Disneyland 1987: Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Disneyland has been around for six decades, so recently I got curious about what was happening in the park at the halfway mark.

Thirty years ago, at Disneyland in 1987, guests were talking about the latest addition to the park that was based on the popular Star Wars film franchise. There was some controversy whether it was appropriate to include a non-Disney intellectual property as a major addition.

One of the newer Imagineers, Tony Baxter, said that under the new leadership of Michael Eisner, Disney "wanted to show the world that Disney was waking up, that it was different" and attract a larger percentage of the teen market.

Eisner relied on input from his 14-year-old son, Breck, who along with his peers were huge Star Wars fans. Certainly, Eisner's previous relationship with filmmaker George Lucas, when he was heading Paramount, as well as Lucas' excitement about being in Disneyland, were major deciding factors as well.

The Disney marketing department was originally going to call the attraction Star Rides, until Imagineers vehemently pointed out that Disneyland does not have "rides"; it has "attractions." Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald coined the name Star Tours.

In addition:

  • Attention was being given to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' 50th anniversary and the announcement that Disney was planning to build a second theme park across from Disneyland that would include the building of two resort hotels. That theme park would be inspired by Florida's Epcot and be called Westcot.
  • Disney Dollars were first introduced and people predicted it would be a fad that would soon end. It wasn't until 2016 that Disney Dollars stopped being produced.
  • The Disney Gallery opened over the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction as the front entrance was radically transformed with a bridge walkway to allow crowds to get to New Orleans Square without maneuvering through the extensive line for the attraction.
  • Football players first proclaimed "I'm going to Disneyland!" after winning the Super Bowl. A reluctant Phil Simms of the New York Giants was paid $75,000 to be the first one to film a commercial of him uttering that now iconic phrase.
  • CEO Michael Eisner came up with an idea for a promotion to increase attendance after children returned to school in the fall and before the big holiday celebration started in November. Two Ferris wheels giving a unique view of the park were installed for the Disneyland State Fair that proved so popular with its pig races and pie-eating that it returned the next year.
  • Attendance at the park in 1987 was approximately 13 million people. Disneyland boosted its ticket price to $20 dollars for adults and $15 dollars for children. It also lowered the age of what constitutes a child from 12 years old to 9.
  • According to signage at the front of the park: "Children under 7 must be accompanied by an adult on all attractions. No outside food or beverage allowed in the park. A picnic area is located outside the main entrance. Shirts and shoes must be worn at all times."
  • The Disneyland Passport provided admission and unlimited use of all attractions except the arcades.
  • In December 1988, the cost of an adult ticket jumped to $23.50, children's to $18.50, and, in December 1989, adult tickets rose to $25.50 and children's to $20.50. It was the beginning of the new tradition of substantially raising the price every year to visit Disneyland.

Here's a more in-depth look at some of what was happening at Disneyland in 1987:


In the mid-1970s, Walt Disney Imagineers developed a proposal for a never-built motion-simulator attraction that would have taken guests on an exciting underwater adventure with Captain Nemo from the Disney live-action film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Basically, guests would sit in a section of the Nautilus and the forward screen would be a huge porthole, like in the film, that spiraled open to depict the wonders of the ocean's depths, as well as the famous battle with a giant squid, which would result in a good deal of jostling and perhaps even an ominous leak or two spraying the people in the cabin.

Star Tours could have been called "Star Rides," until Imagineers noted that Disneyland doesn't have rides, it has attractions.

Later, this same concept was considered for an attraction based on the Disney live-action film The Black Hole (1979), using multiple story options that could be selected. The critical and financial failure of the film, however, put the multi-million dollar proposal back on the shelf.

Years later, when Star Wars head honcho George Lucas toured Imagineering headquarters in Southern California and heard about these proposals, he thought the concept of using a motion-control simulator was an amazing opportunity to showcase his Star Wars universe.

Disney and George Lucas brainstormed story lines that included everything from an underwater voyage beneath Dagobah's murky swamps (to tie in with the previous idea of being underwater and encountering weird sea creatures) to mind-numbing time-travel jumps throughout the galaxy (so that many different experiences throughout all the films could be depicted) to even a brief stop at a Jedi training academy.

