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Theme park rides have been delighting Disneyland and Universal Studios guests for decades. While some of their attractions are decades-old themselves, people flock to them again and again because they’re entertaining, create a sense of wonder and (for some adults in the crowd) evoke happy childhood memories.

Part of what makes these rides so entertaining is that many of them include effects that, to the average viewer, defy the laws of reality. Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion, for example, includes a dining room scene where a gaggle of transparent ‘ghosts’ dance through tables and hang from chandeliers. Another example a short walk from The Haunted Mansion is Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. At the end of this ride, Roger uses a movable hole (you know, like the ones you see in cartoons) to make a tunnel appear on what looked like a solid wall. Universal Studios has impressive illusions as well; if you head to their Orlando theme park, you can step into a re-creation of London’s King’s Cross Station and watch your muggle friends melt into a brick archway that takes you to Station 9 ¾ (just like Harry Potter!).

Most theme park guests, if they think about it at all, likely imagine that these effects are from cutting-edge technologies (Holograms! Lasers!). These illusions, however, come from techniques developed more than 150 years ago, a time when the horse and buggy was the most advanced mode of transportation.

How have these antique techniques stood the test of time? The answer is obvious to those well-familiar with the history of magic: Magnets.

Wait. Sorry.

Not magnets…that’s the wrong M-Word. Today’s M-Word is Mirrors.

Mirrors

So, what about mirrors? Well, mirrors (and clear polished glass) cause reflections, and sometimes those reflections—when they are angled properly and appropriately lighted—get projected in ways that make people think they’re seeing a ghost or something in front of them inexplicably appear or disappear.

Let’s start with the dancing ghost effect in The Haunted Mansion, which is a favorite example of one of the oldest illusion reflection techniques. Despite what some may think, the spooky spirits aren’t holograms: no lasers were involved in the development of this illusion.

Have you ever stood outside on a cold, dark night and looked longingly at something in a shop window or (hopefully not) into someone’s home? If so, when you looked into that well-lit space, you might have seen a transparent image of yourself in that room. This phenomenon stems from the same principle that creates the specters of The Haunted Mansion, where the ghosts are reflections through silvered glass of animatronics found above and below the ride’s moving car.

This effect is commonly known as Pepper’s Ghost (much to the chagrin of its co-inventor, Henry Dircks), and was first presented in 1862 by John Henry Pepper on the Royal Polytechnic stage in London. Pepper intended to present his illusion as a scientific curiosity, but immediately realized the effect had the potential to be more than just a scientific presentation. “He was ready at the end of the first performance to walk out on stage and start to explain to everybody how it worked, because that’s what he did as a science exhibitor,” Jim Steinmeyer, an illusion creator and historian who has documented the science and history of Pepper’s Ghost, explains. “But when he heard the response to it…he never explained it on stage.”

This technique moved from the theater to sideshows and eventually to theme parks. Today, several attractions use Pepper’s Ghost; for example, this concept in conjunction with other mirror-based effects is what makes people magically walk ‘through’ the wall to Station 9 3/4. Other rides also use this technique in tandem with digital video technology. In the queue for Universal Studios’ Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, for example, guests watch Harry, Ron and Hermione chat on a balcony and then disappear under Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. Here, the image guests see of the magical trio is the reflection of digital video through a sheet of glass, the same basic technique that Pepper used in the 1860s.

Beyond The Ghost

Pepper’s Ghost was one of the first mirror-based illusion techniques, but not the last. “It inspired a number of important illusions,” Steinmeyer says. “It started people thinking about those principles of reflection and the use of mirrors on stage.”

By 1865, Pepper’s colleague Thomas William Tobin developed a technique called The Sphinx, which used a tri-mirror setup to make a portion of a person or object invisible to viewers (viewers in the right sight line, at least). The Sphinx was quite popular when it premiered, and designers use similar concepts in theme parks to this day. For example, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios uses this technique to hide the mechanics that make a crate rise into the air, giving the impression that it is floating. Similar methods are also what cause the tunnel to suddenly ‘appear’ to riders on Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.

