Back in the first half of the 20th century, the business of entertainment was quite a bit different. Back then, mere “amusement” was enough to draw people to leisure gardens, carnivals and traveling fairs, seaside boardwalks speckled with thrill rides, and rudimentary roller coaster parks. But when Disneyland opened in 1955, entertainment changed.
After being swept up into its “worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy” – immersive, cinematic lands built not by carnies, but by filmmakers – guests began to have one simple, timeless, reverberating request: “take me somewhere.” And in the decades since, designers have chased that very idea, looking for increasingly elaborate ways to make guests feel as if they’ve become part of another world, from Peter Pan’s Flight to Pirates of the Caribbean; Haunted Mansion to Indiana Jones Adventure…
But there’s only one kind of attraction that can take guests somewhere without really going anywhere at all: simulators. Today, a growing chorus of critics say that Disney and its contemporaries may rely too much on the transportational power of these increasingly-elaborate attractions, and in an age where guests are increasingly surrounded in screens at home, legitimate questions must be raised: is it time to sideline the simulator? Can physical sets ever make a comeback in the digital age? Or has the reign of these technological giants just begun? Let’s start at the beginning...
Almost beginnings (1970s)
Believe it or not, Disney’s desire for a simulator actually predates the technology that could’ve made it possible. The story begins with Disney Legend and beloved, fan-favorite Imagineer Tony Baxter, who saw the potential of a ride going nowhere way back in the 1970s. As a matter of fact, Baxter planned for a simulator through the nautical world of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be one of the starring E-Tickets in his never-built Possibilityland: Discovery Bay.
That cancelled land (meant to debut at Disneyland in 1976) would’ve given guests the chance to step aboard simulator pods, departing from Captain Nemo’s famed Nautilus for a deep-sea journey through coral reefs and ancient cities before facing off with a dreaded giant squid. Captain Nemo’s Adventure would’ve been the earliest kind of simulator, setting guests into a cabin capable of rumbling, nodding, and shaking along to projected film.
Discovery Bay was cancelled, of course, but designers acknowledge that the motion simulator technology that would’ve powered it hadn’t really advanced as far as Disney would’ve needed, anyway.
Some sources say that Disney was even ready to revive the simulator concept in 1979, hoping to apply it to their film The Black Hole – a disastrous feature meant to become Disney’s Star Wars equivalent but… well… failing. Obviously, if Imagineers did ever play around with the potential of a Black Hole simulator, it was quickly shelved. However, they say that good ideas never die at Disney. Sometimes, they just need a little time and a shot in the arm...
SIM SPOTLIGHT: Star Tours (1987)
For plenty of projects in the 1980s and ‘90s, that shot was Michael Eisner, the new, young CEO fresh from his stint at the head of Paramount Pictures and ready to revive Disney after more than a decade of stagnation. Eisner had been brought on because his cinematic resume made him perfect for revitalizing Disney’s studios (both live action and animation) which hadn’t really had a legitimate hit since Walt’s time, and whose once-golden name was now tarnished. Obviously Eisner did bring Disney’s name back from the brink, initiating the Disney Renaissance where the studio couldn’t stop making box office blockbusters like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Pocahontas.
But spectacularly, Eisner also believed that movies would be the key to transforming Disney’s aging theme parks from tired museums of ‘60s style into modern, thrilling places where everyone – even teenagers! – would find something to love. Eisner simply (but controversially) believed that for Disney Parks to remain relevant, they needed to let guests “ride the movies” to see the stories and stars that mattered most to modern audiences… even if they weren’t Disney movies!
And in the 1980s, there was no one whose stories mattered more than George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones – the two defining film franchises of the era. Both Eisner and Lucas were ecstatic about the idea of incorporating the properties into Disney Parks as quickly as possible, which meant ambitious plans for a Star Wars roller coaster were a no-go.
But Baxter chimed in, suggesting that the long-stalled plans for a motion simulator might make more sense here than ever before. And better yet, building a simulator would allow this Star Wars attraction to arrive at Disney Parks (relatively) quickly...
The time was right. Disney contracted to purchase four ATLAS (that’s Advanced Technology Leisure Application Simulator) pods, capable of dynamic motion. They even earned a trademark for a system to make loading these 40 person pods load quickly and efficiently. Paired with Lucasfilm-produced ride video and wrapped in an elaborate setting and backstory as only Imagineering could concoct, the Lost Legend: STAR TOURS that opened in 1987 is still remembered as one of the most spectacular attractions ever… and the one that changed Disney Parks forever...
“Ride the Movies” (1990 - 1999)
Star Tours was just the addition Disneyland needed at exactly the time the park needed it, and – for better or worse – its success singularly redefined what Disney’s theme parks should be about. Put simply, Eisner had been right: “riding the movies” would be the next wave to carry through to the new millennium, and now simulators provided a way to do it.
For example, Universal had been looking to construct their first from-scratch, purpose-built theme park in Central Florida for the better part of a decade (their original property in Hollywood had been a “theme park” in some sense since the ‘60s, but centered around its working movie studio and Tram Tour). As you might imagine for a movie studio hoping to break into Disney’s backyard, though, plans had always stalled. By the mid-’80s, Universal’s executives had largely decided that they shouldn’t try to take on Disney until they had a coup.
Enter legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who’d been invited to visit Star Tours during its testing phase back at Disneyland. While there, George Lucas allegedly made an offhand comment about how Universal could never build such an elaborate and advanced ride. Naturally, Universal’s creative directors were incensed by the challenge.
Spielberg prompted them that they ought to prove George Lucas wrong using Back to the Future (produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal) as the basis… and voila! Universal developed the Lost Legend: Back to the Future - The Ride, and Universal Studios Florida was green-lit.
In a (failed) effort to dissuade Universal from building a studio-themed park in Orlando, Disney’s plans for an EPCOT Center pavilion dedicated to the film industry got upgraded to an entire park – the Disney-MGM Studios, and even at its opening, construction was well underway on its own Star Tours, with 150% the capacity of Disneyland’s.
Meanwhile, another ATLAS attraction was on the way to EPCOT Center just a few steps away. There, the Lost Legend: Body Wars appeared in the park’s Wonders of Life pavilion, using the technology to send miniaturized guests into the pulsing bloodstream of a human to examine the incredible world within.
Star Tours. Body Wars. Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Questor. The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. SeaWorld’s Wild Arctic. Throughout the ‘90s, simulators appeared not just as theme park favorites, but as attractions at shopping malls and entertainment centers. The technology had grown. That meant that it was time for Disney and Universal’s theme parks to take it to the next level… Read on…