This post was written by ScIU Undergraduate Intern Rose Schnabel.
A day at Walt Disney World exceeds all expectations. Rides move flawlessly on their complex tracks, fireworks appear out of thin air, and the scent of cotton candy floats in the air. It’s as if everything happens on cue, guided by a mysterious force. It could be magic, yes, but what if it’s science? Read on for five feats of engineering, chemistry, and biology that have probably escaped your notice in the parks!
This seemingly wheel-less transportation system was first introduced to Walt Disney in 1959. As the story goes, Walt was on a trip with his wife in Germany when he witnessed the Alweg Monorail operating around its headquarters. Walt was fascinated by the modernity of the design and immediately set to work implementing it in the parks.
The Walt Disney World Monorail System consists of a fleet of 12 trains that operate on 15 miles of interconnected track. Each day, 150,000 guests cruise at 40 mph on their monorail trip into the parks. The most distinctive feature of the monorail is that it operates on a single beam trackway instead of two parallel tracks, like a train. Six hundred volt electric motors drive hidden wheels on either side of the beam, while magnets on the undercarriage of the train keep the car in place. Guide magnets on either side of the central beam control the propulsion of the car, causing it to speed up or slow down as necessary.
The ever-present smell of sugar
Walking down Mainstreet, USA in Magic Kingdom, you’ve probably attributed the smells of cookies, coffee, and pastries to the restaurants that line the pathway. But, what you’re smelling may be a bit trickier than that.
Within your brain, the region that processes scents (called the olfactory bulb) is connected to the hippocampus, which is commonly known for its role in memory formation. Disney harnesses the power of smell to create pleasant memories of your day in the parks. To do so, Disney uses machines called smellitzers to push a certain fragrance into the air around you. The fragrance can be natural or artificial, and it is sprayed by means of pressurized air to ensure that it reaches the audience. In 2019, Disney patented “scent blending”: the process through which the company produces memorable smells of baking waffles, oranges, etc. throughout the parks and on rides. Moreover, the scents are strategically released so that the smells always match up to visuals or other sensory contexts.
Ghosts in the Haunted Mansion
The Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World claims to be home to 999 happy haunts, but we only see a dozen of them with our very own eyes. In one scene of the ride, ghostly figures appear to be waltzing across a dance floor, while more sit down for a birthday celebration at the dining room table. These ghosts are created through illusioneering, Disney’s word for the creation of innovative illusions. The illusion itself is quite popular and widely used in the theme park industry; Pepper’s ghost illusion uses glass to bend light so that the audience sees a semi-transparent figure.
In the case of the ballroom dancers, figures rotate in an area obscured from the guest’s view, and light shining on them reflects on transparent glass angled at 45º. At this angle, the glass reflects around 10% of light and transmits the other 90%. Light bouncing off of the animatronic figures reaches the glass and is reflected back to the audience with less intensity. The audience cannot see the glass, so they have no reason to believe that the ghostly figure before them isn’t a normal object reflecting light.
Living with the Land Makes Science Visible
Yes, the researchers behind the glass at Living with Land are conducting actual scientific experiments! Although it may look staged, the lab is working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop innovative agricultural techniques. A few of these experiments are visible to riders as they cruise through the greenhouses of Disney’s Land Pavilion.
For starters, the plants perched atop aquariums are actually aquaponic setups. In these systems, waste from fish gathers as ammonia, which is then pumped through a tube containing bacteria that turn it into nitrite and eventually nitrate. Plants absorb nitrate through their roots, allowing them to grow. Through this process, the plants remove nearly all nitrate from the water, so that it can flow back into the fish tank and start the cycle again.
Fireworks for all
A previous ScIU blog post dove into the chemistry of fireworks. As the post explained, the colors of fireworks come from excited electrons falling down in energy levels. As they do so, they release visible light, and the color of the light depends on how far the electrons have to fall. Unfortunately, vision impairment can prevent some guests from seeing fireworks. Disney’s solution, which has not yet been implemented in the parks, is to allow all its guests to “feel” fireworks via water jets on their hands.
The project was pioneered by Disney’s Research Lab in Zurich in 2017. In short, water jets of different intensities spray against a flexible latex screen. Guests can touch the screen to feel the patterns of the jets. Keep an eye out for this groundbreaking technology, which will enable all guests to enjoy the breathtaking fireworks at Walt Disney World.
Of course, there is far more innovation in the parks than we have space to share. Every element that guests see (and especially those that they don’t) has been thoroughly designed, engineered, and implemented to create a magical atmosphere. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Science is magic that works.”
I’d like to thank Chloe Holden and Kat Munley for their guidance throughout my ScIU social media internship.
Edited by Ben Greulich and Liz Rosdeitcher