WDW's Space Mountain

by George McGinnis, contributing writer

As we approach the long-awaited reopening of Disneyland's Space Mountain, we begin a multi-part series from former Imagineer George McGinnis on the history of the Space Mountain attractions at the domestic theme parks. First up: Walt Disney World's ride, the first one built.

After the success of Matterhorn Mountain, the first steel-pipe coaster, Walt Disney is said to have asked, “Why can't we have a 'space mountain' ride?” So in the mid-1960s Walt gave John Hench the assignment to design a space mountain. (This “odd” name wasn't set until much later — it was called Space Venture for a period until a vote was taken among WED employees to choose between Space Mountain and other names that had been suggested. Bumper stickers with “Ski Space Mountain” abounded).

Getting underway

John was the perfect choice to head up the project. Walt relied heavily on him for futuristic designs. John and WED Engineering worked with Arrow Development of Mountain View, California, the engineering firm that had designed the Matterhorn track. A concept model of the exterior of Space Mountain was constructed in the WED Model Shop by a wonderful sculptor who is always referred to as Mitsu.

Mitsu a WED sculptor/designer under the direction of John Hench, began enclosing Arrow's track with wonderful forms that included some exposed track and lofty spires. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

The very earliest models followed John's concept sketch, which is shown on the cover of a book entitled Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show by John Hench with Peggy Van Pelt.

The cover of Designing Disney uses John Hench's early Space Mountain concept drawing. Click the image to see larger version at Amazon.com or to explore the pages of the book.

The project had been underway for a time when I arrived at WED Enterprises in June 1966. The month before, I had the privilege of meeting both Walt Disney and John Hench when they came to see my senior transportation project at the Art Center in Los Angeles. Driving back to Glendale after the meeting, Bob Gurr, who also attended, quoted Walt as saying, “We can use another Industrial Designer at WED” (link).

Walt lived only six months from this time. But during this period I was honored by being asked at times personally by Walt to work on certain projects. However, my very first project, given to me on my first day by Marvin Davis, architect for EPCOT, was to design the speed ramp arrangement in the Transportation Center. The Center was to be used by residents and guests transferring between Monorail and WEDway (PeopleMover) within the WDW complex. Later in a meeting Walt sketched a neighborhood WEDway station concept for me, showing a convenience store beneath it. He explained that the residents could pick up milk and eggs before walking the short distance to their homes.

The beginnings of the design

The huge Space Mountain model was most interesting to me with its elegant spires and sculpted forms, but no work was being done on it at this time. In fact it was five years before work started on it again. Thunder Mesa design (later called Big Thunder) preceded it for a while and laid the groundwork for the engineering. I was told the Space Mountain concept had problems with space requirements for single cars running on four tracks. This, coupled with the planned use of Arrow's “energy wheels” (which allowed the tracks in the Matterhorn to conform to the mountain's predetermined form), made for great difficulty in making the four-track model work.

Arrow Development designed the four track model for the very first Space Mountain concept. Red dots throughout represent the energy wheels that were also used on Matterhorn Mountain. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

In 1966, Arrow was not using computers on their designs. WED computers capable of calculating track curves would take all night to process data for one curve, according to WED engineer Bill Watkins, who would design many of the rides Disney built over the next decades. I designed the concept for the mine train's locomotive and cars for Thunder Mesa in 1968 and my involvement with the Space Mountain project came in working with Bill in early 1971. (Thunder Mesa was set aside for years until Tony Baxter presented a new concept called Big Thunder Railroad.)

In 1968, Bill had traveled to Mountain View to study the characteristics of Arrow's track layout for a mine train ride. He came to the conclusion that it would be better for Disney to have a pure gravity ride than one assisted with “energy wheel” devices to speed or slow vehicles through “block zones.”These block zones allowed single vehicles—or “bobsleds” in the case of the Matterhorn—to have the capacity of the long trains of cars found on roller coasters of the time.

Bill's research found the energy wheels to be expensive, high maintenance and the cause for shutdowns, so he brought to Disney the first pure-gravity, steel-pipe coaster. He had decided to do away with energy wheels, because he felt it was like “putting ketchup on a steak.” Space Mountain was now on its way to another first.

Bill Watkins' story

As a pilot, Bill was familiar with the feeling that you get when a turn is properly executed. He felt that a ride called “Space Mountain” should be designed to re-create that feeling as much as possible. Further, with a thrill ride in the dark, you need to be a little gentler with your passengers.

