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Delayed Ride at Disneyland Is Already Making Quite a Splash

April 30, 1989|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

It's a frustrating sight.

As workers--and sometimes executives in business suits--plunge down a five-story waterfall behind a fence in Disneyland's Critter Country, all park visitors can do is watch. And wait.

"It's like the lolly that's just out of reach," sighed Bruce Kilpatrick, a tourist from Perth, Australia. "So near and yet so far."

Disneyland officials must feel the same way. Splash Mountain, billed as the fastest, tallest, thrillingest attraction this side of Star Tours, is months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The opening will be delayed until mid-summer as Disney scrambles to overcome design flaws in the world's most elaborate flume ride.

Although they are not pointing figures, park officials are clearly disappointed. "We planned to opened in January or February, and we weren't able to do it," said Robert W. McTyre, vice president of marketing and entertainment at Disneyland. "We're not in a position to say who was responsible. But obviously someone didn't think things out correctly."

According to amusement industry insiders and former company executives, the problems are the legacy of a brief period of uncharacteristic cost- cutting at the Walt Disney Co.

After laying off hundreds of its own engineers and support staff in the early 1980s, the company decided that Splash Mountain would use "off-the-shelf" technology customized to Disney's specifications. The company hired outside firms to handle the project management and and most of the engineering and construction.

Disney got more than it bargained for. When executives took their first test rides, climaxed by a five-story, 45-mile-per-hour drop through a brier patch, they received a rude surprise. Splash Mountain, it seems, had taken its name a little too literally.

"I got soaking wet one day and had to go out and change my clothes," said Tony W. Baxter, the ride's executive producer.

Months of Redesign

Getting wet is one thing. Getting drenched is another. Disney was concerned some people would avoid the ride if it left them dripping wet. "The tradition of Disney is that nobody is ruled out," said Baxter. "It's a negative if somebody says, 'You guys go. I don't want to get all wet.' "

To make sure that doesn't happen, Disney engineers have spent months redesigning the log boats that ferry passengers through a fantasy world based on Disney's 1946 film "Song of the South."

The original eight-passenger logs were redesigned to hold only seven people in an effort to take some of the splash out of the mountain's grand finale. A lighter, fiberglass body was used in the new models, which were fitted with an underwater scoop to help divert water.

Other adjustments were made to help stop the boats at the bottom of the final 45-degree plunge with the least amount of slosh.

"Water squirts out to the side instead of straight up into the boat," said Don Newfarmer, a rides engineer with the Santa Clara office of O. D. Hopkins Associates, the outside firm hired to handle development of the flume ride. Hopkins is no longer involved with the project, although neither side will discuss the circumstances of the break.

Br'er Rabbit's Adventures

When the changes are complete, screaming riders will be able take the 52.5-foot plunge and stay relatively dry in the process.

Splash Mountain's final thrilling drop comes after a relatively slow glide during which riders follow the adventures of Br'er Rabbit as he tries to outwit Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear.

"It's the closest you'll ever come to riding through a cartoon come to life," said Bruce Gordon, Splash Mountain's producer.

The problems with the log boats reflect the grand scale of Disneyland's designs.

Because Disneyland has at least twice as many patrons every day as most amusement parks, the park wanted boats that would hold eight passengers, rather than the usual four, five or six on most flume rides.

If Disneyland had built a flume ride with the standard capacity of 1,200 people per hour, it could not have handled the number of patrons waiting to ride it, Baxter said. "Once we put out an ad saying, 'Come out and ride the exciting Splash Mountain,' we've got to produce an attraction where everyone can get on it."

Won't Open Till Ready

When the redesigned ride opens, passengers will board the boats every 12 seconds. With all 48 logs are up and floating, about 2,000 people will ride Splash Mountain every hour. That will make the attraction one of the highest capacity rides in the park--although not quite as high as the 2,400 per hour originally envisioned.

Like past Disney extravaganzas, however, the show won't start until it's absolutely ready. The Haunted Mansion, for example, was built in 1963 but did not open for six years while its technology was perfected.

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