Lunar Lunacy With Walt Disney

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20, 1969. Of course, Disney did not want people staying at home to watch the event on their small television sets and avoiding Disneyland.

So on that afternoon, just steps away from the Flight to the Moon attraction on the then somewhat new Tomorrowland Stage, Disney set up a large screen on the stage and smaller television monitors in the front. Guests could watch the first men set foot on the moon while still spending the rest of the day enjoying the park.

The 1955 Guide Map for Disneyland stated:

"From Tomorrowland you may have an aerial view of America by boarding a space station which, theoretically, travels in an orbit 500 miles above the earth's surface, or you may be a passenger in a TWA Rocket making a round trip to the moon. In short, all of man's dreams of the future are realities in Tomorrowland at Disneyland."

That reference to being able to board a space station was a now-forgotten Disneyland attraction called Space Station X-1 when it opened in 1955 with famed scientist Werhner Von Braun as a consultant. Once America launched a real satellite in orbit, the attraction was revised and renamed Satellite View of America in 1958 and closed in February 1960.

I interviewed artist Peter Ellenshaw about his work on the project in 1996:

"Walt came into my office and said, 'I want you to do something down there at Disneyland. I want you to do a thing we are calling 'America'. I want you to devise something that will show America. You get on a platform and start on one side of America and you go all the way round until you get to the other side. And during that time it will play America the Beautiful.' I had to listen to that song 1,000 times when I was working on this. (laughs)

"One-hundred feet across it was. They had already decided how big it was going to be. I had a model made and put it in one of the rooms next to my room at the studio. I was gradually painting it and thought it would work. You can paint it trompe l'oeil so you think you were seeing it in the round and that's the way I was doing it.

"I painted the whole thing so it was designed that we could make a slice to see if it would work. We made a huge slice and painted and lit it and it looked terrific. Then we had to show it to the background painters who did a rough of my sketch, squared it up and got it just so. Then it was pasted down on this huge disc. Then we put the lights on it. I put luminescent paint on the towns at night so when it got dark they would glow at night.

"It was very effective. Looked wonderful. They called it Spaceship X-1 eventually, not 'America'. After about a year, after the lights had been redone, it was a terrible thing to keep going. We decided it should be called 'The Dust Bowl of America.' We couldn't keep the dust out. So it was eventually abandoned. It never had a sponsor like some of the other things. It was a lot of work for nothing really."

The Rocket to the Moon attraction was initially sponsored by TWA and included a space trip, for 102 guests each time, with a view of the dark side of the moon

Walt was never interested in science-fiction. He kept insisting that the work he produced for the Tomorrowland television shows and what he wanted at Tomorrowland in Disneyland was "science-factual," a glimpse at the world of the future just around the corner.

The early publicity stated that Tomorrowland was the world of 1986 when Halley's Comet would return, a traditional symbol of change, and not the imagined future of the 2000s depicted in movies and magazines.

As we remember the milestone of Americans landing on the moon, let's take a brief look at Walt's vision of outer space travel at Disneyland.


July 1955 -- September 1966

The project leader for the iconic Tomorrowland Moonliner was Imagineer John Hench, who consulted with scientists Willy Ley and Werhner von Braun.

Their input influenced the design of the spaceship with its white fuselage and red highlights to look similar to the infamous V2 rocket that von Braun had developed during World War II in Nazi Germany. However, Hench included his own design elements like the three twenty-two foot long steel pylons flaring out at the base of the cylinder for support.

The rocket was 72-feet tall (80 feet with the legs) and was estimated to be one-third what the actual size of the rocket might be to hold 102 passengers. The exterior featured 15,000 square feet of aluminum.

In an edition of the Los Angeles Times, it announced:

"Wednesday, July 6, 1955. Early risers along a 20-mile route between Hollydale and Anaheim were startled this morning to see an 80 foot rocket ship moving through the streets. In order to prevent a gigantic traffic tie-up, the ten ton aluminum and steel 'Air Ship of Tomorrow' was trucked before sun-up, from Hollydale where it was built, to Disneyland where it will become part of the TWA exhibit as well as the theme of the Tomorrowland section of the park."

The Moonliner was sponsored by Trans World Airlines (TWA). According to Disneyland publicity in 1955: "Towering high above all else in Tomorrowland, the TWA Moon Rocket symbolizes Trans World Airlines' interest in future air travel and planned scientific progress."

Walt Preston was a civil engineer who developed the structural engineering drawings necessary for the assembly of the rocket pylon. Waldrip Engineering was put in charge of acquiring materials and doing the actual construction and contracted with Preston to do the detailed shop drawings and with his assistant Jim Block overcoming the challenges of the expansion and contraction of the exterior in the heat and cold as well as the overturning forces of wind and earthquake.

