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.


When AT-ATs Catch A Cold

Possibly the greatest of all Star Wars vehicles is the mighty All-Terrain-Armored-Transport (or AT-AT for short). Huge quadruped machines that lumber across the snow fields of Hoth or play hide-and-seek on the forest moon of Endor. They are simultaneously terrifying and adorable — like great danes or Duffy Bears. One just assumes that if an AT-AT could talk, it would sound very much like Fezzik in the Princess Bride.

Darth Vader: Beware of rebel harpoons and tow-cables.
AT-AT: Maybe they try to turn the… tables.
Darth Vader: The force is with you, AT-AT, but you are a not a Jedi yet.
AT-AT: Anybody want a baguette?

If I had my way, there would be a whole line of cute and ironic AT-AT shirts, similar to those T-Rex-Has-Stubby-Arms things. Probably most of the jokes would be dog-related. Like maybe a Star Destroyer speeding through hyperspace, with an AT-At hanging its head out the window, tongue flapping. #milliondollaridea

To my knowledge, there is only one life-sized AT-AT on this planet, and it resides in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It looms over the entrance to Star Tours, and its very presence makes the Walt Disney World Star Tours the best Star Tours. Disneyland and Tokyo buildings are rather plain by comparison. Paris is okay, with its full-size X-wing. But nothing beats an AT-AT.

I had a random memory pop into my head today, and it was actually kind of shocking to recall. This AT-AT has been here more or less since Star Tours first opened way back in 1989, which means it turns 25 this year. A few other vehicles have come and gone, including Jabba’s Sail Barge skiff and a full-sized Snowspeeder. But both of those have disappeared, relegated to the Studio Backlot Tour where they are passed off as real movie props (actually, the Backlot Tour is so forgettable now, I’m not even sure if those vehicles are still there). But the AT-AT remains.

Since about 2007, the space formerly occupied by the skiff and Snowspeeder has been replaced by the permanent stage for the Jedi Training Academy. Seven years that thing has been there, which means there are second- and third-grade padawans now who have never known life without the Training Academy. It’s hard to fault Disney for repurposing the space. The Academy show is cute with a lot of good Star Wars references–and even more cute when one of the padawans belongs to you. But the addition of the stage (and the various padawan holding corrals) had a trickle-down effect on that AT-AT.

To me, it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but seven years actually is a long time. And that is how long it has been since that AT-AT ran out of ammo.


Ahhhh-choo! Photo courtesy of Flickr

Do you remember this? During the heat of the summer, every so often, that AT-AT would fire up its chin lasers and blast jets of water out onto the hot pavement, much to the enjoyment of kids (okay, adults too) on the ground. Just one of the many things at Disney that would squirt water to cool you off. It was accompanied by the sound effect from the Empire Strikes Back (chizz-chig! chizz-chig!) and the laser cannons would power back and forth. The thing actually shot at you! That blows my mind.

It’s easy to see why it doesn’t anymore. You can’t have water spritzing a four-foot-high stage where a five-year-old is stumbling around in an oversized cloak, waving a giant stick. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. But I just can’t believe the effect has been gone for that long.

We still have water squirty things. There’s that Coke Bottle back by the Backlot Tour, the misting Coca-Cola zone in Tomorrowland, the Coke car wash at Test Track. Now that I think about it, Coke really wants you to be wet, for some reason. All they need to do is add a coke bottle to that giant Stitch above World of Disney and they will have cornered the market on uncomfortable soakings.

Now our AT-AT still stands in his imposing, er, pose, but he is like a creature turned to stone, something out of Narnia or Greek Mythology or Cher’s face. There is not even a hint that he actually used to interact with you–albeit in a very specific sort of way. Presumably there are still water pipes trailing up his legs into his head.

I like to imagine that at night, after the park has closed and everyone has gone to bed, he wakes up and lumbers around the park. I think you can even still see a few footprints embedded in the pavement, if you happen to queue up under the Ewok Village. Maybe he and Gertie the Dinosaur get together and splash around in Echo Lake, or try to play that big guitar at Rock’n’Roller Coaster, or take turns trying on the Sorcerer’s Hat.

It’s just the sort of thing an AT-AT would do.


Animal Kingdom: We Got Next – The Quiet Transformation

In 2007, Disney announced a massive makeover of the ailing Disney’s California Adventure park, located on Disney property in California. The fan community rejoiced. We religiously followed every phase of the project, from the demolition of the Whoopie Goldberg theater, to the removal of the Hub Cap icon, to the eradication of the giant lines spelling California inside the California park located in California, to the tragic deconstruction of the much beloved Maliboomer. Basically, we celebrated the removal of all the crap, and the arrival of good things, such as Duffy the Disney Bear.

In 2009, Disney announced the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. The fan community — if not rejoiced — then at least spent the next five years bickering about its success. We religiously chronicled every aspect of the Fantasyland project, from the Tangled restrooms to the Belle’s Village restrooms to the Carolwood Station restrooms to the interactive Pooh queue. Basically we celebrated the removal of all vacant crap, and the arrival of new opportunities for poo jokes.

