February 6, 2012

The Disney Dark Ride Series: Peter Pan Flight

Perhaps the most beloved dark ride attraction in Disney park history, Peter Pan Flight debuted with the opening of Disneyland in 1955. It was an instant smash. After all, who could resist flying in a pirate ship over the evening skies of London and Neverland?

English author J.M. Barrie's novel of the boy who wouldn't grow up debuted in 1911. Readers were immediately enthralled with Peter Pan's journeys. The cast of characters were just as interesting: the Lost Boys, the villainous Captain Hook, and the manipulative but good hearted fairy, Tinker Bell. Toss in some mermaids, a few Indians, and an amphibian with a gastric problem to create more adventures than a boy could envision. Dreams of flying over a darkened but starlit London past the Big Ben's clock and onto the island of Neverland were birthed in the hearts and minds of children everywhere. Adults, too!




Naturally, as Walt and his film makers looked at classic literature as the main source of animated film inspiration, the book and Peter Pan's adventures were a natural choice for exploration. The colorful characters and lush environments screamed for the Disney animators to tell their stories. When it was finally released to theaters in 1953, the movie drew universal praise for its enchanting theme, instantly singable songs, beautifully colorful textures and backgrounds, and of course, its endearing characters.




The idea for a family friendly park had been brewing in Walt's mind for more than a few years when he finally decided to take a chance and build Disneyland. He risked everything to do so. This park, Walt's park, had to be unlike anything ever seen before, and that meant the attractions contained within needed to be creatively satisfying as well as crowd pleasing. With a handpicked crew, Walt and the team went to work. Each land would be unique, and Fantasyland would draw guests into the stories the animators told so well in their films.


During its initial creation and design stage, Walt Disney wanted his Fantasyland section of the new park to give guests the unprecedented ability of experiencing the fun and excitement of his animated films by becoming part of them. Remember, this was years before Universal Studios got into the act. Again, Walt Disney was ahead of his time. With this perspective and dedication to excellence, his Imagineering team created and set the bar for all theme parks to come.

With Disneyland, not only was the concept unique, the choice and execution of the attractions would be as well. Although carnival operators of the day pressed Walt's team to include the expected Ferris Wheels and iron carnival rides, Walt insisted on the new and innovative, instead creating adventures that could not be duplicated elsewhere- a trend that would continue for decades before a change of direction and lack of vision at the end of the 20th century.

Dark rides were a staple of amusement piers from Coney Island on the East Coast to various locations dotting much of California. Some were scary, some held promises of love or at least affection, but all of them held a certain mystique to paying customers as they could only guess at the wonders within the building they saw. This medium fit the Disney team perfectly. The art directors could fashion the rides just as they could a film, directly the riders eyes to carefully chosen scenes.

The later to be named Imagineers went right to work. Fantasyland's courtyard would hold these smaller but still innovative adventures. Since the film was one of the most recent Disney hits, Peter Pan was prime for exploitation. Beyond the marketing potential, the possibilities to tell the story were endless, and Peter Pan Flight, as the attraction was initially named, was quickly decided upon as a necessary choice for opening day.

The simple but effective exterior of the attraction, as shown above, fully met the strict budgetary requirements of the new venture while still presenting a fanciful, enticing entrance. The tournament tents, banners, and other decorations created an atmosphere not found elsewhere. The style of Fantasyland wasn't what was fully envisioned, but the more extravagant surroundings would have to wait for later.

The actual attraction, however, was filled with lavish and sometimes expensive little details that others might deem unnecessary. The queue area may have been decorated with a painted mural along the side of the building but even that was done with great care. Loving creation of the attraction- including a unique ride system whose cars were ornate pirate ships suspended from a track in the building's ceiling - rightfully enchanted guests from the very first flight.


In many ways, this Peter Pan attraction and the more elaborate Jungle River Cruise would define Walt's park by showing what could be accomplished by the artisans and engineers when the goal was to please, entertain, and delight its guests. This relentless dedication to excellence whether large attraction or small brought great rewards and extremely long lines. Upon the park's opening, these two attractions became instant icons along with the it's physical centerpiece, Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Not only was Mr. Disney a premier showman, he was also a savvy marketeer, and he worked hard to make sure every American knew of his beloved park. Walt and his brother Roy enticed television's ABC network into a creative and financial partnership that truly benefited both parties. Bringing Walt Disney to television was a coup for the struggling network, and the weekly television exposure of the plans for the park guaranteed much anticipation for its opening, resulting in hoards of guests with money to spend. Anticipation was high, and so were expectations due to the buildup given Walt's magic kingdom.

