Simulators and the Star Wars Experience

by Todd King, contributing writer
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Once Upon a Simulator

Once there was Mission to Mars, with the cooperation of NASA itself, an attraction that used video screens and large-area seating to simulate a rocket launch from Earth and a journey to Mars. While not the first ride to incorporate physical simulated effects, Mission to Mars was a fairly early and long-standing attraction in Disney parks and is still remembered to this day. It was originally called "Rocket to the Moon" and welcomed would-be space travellers when Disneyland itself opened its gates in 1955.

In 1967 it was renamed to "Flight to the Moon," and finally in 1975, after astronauts of NASA had actually been to the real moon and back several times, it was rethemed and retitled "Mission to Mars." Mars was seen as the next logical step in space travel even in the mid-'70s. Mission to Mars took guests, including a child-version of myself, on its journey in Walt Disney World as well. The rumble of the seats as the rockets take-off amazed me then; it gave me an idea of just how loud and powerful such a launch would be. It simulated the experience.

While Mission to Mars is no longer part of Disney parks, the Imagineers knew that such an experience, where guests sit in some form of motion-controlled seating in front of a large viewing screen, could be enhanced for an even better simulation of real events. CircleVision 360 (and its subsequent derivations) played with this idea by having numerous large screens surround an audience where scenes such as riding down a street gave the guests feelings of motion even while they stood on the floor of the round theater. There was often a gasp, a collective intake of air, whenever a scene included flying over a cliff. The simulation attraction was evolving.

In Epcot, Body Wars employed some of the ideas from the 1987 movie Innerspace to miniaturize guests for a journey into and through a human body. Guests would now sit in a special craft that would tilt and turn in conjunction with the movement and action on the screen. The effect would be more powerful on riders, as they not only saw the forward projection on the screen, but they would also feel the twists and stops as the ride vehicle tried to simulate what the experience would feel like. That experience of traveling through the vessels of a human circulatory system was a very abstract idea and, at least to me, that made the motions of the vehicle and the ride overall feel a bit unauthentic. The attraction officially closed in 2007.

Star Tours took the same ride mechanisms and setup as Body Wars and used a decidedly less-abstract setting by adding a Star Wars theme to the experience. This updated ride simulated the thrust of lightspeed, the crashing into a comet, and the speed of X-Wings on their attack run of the Death Star's trench. It was an improvement and has been a more lasting success by traveling through space and fighting TIE Fighters instead of traveling through blood streams and fighting white blood cells (which I never could accept as an "enemy").

With Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, the effect has been enhanced with a variety of new visuals as well as 3D effects by wearing polarized "flight glasses." Even with these changes, the basic principles of the simulator remain much the same as they did many years ago with Mission to Mars.

Most of us are familiar with perhaps one of the greatest examples of the modern simulator with Soarin'. It still has a large screen and it still has guests in controlled-seating that moves with the actions on the screen. It seems, however, like so much more than just that because it is such an awesome ride, really. But it is still by definition, a simulator, just on a grander scale and with visuals that are easier to relate to as humans on Earth but are harder to simulate convincingly.

Yet another simulator takes the ideas in a different direction with the spiritual-successor to Mission to Mars, with Mission: Space in Epcot, which incidentally, takes guests to Mars. It incorporates a centrifuge to simulate the feeling of lift-off to almost sickening levels of realism—which is why NASA astronauts train on them. Once again, NASA plays a role in Disney attractions and that is a fitting idea especially with Walt Disney's fascination with progress and the future. This kind of realism comes with a bunch of warnings to people prone to motion sickness (like myself) and those with health issues like heart disease or high blood pressure. Not everyone can even go on this ride. This is the probably the summit of what technology can do in this kind of simulation.


One already announced ride is based on the Millennium Falcon. Artwork © ABC/Disney.

Haven't we had enough simulators?

Now with the Star Wars Experience on the horizon—oh, wait! I forgot to mention one of my all-time favorite simulator experiences. The attraction, Horizons, in Epcot featured a scene with one of its colossal Omnimax screens that took the riders through a strand of DNA and as it twirled through the double-helix the feeling of rotation was truly intoxicating. My friends and I would ride Horizons over and over again just to catch that scene.