We'll let Bill tell the story his way:

The first layout of the Space Mountain track was two tracks that fit in a footprint that maximized all of the space available on the lot behind Tomorrowland at Disneyland. It was necessary to avoid the underground utilities. The resulting shape had five sides and resembled home plate. A two-track system could be squeezed into the space, but presented a real challenge to the designers and architects to enclose it.

The five sided Space Mountain concept, developed for Disneyland, is shown placed in Walt Disney World's Tomorrowland. The larger 300 foot diameter building had not been decided on at this time. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

To maintain the ride capacity of the four-track concept, the vehicles were made into two-car trains.

When you settle on a required ride capacity and the number of passengers per train, then you know what the dispatch interval must be. The time between block zones must be shorter than the dispatch interval and as you go deeper into the ride, the block zone intervals must be decreased because of the variation in vehicle speeds that occur due to differences in vehicle loading.

Space Mountain's ?cap,? supported by four massive columns, stands ready to brace the first slopes of the structure. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

At some point, it was decided to build the first Space Mountain at Walt Disney World. This saved the design and there was room there to enclose the system in a large circular building. I believe there were some other changes to accommodate the entry tunnel and maybe some expansion at the sides into unused areas. Also, there was a change to the two-tier load/unload, which was fairly simple for me since it did not involve the dynamic part of the course and/or block zone timing.

The ride was designed as a pure gravity ride with no boosters or retarders. The track was designed with the block zones at elevated parts of the track where the vehicle was traveling slower and where, after a stop, the vehicle could be released and would coast back to the station, thereby making it unnecessary to walk people out of the ride when there was a stoppage.

Workers prepare to place the first beam to connect from the outer ring structure up to the cap. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

As for the details of the track shape, it is true that my interest in flying may have had an influence. An airplane traveling through the air will follow a path as dictated by the forces that are developed by the airfoil and balanced by gravity and centrifugal forces. So at any given bank angle and speed there is only one radius of curvature that satisfies the equation. (That's assuming that the pilot is performing a coordinated turn.) Further, the transition into a bank is a function of the forces produced by the ailerons and fed back into the controls. So, transitioning into a bank tends to be smooth because the forces are limited by the pressure on the controls.

When you have a vehicle on a track, the vehicle is constrained to move on a given path and the forces exerted on the vehicle (and the passengers) have to adjust to whatever level is necessary to cause the vehicle to maintain that path. So the concept of the track design was to cause the vehicle to move on a path similar to that which it would move in a fluid medium in which it was controlled in bank and speed. That required writing mathematical expressions for transitions with proper banking and curve radii.

It's interesting to find that the difference between smoothness and jerkiness is often a matter of only a few inches. At points where I made compromises, for various practical reasons, you can usually feel them. The workmanship on the track at Walt Disney World left something to be desired and required some massaging after installation. The Disneyland track was very well built and the ride quality was obvious from the beginning.

The Disneyland Space Mountain design was influenced by the decision to have a 200-foot-diameter building. I could only fit one track in it so the capacity was recovered by having larger vehicles. The block zone timing was made less critical by having the dispatch interval controlled according to train weight.

Space Mountain begins to take shape as more beams are in place on two sides of the structure. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

Getting underway

The late Roger Broggie, Sr., headed up the engineering side of WED Enterprises and played a very important part in the development of Space Mountain. Roger's genius over the years was in getting things done for Walt. This no doubt contributed to Bill being allowed to change the design concept that had been used on the Matterhorn to the obviously more efficient gravity ride. Not everyone in WED's management was happy with the fact that Roger was bringing the design and manufacturing of Space Mountain in-house instead of continuing with the effort at Arrow Development.

The first track design Bill and I worked on was to be in Disneyland. There was a space in Tomorrowland, the perimeter of which was described by substructures that could not be removed. For a while we struggled with a building configuration that would fit in Tomorrowland and enclose the two-track system.

I built a small wire model of the track. When it was shown to Dick Irvine, President of WED, his comment was, “George, can't it be more pyramidal in form?” Of course at this presentation it had no “mountain” cover and it was practically a “cube” of wire. My early sketches on the exterior attempted to retain a mountain shape as on John's sketch, by letting the outer curves of track protrude from the mountain as were also on John's sketch.

Events related to sponsorship at Walt Disney World changed everything. RCA sold the business to Univac and would not be sponsoring John Hench's “Alice in Computerland” (which would be reborn as the Astuter Computer Review at EPCOT Center for Sperry Univac), so RCA was given the option of sponsoring Space Mountain.

