The Story Behind the Trippy Tunnel Connecting United Concourses at O’Hare

Yesterday when I wrote about United’s men-only flights on key business routes, GringoLoco commented,

Sounds like a story PremEx would know and tell… great blast from the past, Gary.

I decided to pull another blast from the past, a story I wrote about a couple of years ago that in fact comes from PremEx.

Most readers won’t know who he is, of course. But Mark Love is the person I learned the most from about travel, while in my formative time in business travel fifteen years ago. I learned how to think about the people I was dealing with along the way. Some might call it social engineering rather than application of the rules, but I prefer to think of it as simply dealing with the gate agents, hotel clerks, and phone agents as people with their own motivations.

The story I have in mind is the bizarre tunnel that connects United’s B and C concourses at Chicago O’Hare. People frequently mention that it “feels like Disney.” And indeed it does.

So I went and found the story.

Most folks [love “The Tunnel”] although some repeat customers do often say it can become irritating after a while. Of course the intention was to add beauty and distraction to the otherwise boring and utilitarian nature of such a loooong underground passageway. In this I think it succeeds, but not as much as it might have. Why? Because I happen to know a bit about how this little project was originally intended and designed.

You’ll notice those lighted panels on both sides of the tunnel? Those are “Band-Aids” of a sort. They cover-up what was never completed. You see, at the time of it’s design, United was in talks with Disney about becoming the new Corporate Alliance “Official Airline of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.” United put Jahn in touch with Disney’s Imagineering division and they jointly planned on creating some nice 3 dimensional “vignettes” of scenes of various cities that United flew to, in all these “windows” on the sides. Similar to what some might remember from the old “Delta’s Dream Flight” attraction in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

Part of this collaboration was the creation and design of the neon rainbow transition sculpture running the length of the corridor, by noted neon sculpture/artist Michael Hayden of California, who had worked on a similar rainbow piece for Disney…a popular curving rainbow tunnel…at the “Image Works” section of the Imagination Pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot, that was sponsored by Kodak (colors=Kodak=natch).

Well, the Disney marketing partnership just didn’t work out, and money got a little tight with cost overruns on other parts of the project, so snip, snip…cheap little plastic color backlit panels now cover what might have been. But Hayden’s wonderful rainbow neon artwork remained (titled “The Sky’s The Limit” if anyone cares), and an “otherworldly” original composition of Rhapsody In Blue was created by composer William Kraft, and synchronized by computer with the color changes of the neon, for the final effect, which both artists share credit for.

…Today it accomplishes most of what it set out to do: Provide some minor distraction for that long, long 2 minute transition between terminals. If you’re thinking about it, like it or not…it’s doing it’s job!

The system was deliberately designed to be easily reprogrammed for different music and lighting effects. I guess if they get back into the black someday, they should consider dusting-off the control panel, commissioning some new music, and changing the lighting/synchronization on occasion…so it’s not quite so “stagnant” an experience for repeat visitors.

Hopefully a story that United frequent flyers, who may not have been familiar with the background, can enjoy.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s been many years since I’ve been through there, but my abiding memory of the tunnel is hearing ‘the moving walkway is about to end’ repeated endlessly from 4 different points, all of which interfere with each other over the length of the tunnel to produce a very weird distorted sound.

    Since I usually went through the tunnel when transiting through ORD from SYD to LHR (via LAX/ORD), you can imagine how this weird sound was a little disturbing after 18 hours+ in coach!

  2. I seem to remember that when it first opened the music was different, way weirder, but people complained and they changed it. That would have been around 1988 I guess, because that’s probably the first time I went through there and by the time I went through again it was different.

  3. ‘the walkway is ending, please look down’ Over and over. There are two looooooong walkways, the one on the walkers right is for those of us that want to ‘take our time’ and lean against the right side of the walkway, others should be able to pass on our left. The left walk way is really for those that want to move a quickly as possible to, either the next walk way, the escalator. You just can’t get it through those newbies heads that leaning or riding on this one is a no-no. You just want to yell, GET THE F— OUT OF THE WAY!!!.
    When using that walk way, you can be from escalator to escalator in 2 minutes, or less if ya’ want to really walk fast or run.
    JMHO as a frequent traveler from B to C. Or is it C to B??

  4. I like the plastic panels way more than I would have liked any scenes. The panels are interesting, but not so interesting that people stop in the middle of a crowded walkway to look at them. PHL has that problem (among many) between A and B – everybody slams on the brakes and goes “ooh, 12 Monkeys was filmed here?”

    By the way, I always think of paint swatches when I see those squares.

  5. I do enjoy your post. I love the tunnel, after countless transits, both alone and with my son. When my son was young, he and I used to fly transcon together a lot (mother in the Bay Area). Believe it or not, on several flights westbound, I’d book through Chicago, both to break up the time for him, and to hit the “magic tunnel”. When I’d tell him we were going to go through it, his face would light up. And when he was old enough, he’d ask if we could go that way. (Very needless digression: Like my parents asking me when I was a boy whether I wanted to go up 101, 99 or 97 between the Bay Area and Seattle.)

  6. @Mr Brightside – seriously, who cares if you don’t care. Why did you even read any of it?

  7. I’m from the chicago area and I’ve been through that united tunnel a lot. I remember early on it had really weird music that supposedly scared people. I always loved going through that tunnel. Somehow after a 10-12 hour flight it seemed appropriate. And the way you could not really understand “the moving walkway is coming to an end” until you were at the end was really cool, very trippy. In fact one time I was literally tripping.

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