Omnimovers: How Disney Revolutionized Theme Park Rides

Today, you might take many types of theme park rides for granted, but each one represents intense effort and historical innovation. It’s through Imagineers that seemingly impossible feats become possible.

Haunted Mansion

One instrumental invention, which continues to be widespread to this day, is the omnimover.

From the Haunted Mansion to the Journey of the Little Mermaid, omnimovers have changed the way we look at rides.

Before the Omnimover

To understand why the omnimover design is so important, we have to look back at what amusement parks and rides were like before the invention. First of all, if you thought the lines for rides are bad now, you wouldn’t have survived the incredible waits for rides back then. Early rides had very slow boarding, since each individual ride car had to stop at the entrance/exit, let the passengers off and on, and then finally move forward so the next ride cars could be available. This type of ride heavily slows down ride traffic and makes for a grueling wait.

Early rides like It’s a Small World had visual splashed all around you, because designers couldn’t count on you looking in one specific direction.

Moreover, early rides were missing something else that made a big impact on the whole experience: the ability to accurately guide riders’ visual experience through the ride. The ride just passed through the different areas, and designers just had to hope that the guests would look in the right direction to see the animatronics and other features built alongside the ride – and not in a different direction where they might miss important things. Basically, early ride designers lacked control over how guests would experience rides. But soon, this would all change.

Prototype Advancements at the World’s Fair

The first big step toward the omnimover technology took place during the 1964-1965 World’s Fair. Disney partnered with multiple companies to provide several different rides at the World’s Fair, including it’s a small world and Carousel of Progress. In the process, Imagineers experimented with new approaches to attractions, from more lifelike animatronics like Mr. Lincoln to new sorts of rides that could better engage guests. Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr helped create Ford’s Magic Skyway, one of Disney’s attraction for the World’s Fair. His work set the groundwork for new forms of rides, including the PeopleMover and the omnimover.

Many of the dinosaurs seen on Ford’s Magic Skyway would later reappear on the Disneyland Railroad.

One new concept, which would form a fundamental component of the omnimover, was the idea of a continually moving ride. Ford’s Magic Skyway featured cars (actual Ford-brand cars) that were linked to a constantly moving conveyor belt. This meant that there was never a stop for individual boarding. Instead, guests simply stepped into cars as they passed by. Continuous rides had greater guest turnaround compared to other rides of the time, making them invaluable at the crowded World’s Fair. This alone was revolutionary for rides, as it sped up lines and let more guests enjoy rides than ever before.

The Second Part of the Omnimover: Rotating

However, while the World’s Fair rides took an important step by introducing the idea of continuous conveyor rides, that alone did not create the omnimover. Rather, the conveyor setup alone defined the PeopleMover – a ride at Disney World that Walt Disney once envisioned being a new transit system in his utopian plans for EPCOT. The PeopleMover design was still missing something important that would define future attraction: rotating ride cars.

Walt Disney once imagined that the cities of tomorrow would use PeopleMover systems for easy public transportation.

An omnimover works by creating a chain of vehicles connected together, rather than individual cars on the conveyer. While they still appear to be individual cars due to the links being hidden below the floor, they are actually part of a single train. Then, the track is set up so that at certain parts of the ride, it will make the cars rotate like clockwork. That feature differentiates an omnimover from Ford’s Magic Skyway and the PeopleMover, where the cars were still individually placed on the conveyor belt.

While Doom Buggies appear to be individual cars, they are all connected to a single conveyor system. This lets them fluidly rotate in sync at specific spots of the ride.

Bob Gurr, who allegedly coined the name for the omnimover, apparently first got the idea when working with fellow Disney Legend John Hench. Gurr started spinning a candied apple on a stick, and they expanded on the whole concept until reaching the final product. The cars are actually guided by several different sets of hidden rails. There’s a guide rail to keep you on the main track, a pitch orientation rail to tilt the car, and a swivel orientation rail to rotate the car. The system is mostly reliable and fairly flexible, allowing for a wide range of movements during the ride.

From animatronics to the omnimover, Disney Legend Bob Gurr shaped the future of the Disney parks and Imagineering.

It’s a simple trick but one that fundamentally reshapes dark rides. With the omnimover, Imagineers can present rides like a movie, where the audience has a very focused vision of what is happening around them. You don’t have to worry that the audience won’t see what you want them to see, because you’ll point them right where you want them, when you want them to see it. With the new technology, dark rides significantly advanced their potential for immersive storytelling.

Adventure Thru Inner Space

The first Disney attraction to utilize a true and complete version of omnimover technology was the now-closed ride Adventure Thru Inner Space. Part of the “New Tomorrowland” expansion to Disneyland Anaheim in 1967, the ride shrunk people down to the size of atoms and took them on a tour through molecules making up everyday things like snowflakes. First the snowflakes would grow ever larger and you shrank and shrank, down to molecular size. Then, you’d slowly grow back to your normal size, even seeing a giant eye from a human gazing at you in the microscope. Due to the ride’s emphasis on the visual spectacle, it was critical that guests’ views be perfectly timed in line with the adventure, which was where the omnimover came in.

