June 30, 2015

Peter Pan's Flight: History, Rare Concept Art, and More

Just in time to celebrate Disneyand's 60th Anniversary on July 17th, Peter Pan's Flight, the park's most beloved dark ride, re-opens after a top to bottom overhaul by Imagineering. If you were thrilled with what they accomplished in he recent overhaul of Alice in Wonderland, the results should be spellbinding. As those guests on the West Coast prepare to be delighted by the changes when it debuts today,  let's look backwards at the ride's creation. (Annual passport holders got a glimpse yesterday- video at the end of this article.) There's rare concept art and more below...



Few Disney park fans would argue that perhaps the most beloved dark ride attraction in Disney park history is Peter Pan Flight. When it 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? For millions of kids and the adults who read the bedtime stories, the dream to fly was about to become a reality.

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!

Off to Neverland!

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.


Coming our way in 1955.


During its initial creation and design stage, Walt Disney insisted that his Fantasyland section of the new park would give his 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 as usual, Walt Disney was ahead of his time. Way ahead of his time.

The folks that brought in carnivals and fairs told Walt he was out of his mind to build a park the way he wanted to, but Walt persisted to do as he felt he should. Giving guests an incredible experience at a reasonable cost was at the front of his mind. With this perspective and dedication to excellence, his Imagineering team (as they would later be called) created a gem, setting the bar for all theme parks to follow- and up until recently has been the acknowledged leader in the themed guest experience.


Testing the ride vehicle.
Check out the great Disney Avenue site. 
Blogmaster Keith Mahne uncovered this photo.

With Disneyland, not only was the concept unique, the choice and execution of the attractions would be as well. Although those same carnival operators of the day pressed Walt's team to include the ordinary Ferris Wheels and iron carnival rides, Walt insisted on the new and innovative. Instead, this team created adventures that could not be duplicated elsewhere. If you wanted to have this experience, Disneyland would be the place you had to go.  This trend would continue for decades before a change of direction and lack of vision at the end of the 20th century when the Disney suits began lowering the bar of execution and expectation, becoming more like its competitors than being differentiated from them.

Another view of the flight path, courtesy Disney and More.

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, and they took the experience to a form of art using black light, special effects, and sophisticated animated props. Disney art directors would fashion the rides just as they could a film, directly the riders eyes to carefully chosen scenes. Add in great lighting, terrific and memorable music, the experiences found in the park would be memorable, creating a desire within guests to ride again and again.

With the layout of the park determined Fantasyland's courtyard would hold these smaller but still innovative and compelling adventures. Since the film was one of the most recent Disney hits, Peter Pan was prime for exploitation. Live theater and film had been telling the story for years, a dark ride would be a whole new way to share it. Beyond the marketing potential of living the adventure of Peter and his friends, the possibilities of how to tell the story were endless. A flight over London and Neverland were obvious contenders for the scenes, and Peter Pan Flight, as the attraction was initially named, was quickly decided upon as a necessary choice for opening day. Walt and the designers must have known they had a winning combination of story and ride vehicle on their hands.


The original plan for the exterior of the attraction.

How to set the stage for this great people pleasing adventure? 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 rounded tent entrance seen above would give way to a flat fronted entrance, but the primary concept remained. Even though budgets changed the exterior design what Walt originally wished to present, the tournament tents, banners, and other decorations created war still an atmosphere that could not found elsewhere. The style of Fantasyland wasn't what was fully envisioned, but the more extravagant surroundings would have to wait for later, finally appearing in 1983.

So beloved, it became the centerpiece of the Company's 1952 Christmas card.

The actual attraction, however, was as successful as they thought it would be. Filled with lavish and sometimes expensive little details that others might deem unnecessary, it was a rich experience from opening day  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.

Wisely, it's two rows of seats in Paris!

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 tell a great story through pleasing, entertaining, and delighting its guests. This relentless dedication to excellence by Walt's experienced team of filmmakers brought great rewards and extremely long lines for both smaller rides as well as lengthy iconic attractions. Upon the park's opening, these Peter Pan Flight and the Jungle River Cruise became instant icons along with the it's physical centerpiece, Sleeping Beauty Castle.


Rare alternate entrance and exterior.

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 network exposure of the plans for the park guaranteed much anticipation for its opening. The marketing plan was wildly successful- perhaps too successful- 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.

Thankfully, Walt, Roy, and the Company delivered on their promise and their advertising. 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.


Turning this into reality for Disneyland guests.

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 and later, Florida, Tokyo and Paris.

A new and greatly detailed queue in Florida.But what about the inside?

Yes, 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. In 2015, the Florida version received an enhanced queue, but the interior remains sorely in need of an update.


The original size of the art. Enlarged below to show detail.

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.

Typical Walt Disney:
Personally involved in the park that bears his name!

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.

Paris' Peter Pan. A bit gritty as I blew it up so you could see the details.
On the other side through the arcade? Skull Rock!

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!

Unrealized Tokyo Disneyland Peter Pan mini-land.
Courtesy photograph by Disney Geek.

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.

Perfectly maintained dark ride in - where else?- Tokyo.

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.


Editor's note July 10: Here's a recently released piece of art showing the attraction as it will appear at Shanghai Disneyland. Seen on the far left... and a look at the pirate ships below.

Off to Neverland! Now departing from Mainland China!

Walt enjoying the fruits of his team's hard work.

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 60 years...and counting.


And now, a video of the new attraction!
Courtesy Mouse Info


(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

2 comments:

Len said...

This is one fantastic and informative post Mark! Peter Pan still is my favorite dark ride, but like you, I sometimes wonder how awesome it would be to see it redesigned as an "E Ticket" ride. Great job!!!!

Mark Taft said...

It could be the Disney character version of Pirates and Haunted Mansion combined! I love it, too.