Attractions are a big part of the Disney Park experience for obvious reasons. However, I don’t think that anyone should ever go into any Disney Park just for the attractions. When you are at any Disney Park, it’s important for you to stroll slowly, notice details, absorb the atmosphere, and look for subtle things like the transition between the lands in the park. Today though, we are going to focus on attractions, more specifically, ride vehicles, and even more specifically, trackless ride vehicles. A feature of some great attractions in Disney Parks, however, for Disney, they are all currently outside of the United States.
First, we have to discuss what a trackless ride vehicle is. Just like the name would indicate, it’s a ride vehicle that does not use a track. When you think of most dark rides, you notice a track of some kind. This is either going to be a big metal bar that runs on the ground, keeping the vehicle on a specific path, or it could be suspended above you, like in Peter Pan. Even attractions like Small World or Splash Mountain are not truly considered “trackless” as there is either a guide rail underneath, or the sides of the flume keep the boat on a specific path. Disney Imagineers invented a lot of these conveyances overtime in an effort to move more people through the attractions per hour, like the Omnimover ride systems used in attractions like the Haunted Mansion or Space Ship Earth. These are a direct descendant of the Ford Magic Skyway ride system that was developed for the ’64-’65 World’s Fair. The other huge benefit from a show standpoint is that since a tracked vehicle has a set ride path, the rider’s attention, and view, can be strictly controlled and directed. Think about the Haunted Mansion, this is a great example because of the shape of the “Doom Buggy”. You are only seeing what they want you to see at any point in the attraction. It is nearly impossible, in a safe way, to see behind you, and your peripheral vision is severely limited because of the vehicle’s “hood” (for lack of a better term). Many times, there is nothing behind you at all, like a blank wall, but this is done on purpose because there is no reason to put anything there. No one will see it.
As the years progressed, Disney invented other forms of vehicle conveyance that did not use a large track on the floor, but still guided the vehicles on a set path. This was first used in Epcot’s Universe of Energy. Those vehicles are guided by an 1/8th inch wire that runs through the floor from the theatre room, through the dinosaur swamp, and then into the second theatre room. This wire communicates with the vehicle to make sure that it stays on course. This system also is used in the Great Movie Ride. Later, for Disney World’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a new form of technology was introduced to communicate with the vehicles and keep them on a set path when moving from the initial lift shaft, across the floor in the “5th Dimension” to the drop shaft. This system used wireless communication elements, and although it also still ran on a wire track in the floor, was an important step in the development of truly trackless vehicles.
When I am talking about trackless vehicles, I am talking about vehicles that use electronic sensors to let the ride system know where they are in the attraction at any point in time, but the ride system directs them to take different and unique routes. This also allows for multiple vehicles to be in the same ride scene at the same time, as the rides I have seen that utilize this technology will typically have a large fully immersive themed room for the vehicles to move through. I am only aware of a few of these rides in the world, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt in Tokyo Disneyland; Aquatopia in Tokyo’s Disney Sea; Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland; Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at Sea World in Orlando (The only one I am aware of in the United States, and obviously not a Disney Park), and the newest one, not even open yet, Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (Ratatouille: the Totally Zany Adventure of Remy), or the international name of: Ratatouille: The Ride at Walt Disney Studios in Paris.
As a disclaimer, I have never had the opportunity to ride any of these attractions myself, but have seen many YouTube videos of them. You can search for them on your own to get a better idea of what the ride consists of. If you do intend to watch videos of the attraction, to see the benefit of the trackless technology, you actually have to watch several different videos to see the different props and gags, and get a sense of how the trackless technology creates different attraction experiences, and also adds to the attractions re-rideability. You will almost always notice things that you did not see before. To be fair to the attraction, since I have not personally experienced it, I don’t intend to rate its overall appeal, or criticize it. For purposes of this article, I am focused on the ride vehicle systems, and its use of technology, and how it can improve the “show”, based the information that I have available to me.
Pooh’s Hunny Hunt in Tokyo Disneyland:
This was the first attraction built to utilize the technology. Many of us have probably ridden the similar attractions in Disneyland or Walt Disney World, and at first glance, Tokyo’s version does look very similar, and the story line is about the same in all of them. After watching an opening scene, the ride vehicles enter large room where Pooh gets swept away by a large wind. This is the first time you really start to see the changes in an attraction based on the trackless system.
