Home » Behind the Ride: California Screamin’

    Behind the Ride: California Screamin’

    This beast looks like wood but drives like steel. It’s an anchor attraction at what many consider a lesser gate. It explodes into movement but then never goes any faster, reaching peak velocity after only four seconds. Yes, California Screamin’ is a ride with many incongruities; it’s also a badass coaster at a park with a paucity of them. Let’s take this opportunity to go Behind the Ride once again, learning the four Imagineering tricks that make California Screamin’ so great.

    The Experience: Faux wood

    The Trick: Making the best of a failed theme park concept

    Image via Flickr user Roller Coaster Philosophy
    Image: Flickr (license)

    Have you ever heard of Disney’s America? It was a pet project of divisive former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner. He hoped to build a new Disney theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, roughly 40 miles outside of Washington, D.C.

    The new theme park would offer patriotic themed lands such as President’s Square, Civil War, Fort, and Victory Field. Oddly, the locals rebelled at the idea of a Disney theme park bringing tens of millions of dollars in annual commerce to a town with a current population of less than 2,000 people. Disney gave up on the idea in 1994.

    Three years later, a beloved California park, Knotts Berry Farm, became available for purchase. Disney executives loved the idea of expanding their park presence in the area. Knotts Berry Farm is only 7.2 miles away from Disneyland!

    Again, Disney faced unexpected resistance. The Knotts family refused to sell to a corporation that they didn’t trust, worried about what Disney would do to the inimitable theme park. After all, the park had been owned by the Knotts family since its debut in 1920. They needed assurances about its future that Disney simply couldn’t give.

    Once again stymied, Disney park planners huddled. They eventually decided that the attempt to buy a competing California theme park was a misplaced effort. Disney could simply add a second gate at the Happiest Place on Earth!

    What’s strange about the creative process for this park, Disney California Adventure, is that they recycled many existing ideas from the Disney’s America blueprints. One of them was a wooden roller coaster.

    Image via Flickr user HarshLight
    Image: Flickr (license)

    The idea was that a themed land involving American history would break the illusion if the primary roller coaster were steel. After Disney’s America failed, the new Disneyland gate had different park restrictions. Park planners realized that using a wood roller coaster would prevent Imagineers from building the ride that they envisioned. So, they had a plan for a patriotic wooden roller coaster, only now they needed a California-themed one that was steel.

    In a decision that Disney execs regretted for some time afterward, they chose to theme Disney California Adventure as “the heyday of the great seaside amusement park piers.” Then, they turned around and constructed a very modern roller coaster in style that looked like wood from a distance. This incongruity was one of many that the second Disneyland gate faced during its earliest days, and Disney eventually addressed it, as we’ll discuss in the final Behind the Ride trick.

    The Experience: Going from 0 to 55 miles per hour at drag racer speeds

    The Trick: Magnets!

    Image via Flickr user radiobread
    Image: Flickr (license)

    Okay, in a world where a Tesla can reach 60 miles per hour in less than 2.3 seconds, the explosive start of California Screamin’ no longer sounds as impressive.  During the development of this attraction, however, it was a huuuuge deal. Here’s why.

    During the 1970s, scientists discovered that a linear induction motor could create shocking amounts of kinetic energy, even for vehicles not currently in motion. It bordered on a violation of one of Newton’s laws of physics, but it wasn’t. Instead, the technology simply accelerated resting objects, and it did this faster than anything ever before in the field of transportation.

    You know the technology for its usage in bullet trains and other municipal transportation solutions. It’s actually a modification of the magnetic levitation (maglev) concepts that are so famous at Disney theme parks, the ones that power monorails. What’s great about linear induction is that potential energy converts to kinetic (i.e actual) energy almost instantly.

    By using a linear induction motor with magnets, California Screamin’ can explode into action. A coaster cart filled with passengers can go from zero to 55 miles per hour in four seconds. It’s a sudden burst of speed with an accompanying adrenaline surge. This particular ride actually maxes out at 55 miles per hour, meaning that you’re already at top speed a few seconds after your ride cart springs to life.

    The Experience: Seeing the best parts of the park but not the parking lot

    The Trick: Closing half the tunnels

    Walt Disney obsessed over views. When he spent a great deal of money building Cinderella Castle, he instructed his Imagineers to highlight the landmark as much as possible. That request filtered throughout all the themed lands, as line of sight became a priority when building attractions.

