The Evolution of the Simulator Ride

Posted by Staff on Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Star Tours at Disneyland

Of all the amusement park rides out there, one of the most popular doesn’t actually go anywhere. And yet, you still feel like you’ve been on an extensive journey after stepping out of a simulator ride. One of the first simulator rides, Disneyland’s Star Tours, takes passengers on an intergalactic adventure without budging an inch. Adventures such as these are made possible by moving the passengers’ seats in coordination with the action taking place on a screen to trick the mind into thinking it’s really moving through space.

The technology used in simulator rides at amusement parks across the world was originally developed by the military. Motion simulators are used to train pilots without actually having to put them in a jet or plane. The early flight simulators weren’t equipped with the same virtual reality technology we are used to today. Instead, what pilots saw on their screen was video footage from a camera moving over a model landscape. While these model landscapes were small compared to the actual terrain that they were modeled after, they could still take up an entire airplane hangar. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that physical models were completely replaced by virtual reality graphics, which use computers to translate the pilot’s commands into a graphic display.

Always on the lookout for the most cutting edge technology, Disney Imagineering first began drawing up plans for a simulator ride in 1979. However, the film that they originally based the ride on, a science fiction picture produced by Disney called The Black Hole, never really became popular enough to merit its own $50 million ride. Years later when Disney partnered with George Lucas for Captain EO, the simulator ride plan was brought back out and redesigned as a Star Wars themed ride. With a new theme that was guaranteed to appeal to the public, the Imagineers bought four military flight simulators and began reprogramming them for Star Tours. In the mid-eighties, when Star Tours was in development, the method for programming the ride consisted of a programmer sitting in the simulator and manually coordinated the ride’s movements with the onscreen adventure via a joystick. When the ride debuted in 1987, the combination of great storytelling and the thrill of feeling like you are traveling through outer space spelled instant success for Star Tours.

The appeal of Star Tours, as well as the many simulator rides that appeared after, is not just the novelty of feeling like you are actually moving, but the immersive cinematic experience. The simulator ride allows riders to jump into the film and experience exactly what the characters are experiencing. It’s no surprise then that many of the simulator rides that followed were based on hit films. Some examples are Universal Studios Florida’s The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera, Universal Studios’ Back to the Future: The Ride, and the more recent Simpsons Ride also at Universal Studios.

Since simulator rides have such a strong connection with the movie industry, the next obvious move for amusement parks was to integrate 3-D technology into simulator rides. The recently updated Star Tours is now enhanced by 3-D effects, as well as Universal Studio’s Despicable Me opening in 2012. But 3-D isn’t the only recent innovation that’s changing the way we think about simulator rides. At Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has taken the simulator ride in a whole new direction by incorporating robotic arm technology. The ride’s cars, shaped like ‘magic benches,’ are attached to robotic arms that lift the cars and nimbly move them in almost any direction. Furthermore, the robotic arms are mounted on a track, so Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is actually a combination of a dark ride and simulator ride. While robotic arm technology had been used in amusement parks before Harry Potter, this ride puts it to use in a way never before seen. Yet, the ride still uses screens to create the cinematic environment that is common to all simulator rides. With simulator rides becoming so advanced, it makes one wonder if they will someday become so realistic that they could replace the sprawling roller coasters that make up much of today’s amusement parks. We know there are plenty of roller coaster enthusiasts out there that cringe at such a thought, but it’s still a worthwhile consideration.

3 responses to “The Evolution of the Simulator Ride”

  1. Robert says:

    Interesting story..just a sidenote. Star Tours was not the first simulator ride. Tour of the Universe at Toronto’s CN Tower was earlier.

    I know from a Disney Imagineer that they came up and rode it to make sure they were not copying anything.

  2. Amy says:

    Wasn’t Spiderman the first to put motion simulator technology on a track? (Or was Dinosaur considered a simulator on a track?) Cool article, thanks!

  3. Max says:

    Indiana Jones at Disneyland was actually the first motion simulator dark ride. That opened back in 1995, but Spiderman actually was the first to include a combination of a classic dark ride with motion-simulator scenes.

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