Remembering the Magic: Space Mountain

by Jonathan Heigl, contributing writer
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This month's article is on Space Mountain. We’ll take a ride through the attraction's history at Walt Disney World and then I will give my verdict on whether to revert it, update it, leave it alone, or re-imagine it. Space Mountain does not have a long history of changes, and it has been the only ride in one of the most recognizable buildings in the entire "World", but let's take a blast to the past and explore Space Mountain';s history!

Space Mountain (January 15, 1975 – April 18, 2009)

Space Mountain opened in Tomorrowland on January 15, 1975, built inside of an unmistakable dome that is 300 feet in diameter. To help with the costs of building the attraction, RCA was convinced to sponsor it, and in doing so, contributed $10 million. Space Mountain was built outside of the Magic Kingdom's perimeter and was originally accessible by a tunnel. Called the "star corridor," this tunnel was under the original track of the Walt Disney World Railroad.

This indoor, dark coaster has two tracks, called Alpha, on the left, and Omega, on the right. These tracks cross each other, and in order to accomplish this, the Alpha track had to be 10 feet longer. However, an identical ride experience is had on either track. Riders of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover travel through the Space Mountain dome on their journey around Tomorrowland. Because the interior of the Space Mountain is dark, however, PeopleMover riders cannot see the attraction itself. Instead, they hear the screams, as well as stars and other moving lights projected onto the walls.

Riders made their way through the queue to the Space Port, where they boarded their single-width, six-person spaceships. After boarding, riders made a brief stop until they were cleared to proceed. Once cleared, the spaceships went down a small slope then up a lift into the "energy tunnel" consisting of a circular tunnel with flashing blue lights all around and sounds meant to signify the building up of energy. The spaceships then make a 180-degree turn and begin to climb the lift hill. Projections of planets, stars, meteors, and other flying space objects are shown, as the lift hill area has an open ceiling. Once at the top of the lift hill, riders were taken down a small, quick dip before being sent down through the numerous twists and turns the track had in store. The steepest drop is 39 degrees and the maximum speed is only 28 miles per hour (seems a lot faster, mostly due to being in the dark). The end of the track sends the spaceships through a swirling red wormhole, at which point the riders are safely returned to the unload station.

RCA sponsored the ride from 1975 to 1993. From 1994 to 2004, FedEx was the sponsor. Currently, the ride does not have a sponsor.

Space Mountain (November 22, 2009 – Present)

Space Mountain underwent a major refurbishment, closing on April 19, 2009 and not opening until November 22 later that year. During its seven-month closure, the ride tracks were replaced, although they kept the same exact design. There were a lot of other changes to the entire area as well. For instance, the exterior of the ride had new concrete flooring at the entrance, new signs for Space Mountain (lime green in color), a digital Fastpass sign, and a general deep clean of the surfaces of the building. The ride queue also saw some enhancements. The signs in the queue were updated and replaced, new flooring, railings, and lighting in the tunnel, 20 video screens with separate game controls were installed, allowing guests to play games while waiting, and perhaps most important, the queue was reworked to better separate Fastpass and standby riders and then also at a merge point, helping the flow of the queue.

The load area is now completely enclosed so you can no longer see the track. There is plenty of blue lighting around the area now as well. There are various space images projected to give you the feel that you are in space. The queue line was reconfigured, the floor received a new coating, and new railings were installed. New consoles were installed for the ride operators, along with the air gates commonly found at most rides now. The ride vehicles received a new coat of paint and new seat coverings, but they are the same trains, or spaceships. The unload area received the same updated theming of the load area, but has the addition of screens to view your ride photo. The post-show exit also received an update, with updated posters, a nod to Horizon with the robotic butler, and a special camera effect at the end of the tunnel.

Other than the updating of the track beams, theming and queue, addition of lights, screens and games, and general safety additions, the ride experience, in terms of track, is the same as it has always been.

Jonathan's verdict – revert, update, leave alone, or re-imagine?

My verdict for Space Mountain is...leave it alone! I think this is a great thrill ride. I love the update done in 2009. After all, Space Mountain is in Tomorrowland, and when I think of anything "space," I tend to think more futuristic, so things like the the updated theming  addition of the blue lighting, updated signs, and games in the queue, are all perfect, in my opinion. I also appreciate how Disney kept the track layout the same, but replaced the entire track to keep it operating smoothly. This is a park icon and it never should be completely changed or removed. I feel Disney did an excellent job bringing this ride into the 21st century.

What are your thoughts? By my count, we have one attraction left in Tomorrowland, after which, we will move on to another park. Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. By DisneyJayhawk

    After riding Space Mountain at both Disneyland and in Florida in the last few years, I think the one in California is better due to one main difference. Music. The cars at DL have speakers next to your headrest that hugely enhances the experience.