Anywayit appears from the scant glimpses shown in the Disneyland 60th Anniversary special on TVin a segment hosted by Harrison Ford himself, that the coming Millennium Falcon ride is going to be a simulator. Thanks for another simulator, Mr. Solo. So? It's another simulator, but the difference is it's in Han Solo's ship. That's cool isn't it? Well, yeah, I guess. I was just expecting ... something I've never seen before. If the Millennium Falcon is just another simulator, I've seen it before. If it is bigger, or faster, or moves more realistically, that's good, but I've seen it before. If it lets the guests in the cockpit take some controls of the ship and help the journey along, like Mission: Space, then I've seen it before, too.

While we don't know everything about this ride yet, I still question how this will be bigger and better than anything we've seen before. I mean, isn't "The Star Wars Experience" supposed to be bigger and better than anything we've seen before? Hasn't that always been Disney Imagineers modus operandi?

Even though I was hoping for something completely new, I will simply have to reserve judgement until we know more details about the Millennium Falcon ride, and by extension, The Star Wars Experience overall. The TV special answered few if any questions and only spurred tons more questions about this new land.


To some viewers, this concept art from the second Star Wars Land attraction evoked the Transformers ride from Universal Studios. Artwork © ABC/Disney.

There is another ... attraction

The second ride teased in the Disneyland special looks to be a possible hybrid of a moving dark ride and a simulator. It seems as though you will ride in an Omnimover-type vehicle, like those in Haunted Mansion (the Doombuggy), and come upon interactive scenes—that look to be projected onto wallsfinding yourself in the middle of a battle with Stormtroopers and Resistance fighters from which you're trying to escape.

It's been pointed out elsewhere that this type of attraction has been done at Universal parks. But Disney could be adding to the idea of this hybrid ride and making it more uniquely theirs, right? Part of me wishes this was much more of a traditional dark ride with animatronics and real sets with practical effects echoing the spirit of The Force Awakens and its tactile/analog approach to the visuals that made it realistic. The other part of me sees advantages to the projected screen approach—the obvious of which being that the show can be more easily changed or updated in the future to offer new experiences and offer them more often with less need for refurbishment downtime.

You can just drop in new scenes from the latest movie, or go retro and create a new experience from the original trilogy, or give it a Halloween theme where everyone is dressed like Kylo Ren when the real Kylo Ren freezes them all to steal their treats. Whatever this ride will end up being, it needs to be big, it needs to be fantastic—it needs Disney magic. Maybe it will engage with newer technology like the trackless ride system in "Remy's Totally Zany Adventure" in Disneyland Paris. Maybe because of the sheer size of this show's building, there will be actual real sets and animatronics mixed with 3D elements to interact with. Finally, with so little to go on at this point, I'll just continue waiting for that magic to hit. I have higher hopes for this one than with the Millennium Falcon's simulator roots.

Rumors are that Disney is blitzing this build 24/7 and the Star Wars Experience could be here as early as the end of 2017 (around the time of Episode VIII's release). We may not have to speculate or wait too long. Until then, Disney is not slowing down anything Star Wars as coming soon is the home release of The Force Awakens (first week of April), the continuing merchandise, the fireworks at Disney parks, Rogue One coming to theaters this December, the continuation of Star Wars Rebels TV show, and then more movies and more stuff and more. It's a stimulating time to be a Star Wars fan (I almost wrote "simulated").

Comments

  1. By Jimbo996

    I'm surprised that you made no mention of Disneyland Paris' Ratatouille that would be the basis of the new Star Wars ride. It is likely in 3D and using the trackless vehicles. There's no need to mention Universal's Transformers ride although there will be comparisons. I would hope this attraction has some animatronics and real sets. The rumored size of the building suggests a big experience.

    The Millennium Falcon ride appears to be a real time simulator that is played like a video game. At least 4 riders per vehicle on a motion base will change the action on the screen while paying a randomized story line. This ride could be compared with Universal's Harry Potter Forbidden Journey ride. The vehicle's motion base could be a kuka robotic arm. The screen is a front facing dome.

