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What happens when things actually do sort-of, kind-of go horribly wrong at a Disney theme park

Jim Hill

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What happens when things actually do sort-of, kind-of go horribly wrong at a Disney theme park

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At the D23 EXPO back in September, I noted – with some amusement – that the new attractions that are now in the works for Hong Kong Disneyland follow the tried-and-true WDI formula. In that the critical event, the thing that sets everything in motion (Be it Albert the monkey opening an enchanted music box at Mystic Manor ….

Albert the Monkey opening an enchanted music box at Mystic Manor
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… or a back-scratching bear. Who accidentally sends your train hurtling down this collapsing mineshaft on Big Grizzly Mountain coaster) …

A scene from Big Grizzly Mountain coaster
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Imagineering has used “ … SOMETHING GOES HORRIBLY WRONG !?” so many times as the event that kick-starts the storyline of a new ride or show that – a while back – one of WDI’s rivals (And – no – I’m not going to tell you the name of the theme park design company that actually came up with this killer concept) wanted to create an attraction that parodied this over-used Disney conceit.

This proposed simulator ride – which was to have been built around the characters from “Futurama” – was to have been a “Star Tours” –like simulator attraction. In fact, this “Futurama” ride was to have been so closely modeled after “Star Tours” that – when the blast shield came down – Fry was to have turned around, noticed the audience seated behind him and then suddenly said: “Wait a minute. I know this ride ! I've been on this ride!? We’re about to blast off into space! And then something will go HORRIBLY WRONG !?

And then – from there – the beauty of this proposed “Futurama” simulator attraction was that Fry, Leela and Bender would go on a typical Planet Express delivery run. But at each step of the way  (i.e. When their spaceship stops for fuel at a decrepit old space station; when the crew lands on some dark, forbidding planet to deliver their package to this huge, scaly alien, etc.), Fry would then turn around & address the audience by saying “And this is the part where SOMETHING GOES HORRIBLY WRONG!?” And then nothing would happen.

Futurama logo with Frye, Bender and Layla,
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And this was supposed to go on for 3 & 1/2 minutes of “Futurama” ‘s 4 minute-long ride film. With the comic tension just building & building & building until …. Well, I’m not going to blow the ending of this proposed attraction (Why For? Because I still hope to see it built someday). But let’s just say -- by the time this ride reached its climax -- you were to have experienced the Mother of all Somethings that go HORRIBLY WRONG?!

"How bad are we talking here?," you ask. To the point that – when you exited this "Futurama" ride – you weren't going to walk through a door. You were supposed to climb out through a gaping hole in the side of your Planet Express spaceship. And as you headed down to the gift shop, you were to have passed this animatronic Fry who was still pinned under the wreckage. Who -- upon seeing you -- was supposed to have said: "See! I told you that something was going to go horribly wrong!"

Anyway … I bring this up today because … Well, this past Sunday, JHM contributor Richard Murphy was out at Disneyland. And as he and his family were enjoying a ride on The Jungle Cruise, something did really-for-real go … Well, not horribly wrong. But still wrong. And I thought it might interest you folks to know how Disneyland’s repair crew actually handle events like this.

Here’s Richard’s report:

Around 12:30 in the afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday, a Jungle Cruise boat at Disneyland detached from its guide track and crashed into some rockwork at the edge of the river.

A concept painting of an elephant spraying a Jungle Cruise boat
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I happened to be in the forward most starboard seat, right next to the skipper. It occurred on a right-turn curve of the river between the Lost Safari (“they’ll get the point in the end”) and the hippo pool. We struck ‘rock’ on the left side of the river.

Back at the dock, I had just missed getting on the previous boat and was first in line when the Amazon Belle pulled up to the dock. A decision was made to only half-load the boat. I don’t know why, but it may have been because the ‘return’ boats were stacking up and they just wanted to get more boats out on the river. We departed with guests in the front of the boat and at the back of the boat, but with nobody in the middle.

The trip proceeded normally, except that Skipper Chris (Irvine, CA) was rushing his spiel a bit, causing some his jokes to fall flat. We passed the African Veldt scene and the Safari scene and then the river makes a sharp right turn to head for the hippo pool. When the boat makes a sharp turn, it lists toward the outside of the turn. This is usually played for fun a little bit at the first encounter at Schweitzer Falls. It happened here, too, but not — it seemed to me — to an unusual degree. But this time there was a sound from under the boat. I can’t remember what it sounded like but I know there was one. It wasn’t an alarming sound.