    After Uncle Walt’s death, the mantra extended to Walt Disney World and other Disney parks around the world. It was more than 40 years of reverence toward the idea of maximizing viewer perspective.

    At the start of the new millennium, park planners returned to the park that started it all, the Happiest Place on Earth. They plotted a new gate, a second place themed entirely to the state of California. One of their goals was to celebrate the views of Disneyland and the tiny Disney city that Imagineers had constructed incrementally since 1955.

    A roller coaster like California Screamin’ would have the chance to display all the wondrous visuals. It would also show the some of the mountainous backdrops of California, making the exercise thematic for a park celebrating the Golden State. Alas, a problem existed.

    Part of the Disney infrastructure that they’d built over time was…parking lots. Also, other businesses owned some of the surrounding land. Disney couldn’t control all the views available from the California Screamin’ tracks. Or could they?

    Please watch the video above. Pay special attention to the 50-second mark. Note the wall on the right side. What’s behind that wall is something Disney can’t make look attractive. So, they hide it. Building a wall only goes so far, though. Once the coaster carries the rider over that height, the view below is on full display.

    Image: DisneyThe Imagineering solution is elegant in its simplicity. The tunnels you travel through during your journey on California Screamin’ are half and half. You can see out one side, enjoying a view of the parks and other scenery that will enhance your enjoyment.

    The other part of the tunnel blocks your line of sight. You don’t think about it since the area has a cover. Instead, Disney uses subtle manipulation to draw your eyesight toward the things that park planners want you to notice, not the ugly stuff like the tops of buildings, parking lots, and businesses owned by other companies.

    California Screamin’ is even better at night. The city skyline provides a breathtaking backdrop, and Disney’s evening illuminations create a hypnotic environment. This roller coaster is great any time, but it’s truly unforgettable at night.

    The Experience: Enjoying the pinnacle of Disney California Adventure from a different perspective

    The Trick: An unexpected slowdown and then a gigantic loop

    The signature visual of Disney California Adventure is, of course, the Ferris wheel. The second most recognizable landmark from a distance is a part of California Screamin’. Originally, the face of Mickey Mouse stood as the least hidden Mickey at the park.

    Imagineers constructed the coaster tracks of California Screamin’ in a way that it had the giant circle beneath two adjoining circles on the left and right, the classic Mickey Mouse structure. Some enterprising park planner invented the idea to take coaster carts on a journey through the Mickey face. Their idea became the second Disney attraction in North America to feature an inversion, a full 360-degree loop that takes place within the Mickey face.

    Several aspects of this design are novel. First, California Screamin’ has at times held the record as the longest ride with an inversion. Overall, it’s one of the eight longest coasters in the world, with 6,072 feet worth of track. Specific to steel roller coasters, it’s currently the third longest of its kind. It’s also the only outdoor looping ride at a North American Disney park.

    One of the important elements of the ride is the slowdown prior to the inversion. Disneyland is an extremely small park by modern standards. At 85 acres, it’s smaller than either Universal Studios Florida (108 acres) or Islands of Adventure (101 acres). Imagineers have to maximize the space whenever possible.

    Image: DisneyMany of the tracks on California Screamin’ circle the same space, a fact Disney hides well for the reasons above. Something it can do to add to the illusion of a bigger park is slow down the roller coaster at the right moment. Halfway through the ride, it comes to almost a complete stop as the coaster cart climbs a hill. The purpose of this delay is to let riders catch their breath. It’s also a way to let them enjoy the grandeur of the Happiest Place on Earth before the inversion takes their breath away.

    California Screamin’ has changed a bit over the years, After the initial version of Disney California Adventure failed to strike a chord with theme park tourists, Disney rebranded in 2009. One of their oddest choices was to trade two park signs. The Mickey Mouse face switched to the Ferris wheel, in the process changing the name of it from the Sun Wheel to Mickey’s Fun Wheel.

    Simultaneously, the Paradise Pier sign received a slight modification in colors to match popular attractions such as Toy Story Midway Mania! More importantly, it became an integral part of California Screamin’. Today, theme park tourists take a ride through an inverted loop. As they go upside down, they get to look at the Paradise Pier sign in a way that nobody ever can until they ride the most badass attraction at Disneyland.