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

Faced with the task of developing Star Tours, George Lucas’ team and Disney’s divided responsibilities and split up.

Image: Disney

Disney Imagineers got to work and purchased four large ATLAS simulators with enough room for 40 guests. These ATLAS (Advanced Technology Leisure Application Simulators) pods represented a massive technological leap, utilizing sincerely military-grade technology for… well… fun.

The enormous simulator platform was attached to six hydraulic actuators providing six-degrees-of-freedom: tilting forward and backward (pitching), tilting side to side (rolling), and turning left and right (yawing). But the simulators alone couldn’t tell the story.

Image: Disney

Disney also created and installed full-sized props, sets, and animatronics, including four copies of the ride’s pilot, RX-24 (one for each Starspeeder). Originally, designers proposed that this pilot – affectionately known as Rex – would have the personality of a grizzled, burnt-out Vietnam veteran who’d be triggered by horrible memories of the war and unintentionally put riders in jeopardy. Ultimately, it was decided that the unhinged pilot would be too intimidating for families, so he was reimagined as a well-intentioned and eager rookie who just couldn’t quite seem to get anything right.

Image: Disney

For this Rex, they found the perfect voice actor: Paul Reubens, best known for his role as Pee-wee Herman. 

While Disney installed the pods and readied the ride building, George and his team at Lucasfilm were moving forward, too, working alongside Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM, the brilliant designers behind many modern movie wonders) to develop models, sets, and special effects for the ride. Ultimately, the $6 million, 5-minute ride video was shot on 70mm film at 30 frames per second (for flicker-free images). At the insistence of Disney Imagineers, the ride culminated in a trench-run through the Death Star (just like the finale of the film) allowing guests to become the heroes of the story they knew and loved.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

When the simulator pods were installed in the ride building at Disneyland, it was discovered that the ceiling needed raised to allow for proper clearance as they lifted, shuffled, rocked, and accelerated (still visible today in aerial imagery).

With the pods in place and the 70mm ride film installed in rear-positioned projectors inside the simulator, Disney Imagineers had the enviable (and nauseating) task of sitting in one of the pods with a joystick, manually programming the movement of the pod along the ride film over and over and over to perfection. (After all, it’s the well-synchronized relationship between the visuals and the movement that prevents motion sickness… if what the inner ear felt was too off from what the eyes saw, guests would make a mess of the ride right out the gate.)

Opening day(s)

Image: Disney

Star Tours opened in Disneyland Park on January 9, 1987. The star-studded event brought Michael Eisner, George Lucas, Mickey Mouse (in his best EPCOT Center space suit), and a literal army of Star Wars characters to the new space terminal in Tomorrowland, prominently set among the land’s main entry under the sleek white highways of the Peoplemover.

In celebration of the grand opening, Disneyland remained opened for 60 continuous hours, from 10 AM January 9 through 10 PM on January 11th. (And you thought the 24-hour parties were wild.) Altogether, the ride has cost a reported $32 million.

And as for the winning concept that would bring Star Wars believably into Disney Parks?

Spaceport THX1138

Image: Disney

If you’ve glimpsed into the world of Star Wars on the big screen, you know that the heroes and villains of the series are always moving about the galaxy on starships, cruisers, and freighters. But what about you and I? What about the normal, everyday folks who live, work, and play on Naboo or Coruscant? Certainly if we lived in the Star Wars universe, we wouldn’t have our own interstellar freighters. If we wanted to get away and see the sights, we’d need someone else to get us there, right?

This simple premise is part of what makes Star Tours so effective and so deadpan. Here, amid the excitement and energy of Tomorrowland – a bustling world on the move – we’re invited into… airport security. Make that spaceport security. Sure, the baggage is transported by droids, and the arrivals / departures board is in English and Aurebesh, but the ingredients here will be familiar to anyone who journeyed to Disneyland from afar… the “general public” in the Star Wars universe travels just the way we do: cramped shoulder-to-shoulder on airlines.

Image: Disney

Welcome to Spaceport THX1138 – the intergalactic spaceport for all Earth System flights, and hub of Star Tours and their luxurious line of Starspeeder 3000 cruisers, carrying 40 passengers in about as many square feet. As you enter, you’ll see a parked Starspeeder 3000 ahead, with C-3PO and R2-D2 carefully reviewing it as a massive overhead screen advertises the airline’s destinations. In a control booth overhead, Mon Calamari flight controllers carefully look between control panels as announcements pages passengers and note gate changes.

(If this room looks familiar to Disneyland fans, there’s a good reason: its largely unchanged since its time as the queue for another Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space. The Mighty Monsanto Microscope that once lorded over the queue is now a Starspeeder. As luck would have it, the four simulator pods take up quite a bit less room than the old Omnimover dark ride, providing enough room for the rest of the queue, the ride, and a gift shop in what used to be the dark ride showbuilding! In a fun twist, this iconic queue was duplicated at each subsequent Star Tours installation, meaning that the DNA of Adventure Thru Inner Space lives on in Florida, Tokyo, and Paris, too, despite the ride never even being there!)

Image: Disney

Around the corner, you'll continue back and forth along an ascending ramp, passing through the starport's luggage carousel and Droid Repair Bay, stacked high with suitcases. Of special note to Disney fans is the G2-9T droid unit fixing the R2 unit, above. The unusual droid and an identical twin in the room have some storied Disney history behind them. Just down the avenue in Tomorrowland's revolving Carousel Theater was America Sings, the replacement show for the Carousel of Progress when that Walt Disney original moved to Florida.

Populated with more than 100 Audio Animatronic animals, America Sings was a victim of progress. It closed in 1988 so that it's Animatronic cast could be re-used in the under-construction Splash Mountain. Most of the show's 115 creatures were taken to Critter Country, redressed in southern duds, and reprogrammed to sing along to the Song of the South melodies. But from Star Tours' opening in 1987 to America Sings' closure in 1988, America Sings' serenading trio of geese became a solo act. That's because two of the geese were relocated to the starport, stripped to their circuits, and reprogrammed as droids. However, these "goose droids" still betray their feathered origins upon close inspection of their feet – an Easter egg that delighted parks fans. 

Image: Studios Central

At the top of the ascending ramp, a Star Tours agent will direct you to one of four lettered gates (at Disneyland; six at subsequent installations) for a brief safety video. Then, the announcement sounds: "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." Ready to launch? 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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