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The Science of Park Magic Explained
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Kevin Krock
Hello there!

"This is Tower…Launch sequence engaged…"

…and off you go on your galactic adventure!

Your shuttle slowly rolls to the first lift and then climbs up into…a meteor shower! The only light you see are the meteor trails, and in the distance, you can hear the rumble of the shuttles ahead of you. A second, longer lift then takes you up towards some mysterious lights. You're almost there! The lights go out. As you reach the top of the hill, the surrounding darkness begins to brighten as stars appear all around. You slowly roll past a large satellite, and then at the top of the last short lift…

"We have ignition…"

You quickly pick up speed as you rocket down the track. The rest of your adventure becomes a blur of dizzying twists, turns and drops through the darkness of space. Then, just as your shuttle begins to reach top speed, you reach the "re-entry" tunnel and rapidly slow down. The shuttle crawls back to the loading dock, and you realize that it went by all too quickly. Luckily, you can head back to the end of the line for another adventure as soon as you get out of your shuttle! (At least that's what I do!)

The Space Mountain Range
The four Space Mountains - (Clockwise from top left) Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland Photos © Disney

The ride description probably sounds more familiar if you have been on the Anaheim or Tokyo versions of Space Mountain. However, if you have been on any of the four Space Mountains in the world (including Paris and Florida), you're familiar with the excitement and fun that Disney park guests have been experiencing for decades. If you haven't experienced "Space", give it a try, and hopefully, you'll get hooked! Space Mountain might not be the fastest, scariest, or most amazing roller coaster in the world, but it's a wonderfully themed coaster with a style all its own. In fact, the Space Mountains at each park have individual styles that set them apart both from each other, and from all other roller coasters.

Part I of this series focuses on the history of Space Mountain, and the technological developments that led up to its creation. The second part of the article covers details about the Space Mountain in Anaheim (cool photos and everything…), as well as specifics about the other three versions. There's a lot of stuff to cover, so get comfy and make sure your lap bar is secure! Here we go!

A Bit of Disney History…To See How Space Mountain Developed

The original Space Mountain opened at Walt Disney World (WDW) in 1975 as Florida's indoor version of Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsled (with outer space themeing, of course). Back then, this was the world's first all-indoor coaster, and the first to be completely in the dark! While the attraction was built with two separate tracks inside the huge building, the seating in the cars itself was single-file with three riders in the first car and three in the second (a lot like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, but without sitting in somebody's lap!). 

Because of its success in Florida, Disneyland opened a more compact, longer, single-track version in 1977. This new version was designed to be faster, handle more people, and have a completely different track layout than the WDW version. Then in 1983 when Tokyo Disneyland opened, a third Space Mountain (almost identical to the Disneyland version) was introduced. 

And finally, three years after opening Euro-Disneyland, the fourth version was opened there in 1995. What set the Paris version apart from all the others are the catapult launch, a loop and a corkscrew! This one is also the fastest in the Space Mountain range, but we'll get to that later…

A lot of people have written about the history of the Space Mountains attraction. Check the reference section at the end of the article for a couple of great resources.

A Bit of Coaster History…To See How Technology Developed Roller Coasters

Before the 1960s, roller coasters were huge wooden structures with laminated wood tracks and flat steel rails (see picture below). The cars ran on steel wheels for durability, and usually only one "train" (a group of cars) could be on the track at one time (to prevent crashes). Wooden coasters were big, rough and noisy, and limited to dips and turns. Keeping the coasters in good condition for extended periods of time was difficult and expensive because the wood would rot or get eaten by bugs! Now, don't get me wrong. They were, and still are, a blast. In fact, some of the current wooden coasters on the West Coast, like Ghostrider at Knott's Berry Farm or Colossus at Six Flag's Magic Mountain, are still a lot of fun, and I'm sure there are many other favorites out there.

Wooden Coaster
Typical wooden track and steel wheel set-up for the old wooden coasters.

But there's only so much that can be done with wood, so along came… Steel.  

Steel Coaster
Typical steel coaster set-up.

Quick question: What was the first roller coaster in the United States to use steel tubing for track rails and supports? No, it wasn't Space Mountain. It was actually Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds! (I will cover it in a future article.)

