October 12, 2012

Refresher Course: Space Mountain 101

Space Mountain. Long before The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror or Carsland and its Radiator Springs Racers, this single attraction was the motivating reason to visit  Disney theme park.

The Space Mountain name alone evokes excitement for theme park fans all over the world. Whether it is the classic, iconic structure found in Florida, California, and Tokyo; a similar takeoff placed in a Tomorrowland that almost feels kid drawn in Hong Kong; or the stunning, elegant Jules Verne styled masterpiece in Paris, the sheer sight of the mountain makes visitors run toward it once the rope drops. For this generation, blasting off through the universe has become a right of passage into the teenage years, but for the very earliest Disney fans, this wasn't always the case.

A slice of thrill.

Walt Disney had long passed away when Space Mountain debuted at Florida’s Magic Kingdom in 1975. The thrill ride was part of a slew of much needed additions for Tomorrowland. Like most all of the early classic attractions, however, its roots came from Walt himself many years before, and this ultimate thrill adventure was initially planned for his beloved original park in Anaheim.

A bigger slice!

America’s obsession with space travel provided the perfect timing for an attraction such as this. The future fascinated Walt. He loved science, space exploration, and new technologies. In addition to being an under appreciated businessman as well as a dreamer, fortunately, Walt was also a doer, and he assembled a team that could dream and create with him.

As discussions continued with the team, concept art for Walt’s Space Port, as it was originally named began to emerge. Many different looks were considered before settling on the timeless exterior familiar with fans in the States, and Imagineers Herb Ryman and John Hench each came up with designs that would be somewhat merged for the final result. Plans for Disneyland’s new Tomorrowland of the sixties included the attraction, but other priorities took precedence, leaving Florida to open the attraction a couple of years before it finally hit California soil.

Once the design was settled upon, a detailed model was built, giving the Imagineers a chance to view how the attraction would fit into the Magic Kingdom.

Upon its opening, Space Mountain became an instant fan favorite and theme park classic. "The blessing of size” as Walt said with regards to his Florida project, enabled the Imagineers to create a dual tracked Space Mountain for the younger Magic Kingdom park. With its thrills, the experience was a strong bid for the youth market who found much of the Magic Kingdom park too tame and lame with its emphasis on slow moving attractions and cabaret shows like Tropical Serenade (Enchanted Tiki Room), Country Bear Jamboree, and The Mickey Mouse Revue. The trend setting Mountain transformed into a park staple, with pale imitations created all over the world in an attempt to capitalize on its success. Even if you are not a Disney fan, chances are you know the name, probably recognize its timeless form, and are well aware of the adventure within. Another Walt inspired masterpiece.

The more recent refurbishing meant a change in the music and a nifty new attraction poster, but the ride itself remains fairly rough compared to when it first debuted. Long time fans know park maintenance is not a strong suit at the Florida parks. The New Fantasyland could be bringing some changes to that as the Imagineers prepare for a fresh invasion of visitors eager to see the most exciting addition to the Magic Kingdom in twenty years. 

Back at Disneyland, the success of the attraction meant one had to be built in Anaheim. That park’s smaller footprint demanded a similar but much smaller mountain back in California, bringing with this change a single track, different loading zone, and a much tighter flight course.

Prior to the opening of California Adventure, it was possible to enter the parking lot area by Space Mountain with your car, and since I lived nearby, I took advantage of the opportunity to drive by very often. When the attraction finally opened in 1977, I was among the first in line to take flight. And what a line it was! At one point, the queue snaked down Main Street and the hours passed as flights were on then off during its test period. The experience was quite the rush at opening with the atmosphere much darker, the rockets faster, and the journey unfamiliar. 

One of the earliest renderings of the attraction- for Disneyland.

In the late 90's as part of the New Tomorrowland, a newly bronzed Space Mountain came alongside the most recent addition, Rocket Rods, as well as a couple of cloned attractions from Florida. The revised land was not a success, and the mountain soon returned to its glistening white version.

