Behind the Attraction: Space Mountain
Behind the Attraction, the new Disney+ series, made the unusual decision to split its ten episodes into two mini-seasons.
So, we start with a batch of five episodes, most of which I’ve recapped already. Thankfully, the new set debuted just the other day.
The half-season ended with the perfect choice, though. I mean the ride that defines Disney.
Let’s talk about Behind the Attraction – Space Mountain, the episode that details the history of the world’s most famous roller coaster.
The Best Tomorrowland Ride
The episode begins with Garko! Of course, this means nothing unless you’re a superfan of all things Walt Disney…and visit Sci-Fi Dine-In way too much.
Garko appears to remind people of what the future looked like to people in 1955. It…was pretty ridiculous.
Walt Disney, a futurist at heart, built Tomorrowland under the philosophy of keeping it up to date. But, alas, we all know that wasn’t easy to do.
Imagineers came up with an idea that proved incredibly futuristic, though. As the episode chronicles, Disney invented a ride concept it couldn’t build.
The technology didn’t exist, at least not on a consumer level. Space Mountain required computational power that, well, computers didn’t have.
Tomorrowland needed a hit, though. Two actual attractions at the time were the Hall of Chemistry and the “bathroom of the future.” YIKES!
After only a couple of years, Tomorrowland already needed an update. So, Disney introduced the legendary E-ticket updates in 1959.
These attractions saved Tomorrowland, especially the thrill ride called Matterhorn Bobsleds.
For some reason, Imagineers prefer not to call it a roller coaster. Instead, they use the terminology that it’s “the world’s first tubular steel thrill ride.”
People adored this attraction, forcing Disney to double down on the concept. Disney signed off on a starport attraction, one that would reside at Tomorrowland.
Yes, this attraction, Space Voyage (!), would double the size of Matterhorn Bobsleds. It’d be a four-tracked roller coaster, allowing four carts at once.
Walt Disney loved the idea and preached patience. Disneyland maps from the late-1960s actually show a ride building that looks similar to Space Voyage.
In that way, the attraction mirrors Haunted Mansion. That’s another ride that appeared on maps many years before it made its park debut.
Yes, Space Mountain was too futuristic for Tomorrowland!
Five years after Walt Disney’s death, the theme park opened that bore his name.
History repeated itself from Disneyland, as the Tomorrowland of 1971 quickly seemed…less than innovative.
Meanwhile, the Disneyland attraction known as Space Voyage had died. Some Imagineers quite liked the idea, though.
The plans for Space Voyage switched coasts under a new name, Space Mountain.
Accurate or not, the episode hints that the name reflects its unique connection to Matterhorn Bobsleds, an idea I love.
The surprise stemmed from the genius of Moore’s Law. Computer technology had advanced to the point that they could do what Disney needed.
Imagineers describe it as a “block system,” a term that reflects how computers control brakes across the attraction.
These blocking techniques prevent coaster carts from colliding. If one gets too close, the computer senses the problem and applies the brakes.
That was really all Disney needed, as the rest of the attraction already existed.
According to the episode, Space Mountain is just Matterhorn Bobsleds indoors and in the dark.
The blind spots forced the need for an automated block system. Without it, the sheer size of the attraction would prevent visual safety checks during rides.
In fact, as it was, Imagineers dropped the idea for four tracks, settling on two instead. But, even then, the ride building needed to be massive in size.
Have you ever looked at the shape of Space Mountain? That cool-looking building comes with clever utility.
You start at the top of the ride. Outside, that’s where the man-made mountain looks smallest.
Then, you do looping circles through the building’s interior. So, it’s bigger as it goes further down for a reason. The ride lasts longer that way!
A four-track version would have required a building at least twice as large!
Sensory Deprivation: The Ride
The genius of Space Mountain stems from its best feature. This ride mirrors the concept of traveling across the stars.
You leave one spaceport and arrive at another. Well, here’s the thing about outer space. It’s dark and desolate.
So, Imagineers built the ride that way. Yes, Space Mountain features the occasional burst of neon lighting.
However, most of the experience takes place in the dark. Since you cannot see anything, you have no idea what’s coming next.
For humans, that’s an unsettling, unique experience. You don’t even know whether to lean left or right, forward or backward.
Sometimes, you’ll guess wrong, and the ride will punish you for it. For example, if you lean forward at the wrong time, you’ll get slammed against the back of the coaster cart.
This modest amount of sensory deprivation elevates Space Mountain into the stratosphere of the most iconic theme park attractions ever.
Amusingly, the ride goes nowhere as fast as guests believe. Depending on the location, Space Mountain usually maxes out between 28 and 32 miles per hour.
Yes, a cheetah could easily outrun a Space Mountain roller coaster cart. For that matter, Usain Bolt could hang with the cart for a minute or two.
Most of the excitement of Space Mountain comes from internal psychology rather than physical demands. And that’s why it’s so brilliant.
The Original Second Version
Once Space Mountain proved so successful at Magic Kingdom, Disneyland officials warmed to the idea anew.
Nobody out west ever hated the idea. Instead, concerns stemmed from the spatial demands I mentioned. Space Mountain requires a BIG building.
As everybody knows, Disneyland Resort struggles with space issues. That’s precisely why Walt Disney bought thousands of acres in Orlando.
The entrepreneur didn’t want history to repeat itself. Once Disneyland proved popular, Disney couldn’t afford to buy the land it had made so valuable.
Still, the popularity of Space Mountain dictated that Disneyland needed its own version.
Thankfully, Imagineers are brilliant. They solved the spatial problems with some clever adjustments.
For starters, the ride building at Disneyland is only two-thirds as large in diameter.
With 100 feet less width, the tracks required adjustments. Actually, Disney made one significant adjustment. It eliminated one track entirely.
Yes, Disneyland runs on a single track. That creates an ancillary problem. Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom can host twice as many guests with two tracks.
Imagineers found a way to get around that, which also explains something you may have wondered.
Space Mountain at Disneyland utilizes larger ride carts, allowing guests to sit in rows of two. At Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain is a single-person experience.
So, Disneyland doubles the throughput on one track by having twice as many guests per ride.
Personally, I believe that Magic Kingdom delivers the more fitting ride feeling.
The icy frontier of outer space and the alienation of darkness should be experienced alone.
Whenever I’m at Disneyland, I do get excited to ride this unique form of Space Mountain, though. It’s definitely different.
Perhaps that’s the most profound part of Space Mountain. Imagineers found a way to make two different but equally thrilling versions of the same ride!