Deja Flew, A Look Back at Disneyland’s Flying Saucers

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Disney History, Features, Samland

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Published on June 20, 2012 at 10:37 pm with 13 Comments

In honor of the opening of Luigi’s Tires at Disney California Adventure, I bring you…

Disneyland’s Flying Saucers, an extinct attraction that has become the stuff of legends. They were spotted in Tomorrowland for only a brief time. For five years, the attraction rewarded those with great patience and luck. But most of the time it was just broken. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started back in 1960 when Imagineer Bob Gurr was assigned to work on a “duck bump” attraction. A duck bump was a popular type of water ride in the Midwest and Walt wanted to bring one west. The ride featured boats, actually a large inner-tube, with a pivoting motor in the middle that a guest could pilot around a pond. The attraction was meant to be the replacement for the failed Phantom Boats.

Things change. As Disney Legend Bob Gurr said, “In those days, everybody had a hovercraft project. It was a neat idea…a ‘big buzz’ at the time, and a lot of people were working on it simultaneously.” Even the folks at WED had been talking about a flying saucer ride. One day, a German salesman visited WED and he brought a small propeller-powered hovercraft. Walt asked Gurr to check it out. “I tried it out, but I could see nothing but danger in it,” said Gurr.

Arrow Development, an amusement park ride manufacturer, was also looking at a hovercraft. Gurr noticed that “Arrow’s concept of moving the motive force from out of the vehicles to under the floor was a very novel idea.” Their system worked like a giant air hockey table

Building on that concept, Imagineer Roger Broggie said, “We had figured that we could move a two-thousand pound payload if we had an air jet below with valves that allow air to come up through holes in the floor.” It just so happened that a bunch of surplus actuators from the second stage of a Jupiter missile came on to the market. Broggie said, “We bought them and put them to use.” When the actuators were installed, they almost immediately failed and Disney sent them back. “They wanted to know what we had done to make them wear out like this,” Broggie said. “We estimated the actuators had cycled more than seven million times. They said that their test program had required that the actuators were actually used for five seconds on the second stage of the Jupiter missile for pitch control, then their purpose was fulfilled. They said that they’d over designed it by seven times!”

Walt told master builder Joe Fowler to work with Arrow to develop a prototype at their Northern California shop.  Walt took a special interest in this project and went up to the shop for a test ride. Gurr said, “He’s extremely interested in how this thing is going to work. He’s Walt Disney, and he’s seeing this test device, and he’s trying to visualize what the attraction will be like, and what public’s response might be. This happened all the time.” The prototype worked and the attraction was put into hyperdrive.

Bob Gurr designed the sleek flying saucers and also received a patent for his efforts. In his fun new book Design: Just for Fun, he said, “I was now recognized by the United States government as a ‘flying saucer inventor,’ a title which placed me in good company with all the other flying saucer crackpots of the time.” Sixty-four single seat saucers that would float on a bed of air were put into production.

To power that bed of air, four giant blowers were mounted below the ground to maintain the air pressure in a complex 16,000 square foot network of air ducts with holes and valves. As a flying saucer passed over a valve, the air pressure would become imbalanced and the valve would open. This provided the lift. The constant air pressure would quickly close the valve once the saucer has moved on.

Pilots could steer their saucers by leaning one way or another. Lean forward and air would escape out the back of the saucers skirt pushing you forward. Lean back and you move back. Move either way too much and you stall. Longtime Disneyland Cast Member Ron Dominguez said, “A heavy person would sit there like a slug trying to move around on the table and a kid would bounce. The concept was all right, but that was a tough attraction to operate.”

Imagineer Bill Martin came up with the innovative loading/unloading system. Martin said, “The shape of that ride, and the way the boom worked, was from an idea I picked up at Riverside Park in Chicago.” The ride in Chicago was a bunch of little boats circulating in a rectangular shaped pond. “When the ride time was up this bridge would wipe these people off the pond, and let the other guys free to play on the pond while they loaded over there for the next time,” Martin recalled. His idea to improve upon this system was a “circular area which would load on both sides and with two arms, or booms.” Martin received a patent for his design. He noted, “They were supposed to pay me a buck, but never did.”

The flying saucers were placed on an oval arena that was separated into two halves by the loading platform. Moveable piers unfolded from the loading platform cutting the arena into quarter sections. As the piers moved, they swept sixteen of the saucers tightly against the loading platform. While this was happening, sixteen other pilots would be struggling with their vehicles out on their half of the arena. Each side was operated independently and this system allowed for thirty-two saucers loading while thirty-two saucers were operating at any one time.

During installation and testing, the attraction was plagued with problems. “Bob Gurr’s hollow saucer really worked well up at Arrow Development when they built the prototype, but that’s because the plenum was only four feet deep,” according to Bill Martin. “The one we built at the Park was nine feet deep and that was our mistake. Since air squashes and compresses, there was too much lag…we lost our deck all the time, and it took awhile to build up the pressure again.”

The new attraction opened on August 8, 1961. Due to the mechanical issues, it was the first Disneyland attraction that failed to open on schedule. The attraction was very popular with the public but plagued by maintenance issues. Gurr said, “The pressure under the floor would drop so low that all the “Morgan valves” would open at once, releasing the air beneath. This caused a window rattling sonic boom and the Saucers would drop to the ground.” He blamed it on “undamped divergent oscillation.” Due to the operational issues, the saucers closed on September 5, 1966.

