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Riding the Higher Country at Disneyland

With all the hoopla of a secret arms deal, Disneyland just launched a wilder ride than Mr. Toad ever imagined.

Most of Southern California’s amusement park aficionados were apparently out shopping when the Magic Kingdom gave its new attraction a two-week sneak preview this month, but those who did happen upon director George Lucas’ latest creation predicted that “Star Tours” will generate the longest lines in the park when the ride reopens Jan. 9.

Last week, however, the wait was so short that many patrons looped around and around, making the ride’s five-minute voyage past the Moon of Endor three or four times before wobbling off to other lands.

Back for Seconds

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“I just haven’t ever been on anything quite like that,” said Otis McCammon, a 31-year-old oil field worker, down from Anchorage with a couple of buddies.

“Come on, we’re going back for seconds. You’ve got to do it,” Chris Orazio, a 32-year-old chemist from Long Beach announced, grabbing the hand of his mother-in-law, who’d been waiting outside with two sleeping children.

As her husband whisked his mother-in-law and a 5-year-old daughter wearing Mickey Mouse ears through the turnstiles, 27-year-old Sandy Orazio explained that they’d been tipped off about the ride by friends.

“They said you couldn’t describe it. You just had to do it,” she said. “It’s not really a ride. But it’s better than Space Mountain. It tempts your imagination. You begin to wonder what it would really be like.”

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From the onset, Star Tours urges visitors to view themselves as intergalactic tourists. The Spaceport through which the walkway to the ride winds has the familiar feel of LAX. An electronic display board flashes Starspeeder departure times, and marginally audible announcements of arrivals from distant moons and planets add to the illusion that space travel has become routine.

Part of the appeal of Lucas’ “Star Wars” films was that they made the peculiar places Luke Skywalker visited seem as real as those in a National Geographic travelogue. Taking that a step further, the display board in Star Tours flashes film clips of other planets’ exotic cultures and the commercial pitch: “See your travel agent.”

Kept Off Balance

Passengers are kept just slightly off balance by the subtle fusion of the bizarre and mundane. For instance, the sort of inconspicuous glass booth used to oversee matters on other Disney rides is manned by creatures with baseball-sized eyes where their ears should be. Continuing into a high-tech but tacky android repair shop, visitors step and stop their way past a chattering C3P0 and a shadowy scene in which a drone repairs a battered R2D2, as baskets of old robot parts creep by on overhead conveyors.

Because of this mood setting, even before Lucas gets his passengers into the Endor Express, they’re caught up in the cheerfully cavalier “Well,

ed-into-a-fine-mess-but-damn-the-torpedos-we’ll-finesse-our-way-out-of-it” tone that pervades the “Star Wars” films.

“This is probably your first trip,” Capt. Rex announces, when his passengers have seated themselves in the gray and beige interior of the 747-like Starspeeder 3000. With his head swiveling enthusiastically on a spring, the pleasant robot pilot adds: “Well, it’s mine too.”

Situated in Tomorrowland, Star Tours combines aspects of the attractions surrounding it: the roller-coaster flight of Space Mountain, the simulation concept of Mission to Mars, and the film techniques of Lucas’ other contribution to the realm of Mickey Mouse, the 3-D movie “Captain Eo.”

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But more than anything, riding Star Tours is like being trapped inside a video game.

As soon as the stewardess checks seat belts and says, “Have a nice flight,” a protective screen slides down, revealing the windshield-like front of the craft, behind which preflight preparations are unfolding.

Then, with a shake and rumble the cruiser begins to “move.” Immediately Capt. Rex makes a wrong turn and slams through a closed door. The door exists only on the film appearing on the supposed “spaceshield,” but the hidden hydraulic system jolts the craft with such synchronization that it seems real.

Visually, the cruiser accelerates to light speed in standard film fashion, with a galaxy of white stars suddenly blurring as they flash past. But this craft also jerks forward with enough physical force to snap passengers’ heads back, creating a sensation sufficiently exhilarating that virtually everyone aboard yelps and laughs.

Best Vantage Point

Unlike most rides, Star Tours is best experienced from the last row of seats. From this vantage point, passengers see the whole room slanting and tilting as the starspeeder careens past moons and meteors and into the tail of a comet--chunks of which thunk and thud against the cockpit, before the ship veers and skitters crazily through a twisting tunnel of ice.

Moments later, Capt. Rex bumbles into a “restricted combat zone.”

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” he announces. “We’re going in.”

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Abruptly, the cruiser drops down and skims the metallic surface of an artificial planet, ripping past towers and buildings as it goes. Dodging a thundering fireball, the speeder banks with stomach-wrenching realism, then plummets back down, and roars up the gray planet’s square-walled canyons on the heels of a star fighter.

Each seat has gripable arm rests; the floor is nobbed for traction; and although the room never lurches more than a few feet in any direction, knees and elbows slam about as violently as on any roller-coaster.

Some passengers emerge from the ride with beads of sweat on their foreheads. A 6-year-old girl from Idaho came out sobbing. And more than a few passengers stumble off the ride “looking real green,” observed a passenger who admitted to a twinge of motion sickness herself.

Twenty-seven-year-old Tim Barrow, of Beeville, Tex., however, got off the ride feeling just fine.

A vacationing Marine Corps pilot who flys a T-2 Buckeye intermediate trainer, Barrow declared Star Tours, “the best ride I’ve ever been on.”

He and his father, James Goodwin, a WWII B-17 and B-29 pilot, found it similar to a regular flight simulator. But both said Star Tours was “a lot more fun.”

“Flying an airplane you’re usually up high, so you don’t get that down-close-to-the-earth sensation. This takes the excitement of the (Star Wars) movies and gives you the physical sensations too,” said Barrow, who concedes he occasionally fantasizes that he’s a Jedi warrior.

“I look at something like that and say, ‘I wish I was born 100 years later,’ ” he said. “Get rid of Rex the wonder pilot and I’ll give it a try.”

Before the ride’s exit ramp spills into the Star Traders gift shop, passengers stroll past travel posters for destinations such as Tatooine and Hoth. If patrons’ reactions to their misadventures near the Moon of Endor are any indication, simulated travel to imaginary destinations may someday compete with real flights to Hawaii.

At the least, Star Tours seems destined to shake up the amusement park business.

As he walked beneath the Christmas lights on Main Street, 22-year-old Bick Brown of Seal Beach flatly proclaimed: “The day of the roller-coaster is over.”


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