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A Look Back at Star Tours - Grrl Still Kickin'
Blatherings from Bonnie Burton
A Look Back at Star Tours
By Bonnie Burton

Why bother with the beaches of Maui or strolling through the alleys of Venice when you could be on your way to a leisurely vacation on the Moon of Endor? With the latest comforts of modern technology, a galaxy far, far away is not so far after all. Simply pack your bags and head to Disneyland, Disney-MGM Studios, Disneyland Paris or Tokyo Disneyland, where you can then hop aboard the StarSpeeder 3000 for an adventure you won’t soon forget. Welcome to Star Tours.

In California, at the entrance to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland Spaceport, familiar old Star Wars friends C-3PO and R2-D2 welcome Star Tourists in a sleek, futuristic maintenance hangar as they wait for their turn to board the 40-passenger StarSpeeder 3000. As R2-D2 works diligently to repair a battle-scarred StarSpeeder, and other droids go about their business, guests hear a sales pitch for the latest intergalactic travel packages to not only Endor, but also Hoth. A speaker announces, “An addition of non-stop service to Hoth will begin soon. Ski caverns and the famed Echo Base of the Rebellion Forces. All on Hoth, the galaxy’s greatest ice planet.”

The drone of droid banter can be heard as guests turn the corner to the Droidnostic Center. Unaware that his comlink is still on, one of the G2 droids - who should be repairing a navigator - casually mentions that he would never get into a StarSpeeder 3000. The high-tech “nuts-and-bolts” factory is complete with girders, work lights, conveyor belt and liquid crystal wall displays.

Before long the guests enter the loading concourse and face the doors of the StarSpeeder and are asked to sit, stow their carry-on luggage under their seats and fasten their seat belts.

The action in Star Tours is virtually out-of-control from the moment the flight’s rookie pilot RX-24, or “Rex” for short, takes his seat. This is Rex’s first flight, and it soon becomes glaringly apparent that on Flight ST-45, passengers will experience a haphazard adventure filled with a dangerous jaunt through an asteroid field, a head-on battle with a massive Imperial Star Destroyer and other detours that involve dodging laser blasts and endless brushes with disaster. Just when passengers have a time to catch their breath, the StarSpeeder dives into the trenches of the Death Star to make that fateful hole-in-one.

Once the StarSpeeder is safely away from the action, it touches down, skidding into the landing bay. As guests leave the ship, C-3PO -- oblivious of the harrowing experience -- cheerfully says his goodbye, “We do hope you enjoyed your tour to Endor, and will come back soon…”

Bringing the Star Wars mythology to Disney parks was no small feat. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and Lucasfilm discussed bringing a Star Wars attraction to the Disney parks for about six years before Star Tours opened.

The Tomorrowland attraction that would evolve into Star Tours began in early 1985, when George Lucas and key Disney managers met to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a new attraction at Disneyland. Soon, ideas were flying between the Lucasfilm headquarters in Marin County and WDI in Glendale, Calif.

VP of Walt Disney Imagineering Tony Baxter was a WDI concept designer during the initial talks between Lucasfilm and Disney, and also functioned as George Lucas’ co-director on Star Tours.

“George Lucas had captured the popular myth for the generation that grew up in the late ‘70s into the mid-‘80s, of Star Wars and Indiana Jones,” Baxter explains. “And Disneyland had always been the repository of whatever was guiding America with the strongest force. He understood the kind of mythology that touches people’s hearts, much like Walt Disney has done for generations of children. So, we went to management and said, ‘What do you think about developing a deal with George Lucas?’ and they supported us.

“When we first talked with George about doing Star Tours, I think he realized he wasn’t ready yet to do the prequels and that this was a very strong way to keep the Star Wars myth open and alive for the time that was going to elapse before he got serious about doing the next series of movies,” Baxter adds.

Lucas, who the media often nicknamed the "new Walt Disney," has been a fan of Disneyland since he first visited the theme park as a child with his family when it opened in 1955.

“I’ve always had an interest in doing something at the Park. I’ve enjoyed my visits to Disneyland,” Lucas said when the Star Tours attraction first opened at Disneyland in 1987. “The prospect of introducing the Star Wars characters at Disneyland just fascinated me.”

