Disneyland designers face pressure to ensure Star Wars Land doesn't flop

As Disneyland engineers tinker on top-secret designs for the park's new Star Wars Land, a mothballed attraction at nearby Disney California Adventure provides a stark reminder that even the most creative ride ideas can land with a thud, costing park operators lots of money and frustrating visitors.

Luigi's Flying Tires was an ambitious effort that lofted visitors in tire-shaped bumper cars floating on a cushion of air — like an air-hockey game with humans. But the Cars Land feature was plagued by poor reviews and numerous injuries.

The ride, estimated to cost $400 million, is now hidden behind a wooden barrier little more than two years after opening. Walt Disney Co. executives plan to replace it early next year with another car-themed ride.

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"It was a calculated risk," said Todd Regan, founder and chief executive of MiceChat.com, a blog that follows Disney parks news. "With big risks come big rewards. But that was a huge failure."

As Luigi's Flying Tires demonstrates, there is no guarantee that new attractions will be as popular as instant classics like Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion.

Despite huge investments made by the nation's $55-billion theme parks industry on focus groups, surveys and engineering studies, new attractions can still turn out to be flops, forcing park executives to spend even more for replacements.

"Nobody wants to spend that kind of money and find out it's a failure," said Edward Marks, chief executive of the Producers Group, a Glendale theme park design and construction firm. The company helped build Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure and Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Singapore.

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Other examples of theme park flops include Disney's Light Magic, a nighttime parade that guests could see only if they stood at particular spots along the route. It closed in September 1997, only five months after it launched.

Superstar Limo, a ride at Disney California Adventure that chauffeured riders past caricatures of past-their-prime celebrities such as Cher and Whoopi Goldberg, closed in January 2002, less than a year after its debut.

Rocket Rods, a ride that moved parkgoers around Disneyland, lasted a little more than two years before it closed in September 2000, because of maintenance and technical problems.

For larger players, such as Disney or Universal Studios, the process of building a new attraction begins with the purchase of a popular intellectual property, such as "Star Wars," "Harry Potter" or Marvel Comics. The pantheon of "Star Wars" characters came along when Walt Disney acquired Lucasfilm from George Lucas in a 2012 deal worth more than $4 billion.

Attraction designers say a meeting with theme park executives often sounds like the pitches that screenwriters make to movie studio executives to get a feature film made.

Often ride designers will promise that a proposed attraction will combine the best features of two or more popular existing rides.

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But innovative ride ideas that don't resemble previous attractions are the biggest risk.

"At some point, you have to put a stake in the sand and say this is going to be true to your values," said Tony Christopher, president and founder of Landmark Entertainment Group, a design and production company for theme parks and live theater. He worked with Universal Studios, helping to create the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman at Islands of Adventure and Terminator 2: 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood.

With Disney officials announcing the opening in a few years of a Star Wars Land, Walt Disney Imagineers are probably feeling pressure to come up with rides that meet the high expectations of hard-core "Star Wars" fans.

"It's a massive [intellectual property] and when you have a massive IP the pressure is massive," Marks said. "Even if you get it right, you will get haters."

Disney officials have been stingy with details about the rides in the 14-acre expansion that will break ground in 2017.

During Disney's D23 fan expo at the Anaheim Convention Center, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger showed a brief piece of concept video featuring spacecraft flying over an alien city.

Iger said that the expansion will include a re-creation of the Millennium Falcon and enable guests to take the controls for a "customized secret mission." He hinted at an immersive attraction that will put park visitors into "a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance."

"Star Wars" fans said they have high expectations for the expansion.

Betsy O'Donnell and her husband, Tim, of Orchard Park, N.Y., have annual passes for Disneyland and the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. For years, their 12-year-old daughter has dressed like "Star Wars" character Princess Leia for Halloween.

O'Donnell, who has been speculating for weeks about the rides Disneyland might build, said she expects that other fans of Disney and "Star Wars" are setting high standards for the new rides at Star Wars Land.

"It's going to be hard to please everyone, because it is such a large group and it's such an opinionated group," she said. "But if anyone can do it, Disney can do it."

In the case of Luigi's Flying Tires, the ride was a revival of the concept behind the Flying Saucers that operated in Tomorrowland from 1961 to 1966. That ride put guests on saucer-shaped vehicles that floated on air. But the Flying Saucers ride was also plagued by mechanical and technical problems — glitches that Disney designers promised to solve in Luigi's Flying Tires.

But similar problems continued in the modern version. The vehicles moved slowly, if at all, over jets of air shooting up from the ground. Wait queues were long because the attraction lasted two minutes per session and fit only 21 vehicles at a time.

The ride was also plagued by injuries. Five days after the opening, the state Department of Industrial Relations investigated a report that a passenger suffered neck and back pain after getting hit in the face by a beach ball. The balls were mixed in with the vehicles to add a fun kinetic element to the ride.

The injured rider was treated at a medical center in Anaheim.

State reports show that the beach balls were blamed for four other passenger injuries that resulted in a visit to a doctor or hospital before Disney removed them.

Ten more injuries resulted when riders fell while trying to board or exit the vehicles, according to state records.

Disney watcher Regan attributed the closure to the injury rate and lukewarm guest reception. Yelp reviewers complained about the slow movement of the cars, which were difficult to control. "This was such a boring and weird and horrible ride," one said.

Disney officials wouldn't discuss why the ride shut down, but Disney's blog said that the ride was closing because Luigi went to Italy to visit family: "When he returns, his Casa della Tires will reopen as a completely new attraction in early 2016."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Twitter: @hugomartin

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