The Disneyland Ride Idea That Failed To Catch On, Twice

Disneyland's flying saucers

Disneyland is the grandfather of all theme parks and is still largely seen as one of the greatest theme parks in the world. It's home to attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain and It's a Small World, the sort of rides that define what it is to be a theme park. Whether a deeply immersive E-ticket ride or something smaller and simpler, it's easy to believe that Disneyland always gets it right; that everything Walt Disney Imagineers create is an instant home run. And while they seem to make hits more often than not, there have been those experiences that haven't worked out, including one idea that the Disneyland resort tried twice, decades apart. It flopped both times.

60 years ago this month, an attraction opened at Disneyland that closed five years later. And fifty years after that, a second, quite similar attraction opened closed even more quickly. So let's take a took at the ride concept that may have been ahead of its time, and possibly still is: Disneyland's Flying Saucers and Disney California Adventure's Luigi's Flying Tires.

Disneyland's Flying Saucers

Disneyland's Flying Saucers

It was in August of 1961, 60 years ago this month, that the Flying Saucers attraction opened inside Disneyland's Tomorrowland. The ride concept was fairly simple: ride vehicles were pushed around on a cushion of air similar to the puck on an air hockey table. Single guests would sit on these vehicles, and by leaning in one direction or the other, they could direct the vehicle in those directions. The sides of each vehicle were soft, so they could bump into each other like bumper cars. Guests would get jostled, but wouldn't be shaken up too much.

The ride was designed by Bob Gurr, the same Disney legend who designed other Disneyland classics like the Matterhorn and Autopia. From all reports, the ride itself was at least reasonably popular with guests. So when Tomorrowland underwent a major renovation in 1966, and the ride shut down, there was every indication that it would be back. But when New Tomorrowland was completed, the Flying Saucers were nowhere to be found.

While the ride may have been popular enough with guests, it seems that it wasn't that popular with the people who operated and maintained it. The technology that made it work wasn't really "there" yet. Flying Saucers broke down a lot, and keeping it running was tough. So when the ride closed down, it was decided to simply replace it and remove the headache. The Tomorrowland Stage would take its place. Maybe someday in the future, the technology would catch up with the creativity and the saucers could fly again.

Luigi's Casa Della Tires in Cars land at Disney California ADventure

Luigi's Flying Tires

One might not have guessed 50 years would pass for the technology to catch up, but it would take that long before we would see a spiritual successor to the Disneyland Flying Saucers. Across the way at Disney California Adventure, when the second gate underwent its own major expansion in the late 2000s, the brand new Cars Land would include Luigi's Flying Tires, a modern version of the Saucers. It opened in the summer of 2012 along with the rest of the brand new Cars Land.

The basic structure of the ride was the same. The vehicles are propelled the same way, via a cushion of air coming from underneath, and the vehicles can be pushed around by leaning toward your intended direction. There were some differences, however. The Luigi vehicles were much bigger. They were designed to hold two to three guests rather than a single one, likely to help increase the ride's total capacity, which was also an issue with the Flying Saucers.

While the technology behind the attraction may have finally caught up with the Imagineers creativity, Luigi's Flying Tires replaced the old Flying Saucers' problems with entirely new ones. The larger ride vehicles were difficult to control. If two or more people sat in one together, they would need to lean in the same direction or the vehicle would go nowhere. If a single rider didn't weigh very much, you'd have the same problem, as it was hard to get the massive tire moving. The clunky handling of the vehicles made the ride less than thrilling for many.

Luigi's Flying Tires would close in February of 2015, less than three years after the attraction opened. No major remodel could be blamed here. The rest of Cars Land has remained basically identical to the way it looked when it opened. This ride just didn't work out.

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters

In March of 2016, just over a year after the Flying Tires closed, Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters would open. It was a somewhat quick turnaround because while the new attraction was different, everything else was the same. It was still a ride inside Luigi's tire shop. The building you entered as part of the queue was unchanged, the space in which the attraction itself took place was the same.

But the ride itself has been significantly changed. Guests now enter ride vehicles that look like something out of a traditional Fantasyland dark ride, and the cars "dance" to one of a selection of songs. The vehicles use a trackless ride system like many modern dark rides, so they follow one of several potential dance programs, making each ride a little different, as is the music. It's a simple enough ride, but one that guests seem to enjoy. And the guests get to just sit back and enjoy the experience, rather than having to literally throw their weight around to make the attraction work.

Personally, I liked Luigi's Flying Tires, though I'll admit that my wife and I had our own communication issues on the ride now and then that brought things to a standstill. Luigi's Rollicking Roadsters is also fun. Most trackless ride systems don't function in an outdoor environment, making the experience of sitting in one of the Roadsters feel very odd as it moves throughout the space, feeling like it's picking directions at random.

Will we ever see an attraction like this again? Is the third time the charm? Who knows? More than likely the infrastructure for the Flying Tires is still sitting under the surface of the new ride; it was probably easier and cheaper to leave it there than pull it out. So maybe,down the road, something will be done with it. Until then, this remains one of Disneyland's few big misses, and the only one to happen twice.

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.