The first collaboration between Disney and George Lucas was the 3-D space-fantasy featurette Captain EO starring Michael Jackson, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. At the same time, Lucas also began working with a team from Industrial Light & Magic, as well as Baxter and various Disney Imagineers, on the new Star Wars attraction. The new Star Wars attraction would combine new ride technology with specially shot film footage.

“Star Tours evolved from the first presentation we gave to George of a possible ride that was a little more complicated than our average attraction -- you could go every which way and choose the direction,” Baxter recalls. “George said, ‘Well that's great, but what can we do to get something going right now?’ So we looked around and found this fantastic device that was being used at the Air Force and the government to simulate
excursions into space. We thought it was a natural fit. We combined the space of fantasy that George had created with real world technology, and we ended up with an attraction that would give the general public a brand new experience.”

Making sure that the excitement of Star Wars more than just a visual and aural experience also proved appealing to Lucas. Star Tours would provide the first opportunity for Star Wars fans to actually experience such thrilling physical sensations as rocketing into hyperspace and blasting into a battle between Imperial TIE fighters and Rebel X-wings.

Star Tours was conceived as the first motion-based application where guests were put into a simulator in a theme park. Up until that time, simulators had been used solely by the airline industry to train pilots, and by the government to train Air Force pilots. (WDI explored the use of flight simulators as early as the 1970s, when it initially researched various technologies for Epcot in Florida.

“When CEO Michael Eisner and former Disney President Frank Wells came over to Disney, the first thing they saw was our proposal for Star Tours and they loved it,” Baxter says. “They put it into production right away and we cemented the relationship that not only developed Star Tours, but also the Indiana Jones rides, as the technology allowed us to do that.”

In 1985, Baxter and WDI show producer Tom Fitzgerald joined Lucas and a small group of Industrial Light & Magic designers at a story session at ILM’s Northern California headquarters.

“George had an interesting idea,” says Baxter. “There’s a public preconception that a Disney attraction is completely safe – because it’s true. But George thought it might be a nice twist to interject an element of ‘danger.’ He came up with the idea for the opening fiasco – the hitches are contrary to what one expects from a Disney attraction. You think you’re going to Endor, but the real tour turns out to be something quite different!

“Tony and I spent the following night holed up in our Sausalito hotel room pinning file cards on the wall to indicate story elements, special effects, and simulator motions,” Fitzgerald adds. “We were envisioning Star Tours not just as a film experience, but as a fantasy-adventure synchronized film, with simulated motion and terrific special effects.” By the next morning, they had the first draft of a concept for Star Tours.

“We were determined to combine a strong story line with a thrill ride, a hard thing to pull off,” Fitzgerald continues. “We also wanted to introduce at least one new character.”

Lucas came up with the idea of a pilot, who turned out to be Rex, the rookie pilot. Rex began as a “cosmic bus driver,” a counterpart, perhaps, to the wisecracking Jungle Cruise guides at Disneyland.

“We had to be selective when it came to deciding what fast curves to throw people,” Baxter says. “The attraction’s speed makes it a showcase of impressions rather than details. You don’t fly by the ice crystal in Star Tours; you go through it. You don’t have a nice smooth landing; you crash. As it turns out, you enjoy a story and a thrill ride, all contrary to the usual Disney experience.”

All of the original ideas behind the film would have taken 20 minutes, but it was up to Baxter and Fitzgerald to boil the adventure down to a swift 4 _ minutes.

“George had a catalytic effect on the project all along the way,” Baxter continues. “He was perceptive about our creative strengths, and helped us to reverse the tried and true by giving people what they don’t expect. It worked.”

By the end of the summer, all had agreed on the concept to be developed for the Tomorrowland attraction. Star Tours would feature scenic tours of the universe aboard the StarSpeeder 3000, operated by the first intergalactic tour “bus” company. R2-D2 and C-3PO would be part of the package, having resigned from military service to find new lives as Star Tours recruiters.

Lucas continued to work closely with the Disney Imagineers at the Glendale-based facility, proving instrumental as development of the attraction progressed. Industrial Light & Magic, under the direction of Dave Carson, went to work on the film, which resulted in the longest special effects sequence in film history. Skywalker Sound (then known as Sprocket Systems) undertook the soundtrack with Sound Designer Gary Summers at the helm.

