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.
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.
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.
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.