A Special Effects Elevator

A Special Effects Elevator
Walt Disney/MGM Studio’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror elevator; image courtesy of WaltExpress

Exploring the entertainment side of VT

Elevator patents, from the 19th century to the present, typically include an introduction that explains the basis, need and/or rationale for the proposed invention. The opening paragraph of a patent awarded on June 20, 2000, included a series of normative introductory statements. The patent’s author noted that “conventional elevators are typically used to transport passengers from a first level upward to a second level, or from a second level downward to a first level.” [1] The author also noted that:

“In conventional elevator cars, substantially the entire car is intended to carry passengers. Such cars may include a video camera for security purposes, speakers for broadcasting ‘elevator music,’ speech or sound synthesizers for indicating the floors on which the elevator stops and graphic or text displays for displaying information pertinent to the passengers, such as the floor which will be the next stop, time of day, weather, conference schedules, etc.”

The author also noted the need for hall call buttons, an elevator controller and “a means for moving the elevator car in the shaft, such as a motor driven winch and cable.” These “normative” statements are, of course, a bit unusual: elevators typically do more than transport passengers between a first and second floor, and modern elevators are not powered by “motor driven winches.”

These subtle indicators that the patent’s author may not have been a member of the vertical-transportation (VT) industry are reinforced by the first sentence of the patent’s second paragraph: “Elevators have also found use in theme parks, not as elevators per se, but as part of an attraction.” This statement was followed by brief descriptions of the use of elevator-related technology in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion (c. 1967), Walt Disney World’s Living Seas at Epcot (c. 1984), and Walt Disney/MGM Studio’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (c. 1990). The author observed that: “None of these prior art attractions attempted to disguise a ride or other special effects attraction as a conventional elevator.” Of the three examples, only the Living Seas “Hydrolater,” which transported riders from the surface to an underwater research center, somewhat resembled a conventional elevator experience. However, the Hydrolater car remained stationary, and the sense of movement was primarily imparted by a series of images that moved vertically past the car’s porthole-like windows. For the patent’s author, these prior art examples prompted only one possible conclusion: “A need exists for an elevator which functions as and appears to be a conventional elevator, but which can selectively provide an extraordinary special effects experience to an unsuspecting passenger.”

The inventor who reached this obvious conclusion was Laurence D. (Larry) Gertz, who worked as an imagineer for Walt Disney Imagineering from 1982 to 2002. Gertz described his primary design objective as follows:

“The present invention provides a special effects elevator which has the interior and exterior appearance of a conventional elevator, but which is capable of selectively generating predetermined special effects to an elevator passenger using an elevator car which is divided into a passenger compartment and an equipment compartment for mounting special effects equipment.”

The patent included two drawings of his proposed special effects elevator car. The first was a schematic drawing of the entire system, which depicted a car with two separate compartments, the shaft doors, hall call buttons and other critical components (Figure 1). Gertz noted that “a control panel may be provided to allow the passenger to select the destination floor; however, such a control panel is not necessary if the elevator only travels between two floors and cannot stop in between.” The proposed omission of floor selection buttons seems to contradict the idea of establishing the elevator car as a conventional system. Their absence also implies that the car’s movement would begin automatically upon the closing of the elevator doors. To meet the needs of the car’s dual compartments, the “elevator control cable” was designed to transmit signals between the car and elevator controller and between the car and the special effects controller. And, perhaps reflecting the overall schematic presentation (and understanding) of elevator technology, no counterweight was shown.

A need exists for an elevator which functions as and appears to be a conventional elevator, but which can selectively provide an extraordinary special effects experience to an unsuspecting passenger.

from a patent awarded on June 20, 2000
A Special Effects Elevator - Figure-1
Figure 1: Laurence D. Gertz, Special Effects Elevator: Elevator car (12), passenger compartment (14), special effects compartment (20), hall call buttons (34 and 38), shaft doors (32 and 36), control cable (30), elevator controller (40), special effects controller (42), motor control (28), hoist motor (26).

Gertz’s second patent drawing provided a detailed explanation of the proposed operation of his special effects elevator car (Figure 2). While still somewhat schematic in nature, this drawing reveals the inventor’s thorough understanding of his craft and is far more convincing than his representation of VT technology. The transformation of the conventional elevator car into an unconventional experience relied on the use of several reflective surfaces known as 50% mirrors. The wall separating the passenger and special effects compartments would be composed, either partially or fully, of a 50% mirror, which, according to Gertz, reflects approximately 50% of the light that strikes its reflective (or mirrored) surface. Accordingly, so long as the interior of the passenger compartment is illuminated, the 50% mirror will appear, to the passenger, to be an ordinary mirror. However, when the lights inside the passenger compartment are extinguished, the mirror will become substantially transparent.

After the passengers had entered the car, and immediately after the doors had closed, the car lights would be extinguished or dimmed such that the mirror would be transformed into a window, through which they would view the video component of the special effects.

