The Science Behind Armageddon at Disneyland Paris

Love it or hate it (I’m going to take a stab and say you’re in the hate camp), ‘Armageddon: Les Effets Speciaux’ is still an attraction in the Walt Disney Studios.


For those who don’t know, ‘Armageddon’ is a 2 minute long special effects demonstration based on the 1998 movie of the same name with a kinda crappy 20 minute pre-show tagged on the front. For a better and more detailed summary, I direct you to the podcast. However, don’t play the ‘When they say pre-show, have a shot’ drinking game. On my count, within the first hour, they say it roughly 42 times and if you were to have that many shots of liquor, you could die due to alcohol poisoning; a uni student in the US was found dead once after taking 24 shots in 2 hours.

You have been warned.

I am not here to talk about how much the ride needs to be re-themed or scrapped. I am here to talk about science (And the groans are heard audibly around the world…) and as much as you may loathe the ‘attraction’, there is some interesting science to talk about here when looking at the effects that are used and whether that kind of situation would actually occur in space.

Firstly, let’s talk about what is actually supposed to be happening on the attraction. The idea is (I think) that you’re supposed to be on a spacecraft which is going to blow up a meteor which is on a collision course with Earth, similar to that which caused the extinction event of the dinosaurs.

There are many issues with this premise. If this was to happen when we knew that the meteor was coming but that it wouldn’t be coming for a few years, you could maybe do this.

However, if you were to do this with a week or something of warning, the debris released in the explosion would still be heading towards Earth. Some of the debris would be irradiated rocks that could end up destroying cities. It could also mean that we would have a blanket of debris wrapping around the planet which could lead to global cooling – the debris would either reflect back into space or absorb the radiation from the sun, stopping it from getting through the atmosphere to us, meaning that we wouldn’t be receiving the warming, thus causing the cooling effect (A similar thing will happen when Yellowstone, a super volcano in the US, erupts).

So doing an ‘Armageddon’ could actually cause us a lot of problems. And contrary to popular opinion, not just for the quality of the Walt Disney Studios Park.

A better way to do away with an oncoming extinction event by meteor is to instead fire something at a particular part of the meteor made of ‘brighter’ rock. These parts are generally made of softer rock so the impact of hitting it with something will be enough to divert the meteor without blowing it to smithereens.

You can also potentially use a machine called a gravity tractor (What a name!) which is a spaceship (Not a tractor unfortunately. I want a space tractor to be a thing.) that moves alongside the meteor and uses its mass to push the meteor onto a trajectory that doesn’t involve a collision with Earth. It does this using its gravitational field – it has to be a very heavy object because heavier objects have stronger gravitational fields. This can then gently pull the meteor away from our doom. And it’s not a tractor.

I want a movie about a gravity tractor so much.

Imagine having a gravity tractor outside the attraction rather than the Armadillo.

To people who don’t know what the Armadillo is, that’s going to be a mightily confusing sentence. Anywho.

The issue with the above methods though is that they still require months if not years of planning. That is why there are now so many telescopes and satellites looking for meteors that could cause us damage. NASA claims to now have the main meteors mapped and are now looking for the slightly-smaller-but-still-dangerous ones with the aim of finding them all by 2020 although a lack of funding is putting a spanner in the works.

NASA is also now planning the 2020 Asteroid Deflection Mission to test potential asteroid deflection technologies in the future – this mission will be sending up two spacecraft (The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) and the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) to a near-Earth asteroid called Didymos which will be doing different things. DART will be trying to redirect the moonlet in Didymos (It is made up of a larger body, the primary body, and a moonlet which is a similar size to meteors that could collide with us) by colliding with it whereas AIM will be recording data about the makeup of the asteroid before collision and then recording the transfer of momentum and any changes to the asteroid after collision. This will hopefully give us an indication of which technologies work which, when combined with the knowledge of where the threats are, will stop us from having to send up Bruce Willis and a whole bunch of actors that I don’t know.

Now we’re going to take a step away from the ridiculous basic premise of the film/ride and start looking at some of the effects used during the special effects sequence – we’re going to start with the vacuum that is pulled on the room when the meteorite shower punctures a hole in the spacecraft you are in.
An actual vacuum.

