Disney Illuminations: How It Works Now and How I’d Like It to Work So it Actually Has Some Emotion to it (Part 1)


As you’re reading this, I’m going to presume you’re a DLP fan and hence are aware that the 25th Anniversary just happened (12th April 2017). If you’re not a DLP fan, congratulations on finding this site. I don’t know how you did it but that is impressive.

The new entertainment for the 25th anniversary (Parade, the shows on the Castle Stage and Disney Illuminations) started a few weeks ago and I, along with those who weren’t going spoiler free, eagerly awaited the live stream of the new projection show replacing Disney Dreams. I think we all had high expectations considering the high quality of Dreams but I personally feel like Illuminations is a significant downgrade in quality (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments or on Twitter, it’s subjective after all).

Anywho, the one place which has improved has been the technology. Therefore, we are going to spend the first article (There are going to be two of them. Sorry.) looking at how the technology in the show works.

We are then going to spend the second part looking at ways that the show could be improved. Basically, I had an 8 hour train journey back from Scotland last week so I had some time to think about this.

Also, it goes without saying, if you’re going spoiler free, this isn’t the article for you. Sorry.

So let’s get started!

Projection Mapping

This is my third post for Magical DLP and I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned projection mapping. I don’t know how I managed that.

Unless you haven’t listened to any podcast that Andrew and Simon have ever done, you probably know what projection mapping is. For those who don’t, projection mapping is when you project onto a 3D object. It is essentially the basis of the entire show. The clips from movies are projected onto the castle as well as set ‘skins’, such as the books in the library in the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ scene or the reeds on the turrets in the ‘Little Mermaid’ scene.

To do this, a computer model of the castle would have been created (Or recycled from the creation of Dreams) with the dimensions of the castle. This model would also include the locations of the projectors and their distances from the castle. From this, you can start to figure out the proportions of the projections. A physical model would then have been built/reused from dreams (We saw the the opening projections on the model here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NsTP5FRyBU) to get the proportions perfect so that the projections fit the building perfectly. For Dreams, an 8ft model was used which could get the projections pixel perfect so, when scaled up, they would be as impressive technologically as they were.

This is interesting when you look at the origins of a lot of the projections in Illumination; most of them are recycled from ‘Ignite the Dream’ in Shanghai. As they were intended for another castle with different sizes, some of the projections don’t fit as well. However, I digress.

In terms of the actual projections, they have to undergo rendering once they have been made, like animations for movies (There’s a great example of this in the livestream that Pixar did a couple of weeks ago. It starts at 14:57, if anyone’s interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5Q0MarOFtQ). In rendering, you’re getting the final product – the final projection that will end up being seen on the castle. It makes the image clearer and increases quality overall. However, the quality to which you render will be limited by the resolution of the projector.

This brings us onto the improvement in the quality of projection between Dreams and Illuminations – the projections in Illuminations are much more crisp and clean. This is because a brighter projector with a higher resolution is being used, meaning that more pixels are being used to display the image. To see a more obvious comparison between high and low resolution in terms of the number of pixels, you just have to compare YouTube videos over time or use a more recent one and put it on the lowest quality setting. This increase in quality of the image is a great thing which will hopefully continue to progress with future projection shows (Presuming that’s what the Imagineers are going to stick with. Who knows?)


It seems that the water fountains in the moat haven’t really changed that much in the overall roles and execution from dreams. But we’ll have a look at them anyway for shits and giggles.

There are 4 different kinds of fountain used in the show: standard fountains, geyser fountains, water whips and chaser fountains. Standard fountains kind of do what it says on the tin. Geyser fountains are the ones that shoot the water up ridiculously high, water whips are the ones that appear to dance around and chaser fountains are fast acting fountains used to accent moments of tension or surprise.

As you know, the fountains are built into the moat (This is to prevent the water cannons going rogue and hosing down the VIP area).

The height to which the water can be shot, particularly by the geyser fountains is all down to the power of the pump. Water from the moat will enter into the pump. Then, a water propellor inside the pump will force the water out of the top. By using a more powerful pump, you can get the water out with a greater force, allowing it to get higher before the force of gravity decides it’s time for the water to fall back down.

The movement of the water achieved by the water whips will be achieved by moving the bit that the water comes out of in the pump. This will get water to come out at different angles, meaning different shapes can be created. With applications such as these, it helps that water is great at sticking to itself. For instance, if you look at a leaf with a drop of rain on, the rain appears as a single half sphere-like shape because the water molecules are sticking to each other.

It’s called hydrogen bonding. It doesn’t just happen with water, it can happen with anything that’s got hydrogen and one or more of the elements oxygen, nitrogen or fluorine. Fortunately for us and the imagineers, water has both hydrogen and oxygen in it so water molecules can bond like this to other water molecules.

Hydrogen atoms, when compared to atoms like oxygen, nitrogen and fluorine, are ever so slightly positively charged while oxygen, nitrogen and fluorine are partially negatively charged. As we all know, opposites attract, meaning that adjacent hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a water molecule will attract, therefore leading to water molecules having adhesive forces between them. This means that they can flow as one body and create these shapes – by aiming the water slightly to the left, all the molecules will move in that direction because they are dragged there by the others.

