Home » The Unusual Stories Behind the Creation of 5 Iconic Disney Attractions

    The Unusual Stories Behind the Creation of 5 Iconic Disney Attractions


    Walt Disney World has long been known as a global leader in exciting, innovative attraction design. Yet some of its most iconic attractions almost never came about due to design flaws or erroneous beliefs about the interests of the target market. Another came about not because of any particular inspiration, but rather the desire to settle a long-standing feud.

    Here is a look at how 5 of Walt Disney World’s most iconic attractions came to life.

    1. Soarin’


    In 2005, Disney celebrated the 50th anniversary of Disneyland with the “Happiest Celebration on Earth.” As part of the festivities, different Disney parks around the world opened copies of popular rides from other Disney parks. Epcot got Soarin’, a copy of Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over California.

    When Soarin’ Over California was conceptualized, Imagineers knew they wanted three-level seating in vehicles that would fly over the OMNIMAX (IMAX Dome) screen. The design called for three different loading platforms, each on a different level, and ride vehicles that traveled along a system of conveyor belts similar to those used by dry cleaners. This design proved to be cost-prohibitive, and the ride seemed destined to die quietly in the planning room.

    That weekend, Imagineer and ride systems design expert Mark Sumner had an inspiration. He went to the attic of his home, where his 40-year-old Erector set still sat. Over the next few hours, he used his beloved childhood toy to work out a realistic model for a brand-new design that would load on a single level. He brought the Erector set to work on Monday morning, demonstrated his idea for the team, and received the green light soon after.

    2. Jungle Cruise

    Jungle Cruise

    The Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise opened with the park on October 1, 1971. A slightly tweaked version of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, which opened with that park on July 17, 1955, the ride has changed little since its earliest days. Yet the original Jungle Cruise was imagined far differently than the iconic humor-based attraction it became.

    Inspired by Disney’s 1950s “True Life Adventures” series, the Jungle Cruise was originally planned as a serious documentary-style ride down some of the world’s waterways, complete with actual live animals. Despite Walt’s best efforts, however, the animal-care specialists with whom he consulted were adamantly opposed to the idea of real animals. Then-current animal husbandry simply did not provide a way to ensure that exotic animals would be visible to guests on the boats while simultaneously providing for their needs. Walt reluctantly agreed to use audio-animatronic animals, and his dream of a ride-through attraction filled with live animals would not be realized until Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safaris opened in 1998.

    Meanwhile, the original Jungle Cruise did keep the serious, documentary-style spiel that Walt had envisioned. It was not until 1962 that the light-hearted, pun-filled script would debut.

    3. Pirates of the Caribbean

    Pirates of the Caribbean

    Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, opened in 1967, was the last attraction Walt Disney had a personal hand in designing. Despite the ride’s smash success, however, Imagineers did not intend to copy it at the Magic Kingdom. Their thinking was sound, though incorrect. In California, the Caribbean seemed a long ways away and pirates were somewhat exotic. In Florida, however, the Caribbean was right next door and pirates had been a real threat throughout much of the state’s history.

    Imagineers wanted to give Florida park visitors the same feeling of an exotic, far-off land that California guests enjoyed from Pirates, so they created an elaborate pavilion dedicated to the Wild West. The Western River Expedition would have featured a runaway mine train and a Pirates-style boat ride through some classic Western scenes. A Native American village and a pack mule ride were also in the original plans.

    For budgetary reasons, the Western River Expedition was slotted for Phase Two of the Magic Kingdom rather than built as an opening day attraction. But something happened that Imagineers could never have predicted. Walt Disney World park guests began visiting Guest Relations in droves, all asking the same question: “Where are the pirates?” They had heard about the spectacular pirate attraction at Disneyland, and they wanted to see it for themselves.

    The guest complaints led Disney to rush through a copy of Pirates of the Caribbean, which opened at the Magic Kingdom in 1973. The Western River Expedition was indefinitely postponed, and ultimately canceled. Over the years, however, elements of it reappeared as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean proved every bit as popular at Walt Disney World as it was at Disneyland, ultimately spawning a movie franchise.

    4. Spaceship Earth

    Spaceship Earth

    From the time they decided to turn Walt Disney’s idea for an experimental community into a theme park known as Epcot, Imagineers knew that they wanted a stunning entrance icon that would represent the future yet avoid becoming dated. They considered many ideas, but kept returning to the geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller for the ’67 Expo in Montreal. They also liked the 1939 New York World’s Fair Perisphere, which was supported just off the ground on 8 legs. Spaceship Earth tweaks that design, lowering the number of legs to 6 and dramatically raising the height.

    A full geodesic sphere supported above the ground had never been attempted, and this one also had to house a full ride-through attraction. Imagineers hired Fuller to help, along with a team of MIT engineers. The final design is actually two separate shells, the exterior geodesic sphere and an internal structure that holds the attraction components. The legs were installed first, and a sort of hexagonal table built on top. This table distributes the weight of both the interior and exterior shells. Most of the ride structure was built on the table before the geodesic sphere was added. The sphere consists of two geodesic domes stacked together.

    The results are stunning. Disney even ensured that rain would never drench those taking shelter beneath Spaceship Earth by building an elaborate gutter system into the Alucobond panels that compose the exterior of the sphere. Rain is diverted through those gutters into the structure’s legs and then channeled underground into the World Showcase Lagoon.

    5. Backstage Studio Tour/Studio Backlot Tour

     Phydend, Wikimedia Commons

    Universal Studios began inviting the public to watch movie filming on its Hollywood lot in 1915, though this practice was discontinued in 1930 due to insufficient soundproofing in the new era of talkies. In 1956, the studio began allowing Gray Line buses to drive through the backlot, and in 1964, it began offering its own tram tour. Walt Disney talked about opening up his own studio for tours at around the same time, but concerns about traffic and land costs prevented the idea from becoming a reality.

    In the early 1980s, Michael Eisner was president and CEO of Paramount. Universal was interested in expanding its theme park holdings to Central Florida, but was skeptical about taking on the full financial risk associated with challenging Disney in its own backyard. So Universal approached Paramount with the idea of a partnership. At the time, the park concept was based around a tram tour, as Universal Studios Hollywood was.

    Eisner declined the proposal, but never forgot what Universal wanted to do. When he took over as CEO of Disney in 1984, he began quietly working on ideas for a Disney movie park. When Universal announced plans for its Florida park in 1987, Eisner moved full-steam ahead. With help from the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a semi-governmental agency that allows Walt Disney World to bypass the normal permitting process, Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, a full year ahead of Universal Studios Florida.

    As Eisner was well aware of Universal’s design plans, he focused the new park around the Backstage Studio Tour (now the Studio Backlot Tour). A two-hour peek behind the scenes of moviemaking, the original format of the attraction was half tram tour and half walking tour. With such extras as Catastrophe Canyon (which strongly resembled a set-piece proposed for Universal’s tour), the Backstage Studio Tour was specifically designed to beat Universal to the punch. The rest of Disney-MGM Studios was practically non-existent, haphazardly put together to present something of a finished design.

    Naturally, Universal changed its course. Rather than open a similar tram-based theme park, Universal responded by opening its park with a series of high-tech standalone attractions. Disney fought back by adding attractions, leading to a movie park war that spanned the next decade.

    Today, both parks have grown and changed dramatically, the Studio Backlot Tour has been scaled way back, and neither resembles the tram-based Universal Hollywood on which both were originally based. Interestingly, Universal Studios Hollywood has also grown and progressed, and that park’s tram tour now forms only a fraction of its overall experience.