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Disney Looks to Elsewhereland for Thrill-Ride Ideas

Recreation: Firm sent employee to record sensations, and inspirations, at rival amusement parks, he says.


ORLANDO, Fla. — Once upon a time, a mighty ruler sent Steve Elliott out into the world to capture sensations and collect thrills, to sneak into other kingdoms and seize their scary moments.

So, Elliott donned a device known as an accelerometer, covered it up with a coat and discreetly rode 900 different thrill rides. His goal? Record hair-raising moments so the Walt Disney Co. could develop new rides for its own magic kingdom of theme parks.

"The chairman [Michael Eisner] was interested in what was going on, and nobody knew," Elliott said. "I went around the world and looked at everybody's rides."

Even arch competitors like Six Flags Entertainment Corp. were fair game, Elliot said. He coasted on their coasters, fell down their free fall. He recorded speeds, angles, the gravitational forces that were at play during a particularly adrenaline-pumping moment.

Disney was typically terse about Elliott's excellent adventures.

"For competitive reasons, we have no comment," said Disney World spokesman Bill Warren.

"We consider our technology to be proprietary," said Ken Green, a Disney corporate spokesman. "We really can't get into this with you."

Elliott said the Space Mountain in Paris has a corkscrew inversion that is derived from "a couple of dozen roller coasters."

The final element is called a "tongue"; the coaster travels up a steep rise, rolls to the right and then comes back down. This particular maneuver was first used in the Busch Gardens' Drachen Firem coaster, but Elliott said Disney developed its version independently.

Pressed about that, he said "It ain't patented and it ain't trademarked."

To help create the Tower of Terror at Disney MGM Studios in Orlando, which simulates the sensation of a falling elevator, Elliott said he visited eight different free-fall rides and rode the free fall at Six Flags Magic Mountain "dozens of times."

"I worked with the engineer in getting him the information I had, how much G's do you want to do, how fast do you want to stop."

He said Otis Elevator helped in the design, though they were leery at first. It is a testament to the Disney influence that an elevator company would help design a ride evoking imminent death by broken elevator.

"It's what elevator hell is envisioned," Elliott said. "It's a free fall of 136 feet and can carry 18 or 19 people."

Though it seems like a potentially fatal fall, the whole thing is actually being driven downward by an engine, he said.

"You get an idea of what technology can do when you have a . . . motor pushing 18,000 pounds around," he said.

Elliott, after more than five years as a collector of thrills, started his own design and safety consulting business in Wisconsin last year.

Disney made him sign a confidentiality oath.

"Oooohhhh, you betcha," he said.

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