In 1961 a new ride was introduced in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. For five years, the bumper-car/hovercraft ride called Flying Saucers was a favorite of park goers and a general pain in the ass for Disneyland staff.
When a space-hogging boat ride called Phantom Boats was replaced by the Submarine Lagoon in 1960, it was decided that a new passenger steered aquatic ride was necessary, albeit one that took up far less space. The first thought was a ride already employed in other theme parks called a “duck bump”. These motorized inner-tube shaped boats were equipped with small motors and a rudder that allowed the rider to tool around a small pond and bump into other riders. This ride had the advantage of being confined to a small, compact pond as opposed to the rambling mini-river needed for Phantom Boats, however imagineers (that’s “designer” in Disneyese) were hard pressed to come up with a way to shoehorn the ride into the futuristic theme of Tomorrowland. The round boats (and the water in the pond) were discarded in favor of similarly shaped hovercraft which would be called flying saucers.
Original designs called for a gasoline powered, one-man hovercraft that was already being built by a German company, but the razor-sharp, high-speed fan blades were determined to be too risky for use by the general public. The final design took its inspiration from the popular air hockey tables found in nearly every arcade in America in 1961. The motive power would be provided not by motors in each of the individual saucers but by streams of pressurized air from the floor. Each saucer would now have no more than two moving parts: The safety belt clasp and the rider himself. Steering and acceleration could be controlled by the rider simply by shifting his weight. Lean to one side and a wider gap was created on the opposing side, thus releasing more of the air coming from the floor. Whichever direction the rider leaned was the direction the saucer would move.
As soon as this concept was accepted by imagineers they realized that there wasn’t a blower in the world large enough to power a surface as large as that planned for the Flying Saucers ride, especially if the air cushion had to support 500 pound loaded saucers. The solution was to engineer special valves that would only release air when a saucer was directly above the airhole. These valves were startlingly simple affairs controlled by nothing more than springs. The spring was just strong enough to push a disk up against the bottom of the floor at normal atmospheric pressure and (mostly) seal the hole. When a saucer passed over a hole, it increased the downward pressure just enough to push the disk down and release air around the edge of the disk. The finished ride had a circular floor measuring 100 feet in diameter. The floor was bisected by a catwalk that not only provided two separate bumping areas but also served as one side of a “corral” which was formed for loading and unloading. The other sides of the corrals were swinging booms that separated the saucers into two groups per side. There were 64 saucers altogether separated into four groups of 16. Confused? Check out this nifty diagram from FilmFax Magazine (Dec. 2005).
Flying Saucers opened on August 6, 1961 with appropriate fanfare provided by an astronaut, a spacegirl, and the (at that time) planetary-named Pluto. The price of a ride was one “E” coupon, the most expensive of ride tickets (50 cents). This put Flying Saucers’ prestige on par with rides like the Matterhorn and Submarines. The ride was a huge hit, in part, because it was the only ride besides Autopia that let the rider steer.
Unfortunately, even with the simplicity of the valves and (unlike Autopia) no breakdowns of individual saucers, the ride had issues that gave maintenance crews endless headaches. Like a giant pipe organ the holes and saucers would often create a sort of harmonic convergence which would make all of the holes open up with a load boom that shook windows all over the park. The blowers would then have to be shut off and planks of wood laid over the open holes to rescue the stranded riders. Resetting the valves and restarting the blowers could take an hour. This occurrence happened, on average, once or twice a day! On top of the maintenance issues, the ride, with its rapid opening and closing of valves and the hissing of escaping air, was by far the loudest ride ever installed at the park.
When Tomorrowland prepared for a major redesign in 1966, Disney staff was unanimous in which ride they wouldn’t mind seeing the last of. When Flying Saucers was dismantled, it left a seven-foot deep basement where the blowers were housed. This basement was used for the Tomorrowland stage near the snack bar which would rise from the ground with the performers already on stage. Later, that location would be occupied by the 3D theater showing Michael Jackson’s Captain EO.