Each Hunny Pot takes its own path through the room. The room is also substantially different from other attractions because it’s fully immersive. By this, I am saying that everywhere you look in the room, there are props, characters, or decorations that make the entire room part of the attraction. Not just one area of the room where your attention is specifically planned to go. It does seem as if there are a few different choices of paths, but the gags in the room all follow the same theme relating to the windy day. For example, one path follows Pooh as he is suspended by his balloon and blown from one side of the room to another. Another path might have you go see Rabbit hanging on to his clothes line, or the wind knocking Eyore’s house down. Another scene is Kanga holding on to a kite holding Roo, just to name a few. The pots join up again and go into a room where everything is bouncing, and you spend time with Tigger, of course. After leaving the Tigger area, we go to Pooh’s bedroom, and watch a great use of the “starfield” effect transition us into Pooh’s dream where of course, we find Heffalumps and Woozles.
This room is really where we see a lot of the trackless benefits come to fruition. There can be up to 8 different Hunny Pots in the scene, all sort of “dancing” around, and with each other, then once in a while, one will break off, and see one of the gags spread around the room before exiting out the other side. These gags include things like a band playing, bee shaped Hefalumps projected onto a two way mirror, and a cannon firing right at you. There is also a hunny pot just like yours going around the room, apparently on its own, filled with Heffalups and Woozles instead of riders. The scene looks very chaotic, as intended, and at times, you may even think you are going to crash into other pots, but that’s part of the added excitement of a trackless system.
Upon exiting the scene, the attraction wraps up with the story with Pooh coming out of his dream, and ending in the pages of a book, again similar to other rides, and the vehicles line up for unloading. If you have never seen a video of this, I highly suggest it. Once you see what the ride could be like, you may be slightly disappointed with what we have in the United States.
Aquatopia in Tokyo’s Disney Sea:
Aquatopia is an entirely different experience all together. It’s not a dark ride at all, infact it’s hard to describe because it’s similar to, yet unlike, other attractions that exist. This appears to be a test of trackless technology in its early stages as there is also no real story or show to speak of. The vehicles themselves seem to be the attraction. There is theming, and it does fit into the area, with the design of the ride vehicles, the rockwork, and water features that are in the ride area. At first glance, it looks like some kind of “bumper boat” ride, but the vehicles never actually touch, however at times, appear as if they are going to collide.
After boarding your “hovercraft” from the continuously loading platform, your vehicle moves into the ride field. They look like hovercraft, but the water is only a few inches deep, and the vehicles are clearly on wheels that are just large enough to touch the concrete and propel the vehicle. Once on the ride, even in the ride video, you can see the wear paths the vehicles have made. However, even knowing where your vehicle may go, you are not able to predict your next move. The vehicles all control themselves, and the riders simply go along for the ride. The hovercraft quickly move around, through and past water features like geysers and waterfalls. They turn around the rocks, moving forward and backward, and spinning in place. They will move in such a manner as to make the riders believe they will occasionally collide with other vehicles, but they never do. I have also heard that they reduce the amount of water used on the features in the colder months, so you only get splashed, but in the summer, they turn up the water flow and you may come off the ride completely drenched.
After a few minutes of moving randomly through the ride field, your vehicle takes itself back to the load area, lines itself up, and moves onto a conveyer. There you unload, and the vehicle moves down the conveyer belt to allow the next group of riders to board. It’s a continuously loading system.
Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland:
Mystic Manor is an outstanding combination of excellent storytelling (a story that was not based on previously owned intellectual property) and the technology used to operate trackless vehicles. As this ride opened over 10 years after Disney’s previous use of trackless dark ride technology, they had again developed a new system to monitor and communicate with the individual ride vehicles. The innovation in this ride contributed to it winning the Best New Attraction of the Year from Theme Park Insider Magazine. The story focus on Lord Henry Mystic and his pet monkey Albert.
The ride fits extremely well within the land that was created in Hong Kong, and was part of a larger expansion project that recently was completed. The attraction is an excellent example of what Disney Imagineers can do when given the resources. If you have not seen it, the story focuses on an eccentric collector who is allowing you to view some of his artifacts he stores in his mansion. (Think Adventurers Club mixed with Trader Sam’s with some Haunted Mansion thrown in.) It starts with the queue. It’s quite extensive and very detailed. This is important as the background information relayed in the queue starts to set up the ride itself. There are lots of little Easter egg type things in some of the pictures, so it’s fun to try to find them, but obviously you have to know what you are seeing when you see it. After boarding the vehicles, you gather in a group of four to watch a set up scene where a slide show gives you some of the history, and sets up the main character, Albert. After going through the doors, and again gathering around a central set piece, the “something goes terribly wrong” portion of the ride occurs. This is where the magic is released into the manor. Each side of the set can see slightly different effects occurring on the one central stage.
