A 150-year-old magician’s trick has gone high-tech to help make Christopher Walken the star of Universal Studios‘ newest attraction.

Universal recently overhauled its former Earthquake! ride to create a newly themed version called Disaster! — highlighted by the first large-scale, permanent use of an illusion called “musion.”

The technique borrows a 19th-century magician’s trick known in the trade as “Pepper’s ghost,” then adds 21st-century technology to deliver the virtual image of Walken, the Academy Award-winning actor of such movies as The Deer Hunter, Wedding Crashers and Hairspray.

As a result, at Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride . . . Starring You!, the audience watches a projection of Walken — portraying a fictional movie director named Frank Kincaid — run onto the stage, talk to them, walk in front of, and behind, real furniture on the stage, and interact with a live actor there.

Slated for a Jan. 17 grand opening, the attraction has been open sporadically for previews during the past couple of weeks, drawing consistent, widespread wonder from employees and visitors alike, said Universal’s Jeff Smith, project manager for Disaster!

“When I see them in the room, and see Frank Kincaid walk onto the stage, they say, ‘What am I seeing here?’ ” Smith said. “And there is a sense of amazement.”

Pepper’s ghost has been a favorite illusion among magicians since British illusionist John Pepper showcased it in the 1860s. The technique employs a large, disguised window set diagonally across a stage. Under “normal” lighting, the window is fully transparent showing only what is on the stage behind it. But when objects are lighted in a hidden room off to the side, the glass reflects those objects. To the audience, the actual stage objects and the reflections appear together.

With musion, the Pepper’s-ghost images are projected onto the window using high-powered, high-definition, video projectors, explained James Rock, one of the directors of the British company Musion Systems Ltd., which sells the technology in Europe and the United States. Instead of being made of glass, today’s musion window is made from a sheet of micro-thin, transparent foil developed by German engineer Uwe Maass, which allows for additional illusion tricks.

Until now, Musion Systems has sold the technology mainly for events such as trade shows and corporate meetings. Among notable public displays, Musion was used to put an Al Gore projection on stage at the 2007 Live Earth concert in Tokyo, and Madonna and the Gorillaz band characters on stage at the 2006 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

The illusion often is mistaken by viewers and in media reports as a hologram. Yet, “technically, it’s not accurate,” Rock said. “What you’re looking at is always a two-dimensional projection. . . . We call it a ‘holographic effect.’ ”

Video projections are nothing new for the Pepper’s ghost trick. They’ve been used for decades in theme park attractions such as the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney Imagineering also recently debuted its own 21st-century version, a technique similar to musion, for illusions in The Seas with Nemo & Friends ride at Epcot.

The musion set at Universal’s Disaster! is the largest permanent installation in the world, and the first his company has put in a theme park, Rock said. Yet the musion portion of Universal’s ride is used merely as the set-up for the rest of the 15-minute attraction, not part of the main event.

“It could become a whole ride,” Rock said. “I think it probably won’t be very long before there is a full musion . . . ride.”

Under Disaster!’s story line, Walken’s character, Kincaid, is a director of schlock disaster movies such as Apocageddon, and he is casting a few “extras” for his next movie, Mutha Nature, staring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Visitors enter under the pretext that they all are wannabe actors, there to try and get picked for a few bit roles. The musion effect allows Kincaid to explain his movie and needs to the audience.

Then the audience moves on to the next room, where some visitors participate in various film shoots involving special effects, while everyone else watches. Much of the rest of the attraction is little changed from the old Earthquake! experience, still featuring a subway ride into a California temblor, compete with collapsing structures, crashing vehicles, fire and flood.
Universal’s Smith said he knew the musion segment would be a hit during development last summer, when some involved in the production sometimes forgot what they were watching.

“More than once I found myself talking to somebody who wasn’t there, even having seen it over and over” Smith said. “I felt we had a winner.”

Information courtesy of Orlando Sentinel