Lost in Space? Why Buzz Crash Landed in Discoveryland

‘A great ride in the wrong place.’ That seems to sum up most fans’ opinions of Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast in Discoveryland. It’s unquestionably one of the great Disney dark rides (a fact that’s often obscured by the gimmick of waving a laser gun around) but we can’t help wishing it hadn’t taken the place of Le Visionarium. Not only did we lose a DLP original — something that was uniquely ‘ours’ — but Discoveryland lost its thematic centrepiece. The attraction had been a mission statement of sorts, a showcase for the land’s celebration of Europe’s scientific visionaries. Replacing it with a plastic Space Ranger was a creative blow from which the park has yet to recover.

So what happened?

To answer that, we’ll have to leave Discoveryland behind us for a moment and head across the esplanade to the Walt Disney Studios Park, where the topic of my previous post raises its ugly head again — the park’s abysmal layout.

When the Imagineers map out a new theme park, they always design a few steps ahead. The park you experience on opening day is never the finished product but is primed and ready for future expansion. But such expansion requires some wiggle room, quite literally. The Imagineers build empty spaces — called ‘expansion pads’ — into the park’s design, knowing they can come back and fill them with new attractions when the time is right. These pads are often hidden in plain sight and, if the park is designed to a sufficient standard, you probably won’t even realise they’re there. (There are at least six that I can think of in the Disneyland Park alone. Care to guess where they are?)

Concept artwork for the former Animation Courtyard (Copyright: Disney)

The Walt Disney Studios Park was designed with expansion pads as well, although absolutely no effort was made to hide them. Most prominent was the one reserved for the Tower of Terror, quite literally signposted with the hotel’s insignia above the construction walls, but there were two others — one between the Cinémagique and Disney Channel buildings (which is still there to this day — more on that in a future post) and another between The Art of Disney Animation and the Flying Carpets. It’s this last expansion pad, in the former Animation Courtyard, that was supposed to become home to Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast.

The Animation Courtyard. The bottom right picture shows the expansion pad originally reserved for Buzz Lightyear

That’s clearly a long way from Discoveryland. But according to the park’s original blueprint, the Animation Courtyard was supposed to be just that — a courtyard. It was never supposed to lead anywhere. Attaching Laser Blast to the Art of Disney Animation building would have completely enclosed that end of the park, hiding the ungainly costuming building from sight whilst adding a high-capacity family darkride to the roster of attractions.

But then the Studios Park failed and failed badly. Few people came and those who did tended to leave dissatisfied. More attractions were needed; a lot more than would fit into the existing expansion pads. If the park was ever going to succeed, Disney couldn’t afford to build themselves into a dead end. They needed more room.

(Allow me to digress for a moment and remind you that the costuming building, which also houses a Cast Member refectory, locker rooms and various admin facilities, is only as old as the Studios Park itself. It’s a custom built nerve centre for the day-to-day operations of both parks, so eating up a chunk of its busy car park, as Toon Studio now does, goes to show just how desperate for space Disney had become. Equally problematic was the fact that the park now extended into areas never designed to be accessed by guests, which explains the awkward dog-leg around the back of Art of Animation, as well as the choke point approaching the entrance to Toy Story Playland, where the park quite literally squeezes between two formerly backstage facilities. Anyway, let’s get back to Buzz…)

It’s conceivable that they could have squeezed Laser Blast into the space where Crush’s Coaster stands today, but by this point DLP’s management faced a second, more nuanced problem in the Disneyland Park; Le Visionarium was losing visitors.

Audiences had been in slow decline for some time but things got serious when Renault withdrew their sponsorship of the attraction in 2002. The company had maintained a life size model of the Reinastella concept car (seen flying over Paris in the closing scene of the film) at the attraction’s entrance, which served as an important visual hook to passers by. When the sponsorship deal ended, the car disappeared and guest footfall plummeted as people swept past towards Space Mountain and Star Tours.

The Reinastella prop

Unwilling to foot the cost of the floundering attraction, DLP’s managers looked to Japan for a solution. Tokyo Disneyland had closed their version of the attraction two years earlier, replacing it with Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters. The decision to follow suit in Paris must have felt like a no-brainer — not only did it free up the room they needed to expand the Animation Courtyard, it brought a popular, character-led dark ride to a corner of the Disneyland Park that was seen to need greater family appeal. Better yet, re-using the Visionarium building saved on construction costs.

In retrospect, Buzz’s transfer from the Studios to Discoveryland was the most practical solution to a problem with no right answer and, had I been in Disney’s position, I can’t say I wouldn’t have made the same decision. We certainly haven’t done badly out of the compromise. But it remains a stark warning that poor planning in one area can have unforeseen and lasting consequences elsewhere.

One of these things is not like the others…

This article originally appeared as a guest post at DLP Town Square.

All images are sourced from a series of excellent DLP fan sites: the former WDSFans, DLPToday and Photosmagiques.