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The "Star Tours" Saga: First, a quick pre-flight drink ...

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The "Star Tours" Saga: First, a quick pre-flight drink ...

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Well, I don't know if I believe in the Force or not. But I'm thinking that it was probably preordained that George Lucas would eventually do something for the Disney theme parks.

After all, George was one of the very first people on the planet to actually experience "The Happiest Place on Earth." Or so says Mr. Lucas.

I'm serious, folks. In multiple interviews that he's given over the past 30 years, the creator of "Star Wars" has told the story about how -- in July of 1955 -- his family drove all the way down from Modesto, CA. Just so they visit Walt's new theme park.

To hear George tell it, the Lucas family actually made it into Disneyland on the second day that the theme park was open to the public. And -- obviously -- 11-year-old George must have liked what he saw. For -- in the years that followed -- Lucas would return again and again. Particularly during the mid-1960s, when George was attending the Cinema School at the University of Southern California up in LA and Anaheim was just a quick drive down the 5.

Of course, this was long before George Lucas became THE George Lucas. The director of "THX 1138" and "American Grafitti," not to mention being the guy who brought us all six "Star Wars" films as well as the three (and soon to be a fourth, or so they say) "Indiana Jones" films.

But -- no matter how successful he became -- Lucas still had a large soft spot when it came to Disneyland. This may explain why -- when he was looking for just the right sound for the runaway ore cars to make in 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" -- George actually sent some sound engineers from Marin County all the way down to Orange County. Just so they could then record the noise that the "Space Mountain" cars make as they zoomed along the track of that Tomorrowland thrill ride.

Of course, in order to get permission to make that recording, Lucas had to first reach out to the then-head of Walt Disney Productions, Ron Miller. And ask if it would be okay to some ILM employees down to Disneyland to record some sounds for the next "Indiana Jones" move. Ron reportedly said "Sure" ... If George would then agree to meet with Miller at Silverado (I.E. The Disney family vineyard, which is located in Napa Valley, CA). To discuss something over a glass of wine.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Lucas allegedly said "Okay. " Which was why -- a few weeks later -- George and Ron sat down. And -- after pouring each of them a glass of Silverado chardonnay -- Miller supposedly turned to Lucas and said: "What do you know about Rediffusion?"

George -- as it turns out -- already knew quite a bit at Rediffuson Simulation Ltd. That UK-based corporation that built these 13-ton simulators that British Airways then used to train its pilots to safely fly jumbo jets. These amazing machines that -- thanks to the synchronized movement of the cabin itself as well as film elements that could be projected on its forward screen -- could give its occupants the sensation of flight.

"Why did Lucas already know about Rediffusion?," you ask. Because the techno-wizards that George worked with at Industrial Light & Magic had already seen this simulator technology and immediately grasped its possibility. That this training technology could also be used for entertainment purposes.

Of course, the guys at ILM initially though small & practical. Which is why they were toying with the idea of building a much smaller simulator. Something that Lucas could then place in shopping malls. Which customers could then pay small fees to experience brief films that Industrial Light & Magic would create. Mini-movies that could recreate the sensation of sky diving or surfing.

Miller then supposedly said "You don't want to do that. Rediffusion is too great a technology to throw away on something that you can ride at the mall. You need to think bigger with this simulator stuff."

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Ron then reportedly went on to describe Walt Disney Productions' own flirtation with the Rediffusion technology. How it had come to the Imagineers' attention as WED was doing initial research for EPCOT Center, checking out possible new ride systems for that new WDW theme park.

Everyone at Imagineering agreed that simulator technology could be the basis of a great new Disney theme park ride. The only problem was ... No one could then agree what this ride should be about.

Given the high cost of these simulators (At the time, Rediffusion was selling these pilot training devices for $500,000 apiece) and given the fact that Disney was going to have to buy at least a half dozen of these machines (In order to give this proposed attraction enough hourly capacity to meet guest demand), this project was not going to be a casual investment on Walt Disney Productions' part. Which is why the guys at WED felt that they had to tie this state-of-the-art technology to just the right property in order to sell the project to Disney's board of directors.

