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Disneyland's fabled make-out ride Adventure Thru Inner Space returns through virtual reality

Disneyland's fabled make-out ride Adventure Thru Inner Space returns through virtual reality
Back to the future: At Disney's D23 Expo in Anaheim, a re-creation of the long-gone Disneyland ride Adventure Thru Inner Space, which opened in 1967. Seen here, models of the Atomobiles that took visitors through the Disney attraction that seemed to shrink riders down to microscopic size. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times) (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Disneyland's Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction closed in 1985, yet here it was in front of me.

I saw a snowflake, and it was getting bigger. It was soon overwhelming. Icicles jutted out toward me. Crystallized shards were everywhere. Was I inside a snowflake? Up ahead, I saw a dizzying array of white spheres, mesmerizing from a distance but precarious up close.

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This is unlike any Disney attraction I've ever been on, I thought, and then I heard a voice.

FULL COVERAGE: D23 EXPO

"And still," it told me, "I continue to shrink. What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness?" It's the late actor Paul Frees. He soon tells me where I am, and it isn't comforting: "The infinite universe within a tiny speck of snowflake crystal."

Adventure Thru Inner Space, retired and removed from Tomorrowland after the George Lucas empire moved into Disneyland, is alive once more.

A simulation of the ride can be found at D23 Expo, the all-things Disney gathering this weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center. By using video-game technology — and virtual reality — it's quite possible that dead attractions will never quite be dead. Or maybe just a little less dead.

"This," says Becky Cline, Walt Disney Archives director, "doesn't exist in real life."

No, but it feels real enough, and its virtual existence is due to one man, Jeremy Marx.

Marx does not work for Disney — IT infrastructure is his trade — but like many of the estimated 60,000 Disney aficionados who will crowd the center, Marx would like to go on some rides at Disneyland.

One problem: The ones he wants to visit no longer exist.

"My biggest thrill is when I see someone's face, realizing they are seeing something they never thought they would. It's just a look of awe," says the 42-year-old from Salt Lake Valley, Utah.

Marx's approximation of Adventure Thru Inner Space is so good that Disney is showcasing it in one of its signature D23 Expo exhibits, one dedicated to 60 years of Disneyland history. Even without the virtual reality headset — Disney is broadcasting the re-creation on a loop on a television screen — Adventure Thru Inner Space is trippy.

The ride, which opened this month in 1967 and was famously sponsored by Monsanto, had a reputation as a bit of a make-out corral. As Marx's video comes to an end, the screen is overtaken by what is essentially a laser light show, the sort more akin to a planetarium than a Disney theme park.

Tony Baxter is a famed Disney Imagineer who was one of the architects of the "Star Wars"-inspired Star Tours, which replaced Inner Space. Long before that, he worked on Adventure Thru Inner Space as a ride operator. He was on hand at the D23 press preview Thursday evening, and he put Adventure Thru Inner Space into context.

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"It was almost Disney's answer to, what would I say, the psychedelic world that had happened up in San Francisco in the late '60s," says Baxter, who in 2013 left his senior position for that of creative advisor.

"So you could go up there for a light show, and you could come down here and have the same light show, but contexted in a story. Up there, it would be abstracted against music. Down here, it was part of a story, but you go through the same widely abstract environment."

The challenge for Marx was that there were few actual photos of the ride's interior, which was based largely on projections rather than the audio-animatronic figures that are the signature of Disney theme parks. In the ride, guests would enter a so-called "Atomobile" and be shrunk down to microscopic size.

"It was an incredibly dark ride that had very few actual physical items," Marx says. "The only things that were physical in there were atoms. It was really surprising to me when I was seeing this. That was one reason there's no photos. You can't easily take a picture of a movie."

Adventure Thru Inner Space is one of three Marx creations being shown at the D23 Expo. Also in the Disneyland history exhibit is a virtual walk-through of Tomorrowland's House of the Future. Over at the Walt Disney Birthplace foundation, which is seeking to restore Disney's childhood Chicago home, is a full virtual reality ride-through of the miniature train he built in the backyard of his Los Angeles home.

Marx isn't done. On Saturday afternoon, he'll preview some work-in-progress virtual reality attractions at a D23 Expo panel discussion. The first project he showed to the public was the Tower of the Four Winds, a mobile-like structure that accompanied It's A Small World at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

Marx clarifies that the version he created was more akin to how the tower looked in 1965. It was the self-taught designer's first major attempt at 3-D modeling using the Unreal Engine game design software.

"It was a baptism by fire. You start realizing there's so much to it. There are more than 800 pieces involved inside of this thing," he says of the Rolly Crump-designed Tower of the Four Winds.

For Marx, such projects are just a hobby. Considering that Disney owns the copyrights, he can't make any money off his old attraction re-creations. Single and with no kids, Marx jokes that he has "no responsibilities in my life, which frees me up for working on things like this."

But it's important work, he says. "This is a part of our past. These are things that helped drive Walt's legacy."

And while the promise of virtual reality means long-lost attractions may have new life, Marx cautions that his digital inventions are no replacement for the real thing.

"You'll miss some of the smells," he says.

Twitter: @Toddmartens

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