WDW's Space Mountain

by George McGinnis, contributing writer

As we celebrate the long-awaited reopening of Disneyland's Space Mountain, we continue our multi-part series from former Imagineer George McGinnis on the history of the Space Mountain attractions at the domestic theme parks. In Part 2, George continues his tale of the construction of Walt Disney World's ride, the first one built. In Part 1, a decision had just been made to stay with a conical shape instead of a clear dome.

Cone vs. Dome

At this time, we had not yet arrived at the conical mountain form. This came about over a period when certain engineers tried to convince management that a clear span Lamella (wooden) dome structure was the most economical way to go. In their eyes they probably considered a spherical form to be space related from a show standpoint. After the decision to go with the conical form was made, Marty Sklar, vice president of WED, said, “Remind me to tell you someday about 'The Great Cone/ Dome Controversy'.”

Marty never did but I can put it together here. I had laid out a 300-foot diameter dome, per the Structural Engineering Department's request, that cleared Bill Watkins' track structure. I did a series of small dome models “decorated” with clay forms to fit the theme. The large diameter dome had interior “wasted space” that allowed me to put the future PeopleMover maintenance and storage around the perimeter.

All seemed to be well until I was visited by Chief Engineer Don Edgren. He asked me to fit a cone shape over the track, which I did. It still reached 300 feet in diameter when clearing the track by safety clearance requirements. This now was accepted by the powers that be and I proceeded to illustrate a Space Mountain in its soon-to-be conical form. John Hench later had some fun with this “battle.” He put together a small show of the evolution of Space Mountain using photos of the dome models and a conical model.

John had won, which illustrates how—at Disney—economical solutions (which the Lamella dome was) can lose out to more costly, but artistically correct, designs. We didn't get away with it totally, however. Close to the 1975 opening, Disney Chairman Card Walker called the Space Mountain design team together to complain about the huge cost-overrun on the building. It was an expensive building after the change from dome to cone.

The cone-shaped building was not a clear span structure. Four columns held a huge concrete cap that the exterior U-shaped concrete channels were placed against to form the exterior surface. It became a beautiful form that John Hench later told me was his favorite architectural project. John was aided by Glenn Durflinger of the WED Architecture Department in the detailing of the handsome crown and spires of the mountain.

This later sketch of Space Mountain was done by John Hench. The "satelloids" were likely lost due to budget cuts. Image from the collection of Martin Smith.

Space Mountain today, as viewed from the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, reflects the inspiration - if not the duplication - of John Hench's design. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Napkin sketches

Many concepts for Space Mountain and other projects I participated in started life on WED cafeteria napkins at lunch time. I liked the texture and the freedom to toss if a failure. Once X Atencio, WED artist and show writer, looked over my shoulder and viewed a concept sketch for the Mighty Microscope for Adventure Thru Inner Space. He asked for it and took it directly to the model shop to have a model produced. I did a more formal drawing of the microscope's inner workings, but the model shop's interpretation from the napkin sketch was maintained for the exterior.

My napkin sketching reputation inspired Matt Priddy, WED VP of Production, to have some fun with it. At a luncheon, he presented me with a neatly folded napkin which, when unfolded, had a very official looking title block pasted on the lower right corner.

This practice carried over to the material on which I produced final designs. I preferred to use a blank sheet with no official title block to inhibit me.

This sketch was apparently a design effort when it was still believed there could be exposed track on the exterior. The unintended "flag" on the spire was probably a ketchup addition. Click image to see larger version. Sketch by George McGinnis.


You might ask at this point, what happened to Mitsu Natsume, the sculptor who worked on John Hench's first Space Mountain effort? Mitsu contributed much to the 1967 new Tomorrowland. You saw his work at the entrance—its elegant facades and WEDway PeopleMover support structure.

In a meeting, Dick Irvine, President of WED Enterprises, put Mitsu and me in competition in the design of furniture for the Contemporary Resort, which would be made from Monsanto plastics. We sketched and finally modeled the versions we liked best. Mitsu's was the winner and I had to admit it was more practical than my curved piece. After the meeting, Mitsu came to me and told me he liked one of my sketches and it was the basis of his final work.