Much of Adventure Thru Inner Space’s indoor wait queue was converted into the original boarding area for Star Tours.

Adventure Thru Inner Space’s omnimover system was largely designed by Gurr’s boss, Roger E. Broggie, one of Disney’s first big Imagineers. Before the omnimover, the later Disney Legend award winner had already created Disneyland’s monorail, railroad, and Matterhorn Bobsleds. Broggie’s mechanical ingenuity came in handy for the new ride, as he and collaborator Bert Brundage invented the basic set-up for an omnimover. As the shell-like ride cars entered what appeared to be a microscope on the outside, guests waiting in line could see the riders appear to shrink before their very eyes. And the narrow vision within the cars made the shrinking and growing experience almost seem real, proving the effectiveness of omnimovers.

A Spooky Set-Up

Without the successful development of omnimovers, we might have ended up with a much different experience for the Haunted Mansion, which first opened in 1969. Planning for the attraction took years, and at one point, Imagineers even contemplated making it just a simple walk-through exhibit (something also considered for Pirates of the Caribbean). The omnimover changed the design approach and opened up new opportunities, enabling a more immersive experience that carefully controlled how guests encountered the various haunts, ghosts, and other spooks.

The various encounters with ghosts are perfectly timed with the movements of the Doom Buggies.

From the very start of the ride, the omnimover system powering the “Doom Buggy” cars sets the eerie tone for the adventure. Instead of someone needing to pull down the safety restraint, the automate system does it all on its own. The landing area’s rail automatically forces back and releases the bar accordingly as riders exit and board. This “phantom” power helps emphasize the notion that the whole house is haunted. And as the ride continues, many of the ghosts will only come to life right when the Doom Buggies are positioned for optimal viewing. Without the omnimover to enhance the whole experience, the Haunted Mansion would be nowhere near as memorable.

Controlling the Spin

Some current omnimover rides use the tracks and systems of preexisting rides, while also adding their own twists. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin in the Magic Kingdom, which first opened in 1998, is one such example. It adopted the omnimover set-up from the now-gone ride If You Had Wings. But whereas the earlier rides were just basic omnimovers, Buzz Lightyear’s ride actually lets you control the rotations.

Space Ranger Spin puts a unique twist on the omnimover car by letting you determine the spinning.

Space Ranger Spin fuses the omnimover concept to a carnival shooting gallery, as you try to rack up points shooting lasers at alien enemies. And to help you better aim, you can make your ride car spin around on its own. This makes the game much more fun and engaging, as you have personal control over what direction you’re facing. Since then, the ride has spread to Disney parks across the globe. Disney Imagineers are brilliant in not only creating new technology but also building on earlier ideas and making them even better.

Spaceship Earth’s Unique Design

Contrary to what many people might think, Spaceship Earth, first opening with EPCOT in 1982, does not use a true omnimover set-up for its ride but rather a completely different design. The ride cars still fulfill the basic premises for an omnimover, of course, using both continuous motion for smoother lines and rotations to accentutuate the storytelling.

Spaceship Earth remains a signature icon for Epcot.

However, the design is distinct from the omnimover’s patented design and was made specifically for this ride. The different mechanical set-up is essential, since Spaceship Earth’s track ascends and descends much more than a typical ride. Plus, Spaceship Earth’s version throws in extra features like the interactive video screens for the descent.

Adapting the Omnimover to Water

Disney patented the first version of the omnimover via WED Enterprises in 1968, but that isn’t the only omnimover patent. In 2013, Disney filed a patent for a new kind of omnimover – one that can float through the water! Using water pumps to control the boat chain and rotate the floats accordingly, the design seems to combine the omnimover with Small World’s style of boat ride. In fact, this design enables the omnimover to be more mobile and flexible than normal. For instance, the boats could potentially free-float on their own without any apparent track.

At the time of the new patent, some people wondered if it would be used for Na’vi River Journey. However, that ride follows a more traditional boat ride approach.

When Disney filed the floating omnimover patent, they did not state where they planned to use the new technology. So far, no current rides appear to use this novel approach to the omnimover. But you never know what rides Disney might invent next, so we may see the floating omnimover in action sometime in the future. And in any case, this specialized variant demonstrates how the basic omnimover concept has the rich potential to evolve in many different directions, further revolutionizing theme park rides.

An attraction that could combine the traditional boat ride experience with the clever story framing offered by an omnimover could create a truly magical experience.

The omnimover continues to guide the design of many attractions, but there’s always the potential for more improvement and growth. What new kinds of omnimovers might we see in the future? With Imagineers continuing to experiment with cutting-edge technology, we can expect many fun breakthroughs.

What omnimover ride do you like the most? Let us know in the comments below. 

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