When Disneyland opened in 1955 Walt Disney made the decision to have Fantasyland as its main themed land. Walt dedicated this land “… to the young and the young at heart” and “to those who believe that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” He also said “Come with me to King Arthur’s Carousel, to see an elephant fly, to dig for diamonds in the Dwarfs mine, and to ride a pirate ship through the sky…” Guest did ride pirate ships through the sky and still do today in a wonderful ride called Peter Pan’s Flight. Continue after the page break and let's see how Walt’s statement became a reality.
All of Fantasyland’s dark rides have found a special place in Disney fan’s hearts due to their uniqueness. Whether it be Alice in Wonderland, Mister Toad’s Wild Ride, or Snow White’s Adventure, these rides are all great in their effective use of scenery and characters from the films in which they originated except they do so within a limited range of traditional dark rides. These traditional dark rides at the time all had ride vehicles that follow a single track on the floor that ride throughout tight, closed in spaces. The Imagineers of the time wanted to change this by having open spaces and floating ride vehicles to help it break the barriers and confinement of the others. Peter Pan’s Flight, with its open spaces, unique flying ride vehicles, and an elevated track quickly made it the most popular of the four attractions at the time. Thanks to the imagination and genius of the Imagineers, park guest were thrown into Peter Pan’s world and literally felt what it’s like to fly with Wendy, John and Michael past Big Ben, toward the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.
Creating the Fantasyland dark rides was no easy undertaking for the Imagineers back then as they all had to be designed and built within an almost impossible deadline. Some of the most famous Disney artists and Imagineers were tasked with the creation, design and concept of Peter Pan’s Flight including Herb Ryman, Marvin Davis, Bob Mattey, Claude Coats and Ken Anderson among others. Because of these tight deadlines several original scenes intended for the dark ride had to be cut out. In May 1954, Herb Ryman, one of Disney’s most famous artists, created an early concept drawing of the ride’s major scenes that included a Mermaid Lagoon and a huge rainbow that was never included.
Also in August 1954, Imagineer Marvin Davis created a plan of the attraction with scenes that featured Crocodile Creek and Hangman’s Tree that routed the flying ship vehicles through an opening in Skull Rock’s stony face and had the boats riding in a clockwise direction, which is completely opposite of the counter-clockwise direction the ride runs in today.
In October 1954, Imagineer Bob Mattey and others set up a test track in the Special Effects building at the Disney Studio. They had to use studio space to perfect the rides at the time because the dark ride buildings along both sides of castle courtyard weren’t installed yet.
In March of 1955, just four months prior to opening day, legendary Disney artists Claude Coats and Ken Anderson were working day and night to make Peter Pan’s Flight a dream come true for park guests. They frantically began creating the ride as there wasn’t any time for preliminary planning. Already having a feature film to work off of and once the flying boat ride system was done testing; it was time to begin the installation process in the new ride building inside Fantasyland. Models and sketches of the chosen scenes for the ride had been completed in advanced, but much of the scene detailing took place on site rite out of the minds of their creators. Several times Anderson and Coats painted images straight onto the wooden walls and flats that served as black light scenery that surrounded the first version of the ride. In 1955, black light effects were new and unique to guests and Disneyland attractions were the first to combine it with other dark ride technology.
When the ride finally opened it had a small miniature fleet of flying pirate ships that featured alternative colors. Some were red and white or red and black that all featured a skull and crossbones on the sails staring riders in the face. At first, there were a total of nine miniature pirate ships used to carry passengers through this magical journey with Peter Pan, with a tenth kept in reserve in case of any malfunctions with another ship in use. The pirate ships were seven feet long and four and a half feet wide that could carry two to three guests at any given time. Each ship was made of fiberglass that was molded after the creation of Chris Mueller and weighed two hundred and fifty pounds each.
The Cleveland Tram Rail Company created the track and drive mechanisms. Although guests were not aware of what held them above the ground, Bob Gurr stated that the original track system was extremely loud and full of problems, which resulted in regular redesigning and maintenance.
Eventually Peter Pan’s Flight worked out its problems and continued its fanciful trips into the 1970’s, while work was being done on the Florida Project. In February 1971, Imagineers Bill Martin and Bill Justice finished drawings of Walt Disney World’s version of Peter Pan’s Flight filled with new and more exciting additions that occurred in several ways. Even though the WDW version format remained basically the same with Disneyland’s, Florida’s Pan dark ride contained many of the newest Audio-Animatronics figures with varying degrees of animation and sound effects . Along with the Crocodile, Smee and Hook, the newer version featured Indians, Lost Boys and Pirates. Like the original version, the ride ends with the Skull Rock grotto, except now Captain Hook was positioned over the deadly jaws of his nemesis, the Crocodile.
When Walt asked his guest while opening his most prized land of all to “…come ride a pirate ship through the sky” he meant just that. Walt Disney and his extremely creative Imagineers created one of the most popular dark rides in history that sends guest soaring over London and into Neverland. It is believed that this attraction and its use of darkness and wide open spaces eventually lead to the creation of other classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean. Its rides like these that keep us coming back for more and holding new attractions being created today to the same standards. The ride not only takes us flying on a pirate ship, it takes us out of reality and into a world that only Disney can create. Peter Pan’s Flight has amazed and delighted park guest for so many years now and hopefully will continue to take us toward the second star to the right and straight ‘til mourning!