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The Original
Test Track
presented by General Motors

“Now if this whole routine seems a bit extreme...”
The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Are you ready for a firsthand experience of what the world’s largest car manufacturer does to test their cars? Then enter Test Track, jointly designed by Disney and General Motors.


Other attractions at Disney parks are populated with Audio-Animatronic people. This one has crash test dummies. Get ready to see broken windshields, damaged fenders, and even crumpled cars.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2002

Test Track pavilion

It may seem that extolling the virtues of a car company by emphasizing car crashes makes as much sense as promoting an airline by showing airplane disasters. But the message here is that the sponsor designs cars for safety and performance—and thoroughly tests everything.

Not only that, but a high-speed performance run on a proving ground track can be thrilling. Why should professional test drivers have all the fun?

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2003

Queue demonstrating various tests

The standby queue goes past displays showing many different tests for safety, durability, and performance. There’s the air bag test, safety belt test, brake test, wheel test, corrosion test, door module cycle test, engine test, suspension test, and drop silo test—just to name a few. You might see a metal plunger repeatedly hit the chest of a crash test dummy. The seat jounce and squirm device simulates the abuse a car seat might get from years of use.

It’s LOUD in here. Not only are some of the tests noisy, but there’s the loud, repetitive queue music, with its quick, pounding percussion.

The FASTPASS and single rider queues take shorter routes. You don’t get to see most of the tests.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Waiting for your briefing

The next step is to wait for a briefing room. There are three of them. The waiting area is decorated with crash test dummies, crash test dummy parts, and crash test dummy diagrams.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Briefing room

Enter a briefing room. The doors close.

Sherry and Bill are now ready to present your briefing. It’s partially a ride safety spiel, partially an explanation of how the ride elements correspond to tests at actual proving grounds, and partially a pitch for GM.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2007

Sherry and Bill will explain what to expect.

The briefing concludes:

Bill: Now, if this whole routine seems a bit extreme, you’re absolutely right—but that’s what a test track is all about. The cars you drive at home are made up of over 15 thousand different parts, and every one of them has to pass the test under very extreme conditions before we ever let it off that test track and out onto the road. Now, as you can imagine, safety is a big concern of ours, so we’re going to insist that you buckle up your safety belt securely.

Sherry: You’ll be glad you did. Oh, we’re ready.

Bill: Okay, great. Well, Sherry says we’re ready. So, we’ll see you out there on the Test Track.

Sherry: Good luck. Have a good ride.

The doors on the other side of the room open.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Three-plus-three Seating

You’re now queued up for a car. Each car holds six guests—three in front and three in back.

The cast members quickly and carefully assign guests to each row to minimize any empty seats. That’s good news for those in the single rider line, because there are plenty of times when the third seat in a row would otherwise be empty.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2006

Buckle up

Safety belt fastened? You’re off!

The first three vehicle tests are the hill climb test (climb to the level above the queue level), the rough road test (Belgian blocks are bumpy), and the brake test (ABS lets you keep control of the vehicle when braking).

Next, you go through three environmental chambers.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2007

Environmental Chamber Test 1
 

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2007

Environmental Chamber Test 2
 

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Environmental Chamber Test 3

Sherry and Bill follow your progress and coordinate your tests.

Bill: Did you remember to turn off those robots?

Sherry: Uh.

Next comes the road handling test.

Sherry: Clear for track course A.

Bill: All right, let’s pick up the pace.

Sherry: Increasing speed ten percent... twenty percent... thirty percent.

Bill: Are you seeing an increase in lateral forces?

Sherry: Sure am.

Now you’re in a dark tunnel... Yikes! A big truck almost collided with you. Shades of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Crashed cars—and your car is next!

The next test is the barrier test, just like those tests when they send a car with crash test dummies into a solid wall to see how well the car protects its occupants. The sides of the track are littered with wreckage from earlier tests.

Hey! Wait a minute. Your car is filled with human beings, not dummies. Is this really a good idea?

Announcement: Barrier test in progress.

Sherry: Ready for the barrier test.

Bill: Check.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2007

Approaching the barrier

You accelerate toward the barrier. Get ready for impact.

At the last minute, the barrier flies open like a door, revealing that the track and your vehicle are about to exit from the building.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2007

The fastest ride

Wheeeeee! The barrier test has turned into the performance test. Your car performs admirably through a banked hairpin turn, a straight stretch for acceleration, and a banked curve around part of the round building.

The ride is over, but there’s more.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

GM Assembly Experience

The GM Assembly Experience simulates a GM assembly plant. You can admire a die press. A real die press can produce 6,500 tons of pressure and stamp out a new part every four seconds.

The GM Assembly Experience is also known as “the part almost everyone just walks through without stopping.”

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

New technology on display

Next come the technology displays. (These change every few years.) You can learn how GM is innovating. Fuel cells. Hybrids. Fuel from corn. These may find their way to your own car some day.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2006

Showroom

Now it’s time to see the latest cars from the fine brands of General Motors, including Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, and Hummer.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Hummer shirts

You’re now in Inside Track, the retail shop at the end of your Test Track experience.

You survived the ride, but your wallet might not get out of the shop without losing some of its contents. There’s usually some good merchandise here, including things you can’t get anywhere else in the park.


Test Track, Presented by General Motors, officially opened March 17, 1999, although it had been open to the public, on and off, since the end of 1998.

The new GM attraction reused the pavilion that had been Epcot’s first GM attraction. World of Motion, a playful history of transportation, had closed permanently on January 2, 1996. It wasn’t supposed to take three years until the opening of Test Track.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photos by Allen Huffman, 1996

Test Track construction in 1996

As early as 1994, Disney revealed that “a ride that would put tourists behind the wheel on a GM test track” would eventually replace World of Motion.

