“For though your body will shrink, your mind will expand,” extolled the voiceover narration of Walt Disney’s Adventure Thru Inner Space, a unique Disneyland attraction that first opened fifty years ago in 1967. Walt had envisioned a ride that brought the enigmatic discoveries of science directly to the park guest in a way that was both entertaining and educational. Adventure Thru Inner Space would shrink guests down to the size of a snowflake’s crystal, and even deeper still—all the way to the nucleus of an atom.
What is often little more than high school biology for many students today was an adventure unlike any other for guests at Disneyland. With an innovative use of darkness, sound design, and limited construction, Adventure Thru Inner Space was a ride as cerebral as it was sensational. No concept was uninteresting for Walt, as he himself would say, “one basic thing about bringing pleasure and knowledge to people… [is] the power of relating facts, as well as fables, in story form.”
The creation of Adventure Thru Inner Space would be a collaboration. Walt would involve some of his best Imagineers, including show designer Claude Coats and effects artist Yale Gracey, who together crafted a sensory experience never seen before or since. The Imagineers teamed up with a long-time Disneyland sponsor, the Monsanto Chemical Company, which had had a presence in Tomorrowland since opening day in 1955.
Dr. Charles Allen Thomas, the noted scientist and veteran of the Manhattan Project, had risen to Chairman of the Monsanto Chemical Company over decades of dedicated work. For Dr. Thomas, “chemistry was a business but also a constant fascination,” as his New York Times obituary would describe.
From their earliest meetings in the 1950s while developing the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry, Walt and Dr. Thomas took a liking to each other. As Thomas would describe after Walt’s passing, “I came to respect the fact that he was an extraordinary educator, in addition to being one of our century’s greatest showmen.”
Monsanto was eager to continue their relationship with Disneyland. After a visit to the park in January 1965, the Monsanto team realized that the Hall of Chemistry had moved past its prime. The time for a new attraction based in scientific adventure had arrived.
Following a similar trend for other attractions then in development, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, Walt and the Monsanto team would agree that a ride-system was preferable to the traditional style of walkthroughs or industrial exhibits. Having seen examples at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, Dr. Thomas and Monsanto saw potential in visual projection, “viewed from some type of a moving vehicle, or moving sidewalk, so that the audience is carried through the show,” as Disneyland executive Jack Sayers would describe to Walt in an inter-office communication. In handwritten notes on the same document, Walt fully agreed. By February 1965, plans had begun to move ahead for a new Monsanto ride.
It was clear that what was to become Adventure Thru Inner Space was to be a major component of the new Tomorrowland. Walt and Dr. Thomas kept in close contact, and the Monsanto Chairman would involve himself in nearly every aspect of the attraction’s creation. Over a year after the earliest developments began, Imagineer X. Atencio described to Walt the concept of a ride featuring “a visual effect that will give the patrons the sensation of being reduced to the size of the atom.”
The idea was known at the time as “Magic Microscope,” and later changed to the more serious-minded “Mighty Microscope.” This imagined device was seemingly designed over lunch hour by Imagineer George McGinnis, dashing out a concept in a napkin sketch. Atencio then took the design to the Model Shop to begin construction. “That’s the way things worked at [Imagineering],” McGinnis would later say. “You were always thinking and sharing the lunch tables with wonderful people…”
The attraction was what Claude Coats’ son, Alan, who himself would become an Imagineer, describes as “a visceral experience in a total sensory environment in dimensional space.” Claude had proved himself time and again on Disneyland attractions, showing his aptitude as an architect and storyteller. Adventure Thru Inner Space was his unique creation, an experiment in minimalism and spatial communication. It seemed perfect for the moment of Tomorrowland’s 1967 rebirth, as Alan comments, “It was the psychedelic ‘60s after all, a real ‘head trip’ as they used to say.”
Development moved steadily across 1966 as Walt and Dr. Thomas continued to meet and review concepts. By the time of Walt’s passing in December, prototypes of the new Omnimover ride system were being tested with construction progressing onsite at Disneyland. The Omnimover proved the furthest reaching innovation to debut with Adventure Thru Inner Space, being later incorporated into Haunted Mansion and other Disney attractions. These early tests for the “Atomobiles,” as they came to be known, would have been among the last work Walt saw for Inner Space.
The attraction finally made its debut on August 5, 1967. It was a gem of the newly reimagined Tomorrowland, and a rare attraction that did not require an individual ride ticket (a perk of its Monsanto sponsorship).
For Alan Coats, Adventure Thru Inner Space is a marvelous example of what Imagineers sometimes described as “infotainment” or “edutainment,” an idea of Walt’s that combined immersive storytelling with inspired learning. “I think we all remember teachers or professors we’ve had that had interesting personalities and a way of presenting their subjects in a way that you absorbed it more,” Coats says. “And I think that’s what Walt thought he was good at doing, and he was.”
With sincerest thanks to Alan Coats for granting an interview, and the Walt Disney Archives team for providing research materials and notes!
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, filmmaker, and contracting historian for The Walt Disney Family Museum.