Other theme park rides use double parabolic mirrors to create hologram-like images. For this technique, two concave parabolic mirrors are sandwiched together, with the top one having a small hole in its center. The mirrors then reflect a 3D image above this opening of any object placed inside the parabolic sandwich. This phenomenon is used in optical illusion toys and is also used in rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventure at Disneyland, where the Witch offers guests a poisoned apple that passes through their hands if they try to touch it. The apple guests see is not the actual apple, of course, but a 3D image created by parabolic mirrors.

From the Stage to the Theme Park

It took almost a century for Pepper’s Ghost and other mirror-based illusions to make their way from the theater to theme park attractions. Once designers incorporated them into the ride experience, however, it became clear that these techniques had found a home in amusement parks.

Theme park rides are perfect for this type of illusion because everything a person experiences on a theme park attraction is controlled, from when they see something, to how long they see it, to what angle they see it at. This precise level of control gives ride designers and engineers an ideal environment for creating illusions. “You can guarantee what the sight lines are…that gives the ride a new impetus, and that’s where you see these fantastic, wonderful, perfect views of these effects,” Steinmeyer explains. “[Designers] use the motion of the ride itself to create the progression of the illusion or the special effect or the story.”

And that illusion is made even more fantastic by the fact it’s seamlessly integrated into the world of the ride—of course spooky ghosts are haunting a haunted house, and of course a cartoon rabbit can carry a removable hole he can stick on anything. For Station 9 3/4, the illusion helps people relive a favorite scene from the Harry Potter books and movies; they’re in that world, not just reading or watching it.

And remember, these effects aren’t some new-fangled discovery. As Steinmeyer explains, “Successful tricks like this are really simple, elegant, and slightly crude in terms of how they’re done.” And so, the next time you’re at Disneyland and your know-it-all friend comments on how cool The Haunted Mansion’s holograms are, just smile smugly and nod your head. 

The Magic Play is bringing its unique blend of personal storytelling, emotional drama, and of course magic to Portland, Oregon. The show tells the story of a young magician who has been left by his partner right before a show and the line between himself and his stage persona blurs as he reacts to the loss. After ending its run in Louisville, the show will open at The Armory on March 9 and run through April 1. Preview performances start on March 3. Get tickets and more information on The Armory’s website.

Brett Schneider is the star and magic creator for the show, and he’s already shared some fascinating insight on how he developed the tricks he performs. But the production also benefits from the expertise of master illusionist Jim Steinmeyer. If you don’t recognize Steinmeyer’s name, you probably should get acquainted: he’s consulted for many of the greats, makes magic happen at Walt Disney theme parks, and has worked minor miracles for stages from Broadway to Las Vegas.

In other words, next month is looking like a very good time to be in Portland.

Let us review the harbingers of spring: Robins. Crocus. The March issue of Genii. At least one of these is currently out there. 

The cover story this month is attorney, Marine colonel (awarded a purple heart), and outgoing president of the Academy of Magical Arts Randy Sinnott. Randy has done an enormous amount for both Genii and the Academy of Magical Arts during his term. The Magic Castle had a fire several years ago and was in pretty bad shape afterward, and it was Randy who led the charge to get the club rebuilt and back on its feet. Jim Steinmeyer profiles this remarkable man. 

You can pick up the March issue of Genii at your local magic establishment, or if it’s still too cold where you are (we’re getting snow AGAIN?), you can always subscribe and have it brought right to you. $35 gets you a full year of Genii, plus access to 80 years of archives, plus all of Magic Magazine’s archives. That’s…kind of a ridiculous amount of magic info for your browsing pleasure. 

Jim Steinmeyer is one of the most influential and sought-after magic consultants in the world, helping to craft David Copperfield’s famous Vanishing Statue of Liberty illusion and designing period-appropriate tricks for the Broadway production of Mary Poppins. But everyone has to get their start somewhere. In the first video of a six-part interview with GeniiOnline at GeniiCon 2017, Steinmeyer discusses his beginnings as an illusion designer for Doug Henning and working as an Imagineer for Walt Disney Theme Parks.

Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Jim Steinmeyer, which can be found at the links below:  

Part two: The different types of Disney magic

Part three: On digital media: “I don’t know if it’s changed everything about magic”

Part four: How new media can expand a magician’s bubble of influence “if they want it”

Part five: How Bozo the Clown made Jim Steinmeyer a better magician

Part six: Jim Steinmeyer’s advice to budding performers: “hang around magicians”

Learning from videos and websites is a great way to start out and get off the ground, but if you want to be a great magician, Jim Steinmeyer has some advice for you: hang out with other magicians. In the final part of our six-part interview with Steinmeyer at GeniiCon 2017, he talks about how ‘sessioning’ with other magicians can provide instant feedback on your work, and how even Houdini had colleagues he bounced ideas off of.

Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Jim Steinmeyer, which can be found at the links below:

Part one: Consulting for Doug Henning and Walt Disney Theme Parks

Part two: The different types of Disney Magic

Part three: On digital media: “I don’t know if it’s changed everything about magic”

Part four: How new media can expand a magician’s bubble of influence “if they want it”

Part five: How Bozo the Clown made Jim Steinmeyer a better magician

Growing up in a time before the internet formed the backbone of modern life meant seeking out inspiration and instruction wherever you could find it. For Jim Steinmeyer, that meant watching Bozo the Clown on television every day after school. In part five of our six-part interview at GeniiCon 2017, Steinmeyer discusses how daily exposure to Bozo’s magic made him a better magician, as well as the contrast between learning visually and learning from books.

Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Jim Steinmeyer, which can be found at the links below:   

Part one: Consulting for Doug Henning and Walt Disney Theme Parks

Part two: The different types of Disney Magic

Part three: On digital media: “I don’t know if it’s changed everything about magic”

Part four: How new media can expand a magician’s bubble of influence “if they want it”

Part six: Jim Steinmeyer’s advice to budding performers: “hang around magicians”

When master illusionist Jim Steinmeyer built his career, the internet was the domain of text-based computer terminals managed by a handful of universities. His social sphere and bubble of influence extended out as far as the magicians in Chicago, who helped teach and inform his craft. Now, up-and-coming magicians have access to YouTube, message boards, reddit, and a variety of other instant sources of knowledge from all corners of the globe right at their fingertips. In part four of our six-part interview at GeniiCon 2017, Steinmeyer discusses the perils and rewards of using the internet to expand one’s bubble of influence, and how to finally break out of that bubble and onto one’s own path.

Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Jim Steinmeyer, which can be found at the links below:  

Part one: Consulting for Doug Henning and Walt Disney Theme Parks

Part two: The different types of Disney Magic

Part three: On digital media: “I don’t know if it’s changed everything about magic”

Part five: How Bozo the Clown made Jim Steinmeyer a better magician

Part six: Jim Steinmeyer’s advice to budding performers: “hang around magicians”

Jim Steinmeyer’s career in magic spans decades and formats, from devising illusions for David Copperfield to mega-hit Broadway stage shows, so he brings with him a unique perspective on current trends and performers in the industry. In part three of our six-part interview with Steinmeyer at GeniiCon 2017, he discusses what acts he still finds himself drawn to, as well as how digital media like YouTube and live performances have to co-exist in order to thrive.

Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Jim Steinmeyer, which can be found at the links below:

Part one: Consulting for Doug Henning and Walt Disney Theme Parks

Part two: The different types of Disney magic

Part four: How new media can expand a magician’s bubble of influence “if they want it”

Part five: How Bozo the Clown made Jim Steinmeyer a better magician

Part six: Jim Steinmeyer’s advice to budding performers: “hang around magicians”

Jim Steinmeyer’s illustrious career spans decades, working with the likes of David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, and a variety of Walt Disney Theme Parks. In part two of our six-part GeniiCon 2017 interview with the consultant and illusion designer, we dive into the difference between the kinds of Disney magic he’s worked on, and the contrast between crafting theme park and stage illusions. 

Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Jim Steinmeyer, which can be found at the links below:  

Part one: Consulting for Doug Henning and Walt Disney Theme Parks

Part three: On digital media: “I don’t know if it’s changed everything about magic”

Part four: How new media can expand a magician’s bubble of influence “if they want it”

Part five: How Bozo the Clown made Jim Steinmeyer a better magician

Part six: Jim Steinmeyer’s advice to budding performers: “hang around magicians”