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Oo la la! A look at Disney in France
Space Mountain in Disneyland Paris
Six years. It’s been about six years since "Space Mountain: de la terre a la lune" opened. On that fateful day, June 1, 1995, a new era in Disney theme park attractions was born (happy belated birthday, Space Mountain!) Four months earlier, the exciting Indiana Jones Adventure had opened at Disneyland, but this Space Mountain was different even from that technologically advanced attraction: here was a roller-coaster that covered the familiar ground of a coaster ride in the dark and yet broke the mold of the "Disney coaster" in several different ways.

Space Mountain under construction in Paris
Space Mountain under construction in Paris

Originally slated to be called "Discovery Mountain," the coaster represented an awful lot to the Disney corporation. To begin with, it was the first major addition to Disneyland Paris (then called Euro-Disneyland) since its opening in 1992. Soft attendance numbers were underscored by even softer hotel bookings, and the financial peril of the Euro Disney SCA company – the majority owner of the park – was growing steadily. Space Mountain was designed to be the "killer app" of theme park additions, there to lure in visitors and keep them coming back for more. By and large, it would succeed in this endeavor.

But Space Mountain was unique for many other reasons. Consider the history of the Space Mountain franchise: the original idea dates back to the mid 1960s, when Walt and other Imagineers envisioned a Space Port that would revitalize Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, which had never really existed the way Walt wanted it originally. The Space Port concept proved too difficult for the 1964 rehab of Tomorrowland, and the idea was quietly shelved. The opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 signaled the need for a roller coaster on the East Coast which could match the fun of Disneyland’s then- only coaster, the Matterhorn (introduced in 1959).

Problem was, the Matterhorn mountain is riddled with passageways, and is more or less an open-air coaster. Central Florida, with its humidity, precipitation, and occasional hurricanes, would need a fully enclosed coaster. So the Space Port concept was reworked for Florida, where extra space allowed for a building with a 300-foot diameter, much larger than the California space.

Designers quickly realized that the Matterhorn-type ride was going to have to mimic the Matterhorn also in having two separate ride tracks, or else capacity would suffer greatly. If you have ever ridden WDW’s Space Mountain and Disneyland’s Matterhorn, you have may have been struck by the similarity in vehicle design and even general idea for the track layout – they are both the same "type" of ride.

Disneyland's Space Mountain today
Disneyland's Space Mountain today

Naturally, Space Mountain was such a hit upon opening in 1975 that Disneyland wanted one of its own, which they got two years later. The same lead designer and engineer from the Florida project – we’ll call him "Bill" – wanted to give this one a different feel because the Matterhorn was only a few hundred feet away. Since Anaheim only had room for a 200-foot-wide building, there wasn’t room for two tracks, and Bill conceived of the idea to mimic space flight via speed, long stretches of straightaway, and turns that were sometimes tight but always smoothly banked.

This concept evolved into a standard of sorts for the Disney type of thrill ride: some sensation of speed, though never overdone and envelope- pushing, accompanied by smooth turns that thrill without causing real fear. The same designer laid out the track dynamics of all variations of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and his principles can be seen at that ride, too. The legacy of the "Disney type thrill" can be found in most projects until the mid-1990s, in fact, and is most clearly seen in the simulator rides at the various theme parks.

Space Mountain in Paris changed all that. Imagineer Tim Delaney conceived of this edgier version in part because of Disney’s regional competition. European tourists were accustomed to rides that generated negative g-forces, dropped dizzying heights, turned upside down, and in general pushed the physical limitations of the body. Nearby to Disneyland Paris was an established resort named Parc Asterix, whose lineup included a world- class wooden coaster which put to shame any offerings by Euro- Disneyland upon opening.

Space Mountain track model for Paris - Promo image © Disney
Space Mountain track model for Paris - Promo image © Disney

As a result, this Space Mountain would feature inversions – a corkscrew as well as a straight up loop – all while in the dark environment of simulated space flight. The top speed of the coaster would be 30% faster than Orlando’s or Anaheim’s, reaching up to 70 kilometers per hour. There would be more show elements inside the ride, so that passengers would view giant set pieces as they whizzed past them and through them (examples include asteroids, the "Blue Moon Mining Company" piece of mining equipment, and hyperspace-type special effects). The journey would climax atop a lifthill mid-ride by reaching the moon, or at least a filmed version of its smiling face. Look for a hidden Mickey created by craters on the moon’s face.

Two other elements of the ride would mark Disney firsts, and harbingers of things to come: a catapulted launch similar to one used on aircraft carriers, and an onboard sound system, with music synchronized to the turns and drops of the ride. Both of these ride elements would be used to great effect elsewhere in the Disney theme park world (such as the Rock ‘n Roller coaster, Disneyland’s Space Mountain, and California Screamin’). They all trace their success back to Paris’ Space Mountain.

Space Mountain in Paris has a launch tube disguised as a cannon
Space Mountain in Paris has a launch tube disguised as a cannon

Most importantly, the introduction of a edgier thrill element at Space Mountain would have a lasting effect on Disney attractions. Disney’s California Adventure is heavily invested with rides that induce g-forces or dizziness, and expansions to Florida’s parks have tended to be much more thrill-heavy since Space Mountain’s arrival in Paris. This marks a turning point in company philosophy, since now Disney desires to cater to thrills more than ever before.

Many company officials have stated that they think the public now expects thrill rides, whereas before they did not, but this is a shortsided view. In the 1920’s there were several *thousand* more roller coasters in America than there are now. Walt Disney’s first park was such a success precisely because it appealed to the whole family without alienating those too old or young to ride all the rides.

Space Mountain Paris today
Space Mountain Paris today

Space Mountain Paris, as fun as it is for me to ride, marks the turning point in this evolving saga of the Disney corporation’s turn toward greater thrills and potentially smaller family audiences.

 

 

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