"The rocket symbolizes the scientific achievements that will be as familiar to the young people of tomorrow as Main Street is to you and me," Walt told reporter Florabel Muir for an article in the July 10, 1955 edition of the Daily News.

In 1956, TWA moved into a new headquarters building in Kansas City, Missouri, with a reduced-size 22-foot tall replica of the Moonliner on its southwest corner roof where it remained until 1962. It was sold to SpaceCraft, a Kansas City travel-trailer company. It was eventually rescued by Dan Viets, restored and now exhibited at The National Airline History Museum in Kansas City.

The historic restoration of the TWA headquarters building led to the fabrication of a brand new Moonliner replica that was installed on September 29, 2006 at the same southwest corner roof location as the original.

At Disneyland, the sponsorship shifted in 1962 to Douglas Aircraft when TWA owner Howard Hughes sold his interest in TWA and that company decided to end its sponsorship of the Moonliner and the Rocket to the Moon attraction. Douglas painted its name on the rocket and replaced the horizontal red stripes with vertical blue ones, destroying the forced perspective Hench had originally created that made the rocket look taller.

The Moonliner was removed on September 13, 1966 and was totally and completed destroyed to make way for the New Tomorrowland that opened in 1967.

With the 1998 renovation of Tomorrowland, a two-thirds size replica (roughly 53-feet high on a 12-foot pedestal) was placed on the roof of the Spirit of Refreshment building, sponsored by Coca-Cola whose colors are red and white, next to Redd Rockett's Pizza Port. It is approximately 50 feet from the original location of the icon.

Rocket to the Moon

July 1955-September 1966

Sponsored by Trans World Airlines (TWA), the Rocket to the Moon attraction was delayed from operating on opening day by four days due to severed electric cords by a disgruntled electrical worker that had to be rewired. John Hench spent all night on July 16, 1955 trying unsuccessfully to get it fixed for opening day.

There was great curiosity and interest in the possibility of manned space flight so Walt Disney knew that guests would be interested in a "science factual" exploration of the topic. Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, would not be launched until 1957 so man going to space was still just a speculative but inevitable concept.

Scientist Willy Ley was working with director Ward Kimball on the Tomorrowland episodes for the Disney television show about outer space and was loaned to the attraction to help out with some of the concepts (like the ship flipping over in space) and his input helped shaped what the guests saw and gave it an aura of credibility.

Hench was responsible for painting the backgrounds that were seen as the spaceship took off from the Earth with some assistance from Peter Ellenshaw. Hench was also responsible for the Moonliner which was supposedly similar to the spaceship that guests were supposedly boarding.

Guests entered a double hemisphere building where they would soon board the Star of Polaris spaceship piloted by Captain Collins. They waited in a briefing room for 15 minutes watching a film of a short history of space exploration and a preview through the use of animation and models of their trip around the moon.

Then roughly 102 guests followed a corridor meant to be the gantry tunnel they had just seen in pre-show into a three-tiered circular seating theater that was meant to be the passenger compartment of the spacecraft. At the center of both the ceiling and the floor of the theater were large, round "scanner screens" where film was back projected of the flight. In this way, guests could view where they had come from and where they were going as if they were portholes.

Realistic sound effects throughout the journey around the moon added to the illusion as did Captain Collins' reassuring and informative narration. At appropriate times the seats vibrated and air jacks under the seats helped with the sense of losing gravity.

High points of the flight included a view of the dark side of the moon temporarily illuminated by flares from the ship and the minor emergency returning to the Earth when a shower of meteoroids hit and caused some minor damage to the ship.

Much of the material and models like the image of the rotating space station were borrowed from Kimball's episode Man and the Moon that first aired on the weekly Disney television series in December 1955 and was in production. It featured a trip around the moon very similar to the attraction including lighting up the dark side with flares.

Douglas Aircraft took over the sponsorship of the attraction from 1962-1966 and continued with the revamped and updated Flight to the Moon attraction that opened in 1967.

Flight to the Moon

August 1967-January 1975

The New Tomorrowland that opened in 1967 featured several new attractions and the popular Rocket to the Moon was significantly updated into Flight to the Moon sponsored by McDonnell Douglas. Aerospace manufacturer Douglas Aircraft Company merged with the McDonnell Aircraft in 1967 to form McDonnell Douglas.