The first time around, the Imagineers chose poorly. They initially tried to create a simulator that was based on Walt Disney Productions' December 1979 release, "The Black Hole." Envisioning a theme park ride that would have actually given guests some control over their vehicle. Piloting them to pilot their vehicle through the various twists & turns that one might encounter as they roamed through the corridors of that enormous spaceship, the Cygnus. Then sought out its mad commander, Dr. Heins Reinhardt and his evil robot, Maximillian.

Unfortunately, though Disney poured over $20 million in the production of this Gary Nelson film, "The Black Hole" failed to impress the public. Or -- for that matter -- do all that much business at the box office. Which is why Mouse House executives then quickly shied away from the idea of doing any sort of attraction that would remind the public of this big budget bomb.

Here's an interesting little side note, though: While the Imagineers never actually got to build that "Black Hole" based attraction, they did eventually get around to using that guest interaction element. That thing was supposed to make Disney's simulator ride so special.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Though -- instead of being placed inside a Tomorrowland attraction -- this multiple-destination idea eventually proved to be one of the popular features of one of Epcot's old attractions: Future World's "Horizons" ride, where -- toward the end of the attraction -- guests could chose whether they want to revisit the not-so-distant future via spaceship, submarine or low-flying hovercraft.

Anyway ... Getting back to Ron, George and those two glasses of chardonnay: Being the old football player that he was, Miller reportedly put it on the line. I'm told that Ron said: "I'm tired of Disney making these movies that are supposed to be like 'Star Wars.' I figure, why settle for pale imitations when we could get the real thing?"

Miller then quickly sketched his idea. He wanted Lucas to collaborate with the Imagineers on a new attraction for the Disney theme parks. Something that would make use of Rediffusion's simulator technology. That ILM could perhaps create the ride film for.

"Would this proposed attraction have featured the 'Star Wars' characters?," you ask. Well, that's what I'm told Ron was hoping for ...

Unfortunately, Lucas turned Miller down. Though not for the reason that you might think.

You see, George really did want to work with the Imagineers on some sort of attraction for the Disney theme parks. Unfortunately, at this time, he was going through a fairly brutal divorce. And -- given everything that was going on then -- it was just the wrong time to be taking on such an ambitious new project.

So Lucas didn't actually say "No" to Miller when it came to doing a "Star Wars"-based attraction for the Disney theme parks. He just said "Not now." Which is why the two men finished up their wine and agreed to discuss the project again a year or so down the line.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Of course, there was no way that Ron could have known that -- just a few months later -- he'd be fighting for his professional life. First by having to drive off greenmailers Saul Steinberg and Irwin Jacobs, then by facing attack from within. As Roy Disney & Stanley Gold put together a successful campaign to have Ron removed as Disney's CEO and Michael Eisner put in Miller's place.

I've often wondered what would have happened if -- instead of "Not now" -- George Lucas would have said "Yes" to Ron Miller. Would the success of a "Star Wars" -based attraction have been enough to stave off Ron's critics for a while? Given Miller the time he needed to prove that he really was his own man, not just some dumb jock and/or Card Walker's water carrier. But an ambitious executive who truly did have a real plan and a vision for what Walt Disney Productions could become in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond.

Disney corporate history is full of moments like this. Seemingly small pivot points that ultimately had a huge impact on the company, significantly altered Disney's destiny. Like what would have happened if -- instead of starting up Touchstone Pictures (So that Disney would then finally have a way to release adult-oriented material) -- the company had done what Ron Miller had originally wanted to do back in 1980. Which was to buy the then-hugely-financially troubled 20th Century Fox studios.

Now imagine that: Instead of just being the corporation who has "Star Tours" in its theme parks, Disney could have actually been the company that (through Fox) could have released the "Star Wars" movies to theaters, the two trilogies on videos & DVDs. What sort of impact would an aquisition like that have had on the Walt Disney Company's future?

That's the sort of thing that one might want to mull over while sipping a nice glass of Silverado chardonnay.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Speaking of the Silverado Vineyard ... As you can see by the photos that accompany this article, Nancy and I made a special trip out to Yountville, CA. last year just to visit the Disney family vineyard. We had a wonderful time touring Silverado and highly recommend that -- if you're ever up in the Stags Leap district -- that you drop by for a visit.

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