Imagineer Tom K. Morris discusses developing synchronized sound for roller coasters in recent interview

by Jeff DePaoli

Tom K. Morris had a lengthy career at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he was on the opening team for Epcot, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Over the decades he worked on many varied projects. In a recent interview, Morris discussed the creation of synchronized sound roller coasters, which is a mainstay today. The conversation below features excerpts from an interview on “Dizney Coast to Coast” podcast.

synchronized sound roller coasters

True or false? Are you a huge part of the reason why we have synchronized sound on roller coasters?

Yeah. Very much so.

How did this come about? Because to me that’s game changing.

tom morris
Tom K. Morris

Well, it took about ten years to convince people of it. From the time I was 16 years old I had my own car with my own tape deck, and I loved listening to my favorite songs on my drives. The PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) goes up and down and winds around and reveals a new scene. It was just thrilling to get a certain kind of synchronicity happening between what I was looking at, what I was physically feeling in the car, and hearing. And it seemed to me that the Disney company was formed with synchronization, the marriage of music and motion from the very beginning.

So, in 1985 I was sent down to Disneyland to get some site experience at the Imagineering office there. A good thing for all Imagineers to do, to spend some time in the local office and see how guests really respond and react and behave in the park to the things that you design. One of the things I would do after work, because I wanted to pitch this idea of fully synchronized onboard audio…in my mind it was working toward a kind of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster idea. But I would use Space Mountain as the demo for it. I would take a Sony Walkman. I was able to create a timing profile. An exposure sheet, if you will, that predicated how you could organize a song around the ride experience of Space Mountain at Disneyland. So, I came up with several different soundtracks. And the ride operators were really into it. The lead on the attraction was into it. He’d let me ride it around and around at the end of the day or the beginning of the day when it wasn’t as crowded. And so, I would do these demos.

The first person I took on, maybe, was Tony (Baxter), and then I worked my way up through management there and took supervisors through it and they all liked it. Someone at Imagineering, shockingly, didn’t. For this person, they found that it was scary, that it made it scarier. His lack of enthusiasm, I think, kind of stalled it for a while.

When the idea would occasionally surface, I was pushing it as a new attraction for one of the parks. It was gaining interest but no one quite willing to take the risk to spend the tens of millions of dollars. We had a good opportunity to start demoing the idea. First Eddie Sotto, who was the executive creative guy for a while down at Disneyland, really liked the idea. I think he was the first to actually institute it, if I’m not mistaken, when he brought in Dick Dale to do that wonderful soundtrack for Space Mountain at Disneyland. We proposed it for Space Mountain in Paris, so I was noodging Tim Delaney who didn’t need too much noodging because he loved the idea as well. So, we hired a composer to come up with a new score for the one in Paris.

Where it was technically, from an engineering standpoint, first demoed and first opened I believe, was Casey Jr. Circus Train at Disneyland Paris, which was an electric train. It was a power coaster that looks just like the one at Disneyland. And because it was a powered coaster you don’t have the squash and stretch timeline that you might otherwise have. It was really an exercise to see how sturdy and reliable an onboard sound system could be with all of the twists and turns and sudden stops. That was the first one that you could call, technically, the fully synchronized onboard audio.

disneyland paris

What was one of the highlights for you while leading the Fantasyland design of Disneyland Paris?

I was pushing for Mr. Toad because that was my favorite of the dark rides. It being not a top Disney animated film in terms of eyeballs that had seen it, it didn’t make the cut. But I remember verbally proposing for an indoor/outdoor version of Mr. Toad where it would come crashing back into Toad Hall at the end of the ride. There might even still be space for it on the berm between the train station and Pirates of the Caribbean.

That idea didn’t get very far, but then I thought, well, Toad Hall is so cool. That’s one of the places I always wanted to live in storybook land. There was a restaurant that we had on the “menu” for Fantasyland. It was kind of nondescript. It was Captain Hook’s Galley or something like that. And it was in the preliminary sketches that I saw for it, where it was not anything you would remember. Nothing you would go out of your way to take a picture of or anything. So, I proposed instead of making it a fish and chips pirate-themed restaurant, you can make it fish & chips, but Toad Hall. So, they bought into that idea.

world showcase epcot

When you left Imagineering, Is there a project that was being worked on that you wished you could have been part of?

One that I really enjoyed, but it was more like three or four years prior, was another seasonal event that was going to be added to Epcot. It was going to bring in some of the original Epcot thinking…in a way that would add something new to the park each year. Maybe some day that’ll happen. That was the one I had a lot of interest in.

We did have food that was tailored to your DNA. So, if you were Scandinavian or had an Asian background, here is a menu that is optimized for your DNA. The Mediterranean diet, the Asian diet, the Scandinavian diet, etc. It seems like every single thing I’ve ever worked on or proposed has come back in one way or another.

Hear the full interview on this episode of “Dizney Coast to Coast.”


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