  2. By petesimac

    What? Nothing about the great exit queue in the original version? After the ride, guests would hop aboard a moving sidewalk and bear witness to the marvels of the future in a series of "scenes": big screen TVs, music videos, shopping from home on the television, classes/webcasts via TV, close circuit cameras that help you see who's at the front door, etc. this was a highlight for me, and sadly instead of merely updating the scenes of the future as the years went by, we now have the vanilla exit queue of today that you race through to make the next fastpass time.

    Here is also another case of the fastpass ruining the ride experience for those without fastpasses. Unless it was peak time, I rarely waited more than 45 minutes for a ride on SM; now you could be there well over an hour. The wait then was fine, as the entrance queue was enjoyable, even without the high-tech interactive games that now exist. The best part was when you finally reached the Alpha/Omega choice; it didn't seem like a warehouse as it does now, it was a thriving, lively rocket port! In the old days, each and every lane on each side was full of excited riders. Again, you didn't mind because you used to be able to see the rockets race through the stars (glimpses, more like), and hear the screams of the other riders, and you could see falling stars, and meteors/asteroids falling in the form of large oatmeal cookies twirling out of the dark sky. I can't stand how they've closed off the view of the tracks from below. Claustrophobic.

    This ride, for an aging guy like me, is close to being a no-go. I can still do it if I'm at the front of the rocket; if I'm on the end, forget it. Still,despite the clueless cosmetic changes and the lack of a great exit queue, SM is still a marquee ride and one I try to enjoy at least once a vacation, but when compared to its former glory, it pales in the comparison. Now, while the DL version isn't as much fun from a roller coaster standpoint (it's more like Thunder Moutain in the dark with its own soundtrack), it's much more fun, thanks to the on-rocket sound system and the loading zone. I would love to try some of the other parks' versions as well.

  3. By SimbaOne

    "Other than the updating of the track beams, theming and queue, addition of lights, screens and games, and general safety additions, the ride experience, in terms of track, is the same as it has always been."

    As far as the ride is concerned, it's pretty much unchanged. To me, that's not "bringing the ride into the 21st century". In fact, the ride feels even older and more outdated now that the queue has been updated.

    I've heard some people say that things like "but it's a classic" and "I like the bumpiness; it makes it crazier and more thrilling". But that wasn't the intent of the Imagineers who created it. As Disney itself claims, they don't make rides, they make "experiences". You're not supposed to feel like you're on a rickety old roller coaster in a dimly lit building. You're supposed to feel like you're hurtling through the pitch-black cosmos at light speed. Upon riding SM twice after the "update", it actually felt a bit rougher to me, it wasn't noticeably darker, and I was disheartened walking through the star tunnel when I could still hear the "clickety clack" of the lift chain through the walls! They still have the motionless mission control figures (who are still weirdly wearing sunglasses, not futuristic visors), they still have the same anti-climactic swirling "wormhole" at the end. And worse, they still have that awkward part between the red tunnel and the unload area where you're crawling at snail's pace but still supposedly in space. Completely reminds me that I'm on an old roller coaster, especially since I can see a dozen infrared monitors passing by and scaffolding everywhere. The added music is a joke, because since it's not on-board, it fades in and out very noticeably. And what's with the on-ride photo camera being at the beginning, before you're even going faster than 10 miles per hour? Everyone I've seen is looking bored or confused in their photos!

    Disneyland did it right. Same track, same theme, but everything has been updated. The lift hill, with it's spinning red "tractor beam" sequence is a really cool effect. The ride is pitch-black, super smooth, and I can actually suspend reality and believe I'm cruising through space! The onboard soundtrack makes it feel like I've got an intergalactic radio piping through my rocket, and it's just awesome. And that finale with the multi-colored stars and musical crescendo gives me goosebumps every time.

    I do think that WDW's track is more interesting in that it has left turns and more dips. But Disneyland's track feels (and is) faster than WDW's, plus since it's pitch-black, even though I know I'm going to be making a right turn, I don't know exactly when. So when I suddenly feel those G-forces, it's very thrilling!

    If I want a wild ride on a rickety roller coaster through a dimly lit building with off-and-on music, I'll go on WDW's Space Mountain. If I want to blast off at light speed through the darkest reaches of space to a rocking soundtrack, I'll go on DL's Space Mountain.

    I did hear that they had planned something closer to DL's rehab for WDW, but their budget got cut and they did the best they could. Looking at things from an Imagineer's perspective, I can see it's not their fault. Heck, I'd be frustrated if I was the principle on that project and my budget got cut! But for one of the most popular rides in the world at the most visited theme park in the world, it's not up to Disney level. It's not a Disney experience. It's just an old, decent coaster with a nice queue (though as petesimac attested, even the queue is debatable)!

  4. By StarTourist

    My two, two cents...

    1) The ride itself is rougher than it used to be. By far.

    2) No matter how many times I've read it, I refuse to believe that both sides are the same. They are not. The right hand side is for some reason far more enjoyable, in my opinion. When I am forced to experience the left side, it's like I've been made to ride the inferior half.

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