A ramp rat visits the House of Mouse

Why is it that some people love amusement park rides that produce a physical force that mimics flying but are afraid to fly in a small airplane? One of my closest friends is a roller coaster fanatic, but he refuses to ride in a small airplane. And it’s not just because I am the PIC. He was positively terrified when he flew in a 20-seat turboprop recently. Small airplanes are too scary, he said. But if you put him on a track 50 feet over the ground and send him around corkscrew curves at 60-plus mph with some 19-year-old controlling the speed, he’s happy as a clam.

I found myself thinking about him recently as I stood in line for the Matterhorn and Space Mountain at Disneyland. The first is a roller coaster that goes through a faux mountain and is nearly as old as the park itself. The second is a roller coaster in the dark. The last time I was at Disneyland was during the Ford administration and I was barely tall enough for the Matterhorn and missed Space Mountain by a couple of inches. I did not miss much, I decided after I rode it.

Many of the original rides are no more, such as the sky tram and the submarine adventure. Both were removed years ago, but the subs are being brought back in 2007 to incorporate the popularity of Disney’s latest hit, “Finding Nemo.”

Several of the original rides have been revamped. The Peter Pan ride, for example, used to be little more than shadows projected on a wall as a tram took you through a building. Now it has cars on an elevated track that take you over London and Never Never Land. There is always a big line for that ride. I think it’s because it is one of the first ones you see when you walk through Cinderella’s castle into Fantasyland.

The Dumbo ride was a great demonstration of centrifugal force. I made a mental note to try the magic feather trick on reluctant students.

California Adventure is a fairly new attraction. There is a Hollywood back lot, a wine country exhibit, several roller coasters on a beach boardwalk, and my favorite area, Condor Flats, which, as the name implies, is aviation related. You walk into Condor Flats as majestic music is piped in. You have to fight the urge to swagger like a barnstormer. The cement is painted with pseudo runway and ramp markings. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if we were on the ramp or at the runway threshold because the markings were a little confusing.

My favorite ride was Soarin’ Over California, which mimics flying in a hang glider. As you stand in line for the ride you walk down a hallway that is lined with framed photos of famous aviators, aircraft and aircraft designers. My traveling buddy and I, somewhat silly after ingesting copious amounts of cotton candy, could not refrain from doing the “we’re not worthy” bow in front of the photos. No one commented because it’s hard to be critical of someone else’s silly behavior when you are wearing plastic mouse ears.

The staff (known as “cast” in Disney speak) wear flight suits. There is a preflight video similar to the informational videos you see on airlines these days before take off. The sensation of flight is created through the use of a large curved screen. Sit in the second row if you can, because it has the best view. You sit in a contraption that is very much like a large ski lift with space for about seven people. When the ride starts the chair rotates so you are in front of the screen. On the screen images that have been shot from a helicopter are seamlessly played out. You fly through the clouds, down through a creek in Northern California, over orange groves (where you smell oranges), along coastlines, over a golf course (where someone hits a ball at you) and over Los Angeles and Disneyland at night. Tinkerbell does a fly by. Then you come in for a landing.

In Tomorrowland Disney uses the large screen technique in the Star Tours ride. Star Tours is based on the Star Wars saga. To get to the ride you walk along a catwalk at a space station. There is another one of those “before you ride this ride” videos where they have characters from Star Wars as members of the audience. Chewbacca the wookie makes a loud comment in support of the prohibition of flash photography. The seats are bolted to a moving platform. It pitches and turns and bounces.

You are seated in rows in the compartment of the space ship and your captain is a droid who confesses this is his first time flying the star tour. Instead of launching out the correct bay he goes out a side exit, narrowly missing other ships. There is the obligatory run through a comet field, an interstellar space battle and a rather fast landing.

In one maneuver the curved screen and the tilting platform perfectly mimicked the sensation of the power-on stall when a student lets go of the rudders. The nose of the spacecraft dropped to the right. Instinctively I stamped my left foot and called out “Nose down! Left rudder! Steer with your feet!” much to the amusement of my traveling pal.

When you exit the ride you do so to the majestic sounds of the Star Wars theme by John Williams. That swagger from California Adventure returns.

Meg Godlewski is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.

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