Meanwhile, Imagineers took over the design and production of the Star Tours robotic factory, the StarSpeeder 3000, and the high-tech Audio-Animatronic droids that populate the enterprise.

Baxter and Fitzgerald travelled to the Lucasfilm Archives to uncover actual props used in the Star Wars trilogy. R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca, and even pieces of the Death Star were sent to Walt Disney Imagineering to be refurbished and incorporated into Star Tours.

Disney’s Glendale facility buzzed with the sounds of people building the StarSpeeder 3000 as well as new animatronic droids and a couple of familiar ones as well.
Dave Feiten, former Disney Audio-Animatronics Programmer for Star Tours, was one of those hard at work to make the droids seem lifelike for the attraction.

“C-3PO was probably the longest-running animated figure we've ever done,” Feiten says. “Compared to a pirate, which is about 90 feet of animation, or Mr. Lincoln which is 40 feet, C-3PO is actually 900 feet of animation, with 22 moves inside of him.”

Anthony Daniels flew in from England to demonstrate C-3PO’s distinctive motions and to record his dialogue on the soundtrack. Daniels says he was dumbfounded at the realistic motions of C-3PO in Audio-Animatronic form. While other Audio-Animatronic characters at Disney duplicate living beings, this adaptation of C-3PO made him seem more real, even for a droid.

“Anthony Daniels posed for the programming on C-3PO, which gives the attraction a very authentic feeling,” Baxter says. “When you walk in there and hear those sounds and see these characters, it keeps the feelings towards the films vital and fresh.”

One of the StarSpeeders was mocked up for testing, full-size and operational, inside a metal building in the Imagineering parking lot. After ILM delivered a film animatic, showing the proposed action for each scene in a simple computer graphic format, WDI programmers went to work.

Watching the film on a video monitor, they used joysticks to synchronize the movements of the simulator motion base with the point-of-view actions on screen. This meant that if the onboard movie suggested the StarSpeeder was taking a sharp turn, the entire simulator would be tipped on its side. Speeding up towards the Death Star meant tipping the simulator backwards. And any sudden stops had the simulator tipping forward, making all passengers ever aware of their safety belts.

Many swaying movements were later eliminated by programers so that the motion sickness associated with roller coasters would be missing from the Star Tours attraction without sacrificing any of the excitement.

In June 1986, a group of 2,000 Disney employees and their families previewed a rough version of Star Tours.

“The response was phenomenal, “ says Fitzgerald. “It gave everyone involved the necessary blast-off toward opening day.”

Star Tours brought Tomorrowland well into the 21st century. “When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney set Tomorrowland in the near future – in 1986 to be exact,” Baxter explains. “The ‘futuristic’ technology portrayed in the original Tomorrowland was really current technology, available at the time. In Star Tours, we were looking at a techno-fantasy, a vision of technology that isn’t available today, and won’t be for perhaps another century.”

With a combination of new simulator ride technology and the popular mythos of Star Wars, it was no surprise that Star Tours became an instant hit with Disneyland visitors.

The Star Tours attraction at Disneyland (which remained open 48 hours straight after its premiere on opening day) was a huge hit with both Star Wars fanatics and people who wanted to see a revolutionary ride at Disneyland.

“We were open 48 hours because, in a way, we were opening up another Star Wars movie that was playing on only one theater in the world – at Disneyland,” Baxter recalls.

The Star Tours project not only made dreams of visiting the Star Wars galaxy into a reality for fans, but it also had a profound affect on the WDI team as well.

“What I dreamed of having with Walt Disney, I guess I got some of that with George because we talked a lot about the things he created,” Baxter confesses. “In Walt’s case, he was long gone and we often had to discuss in terms of, ‘Would Walt want to have his characters used in a certain way?’ So it was a unique to have such extraordinary characters and to be able to talk with the creator himself about how they might appear in a new form. That was a unique experience I have not had since.”

Today Star Tours is not only thriving as one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland, but also at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.

“Fans come to the attractions with these expectations from the theater and I think we live up to that,” Baxter says. “We actually allow our guests for a few minutes to have an out-of-control adventure, and we survive. It’s all about survival; people go on roller coasters and all of these experiences because they want to test the limits in a safe way and feel better about themselves at the end in that they actually survived some perilous adventure.”



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