat at the end of Hollywood Boulevard in what was then called Disney-MGM Studios (Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Not unlike the Epcot wand this structure features a flat simulation of Mickey’s hand this time grasping a massive three-dimensional clone of the hat he wore in Fantasia. One could argue that the execution of the hat was better than that on the wand. It is not ghastly, executed slightly better and very little of the supporting structure can be seen. The problem is less about the actual hat and more about the placement.


Ah yes, Hollywood of the 30’s, romance, glamour, oversized metal cartoon hats… it’s all here.

Disney decided that the only logical place for a twelve story, metallic cartoon hat  housing a pin trading station was directly in front of what used to be considered the flagship attraction at the park; The Great Movie Ride.

The Great Movie Ride is housed in a painstakingly detailed recreation of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. This replica of the famous Hollywood landmark was meant to serve as the main icon for the park; it’s Cinderella’s Castle. It sits perfectly at the end of Hollywood Boulevard and is a sight to behold… that is if you could actually see it.

The Great Movie Ride at DisneyÕs Hollywood Studios

It’s stiull hiding back there obscured from view… you just need to look for it.

A couple years back we wrote a sarcastic article about the new Carthay Circle Theater at the rejuvenated Disney’s California Adventure being obscured by a similar mess, it was a joke (read it here). However no amount of sardonic commentary can truly do justice to the actual reality still being played out at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Imagineers worked for years to design and build a temple to the movies. They wanted to create an idyllic representation of a Hollywood that never was but should have been. The perfect image of the entertainment capital of the world captured at a very specific time… the 30’s and 40’s. The structures, the streets, the lamps, the vintage cars, the themed characters it all is there to develop a sense of time and place that Disney does better than anyone else. And then in one incredibly idiotic move the marketing team destroyed it. There is no way to explain away this clearly modern (or perhaps post modern) monstrosity. It not only does not fit the theme of the area but it actively hides one of the prettiest parts of the park… it is a massive failure on every level.

Fans were upset to varying degrees about all of these moves and fortunately the idea of ruining years of careful work for easy short term promotional gain seems to have fallen out of favor. Since the hat no other icon destroying gimmicks have surfaced and we only have one remaining. Sadly unlike Spaceship Earth there is no sponsor for the Great Movie Ride and until the day comes that they overhaul that attraction and want to call attention back to it the hat will likely remain.


One more look at this beauty (seen here post 2000 when the numbers gave way to some horrible script font).

As a side note I understand that some fans enjoy the wand and the hat. They find them playful or enjoy the added Disney connection. I would argue that virtually all of those fans enjoy these things simply because they were in place when they were first introduced to the parks. If the wand or hat was there when you were a child and you never knew the parks any other way then the removal of these things may ironically feel like a loss of a beloved memory. But this is not the same as removing original attractions; this is in fact destroying the original attraction for nothing more than a marketing stunt.

Shane may not like the cake but man… I hate that hat.

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