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Will New Fantasyland's flying dragon fare better than Epcot's "Skylaidescope" & "Surprise in the Skies" ultralights?

Will New Fantasyland's flying dragon fare better than Epcot's "Skylaidescope" & "Surprise in the Skies" ultralights?

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Have you been following that "Believe in Fantasy" thing that the Disney Parks Blog has been doing over on Tumblr?

If not, you may want to head on over there now and get in on the fun. You see, Gary Buchanan & Co. are using  the bread crumb technique when it comes to promoting that flying dragon which will soon begin buzzing around the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland area.

"Which flying dragon?," you ask. Surely you remember that story which the Bakersfield Californian published back in June. You know, the one which featured a few photographs of a mechanical dragon that restaurant manager Tammy Zaninovich had observed flying around Minter Field in the early morning hours.


Photo by Tammy Zaninovich

Though Sandy Worley, the general manager of this Shafter, CA-based airfield, wasn't allowed to comment on this uniquely shaped Ultralight back then due to a nondisclosure agreement that she had signed,  John Cox (i.e. the reporter who initially broke this story) eventually learned that Walt Disney Imagineering had rented a hangar at Minter Field. Reportedly to test some sort of specially designed aircraft before it was then shipped off to Florida.

Well, it didn't take long for the online Disneyana community to connect the dots here. Though -- that said -- the initial speculation was this dragon-shaped Ultralight would eventually be headed for Disney's Animal Kingdom. Where it would then be used to replicate a Mountain Banshee (i.e. those large, bird-like predators that the Na'vi rode) for that theme park's soon-to-begin-construction / half-a-billion-dollar addition, "James Cameron's World of Avatar."

But once Disney Parks launched that "Believe in Fantasy" Tumblr feed with its Cloverfield-like videos of a dragon being spotted flying over Orlando as well as those fairly-authentic-looking recreations of photos from 1971 (which showed a survey team supposedly discovering a giant, recently hatched egg in a dragon's nest at the outskirts of WDW's Magic Kingdom), the online community made a quick course correction and then began talking about how much they are now looking forward to seeing this dragon-shaped Ultralight (which -- according to what Ms. Zaninovich told the Bakersfield Californian -- " ... breathes fire and the mouth opens and closes") flying above New Fantasyland.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And when exactly might those flights over this theme park begin?," you query. As you might expect (given that Disney Parks isn't quite through teasing / promoting this exciting addition to New Fantasyland's entertainment line-up. More importantly, given that this Magic Kingdom expansion isn't due to officially be unveiled  for another 10 days yet ), Mouse House managers are being fairly tight-lipped right now about when this dragon-shaped Ultralight will begin buzzing that theme park.

Mind you, given that there are a number of late night / early morning rehearsals scheduled for the official opening of the New Fantasyland between now and December 5th ... If you're a Guest staying at either Disney's Contemporary Resort or the Bay Lake Tower and have a theme park view, it might be worth your while over the next week or so to get up early-early in the morning and then keep an eye on the skies over the Magic Kingdom. Because you never know who or what might fly into view.

But beyond that, the big question is ... What sort of flight schedule will Walt Disney World's dragon Ultralight follow? Can we expect to see this mechanical monster flying over the Magic Kingdom on a daily basis? And the short answer is : While Mouse House managers would actually love for that to happen, the folks who handle safety at the WDW Resort aren't going to allow that to happen.


The new Characters in Flight balloon. Photo by Jim Hill

And why exactly is that? Well, let's check the fine print over Characters in Flight (You Know? That giant tethered balloon which Aérophile operates at Downtown Disney). It says:

  • Weather permitting, (this attraction's) hours of operation are every day from 8:30 a.m. to midnight.
  • Weather conditions determine the number of Guests who may board the gondola in any given flight.
  • All flights and times subject to change due to inclement weather.

I'm assuming -- by now -- that you picked up on the one crucial word there: weather.

Given that (on average) upwards of 90 thunderstorms blow through this portion of Central Florida every year, it's quite likely that WDW's Safety staff will insist that the Magic Kingdom's dragon Ultralight stayed grounded if there's a significant weather system within 10 miles of property or if the wind blowing over Lake Buena Vista reaches 20 MPH or higher.

More to the point, you can expect that WDW staffers will insist that this dragon-shaped Ultralight  undergo rigorous daily safety checks before it's then allowed to take flight each day. With the hope that -- this time around -- the Resort will then be able to avoid what happened back on August 1, 1987.

For those of you who don't recall this incident: Ricky Dean Harper -- a Walt Disney World cast member who worked as a show pilot in EPCOT Center's daily " Skyleidoscope" lagoon show  -- had just taken off from that theme park's Ultralight Flightpark at 1:15 p.m. when workers at this airfield heard a large crack or bang. They then observed this 27 year-old Winter Garden resident trying to return to WDW's Ultralight Flightpark before his aircraft went down 150 yards short of the runway.


Ultralights that were used in EPCOT Center's Skylaidescope show

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation eventually determined that the bracket which connected the right wing of Harper's Ultralight to its fuselage had apparently broken in mid-flight. This mechanical failure sent that craft (which had been flown safely for 273 hours prior to this unfortunate incident) into a spinning nosedive. Ricky died as a direct result of this crash.

