Five Windows Into Rides

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I’m sure this must be true. I like to imagine my soul looking out on the world through the twin portholes above my nose in the corner penthouse of my head. I draw the drapes when it’s bedtime. Install hurricane shutters whenever I’m working with power tools. Hire little guys in white uniforms to dangle from my forehead and give my eyes a good cleaning with a saline rinse and a squeegee every so often, as if I am a giant walking skyscraper who likes to run metaphors into the ground.

If Disney World has a soul, it has to be the classic attractions. More specifically, the rides. We love the rides. They are the reason we go. Disney thinks we go because of the dining and the golf or whatever, but no, it’s the rides.

We call things rides that aren’t even rides (“Next let’s go ride Hall of Presidents”). We have favorite rides, best parts of rides, memories of past rides (Mansion, the catapult launch, two-track Toad).

We’ve turned the concept of the ride into something to be conquered. “I rode the Tea Cups twelve times!” or “These idiots are trying to ride all 47 rides at WDW in a single day!” (well, I guess it’s 46 now. Thanks for nothing, Maelstrom and Backlot Tour).

Rides have a mystique about them. You line up, you get in the car, and then your adventure into the movies is about to begin. You careen around in darkness or through amazing landscapes. You grip the safety harness through the high-speed loop. Scream when the witch pops out. Laugh at the goat with the stick of dynamite.

Sometimes we just soak it all in — the sounds of the Smuggler’s Cave, that herd of wildebeest on the hill, Michael Eisner hitting a golf ball. Rides by their very definition transport us.

And then we’re back to the most dangerous part of our journey: The return to civilization and my attempt to dock this boat.

Rides are active: Stow your belongings in the underseat compartment. Step carefully onto the moving walkway. Pull on the yellow strap, but do NOT pull down on the safety bar, please. I will lower that for you.

Rides are so cool, that there are rides within Disney World whose primary appeal is to look in on other rides. If eyes are the window to the soul, then these five windows provide some of the best glimpses of the soul of Walt Disney World. It’s a chance to observe a ride in its natural habitat — not staged observation decks, but almost hidden peepholes. Many times, the people on the ride don’t even know they’re being watched. We get a kick out of it.

And that’s what makes these windows almost as popular as the bananas growing on both sides of the boat.

San Angel Inn Waterfront

There’s no actual pane of glass, no etched opening that would denote a literal window. But the diners at the San Angel Inn in Epcot’s Mexico pavilion are practically a show scene all unto themselves for the Gran Fiesta Tour.

As the boat leaves the loading zone, it travels into the Mexican night, winding its way past an ancient pyramid on the left, heading for a tunnel into the jungle. On the right is a festive Mexican village, with a restaurant right on the waterfront. The lighting is dim (it is night, after all), and the tables are far enough away that everything is shrouded in shadow. But those are real people eating lunch, and if they have the prime tables, they spend a lot of time watching the boats go by.

Nothing helps you work up an appetite like a temple of human sacrifice.

Nothing helps you work up an appetite like a temple of human sacrifice.

The idea is not original to Epcot. Disneyland was doing this with the Blue Bayou and Pirates of the Caribbean for more than a decade before Mexico opened (the original boat ride was called El Rio del Tiempo). But it is just as effective in Mexico as it is in New Orleans Square. Unlike Pirates of the Caribbean, where the most exciting show scenes are tucked away beyond the waterfalls, San Angel Inn diners are treated to the very best scene of the Gran Fiesta Tour. The pyramid is a masterpiece, and the quiet boats and distant drums perfectly set the stage for an exotic meal. They got lucky. A table overlooking Donald Duck’s cliff-diving scene probably wouldn’t have the same allure.

Walt Disney World Railroad Through Splash Mountain

Here we have a true window. As the train nears its Frontierland Station, it passes into a tunnel through the heart of Splash Mountain, and on the right, the wall opens up to reveal a glimpse down into the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah finale of the log ride.

This is one of those cases where the casual rider is unaware that another ride might be passing through just overhead. You can technically see the railroad from the boats if you’re looking for it, but most people aren’t. They’re watching those singing chickens and the pig playing piano.

Unlike the San Angel Inn viewing, which shows you the start of the ride, this one shows you the end. Maybe the train needs some narration with a spoiler alert. This isn’t a lingering glimpse of Splash Mountain, since the train is moving, but it does provide an intriguing vantage point that the riders in the boats don’t get of the scene.

It’s also as close as Walt Disney World gets to having something like the Grand Canyon Diorama or Primeval World out at Disneyland. It’s presented in a very similar fashion, with large panes of glass on one side of the train–though the glimpse is way more abbreviated.

