When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, 23 attractions were part of the new theme park. Only three of them were entirely new while the rest were duplications of existing attractions at Disneyland. Due to construction issues, three more rides appeared later in 1971. When we fast forward to today, only a handful of the rides, shows and events available in 1971 exist today.
Out of those legendary attractions that embody the origins of the world’s most popular theme park, only one still comes with a consistent hour-long wait. Whether you believe that omnipresent line is due to its sustained demand or some issues with ride throughput, the attraction is undeniably popular to this day. So, let’s go Behind the Ride to learn more about Peter Pan’s Flight, from its original version up to the recent modifications.
The Experience: Creating the Illusion of Flight
The Trick: Building a Better Boat
In the days preceding the Omnimover, Disney Imagineers invented numerous ways to load passengers on ride carts. The initial plans for Peter Pan’s Flight, however, required a tremendous amount of innovation. The attraction would lift people up in the air and make them soar through the London skyline on their way through Neverland. That’s an entirely different type of movement than for attractions like Autopia, or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The riding apparatus would have to pull guests into the air safely, similar to a Ferris wheel, and then it would have to guide them on a fixed route through various set pieces.
Suffice to say that there was no technology available that could perform such aerial maneuvers. Marvin Davis, a recent hiring of WED Enterprises, received the request to build a functional lift apparatus early in his tenure at the company. He had to create a ride system that would hook to a track on the ceiling. In order to create the appropriate sensation, Davis and his cohorts designed a new kind of ride cart.
This contraption is called an Aerial Galleon, and you know it as the flying boat that operates similarly to a ski lift carrying you up into the sky. It perfectly mimics the sensation of flying over London. More impressively, the ride track manages this while delivering one of the smoothest ride experiences at Walt Disney World. Most of Disney’s attractions are intentionally rough at times. The ski lift mechanic somehow seems tranquil as it elevates. Disney planners intended guests to feel like lifting into the sky via magic is a fluid and calm process rather than a bumpy ride.
One noted improvement occurred at Walt Disney World over Disneyland. In order to handle the larger crowds in Orlando, Florida, Disney built a better boarding/de-boarding area. They discarded the regular loading and unloading methodology at Disneyland in favor of Omnimovers. So, as long as the lines are at Walt Disney World today, the situation could have been much worse without that bit of forward-thinking.
The Experience: Making guests feel like Peter Pan
The Trick: Learning from the mistakes at Disneyland
While Peter Pan’s Flight wasn’t ready at the start of Walt Disney World, it had debuted on opening day at Disneyland. Given the long list of catastrophes that occurred there on the nightmarish first day at Uncle Walt’s first theme park, the problems with Peter Pan’s Flight certainly didn’t stand out. Still, an ongoing issue existed. People really didn’t get the ride.
You have to remember that in 1955, Walt Disney tried to differentiate the Happiest Place on Earth from the similar entities of the era. Those were circuses, carnivals, and haunted houses. None of those places offered anything resembling Peter Pan’s Flight. Ostensibly, that was a competitive advantage for Disney. In execution, it led to a lot of confused customers. Theme park rides are a lot like jokes. Something’s gone wrong if you have to explain what should be self-evident. With jokes, that’s the punchlines. With theme park rides, it’s the experience that everyone should innately understand.
The concept of Peter Pan’s Flight is right there in the title. The idea is to elevate the rider into the sky so that they enjoy the sensation of flying through the clouds, just as Peter Pan can. The problem with selling products to consumers is that they have a tendency to be literal. While other characters in the story of kids swept off to Neverland are memorable – especially dastardly Captain Hook, mercurial Tinkerbell, and strong heroine Wendy – none of them are as important as the titular lead. The fact that Peter Pan’s Flight didn’t feature Peter Pan annoyed guests.
In the early days of Walt Disney World, Imagineers had to address the concern over the absence of Peter Pan. Their iteration of the flight included a stronger link to the character, which was part of the attraction at Walt Disney World. All they had to do was focus on the one aspect that got lost in creating the Disneyland version of the attraction. Peter Pan’s Flight had to include Peter Pan in the story. It seems so simple in hindsight, yet the amazing cast members of The Walt Disney Company didn’t get this right for 16 (!) years. Similarly, they didn’t add a Peter Pan audio-animatronic at Walt Disney World until 1983, 12 years after the attraction’s Florida introduction and almost 30 years after its Disneyland debut.