DL Space Mountain, Part 3

by George McGinnis, contributing writer

In this multi-part series, former Imagineer George McGinnis and Bill Watkins share their memories of the design and construction of Disneyland's Space Mountain. To start from the beginning, see Part 1 (link) and Part 2 (link).

After six months of concept work, the Architecture Department was now going to produce construction drawings. This was also when my input ended for the most part (this was probably the point when I started working on robots for The Black Hole). I kept in touch with Glenn Durflinger, the Project Architect responsible for turning my concept drawings and models into production drawings.

The final concept package delivered to Architecture in October 1975 included this Space Port elevation. Note the Control Room near the entrance and the projection room and projection surface on the right. These went away along with the gold anodized fuel tanks on the ceiling. John Hench removed the fuel tanks, noting that people don't spend much time looking at ceilings. And I never missed them after opening. Elevation drawing by George McGinnis. Click image for larger version.

Glenn and his team did a great job adding detail that was not in the model, and Glenn was good about listening to my show concerns. It disturbed me a bit when the mountain plan layout was changed to place the exit by the Starcade, rather than by the SpacePlace restaurant as I had conceived it. Yes, it was important for guests to find the Starcade, but the restaurant, in its dead-end location, would require the addition of signs to make people aware of it. The restaurant did have the problem I anticipated. At the relaunched Space Mountain, the entrance has been moved to the left side so the guests walk right by the restaurant on their way in. Maybe some people weren't interested in lunch after Space Mountain and management knew better than the concept person.

The third lift to the very top was to have a red nebula projected on the cap of this conical structure. John Hench joined me to view the laser show at Griffith Planetarium. When a beautiful red nebula appeared above, the theater virtually went dark. This low-frequency, red-light effect would be perfect for Lift #3—it would not light up the track below. Unfortunately, the nebula that was created turned out to be multi-colored. It was a major source of unneeded light and was eventually removed altogether rather than corrected. So in my opinion the third lift lost a beautiful planetarium effect.

A bulkhead above the queue in the redesigned Space Mountain pays tribute to the late John Hench. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

There are always changes to a concept, some for the good—although the reasons for the changes are not always conveyed to those who came before. This is not surprising, since it takes so many different talents and disciplines to create a ride/show like Space Mountain.

Dark adaption is a basic problem with a dark ride show like Space Mountain. If it is a slow day and bright outside and you are in your ride vehicle in seconds, you see very little in the ride. It is the opposite at night time—you see way too much. All the old light leak problems have been solved with the relaunched Space Mountain at Disneyland. Time of day and length of wait will still alter the show somewhat.

One of the light leaks detrimental to the ride experience came from a row of windows open to the ride, so guests in the queue could see the glowing vehicles roar by. This gave them another chance to find the “chicken ramp.” The special effects in the ride provided some light to the queue, but apparently it was not enough. After a period of time blue work lights were turned on—not just for bright days, but permanently. Now those on the ride could view the queue—not “good show” when you're “traveling light years from earth.” A better solution may have been directional floor lights as used in theaters and aircraft.

The iridescent panels behind the ceiling louvers gave the Space Port its dramatic low-key light. Note the work lights below the side wall panels are not on. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

As I recall, the work lights were not used at first as seen in the photo and they were gelled blue when they began using them. It could be that the black light behind the ceiling louvers had degraded and were no longer providing sufficient light. The use of the work lights greatly changed the ambience. I was disappointed at this change and assumed operations had made the decision for safety reasons. But judging from the light level in show designer Luc Mayrand's relaunched Space Port, the old level of light was not the problem. Also, when visiting Tokyo Disneyland's Space Mountain in 1990, I found the Space Port black light ceiling louvers bright as ever seven years after opening.

The Dexion/black light combination has been a favorite effect of mine over several projects. First used in the load area of Walt Disney World's Space Mountain, then at Disneyland's Space Mountain, and then the Horizons pavilion load area. The last time I rode WDW's Space Mountain, the effect was very dim. I would like to know if the UV fluorescent tube loses its ability to fluoresce the paint or vice-versa. Whatever the case, the slow loss of the iridescent light may not have been noticed by maintenance and this would create a lighting problem with the show.

The Roller Coaster Pro has a tour of the relaunched Space Mountain. Note the ungelled work lights, evidently relegating them to true work lights (link). Other photos in the tour show off the Space Port's “new” low light level.

A flash-lit Reed McGinnis, my son, contrasts with the low light level in the relaunched Space Port. Reed's grown a bit since he was the model for the Tommy animatronic figure floating in the Space Shuttle, Brava Centauri arrival scene in the Horizons Pavilion. Photo by George McGinnis.

On opening day, 1977, one of the Mercury astronauts remarked to me that there was something familiar about the Space Port. I guessed he was referring either to the spaceship in Walt Disney World's Space Mountain or to the similarity in form to the ship in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alastair Dallas, an architectural draftsman in Glenn Durflinger's group, wrote an article about Space Mountain for LaughingPlace (link). In it, he commented about the influence he saw of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Disney's Space Mountains.

Alastair also indicated that Glenn Durflinger had a struggle with the accountants to retain some original concepts. Lost was a two-sided control room with animatronic figures visible from both the queue and the Space Port. Also lost was the view into starry space with a sister ship projected preparing to enter the Space Port when its large triangular doors would open to let “our explorer” depart. This space was lost to the electrical room and backlit metal panels perforated with small holes to represent stars. The two items that were designed to say, “You are starting your trip from Earth orbit” were lost. But we always comfort ourselves by remembering that there is still plenty for the guests to enjoy.

