Little Know Facts About Space Mountain
Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers once invented an attraction so far ahead of its time that they couldn’t even build it immediately. Sadly, Uncle Walt didn’t live to see its opening, and the striking part of the story is that it wasn’t even close. He died in 1966; the ride wouldn’t debut until 1975. Yes, Disney’s ideas were still populating his theme parks almost a decade after his death.
This attraction embodies the legacy of Walt Disney. He envisioned something that wasn’t possible yet, and his disciples carried out his vision long after he was gone. Fittingly, it’s also one of the seminal theme park attractions of all-time. Let’s take this opportunity to learn a few facts about the history of Space Mountain.
What’s a Computer?
Have you ever watched a live-action Disney movie from the 1960s? Several quasi-futuristic films showed “computers” in their current state. They were office-sized electronic devices capable of calculating…less than Katherine Johnson. Disney even mocked the absurdity of these early products in the poster for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Early computers were immobile and inefficient. And that was a huge problem for Disney.
A brilliant Imagineer named John Hench conceptualized a new form of roller coaster attraction in the early 1960s. This ride would require automation to guarantee that the individual coaster carts never rammed into one another. He planned to place timing sensors at several places throughout the tracks. There was just one problem.
The computations that they needed to calculate the best path for the tracks wasn’t possible yet. Disney used extremely early modeling technology to plot these paths. Rendering a single curve took the body of a day. As you know, Space Mountain has many curves. Disney became reliant on Moore’s Law in their quest to build a better roller coaster. They counted on the rapid improvement of computer processing power to bring them closer to their goal.
Even at a time when transistors doubled in power on an annual basis, Disney still had to wait 10 years to computerize the design for Space Mountain. You may not think of it that way today, but it’s the perfect attraction for Tomorrowland. It was several computer generations ahead of its time. Space Mountain is the equivalent of someone having a smartphone in the 1980s.
In the Dark
The Matterhorn at Disneyland is one of the most influential theme park attractions ever built. It was also a proof of concept for Disney execs. They hadn’t completely believed in the idea of the thrill ride prior to the success of the first theme park roller coaster.
Space Mountain was the spiritual successor to Matterhorn, albeit with one huge difference. Arrow Development Company had manufactured the tracks for the Disneyland coaster. Space Mountain was done entirely in-house by Imagineers. And they wanted to do something special.
They built the world’s first indoor steel roller coaster. They also emphasized the theme of outer space exploration. You may not have noticed it since the experience is a real-life example of sensory deprivation, but Space Mountain tells a story. You’re at a distant Space Port (the original name for the ride). All you want to do is go home. So, you get on the outer space equivalent of a monorail to begin your journey.
Disney cleverly employs the void of outer space as the thematic setting. That simple premise is why Space Mountain takes place in the dark, and it’s everything to the ride experience. Most people don’t even realize that this coaster is one of the slowest ever built. It only goes three miles per hour faster than the Barnstormer (!). Space Mountain feels so much faster due to the fact that you’re flying blind on your journey. You can’t see out in front of you other than what Disney shows, which is to say the various lights are your “stars,” the guide points that identify you’re making progress on your journey.
The genius of Space Mountain is that it gets slower and is thereby safer and more controllable via automation. You just don’t realize it because you have no idea what’s going on. All the whirring lights and dark spots on the ride foster the illusion of warp speed.
Stops and Turns
By the early 1970s, technology had finally caught up with John Hench’s ideas. Computer systems were now capable of tracking the data points he needed to bring Space Mountain to life. Using sensors, Disney could track the movements of each individual coaster cart. That practice is critical to the operation of entire ride.
As implemented on Space Mountain, these sensors calculate the velocity of the carts. More impressively, they can calculate the weight of the guests in each vehicle on the fly. With the knowledge of current speed and weight capacity, the central controller for the attraction knows where each cart is on the ride track.
Remember that we’re talking about almost 3,200 square feet of track…most of which is completely in the dark. The sensors are the hidden magic that elevates Space Mountain. Thanks to them, guests to zoom around in the darkness without fear of running into other carts.
A Humble Attraction
Every Disney fan can recognize the unique design of Space Mountain’s exterior. What you probably don’t know about the design is that it relates to several other aspects of Disney theme parks. As the spiritual successor to The Matterhorn, the Disneyland attraction that once redefined the modern roller coaster, its design is something of a tribute.
Space Mountain’s structure is a spiritual descendant in that it too is a mountain, the first of its kind at Magic Kingdom. Imagineers later built Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train as other artificial mountains at the park, but Space Mountain was the original. Imagineers constructed this building in a novel way, too. They placed the structural beams outsider where the series of 74-ton concrete beams comprise the cone of the design. The 72 beams are identical: 117 feet long with a base width of 13 feet that narrows to four feet at the top.
The one funny note about Space Mountain’s massive size is that Disney officials worried it would outshine Cinderella Castle. To avoid that fate, they intentionally made it smaller in height. The “mountain” is 15 feet lower than the rest of Tomorrowland. Serendipitously, this decision aids the ride. The low placement means that the line queue is almost underground, which makes it dark and the air conditioning makes it chilly. You really will feel like you’re in space the instant you enter the building.
Space Mountain is on the shortlist of greatest and most influential roller coasters ever built. MickeyBlog obviously has a lot more to say about it than this, but we hope that by understanding the history of the attraction, you better understand what a majestic Imagineering feat it is. When people speak of Tomorrowland’s signature attraction, they’re talking about something that was far ahead of its time. In fact, it was so futuristic that Disney had to wait for many years to build an idea that they knew was brilliant.