Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Making of: Space Mountain

“…the Nation’s most breathtaking thrill ride” was part of an October 1972 press release describing the next major attraction coming to Walt Disney World. This announced attraction was going to be called Space Voyage at this point in time and was described as having “eight-passenger space rockets, to whisk you away on a sensational simulated trip into space through showers of brilliant particles, whirling spheres of light and mysterious space caverns.” The press release included artwork by John Hench, Clem Hall, Herb Ryman, George McGinnis and others from WED that featured glorious sketches of a mountainous, futuristic looking structure that we now call Space Mountain. Countinue after the page break for the Making of: Space Mountain...

Walt Disney, as he was planning Disneyland, was known to purposely leave out several ride features that people of the time could have seen at any other typical amusement park. Walt did this in order to create a “theme park” not a traditional amusement park. Regular roller coasters and other unoriginal rides didn’t fit into Walt’s scheme which would be to create a themed atmosphere for his guests. In 1959 this was about to change for the best as Walt and his Imagineers constructed the nations very first tube-steel roller coaster known as the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The Matterhorn was the first ride of its kind to use multiple dispatch ride vehicles, through the use of a block system, paving the way for future attractions of this kind. This classic ride, with its lavish landscaping and marvelous theming, met Walt’s idea of having a themed environment that would eventually lead the way for Space Mountain.

Walt had always shown a tremendous interest in future technology, space exploration, as seen in his Man In Space television series, and of course the Tomorrowland ride Rocket To The Moon. Walt now wanted his theme park to have a thrill ride that combined all of these elements and in 1964 he got his best Imagineers together to get to work on a tremendous project that, twelve years later, became known as Space Mountain.

WED team leader during this time, John Hench began the very first sketches of the Space Mountain structure in 1965 and although the Imagineers kept pushing the barriers on what was possible throughout the following years at Disneyland, the New York World’s Fair and Walt Disney World, the attraction was left on the back-burner. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Walt Disney Imagineering was finally ready to create Walt’s earlier vision and the most breathtaking thrill ride of its time. Unlike a typical roller coaster, Space Mountain was going to be “a free sensation of a high speed race through space” and as plans for the ride progressed, Marty Sklar, John Hench and others met with RCA to obtain the company as its sponsor for the ride. Finally in 1972, after several years of planning and preparation, construction began on ten acres of Walt Disney World property in Tomorrowland. This humongous structure would be over 300 feet in diameter, encompass 72,000 square feet of floor area and use over 4.5 million cubic feet of interior space. It took 72 concrete beams to create the building’s sloping sides that measured 117 feet in length, and weighed 74 tons. When complete, this amazing futuristic looking mountain rose 183 feet in the air, towering above the park’s beautiful center-piece, Cinderella Castle.

Space Mountain celebrated its grand opening with a “out of this world” dedication ceremony that was held on January 15, 1975. Donn Tatum, Chairman of Walt Disney Productions and Robert Sarnoff, Chairman of RCA unveiled a bronze dedication plaque. 50,000 balloons were released as fireworks blasted overhead and a 2,000 piece marching band played to the delight of guests lucky enough to partake in the festivities. The first official ride on the brand new Space Mountain was taken by Colonel James Irwin who was the pilot of the Lunar Module on Apollo XV to the moon.

Space Mountain in WDW is actually two different coasters that are called Alpha, on the left side, and Omega, on the right. The Alpha track is 3,196 feet in length, which is only 10 feet longer then the Omega track. Eight double seated cars run on each of the two tracks simultaneously. Although the ride seems to be much faster as it races on tubular tracks in complete darkness, it actually only reaches top speeds of 28 mph.

Six months after the grand opening of WDW’s Space Mountain on July 15, 1975, work began on Disneyland’s Space Mountain. The first problem the WED team ran into was the size of the attraction and how to make it fit within the smaller park in California. Walt Disney World’s blessing of size allowed the first version to fit in just fine so that it could be seen from every angle. This just simply could not happen in Disneyland and so the diameter of the building was cut down to 200 feet as well as the interior, down to 1.8 million cubic feet.  In addition, the base of the ride was built 17 feet below the ground to keep it from overtaking the nearby Main Street skyline.

California’s version had other differences aside from just the size of the building; RCA wasn’t going to be the sponsor of the Disneyland version which would now be sponsored by DASA (Disneyland Aeronautics and Space Administration). The new ride in Disneyland would operate twelve ride vehicles that ran at top speeds of 32 mph on only one track that is 3,450 feet in length. The cars are wider and seat two people side by side.

Disneyland’s opening ceremony was held on May 27, 1977. The original Project Mercury Astronauts, America’s first men in space, John Glenn, Betty Grissom, the widow of Gus Grissom, and other important figures in our nation’s space industry were all on hand for the event. Finally, Walt’s vision of having a high-tech, futuristic space attraction in his park was now fully complete.

The best thing about the creation of Space Mountain is just how similar it remained to Walt’s original idea for the ride even though it was created years after he had passed. At an April, 1977 premier of the Disneyland version of Space Mountain, the Legendary Imagineer John Hench stated, “We didn’t just build this because we needed another thrill attraction. Walt always intended this to be here, and we never abandoned the idea.” Even after all these years since the attraction has been created, and even though there are several more state-of-the-art, high speed, loop after loop, extreme G-Force roller coasters out there today at any “traditional amusement park” , there’s just something about Space Mountain that makes it so much better than any of those rides. The original press release from October 1972 that stated that Space Mountain is going to be “…the Nation’s most breathtaking thrill ride” could have been written on October 2011 because that statement still remains true today!
Now for the WDW Space Mountain Grand Opening Ceremony form January 15, 1975:

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