With the impending opening of The Smiler at Alton Towers, I've been going on one of my frequent theme park nostalgia-trips via YouTube.
Alongside Shoot for the Moon, CoasterMania, an amazing documentary from 1995 about roller coaster enthusiasts, must rank pretty highly on my most-watched-things-ever list. My mum taped it for me knowing I was a bit of a nerd for this kinda stuff and I'd pour over the VHS in the way that only kids can.
It's brills - tons of weird characters, great footage of top-of-the-line (well, for 1995) roller coasters and plenty of behind-the-scenes information and anacdotes. The 12-year-old me cherished the parts about Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I knew those rides!
It must be 15 years at least since I last watched this thing but, dang, I still know the dialogue like it was yesterday. Charles Jaques' slightly unhinged and breathless description of riding his first coaster at 01:25, Rev Nick Bralesford's very polite little anecdote about proposing to his wife at 03:40 and the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain pretending to ride their bus at 18:40 all curl my toes just as badly as they ever did.
The best part by far, though, is old Bernard & Phyllis Buxton at the 43:30 mark sitting in their car, big flask to hand, watching The Big One being built 'piece by piece' for thousands of hours. His theory that all the wheels must leave the track (around 45:30) on the first hill is lovely.
When it comes to theme park theming, Typhoon Lagoon has some of the best. I love it, despite never having been. There’s just something so obviously right about the art direction. Of course you call a water park with a big wave machine ‘Typhoon Lagoon’, of course you make it look like a seaside town that’s been wrecked by a storm, of course you shoot a surfboard through a tree, put a tractor on a roof and impale a bloody big shrimp boat on a mountain.
That iconic boat, ‘Miss Tilly’, precariously balanced above the park, echos Noah’s Ark and the Mary Celeste. It’s a perfect idea perfectly executed. Other parks might settle for a flat cutout or, more likely, not bother at all. Not Disney though, they build a massive fake mountain, a massive fake boat and shoot a massive geyser of water from her funnel every half hour while her bell tolls. I think it’s a remarkable piece of work that makes a pretty-good water park somewhere truly magical.
Since listening to the special John Gruber / Merlin Mann episode of The Talk Show last week, I've kinda been nerding out on Disney stuff. Their discussion about The Magic Kingdom completely reignited my fascination with theme parks, rollercoasters and Imagineering.
At its best, Disney's attention to detail goes unrivaled - did you know that the reason you'll never see a pirate in Frontierland is because everything is built on top of an entire network of corridors, allowing staff behind-the-scenes access to every part of the park? Did you know they foreshorten Main St USA both vertically (to make the buildings seem taller), diagonally (to make each side of the street lean in and 'frame' the castle in your vision) and horizontally (to make the street feel longer as you enter the park and longer as you leave). The lengths they go to for effect are nothing short of incredible.
My heart, though, belongs to one attraction in particular. Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris. The ride that some argue saved the park after its lackluster early years. That ride (it's important to distinguish the European version of the ride - the older US versions are far less ambitious) became a passion and a hobby of mine after my parents took my cousin Lynne and I to Disney when I was maybe 11 or 12. The atmosphere, the design, the bloomin' big cannon on the side flipped me out bigtime.
Before then, I was already obsessed with rollercoasters. I'd draw them, dream about them, pretend I was on them when riding my bike. I used to record every glimpse of them on the telly, from lame segments on daytime shows ('there's a new ride at Alton Towers, let's see if Eamonn can handle it') to a couple of full-blown documentaries about rollercoaster fan-clubs that I would watch almost daily. Every night, I'd patiently recreate Nemesis or The Pepsi Max Big One on Rollercoaster Tycoon, tinkering away in the way only geeky young boys can. To this day I can't quite explain why I was so consumed.
Space Mountain, though, was the best of the best. I knew this. I knew it wasn't the most enjoyable ride (older, wooden coasters are the most fun), I knew it wasn't the scariest (at the time, the Dragon Khan in PortAventura boasted the most inversions and the most intimidating silhouette) but, despite this, I knew it was built with pure imagination and love. I knew not one inch of its design, its accompanying artwork or its operation hadn't been poured over by The Best People In The World.
The reason I knew was because I had seen Shoot For The Moon (above), a BBC film that followed the construction and opening of the ride. It was the centre of my obsession. To this day I still know it by heart. A wonderful documentary that mixed really geeky engineering and design stuff with beautiful archive footage and a ton of interviews. Through Shoot For The Moon I was introduced to Jules Verne, Le Voyage Dans La Lune and retro-futurism. I learned about the Space Race, the power of art direction and, most importantly, that behind every great, fun, exciting thing there's someone (an adult - who've thought?) who's job it is simply to make their imagination reality.
I guess I could cite Space Mountain as being a major influence on my 'career', as weird as that may sound. I didn't know it at the time, but by watching that film over and over I was immersing myself in ideas, illustration and design. Seeing the man behind the curtain revealed made things more magical, not less. Biology doesn't ruin the 'mystery' of nature. Astronomy doesn't ruin the 'wonder' of the universe.
Shoot For The Moon is available on YouTube (in 5 parts) and I can't recommend it highly enough. Nostalgia is no doubt clouding my judgement, but trust me, give it a watch. If you're in any way involved in a creative profession, you'll find something of interest. It's great. You might even get a little hint of the Disney magic that's so easily forgotten once you've grown old and cynical.