Can Space Mountain Keep Up With The Pace Of Tech?
Tomorrowland is quickly becoming Yesterdayland
Space Mountain, the indoor space-themed roller coaster located at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, was never designed to be 100% accurate. But will the current pace of technology render Space Mountain and its rocket trains another Disney attraction that’s more outdated than nostalgic?
Space Mountain was first opened at Walt Disney World in 1975, followed by Disneyland in 1977, in the land of tomorrow known as “Tomorrowland”. Attention to detail to assure quality and accuracy was a requirement with imagineers (the shorthand for Disney attraction developers), going as far as to consult Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts (a group of seven astronauts selected to fly spacecraft for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States from 1958 to 1963) and the first American to spend more than a day in space. Gordon Cooper was quoted in a 1977 People Magazine article as saying, “Space Mountain is about as close as you can safely get to actually being in space.”
And there’s some truth to that. While the two attractions in California and Florida do differ, such as train cars with slightly different capacity and current soundtrack, the rode itself is generally the same. Guests are loaded into “rocket trains”, either two seated side by side (Disneyland) or single file (WDW), in which after climbing through a launch corridor of twisting light are tossed into the starry abyss of space, simulated by pricks of light adorning every rafter, wall and ceiling of the dark ride. Space Mountain is known for careening turns and drops, with a surprising intensity that (as many roller coasters do) mimic the concept of G-force in space travel.
But while Space Mountain was advanced in entertainment technology, being the first completely indoor roller coaster and first completely computerized coaster, time is catching up. “Tomorrowland” has had many peaks and falls since its inception. That’s the issue with a land themed around the future. Eventually, the future catches up rendering the imagined possibilities into quaint but archaic time capsules. Many “Tommorowland” attractions have found themselves obsolete with time, such as Flight to the Moon and Delta Dreamflight, but Space Mountain has remained a beloved classic, possibly due to the simplicity of the theming. However, with space exploration and the future of off-world colonization reaching breakneck speeds in development, Space Mountain may find itself outdated even for nostalgia.
While Space Mountain has received upgrades in the track system and updates to the soundtrack over the decades, the visual ride experience has remained mostly the same since the late 1970s. The exception being various seasonal overlays like the off and on Halloween refurb Ghost Galaxy which find the rocket trains beset by projected demonic spirits in the stars (surprisingly dark for Disney) and the more recent Star Wars: HyperSpace Mountain which features Star Wars-specific theming to coincide with the Star Wars IPs introduction to Disney parks. But as people become accustomed to and familiar with space travel, there’ll be a more rooted understanding of the experience of riding through the stars.
The view of the universe from Earth compared to out in orbit is a bit of different experience. Outside the warping atmosphere of Earth, the stars spread as ISS astronaut Jack Fischer put, “a thick coat of awesome-sauce!”. Much different from the pin holes of light that whip by while riding Space Mountain. With advancements in imaging, through the beloved Hubble Telescope and (hopefully) soon to be launched James T. Webb Telescope, and as imagineers continue to push the limits of attraction design, will Space Mountain require a more permanent refurbishment to continue capturing the imagination of riders?
In continually trying to work around the “future problem” (especially in budget), “Tomorrowland” has been moving away from original attractions, like Mission to Mars and Monsanto Hall of Chemistry (real), for more IP (intellectual property)-driven attractions such as Star Wars Launch Bay, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. This leaves Space Mountain as one of the few original rides between both parks and one of the last conceived by Walt Disney himself. But even the most preciously defended of the old favorites have met overhauls in Disney history, like the hotly debated Journey into the Imagination’s multiple refurbs and eventual dismantlement. Yet there’s something exciting about imagining the “Pillars of Creation”, an image of a distant nebula famously taken by The Hubble, projected around a corner. Or seeing an as accurate as possible creation of a blackhole, still theorized but not directly observed.
There’s so much still to be found in the far reaches of space that cannot even be conceived. One brave step for mankind, another entertaining development for Disney.