Recent holiday themed experiences mean this mountain changes to Ghost Galaxy every Halloween, given those in charge a reason to keep things in top working order. Debates continue as to which mountain in which State provides the better experience but both are beloved and appreciated for their differences.

With much cash to burn and carte blanche access to the plans from Imagineering, the Japanese investors had the ability to hand pick from two differently designed Disney kingdoms, giving their guests a very interesting version of the first overseas park Tokyo Disneyland. Surprisingly, even with access to the larger Florida version, the Japanese chose the California’s much smaller attraction as the one to be duplicated. When the park opened in 1983, visitors found this space journey to have an entirely different feel, a blending of both American parks and few unique elements at opening. 

But the best was yet to come when a Disneyland was planned for the world's most beautiful city, Paris.

To experience Space Mountain, European fans had to trek to the Sunshine or Golden States for a Disney vacation experience or head to Japan. Once Disneyland Paris added their own space adventure, guests were shocked and delighted. Debuting in 1995, the iconic white mountain was replaced by a gorgeously themed and wonderfully executed Jules Verne inspired adventure... that began outdoors!

Originally planned as Discovery Mountain, the attraction inside was as different from its cousins as was its exterior: the open air loading station sends its rockets into a smoke-spewing cannon as guests are launched upwards into the mountain. The views over Discoveryland are amazing, but they are nothing compared to the thrills found inside!

The track layout included multiple inversions- the first for a Disney park anywhere- and the inclusion of a majestic musical score to accompany the journey. This new twist on an old favorite brought in the crowds. Some could even debate it saved the resort. It certainly did bring in the crowds.

Although the exterior building concepts remained largely the same, the Imagineers presented several different ideas for what was to be built inside the mountain. In addition to Space Mountain, ideas ranged from a Nautilus adventure including a restaurant inside the submarine, to a unique use of the technology that makes The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror so popular for an additional attraction themed to a different Jules Verne novel.

(For more information and concept art, track down the wonderful book Disneyland Paris, From Sketch to Reality by Alain Littaye and Didier Ghez.)

Upon our first visit to Disneyland Paris in 1998, Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune, and Phantom Manor were at the top of my must-do list. I must say, I did not expect every corner of the park to be as beautiful as it was.

Once I finally entered the queue and hopped aboard the vehicle, the ride was as wonderful and thrilling as I had imagined it would be! I couldn’t wait to ride it again and promptly returned to the queue for another trip. In its own unique way, viewing the mountain and watching the Columbiad cannon send explorers on their journey was as compelling as seeing the beautiful Eiffel Tower. I couldn’t take my eyes off the attraction. 

Beautiful during the day and absolutely spectacular at night with its magnificent lighting, this Space Mountain was the ultimate execution of the trendsetting concept. Period. Until a "reintroduction".

When we visited the park once more in 2007, we were shocked to find that the original theme had given way for "Mission 2". It was a poor design and marketing choice, as much of the stunning set pieces and effects had disappeared as well as the original majestic theme music. Perhaps it will return one day.

The opening of the first Disneyland in China, Hong Kong Disneyland (2005), provided an opportunity for building yet another version of the Magic Kingdom classic. Due to budget adjustments and misguided opinions of what should constititute the park, it remains short on attractions, even though Grizzly Gulch and the upcoming Mystic Manor will bring a more complete experience. The famous Space Mountain, however, was a must for opening day. The setting of the Chinese Tomorrowland is more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon than previous versions, but the mountain itself is a near duplicate of California's. In a new take on the mountain's use and design, it also houses an attraction based on the main character from Lilo and Stitch.

Where will the next other worldy mountain show up? Some folks are still sure it will be in Shanghai Disneyland, but only the Disney executives truly know- and all bets say the centerpiece Tomorrowland attraction will be based on Tron: Legacy. For all the questions we may have, one thing is certain. Space Mountain in all its incarnations, will continue to thrill and fascinate millions of guests looking for a chance to explore the universe and then return safely home!

(All concept art and Tokyo Disneyland photos copyright The Walt Disney Company; all other photos by Mark Taft)

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