Roger Broggie, whose engineering department I was loaned to after six months at WED, was now serious about Space Mountain. Roger sent me to see John Hench about the show aspects of the mountain. John described what he wanted—the load/unload areas to be at the back and pre-show and post-show spaces along a moving belt going in and out.

The upper structure of Space Mountain nears completion, though openings remain to allow the track structure to be brought inside and assembled. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

The post-show

I did renderings and layouts of the show spaces and a group of us traveled to New York for a presentation to Robert Sarnoff, then Chairman of RCA, for approval. These were very early concepts and much would change as Bill and I integrated show with track.

The late Claude Coates contributed to this huge effort and this began an unofficial competition that ran through several projects over the years. Claude was prolific in his output. X Atencio, Disney artist and writer, once described him as a person you wouldn't find “hanging around the water cooler.”

Claude tended to work alone and was aided by model builders extensively. I built my own models and I used them to develop designs. On the return trip from New York, we were in the upper level of a Boeing 747 and were discussing the post-show. I sketched out a post-show concept of hexagonal spaces, which would frame the scenes of RCA's Home of the Future. To my surprise, Claude had a model builder on it the next morning. (The modeler was Rick Harper, a recent graduate of Cal Arts film school. He went on to do great things, including the film for the French Pavilion.)

The post-show story was of family members, in each room of the home, busy communicating via TV screens or learning through RCA's new Videodisc. In detailing the rooms I created ridiculously large screens assuring a future look. They still look large, but not as impressive since the “future” has arrived. For the complete story on the RCA's Home of Future Living, 1975-1985, check out the Widen Your World site (link).

Before opening day, RCA requested that their famous Nipper be represented in the pre-show. I designed a classic flying saucer for RCA's Fox Terrier mascot, popular from the earliest days of recording. Nipper was the first to greet RCA's guests as they descended the entrance ramp that led to the long tunnel. The tunnel passed under the Walt Disney World railroad tracks leading on through to the pre-show to the vehicle loading area.

RCA's Nipper posed in a Flying Saucer at the Space Mountain entrance. Sketch by George McGinnis. Click photo to see a larger version.

“We can build it”

Locating the mountain at Walt Disney World required track changes to incorporate show spaces. One change that had been suggested earlier was the Strobe Tunnel. Leaving the load area the vehicles would dive into a long tunnel of blinking strobes and light panels, inspired by a similar tunnel in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. My purpose in suggesting the tunnel, besides the special effect, was to have the chain-lift pointed in the opposite direction. That would allow the front of the mountain to slope away without the high point of the track protruding to the front. This idea was conceived when we were trying to fit Space Mountain into Disneyland, but now a larger building was going to give us more than enough room for track and show.

I don't remember deadlines when I was doing the concepts, but I was always ready to show my work. About the time Roger Broggie sent me to see John Hench, an office opened up in the main building and I was moved. This was a memorable day — Orlando Ferrante and Fred Tatum, two members of WED supervision, welcomed me by stomping on the floor overhead. These are big fellows and I'm sure it tested the lift-slab structure we were in to near destruction. Then they came down to say hello.

I was now situated in an area that was called Show Design. When Dick Irvine had sent me to Roger Broggie's Mapo Engineering, he said “you'll be back.” Five years later his promise was fulfilled. Nearby was a small conference room next to Dick Irvine's office (eventually called “Edie's Conference Room,” named for Dick Irvine's wonderful support person Edie Flynn.) It was interesting that when I was called without warning to "show and tell" there would be more than just Dick Irvine, John Hench and Marty Sklar reviewing my work.

When I showed the artwork and plans for the Strobe Tunnel it was Marc Davis who put his “seal of approval” on it. Bill Martin, Senior WED Show Designer, would sometimes sit in and make constructive remarks. I remember the day he suggested Glenn Durflinger take over the production of Space Mountain's architectural construction drawings. Glenn was an experienced architect and the right person for the task.In another meeting with John Hench and Don Edgren, WED Chief Engineer, I presented the chain-lift Space Port concept model. With its high walls and robotic arms grasping the InterPlanetary Explorer (Space Ship), I wondered if it would survive. Don said, “We can build it.” Those are words all show designers like to hear from engineers.

The strobe tunnel was a concept inspired by Disneyland's tight space requirements. It also prepared the guest's vision for the dark ride that began with the chain lift through the Space Port. Sketch by George McGinnis. Click photo to see a larger version.

Next up, the rest of the story.