Today in Disney History, July 3rd (in the year 1967) the venerable Rocket Jets attraction opened in the New Tomorrowland expansion of 1967. It replaced the Old Tomorrowland Astro Jet attraction which opened on April 2, 1956 (although the official Disney Company opening date is listed as March 24, 1956). To herald that auspicious event (after all it was an actual “major” attraction in Old Tomorrowland!) The Disneyland News from April 1956 trumpeted the announcement on their front page.
|The Disneyland News April 1956 Front Page heralding the Astro Jet opening!|
For the opening ceremony of the Astro Jets the publicity folks at Disneyland came up with the brilliant idea of inviting aviators from three branches of America’s armed forces to participate–the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines Corps (Semper Fi!), and the U.S. Air Force. On hand also was the “Disneyland Air Force” (who knew? how do I join?)! It was a great promotion that both honored those serving their country and heralded the opening of this new ride to Walt’s magic kingdom. Of note, is that so wonderful was this Walt inspired concept that four decades later Disneyland would revisit the idea when they opened the new Tomorrowland of 1998 by inviting Astronauts of America’s Space Program to kick off the re-Imagineered land.
|The newest members of the Disneyland Air Force.|
|Astro Jet original Attraction Poster|
|Disneyland Postcard, D-102, 1956. “In Tomorrowland is an advanced version of the roto-jet
and the only ride of this type now operating in the United States. It was invented, developed and
manufactured by the Klaus Company of Memmingen, Bavaria.”
Courtesy of my good friend Ken Eslick at: www.disneylandpostcards.net
The idea for a futuristic rocket or jet ride in the manner of Dumbo had been kicked around in early planning for Tomorrowland, but with time and money in short supply, it never materialized. So what happened after Disneyland opened? And why did Walt not decide to just use another Dumbo ride system for Tomorrowland? Several reasons.
|Wonderful image giving the feeling of actually riding on this fantastic Astro-Jet attraction.|
The only option left to Walt, was the simplest one, and that was to purchase a standard off-the-shelf ride system and then give it the Disney touch. What Walt’s team located was an amusement park ride that was relatively new, known as Roto-Jets (later also known by Strato-Jets and Satellite Jets). The idea was similar to Dumbo, but the entire base, which was a converted World War II German artillery gun, rotated. On top of the rotating base was a central vertical axis with twelve articulated arms each supporting a jet capable of seating two people, and thus increasing capacity over Dumbo by 50%. So Walt ordered one “Super Roto-Jet” ride from the firm of Kaspar Klaus of Bavaria, and with that Disneyland would receive its first major new attraction the Astro Jets ride.
|Unique view of the central rotating axis on top of the rotating base, spring 1962.|
Walt’s WED designers got to work in attempting to make it something over and above your atypical amusement park ride. As seen in the Imagineering artwork at top, all sorts of adornments were proposed in order to give it a more futuristic appearance that would be in themed harmony with its surrounding land. Most likely due to funds still being in short supply, the Astro Jets that opened on April 2 lacked much of this futuristic bric-a-brac. Leave it to super Imagineer John Hench to propose a bit of Disney dazzle for the Astro Jets to help add to its futuristic glory. One month after opening, in a May 1, 1956 Inter-Office communication, Hench suggested names for each of the 12 jets. They were: Canopus, Vega, Sirius, Castor, Regulus, Pica, Capella, Arcturus, Rigel, Spica, Procyon, Altair, and Antares. To those observant Institute readers, like your author, you will notice that Hench actually suggested 13 names. Such a minor fact as this, typically lost on less-than-diligent Disney Historians, caused quite the uproar in our morning DHI editorial board meetings (Todd and I do actually talk about what we intend to write about). Yes, only at the Institute could something like an extra name for an Astro Jet create such a fracas of historical inquisitiveness! Many theories were bandied about, with the most popular being that an extra vehicle would need to be on hand for any potential serious maintenance issues; say a jet had an accident, and the entire balance of the ride system is predicated on having 12 jets, you have a spare! Of course, we are DHI historians, and we couldn’t simply let this go … oh no! We wanted to know what was the odd jet out! So, with apparently nothing better to do with my time, this intrepid Institute investigator (CSI) pored through DHI’s photo collection to see how many of the names could be identified on the ride vehicles. This is no easy task, as with our DHI slide collection, photograph collection, and video holdings, that was a surprisingly enormous amount of material to sort through! Happy to report that twelve of the thirteen names were positively identified as having been emblazoned on the side of an Astro Jets vehicle that was in use. The one that could not be found, was (drum roll!), Pica! So we here at the Institute are offering a reward, for anybody with a real photo of the Pica Astro Jet! If you have one in your collection, share it here at the Institute, and we will find some uniquely vintage Tomorrowland item to award to you along with an Honorary Historian at the Disney History Institute certificate!
|Only image known to exist of Astro Jet Regulus (the rarest of all the names … at least as far as the
photographic count … and of course, it is blue!). Taken from DHI 16mm footage.
So there you have it, the kind of dedicated detail that you will not get (nor probably want) anywhere else, here at the Disney History Institute!
STILL HAVEN’T HAD ENOUGH ASTRO JET TRIVIA ….
If you have thoughts, ideas, or questions post them up below. And for an ongoing historical discussion of Walt Disney and his creative legacy, head over to the DHI Facebook group. And make sure to check back for more essays and rare images on Old Tomorrowland. Thanks, Paul