And as you can guess, standard fountains have a regular pump. I mean, slightly more powerful than one you’d have in your back garden but in comparison to the others.

If anyone does find that their water fountains in their back gardens or whatever can recreate Disney Illuminations, I want to see that.


This is the technological part of the show that I think has improved the most as lasers are now properly being used rather than just showing up every so often, seeming really out of place and making me quote Austin Powers.

But now they look awesome! The first time I saw ‘The Little Mermaid’ scene it was something that really stuck out to me as being an improvement over Dreams.

Shame about the rest of it. Anywho.

Something some of you may have realised is that if you compare a laser pointer and the lasers used in the show, there is a major difference. In the show, you can see the path of the lasers whereas, with a laser pointer you just have a very intense spot of light on the nearest available surface. Unless you get out a smoke machine like one of my physics teachers did this one time, you can’t see the beam and, even then, it wasn’t as clear and crisp as they are in Illuminations.

Before we get to that, let’s have a look at how lasers actually work in the first place.

A green laser beam is produced using other lasers.

There’s something almost poetic about that.

To start with, a laser emits infrared light which makes its way through a crystal. The electrons (The negative bits that you see orbiting the central bit (The nucleus) of the atom) in the crystal then get all excited because they have been given energy from this light.

This leads to the emission of more infrared light but at a slightly higher wavelength. This then goes into yet another crystal in which infrared is combined with itself to get your green light.

There are two reasons that you can see the beam of these lasers. Firstly, any lasers you see in Illuminations are either green or a light blue turquoisey colour. This is where your eyes are most sensitive so you are more likely to be able to pick up the beam anyway. If red lasers were used, nope.

The other factor is a thing called Rayleigh Scattering, the phenomenon which is also responsible for the sky appearing blue to us. Rayleigh Scattering is the scattering of light off of any air molecules that happen to be nearby. The light from the laser will scatter off the molecules in the air that surround the castle, allowing you to see the light, in a similar way to how you can see the colour of the sky. This also explains why you see green and blue lasers being used – Rayleigh Scattering works better with light of that colour (The light that you see is brighter and clearer).

Fire Cannons

The number one thing I was the most worried about for Illuminations was that the fire effects from Dreams were going to be taken out. It turns out that shouldn’t have been what I was worrying about but never mind,

They’re still in there so we’re going to talk about them.

If you’ve read my post on Armageddon, this may sound familiar to you as this is based on the same principle as the fireball in that “attraction”.

All fires work by burning fuel, be that liquid fuel or wood or paper or whatever. In this case, to get the stream, you get a container of liquid fuel in your cannon. This container will be under a massive amount of pressure so then when you depressurise it, some of the liquid is immediately converted into fuel vapour which will rise out of the container and expand. You can then set fire to it and you then see the flame.

The reason you feel the heat so quickly after the fire cannon has gone off is that the heat is moving in the form of infrared radiation (The stuff used to make the laser that we spoke about before) which travels at the speed of light (The light we see is the same thing as infrared light, they just have different wavelengths and frequencies but they travel at the same speed).

You can feel that heat anywhere on Main Street, no matter how far away from the castle you are. It’s such an immersive effect. I’m really glad they’ve kept it in.


One of the things that always surprises me about Disney end of the day shows, regardless of which one it is, is the high standard of the fireworks that are involved. This may be because my local firework display is piss poor so my standards are extremely low. However, the fireworks in Illuminations stood out to me as being a really good thing.

Your basic firework contains all that it needs in a shell. Once you set off a firework after lighting it, the fuse starts to burn (The length of the fuse will help to control the height at which the firework explodes). Once it has burnt out, this sets fire to a bit in the middle of the firework called the charge. This then ignites the edges of the awesome bits of the firework with the best name: stars. These produce the sparks that make up the awesome fireworks that are part of the show.

As the firework explodes, the stars are thrown out of the shell, making shapes with the sparks they produce. If you want to get particular shapes, you arrange the stars in a particular arrangement within the shell and put explosive charges between them so that the stars are blown outwards so that the shape that is produced in the sky is larger.

The colours that the fireworks produce also link to the stars (That’s going to sound really weird to people who understandably zoned out for the first two paragraphs and came back on that). Inside the stars, you have ground up metals and metal oxides and, like the crystals in the lasers that we spoke about earlier, when the metal atoms get heated, the electrons in them get excited, leading to the emission of light.

However, the wavelength of the light that is emitted differs from atom to atom, meaning you get different colours. For instance, orange colours are produced by calcium or violet is produced by rubidium, my third favourite element (Zinc and manganese are my first and second favourites, dysprosium takes fourth).

Basically, if anyone wants to join me in watching a video of Illuminations or Dreams and yelling out the names of random metals, that would be great.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed this (Slightly longer than planned) look into the technology behind Illuminations. Even if you don’t like the show, I hope you now have an appreciation of the amazing technology and science that goes into a show like this across all disciplines from physics to geology. It’s truly a masterpiece of STEM.


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