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The First New Ride at Disneyland

The first new ride at Disneyland, opened Saturday, March 24, 1956, was the one thing that Walt Disney said did not belong in his Magic Kingdom.

The Astro-Jet, by Klaus Mfg. of West Germany, in operation prior to construction of the Skyway.
It was an off-the-shelf ride that others could buy, not a custom-designed adventure machine like Dumbo or the Mad Tea Party. Walt bought a Super Roto-Jet from Kaspar Klaus Manufacturing of Memmingen, in southwest Bayern (Bavaria), West Germany. Unlike the custom-engineered Dumbo ride, which opened a month late, the Roto-Jet was precise and sturdy. The stand and vertical axle were repurposed mounts designed for German anti-aircraft guns.

Walt originally didn't want rides anywhere but Fantasyland, the children's domain. Main Street had the silent Cinema, Adventureland the Jungle Boats, Frontierland had its stagecoach and river boat, and Tomorrowland had the Rocket to the Moon. Who would put a traditional roller coaster in Frontierland? (Actually, Big Thunder worked out quite well, but we're talking about Walt's attitude in 1956.)

A simple ride with almost no signage fit right in to Tomorrowland in April 1956.
For the 1956 summer season, Walt realized that he needed more ride capacity in Tomorrowland, or everyone would flock to see the new attractions in Frontierland. It's possible that a ride importer named Eric Wedemeyer helped Walt imagine what an addition the colorful, whirling, rider-showcasing, ultra-reliable mechanism might be for Tomorrowland.

After nine days of smooth operation--what they now call a "soft open"--Customer Relations director Jack Sayers held a press event on Monday, April 2, 1956. The morning saw a parade of astronauts up Main Street. Actually, there were no astronauts yet. Instead, Space Man K-7 and Space Girl, costumed Disneylanders, were on hand, along with Marine pilots Major Richard Rainforth and Captain Charles Hiatt; Navy pilots Lt. JG Charles Steele and Lt. JG Jerry Jester; and Air Force pilots Lt. Edward Williams and Captain Morris Eliasof. The six jet pilots, all of whom had the right stuff to later be astronauts (one assumes), "flew" the Astro-Jets with six local boys (no girls, sorry).

Disneyland historian James Keeline adds that the six boys chosen to ride with the fighter pilots--Glen Sherman, Jimmy Murray, Billy Krauch and Timothy Devlin of Los Angeles and Michael Loudon and Eric Burr of Orange County--posed for the press wearing the airmen's flight helmets. We have to wonder if they were all from newspaper families:Herbert H. Krauch was editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and L. Howard Loudon published the Anaheim Bulletin.

If the ride didn't come themed like this, we should probably give the credit to John Hench.
The ride was similar to Dumbo, except that there were twelve gondolas, not ten, and the Roto-Jet had been proven over a successful season at New York's Coney Island. (Also, the Astro-Jets turned clockwise, while Dumbo turned the other way so that children could wave to parents with their right hands.) But, unlike Dumbo, the central spinning mechanism lifted the "rockets" off the ground as the ride started, and children could direct their rocket as high as they dared from there.

The Astro-Jets replaced a collection of forty-nine Kaiser aluminum flagpoles. An eight-pointed star eighty feet in diameter called the Court of Honor contained forty-eight thirty-foot poles around the flag of the United States hoist upon a forty-five-foot pole. (Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.) The smaller poles and their state flags were relocated to the entrance to Tomorrowland to make room for the new "people-eater" (an industry term for a high-capacity ride).

The Astro-Jet in 1961 (Photo by Weldon Curran, thanks to Merica and Jim Curran.)
The "first new ride" label is highly debatable, as you might imagine. Several rides, including Dumbo, debuted after the park opened. The Keel Boats were added at Christmas. And other rides were in the works for the 1956 summer season, most of them likely conceived before the Astro-Jet. But the other 1956 attractions opened in June. In March, here was a ride (not a boat) that had not been originally planned for the park. Feel free to argue in the comments. :-)

The vehicles were named for stars: Altair, Antares, Arcturus, Canopus, Capella, Castor, Procyon, Regulus, Rigel, Sirius, Spica, and Vega. (The Nickel Tour, page 90, makes a rare error, listing 13 names.)

In August 1964, the Astro-Jet was re-branded as the Tomorrowland Jets because United Airlines complained. United was sponsoring the Tiki Room, and their competitor, American Airlines, was calling its passenger liners Astrojets. July 2, 1967 the ride, now mounted on the roof of the PeopleMover station, re-opened as the Rocket Jets. Historian Matthew Souza reports that the center column and hydraulic rams of the Rocket Jets (1967-1997) are the original 1956 equipment. And, Souza says, they are still in use today, supporting spinning lights in their now-inaccessible 1967 location.
The Tomorrowland '67 Rocket Jets were re-styled by imagineer George McGinnis, but the original mechanism is still visible.


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