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Star Tours: The Stellar Story Behind the Ride That Changed Disney Parks Forever

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we’ve spent the last few years filling up our library of Lost Legends: in-depth features that tell the full, behind-the-scenes stories of beloved-and-lost attractions to make sure these masterpiece experiences aren’t ever forgotten. With your comments, we’ve glimpsed tomorrow aboard Epcot’s Horizons, survived an onslaught from the gods aboard TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, merrily traveled to Nowhere in Particular on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, lived through an ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, toured along the highways of Walt's Tomorrowland on the Peoplemover, met Dreamfinder on Journey into Imagination, and so much more.

But today, we’ll explore the outer reaches of the galaxy en route to the forest moon of Endor as we remember a ride so prolific, it sincerely changed the course of Disney Parks forever. STAR TOURS was more than just a cutting-edge E-Ticket thrill ride: it was a purposeful test to see if Disney Parks could become teen-friendly places where guests of all ages could “ride the movies.” While you probably already know the ending, you won’t believe the story that gets us there…

And it all starts a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Star Tours announces the boarding of the Endor Express, non-stop Starspeeder service to the moon of Endor. All passengers please prepare for immediate boarding.

Liquid Space

Image: Disney

As is always the case with our Lost Legends entries, the real story behind Star Tours begins long before the interstellar adventure carried its first passengers. And like so many legendary Disney attractions, it’s tied closely to storied Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter. The creative force behind everything from Indiana Jones Adventure to Journey into Imagination, Baxter is revered by Disney fans for bridging the gap from Walt’s original crew of brilliant designers to the second generation who moved in in the late 1960s to prep for Walt Disney World… a generation who had experienced Disneyland as guests first, giving them a tie to the park that the original design crew just couldn’t have.

Baxter’s story closely resembles the one that many Disney Parks fans wish for: discovered by Imagineering when one of his college portfolio projects was seen by the right person, Baxter was whisked away from his part time job operating Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage, hired by Imagineering, and paired with Disney legend Claude Coats to design Florida’s version of the sub ride.

Image: Disney

Their first issue was timing. At Disneyland, the Submarine Voyage would glide through the crystal lagoons of Tomorrowland – fittingly futuristic for audiences of the 1950s and ‘60s, for whom the technology behind submarines was as futuristic and mysterious as space travel. But as designers planned for Magic Kingdom’s 1971 opening, they recognized that submarines were no longer the stuff of “tomorrow.”

Image: Disney

So the ride was relocated to Fantasyland and, under Baxter’s brilliant design, was recast as a cinematic underwater fantasy as told in Jules Verne’s famed adventure novel. You can dive deep into the full story of the sunken Fantasyland favorite in its own Lost Legends: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea feature that'll tug at the heartstrings of Walt Disney World guests.

But what has a voyage through liquid space have to do with an adventure among the stars? Stay with us…

Discovering gold

Image: Disney

When Tony Baxter returned from Magic Kingdom’s opening to California, he was handed his next task: to fix “the Frontierland problem.” While legends of the Old West, cowboys and Indians, and The Lone Ranger had been all the rage at Disneyland’s 1955 opening, by the 1970s the public and pop culture had simply lost interest in the idling, dusty past. Frontierland needed a new lease on life, and Baxter had a plan.

In fact, he crafted an entirely new narrative that would extend Frontierland’s story and excite a new generation. At the intersection of Fantasyland and Frontierland, Baxter planned for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a wild runaway mine train adventure through glimmering gold mines that would add excitement and kinetic energy to the park. But that wasn't all. Designers posed a thoughtful question: “What would those 1860s miners do with the gold they found in Big Thunder Mountain?” Would they settle down in the sleepy town of Frontierland and bask in their newfound riches? Of course not! They’d continue on westward with their fresh fortunes and establish a bustling city of wonders on the coast!

Image: Disney

Which is why this intersection of Fantasy and Frontier would now act as a portal into an entirely new themed land on the north shore of the Rivers of America: Discovery Bay. A sort of fantasy, steampunk version of San Francisco in the late 1800s, this harbor of golden rocks, glass towers, lighthouses, zephyrs, bubbling lagoons, inventions, and submarines would be like a seaside port straight from a Jules Verne novel. And best of all, it was official. A model of Discovery Bay was on display on Main Street announcing its 1976 opening at Disneyland.

One of its headlining, anchor attractions would test the limits of the era’s technology. Captain Nemo’s Adventure would allow guests to board underwater pods right from the Nautilus and descend into wild adventures through serene reefs, lost ruins, and into the arms of a giant squid. But unlike the more traditional Submarine Voyage over in Tomorrowland, Captain Nemo’s Adventure would use a cutting edge ride system: “motion simulators” attached to motion bases, with the pods rocking, bouncing, and jostling along to a synchronized ride film to give guests the uncanny impression that they were truly piloting through the ocean. 

Image: Disney

We chronicled every last detail we know about Disney’s most incredible lost land in a full Possibilityland: Discovery Bay article that’s a must-read for Imagineering fans. But you know the ending already: Discovery Bay was canned. The primary reason was because the land’s other E-Ticket was unfortunately based on The Island at the Top of the World, Disney’s 1974 adventure film that bombed at the box office and changed Hollywood’s approach to fantasy for decades. It also seemed that the plans for Nemo’s Adventure were simply too ambitious, as Imagineers physically lacked the technology to bring this motion base attraction to life. Discovery Bay and Nemo’s Adventure were shelved.

But it’s often said that good ideas never die at Disney, and a decade later that proved to be true when a new CEO made a brilliant connection… Read on…

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There are 2 comments.

Fun little article. Only correction is C3PO is the Pilot not R2D2. :)

Never rode the ride before but we are visiting the parks in June for the first time. This ride looks really promising and this article was very interesting. It was great learning about the history of this ride!

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