This was the kind of person Mitsu was—not only a great artist, but sensitive to the feelings of others. When Mitsu decided to leave WED in the late '60s, I was not surprised when John Hench asked me to encourage Mitsu to stay. I did, but—as I recall—I found out he needed to get his family out of Southern California's bad air.

The pre-show

On the interior show elements Claude and I again accidentally competed with each other. For the pre-show, Claude had designed an interior of a Werner Von Braun “space wheel” habitat with animatronic figures and lots of rear projections. I did a very detailed illustration of it along with detail drawings for the Set Design Department of how it would fit into the building.

At that moment, Disney World Operations decided the guests should not stand on a moving belt to view the show. They were concerned that it would “pump” too many guests into the load area. With this decision I then sketched out a zig-zag corridor with view ports to “infinity” mirror illusions of planets and spaceships. Management decided RCA should have this pre-show, rather than the space wheel. An RCA representative asked me, “How much did Disney save on this change?” I didn't know such things at this time, but the cost of animatronic figures in Claude's concept was probably the deciding factor. The animatronic figures of the post-show's Home of the Future were apparently enough for the project.

After the zig-zag queue experience, the guests arrived at another queue at the very back of the building. A starry sky and a tumbling asteroid were projected overhead on the building's darkened inner surface. Glowing luminescent strips on the vehicles were visible high above in the darkness as they began a fast trip back to the unload area below. The People Mover circled by on an elevated track preparing to enter the post-show.

Fine tuning the design

How did the unload area end up beneath the load area? Well, a young architect named Brock Thoman had a better idea. My layout had both load and unload located on the same level, though at nearly right angles to each other to conceal their view from each other. By putting it on the lower floor, the guest walked off the ride, right onto the post-show moving walkway rather than walking down a long ramp. This improved the guests experience but added another chain-lift to get the empty vehicles up to the load area.

After the attraction opened on January 15, 1975, one very creative Space Mountain rider, having “blasted-off” from the load area and zooming down the Strobe Tunnel, decided something was missing. This person was actually a cast member (employee) over at the Haunted Mansion. Tom Fitzgerald, now WDI Executive Vice President, turned in a suggestion that greatly improved the experience. His suggestion was to add “ever-ascending musical sound” to the tunnel, which magically transformed it. Tom later sent his resume to Walt Disney Imagineering and came aboard as a writer. I had the pleasure of working with Tom on such projects as the Horizons pavilion and the Astuter Computer Review.

The Space Port

As the guest vehicles engaged the chain lift to begin their ascent to the top, they traveled through the launch port of a space station. Again I was influenced by contemporary space art. Bob McCall, the famous illustrator, had painted such a view in Life magazine several years earlier. It was of a large delta-shaped space shuttle preparing to launch out of a huge portal. I did a rendering showing such a ship in a Launch Port bathed in low-frequency (red) light. It was dramatic, but as Bill's track design closed in on the space, there was no room for the delta-shaped ship it. It had to be a long, skinny spaceship.

George McGinnis' sketch based on a rendering of the first concept for the Space Port shows a delta-wing shuttle preparing to launch. The concept changed due to track revisions. Click image to see larger version. Sketch by George McGinnis.

My first sketches on the new spaceship were inspired by a photo of a crystalline structure in New Scientist magazine. As it developed it became reminiscent of the long spaceship of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The narrow show space did allow for “control rooms” on each side with animatronic figures, and two upside-down astronauts preparing the ship for launch.

Most rocket engines have bell-shaped nozzles. I took the easy way out when building the model and stuck Krylon spray paint caps on the model for nozzles. I liked their high-tech shape. I was right without realizing it—the shape is actually correct for ion engines. It makes me smile when I enter the Space Port and see those little Krylon caps perfectly reproduced in giant size. (I wonder if anyone but the designer of the caps would recognize this.)