A postcard depicts a boat cruising through Disneyland's Jungle Cruise ride
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I was looking forward and realized that we didn’t seem to be making the turn. And I was really startled when I realized we were heading into the shoreline. I’m not sure when Skipper Chris was aware of it; there are many places on the ride where the Skipper is facing his passengers instead of looking down river and I can’t recall which way he was facing. He was looking as we ran up on the rockwork. At this spot on the river there is some ledge-like rock on the left side of the river. There was a scraping sound beneath the bow and the boat lurched to a stop. The sudden stop bent people forward, but no one was thrown out of their seat. The boat drifted backward off the rocks and the boat settled back into the river.

Our skipper immediately picked up the revolver that is usually fired while passing through the hippo pool. He nervously loaded five more rounds into it and then fired six shots. He then accessed a two-way radio below the ship’s wheel and called out “We have a six-shot on the C-curve.” A few seconds after that we heard someone on the ride P.A. announce “All boats please hold your position.” Our boat was afloat, and I was relieved to see that there was no sign of any leaks. We’d hit the rocks hard and wasn’t sure what the damage might have been to the bow.

Everything was stable at this point so we all had a moment to collect ourselves. Skipper Chris apologized and pointed out the obvious: we weren’t going anywhere for a bit. He joked “I guess this time the hippo’s won!” Most of us quickly realized that, rather than a disaster, we were all going to leave Disneyland with a great story to tell our families and friends.

A Jungle Cruise boat pulls away from the dock in Disneyland
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I had expected that we would shortly see the next boat behind us on the river, but we didn’t. The P.A. announcer called for the boats behind us to back up and return to the dock and for the boats in front of us to come in.

Finally, someone on the boat called out “Rescue!” and pointed.Through the jungle, we could see another cruise boat with blue-uniformed maintenance people backing down the river. They came into sight as they backed through the hippo pool and eventually made their way to us. They had a costumed skipper at the helm with the maintenance folk at the back.

The maintenance men asked our skipper for his rope. There is a tall box between the Skipper and the middle bench of the boat. He flipped open the lid and pulled out a thick, black mooring rope with loops at each end. They secured the front cleat on our boat to the back cleat of the rescue boat. We guessed that they were just going to tow us in. But what they did was pull the two boats together so that a maintenance guy could transfer to our boat. A silver-haired man with what I guessed was a German accent came into our boat while another maintenance man leaned over the stern of the rescue boat.

A Jungle Cruise boat floats by the elephants bathing pool
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The man on our boat looked inside the tall box the rope came from. With a front-row seat, I learned a little about the mechanics of the boat. The tall box conceals a hollow pin the side of a pipe that engages with the submerged track beneath the boat. The goal now was simple: to reposition the box precisely over the track so that the pin could be dropped in place, thus reattaching the boat to the track.

Simple does not mean easy. Trying to position a drifting boat over a fixed point while your only point of leverage is another drifting boat is a significant challenge. There were numerous attempts and it required coordinating with rescue boat’s skipper to move a touch forward or a touch back. But after several minutes of struggle the pin dropped into place with a satisfying thud. Our skipper tested his throttle and our boat moved forward on the track. Our maintenance man transferred back to the rescue boat and they departed.

Skipper Chris resumed our journey. He tried to finish as much of the spiel as he could, but it wasn’t easy with the ride audio and animation switched off. The hippos didn’t move, the tribal dancers didn’t dance, and the ambush party didn’t ambush. Fortunately, the backside of water just kept flowing. No piranha, but the Trader Sam jokes are amazingly reliable.

The scene as your Jungle Cruise boat approaches the dock after your trip through the rivers of the world
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We returned to an empty dock alongside an empty queue. As we exited, park personnel issued each of us two Fast Passes for rides of our choice.

I guess that’s why they call it ‘Adventureland.’

Isn’t that a cool story? More importantly, isn't it reassuring to learn that Disneyland actually already has a procedure in place so that -- in the events that something like this does occur -- the Park's maintenance staff can then move quickly to make repairs right there on the spot. With little or no real impact on the Guest experience.