Escorting guests on these journeys would be a veteran pilot from the Clone Wars nicknamed "Crazy Harry," prone to unexpected and dangerous flight risks because of flashback memories to his time during the conflict.

The character was inspired by similar former Vietnam helicopter pilots who, after the war, often found themselves in jobs like ferrying tourists in flights over Hawaii, not to mention also suffering the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which might flare up unexpectedly in a dangerous situation.

The original concept called for an attraction duration of nearly 20 minutes, but, eventually, it was trimmed in the final attraction to about four minutes, for guests whose stomachs and equilibrium might not have been built for 20 minutes of nonstop outer space jostling.

After much discussion, it was determined that the chosen story would be set just after the Rebel Alliance victory in the film Return of the Jedi (1983), which was the most recent film in the series at the time and one that many believed would be the final film.

To encourage intergalactic tourists to spend money in areas rebuilding after the conflict, a company called Star Tours offers sightseeing excursions, with highlighted destinations including the forest moon of Endor, Hoth, Tatooine and Dagobah.

R2-D2 and C-3PO are a part of the Star Tours operation, having left military service at the end of the war with the Empire.

Observant guests in the Star Tours terminal might question if their travels would be as safe as advertised, noting ominous blaster scars along the side of the SpaceSpeeder being repaired by the chatty droids in the attraction's queue.

Those guests might also have a bad feeling about the fact that the droids are very concerned about checking the laser cannons on the tour vehicles.

Why would a simple "space tour bus" need to have such impressive armament? Is this some foreshadowing that the universe is not quite as safe as the Star Tours company would like patrons to believe?

Lucas insisted that the attraction experience blend laughs and thrills, and he reportedly held the Imagineers in rapt attention as he acted out the entire story of the flight. He also insisted that since nothing ever goes wrong at Disneyland that the foundation of the attraction was that something goes terribly wrong—at least temporarily.

The "cosmic bus driver and tour guide," as he was originally described, evolved from a disturbed former fighter pilot into RX-24 or "Rex," an enthusiastic but inexperienced droid so fresh off the assembly line that he's still wearing his red "Remove Before Flight" warning tag.

Could the failure to remove that tag be another sign of possible trouble? Guests on the attraction missed all of these warnings and only in retrospect were able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Actor Paul Reubens (better known as Pee Wee Herman) voiced the character because Disney was impressed with the work he did as the voice of the shipboard computer in the Disney film Flight of the Navigator (1986), as well as his ability to make panic seem comical.

The visionary Lucas spent hours guiding the fabrication and programming of the C-3PO Audio-Animatronics figure, whose outer shell was assembled from a box of spare parts sent from Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic team. The figure is authentic, as is the shell of R2-D2.

Actor Anthony Daniels, who played the role of C-3PO in the Star Wars films and voices the figure in the attraction, visited several times to review the work, and he later praised the decision to make C-3PO an Audio-Animatronics character, saving some poor actor from enduring long hours in C-3PO's extremely uncomfortable gear as he had suffered on the film sets.

The Star Tours action was shot on 70mm film at a speed of 30 frames per second to create clear, flicker-free images. The film was made "the old-fashioned way," with miniatures, models, motion-control cameras, optical printers, and other techniques that were popular in Hollywood before the advent of computer-generated imagery.

That forbidding, twisting ice tunnel, for example, was constructed out of foam, with plastic-and-resin icicles along with clear blue resin. The "ice-teroid field" sequence took more than 28 hours to film, as it included more separate elements than the most complicated special effects shot in Return of the Jedi.

In a 1987 interview, Lucas stated, "One of the basic ideas behind this is that it's reprogrammable. This will give us a big advantage in being able to upgrade the ride, to improve it or change it or make it into something else."

At the time, Lucas offered four different story possibilities that could be utilized in the future. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be until 2011 that the story to be changed.