PeopleMover Through Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin and Space Mountain

The PeopleMover is a ride that almost seems to have no purpose other than to showcase other rides. You’re circling the rooftops of the Tomorrowland, with the narration calling out the Carousel of Progress, the Laugh Floor, X-S Tech (oh wait). You do get a nice overhead look out at the Tomorrowland Speedway, but the highlight of the ride is when it bisects straight through the heart of Space Mountain.

The rollercoaster’s twin tracks flank the People Mover during the initial ascent. The rockets are pointed up, cranking past the satellite prop and the control tower, while the PeopleMover continues on its steady path. Occasionally, a rocket will careen by much closer to the TTA track. The image of passing through Space Mountain is so iconic that guide books continue to recommend first-time-Mountain-riders take a ride on the TTA first, to see if they think they can handle the thrills.

Stormtrooper 1: Do you know what's going on? Stormtrooper 2: Maybe it's another drill.

Stormtrooper 1: Do you know what’s going on?
Stormtrooper 2: Maybe it’s another drill.

While Space Mountain is probably the highlight of the PeopleMover, it’s not finished offering up other windows. As it heads out of Space Mountain and around the Carousel of Progress, it gives a nice backdoor glimpse into sections of Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin.

This is another prime example of people on the ride being totally unaware that they are being watched. The view from the PeopleMover into the Buzz Lightyear panorama is actually much more appealing than the ride-level view, since you can see the scope of the alien landscape more clearly (down inside the ride, it just looks like mass confusion).

Ah, the very picture of clarity.

Ah, the very picture of clarity.

And something I’ve always been fascinated by are the rotating Z targets visible right outside the PeopleMover window–and which are often completely ignored in the ride itself. I always thought Disney should make those targets worth more.

The Garden Grill Rotates Past Scenes from Living With the Land

This is another Epcot dining experience, but unlike Mexico, the guests on Living With the Land are likely oblivious to the restaurant watching them like a great eye in the sky.

Busy as always.

Busy as always.

The Garden Grill is basically a giant lazy susan, slowly rotating throughout your meal. Beneath it, the canopied boats pass through dry deserts, humid rain forests, windy prairies. Eventually the boats veer off on their own course through the greenhouses, but diners in the Garden Grill are treated to the best themed parts of the ride, and at a leisurely pace.

It's like an episode of the Truman Show.

It’s like an episode of the Truman Show.

As an aside, remember when the Garden Grill was called The Good Turn? That name made much more sense, since it evoked the restaurant’s most distinctive feature. The Garden Grill just sounds bland (what do you grill from a garden anyway?)

Pinocchio Village Haus Overlooks It’s a Small World

Now my favorite window, which isn’t exactly hidden. It’s plainly visible from Small World as your boat exits the loading dock. Just a few panels of glass, behind which you’ll often see diners at Pinocchio Village Haus looking down at you.

They should offer FastPass for these tables.

They should offer FastPass for these tables.

In some respects, my favorite window is also the most bland. No Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah finale, no laser targets or blasting spaceships. Not even a stoic mayan pyramid. Just brightly colored boats in a brightly lit loading zone, setting sail on the Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed.

So bright. So happy.

So bright. So happy.

I think my fondness for this window stems from childhood. Pinocchio Village Haus was the go-to restaurant of choice for my family–usually in the later hours of evening, when the sky had turned dark and the Magic Kingdom was twinkling with a thousand tiny lights. The Village Haus is a large restaurant, but only a few tables have this view. Here my brother and sisters and I could stare down at the ride beginning happily below us, take note of the short evening line, and get excited that while it might be dark now, the day wasn’t over yet.

That’s the power of rides.

 

3 Delightfully Low-Tech Effects in It’s A Small World

The complexity of modern theme park rides is sometimes beyond comprehension. Imagine a ride like Test Track, which must cycle through a consistent, steady stream of vehicles, across a ride track that is constantly changing speeds throughout. It famously took them months to get the kinks worked out.

The same with Indiana Jones Adventure, which not only varies its speed, but sticks a motion simulator on top of a moving platform, and then randomizes everything for good measure. The Gringotts coaster at Universal has the same challenges on a massive scale, moving vehicles running every which way, synchronized to film elements.

All it takes is one little hiccup and everything grinds to a halt. The computing power on each individual ride-thru probably involves more calculations than the first moon voyage. And while I love that theme parks continue to push the threshold for effects that can be safely repeated for millions of guests, year after year, I confess I have a soft spot for ride gimmicks that are both exceedingly clever and exceedingly simple.