In 2011, Disney announced that Avatar Land would become Animal Kingdom’s largest expansion since Asia. The fan community revolted, called Bob Iger and James Cameron several vile names, then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls -- also the plot of Dumbo.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls — also the plot of Dumbo.

As we close the book on a summer that contained the last little bit of the Fantasyland expansion, one would expect all eyes to turn to Animal Kingdom for the next massive Walt Disney World project. But nobody seems interested. Over in the Magic Kingdom, guests are packing the Mine Train queue to the brim, making a nicely themed kiddy coaster the hottest ticket around. In Hollywood Studios, executives are riding the success of last winter’s mega-hit to untouchable levels of merchandising opportunities, on a shoestring budget/promotion that must make them giggle whenever they look at Diagon Alley. Over in Epcot, more Frozen seems to be on the way, with everyone playing will-they-or-won’t-they at the Norway pavilion.

Meanwhile, walls have quietly gone up all over Animal Kingdom for what I feel is the most exciting Walt Disney World project since, well, Everest.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls -- but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls — but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

The apathy probably stems from two things. First, people really seem to dislike Avatar and/or feel that Disney could have picked something more “Disney.” I myself agree that Avatar is not my first (or second or third) choice for a new themed land. But on the other hand, I think people may be acting a little too self-righteous about the Avatar thing, as if we all didn’t see the movie at least once in the theater. For whatever shortcomings the movie has, it is nowhere near as bad as the three Star Wars prequels, a franchise which everyone seems to think is a better choice for a Disney land. It also is lightyears ahead of other Disney sci-fi-with-alien-animals stories (John Carter Land). Nobody seems to be grumbling about how bad Transformers sucked when Universal put in an awesome ride. I think Avatar will ultimately end up being just a brand name, and the allure of the new land will be in the bioluminescence, the awesome creature designs, the alien flora and fauna which will be incredible even if you didn’t care about the weird story of a space marine who plays Cranium Command with a blue version of Dances With Wolves. It’s going to be the Alien Dinosaur Institute, sponsored by a generous grant from James Cameron Corporation. And what could be more Disney than an alien telling of Pocahontas?

Secondly, Avatar Land is still three years away from opening. It’s locked away behind trees and walls. We can’t even see it rising in the distance. So it’s hard to get really excited yet. But there is so much happening around the park — some of which will start opening next year — that I think it may catch some fans off guard.

I took a quick spin around Animal Kingdom this afternoon. There is literally something new happening every dozen yards or so.

It starts in the parking lot, where a new expanse of asphalt is beginning to spread over what was once a grass field. Call it the largest parking lot expansion in Disney history. As a fan, it will be fun to speculate what the new lot will be called, because obsessing over parking lot names is what fans do best. Personally, I’m rooting for Leonopteryx Rex, because I think that will be the hardest for tram drivers to pronounce.

The front of the Tree of Life is encircled with walls. It’s Tough To Be a Bug is actually under refurbishment while they work on the tree. Rumor says that some components of the nighttime makeover will be added, transforming the Tree of Life into the Mother Tree or whatever the heck that thing in Avatar was called. Or maybe just as background to the Rivers of Light nighttime water spectacular.

Welcome to Wall Land

Welcome to Wall Land

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Speaking of that, walls are now up around the lagoon from Dinoland all the way around to the Gibbons viewing area in Asia. This is to install viewing zones for the Rivers of Light, which seems to me to be a massive amount of viewing. Not quite up to the sheer mileage of the Illuminations viewing spots, but on par with World of Color in DCA. Portable dams are also installed in the lagoon itself in preparation for the fountain installations.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

Returning for just a moment to Discovery Island, the main shop on the right is being readied for a huge expansion. Ground has been cleared, and vertical construction should begin soon (or may have already begun behind the walls.

Why, it's some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Why, it’s some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Not pictured, a new animal exhibit is being readied on the path from Discovery Island back to Africa, rumored to be the new home of the Cottontop Tamarins.

In the back of Africa, more ground is being cleared next to Zawadi Traders/Mombosa, which is rumored to be another full-service restaurant.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Not pictured, infrastructure work has begun on the Safari itself, in preparation for the Nighttime version of the Safari.

The first phase of the massive expansion actually opened earlier this year, when the Lion King show moved to Africa. The pathway to Pandora is inaccessible, of course.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

And at last we come to the walls of the main entrance to Pandora. The foliage is so thick that you literally can’t see anything behind it, just the top of a trailer of some kind. Disney has also turned this into a smoking section — probably to discourage anyone from trying to go back there.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

All these various projects should open in phases over the next several years, which will make coming to Animal Kingdom a slightly different experience every time. So much of it is dedicated to turning this park into a nighttime destination as well, which I think will be a huge treat for guests, since Animal Kingdom is already an enchanting place after dark, and a pretty rare opportunity in its current state.

I guess the point of all this is: Even if you don’t care about Avatar the movie, I think Animal Kingdom is poised to become the most exciting park project in the last decade, and if you spend too much time scoffing at giant blue people, you’ll miss the fun watching the transformation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to stalking the new Starbucks location.