  2. By danyoung

    Thanks for a nice article. I wanted to clarify something that confused me. Your article seemed to indicate that Body Wars came first and Star Tours was an improvement on that. That didn't jibe with my memory, so I did a little research. Star Tours opened in Disneyland in January of 1987, and in the Studios in Florida in December of 1989. Body Wars opened in Epcot in October of 1989, meaning that Star Tours preceded it by almost 3 years. So if you're looking at both WDW and DL, Star Tours came first. If you're just looking at WDW, then Body Wars came first.

  3. By bumblebeeonarose

    As you mentioned in the article simulators can be very different experiences. Soarin' is a simulator, yet it is so different than Star Tours. I am okay with the rides being of a simulator nature. They will be great experiences, I have faith in the imagineers with Star Wars Land. They will do a good job on this.

    What you didn't mention, which I think is more important, is that these rides need to accommodate thousands of riders per hour. As long as the simulator includes many Falcons allowing multiple riders at a time (as Mission Space does) this can be done. And a people mover is a great way to increase riders per hour. I really, really hope that at least one, if not both, of these rides has a high ridership. Star Wars Land is going to be packed. I really wish there was a third ride, but hopefully there will be a show or something more than just shopping and dining.

  4. By davidgra

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    I'm surprised that you made no mention of Disneyland Paris' Ratatouille that would be the basis of the new Star Wars ride. It is likely in 3D and using the trackless vehicles. There's no need to mention Universal's Transformers ride although there will be comparisons. I would hope this attraction has some animatronics and real sets. The rumored size of the building suggests a big experience.

    Yeah, when watching the Disneyland TV special, I got the feeling that the second Star Wars ride would use the Ratatouille ride technology, which is truly amazing. It's extremely immersive, both in terms of actual movement and immense 3D projections that really fill your entire visual field.

  5. By olegc

    a couple of things. First - Fantastic Voyage (1966) was the first movie I can recall that had a big story of travelling in the human body and dealing with different experiences (who remembers the crystallizing antibodies!). Most of the full-motion simulators are off-limits to me now and I hope that the Millennium Falcon attraction will have some sort of blue line (no motion) a la Mission:Space!. Also - if the building is going to be so massive (I remember seeing the test balloon heights) I wonder if the Escape attraction will allow for height movement for the ride vehicles. Then it would not be so much like Ratatouille or Mystic Manor - just wondering.

    I think you can classify Tower of Terror as a simulator as well - because it's not a traditional elevator. There is a ride mechanism that allows for the system to pull you down faster than 1G and then push you right back up. I had my last ride on it at DCA 5 years ago. Its another one where I can't be there for health reasons (sigh...)

  6. By indyjones

    I am also simply not looking forward to another simulator attraction which it appears is what the Falcon attraction will be. Enough with the simulators already. I certainly hope that the "battle attraction" is not a simulator in any way. Come on already. I believe it will use the trackless technology, not an omni-mover type, and will contain physical sets.
    And I don't think Tower of Terror can be classified as a simulator as we are discussing here. While technically it "simulates" an elevator ride, if you take the building away it's just a "fall tower" ride and you are actually falling as opposed to a "simulated" fall such as is experienced on Spider Man in Orlando (which is probably the BEST simulated free-fall I've ever been on.

  7. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    ....................
    The Millennium Falcon ride appears to be a real time simulator that is played like a video game. At least 4 riders per vehicle on a motion base will change the action on the screen while paying a randomized story line. This ride could be compared with Universal's Harry Potter Forbidden Journey ride. The vehicle's motion base could be a kuka robotic arm. The screen is a front facing dome.

    (emphasis added by me)


    I think that will be the key. The rider's interaction and capability to actually influence the outcome of how the ride plays out.

    While some refer to Mission Space in this context, I don't really consider that much rider control, as the only thing that seems to change (to me, unless I always miss something) is the slight lag in timing if the rider fails to push the button (and the audio "computer override..."). The last sequence at the end I don't think ever plays any different because of the riders' hands on the sticks (not that it's not a cool effect and stimulus, but I don't think it alters the ride behavior at all).

