Monday, November 14, 2011

Disney in Space Part 3: Robotic Jar-Jar

You thought this post was going to be about EPCOT, didn’t you? Well, in a perfect world where EPCOT Center’s Space pavilion got built, it would be, but as it is we won’t be getting to EPCOT until the next post.

The crowd-pleasing, utterly unrealistic thrills of Space Mountain nicely foreshadowed the success of Star Wars in 1977. Much like Space Mountain, Star Wars made no effort to realistically depict space travel, its sole aim was to tell a fun, exciting story. Nevertheless, because of the dented, “lived-in” look of its environments, Star Wars felt more realistic to the general public than the sterile, scientifically accurate 2001: A Space Odyssey. And because of the success of the original Star Wars trilogy and its tie-in merchandise, it captured the imagination of a whole generation of children.

However, by 1986 it looked as though Star Wars was running out of steam. The last installment in the trilogy was three years in the past, and there were no firm plans for future films. Star Wars merchandise was almost impossible to find in stores, and George Lucas looked like this:

BeardlessLucasThere is no chin under George Lucas’ beard. Just more of his neck.

Yes, the mid-to-late 1980s were a strange time for the Star Wars franchise. But in 1986 the spirits of young Star Wars fans everywhere (including an 8-year-old me) were lifted by the news of a Star Wars attraction by Disney that used revolutionary simulator technology to take you on a trip into hyperspace and down the infamous Death Star trench! Unlike Disney’s previous space rides, in which the opportunity to experience the thrills felt by real-life astronauts was the primary draw, here the main attraction was prospect of being immersed in a popular fictional universe-one, it should be noted, that was not a Disney creation. In many ways, the decision to insert Star Wars into Disneyland mirrors the recent decision by Disney’s leadership to bring James Cameron’s Avatar franchise to Animal Kingdom. If today’s Internet had existed in the mid-1980s, might the online reaction to Star Tours have mirrored this year’s Avatar announcement? It’s interesting to consider.

You’d expect that any marketing campaign for Star Tours would focus heavily on the popularity of Star Wars and its familiar characters, and you’d mostly be correct. But there’s also this amazing gem unearthed by Progress City USA’s Michael Crawford that aired during the Disney Sunday Movie on December 28, 1986. It starts with a C-3PO rapping, and then it really gets weird. Just watch:

After watching that, you probably have a lot of questions, which I will do my best to answer in a handy Q&A format:

Q: Why was C-3PO rapping?
A: it was kind of a fad back then for people who had no business rapping to publicly humiliate themselves attempting to do so. Remember this?

Q: I thought Sidekicks starred Chuck Norris and that kid from SeaQuest, not Buck Rogers and the kid from Surf Ninjas?
A: Ah, you're thinking of the better-known 1993 film of the same name. Sidekicks was also a short-lived TV show starring Gil Gerard and Ernie Reyes, Jr.

Q: Was it about an asthmatic Ernie Reyes, Jr. having daydreams about Buck Rogers?
A: Thankfully, no.

But the C-3PO rap number and the awkward presence of the mismatched Gil Gerard/Ernie Reyes team is the least of my problems with this sequence. You know how it was when you were a kid, and a a cheerful, well-meaning adult would clumsily try to relate to you despite the fact that they obviously didn't know anything about the stuff you liked? "Hey, you like Star Wars?" they'd say. "Is that the one where Dark Vadar and Dr. Spock beam down to the Planet of the Apes?"

Well, Disney obviously found one of those people to write the script for this weird little adventure. Not only was this person clueless enough to think Star Wars is an aspirational, scientifically accurate tale about the future and the wonder of human achievement like Star Trek, but they even thought TRON was a space movie. A space movie! Because it takes place in a computer, and spaceships have computers, and therefore any movie about computers must automatically take place in space, right?

Fortunately, the people who worked on Star Tours were not so out-of-touch. During the "dark period" where there were no new Star Wars productions on the horizon, Star Tours offered the only "new" content we'd see until 1999. I can't emphasize enough how cool it was to walk through the queue for the first time and see C-3PO and R2-D2 for real, in three dimensions. Unfortunately, the Rex character's "comical" incompetence and panicked flailing was an unfortunate precursor to the Jar-Jar antics that would soil the long-awaited Episode I, but Star Tours was such an enjoyable ride that it was easy to look past that.

The Star Tours ride system was adapted for only one other Disney attraction: EPCOT Center's Body Wars, which opened with the Wonders of Life pavilion in 1989. Until the mid-90s, it was promoted as EPCOT's headlining attraction, much like Soarin' is today. Unfortunately, the Wonders of Life pavilion was shut down as a cost-cutting move after it lost its corporate sponsorship, and the Body Wars simulators were scavenged for spare parts for Star Tours.

This wasn't the end of simulators at EPCOT, though. EPCOT Center would finally get its Space pavilion in 2003. In the concluding post in my Disney in Space series, we'll talk a bit about the Space pavilion that never was, and then take a look at the only attraction on Disney property to feature Lt. Dan and in-ride barf bags.

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