Disneyland and Walt Disney World are visited by millions of tourists every year because they’ve set new standards for the theme park industry. The Walt Disney Company took the common amusement park and transformed it from a simple, family-going affair into an innovative experience.
Some of the parks’ most iconic, signature attractions didn’t just provide a new experience for guests. They raised the bar for the standard theme park attraction to new heights. The Disney theme parks’ rides are more than just thrill-producing scream machines, carts that move guests past mechanical jump scares or a big thing that moves.
Disney’s rides tell stories. They interact with the riders. Disney’s rides transport guests into worlds that they could only see on a movie screen or their televisions. It’s a standard that Disney ride designers and “Imagineers” still strive to achieve and has earned them accolades for years.
These are the rides that forced a bland and stagnant theme park industry to step up its game.
This flying ship is one of the most iconic and memorable theme park rides that screams “Disney.” Even the most ardent Disney theme park fans miss one of the key elements that makes it so unique.
Guests board a flying ship and are taken straight into Wendy, John and Michael’s bedroom. The ship flies straight out the window and over the backyard where Nana the dog barks up at them. The ship rises high into the clouds above a miniature of downtown London at night. What’s missing from these scenes? You might be thinking, “Well, duh… Peter Pan.” The riders have been given the title role in this beloved Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme park ride.
Chris Nichols, the author of the book “Walt Disney’s Disneyland” on the history and innovations of the iconic theme park, said in an interview with Fast Company that “Peter Pan’s Flight” was designed to make the rider the star of the ride rather than just a passive voyeur of its central story saying, “you’re living it in the architecture, in the ride vehicles, in the costumes.”
This almost unnoticeable aspect of the theme park dark ride has been adapted for other Disney rides, from the older attractions like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” and “Pinocchio’s Daring Journey” to modern fare like “Radiator Springs Racers” and “Smuggler’s Run” in Disneyland’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It’s also been adopted into too many rides to name at other theme parks, like Universal Studios’ simulated “Simpsons Ride,” which casts riders as visitors to Krusty the Klown’s shoddy excuse for a theme park.
The towering, man-made mountain that also served as a hidden support for the Disneyland Skyway in 1956 became an innovative improvement of the classic “wild mouse” roller coaster three years later during the “Second Opening of Disneyland.”
The Matterhorn sends guests on a wild, out of control bobsled ride that quickly corners and dips through the mountain while a menacing Abominable Snowman terrorizes the tourists’ who dare to invade his habitat. The ride not only continued the Disney theme park tradition of incorporating the theme of its surroundings into the experience, but it was also the industry’s first tubular steel, continuous-track roller coaster taking riders through the mountain rather than just around it.
The ride wasn’t a massive success after its opening, but it soon became one of the park’s signature attractions. The ride’s popularity spread to other parks that adopted the tubular steel track coaster concept, like Six Flags Over Texas’s “Runaway Mine Train” ride in 1966 and modern rides such as the “Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster” in Australia’s Warner Bros. Movie World and “Verbolten” at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
Universe of Energy AKA Ellen’s Energy Adventure
This long-running Epcot attraction, which closed in 2017 to make way for a new “Guardians of the Galaxy” roller coaster, may not have attracted the kind of lines that could take an hour away from your life or get kids begging their parents to take them during their visit to the Orlando park. However, it put down a new track (pun intended) for future rides at Disney and other competing parks.
Guests would sit in a moving car of six rows that would start as a simple movie theater experience. But as the curtains rose to reveal a prehistoric world of animatronic dinosaurs, the cars’ doors would close, rotate 90 degrees and turn into a moving ride vehicle. It is the first trackless dark ride in the theme park industry.
Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar, who helped build the “Universe of Energy” ride and many other attractions, wrote in his book “Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdom” that the electric-powered vehicles worked like electric trains. The vehicles followed a small, one-eighth inch wide guide wire underneath the attraction’s floor. As the vehicle sensed the guide wire, it would send electronic commands to the “independent steering units on the front and rear axles to keep the vehicles centered over the wire.” Giant turntables would turn the vehicles on sheets of air for wider, sharper turns and a central computer monitored and operated the whole experience.
Disney replicated and improved on the trackless ride system with attractions like “Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure” which is coming to Epcot’s France Pavilion from Disneyland Paris, “Mystic Manor” at Hong Kong Disneyland, and the new “Beauty and the Beast” ride in development at Tokyo Disneyland. It’s also been adopted by or inspired competing theme parks to build their own trackless rides such as Universal Studios’ “Transformers: The Ride.”
Which of these attractions do you think has had the most impact on theme park rides? Do you have any other attractions that you’d suggest were more significant? Let us know in the comments!
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