indiana jones adventure

As we embark upon a new decade, the concept of what “Disney” is will likely change on a wider scale than ever before. What does Disney mean to you? In the previous century, Disney might have meant family films, animation, or something friendly and comforting. Now, Disney could mean the action-heavy fare of Marvel, or the science-fiction worlds of Avatar or Star Wars, or the irreverent and adult comedy of The Simpsons, or the technologically daring storytelling of Pixar. Disney is as much a repository for a wide and varied group of intellectual properties in 2020, something that seemed next to impossible just a couple decades ago. The shift didn’t start in the Disney theme parks, with an attraction such as Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland. Yet that inclusion to the original Disney theme park, the only park Walt ever walked through, did represent a major step forward for both a theme park and a company in its ever-shifting creative priorities.

Big Fun

Celebrating its 25th anniversary today, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye remains one of the most popular and thrilling attractions at Disneyland Park. Set in 1935 (notably the same year as the events of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though the temple from that film isn’t the one you experience at Disneyland), Temple of the Forbidden Eye takes guests on a wild ride through all kinds of terrifying and exciting obstacles. There’s a series of creepy skeletons, crawling insects, a massive Audio-Animatronic snake (because, of course, there have to be snakes), a belching pit of fire, and a massive boulder that looks like a certain large rock Indiana Jones himself once had to outrun.

In essence, the Indiana Jones Adventure is a propulsive 5-minute distillation of what everyone loves about the Indiana Jones films, just one in which you’re the star, not the passive viewer. Those films are part and parcel of Lucasfilm, Ltd., and the trilogy that existed by the mid-1990s had previously been distributed by Paramount Pictures. (The long-in-development fifth film, should it ever get made, will be the first released by the Walt Disney Company. It will apparently also be directed by someone not named Steven Spielberg, which is…uh…A Choice.) When the ride was unveiled on March 3, 1995 for its soft opening, attended by all manner of celebrities (though not Harrison Ford), Indiana Jones Adventure was not the first outsider attraction at Disney. It wasn’t even the first attraction inspired by a Lucasfilm title at a Disney park.

That would be Star Tours, the motion-simulator attraction inspired by the Star Wars trilogy. That attraction arrived in the Disney theme parks in 1986, three years after Return of the Jedi was released. Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Adventure shared a bit more DNA than just their producer. Though the latter attraction sends its passengers on a moving track, both have motion-simulation technology meant to mimic the thrills and adventure of the films inspiring the rides. The relationship between Walt Disney Imagineering and Lucasfilm extended beyond these two thrill rides, too. Also in 1986, Lucas produced the 3-D movie Captain EO, starring the late Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. (If you’re learning this information for the first time, yes, that Coppola.) A few years later, Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) opened up the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, in which stunt performers would essentially re-enact some of the most dazzling stunts from the Indiana Jones series for a crowd of guests. 

The connecting threads here were joint: yes, there was George Lucas, but there was also former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Before he joined Disney in 1984, Eisner had been one of the top executives at Paramount Pictures. In fact, Eisner was one of the staunchest defenders in the executive suite of Raiders of the Lost Ark before it became a massive hit in the summer of 1981. He worked with Lucas pretty extensively once he worked at the House of Mouse. Sometimes, it pays to make that kind of relationship with an artist.

A Few Bumps

Lucasfilm aside, there were only two other remarkable instances in the 1990s of Disney working with outside cultural landmarks to make themed attractions. One is the truly delightful and ever-resilient Muppet*Vision 3D theatrical attraction in Disney’s Hollywood Studios; the other is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in the same park. (Though Disney now owns the Muppets, and did distribute two of their 90s-era films, they had yet to finalize a merger with Jim Henson’s company before the man tragically passed away in 1990. Muppet*Vision marks the last time he played Kermit publicly.) Indiana Jones Adventure marked a true turning point for the original Disney theme park.

Having experienced, via social media, the announcement of other intellectual property encroaching on the Disney parks, from the arrival of Avatar in Disney’s Animal Kingdom (first announced before Disney bought Fox) to the expansion of Star Wars in Disneyland, I can only imagine how unhappy the announcement of an Indiana Jones-themed attraction would have made fans back in the early 1990s. While the Steven Spielberg-directed trilogy was beloved (and rightly so), it could have seemed a bit more intense and violent than something appropriate even for Adventureland.

Leave that aside, though. Some diehards might have blanched at the presence of the Indiana Jones Adventure because its footprint would affect the surrounding real estate. The attraction is wedged in between the Jungle Cruise and what is now Tarzan’s Treehouse. (That walk-through attraction was, in the early 1990s, still called the Swiss Family Treehouse, themed to a different Disney film, the 1960 adaptation of Swiss Family Robinson.) Though there were a few different ideas bandied about by the Imagineers, such as a walk-through attraction, what was landed upon was a fusion of different ride styles, in the same vein as Splash Mountain. And because of the size of the attraction, both the neighboring Jungle Cruise and the Monorail itself would have to be re-routed. Only a few years later, theme-park fans were furious when Disney announced that it would replace the Orlando version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Fantasyland with a Winnie the Pooh-themed dark ride. (Think of it: people got mad because an attraction inspired by one Disney adaptation was being replaced by another Disney-adaptation dark ride. It’s maybe easier for me to look at it this way because Mr. Toad’s still riding like mad at Disneyland.) 