The only time that every happened to me that was even remotely like what Richard just experienced was ... Well, it was back on January 2, 1996. And I was at Epcot, trying to be one of the very last civilians to experience World of Motion before this Future World show building was gutted to make way for Test Track. But right before my Omnimover reached the first show scene, World of Motion stopped moving. Its ride system -- for some inexplicable reason -- suddenly broke down. Which is why -- rather being one of the very last non-Cast Members to ride through this late, great Epcot attraction -- I wound up being walked down that exterior load ramp by a Cast Member. Who first had to manually open my Omnimover.

Four scenes from the now defunct World of Motion at Disneyland
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But what about you folks? Have any of you ever had an experience like Richard and I? Where you were enjoying a ride, show or attraction at a Disney theme park and then … Well, something didn’t go horribly wrong. But things certainly didn’t work the way that they were supposed to.

Sooo … You got any stories to share?

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  • I have two such stories, and while they aren't quite as extreme examples as that fabulous Jungle Cruise story they both share entertaining element.

    The first was on Space Mountain at Disneyland. You'll recall that each rocket, after CMs have checked the guests' lap bars, turns to the right and heads up the lift hill.

    The rockets can, of course, turn left, so that rockets can be taken off of the track, but this is a very rare occurrence. I go on Space Mountain every time I visit the park (which is fairly frequently) and I had never seen it happen. There's one video of it on YouTube, but that's about it.

    I was playing Disneyland tour guide to my friends and explained how the rockets can go left as such, but that it rarely ever happens. We got in the rocket, had our lap bars checked, and low and behold- we went left.

    It's a bit anticlimactic when it actually happens. Everyone was confused, I was somewhat equally confused but also kind of excited. We passed through a simple black curtain that hides the backstage area (you can see it pretty easily if you look behind you as you're turning right) and came to a stop. Since the tracks are a few feet off the ground a step ladder was brought over so that we could disembark. We were directed through a door that led to a room full of sound and video controls for the ride, then through another door that brought us back to the loading area to get back on the ride.

    As far as I know the only reason for them to take a car off line like this is if there was some issue with the weight distribution of the rocket, though there were no extraordinarily large or small guests riding with us. But it was a neat thing.

    The next story is even less exciting and unfortunately much more common. It was a year later and with a different group of friends and as we boarded our Star Speeder on Star Tours I was explaining how there were, occasionally, problems with the projection. And once again, as if to prove me right, the shield came down to reveal Rex and... a blank screen. We experienced the whole ride with lights, sound, animatronics... and no video. It's a curious thing really, as it let's you pay a bit more attention to what the speeder was doing. When the ride was over most of the guest's confusedly and bemusedly just got off and headed for the gift shop, but we and another group of rather upset guests told the CM what had happened as the doors on the other side opened to load the next batch of guests. We were promptly taken back through the Star Speeder to the loading area to experience the ride again, with video.

    So those are my two stories. Like many Disney fans I hold a certain romantic fascination with the idea of being evacuated off of a ride, but it's never happened. That, and getting to ride Space Mountain with the lights on. But, go to the parks often enough and you are bound to come away with some interesting stories.

  • I did, on one occasion, have to walk out of Disneyland's Splash Mountain when the ride was shut down (quite the interesting view from inside the mountain!) But my biggest "goes horribly wrong" came on a family trip when we were leaving dinner at one of the hotel restaurants and had to hurry back into Disneyland for the candlelight procession. A cast member overheard us talking about having to hurry and offered to give us a ride to the park entrance in one of the little electric carts. It was a great offer and we accepted. The problem came when the cast member, in his hurry to get us on our way, started driving while my wife was only half on board. She was thrown out of the vehicle and it ran over her foot. Ouch!

    By the time we got to the park, her foot was swollen up rather painfully. Fortunately the folks at first aid were able to take care of us immediately. Unfortunately, that pretty much put the kabosh on my wife walking for the rest of our trip.

  • I know I commented already, but I just thought of another one from Disneyland's distant past. I was with a date and we were riding the PeopleMover -- one of my favorite Disneyland attractions at the time. Our car was on the bridge over the Tomorrowland entrance, just about to go into the tunnel, when the attraction stopped. It wasn't that unusual for the attraction to stop on occasion, but this time, it didn't start up again.

    Instead, after a little wait a couple of cast members came out of the tunnel. They took hold of the car and pulled it along the track until we were in the tunnel and could safely get out of the car. Sadly, it was long enough ago that although I remember our car being pulled, for the life of me I can't remember what path we took to walk back to ground level. Drat!

