When Star Tours opened at Disneyland in 1987, little did the Imagineers know that they would create a new industry. The breakthrough attraction combined a motion simulation base with a film and a story to create an immersive environment that feels like you really are moving. It was not long before others would jump on the bandwagon and soon almost every theme park and shopping mall in America had such a device.
But was Star Tours the first such ride? Step back to Kansas City in 1905 to Electric Park, an amusement park so amazing that it would become one of Walt Disney’s fondest childhood memories and an inspiration to Disneyland. One of the hit attractions was Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World.
George C. Hale, a retired fire chief, developed the attraction. The show was set in a railway car that seated seventy-two guests. At one end was a screen. Projected on the screen was a ten-minute film whose point of view was that of a camera mounted on the front of a moving train. This was known as a phantom ride. During the show, machines would rock the rail car from side to side, fans would blow, and painted scenery would pass by the windows. There was a special mechanism mounted on the undercarriage to recreate the clacking sound of the tracks. Whistles, bells, and live conductors added to the illusion.
The show was very popular and the concept was licensed to others. By 1907 there were more than 500 Hale’s Tours worldwide. According to Historian Graeme Baker of Cineroama, “Hale’s Tours warmed up the public to moving pictures and demonstrated to venue owners that the market was prepared to bear the cost of higher ticket prices in return for theaters with themed entertainment spaces and quality interior and exterior design.”
Many Hollywood legends would have their first exposure to motion pictures by riding on the Hale’s Tour including Carl Laemmle (Universal), Mary Pickford (Actress), Sam Warner (Warner Brothers), and Adolph Zukor (Paramount). The Hale’s Tours began to loose favor almost as fast as the phenomena began and by 1911 the last one shuttered its doors.
This was not the first time somebody tried creating a Motion simulator. In 1895, Robert Paul and novelist H.G. Wells patented a movie house that was designed like a spaceship, using still photos and movies. Wells wanted to simulate his science fiction book, The Time Machine. The ride was never built. Then a few years later a French company built the Cineorama, a simulated ride in a hot-air balloon with a 360-degree view. The ride burnt down after two days. Then came the Lumiere Brothers attempt with the Mareorama, which simulated the view from a ship’s bridge.
Later, Disneyland would get into the act. The most famous example was the Rocket to the Moon attraction. Lessor known was Space Station X-1. From The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide: “At a time when the first satellite to orbit the Earth was still a couple of years away, Walt thought it would be fun to give guests a bird’s-eye view of the world from a “platform in space.” That was the concept behind Space Station X-1. Claude Coats and Peter Ellenshaw painted an aerial view of the United States based on the first photograph from space, which was taken on October 24, 1946, from an altitude of 65 miles. In this case, they moved the perspective up to 90 miles in space and painted the scene on a doughnut-shaped canvas. Guests stood along a railing and looked down at the painting. The lighting changed from daytime to nighttime, and the painting was illuminated in black light. The platform moved from the East to West Coast in 3 minutes. Over the years, the name would be changed to the Satellite View of America, but that was not enough to draw guests, and it closed on February 17, 1960.”
So in the end, it seems there is nothing new under the sun. But Disney just does it best.