On the heels of this accident, "Skyleidoscope" was quietly shut down in the Fall of 1987. And it would be another four years before Walt Disney World officials would then allow another Epcot lagoon show -- 1991's short-lived "Surprise in the Skies" -- to be built around the use of Ultralights.

A quick side note here:  One of the real perks of staying at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort from September 1991 through September 1992 was that EPCOT Center's Ultralight Flightpark was located right next door to this then-newly built hotel. So that -- as the Ultralights which were piloted by WDW cast members dressed as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto were coming & going from their daily flyover of World Showcase Lagoon -- these characters would be relatively low to the ground as they flew over the Caribbean Beach. And they'd then wave to Guests staying at that WDW hotel as they went in & out of the Epcot Center Ultralight Flightpark.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Sadly, that Flightpark is now no more. It was destroyed back in 1999 as part of the site prep phase for the Legendary Years portion of Disney's Pop Century Resort.  Nowadays, this piece of Disney World aviation history serves as home to Disney's Art of Animation Resort.

Which brings us to an interesting question: If the EPCOT Center Ultralight Flightpark was flattened 13 years ago, then where exactly is New Fantasyland's dragon Ultralight going to be taking off from / landing at? One has to assume that this airfield is located fairly close to the Magic Kingdom.

More to the point, given all of the weather-related concerns & safety issues, one wonders that -- if Mouse House managers had to do this all over again -- would they perhaps have gone with a different sort of mechanical dragon for the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland? One that could then be safely operated day in & day out, 365 days a year, rain or shine?


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

You know? Like this guy?

FYI: If you'd like to read a fun history of how this particular Disney Dragon actually came about, then click on the link above. Which will then take you straight on over to Designing Disney, a terrific website that you really should bookmark. Which just today posted a piece where former Imagineer Terri Hardin Jackson talks about many of the creative decisions that went into the design & construction of Disneyland Paris' La Taniere du Dragon.

Your thoughts?

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  • I don't know enough about the technical aspects of it, but couldn't they come up with a dragon that's controlled like a model airplane? I guess there would be safety concerns with that.

  • Why has no one commented that the dragon has a parachute attached to it.  Doesn't that ruin the magic of knowing there is a dragon flying over Fantasyland?  If this dragon needs the parachute doesn't it make sense that perhaps Disney would be doing these flights at night so as to conceal the parachute?

  • This is just hokey. Seems like something you'd find at a carnival, not the most visited theme park in the world.

  • Maybe it will be at night as part of Wishes!?

  • Excellent article, Jim! This was fascinating to read. I especially thought the bit about guests at CBR seeing the characters was cool. It will be interesting to see how Disney uses this technology on the NFL dragon, that's for sure!

  • It's not an Ultralight. FAA Federal Air Regulation Part 103.15 Operations over congested areas.

    No person may operate an ultralight vehicle over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Well, that may be true in the real world. But let's remember that -- thanks to the Reedy Creek Improvement District (more importantly, those incredible self-governing powers that the State of Florida awarded The Walt Disney Company back in May of 1967) -- Disney can pretty much write its own rulebook when it comes to the 43 square-miles that the Mouse owns in both Orange & Osceola County.

    More to the point, if the vehicles that were flown in "Skylaidescope" & "Surprise in the Skies" landed and took off from an area that was officially designated on the FAA's own aerial maps for Central Florida as the Epcot Center Ultralight Park ... Well, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck ...

  • I'm just curious at how this dragon fits into the backstory for New Fantasyland's other attractions, Beauty & the Beast, Little Mermaid and Seven Dwarves? Who came up with this idea that they could throw in a flying dragon and how does it fit with the rest of the unveiling? I guess we'll know soon enough.

  • re"But let's remember that -- thanks to the Reedy Creek Improvement District (more importantly, those incredible self-governing powers that the State of Florida awarded The Walt Disney Company back in May of 1967) -- Disney can pretty much write its own rulebook when it comes to the 43 square-miles that the Mouse owns in both Orange & Osceola County."

    Actually no, they can't. FAA rules and regs trump the state of Florida and the whole Reedy Creek situation. That isn't to say Disney can't get waivers to operate legally, but they can't merely fall back on the "we're self governing" argument. It simply doesn't work that way.

  • A little late to this article, but I do have a question, or rather a few.

    What with the teaser vids being uploaded to Youtube and Tumblr, I can't help but question whether or not this ultralight will be used during daytime performances. Seems everyone is being mum on the issue! Surely the Imagineers contemplated various scenarios and color schemes to hide the frame, fan and parachute!? The above photo even gives some evidence to this, what with it's blue and white material used on the parachute. And why not? If you're going to fly it during the day. Being camouflaged during the daytime sky would be must. But why not, clear or mylar. Why at all, if it's just for night-time use.

    Will this be used for daytime flights?

  • My brother-in-law is a flyer and is friends with one of the developers/pilots of the dragon. It is a powered ParaGlider, and as of Christmas he had only flown it one time after two years of research and construction. You cannot see the glider above the dragon when it flies at night because of the way they light it. I understand it will only be flown at night for this reason, but things could somehow change.

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