LAUNCHING SPACE MOUNTAIN
by David Smith
I remember the countdown on the lift hill. That’s all. That is not entirely true; I also remember the screams reverberating through the queue line. I was seven at the time, and I was convinced that those screams represented the final moments of terrified people being flung off the track and into the dark void. With every passing minute and scream, my fear continued to escalate in much the same manner that the lift hill would physically elevate the “space ships.” Click, click, click… ever closer to a spiraling doom. I don’t remember boarding, but I do remember hearing the countdown as the ship climbed the multi-thousand foot hill (at least it felt that way to my seven year-old self).
“30 seconds to lift-off…”
“15 seconds to lift-off…”
“10 seconds to lift-off”
And then blackness. Nothing.
I remember very little of my first encounter with Space Mountain in Disneyland. I had sworn off roller coasters at age 5, but through a strategic combination of insulting reassurance and compassionate accusations of timidity, my family had convinced me to try a roller coaster for the first time. My friend’s graphic description of the Abominable Snowman on Matterhorn, and my own reticence about riding a runaway train on Big Thunder Mountain left me only one option- Space Mountain. I mean, what could possibly be scary about space? (I had not seen Alien yet in this point of my life.) By the time I was at the crest of the hill ready to launch into the starfield, I was fully convinced I had made a mistake, and if I survived, I would definitely need to find a new family.
I don’t remember the twists and turns, the dips, the speed, or the details of that first ride, but I absolutely remember exiting the attraction and wanting to go again. Not only had I survived, I was hooked. I would ride Space Mountain (and roller coasters in general) many more times after that. What was it about this attraction that played a vital part in turning me, and many others like me, into a Disney theme park junkie? To answer that question, let’s look back on the history of the attraction leading up to its opening at Walt Disney World and the various iterations that followed.
“Why can’t we have a ‘space mountain’ ride?”
As with most things in the Disney theme parks, the genesis of Space Mountain has to be traced back to Disneyland and Walt Disney’s vision. In 1959, Disneyland opened the Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction, decisively establishing that 1) the tubular steel track design was an evolutionary leap forward in coaster design, and 2) thrill attractions could absolutely have a place in Disney theme park storytelling. With the major Disneyland expansion completed, Walt Disney then turned his attention to renovating Tomorrowland with a planned completion in 1967.
Walt and his Imagineers had been working on creating a cohesive “Space Port” theme for Tomorrowland. During one design review session, Walt is said to have asked, “Why can’t we have a ‘space mountain’ ride?” With this single question, the 11-year journey from conception to reality began. As he often did with things requiring a futuristic motif, Walt Disney asked John Hench in 1964 to begin work on designing a space mountain with the working title, “Space Voyage.”
For engineering the track layout, the Imagineers once again turned to Arrow Development, who had created the ride system for the Matterhorn Bobsleds. As originally conceived, the attraction would consist of four separate tracks populated by single-car ride vehicles. As with Matterhorn, the layout would make use of “energy wheels,” which enabled the innovative block zone operations. Since the attraction was originally going to be installed in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland with southern California’s more predictable weather, the initial track layout included both indoor and outdoor elements that would instantaneously transition riders from blinding sunlight to complete darkness.
As the design team struggled to fit the four-track design into the available space, it soon became apparent that the design was just too large to fit into the available land in Disneyland. Therefore, the team made the decision to go with two tracks and two-car trains, thus reducing the required space while maintaining capacity.
The design and engineering process continued at a steady pace, until that day in December 1966 that changed everything in the Disney Company. With Walt’s death, focus shifted away from expanding Disneyland to the Florida project. The Space Mountain project was put on hold, and many of the team members began working on the Thunder Mesa project. It would be five years before the Space Mountain project was resurrected.
During the hiatus, the Imagineers encountered many of the same engineering challenges that they had faced, and would face again, on Space Mountain. Even though the Thunder Mesa project itself would be put on hold, the experience and lessons learned on Thunder Mesa would have a direct impact on the Space Mountain design.
For instance, after visiting Arrow Development in 1968, WED engineer Bill Watkins concluded that Arrow’s “energy wheels” would be prohibitively costly to operate and maintain, and would likely increase the number of attraction shutdowns. Thus, when development of Space Mountain resumed, it was quickly decided to make it a pure-gravity coaster.
Even prior to the Magic Kingdom’s opening in 1971, park executives recognized that in order to attract the teen and young adult demographic, more thrill rides were required. There was some talk of replicating Matterhorn in Florida, but the lack of space in the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland quickly ended that idea. Looking at previous ideas, “Space Voyage” quickly came to the forefront, and in early 1971, the project was restarted.
One of the first decisions was to change the attraction from an indoor / outdoor experience to a purely indoor one. The primary factor behind this was central Florida’s less than predictable weather. It was also at this point that the track layout was finalized.
Bill Watkins played a key role in engineering the track layout and is one of people most responsible for how Space Mountain feels. At the time, computers were still too slow to handle the calculations required. The WED computers that were capable of calculating the track curves would require an entire night to process the necessary data for a single curve. Therefore, the curve calculations were all done by hand.
Bill used his experience as a pilot to provide a reference for how the curves of Space Mountain were meant to be felt. During a coordinated (normal) turn, the speed and the bank of the aircraft determine the radius of the curve. In addition, banking into a turn in an aircraft is usually a smooth transition and the pilot applies pressure to the controls. Using these concepts as a guide, Bill designed the turns to have a smooth transition into and out of banks while also setting the curve radius to approximate the feel of an aircraft making a coordinated turn.
With the track layout finalized, it was time to start construction. However, there was one final decision to make. From the start, the very early sketches of Space Mountain showed the building having a cone shape. During the design though, there was a sizable contingent of people that wanted the attraction to be covered with a dome shaped building. A dome would be significantly easier, and cheaper, to build. After much debate within the company, the decision was handed down that Space Mountain would have a cone shape. Aesthetic value had won out over economic concerns.
Construction of Walt Disney World’s Space Mountain began in 1972, and the attraction was announced to the public in a joint statement with the attraction’s sponsor, RCA.
“Clearing the Tower”
On January 15th, 1975, Space Mountain was officially dedicated as a Magic Kingdom attraction. Guests at the opening were entertained by a 2,000 piece marching band and the release of over 50,000 balloons along with fireworks. During the ceremony, the Chairman of RCA, Robert Sarnoff, and the Chairman of Walt Disney Productions, Donn Tatum, unveiled a bronze dedication plaque engraved with the words: After nearly twelve years of designs and redesigns, starts and stops, technical obstacles and breakthroughs, cones and domes, Space Mountain was now open to the public and on its way into the stratosphere of American popular culture.