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The Science of Park Magic Explained
|Whew, things have been busy around here! I
know, I know…it’s been too long since Space Mountain Part I, so let’s
head on over to Tomorrowland and get right to the science and fun of
The Story So Far…
As I mentioned in Part I, Space Mountain at the Anaheim Disneyland was the second version to be created. Because the park in Anaheim is much more compact than WDW's Magic Kingdom, Imagineers had to come up with a version that provided a similar visual, emotional and physical experience as the original, but in less than half of the original ride's building volume. One of the first things eliminated was the second track used at WDW. This allowed a single, longer track to fit inside a much smaller building for Disneyland. However by eliminating half the track, the Disneyland "shuttle" (Disney’s name for the roller coaster train) seating had to be rearranged to handle twice as many riders as the WDW trains. Currently at Disneyland, a train of two cars holds 12 people, with six people (three rows of two riders) in each car.
There was one other big problem the Imagineers had to take care of – the visual impact of a huge ride building towering over Disneyland’s delicately designed Main Street skyline. Keep in mind that Disneyland is small compared to the other Disney parks, and many of Disneyland’s buildings depend on something called "forced perspective." This is an optical trick that architects, artists, and designers use to make things like buildings look taller or bigger than they physically are. This lets small buildings fit in small places, yet they still look big. Expect a future article from me about this very intriguing bit of science in the park. The basic problem is that a physically large building near smaller ones easily ruins the carefully constructed illusion of forced perspective.
With Space Mountain, even the scaled-down building was going to be pretty tall, and at Disneyland, the ride building sits right behind many of the Main Street shop buildings. The look and scale of these buildings would have been thrown off by a huge building towering over them, and they would have appeared unusually small. So, in order to keep the Space Mountain building large enough for the ride but small enough to prevent visual problems on Main Street, a large hole was dug in Tomorrowland (over 15 feet deep – almost two stories down). Then, the track was put in the bottom of the hole and a shorter building was constructed over the hole! So, when you are boarding the shuttle, you are actually well below Disneyland’s "street" level, and when you exit up the "speedramp" (the moving sidewalk) you are coming out of the hole.
Pretty neat, huh? Now let’s go inside and get to some more cool stuff.
Shuttle Cars and Track
It can take a bit of time, but after you get in line outside of Red Rockett’s Pizza Port, you’ll eventually work your way down all of the ramps to the Space Mountain loading area. As you approach the last set of ramps to your awaiting shuttle, take a look inside the cockpit of the space probe hanging from the middle of the room. You’ll see "Neil" and "Buzz" (nicknamed after astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin), the pilots awaiting their launch time. Go down a couple more ramps and get assigned a boarding lane. This is your first chance to take a close look at your shuttle as it pulls in to the loading dock.
From the dock, you won’t be able to see the wheels that allow your shuttle to glide through "space," so here’s what one of the eight sets looks like:
The big wheels on the top of the track are called "load wheels," and they support all of the weight of the people and cars. The wheels facing sideways are the "guide wheels" that provide the side-to-side support for the cars. There is a third type of wheel called the "up-stop wheels," which sit on the bottom of the track, opposite the load wheels. You can't see these up-stop wheels in the photo, but they keep the shuttle from flying off the track when you go over some of the humps in the track. All the wheels are made of high-temperature polymers such as polyurethane, and as I mentioned in Part I, help to provide a very smooth and relatively quiet ride. However, even with the help of polymer wheels, there is still quite a bit of noise inside the building from the ride.
Speaking of ride noise, riders used to coast through the darkness with just the ambient noise of shuttles and the track rumbling around them. The ride was pretty fun like that, but the Imagineers came up with a very cool addition while designing Space Mountain for Disneyland Paris – an onboard soundtrack for each shuttle! This eliminated the need for a sound system that would have been installed inside the building, but which would have lacked good audio quality. Disneyland installed a version of this complex technology on its shuttles a few years ago, and it is a lot of fun... when it works.
The soundtrack starts off with some space-like sounds and then turns into rhythmic "surf-guitar" music that is synchronized, or timed, to all the turns and dips of the ride. Each seat has a set of speakers placed behind the head of the rider, which are connected to a central onboard audio system. The whole trick to the system is keeping the soundtrack synchronized with the ride "cues," such as dips or sudden turns. To do this, the coaster track has a number of checkpoints that tell the onboard audio system where it should be in the soundtrack. If the shuttle is going too fast, a little bit of music is deleted. Too slow, and a little music is added! It's very difficult for most people to tell if the soundtrack has been adjusted, but if you listen to it enough times, you just might be able to pick up the small changes.
The only problem with a complex system like this is that it isn’t always working.
The other major items of interest are the track and braking systems. As I mentioned in the Part I, the track in Space Mountain is made of tubular steel, with the track at Disneyland being over 3,400 feet long! This long length allowed the Imagineers to put a lot of turns, drops, and humps in the track. However, all of this track requires quite a bit of monitoring to make sure it’s always safe for the riders, and it is far too difficult to inspect every little bit of track for cracks or excessive wear. So, how do they make sure it is always safe? Because the track is a hollow tube, the track is divided up into many sealed sections, and each of these sections is pressurized with air! If a track section is cracked or damaged, the section leaks air, and the air pressure drops. This drop is detected by a monitoring system that alerts the operators of the problem. On top of that, the track is examined each day by operators that walk the entire length of the track to clear it of any obstacles, and to make sure there are no obvious problems.
So far, we’ve looked at the shuttle and the track, but you may be asking, "How are the shuttles slowed or stopped as they zip around the track?" Remember the "braking zones" that I wrote about in Part I? Throughout the track, there are several sections that contain a series of brakes like those shown in the picture below:
The copper colored rectangular objects are the brakes, and all that dusty stuff under them are the supporting pumps, tanks and hoses that are "pneumatic" (pronounced new-mat-ik, meaning air pressure) and "hydraulic" (pronounced high-drawl-ik, meaning fluid pressure). Each of the brake mechanisms is made up of two halves that press against each other with a variable pressure. The higher the pressure, the harder they press against each other. Then a long, straight metal fin runs along the bottom middle of each car, providing the braking surface for the shuttle.
The system operates much like disc brakes on cars. That means the harder the car’s brake pedal is pushed, the more hydraulic pressure is applied to the brake pads. The brake pads squeeze a "rotor" (the spinning circular or disc part of the brake), and this contact causes the "friction" (the force that opposes motion) that ultimately slows or stops the car. When the car’s brake pedal is released, the pressure is removed from the brake pads and rotor, and the wheel can rotate freely.
Many roller coasters work this way as well. During the ride, the braking zones usually only apply gentle braking to slow down the shuttle so it doesn’t catch up to the shuttle in front of it. However, at the end of the ride, the fast moving shuttle has to stop in a short distance, so the brakes are pressed together very tightly, causing a lot of friction and a rapid stop. For the shuttle to move forward, the pneumatic and hydraulic pressure is removed from the brakes.
Now that we’ve covered most of the major ride systems, in Part III we’ll board our shuttle and cruise through space!
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