Disneyland pioneers a new generation of thrill rides

It tilts only a few feet sideways and up and down - and doesn't move forward at all. Yet once you're strapped into the ``StarSpeeder'' - and, yes, you do need the seatbelt - there is the stomach-churning sensation of being hurtled through space. ``It's a 10 as far as rides go,'' said one wide-eyed adult after his inaugural ``flight.''

Welcome to Disneyland's latest ``thrill'' ride. The folks who brought you Mickey Mouse, the Matterhorn, and Magic Mountain now have a new gambit to keep the turnstiles spinning. Dubbed Star Tours, it uses a giant aircraft simulator with film from the ``Star Wars'' world of George Lucas to give the sensation of spaceflight.

Star Tours represents what many consider the next generation theme-park attraction - and underscores the growing use of high technology in designing rides that do more than rush people around corkscrew curves.

Across the country, park operators are searching for new ways to lure patrons - and with good reason. The nation's roughly 35 major theme parks, which attract some 100 million visitors a year, had a good season in 1986. But the industry is showing signs of maturing. Analysts say there are few areas left in the country that could support a major outdoor amusement park. And with the teen-age population declining, park operators are forced appeal to different age groups.

One result is a growing emphasis on family attractions. Many parks, such as Knott's Berry Farm, down the road from Disneyland, are featuring more shows with live animals and performers.

Others are exploring new high-tech attractions that often reflect the influence of movies. Universal Studios has had good success with its new King Kong adventure, which features a ride through a Brooklyn street that is destroyed by a 30-foot ape who then attacks the tour's tram. At the Six Flags organization's theme park in Baltimore, a Sensorium has been created that lets the audience see a 3-D movie, and smell it, too.

Magic Mountain, a Six Flags park in Valencia, Calif., is looking at an attraction that would simulate rides in a roller coaster, similar to the technology used in Star Tours.

``In various degrees, everyone in the business is looking at that kind of strategy, where you combine a ride with a new entertainment experience,'' Magic Mountain's Joseph Schillaci says.

With Star Tours, Disney appears to have pushed the technology the farthest. Passengers are strapped into one of four simulators - StarSpeeder spacecraft - that don't move forward or backward but can rise and fall or dive and roll as much as 35 degrees. When combined with visual pyrotechnics from the ``Star Wars'' trilogy, they give the illusion of a 4-minute trip through the galaxy, pitching and yawing to avoid meteorites, careering around a comet, and dodging Imperial laser fire.

When Star Tours was unveiled with characteristic Disney hoopla on Friday, most parkgoers who tried it appeared pleased.

``It was the best ride I've ever been on,'' declared an 11-year-old girl.

Not all were agog, though. ``It was a little short,'' said one woman.

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