    I'd agree on ToT not being a simulator. We really are rapidly dropping and raising quite a few floors when that ride takes us on our trip.

    I think one criteria that can help define where the simulator line is drawn is when your senses are tricked into thinking you are moving in a way that you are not. Soarin' is obviously a great example as we are not moving a heck of a lot once the ride starts, but the combination of more subtle movements with the film makes it seem quite real.

    Another variation would be when the physical sensation is created in some way that is obviously not the way your mind is interpreting it - think along the lines of the space scene over Coruscant where you are dropping vertically and you can feel the seat belt holding you from falling forward. Obviously there is not a deep pit in the Star Tours building where we are really moving in that way, but the simulator makes us feel exactly like that is happening (or at least what we think that would feel like since none of us has a space ship to try that for real... )

  8. By potzbie

    I thought all along that it was a mistake to simultaneously build two Star Wars Lands.
    What they should have done is build the original SW LAND in Florida, where there is room, and let it run awhile, to get the bugs out.
    Then, when Disney designers learn from the mistakes they made in Buena Vista, they can lift only the most-consistent, most-bug-free rides and attractions into the tight space we call "Disneyland".

    I mean, Universal Studios didn't simultaneously build The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando and Hollywood.
    And that was wise.
    Let the bugs be worked out in one park, at a time.
    Then put the newly-improved version into the other park.

    Not all "first ideas" are "good ideas". -- Look at Disney California Adventure and its "lands". Look carefully. And count the years.

  9. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by potzbie View Post
    I mean, Universal Studios didn't simultaneously build The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando and Hollywood.
    And that was wise.
    ...........

    While I agree with the rest of your post in premise, that may not be the best example.

    Over the last few weeks, there's been at least a few stories suggesting the "improvement" to a HP ride (adding 3D glasses to it, I think is the main difference) is possibly causing test riders in CA to get nauseous or actually hurl from the effects of the ride(though the story has quoted someone as saying the 3D is not causing the sickness? - not sure how they can determine that?).

    What probably seemed like a no-brainer "plussing" (to steal the Disney term) of the FL version of the attraction may have been a mistake. (of course there is still time for them to refine it, it's not like the CA attraction will be scrapped or a loss)

    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/busin...301-story.html

  10. By Ohthatjeff

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave1313 View Post
    Over the last few weeks, there's been at least a few stories suggesting the "improvement" to a HP ride (adding 3D glasses to it, I think is the main difference) is possibly causing test riders in CA to get nauseous or actually hurl from the effects of the ride(though the story has quoted someone as saying the 3D is not causing the sickness? - not sure how they can determine that?).

    Possibly by putting someone on the ride with poor depth reception? I know the Simpsons ride at Universal Orlando has caused some issues with people at points where the video doesn't exactly match up to the ride vehicle movements. (They may have tweaked it since opening.)

  11. By foxtwin

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Thanks for a nice article. I wanted to clarify something that confused me. Your article seemed to indicate that Body Wars came first and Star Tours was an improvement on that. That didn't jibe with my memory, so I did a little research. Star Tours opened in Disneyland in January of 1987, and in the Studios in Florida in December of 1989. Body Wars opened in Epcot in October of 1989, meaning that Star Tours preceded it by almost 3 years. So if you're looking at both WDW and DL, Star Tours came first. If you're just looking at WDW, then Body Wars came first.

    Yup - it would behoove me to get the details right. In the article I was going by my memory and the order of my experience - I'd ridden Body Wars before I'd ridden Star Tours--and Star Tours just *felt* improved. Thanks for the clarifications, danyoung!

  12. By foxtwin

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    I'm surprised that you made no mention of Disneyland Paris' Ratatouille that would be the basis of the new Star Wars ride. It is likely in 3D and using the trackless vehicles.

    I *meant* to put that in but somehow I edited it out in a later draft of the article. Yes, this technology could be used and upgraded for the "Escape" ride. Thanks again, Jimbo996!

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