Unlike some companies of our day, Walt, Roy, and the Company delivered on their promise. Disneyland actually made available one unforgettable experience after another, becoming the new gold standard for the American family vacation. Word quickly spread.

With television consistently whetting the appetites of millions of viewers, fantasies became realities- and the company was soon flush with cash to create even more amazing experiences. This meant even more ambitious and innovative attractions than what the Disney team was first designed.

As with any new venture that was unprecedented, initial budgets were underestimated and therefore strained for the park, with Fantasyland and Tomorrowland suffering the most changes compared to what was originally desired. Still, no one could resist Peter Pan's Flight. Where else in the world could guests fly over London without being on a real airplane or cruise down exotic jungle rivers? Yet, this dream and others would become real for those visiting Anaheim.

Peter Pan Flight was so iconic, it had to be duplicated in Florida's Walt Disney World and its Magic Kingdom. Sure, other dark rides unique to Florida's park were considered, (Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty among them), but nothing past or present has held its own with the undisputed champion.


Back on the West Coast, Fantasyland, and the newly named Peter Pan's Flight, remained the same for almost 30 years, until Tony Baxter led a group of Imagineers on a total revamp of the land. Now with the cash they desired, the carnival/circus tent/medieval fair look of the heart of Disneyland soon gave way to a fanciful take on the villages and atmosphere of Western Europe.

These changes also brought the dark ride's namesake characters into the attraction for the very first time. Originally, guests were supposed to be the main characters, but few understood the concept and many were left wondering why they never saw Peter Pan in an attraction that carried his name. This problem was corrected with the extensive remodel, much to the appreciation of frustrated parents trying to explain the initial idea to their bewildered children.

Disneylands to come, in Tokyo then Paris, were designed with the crowd pleasing Peter Pan's Flight as a centerpiece to each respective Fantasyland. Only in Paris were the Imagineers smart enough to increase the rider capacity. However, even with larger pirate ships sailing into the night sky, guests continued to make the queue time one of the longest in the park. In fact, the lines to hop aboard are just as full in Japan and Paris as they are in Anaheim and Orlando!

Oddly, at Hong Kong Disneyland, Peter Pan's Flight never made the initial roster of opening day attractions. Quite strange, considering Hong Kong's history of being under British rule and given their knowledge of the culture. The only Brit represented there in China would be A. A. Milne's cuddly bear, Winnie the Pooh. He could be found as the star of his own dark ride next door to the 3D film, Mickey's Philharmagic. Whether Peter makes it to Shanghai Disneyland is yet to be revealed.

In a perfectly designed kingdom, Peter Pan's Flight would be a full scale "E" Ticket attraction with a lengthy ride time. Yet, the shorter flight seems to require repeated trips to soak it all in. And guests continue to line up over and over again with each new generation. It's a rite of passage every bit as strong as a first flight with Dumbo or the first ride on Space Mountain.

Proving once again that a great story and near flawless execution are much more important than sheer mass, big thrills and excessive budgets, Peter Pan's Flight has held its own with Imagineering's "E" ticket attractions- for 55 plus years...and counting.
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This is the first in a series of articles on the Disney Dark Rides. What's next? You'll just have to come back!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post. I love the new series. Keep up the good work. Peter Pan is definitely one of the best rides in Fantasyland. This ride showcases Imagineering at its finest,creating new ride systems and experiences not available any where else. Too bad they cannot create new ride systems today. By the way, where do you get all the amazing artwork from your blog?

Mark Taft said...

Thanks! My collection comes from gathering books I own, the internet, and art that folks send me. This has included things I've had for (gulp) decades... :)

Rafael said...

Thank you for this amazing post!

Mark Taft said...

Glad you like it, Rafael! Thanks for reading!

Ken Rohloff said...

Dear Mark, Really liked your writing, and the article! I LOVE Peter Pan's Flight, and hope Shanghai creates a WONDROUS one!

Mark Taft said...

Ken, I love it too! And I've always hoped Disney would turn it into a full blown E, increasing the length and depth. Thanks for reading!