Indiana Jones Adventure, to note, isn’t even the first ride in the Disney theme parks tied to the old-school archeologist. At the time, though, it arguably would be an easier sell thanks to its location. In 1993, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, the first Disney roller-coaster with an inversion, opened in Euro Disney, which is now called Disneyland Paris. That mine-car ride, more directly tied to the Temple of Doom, didn’t have quite the same impact as Indiana Jones Adventure would. Disneyland Paris is no longer the stuff of late-night jokes and mocking headlines, but back in the mid-1990s, it was a major topic of scorn here and abroad. Indiana Jones Adventure may not have been first, but it’s still one of the best, though.

The Brakes Will Be Needing a Little Adjusting

The first thing you’ll notice when you experience the Indiana Jones Adventure is its queue. (For the uninitiated: that British term is often used in theme-park discussions when talking about a line.) This isn’t the kind of queuing system where a simple spot of land is given a heap of switchbacks, making it feel like you’ve moved ten feet in the span of an hour. As much as the attraction experience offers death-defying thrills, there’s a hint of the fell-by-the-creative-wayside walk-through experience in the half-mile-long queue. (You read that right: A half-mile queue.) The whole thing begins in the middle of Adventureland, a land that manages to tell a dense set of stories in a small space (relative to other lands), encompassing African, Polynesian, Indian, and other cultural heritages to reflect the concept of exciting exploration.

Situated by the edge of the Jungle Cruise’s calm rivers, the Forbidden Eye queue is awash in the same dark-green atmosphere as the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1930s-era big-band music playing on a tinny nearby soundtrack. And then, after this brief sojourn, you enter the template yourself, becoming as much an explorer as Indiana Jones himself was. The temple’s pathways send you through every possible nook and cranny, through rope bridges, dimly lit halls, and strange excavations, before you eventually land upon a pre-show film featuring Sallah (John Rhys-Davies, the sole performer from the series to appear in non-archival footage).

When it opened in 1995, a big selling point of the Indiana Jones Adventure was the vehicle, dubbed a troop transport. (As this article from Entertainment Weekly notes, Disney couldn’t use the word “Jeep”, owned by Chrysler. Of course, that article also notes that Harrison Ford, whose voice has never appeared in the attraction, was gearing up to film a fourth Indiana Jones film that would be released by the end of 1996. Um.) To hear Imagineering icon Tony Baxter, who spearheaded the ride, tell it, the troop transport was an attempt to reflect the pervasive presence of video games among younger audiences. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “Everything is happening because of you.” 

This is arguably misleading, especially in light of the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run attraction at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where everything that happens once you enter the famous ship really does happen because of you. The troop transports in the Indiana Jones Adventure were a technological marvel at the time, with 27 variations of the overall experience possible. Technically, you’d never get the exact same experience. What that really meant was that the fabled Eye of Mara (you know, the Forbidden one) could lead you down one of a number of paths, and your vehicle could buck, speed, or stop in different ways. But the track is always the same, the thrills never change, and you still arrive in one piece at the end.

You Had to Look

With a quarter century in the rearview, Indiana Jones Adventure is no longer the most daring or adventurous attraction in the stable of theme-park options at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. The basic layout of the ride did serve as the inspiration for a similar thrill-ride experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Dinosaur. Though it’s technically linked to the 2000 animated film of the same name, Dinosaur also puts its guests in a Jeep-like vehicle, where you go on a very bumpy, wild ride in which you’re sent back through time to collect live dinosaur specimen. 

Now, of course, it helps that Disney owns the rights to make future Indiana Jones films, because the attraction feels truly like it’s part of the overall family instead of being an interloper. But there’s a much more instinctual reason why Indiana Jones Adventure has largely withstood the test of time, in ways that can’t be said for some other attractions with IP. Take, for instance, perhaps the greatest overall theme-park attraction ever, Pirates of the Caribbean. Even now, this is the pinnacle of theme-park design, atmosphere, and entertainment. But the presence of Audio-Animatronic characters and performers tied to the related film series gives the attraction an ossified, stuck-in-amber sensibility, and the most recent Pirates movie was released three years ago. 

What works about Pirates of the Caribbean the attraction has little, if anything, to do with Pirates of the Caribbean the movie. Adding characters into the attraction is unnecessary (and over time, the Imagineers have scaled back exactly how many characters are part of the experience). Though the Indiana Jones films were not originally made by Walt Disney Pictures, the spirit of the series — blending horror and comedy, fantasy and adventure, science fiction and nostalgia — is embodied by so much of the Disney parks. For an outsider, Indiana Jones Adventure has always been a perfect fit for Disneyland.

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