The Pepper’s Ghost effect in Haunted Mansion may be the most well known. It’s about as simple as you can get — but so extraordinarily effective, almost as if the reflective properties of glass exist for no other reason than to portray ghosts in theme parks.

It’s a Small World turns 50 this year, and while no one thinks of anything in that ride as being high-tech, there are some integral parts of the attraction which actually required some clever mechanical gadgets to pull off. The beauty of these things is that you aren’t even aware of there being a gadget. It’s just part of the scenery that you take for granted. The other cool bit is that since these things are so mechanically simple, they don’t require an atmosphere-controlled data center with a rack of high-speed servers to keep the whole ride from going 101. They just work, baby.

Here are three of my favorites

Spinning and Dipping Magic Carpets

You see multiple versions of these throughout the ride, but the “Asia” room is probably the most obvious. As you float past the Taj Mahal and that weird multi-limbed shadow puppet lady, magic carpets circle over head, while simultaneously rising and falling like galloping horses.

The circling part is easy. It’s just a turntable with cables suspended it from it. It’s easy to take the dipping for granted, but how exactly do they pull that off? Maybe some motors to individually raise and lower each carpet. Motors aren’t exactly high-tech, but there are four carpets on each each turntable, so that’s four motors that might potentially break down. And what if they aren’t synchronized perfectly? Then you have carpets that don’t seem to smoothly follow the same path.

But fortunately the Imagineers came up with an ingeniously simple solution. There’s a little arm up there mounted under the turntable, which turns in the opposite direction. The noses of the carpets are tethered not to the turntable, but to the arm, which continuously shortens and lengthens the various cables by virtue of its offset axis. It keeps the carpets in perfect synchronicity and gives them the undulating motion of a ride on an invisible rollercoaster. It’s a few moving parts, some pulleys, and some cable. Low tech, low maintenance, perfect motion.

A Whole New World

A Whole New World

 One Blazing Sun

There is just one moon and one golden sun, which we have already exposed as being a complete falsehood. But one of my favorite effects is the sun in the South America room, which might also be Mexico, even though that is in North America, but Small World geography never bothered me much.

This sun is actually one of the few dynamic suns in the ride. It has beams which seem to continually radiate light, in spite of the fact that thing is made out of plywood. It’s not done with electronic light controls or programmable armatures, but rather with our familiar old friend, Mr. Turntable.

First you have the static sun, which is just a plywood Mary Blair-esque sun cutout. It sticks out from the wall a bit, with its sunbeams spiraling around it in a series of triangular spines.

Behind it appears to be another cutout sun of the same pattern, but mirrored, so that its spines are angled the opposite direction. As the turntable rotates, it exposes progressively more of the of the sunbeam with each degree, creating an optical illusion that the sun’s rays are pulsating outwards.

Ripsaw Sun

Ripsaw Sun

Cyclist on Tight Rope

I’m actually not sure if this effect has been removed entirely, or has just been under refurbishment lately, but in the last room (Antarctica, where all the children of the world go to suffer a horrible frozen death), you can see a cable strung between the walls across the channel. This cable should be home to a circus performing cyclist doll, who wheels back and forth across the thin thread (the cable is still there by the cyclist has not been seen for awhile).

One look at the cable’s thickness and you can see that this actually is kind of an incredible feat. The have some kind of animatronic-mannequin-whatever literally cycling a tightrope over a boatful of guests. One might be tempted to assume that the guy is anchored to rope, but it’s clear that he’s moving back and forth. Why are they so sure that he won’t fall off?

Part of it is balance. The cyclist himself is probably very light. He carries a long pole crossways, upon which two other acrobats are dangling from each end. These guys are probably weighted so that their heaviest mass is actually drooping down below the wire, the sheer force of gravity keeping them firmly tugged down so that one of them can’t suddenly shift above the wire and upset the applecart. It’s a simple system of counterbalances.

That’s all well and good, but how does the cyclist then move back and forth? Do they have a little motor in there making the guy pedal? As we’ve already said, complex motors are prone to break down, and this one would need to keep the cyclist moving backwards and forwards, always hitting his mark.

But fortunately the answer is much simpler, and even though there is a motor involved, it’s basically back to gravity.

One end of the cable is designed to raise and lower between a span of about twelve inches on the wall. Lower the cable and you create an incline, the cyclist starts rolling downhill. Raise the cable and you’ve now reversed the incline. He cycles backwards the way he came. It keeps him moving along the same path.