What's the big deal with steel tubing?

Here's a list of some of the big advantages:

    Steel doesn't rot, so maintenance is easier and less expensive

    Tubing can be bent and shaped in ways that are impossible with wood

    Steel is much stronger than wood, so support structures can be smaller

    Steel provides a consistently smooth surface for wheels, so noise is reduced

Ok, so steel tubing makes great track, but what about the wheels that run on it?

The old wood coasters used steel wheels, but steel wheels on steel track make a lot of noise and the ride is rough. You might guess that rubber tires (like those on a car or bike) would reduce the noise and work pretty well, but that kind of rubber wouldn't last very long on coaster wheels - it would just fall apart!

Do you have a pair of in-line skates or a skateboard? Take a look at the wheels: they're the same kind of material currently used on coaster wheels. For most of these wheels, the material is a "polymer" (giant molecules made up of a lot of smaller, identical molecules - plastics are a good example) called "polyurethane". 

When made into wheels, polyurethane is usually pretty hard, but it has enough "give" or squishiness to act like rubber. Also, polyurethane can handle much higher temperatures and stresses (from the "friction" or contact between the wheel and the steel tubing) than the kind of rubber used in car or bike tires. So in the end, polyurethane gives us roller coaster wheels that are quiet, smooth and very durable. The figure below shows a typical current roller coaster wheel.

Coaster Wheel
Current design for roller coaster wheels.

The last of the major coaster improvements really has to do with increasing the number of people that can enjoy a coaster at the same time…we wouldn't want the cars or trains to crash into each other, would we?

Question: How would you keep one "train" or set of cars from running into another, if they were both rolling around on one track at the same time?

Answer: You could just wait until the first train reaches a point on the track that the second could never catch up.

That works for many coasters that only have one or two large trains. But what if you throw ten to 12 separate small trains on one track (like at Disneyland's Space Mountain)…How are you going to handle that?

I know this article is about Space Mountain, but I'll quickly mention another "Matterhorn Milestone" - the Matterhorn was the first coaster to use the "block-zone system" that allows more than train on a coaster track at a time.

What's a block-zone system?

Imagine a long track divided into lots of small sections, or "block zones." Each zone is connected to a sensor that monitors exactly which zones the trains are on at any given moment. Several of these zones also have brakes on them. These zones, called "brake zones," can be controlled by the monitoring system. The sensing system is programmed to keep the cars a certain number of zones apart from each other. If one train gets too close to another, the system applies the brakes in the brake zones, causing a cascade of trains slowing down until all of them are safely stopped. This doesn't happen a lot, but when you're told the ride has "temporarily broken down," there's a pretty good chance that it was due to a cascade.

Once all the cars are stopped, they are removed from the track, one by one, to the storage area "backstage" (an area outside of the view of guests). Then, the trains are slowly put back on the track. Be patient: This whole process takes quite a bit of time!

What does all this have to do with Space Mountain?

Well, by the late 1960s to early 1970s, steel tube track, polyurethane or nylon (another polymer) wheels, and block-zone systems had become the best new way to build roller coasters. As I mentioned, the Disney Imagineers wanted to build a space-themed roller coaster in Florida, but it had to be indoors for it to operate throughout the year. Since the entire roller coaster was going to be enclosed in a building and needed to handle thousands of people a day, the new technology was very important:

    The polyurethane wheels - the ride had to be relatively quiet and smooth to give the feeling of gliding through space.

    The steel tubing - the support structures and tracks had to be tightly twisted to fit inside of the building.

    The block zones - the original WDW trains only carry six people, so a lot of trains need to be on the tracks at the same time to handle the large number of riders.

In the next article you'll see that the basic technology behind all of the versions of Space Mountain is pretty much the same, but they all have little details that set them apart from each other... and have I got some neat stuff to show you!


Don't forget to send email to Ask Doc Krock! at DocKrock@scientist.com!

Until next time...
Keep your eyes and minds on the magic!

MORE:

Part Two

Part Three

REFERENCES:

Kevin Yee's Space Mountain Fan Page

E-Ticket Space Mountain Issue

Felix' Space Mountain Fan Page

All links above open in new windows

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