    One bit of fallout of that experience was that my date made me promise never to take her on the PeopleMover again. Some years after that we were married, so I guess it worked out all right <G>.

  • This post was mentioned on Twitter by JimHillMedia: What happens when things actually do sort-of, kind-of go horribly wrong at a #Disney theme park http://goo.gl/fb/31xN

  • I was on the Great Movie Ride once when there was a medical emergency (some one passed out). We stopped at the jeweled idol scene and we were all escorted back to the entrance of the ride by a cast member, who pointed out a hidden Mickey along the way. It was interesting to walk through the attraction without the effects and animatronics running.

    I've also experienced the Space Mountain turn to the left once at Disneyland. It was interesting to see the backstage maintenance area for the rockets.

  • The first time I rode Star Tours -- must have been December 1991, age 14 -- the ride stopped about halfway through.  The blast shield came up and the lights came on.  I recall thinking that was a really odd way to end the ride, but instead a cast member came in from the exit side and put us all on another simulator.  Sadly, it ruined the suspension of disbelief for me, and to this day it's hard for me to imagine I'm boarding in one place and getting off on Endor.

  • We got stuck on Splash Mountain at Disneyland just before the ascension of the final drop. You know the possums and rabbits sing. Imagine hearing that for about 30 minutes over and over again. Anyway, eventually they got us off the logs and we walked through parts of the ride. The interior walls in that ride, that appear to be that hard red rock, are soft & foamy. We got a kick out of that.

  • Hi, Jim & fellow readers. After years of reading your stories, I actually have one to share. Hope you enjoy it.

    Back on a 1996 excursion to Orlando, my wife and I, along with several of our friends, took shelter from an evening thunderstorm in the fabled Carousel of Progress. I hadn’t seen the show since 1974 and really enjoyed the whole concept, so I was really looking forward to it.

    So the show began, and we rolled into the 1890s for the first act. At this point, you may think, “Ah, thunderstorm – the power went out and they were trapped in the dark.” And you would be partly right.

    Except that, rather than shut down the whole attraction, the lightning struck only one power unit – the one that controlled the revolving seating.

    The animatronics were unaffected. In fact, they continued to proclaim the technological advances of the 19th Century. Twice. Than thrice.

    At this point, one of our friends said, “Y’know, in my house, we have a rule about stuff we watch on TV: if you’ve seen it twice, it’s fair game.”  

    With that, the Carousel of Progress became an ultra-clean version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, where every character’s line and action was met with something from us. Nothing off-color, but we had no idea how long we'd be stranded in time, so we decided to make the best of it in a good-natured way.  

    Nothing was spared. When the stove and icebox opened and closed independently, we demonically intoned, “Get out!” a la “Amityville”.  When the son was looking at the stereoscope at Little Egypt for the third (fourth?) time, we chided the father for being too cheap to buy more than one card. And it went on like this for at least 45 minutes.

    Best of all, the rest of the audience – equally caught up in the absurdity of what we started calling Groundhog Day: The Ride – joined in. When a Cast Member told us we were welcome to hang out until the storm passed, he asked if we had any questions. Big mistake. One older man sitting in front of us asked a Cast Member if the dog was okay because he’d been sitting for so long. (“I think Rover’s gotta go,” one of my friends added, “but someone pasted his paws to the floor.”) I think a German family sitting behind us may have been confused by it all, though… otherwise, everyone “got it”.

    Speaking of the Cast Members: we didn’t spare them, either. Around the time of our fifth visit to the 1890s, another one came in to update us on the repairs. “Look,” one friend said, “here comes the hostess with her list of demands!” She laughed out loud, understanding our situation completely and letting us know that we would be moving forward in time shortly.

    She was right. We did move forward shortly, completed the show, and thanked the Cast Members for their patience on our way out. But even though we ultimately stepped out into the dry, post-storm night air of 1996, we have never forgotten how much fun we had reliving the 1890s.

    We plan to take our 10-year-old son aboard this summer… hopefully during a thunderstorm.

  • We got stuck on Pirates of the Carribean right where they say "Dead Men Tell No Tails" for about 15 minutes. We were really sick of it by the time we got going again.

    At some point someone came out of a side door and looked around. We never found out what the problem was.

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