Nothing new 3: Victorian Disneyland

by royalpavilion

The idea was that the spectators would stand on a platform that rocked gently to simulate movement as hidden fans blew the air to simulate forward motion. All around them lighting effects, slides and moving pictures would present ‘the sensation of voyaging on a machine through time’. The English showman Robert W Paul, best known now as one of the first film pioneers, described this project in the patent application (no 19984) he made on 24 October 1895 entitled ‘A novel form of exhibition or entertainment, means for presenting the same’. Paul had met H G Wells, whose story The Time Machine had achieved recent resounding success.

Some commentators have seen in this a parallel with Hale’s Tours, the short-lived sensation of a decade later in which audiences sat in railway carriages for journeys through the Rocky Mountains, past the pyramids, up Norwegian fjords. I wrote this poem several years ago:

Hale’s Tours

A Kansas fire chief, George C Hale,
Created tourist trips by rail.
His big idea (no, please don’t laugh):
To use the cinematograph.
The train stood still, the world rolled by.
The carriage rocked, deceived the eye.
His cameras strapped in front of trains
Shot scenic mountains, rivers, plains.
His shows toured cities far and wide
As audiences sat there goggle-eyed.
He made a fortune. His success,
Though quite short-lived, brought happiness.

Let’s travel back to see Hale’s Tours.
I take you through the carriage doors,
I seat you on a red plush chair—
You see it, but it isn’t there.
You look through windows left and right,
You see the world in black and white.
With wanderlust to stir your blood,
See townscapes, mountains and the flood,
Norwegian fjords, the Holy Land,
The golden road to Samarkand.
No need to move—my words, you’ll find,
Create the journey in your mind.

No tickets, waiting or delay,
No checked-in bags to go astray,
No wings or wheels or horses’ hooves.
He travels far who never moves.

In fact, R W Paul’s conception went further than that. He envisaged the protoype fairground ride that began to appear 60 years later at Disneyland and subsequent theme parks, what today would be classed as virtual reality. One of the most popular genres of early film was the ‘phantom ride’, shot with a camera strapped on the front of a moving vehicle, usually a train. Early film-makers can be divided between those who saw the medium as a way of recording actuality and those who recognised it as an illusion that could be exploited. Paul belongs to the latter group, although in his relatively brief career—in common with a number of his contemporaries he had given up the cinema by 1910—he made films of both types. Another was George Albert Smith, who tranformed the phantom ride by interpolating a scene of a couple in a ‘darkened’ carriage as it travels through the tunnel in his 1898 film A Kiss in the Tunnel.

One more thought: if ‘phantom ride’ films were shot with a camera strapped to the front of a train, where was the cameraman who had to crank the handle to shoot the film?