(Alastair Dallas said nice things about me, but I want to correct one small matter. Alastair said he “understood I was very active with my wife in various Christian youth organizations.” No, we were not, but we did produce our very own “youth organization” in the 1970s. Their names are Shana, Reed, and Scott. All are involved in some way with Christian work, so you were close, Alastair.)

The new vehicles no longer have a need for iridescent side panels since there is no view into the ride for guests. Hong Kong Space Mountain vehicles have different bodies, but used the same seat and speaker arrangement. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

Tokyo Disneyland ride vehicles have the iridescent side panels that glow and entertain the guests waiting in the queue. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

There is a 30-foot difference in elevation between the entrance and the point where you board your vehicle. As I said earlier, I thought the guest would enjoy the air-conditioned comfort. There was another aspect that I didn't consider—the long walk between the entrance, where the glowing “spaceships” were seen and the entrance to the Space Port where more queue suddenly appeared. After opening I heard guests say, “Oh, no! More queue. “ I tried to make it a good show all the way along, but when outside queue stretched back to Main Street at opening time, I could understand the shock.

The Space Mountain design for Disneyland has been reproduced now for the third time. Tokyo Disneyland has an identical one and so does the new Hong Kong Disneyland. I did the concept design for the original Disneyland Space Mountain vehicle (Bob Gurr did the production design). In 2003, I was asked to redesign the interior of the vehicles for the relaunch of Space Mountain. Working with Disneyland engineer Frank Ruhfus, we integrated the speakers into the seats, which lowered the vehicle's center-of-gravity. A lighter composite material was used to form the bodies, for the most part preserving the original body's design. The vehicles at Hong Kong Disneyland have a new body design, but share the same redesigned seat, bringing a better level of sound to the experience.

One half of a seat was sculpted, and then scanned in 3-D to create the opposite seat. Once in the computer, other manipulations of form were possible, such as routing out the seat pad indentation after the seat pad was cast. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

A seat tool is machined from a foam material from the same computer scan. George got to test his seat and found it comfortable. Smaller tweeters are in evidence than on the original sculpting. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

Concept: The finished vehicle with its integrated speakers is ready to roll and “rock.” Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

Paris Space Mountain has the same 200-foot diameter building, but its queue and “lift” are on the exterior, giving room for a loop and a barrel roll in the ride. When riding Paris Space Mountain there is no thrilling awareness of being inverted, for we are pressed into our seats. The linear motor “blast off” from a Jules Verne period cannon is a thrill, but the anticipation built up by three lifts at Disneyland Space Mountain gives the guests an equal experience, especially since Luc Mayrand has redesigned the show.

Luc, the relaunched Space Mountain Show Designer, solved the “three lift” show challenges wonderfully with the assistance of Walt Disney Imagineering's Research & Development Department. Lift #1 is a grand high-walled Launch Portal. The Meteor Shower show effect is replaced with a curved Strobe Tunnel, a replication of Walt Disney World's Strobe Tunnel (link) to which Tom Fitzgerald added ascending sound. I suspect Tom, an Imagineering Vice President, is responsible for its addition to the Disneyland Space Mountain.

The Space Mountain redesign team poses for a photo at the attraction's rededication ceremony. Photo by Frank Anzalone.

The big surprise Luc's redesign gave me is the successful revolving tunnel on Lift #2. I had read in the Los Angeles Times that the Imagineers wanted to try the revolving tunnel illusion effect again. Ascending the lift, the vehicle appears to turn on its side. I had to ride it again immediately to analyze all I had experienced. To Lift #3 was added a logical “countdown” to the drop into starry darkness. All along, the themed musical score fit perfectly. The ride is now truly a dark ride that works well, without the former light leaks. Of course, as I said, time of day and length of wait will still alter the show.

Luc's Space Port is also very dark. He has added what he described as “flying buttresses” to the spaceship, which give it a different visual dynamic: “wings” and a sci-fi look. The original elements are there such as the Dexion louvered ceiling and walls and the gold anodized “fuel” spheres. Selected lighting of certain elements has served to give the area a new look. The lighting at the turnstiles adds an attractive and colorful effect to the vehicle load position.

These elegantly designed appendages to the original spaceship changed it from a 1970s concept to a Science Fiction version—2005 and beyond. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

The brightly lit turnstiles give the Space Port a colorful center of interest. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

As to the guests' ride experience from the top, each time I ride (four times now), I see special effects differently. Bill Watkins and I rode together on opening day. His comment was, “I felt like the star effects were in a tube.” I felt they were clumped here and there, with the addition of colored stars. The red-lit rotating reentry tunnel has been replaced with a spectacular reentry that I was told was developed for Hong Kong's Space Mountain.

Luc Mayrand, Show Designer 2005, takes Bill Watkins,Ride Designer 1975 and George McGinnis, Show Designer 1975, on their first ride on the new Space Mountain. No, Bill isn't bored or asleep, just looking down during the flash. Photo courtesy of George McGinnis.

It definitely has the same smooth track layout that Bill Watkins designed—“10 pounds” of track that he stuffed into this “five pound” building, preserving precious space in Tomorrowland. It's as fast and smooth as ever and—with the new show—will keep Space Mountain Disney's most popular ride. I would like to think that John and Walt are somewhere agreeing that the relaunched Space Mountain is as good as ever and wondering if Luc Mayrand has something in store for Walt Disney World's Space Mountain.