After World of Motion closed, the Orlando Sentinel had an article (“Disney on the Fast Track, Epcot Hopes Ride Revs Up Attendance” by Christine Shenot) on February 14, 1996. It began with these paragraphs:

The Magic Kingdom has Space Mountain, and Disney-MGM Studios has Tower of Terror. But when it comes to thrill rides, Epcot may soon outshine them.

Officials of Walt Disney World and General Motors offered a sneak preview Tuesday of what is being touted as the fastest ride Disney has created.

It’s called Test Track, and it’s set to open in the spring of 1997 in the former World of Motion pavilion, which GM has sponsored since Epcot opened in 1982. The cost was not disclosed.

“When you come back to this pavilion next spring, you’re going to be wowed,” said Al Weiss, executive vice president and head of Walt Disney World. “These are the most advanced ride vehicles ever developed.”

Did you catch the part about the spring of 1997?

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2002

Test Track at night in 2002.

Then, it seemed whenever the Orlando Sentinel published news about Test Track, it was to report another delay. For example, an article (“Epcot’s 1st Thrill Ride Now on Track to Open in August” by Christine Shenot) on June 2, 1997, started like this:

Ever since Walt Disney World and General Motors Corp. unveiled plans for Epcot’s latest attraction—Test Track—the anticipation has been building.

Not only will it be the theme park’s first thrill ride, it’ll be the fastest one Disney has ever designed. It’ll also be the longest, covering nearly a mile of track over 5 1/2 minutes. And Test Track features some of the most advanced technology Disney has ever used.

But these superlatives haven’t come without glitches. And the attraction, originally set to open last month, is still about three months away from its debut.

The reasons for the delays relate to the complexity of the ride, which has made a slow transition from the design phase through testing and manufacturing.

One initial problem came in the form of heavy wear and tear on the cars’ tires and differential. That was discovered early and has since been fixed, said George Kalogridis, vice president of Epcot. Another issue is simple logistics. The cars are made in California and shipped in phases. When they arrive, Disney is putting them through meticulous testing at a slower pace than originally planned.

“Our No. 1 objective is to make sure that once we do open this to the public it stays open,” Kalogridis said.

More than a year later, Test Track had still not opened. An Orlando Sentinel article (“Opening Of Epcot’s Test Track Ride Hits the Brakes - Again” by Cory Lancaster) on August 3, 1998, reported another delay:

Just when Walt Disney Co. officials sounded certain that Epcot’s Test Track would open this fall, they confirmed this week the ride has again been delayed.

Already more than a year behind schedule, Test Track is part of a General Motors-sponsored pavilion that will show visitors the intensive testing involved in bringing cars to market.

Test Track vehicles will propel riders at speeds up to 65 mph through tests of anti-lock brakes, acceleration and the effects of heat, cold and corrosion. Once open, it will be the fastest and longest thrill ride at Walt Disney World.

There had been talk that the ride would open as early as October. But that timetable appears to be scrapped, with some Disney officials predicting a spring opening.

By now, “spring” meant spring 1999, not spring 1997.

When Test Track finally opened, it was a huge success. And unlike World of Motion, which drew big crowds at first but became a “walk-on” ride with excess capacity after a few years, Test Track continued to pull in crowds—even after ten years. Hour-long waits were common in the standby queue.

The original Test Track at Epcot

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2012

New Test Track, presented by Chevrolet, during soft opening

But while Test Track was popular, sponsor GM was struggling. By 2009, the same year that its second Epcot sponsorship contract with Disney ended, GM was on the road to folding. GM was saved by a controversial rescue plan involving federal loans, federal equity investments, and federal loan guarantees. A new, leaner GM emerged from a one-month Chapter 11 reorganization in the middle of the year. Critics of the rescue said GM now stood for Government Motors.

Some Disney fans at online forums surmised that Test Track—or at least its GM sponsorship—was now doomed; after all, how could the U.S. taxpayers be expected to sponsor a theme park ride?

What those fans failed to take into consideration was that advertising and PR spending are not optional for a car company. And there’s only so much that can be done with television and magazine advertising. In North America, the new GM was down to four main brands: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC. How could GM reach car buyers who wouldn’t dream of stepping foot into one of those dealer showrooms? How do you show people that GM is not a relic of the past?

Millions of Test Track riders each year found themselves in a showroom with the latest GM models. They could touch the cars, sit in them, see pricing, talk with GM representatives, and see GM as a company with well-designed, up-to-date products.

However, Test Track itself had become somewhat of a relic of the past. The physical ride experience was still great, but the message had grown old and stale since the 1990s. ABS braking was hardly cutting-edge anymore. The 20th century industrial interior had always seemed somewhat out of place in Future World, but now it screamed Old GM, not New GM.

The original Test Track closed April 16, 2012. When it reopened on December 6, 2012 (after only a few days of cast and guest previews), guests found the same track, but a new experience overall. The sponsor is no longer the corporation, but its biggest global brand, so the showroom can highlight the full Chevrolet line.

The new message involves designing cars with “Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power.” Guests use interactive design displays to create virtual cars that balance these factors, and they swipe RFID cards to use their designs in other parts of the attraction. The standby queue now provides a full experience, with enough time to customize a design, while the FASTPASS and single rider queues are good ways to get to the ride more quickly, at the expense of the design experience.

But no matter how good the new pre-ride, post-ride, and ride interior are, the highlight is still the high-speed portion after the track exits from the building.

The Imagineers knew what to leave alone.
 

Now, to look at the new Test Track, please CLICK HERE (originally published December 4, 2012).


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Updated February 7, 2014.