Again, similar to Pooh, you are in a large, fully immersive room. However, unlike Pooh or Aquatopia, the purpose of the ride vehicles is not to move you rapidly about the room, spinning and randomly starting and stopping. The vehicles all do take individual paths, but they end up in front of an effect. Scattered about the room are various smaller scenes, all fitting in with the theme, but all act and move differently as they come to life when the magic hits them. As you travel down the hall way, you continue to see different scenes, or gags, some of which are moving or changing pictures, similar to haunted mansion, but done much more effectively. There are effects that bring musical instruments to life, “man” eating plants, suits of armor coming to life, tiki god head sculptures with lava running through them, and painted vases where the tableau starts to animate itself, just to name a few. The benefit of the individual trackless vehicles is that they can pull your car right up to the scene, and allow you to come face to face with the effects, then back up slightly and return to a path that will continue to progress you through the attraction.
The attraction’s finale is when an evil monkey statue comes to life, the room is full of visual effects, projected and physical, including wind. The walls appear to be breaking down, and flying away when of course, our hero Albert, reverses the wrong that was done. An incredible effect appears to carry us back to our starting point, and all is restored as we first saw it and wraps up the adventure nicely. Then we proceed to the unload point.
My brief description does not come anywhere close to doing this attraction justice. This is honestly the best dark ride that I have ever seen, and that’s just from watching videos, and again, you have to watch several different videos to get to see all the props, scenes, and gags contained in the middle portion of the attraction. This attraction shows what can be done with excellent storytelling, new characters in a ride not based on a previously owned intellectual property, like so many of them are now (meaning not based on a movie), and new trackless technology. The trackless technology is not the star here. It simply ads to the attraction overall to make it a seamless, changing, re-rideable experience. It also provides quick moving and very smooth conveyance systems that could not be done on a tracked vehicle ride.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin:
Located in Sea World in Orlando, this is the only true trackless ride that I am aware of in the United States at the time this article was written. I have heard about ones that are rumored, or in blue sky development stages, but I am not aware of any that exist, yet.
The ride itself is themed well, like you are in Antarctica. The loose story follows penguins through their journey and some experiences of life. There are also large fully immersive rooms to take random ride paths through, but there are far fewer effects. Mostly light up ice formations, representation of the northern lights, and colored ice structures. However, there are several movie segments that tie in directly with the motion of the vehicles themselves. The ride ends when your vehicle stops in front of the real life penguin exhibit, and as you unload, you can stop to linger and watch flightless birds stand around.
The motion of the vehicles is what makes the ride innovative. The vehicles themselves are larger than the ones that Disney is using, and hold up to 8 people. The main difference is that not only can the vehicle spin 360 degrees, but the seating area can move independently form the base on a three axis system. This allows the riders to be tilted side to side, and up and down during the ride as well. This ties into the movie scenes, specifically one where you are being chased by a seal, to add motion to an otherwise static vehicle during the action sequences.
In addition to the vehicles being able to move in multiple directions, they can also go through the ride without additional movement. This means that you are able to customize a ride experience from very tame, to full of movement. This does allow for a larger range of riders, from very young or those with special needs, to ones who are more thrill seekers and want as much movement as possible. Obviously the whole ride vehicle has to have one setting, but this is similar to what Disney has done with Mission Space; they have the green and orange sides, one that doesn’t spin, and one for those who don’t mind losing their lunch. As far as the ride itself goes, the theming, sets, and overall story do not seem to come close to what Disney is doing. However, the ride system is innovative, and they deserve credit for installing something new like that.
Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy:
(or as I’m sure I’ll call it, The Ratatouille Ride in France) is not open as of the writing of this article. Pictures have been released, mostly of giant food, but there is one that I have included below that shows the ride vehicle. It appears to be a mouse, or rat (well, I supposed it has to be a rat).
The pictures released look similar to other trackless rides where they look like large immersive rooms, but I am not aware of any video, and have no idea of what the ride will consist of. I am sure that it will follow along the lines of the movie, and relate to food, cooking, and rats, but that’s not saying much.
I am glad to see the technology progressing. I am sure that at some point we will see these vehicles being used more and more often as the infrastructure available continues to increase in power and reliability, and the costs of using the technology continue to drop. What remains important is that the technology does not become the focus of the attraction, the attraction has to balance the use of the technology with the storytelling, theming, effects, and everything else that goes into a great attraction to make it worthwhile. With things that we have been promised, or led to believe, about additions to Disney parks in the next 5-10 years, let’s hope that Imagineering is not stifled from doing that by the pencil pushers.
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