The simulator (Rediffusion ATLAS-Advanced Technology Leisure Application Simulator) consisted of a cabin supported by six servo actuators. In some ways, it looks like the All Terrain Attack Transport ("Walkers") in the Star Wars movies.

The actuators were powered hydraulically and driven automatically using electrical drive signals received from a free-standing motion-control cabinet. The actuators provided "six degrees of freedom movement" so the cabin could be moved in planes representing heave, surge, and sway, and in axes representing pitch, roll, and yaw independently, or in any combination.

Each vehicle held 40 guests and weighed approximately 20,000 pounds empty and roughly 27,000 pounds when loaded with guests. They were approximately 10-feet high, 17-feet wide and 26-feet long.

The speed varies depending upon the axis of motion. In its starting position, it is approximately 10 feet off the ground. This vehicle is a totally self-contained unit. It is almost like riding in a building. The air conditioning, film, and sound are all individually controlled by each flight simulator. The ride itself is cued by the film. Each frame of film generates a time code pulse with an associated set of jack positions.

For the grand opening, Disneyland guests showed up dressed as Star Wars characters. Disneyland remained open for a special 60-hour marathon from January 9, 1987 at 10 a.m. to January 11, 1987 at 10 p.m. Actor Anthony Daniels wore his C-3PO costume and talked to the press. Mickey and Minnie in silver "outer space" style outfits attended, as well.

CEO Michael Eisner and filmmaker Lucas were to make their entrance from a flying saucer hanging from the bottom of a helicopter. However, when they saw it drop unexpectedly during one of the tests, they decided against that type of entrance. The two jointly cut the red ribbon in front of the attraction with a lightsaber to officially open it and the attraction became a huge success.


Imagineer Bob Gurr, who was responsible for the design and engineering of the first four versions of the Disneyland monorail, left WDI in 1981. Imagineer George McGinnis was involved with the last two Mark IV interiors for Walt Disney World.

In 1985, discussions began about doing another redesign of the monorail for Disneyland, and Marty Sklar asked McGinnis to do it, especially since he had worked next door to Gurr for five years.

"I took the Mark V from concept to production, making many trips to Munich, Germany and working with Messerschmitt Bolkow Blohm (MBB) engineers," McGinnis recalled. "Finishing that project, I went right on to the Mark VI for WDW with the folks at Bombardier in Canada."

McGinnis' designs maintained the aerodynamic look that Gurr had instituted and kept the WDW Mark IV signature lowered nose and rounded exterior. A new feature was mechanically actuated doors, similar to the doors on a van, rather than swinging out.

The Mark V was built with new composite materials that MBB used in helicopter construction so there were smooth sides without rivets and was lighter. Imagineer John Hench revised the paint scheme to give more color at the nose. The four trains were colored red, blue, orange and purple.

Each of the five cars seated 24 passengers, with seven passengers in the tail cone and five passengers and a driver in the nose cone for a total of 132 passengers per train.

Mark V was smaller than its WDW Mark IV cousins, but slightly bigger inside than the Disneyland Mark III that preceded it, which was made possible by the elimination of the beloved bubble on top. Eliminating the driver bubble allowed the top of the full train to rise to the height of the top of the Mark III bubble and, therefore, provide for more headroom for passengers inside the cabin.

They couldn't be made any larger because of the size and weight capacity of the beamway and the clearance needed when portions of the track went underneath itself. The Mark V operated in the park for roughly 20 years before being replaced.


Located at 21 Rue Royal at Disneyland's New Orleans Square, the Royal Suite (so named because the entrance was on Royal Street) was intended to be a private suite for Walt Disney and his family just above the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

In this suite of apartments, Walt could entertain guests, as well as the growing number of grandchildren he had by 1966, in a manner he was unable to do in his tiny apartment over the firehouse on Main Street.

With Walt's death in 1966, his older brother Roy felt that the remaining Disney family could not really enjoy The Royal Suite because of their memories of Walt, so the completion was temporarily abandoned—although the infrastructure and plumbing were in place.