Luigi’s Flying Tires today

Gurr said, “In hindsight, had it gone through several levels of production, it could have become successful. What was needed were electronic controls and high speed damper doors so that the flow of air in the plenum could have been kept uniform despite the interaction of the bouncing saucers above, and the pressure changes would not have effected the valves.” Like so many of Walt’s dreams, the technology was not up to the vision. Gurr noted, “This is always the problem with mechanically operated devices versus those that are electronically operated with sensors that feed a processor which makes all the decisions. With a few electronic feedbacks, and a control system which could have worked the doors quickly, the ride could have continued. But this was all done before computerization. With sensor-pressure data, high-speed action on the damper doors and a program written for damping and smoothing…the whole thing could probably be operated with one PC today.”

Did you get to ride the Flying Saucers? Are we seeing history repeat with Luigi’s Flying Tires in California Adventure’s Cars Land?

MiceChat Events

Meet Imagineering Legend Bob Gurr – Book Signing and Lunch – June 30, 2012
Bob Gurr is a true Disney and theme park design legend. He’s also a fantastic story teller and all around nice guy (as you read from Garner above). And lucky for us, there is a limited opportunity for you to grab a signed and numbered copy of his new book and join him for lunch at the Anabella Hotel (just behind DCA and next to the Anaheim Convention Center) on June 30th. The Collector’s Edition of his new book Design: Just for Fun has already sold out, but we’ve got the last 100 copies saved for our readers. Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity to spend time with one of the true greats of Disney Design.  Sign up for the Bob Gurr Luncheon and Book Signing Today!

About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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13 Comments

Comments for Deja Flew, A Look Back at Disneyland’s Flying Saucers are now closed.

  1. Yes I did get to ride the flying saucers as a child and I really missed them when they closed down! So needless to say, I’m a new fan of Luigi’s flying tires….found it very fun. And nostalgic:)

  2. The loading platform was genius! It still frustrates me that no one looked at the one thing the original had going for it! LFT might work better and have less issues than the original, but it’s super ridiculously low capacity and long unload/ load times is just stupid since it should have been avoided in the first place! If WDI really wants to fix the issues the ride has: A) add 15- 20 small one person tires to the ride. This would provide different ride experiences with both having advantages. Smaller tires would be easier to get up to speed and move around, while the bigger would provide more mass for maximum bumping power. B) install a second loading station at the far end of the platform with half the tires on ones side of a metal arm and half on the other. The arm moves back and forth pushing the tires to either the upper or the lower loading station so that half the tires are loading half are riding. This would significantly increase capacity and loading time would not matter since when the ride was over the tires would move back to the station for unloading. Basically learn from what worked well for the original ride!

    Thanks for the article it was a fun read.

  3. Call me crazy, but the shape and style of the saucers reminds me of the space mountain building that would be designed a decade later.

  4. ^ same here

  5. I further agree to the notion that Flying Saucers are the design for Space Mountain.

  6. It is interesting that Disney opted not to build any sort of method to corral half the tires at a time for load/unload. It would easily double the capacity of the attraction (load/unload is a painfully slow experience).

    Aside from some obvious and design and safety flaws to Luigi’s Flying Tires, one of the biggest is the LOW capacity. Few rides can match expectation when you wait in a long line. However, if the line zips along, folks are willing to give even poor attractions higher marks if they didn’t have to wait long for it. Luigi’s could certainly benefit from a complete redesign of the vehicles and the method for load/unload.

    Seems that Disney didn’t learn much from their previous experience with the Flying Saucers, instead they focused solely on the compressed air table at the expense of guest experience. They’ve perfected how to get the vehicles to float, but not how to improve guest experience.

    I give Luigi’s 2.5 stars out of 5 if you don’t have to wait in line and 1 star if they have to wait longer than 20 minutes.

  7. Yes, I’m old enough to have ridden the original flying saucers. My memory of them was that they were a blast! Yes there was a learning curve, but by the middle of one’s second ride, you could do some serious movements. Luigi’s Tires has had so much criticism, but watching while waiting in line, everyone riding was laughing the whole time. The load times are going to be a problem, much of the time. The ride itself is great fun.

    • Me and my son had a great time on Luigi’s tires. We went in expecting it to be a bit of a bore, based on early reviews, but I must say…IT WAS NOT!!! It should be noted though that I believe he and I had a fairly ideal weight balance for the ride. I did notice that some of the heavier riders before us did get sort of stuck out there.

  8. I’m always hard on WDI, but I really don’t understand the praise for Luigi’s. They brought a proven “hit” back to life, slapped a character on it from a hit movie, and somehow it’s “Creative”? Not only does it lack creativity, it proves that the saucers could have come back to any land, at any point within the last couple decades… Disney just didn’t want to do it.

  9. Great Topic Sam. I remember sitting around Sharon Disney’s swimming pool one time with her and her kids and the Disneyland Flying Saucers came up. She said Walt got really upset at them when his favorite pair of expensive sun glasses fell off while riding the ride, and they went down one of the holes in the deck. Was that why he had them removed? I always enjoyed riding them.

  10. Does that mean in several decades we’ll have a return of Rocket Rods and LightMagic?

  11. I missed the Flying Saucers by a couple years. I always felt that I really did not miss much. I have not had a chance to ride Lugi’s yet, but I am looking forward to it. Thanks Sam.

  12. I really like LFT. Yeah, there is a slow loading time but once you’re on it’s lots of fun! I just don’t understand why some of the commenters are always such Debbie downers. Focus on the positives people. DCA is moving in the right direction and it’s fun to be part of the experience.