Space Mountain Forever
Last week, the Space Mountain attraction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom returned to operation after a refurbishing that lasted most of the year. (For the uninitiated: Space Mountain is a roller-coaster ride through “deep space,” or in Disney’s interpretation, a dark room lit with mirror-ball lights and projections of asteroids and nebulae.) The East Coast Disney geeks are underwhelmed; they say the new stuff amounts to little more than new paint and some video games built into the queue. They feel they’ve been short-changed.
And that’s enough about these people, and enough about the Space Mountain in Florida. I don’t really care about Walt Disney World’s Space Mountain, you see. Nor do I care about the Steampunk-inspired Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris, or the more-or-less identical (I am told) Space Mountains in Hong Kong in Tokyo. I don’t care because, to my mind, the idea has already been perfected. WDW’s Space Mountain, opened in 1975, was the prototype; Disneyland’s Space Mountain, opened in 1977, was the full realization of the idea. Hong Kong and Tokyo use roughly the same track layout as Disneyland’s Space Mountain, and the Parisian Space Mountain is an entirely different ride experience that I’d argue isn’t part of the same thought. They’re just so much wasted Space.
We’ll never have another 1977. It was the year of the New York Blackout; the year that punk and disco exploded in our big, fat, stupid faces; and it was the year that George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Disneyland’s Space Mountain opened within two scant days of each other. Wow. “Star Wars” opened on Wednesday, May 25, and Space Mountain on Friday, May 27.
If there’s anyone reading Monkey Goggles who’s under the age of 30, I want you to fully understand and appreciate what life was like in those medieval times. I won’t say life was better — most popular music was every bit as trite as the new stuff, and we wore some ugly earth-toned clothes — but listen: There was no Twitter, there was no Ain’t It Cool News. There were no spoilers, so we had no idea what a Chewbacca was, or what “superspace penetration” felt like.
Now, imagine what it was like to be ten years old in that world. That was me. I rode Space Mountain two weeks after it opened and saw “Star Wars” not long afterward at The Big Newport. Since then, I’ve seen “Star Wars” and its lesser derivatives so many times that I scarcely recall the emotions that accompanied my first viewing. By comparison, every time I go on Space Mountain, I get that first-time feeling.
I was awestruck by the “Mountain” itself from the moment I first laid eyes on it. The John Hench-designed structure, like Oscar Niemayer’s similarly-shaped Brasilia Cathedral, is the Taj Mahal of Googie architecture. In his 2003 book “Designing Disney,” Hench says that the attraction’s conical shape and exterior beams were dictates of the track layout.
Space Mountain begged to be cone-shaped; it wanted to echo the expanding spiral of the ride inside … In the construction of the building, the engineers selected precast concrete and steel T beams for the main roof structure. They wanted the beams facing inside the building, but I wanted them facing outside, to provide a smooth surface on the interior on which we could project images.
The exterior of Space Mountain looks much the same today as it did in 1977, with a few unfortunate cosmetic changes. The second-story queue used to overlook an open-air theatre, where Da Doo Ron Ron and Kids of the Kingdom played neutered uptempo rock for same-sex couples to dance to. It was roofed over and enclosed in 1984 to accommodate “Captain EO.” I don’t particularly miss the open-air theater, but in enclosing a space that was not designed to be enclosed, some terrific views were cut off and the queue level was awkwardly transformed from a balcony to a roof. They’ve never quite fixed it.
Anyway, as the queue rounded the balcony, I peered down into the theater and into the two-story video arcade (would it kill them to reopen the Starcade’s second level again?), and before I knew it I was inside Space Mountain for the first time. I can clearly remember its silver, diamond-shaped hallways, antiseptic blue rubber flooring, and the constant, nerve-wracking audio drone that still plays inside the Mountain today. (“You are go for Earthside launch.”)
I remember peering into the “sneak preview” windows — walled over in the recent refurbishment — and watching the green-glowing “rockets” whip past. I started to get nervous. By the time the queue reached the expansive “Space Port,” I was ready to launch into orbit without help. The tight spaces, low lighting and that everlasting ambient wash of voices and synthesized bleeps do an outstanding job of building tension.
At the head of the line I asked for, and got, a front row seat. I raised my hands aloft through the first lift hill (red arrows pointing the way upward), the “meteor tunnel” (also changed in the last refurb) and an early iteration of the second lift hill (very low-tech, with blue-tinted mirrors creating a “to-infinity” effect. Then the coaster reached the top of the Hench’s cone, and my hands slammed down on the handrail and stayed there.
If you’ve never been on Space Mountain and aren’t sure you’re brave enough to try it, here’s a test which you can do in your own home. Simply spin in place for a minute or so, then shut your eyes and fall to the floor. This will result in a disorientation that feels something like floating, ass-over-teakettle, in a weightless void. Disney’s Imagineers simply figured out a way to replicate that sensation for 2,100 riders per hour.
Disneyland’s “new” Space Mountain, gutted and reconstructed in 2005, is much like the old, but skillfully refreshed in such a way that only longtime fans are conscious of all the changes. The track was exactly rebuilt and the effects updated. The “com chat” is the same, and the “Space Port” looks more beautiful than it ever did.
Ultimately, the Space Mountain of today affords the exact same experience I had three decades ago. I still feel the same fear, joy and wonder as I once did. For an attraction that predates some 90 percent of the parkgoers who queue up to ride it again and again, that’s nothing short of remarkable.
There is more I could tell you about Space Mountain 1977, but it wouldn’t mean all that much to you. I could tell you that the on-ride soundtrack — both the current Michael Giacchino composition and the Dick Dale vamp that preceded it — was not part of the standard equipment the ride came with; it was added in 1997. I could tell you about the all-too-brief period when the ride’s exit was themed to “The Black Hole.” I could tell you about how it felt to exit the building without being forced through a souvenir shop.
But none of that is what makes Space Mountain great. Disneyland’s Space Mountain is “Star Wars” and punk rock and “Saturday Night Fever” and the New York Blackout all made one single, glorious whole. It’s all about believing, just for a moment, that you are riding the engine at the center of the universe. At that moment, you are ten years old, like me.