Throwin' Shade Around Disney Parks

February 2, 2019

Usually when taking photographs, especially on a Disney vacation, you want to avoid any weird shadows, but have you ever considered shadows themselves as something to remember? Disney Imagineers design aspects of queues and attractions to make use of shadows for both petrifying and playful purposes.


In several attractions, projections of shadows are meant to increase suspense and fear.


I know I can’t be the only one who gets the chills as my Doom Buggy passes in front of the grandfather clock on Haunted Mansion. The shadowy, spooky hand is an old trick that works the same way as a lunar eclipse or shadow puppets made with your hands.


All natural shadows are produced by an object getting in the way of light reaching a farther surface.


From Quora


In a lunar eclipse, the Earth casts a shadow on the moon because it is directly in-between the sun and the moon. When making shadow puppets, your hands are between the light and the wall. On the Haunted Mansion, the hand shadow is caused by a hand-shaped prop moving in front of a light pointed at the clock and located above the Doom Buggy.



Shadows of menacing creatures heighten the suspense at climactic moments in Splash Mountain and Expedition Everest as well!




But these shriek-inducing shadows are not created by physical objects. Instead, they are just the result of a movie projector showing an all-black animated sequence to appear shadowy. You can usually see the light projector if you look in the right place.


On the more playful side, a different type of shadow is used to play a musical fountain in the queue for Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.



This fountain relies on the same invisible-to-humans infrared light detection as in an automated garage door opener. An infrared light beam is projected between the top and bottom of the fountain just like it would be across the opening of a garage. When your hand passes through the light beam, it effectively casts a shadow and prevents the light from reaching the far side of the fountain. Instead of stopping a garage from closing however, the shadow triggers a computer program to release the water and play a magical sound.


Disney Imagineers combined all of these effects for a very unique use of shadow in the queue for Peter Pan’s Flight at Magic Kingdom.



The shadows of bells and butterflies interact in real-time with the shadows of guests walking by. Butterflies land on people’s heads and hands; the bells make tinkling sounds and even adjust height so that younger guests can play them. And sometimes Tinker Bell even transforms guests’ shadows into Disney characters by adding hats or even a hook!


These magical effects are the result of a fancier version of iPhone’s FaceID unlocking technology called a digital feedback projector system. This system projects infrared light onto a surface and then detects any object in front of that surface by measuring how long the light takes to bounce off of an object and return to a detector. Closer objects like guests will make the light return more quickly than farther objects like the Darling children’s bedroom wall. All of this time information is transformed into distances on 3D map (like a coordinate plane) of the space. Powerful computers perform these calculations really quickly so a projector can show updated maps in real-time.


But what’s even more magical is that the guest in the queue isn’t lit up like what usually happens if you stand in between a projector and the screen it’s projecting on (like I have done multiple times while giving PowerPoint presentations). With the infrared light 3D map, the computer can provide instructions to not project any light in the area that would fall onto the guest.


The butterflies - like Brer Fox and the Yeti - are animated in a shade of black that matches the other shadows in the room instead of full color. To make the bell sounds, a computer can use the infrared 3D map to detect when the light area blocked by a guest overlaps with the area for one of the bells and then send electric signals to nearby speakers.


Infrared cameras are also very necessary for properly placing the costume pieces that Tinker Bell magically creates! In addition to knowing how far away guests are, infrared cameras are picking up on the heat generated by their bodies. Because heads and palms give off relatively more heat than other parts of the body, they are effectively highlighted on the 3D map. So the software projects a hat or hook onto the literal hot spots and updates the image as the hot spots move based on the depth information.


I bet Captain Hook wishes he could borrow these cameras and computers to be able to know where Tick-Tock the crocodile is at all times!


Where else would you like to see Imagineers use this shadow-driven technology?


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