No cyclist pictured, but you can see the slit in the wall where the cable is raised and lowered.

No cyclist pictured, but you can see the slit in the wall where the cable is raised and lowered. That faint white line cutting diagonal across the top half of the picture is the tight rope.

Summary

None of these three tricks are all that spectacular when you look at them, but the cleverness of them has always fascinated me. Check them out the next time you’re on the ride.

 

When AT-ATs Catch A Cold

Possibly the greatest of all Star Wars vehicles is the mighty All-Terrain-Armored-Transport (or AT-AT for short). Huge quadruped machines that lumber across the snow fields of Hoth or play hide-and-seek on the forest moon of Endor. They are simultaneously terrifying and adorable — like great danes or Duffy Bears. One just assumes that if an AT-AT could talk, it would sound very much like Fezzik in the Princess Bride.

Darth Vader: Beware of rebel harpoons and tow-cables.
AT-AT: Maybe they try to turn the… tables.
Darth Vader: The force is with you, AT-AT, but you are a not a Jedi yet.
AT-AT: Anybody want a baguette?

If I had my way, there would be a whole line of cute and ironic AT-AT shirts, similar to those T-Rex-Has-Stubby-Arms things. Probably most of the jokes would be dog-related. Like maybe a Star Destroyer speeding through hyperspace, with an AT-At hanging its head out the window, tongue flapping. #milliondollaridea

To my knowledge, there is only one life-sized AT-AT on this planet, and it resides in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It looms over the entrance to Star Tours, and its very presence makes the Walt Disney World Star Tours the best Star Tours. Disneyland and Tokyo buildings are rather plain by comparison. Paris is okay, with its full-size X-wing. But nothing beats an AT-AT.

I had a random memory pop into my head today, and it was actually kind of shocking to recall. This AT-AT has been here more or less since Star Tours first opened way back in 1989, which means it turns 25 this year. A few other vehicles have come and gone, including Jabba’s Sail Barge skiff and a full-sized Snowspeeder. But both of those have disappeared, relegated to the Studio Backlot Tour where they are passed off as real movie props (actually, the Backlot Tour is so forgettable now, I’m not even sure if those vehicles are still there). But the AT-AT remains.

Since about 2007, the space formerly occupied by the skiff and Snowspeeder has been replaced by the permanent stage for the Jedi Training Academy. Seven years that thing has been there, which means there are second- and third-grade padawans now who have never known life without the Training Academy. It’s hard to fault Disney for repurposing the space. The Academy show is cute with a lot of good Star Wars references–and even more cute when one of the padawans belongs to you. But the addition of the stage (and the various padawan holding corrals) had a trickle-down effect on that AT-AT.

To me, it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but seven years actually is a long time. And that is how long it has been since that AT-AT ran out of ammo.

Ahhhh-choo!

Ahhhh-choo! Photo courtesy of Flickr

Do you remember this? During the heat of the summer, every so often, that AT-AT would fire up its chin lasers and blast jets of water out onto the hot pavement, much to the enjoyment of kids (okay, adults too) on the ground. Just one of the many things at Disney that would squirt water to cool you off. It was accompanied by the sound effect from the Empire Strikes Back (chizz-chig! chizz-chig!) and the laser cannons would power back and forth. The thing actually shot at you! That blows my mind.

It’s easy to see why it doesn’t anymore. You can’t have water spritzing a four-foot-high stage where a five-year-old is stumbling around in an oversized cloak, waving a giant stick. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. But I just can’t believe the effect has been gone for that long.

We still have water squirty things. There’s that Coke Bottle back by the Backlot Tour, the misting Coca-Cola zone in Tomorrowland, the Coke car wash at Test Track. Now that I think about it, Coke really wants you to be wet, for some reason. All they need to do is add a coke bottle to that giant Stitch above World of Disney and they will have cornered the market on uncomfortable soakings.

Now our AT-AT still stands in his imposing, er, pose, but he is like a creature turned to stone, something out of Narnia or Greek Mythology or Cher’s face. There is not even a hint that he actually used to interact with you–albeit in a very specific sort of way. Presumably there are still water pipes trailing up his legs into his head.

I like to imagine that at night, after the park has closed and everyone has gone to bed, he wakes up and lumbers around the park. I think you can even still see a few footprints embedded in the pavement, if you happen to queue up under the Ewok Village. Maybe he and Gertie the Dinosaur get together and splash around in Echo Lake, or try to play that big guitar at Rock’n’Roller Coaster, or take turns trying on the Sorcerer’s Hat.

It’s just the sort of thing an AT-AT would do.