(Not as in the thing you use to clean your house. But frankly, if a cast member came in part way through with a vacuum, put it there and left, I would be amused.)

When discussing this in the podcast which I have listened to too many times for my own good, Andrew and Simon express in varying degrees of questionable French accent how the Imagineers managed to get a full blown vacuum past health and safety (“How do you fool those people? They have so many risk assessments!”).

Let’s discuss!

It turns out that for a couple of minutes it’s not impossible to survive in a vacuum. You can remain conscious in a vacuum for up to about 15 seconds, even if you are at high altitudes. If the pressure then returns immediately after, you won’t suffer much in the way of after effects. And based on the fact that I don’t think anyone has died on ‘Armageddon’ (Aside from your soul as it’s crushed by the pre-show), I’m going to take a stab and say the vacuum’s not there for very long and that pressure returns very quickly.

I mean, the whole show is what, 2 minutes? 15 seconds is literally 12.5% of the entire special effects sequence.

That doesn’t mean that staying in a vacuum wouldn’t have its effects on your health which could lead to your death. After passing out in the vacuum of space, water vapour forming in your tissues and blood would cause you to start swelling. Your circulation will also effectively shut down due to pressure in your arteries dropping swiftly while pressure in your veins increases. Your heart rate also drops and your body temperature plummets as water evaporates through your nose and mouth.

A reminder that those are the effects in the vacuum of space. It may be different if you’re in a special effects sequence where they have complete control of the vacuum at all times.

Realistically, after pointing out all the precautionary measures that the Imagineers have probably put in place, I can imagine the Health and Safety people were satisfied the ride is safe.

Something else that is mentioned in the podcast is the use of liquid nitrogen and steam to create fog and vapours – effects of the standard used in actual movies. The foggy vapour created by the liquid nitrogen is formed when it boils. It has a boiling point of -196 degrees celsius. A room has an average temperature of about 20 degrees celsius – quite a bit higher. As it is boiling, it forms nitrogen gas really fast (This could actually help with the pressure dropping – the formation of nitrogen gas will help to raise the pressure). The liquid nitrogen makes the surrounding air really cold as well, meaning it can’t hold as much of the steam that is being pumped in at the same time. This causes it to condense into little water droplets – the fog that you can see in the sequence.

I think that a new feature of backlot if it’s not getting an immediate re-theme should be ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

Now, let us talk about the most interesting and most spectacular effect in the ride: The fireball. This could actually potentially happen on a spacecraft if the pressure inside it dropped. And if a meteorite shower for instance damaged your craft, this would do the trick. The atmosphere inside a spacecraft could potentially leave it at a speed of 20 metres per second, causing air pressure to fall very quickly.

If you happened to have a container of flammable fuel in the spacecraft and the pressure dropped, the pressure inside the container would be higher than that of its surroundings. This would mean that some of the liquid would be forced out of the container (Stuff always tries to move to the area of lowest pressure, like people), transforming it into a vapour which can expand rapidly to create a cloud of fuel vapour, liquid drops of it and air. If this is ignited, a fireball forms until the fuel has been used up.

It also looks awesome.

I think that if they aren’t going to re-theme ‘Armageddon’ (Even though they should), they should do a pre-show where they do practical demonstrations of special effects. There are so many really cool ways of setting things on fire – some of which you could get the audience to join in with (The methane bubbles one comes to mind). This could be so much more engaging than sitting down watching a video about a movie you probably don’t care about.

And if health and safety are willing to let a vacuum slide, they should be fine with that, right?

I hope you haven’t found this too dull. If you have any feedback on this post, I would appreciate it massively – I’m relatively new to this and I want to improve. Presuming that they have me back, hopefully see you again soon!

Number of cups of tea consumed in the making of this post: 1

Music Listened to: Little Shop of Horrors Soundtrack



‘The Periodic Table: A Field Guide to the Elements’ by Paul Parsons and Gail Dixon. 2013. Published by Quercus Editions Ltd.


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  • Jaime
    March 15, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    So is she going to be on the podcast now?

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