The Moonliner and the building for Rocket to the Moon were demolished in 1966. The new Flight to the Moon building took over the space that had previously been the Flying Saucers attraction, and is now the location of Redd Rockett's Pizza Port.

Inside were two similar but larger "Lunar Transports" theaters meant to represent the passenger cabins that were larger in diameter (for 162 guests) with slightly wider seats and with a fourth concentric circle of seats in each of them.

The four and a half minute pre-show was now a terraced walkway with railings on each level. To the right were huge glass panels that allowed guests to see pre-launch activity in Mission Control, "the nerve center of Disneyland's spaceport." Eight audio-animatronics male figures were seated along two banks of computers moving their heads and arms.

The one standing figure who talked to the audience was Control Center Director Mr. Tom Morrow with his lower torso conveniently hidden by a computer. It was the first time that an Audio-Animatronics figure interacted with a live host even though it was tightly scripted.

Screens behind Mr. Morrow showed some NASA footage, new projects that were being prepared and the preparations for Flight #92 (that the guests would soon be boarding for their flight) as well as the famous footage from runway 12 where a clumsy albatross came in for an awkward landing that tripped security alarms.

Once in the theater, the upper ceiling and lower floor projection screens showed some of the same material from the original attraction with flares lighting up the dark side of the moon and being caught in a meteoroid shower on the return to the Earth.

However, during the nine-minute moon flight, two screens mounted on opposite sides of the cabin's walls showed a new "live" telecast from the moon's surface of astronauts gathering ore samples, demonstrating weightlessness and showing off the nearby moon base.

Just two years later, on July 10, 1969, the attraction became instantly obsolete with the Apollo 11 mission having American astronauts walking on the surface of the moon.

While Disneyland publicity proclaimed, "Disney called on NASA experts from the McDonnell Douglas Corporation to provide data. The new show is as scientifically authentic, accurate and up-to-date as possible," NASA had purposely withheld information including the actual design of the landing vehicle.

From July 1969 through December 1972, six manned missions of NASA's Apollo program landed on the Moon, resulting in dwindling attendance for the attraction that closed and was reformatted as Mission to Mars. Walt Disney World had a similar Flight to the Moon attraction in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland from 1971-1975 but was not sponsored by McDonnell Douglas.

Mission to Mars

March 1975-November 1992

While the Mission to Mars attraction at first glance seemed to be a simple overlay to the just closed Flight to the Moon attraction, there were some differences beyond changing the destination to a fly-by of the red planet Mars.

The entrance and holding areas were redone with new colors, signs and photographs. The flight number had changed to #295. More importantly, a female audio-animatronics character took over one of the seats in the Mission Control pre-show that had previously been all male.

Mr. Tom Morrow must have gotten promoted or retired because he was replaced by the Audio-Animatronics bespectacled Mr. Johnson (who was voiced by actor George Walsh who had previously supplied the voice for Mr. Morrow) with his headset and clipboard discussing space travel and the Mars vehicle. The new show included Mars footage shot by a NASA satellite.

Of course, there was no base on Mars for astronauts to transmit a "live" broadcast to the guests. So that section was changed to images from probes launched from the rocket and narrated by Third Officer Collins voiced by Peter Renoudet. Those probes showed details of the surface of the planet including canyons and mountains.

Some things that had delighted guests in the previous show remained including the footage of the albatross tripping the security alarms and the danger from a meteoroid shower forcing the ship's immediate return to earth.

The theaters remained the same as earlier incarnation with four tiers and screens on the top and bottom. However, when the moon came into view, the ship jumped into "hyper-space penetration" that brought Mars into range.

Some guests had lost interest in real space flights, and weren't as interested in this new destination adventure, so attendance quickly dwindled.

It was planned that the attraction would be replaced as part of the Disneyland Tomorrowland 2055 project with the new ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter attraction as was done with Walt Disney World's Mission to Mars attraction. It was cancelled due to massive cost overruns of EuroDisneyland (now Disneyland Paris).

The building was vacant for awhile and eventually became the home to the Toy Story Funhouse (January 1996-May 1996) where guests could wander through several rooms to play video games, experience an obstacle course wearing pads like the Green Army Men, interact with different displays and have photos taken with the costumed Toy Story characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear and more.

The Toy Story Funhouse was not created specifically for Disneyland, but had been part of "Totally Toy Story" at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood to help promote the original release of the film.

Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios Dick Cook began an initiative to turn theme park attractions into films and one of the projects he greenlit was Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000) The finished film has little direct relationship to the attraction but did inspire the Mission: SPACE attraction at Epcot in Florida with actor Gary Sinise playing the same role he did in the film.