Monday, February 11, 2013

Flying Tires or Saucers

From 1961 to 1966, Tomorrowland in Disneyland was home to the Flying Saucers.  Each guest climbed on board a saucer (which was really a hovercraft), and for a few minutes, you were buoyed aloft on a cushion of air from below.  The craft could (more or less) be steered by leaning.  The ride was futuristic, but slow to load and unload, and prone to breakdowns.  The tendency to break down contributed to the short life of the attraction.  Given that it was only around for five years, you have to be at least a bit of a Disneyphile to know about the flying saucers.  But now you only have to visit Disney California Adventure to experience them (more or less).

Behold "Luigi's Flying Tires", in the Car's Land expansion at DCA, where the ride has been reborn:
I'm not sure if the breakdown issues have been resolved with new technology or not.  The first time I visited (on my first morning in DCA), the attraction had just shut down.  But when I went back on my third night, it was operating, and I got in line before dinner.  These are a bit bigger than the original Flying Saucers; they seat about 2-3 per "tire".  (By the way, what looks like a large rubber tire from a distance appears on closer inspection to be cloth.  It's essentially the skirt of the hovercraft.  There are numerous instructions and warning to step over the tire to get in and out, supposedly for your safety, but I suspect the "tires" could be damaged if you stepped on them.)

I've recently been perusing the fascinating book Roller Coasters, Flumes, and Flying Saucers, about Arrow Development, the company which built (among other things) the original Flying Saucers for Disney. It notes that the idea of having each vehicle individually powered by its own motor (as a traditional hovercraft would) was abandoned for a very good reason:   With so many gasoline engines operating all day long, you would risk a leak and a spark starting a fire, and the high velocity air would have created the same effect as a blowtorch, roasting everyone on the ride.  I suppose these days electric engines might be possible, but the new system seems to still provide air from below.  In the Flying Saucers, generating airflow from below raised a tricky problem, 'though, since it would have required far too much pressure to blow air up out of the entire platform at once.  Arrow solved the original problem with a clever set of mechanical valves which remained closed unless they were pressurized from above, i.e., if one of the hovercraft were sitting on top of the valve, and the craft underside was currently pressurized.  That way, only the valves beneath a vehicle were releasing air, continuing to keep it aloft. However, this still required starting the vehicles hovering.  The solution was to pull all the vehicles into one small loading section, and lift the vehicles in just that section on an air cushion.  Then the remaining valves could be started throughout the rest of the platform, and the vehicles could start.  As a result of this complicated procedure, all the vehicles had to be corralled into the starting section (which was done via a mechanical arm), and if something went wrong, the system took a while to restart.

Now some things have changed.  The air holes in the concrete don't appear to have the same clever mechanical valves, although those could just hidden below the grates you can see.  I do know from my visit that the new vehicles start and stop from anywhere, which does speed up the loading; there is no special starting area.  I'm actually wondering if the problem was solved with some sort of electronic system.  I'd probably try some sort of proximity sensor which opens up the airflow whenever a vehicle is with x feet of a given valve.  But that's guessing; I have no idea how the new system works.

The line was slow-moving.  The problem of how to load and unload efficiently remains, even without having to move the vehicles into a special area.  (I did see cast members help a guest with a disability board, and this did involve the cast members moving a vehicle over to a special loading ramp.  It looked to me as if they were able to start up just one vehicle and move it over to the ramp, which would argue for my idea of an electronic system, but I could have been mistaken.)

I'm not sure if there is a good way to speed up loading and unloading, although the new multi-guest cars probably help cut down wait times a little.  I was actually running pretty close to my dinner reservation time, but I did get to make it on the attraction.  And the ride is fun!  I'm not sure what it is, but floating around on a hovercraft is actually pretty cool. I had an OK time with steering, too:  I picked up some good speed (and a nice spin, which I was working on) without too much trouble.  I suspect that in some ways I have an easier time steering since there's only one of me to coordinate leaning in one direction or another.  But I think it's probably more fun with someone else anyway.

I have to admit that I thought hovercraft were pretty cool ever since I was little.  I remember seeing plans in the back of Boy's Life for a hovercraft that you could supposedly build from a vacuum cleaner engine, and I thought that was awesome.  (There were also of course ads for x-ray specs, Charles Atlas' seven day exercise plan, 8' weather balloons, and magnets that were supposed to lift 250 pounds.)  I thought the idea of floating around, hovering, on a cushion of air was amazing.  So I guess in a way, riding the Flying Sau—oops! I mean Tires, Flying Tires, was sort of fulfillment of a childhood dream.  And isn't that pretty much what a trip to Disneyland is all about?

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