Upside-down astronauts work on the Interplanetary Explorer ship in the Space Port of Walt Disney World's Space Mountain. Note the Krylon-cap shaped nozzles on the ship's ion engines. Click image to see larger version. Sketch by George McGinnis.

George McGinnis' design is reproduced above the lift hills of Space Mountain. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The Ion Engine

An interesting thing about ion engines that are used for deep space travel is that they emit a blue light. The blue glow in the Disneyland Space Mountain ion engines have been changed to red for artistic reasons or the thinking, red means “hot.” But I prefer the blue for technical accuracy and its unusualness.

Photo courtesy NASA caption: "This image of a xenon ion engine, photographed through a port of the vacuum chamber where it was being tested at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shows the faint blue glow of charged atoms being emitted from the engine. The ion propulsion engine is the first non-chemical propulsion to be used as the primary means of propelling a spacecraft."

A feature we nearly lost in the Space Port as Bill increased the chain lift angle was the surprise of vehicles zipping back through the area—coming toward you, close to the chain lift. The increased angle, though increasing guest trepidation, put the ascending vehicles higher than the returning vehicles, thus somewhat removing them from line-of-sight. A comparison of the Space Port sketch with the lift photo shows this difference clearly. With such changes there are often gains and losses.

Ride vehicles travel back through the Space Port of Walt Disney World's Space Mountain. MousePlanet file photo.

Returning to Earth

The plan was for a fiery return to earth created by a long revolving tunnel to give the illusion of your ride vehicle turning over. But perception time for the effect was four seconds and the guest was through the tunnel in about that period of time. (The revolving Ice Tunnel at Universal was the inspiration—it worked so well.) I didn't give up on the idea and gave it a try on Disneyland Space Mountain's lift #2.

Losing this illusion was compensated for by a wonderful sound effect through this bright tunnel. A recording of a jet engine's whining start-up was used in reverse to create a very loud surprise as guests entered and traveled the tunnel. After the tunnel, an anti-climactic (energy) run-out in the dark before the unload, which caused some confusion. This was avoided at the next Space Mountain as we entered the Space Port immediately after the fiery reentry.

As I recall, I rode Walt Disney World's Space Mountain 15 times sitting in different positions in the train. I found the greatest negative Gs (weightlessness) to be in the last seat of the second vehicle. This was wonderful, but the hard set down for those unfamiliar with roller coasters caused problems for some guests. Changing the track to reduce this effect would be a loss to roller coaster aficionados.

Never before had a roller coaster been a “dark ride.” Therefore, some guests expected it to be like the Peter Pan ride. Warnings were added in the queue with astronaut Gordon Cooper appearing on a video screen advising the guest who had health problems to take an exit ramp to the post-show—this became known to cast members as the “chicken ramp.” To make the message clearer, two ride vehicles were attached to the tall Space Mountain sign at the entrance in a diving position with astronaut dummies in their seats. Lastly, over time, track changes were made to make Space Mountain conform to what Walt would probably consider a family experience.

Space Mountain, dreamed up by Walt out of his interest in our country's space program, opened on January 15, 1975 in Walt Disney World's Tomorrowland. If only Walt could have seen this beautiful “white cone” that he had asked John Hench to give form to a decade earlier.

Moving on to Disneyland

The one set piece from the Walt Disney World Space Mountain that found a use in Disneyland's Space Mountain was the interplanetary explorer spaceship. Confronted again with space limitations the “long tube” was a perfect fit in the concept model of the new Disneyland Space Port. I presented it to management with the name changed—now it would be an intergalactic explorer to fit with the ride's theme of traveling through “Super Space,” a new theory on travel to other galaxies through worm holes in space (Paul Davies, Other Worlds: Space, Superspace and the Quantum Universe).

What's Next

I will discuss the planning of Disneyland's Space Mountain in the next article. The final design of Walt Disney World's Space Mountain resulted from a false start on Disneyland's Space Mountain and thus influenced it greatly.

The Disneyland Space Mountain is a classic story of “putting more into a space than its stated volume.” We will learn about it in the Disneyland Space Mountain Experience.