In the first years after Walt's death, the suite was occupied by Insurance Company of North America (INA). Already a Disneyland participant hosting the Carefree Corner on Main Street, INA hosted a VIP reception area in the location.

The suite was used for festive receptions until INA left in 1974.

Disneyland International then occupied the suite during the planning of Tokyo Disneyland with the Oriental Land Company.

When the bridge was built in front of Pirates of the Caribbean, construction was taken one step further when a pair of ornamental staircases, designed by Tony Baxter, who had designed the new footbridge, was added to either side of the balcony of the Royal Suite. The balcony window was transformed into a door, creating a new entrance to the Royal Suite, which opened as the Disney Gallery July 11, 1987.

Apparently, Club 33 had wanted the space to expand its area and increase its membership slots, but Baxter lobbied with Chief Operating Officer Frank Wells for the idea of a showcase.

Walt did have plans for a wet bar where he could mix drinks and have appetizers for his guests. This counter area became where the Disney Gallery cash register was placed.

Cast members working behind the register liked to point out the Sub-Zero miniature refrigerator, as it was the same one installed in 1966, and it still worked decades later.

I know that cast members of the Disney Gallery in the 1990s received approximately 40 hours of intense training before their first day in the Gallery. The training included 24 hours of reading, additional hours of videos, and a Disneyland walk-through.

In addition, they took a trip to Walt Disney Imagineering to meet the artists and visit the various departments in order to become acquainted with the process through which an idea develops from concept to finished product.

Many of those early cast members spent extensive hours of their own time to learn even more so they could share the most accurate information with guests, many of whom became regular visitors. The cast members felt their mission was to make what would have been Walt's home away from home a comfortable home for guests.

One of the jobs of the cast members was to monitor the artwork that was exhibited because heat and light could cause severe damage to these items. Lella Smith was responsible for the artwork brought over from Walt Disney Imagineering and ensured that the windows were UV treated, the Gallery was climate controlled and that the environment was generally "artwork friendly."

In the foreword written by Imagineer John Hench to The Disney Gallery Inaugural Exhibition catalog for "The Art of Disneyland 1953-1986", he stated: "Walt Disney always wanted to see an art gallery at Disneyland. I think that The Disney Gallery again will prove that this seemingly most contradictory juxtaposition-an art exhibition in a theme park-can not only work, but actually will enhance both the art experience and the theme park experience."

My two favorite pieces when the Disney Gallery opened were first the 4-foot by 8-foot oil and florescent paint aerial view of Disneyland by Peter Ellenshaw done on a storyboard and used by Walt Disney to introduce the world to Disneyland on his television program.

Second, I loved the Sleeping Beauty Castle Model made of cardboard, plaster, polyurethane foam and paint by Fred Joerger and Harriet Burns from 1954 (restored by John Stone, Chris Tietz, and Charles Kurts during 1982-1987). Its base was 4-by-6 feet. Thanks to the Gallery, I could even compare that model to Herb Ryman's original ink and colored pencil 18-inch by 36-inch sketch of the castle that was also on display.

I could also study such unknown-to-me pieces as Ryman's 1957 sketch for a Mermaid Lagoon that was going to be a dining area behind the Captain Hook pirate ship. Ryman even included a recreation of the famous Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid statue on a rock by a wooden walkway that went through the lagoon.

Or I could marvel at Bruce Bushman's 1954 design for the Fantasyland canal boats, except that his design was actually the "Little Toot" tugboat from the Disney animated cartoon.

The exhibit ran for a decade, followed by other exhibits like "The Disneyland That Never Was", "Tomorrowland: Imagining the Future 1955-1998," and "A Brush with Disney: The Art of Herbert Ryman," as well as many others before the location closed in 2007 to be redone as the Disneyland Dream Suite.

In Part Two, I will explore all the Disneyland things promoting Snow White's 50th anniversary, including a reunion of performers who had played the role at Disneyland over three decades, the birth of Billy Hill and the Hillbillies (as the Barley Boys) at the State Fair promotion, the story behind "I'm Going to Disneyland," what Westcot would have looked like, and maybe a few more surprises.