A relatively simple effect could be produced by projecting an image onto a screen mounted parallel to the car’s mirrored wall. In Figure 2, this basic system is represented by a projector (52) and corresponding projection screen (62). Gertz, however, recognized that, while the shift from mirror to window would be dramatic, the basic effect would have had a relatively static quality. He proposed to enhance this effect by the addition of a second projector, a second 50% mirror and a second projection screen. The second mirror (58) was placed at a 45-degree angle relative to the passengers’ line of sight, with the reflective side facing the passenger compartment. The second projection screen (62) was mounted on the floor of the special effects compartment. The second projector (52) was mounted such that its projection bounced off a mirror (56) and passed through the non-reflective side of the angled 50% mirror onto the second projection screen. Because the reflective side of the angled mirror faced downward, it reflected the image projected onto the screen mounted on the floor, thus making it visible to passengers. Because the projectors had different focal lengths, they could be used to project different aspects of a video: the first projector could be used to project close objects, and the second projector could be used to project objects further in the distance. The simultaneous projection of both images, coupled with the transparency of the angled 50% mirror, would effectively create “a virtual image which appears to the passenger to be positioned outside the elevator car” (the virtual image is represented by No. 64 in Figure 2).

A Special Effects Elevator - Figure-2
Figure 2: Laurence D. Gertz, Special Effects Elevator: Passenger compartment (14), special effects compartment (20), control cable (30), video projector #1 (52), video projector #2 (52’), projection screen #1 (62), projection screen #2 (62’), 50% mirror separating car from special effects compartment (60), angled 50% mirror (58), reflecting mirror for video projector #2, perceived location of virtual image (64).

The virtual image would also be augmented by other special effects. Lighting is also controlled as a part of the show. This permits guests to be plunged into darkness, or the lights may merely be dimmed to allow other effects to be better viewed (much as the lights in a theater dim prior to the beginning of the show). Additional effects can be provided by special lighting in the passenger compartment, such as, for example, fiber optics or strobes. These can be used to simulate a malfunction of the elevator. In addition, if desired, speakers or other devices could be used to simulate unusual vibrations in the elevator and spark generators and smoke simulators could be used to create or reinforce the impression of a malfunction. Fans could be used to move air past the passenger in a particular direction to create the impression that the elevator is moving quickly in the direction from which the airflow is coming.

The proposed setting for Gertz’s invention was a theme park, where a bank of special effects elevators would provide a suitable entry into another world. His goal was to create an opportunity for “each guest stepping out of the busy urban environment to forget the real world and enter, physically and mentally, into another realm, which the overall entertainment facility provides.” Thus, the safety-conscious VT professional, considering the impact of a simulated malfunction on already tentative riders, should, perhaps, relax and imagine that prospective passengers might logically expect something different upon entry to a theme park.

However, Gertz’s intention – and hope – was that the prospective passengers would, in fact, suspect nothing and simply anticipate another typical elevator ride:

“The process begins with the seemingly ordinary undertaking of entering an elevator. The passenger arrives and summons an elevator using a conventional call button typically located adjacent to the elevator door on a first level. A few moments later, the elevator doors open. There may be a conventional audible or visual signal (e.g., a bell rings or a light above the elevator door illuminates), signaling the arrival of the elevator. The passenger sees what appears to be a conventional elevator car. ‘Elevator music’ may be playing through the speakers. The unsuspecting passenger steps inside and, if there is a control panel, depresses the button for the second level. Even before the elevator doors fully close, unexpected behaviors wrench the passengers to an awareness that something is very unusual. For example, the lights in the elevator could flicker and die, or be suddenly extinguished. At the same time, the elevator could suddenly stop. Just as the passenger believes the elevator is malfunctioning, the video and audio portions begin. Suddenly, the passenger can see through what appeared to be an ordinary mirror, to the outside of the elevator. What an instant before was an everyday, marginally claustrophobic elevator cab, is suddenly revealed to be very different: a part of something much larger. An array of special effects dazzle the occupants and commands their attention to a story being told. The real world just left behind is completely and immediately forgotten.”

The idea that an elevator might have the potential to – literally or figuratively – transport passengers from one reality to another is not new. While most VT industry members may not wish to impose upon passengers the type of special-effects-filled experience imagined by Gertz, it is possible that they hope their passengers’ experience will avoid the mundane and embrace the magic of VT.


[1] All quotes derive from: Laurence D. Gertz, Special Effects Elevator, U.S. Patent No. 6,076,638 (June 20, 2000).

Dr. Lee Gray, professor of Architectural History and senior associate dean of the College of Arts + Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written more than 200 monthly articles on the history of vertical transportation (VT) for ELEVATOR WORLD since 2003. He is also the author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. He also serves as curator of theelevatormuseum.org, created by Elevator World, Inc.

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