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Disneyland Article
Behind The Ride Mad Tea Party

Mad Tea Party
David Mumpower
November 02, 2019
November 06, 2019
Quick! Name an attraction that everyone knows but not everyone wants to ride. Out of all theme park options in the entire world, a singular name should spring to mind. Mad Tea Party somehow claims the sort of branding that corporations spend millions of dollars trying to earn.

Yet, despite the fact that everyone can recognize Mad Tea Party at first sight or by name, far fewer people are bold enough to ride it. People know that Mad Tea Party is synonymous with vomit comet. It’s an attraction that you should never ride after lunch lest ye fall victim to the dreaded protein spill. Despite its nauseous reputation, this ride maintains an elevated status in theme park industry. Let’s go behind the ride to learn what makes Mad Tea Party spin tick.

The experience: Spinning in circles for no good reason

The trick: Employing old carnival ride tricks in a modern way…for 1955

Unless you fought in the Great War, Mad Tea Party is older than you. When Disneyland opened for the first time in 1955, this attraction was one of the nine opening day rides that remain in operation today.

The masterminds at WED Enterprises somehow designed this many original ride concepts that have stood the test of time. Arguably none of them is quite as influential as Mad Tea Party, although it’s a cheat to reference it that way.

In truth, this ride steals from one of the most familiar ride concepts in the world. It’s a glorified carnival attraction akin to the Tilt-A-Whirl and other spinner rides that you know from your childhood.

On the Tilt-A-Whirl, one flat surface operates as the base for a series of free-spinning ride carts. The base doesn’t move, but the elements surrounding it can have any range of movement needed. Generally, they spin in a circle around the base.

With Mad Tea Party, the ride carts are thematic Tea Cups that spin twice at once. Yes, Imagineers doubled down on the concept. The ground of the attraction works as the base, while each Tea Cup spins around it in a counter-clockwise formation.

The experience: Spinning in a circle within the circle for no good reason

The trick: Hiding an integral ride mechanic directly on the ride cart

What has differentiated Disney’s version from day one is that it features a second kind of motion. The Tea Cups claim their own independent movements, which go clockwise. In a perfectly fitting way for an Alice in Wonderland-themed attraction, you sometimes go clockwise and counter-clockwise at the same time!

The technology seemed truly remarkable for the era. Imagineers constructed the ground as a primary turntable. It’s the base that forces the counter-clockwise movement. On a regular Tilt-A-Whirl attraction, the Tea Cups would spin on this turntable, and that would be enough. From the earliest days, Walt Disney expected more of his Imagineers, though.

In a sense, the attraction works as a Matryoshka nesting doll set. Three turntables stack on top of the main one. That’s a total of four turntables, three of which are hidden in plain sight. The ride structure is eerily similar to Alien Swirling Saucers, but the additional turntables are more apparent on that one because they sometimes detach.

Each of the inner, smaller turntables on Mad Tea Party spins clockwise. However, there’s even more motion involved. These turntables connect six Tea Cups. Each of these ride carts comes with its own motion, which the guest controls.

That freedom of motion is entirely dependent on the rides, which explains why you never want an enemy onboard your Tea Cup. They’ll spin you into oblivion, and you won’t keep any food down for the next three days.

The moving parts on this seemingly simple ride are extremely impressive. One turntable goes counter-clockwise, the three on top of it go counter-clockwise, and the Tea Cups on top of them…well, that’s up to you.

Guests choose which way to turn the wheel and thereby decide the traffic. It’s three-tiered motion, the kind of madcap nonsense one would expect to experience in Wonderland.

The experience: Gorgeous Tea Cups that thankfully have brakes (now)

The trick: Turning breakneck speed into vertebrae-intact speed

While modern versions of the Tilt-A-Whirl include additional ride elements, it really hasn’t changed much in almost a century. The basis of the concept dates back to 1926 and was familiar to anyone in the amusement park industry. Nearly 30 years later, Walt Disney wanted a cheap flat ride that would lure traffic.

His Imagineering team modified the premise the same way that they did with most attractions. Disney added theming to function as the proverbial fresh coat of paint to make something seem different and better.

This small gesture symbolizes the way that Uncle Walt fundamentally altered an entire industry. Where some people saw duplicate carnival rides, he had the inspiration to add in Lewis Carroll’s shenanigans to elevate the experience.

The earliest days of Mad Tea Party were a bit messy, though. I’m not talking about the Code V protein spills, either. Disney didn’t add brakes or speed limits to the turntables. I’m not sure Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride earned its name as much as Mad Tea Party did back in 1955. The latter attraction was undeniably the wilder ride.

Guests at the time suffered mightily, I’m sure. Imagine the most obnoxious kid that you’ve ever seen on Mad Tea Party spinning a Tea Cup that doesn’t have any brakes. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Of course, those sorts of horrors are perfectly thematic for Alice in Wonderland.

During the early 21st century, park officials stepped on the neck of this particular problem. They added slowing methods to ensure that the Tea Cups never spin beyond a certain speed. Amazingly, so many guests complained that park officials relented a bit and increased the speed limit on Mad Tea Party.

The experience: Looking at a gorgeous tea set…that will may make you vomit

The trick: Mary Blair magic and tripy stoner styles

Even in the Disney musical movie version of Carroll’s tale, bedlam is ubiquitous. The ride aptly captures that sensation on its own, but the theming takes it over the top. In the earliest days, Imagineers decorated half of the Tea Cups with stylish, almost hypnotic colors and designs.

Mary Blair, she of It’s a Small World fame, had a hand in the Tea Cup paintings. For some reason, Disney only styled half of them at first before realizing the obvious. Settling for less isn’t the Disney way. The color schemes in place reflect that a celebration is underway. It’s an unbirthday party!

The Magic Kingdom and later versions of the attraction feature even better theming. A Tea Kettle sits in the middle of the attraction. The original Disneyland designs called for this ornament as well. Due to the tight spacing at Fantasyland and the turntable location, it proved too difficult, though. This setback is a frustration since the Dormouse pops up in the Tea Kettle at the parks that have it.

The primary theming in play during the formative years of Mad Tea Party largely involved the psychedelic prints. The center of the main turntable features a trippy spiral that would seem right at home at 1960s concert/group LSD experience. Carroll became a strong influence in that particular counterculture, after all.

Over the years, the Tea Cups have gotten a bit classier. They now seem stately rather than stoner. Disney’s tied the theming to the characters a bit more, too. It’s not unusual for Alice, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat to jump on the ride to experience it with guests. These lucky theme park tourists get to live out their fantasy of tripping balls with actual Alice in Wonderland characters!
Attractions Referenced

It's A Small World

Mad Tea Party

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

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