From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond
There are many iconic rides at Walt Disney World. The Tower of Terror, Spaceship Earth, and Expedition Everest, just to name a few. But one was so ahead of its time that it couldn’t be built until the technology caught up with the vision.
One of the stories about the creation of Disneyland was that Tomorrowland, the fantastical land of the future, was the last to have a finished plan. Trying to envision what the future would look like gave the Imagineers so many possibilities to work from that getting just one concept nailed down was tricky. Even today, predicting the technology of the future is harder than you would think. When I was a kid, the 21st century was supposed to bring hoverboards and flying cars. (The flying cars are always a sticking point. Everyone predicts those, and we never get them.)
The result was that when Disneyland opened in 1955, Tomorrowland didn’t feature a lot of signature attractions but instead focused on exhibits about science and what future technology would bring. When Disneyland opened its new expansion in 1959, one of the new attractions was the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The Bobsleds used a new type of track that used tubular steel, unlike the flat track most roller coasters of the day. This allowed for tighter turns and far more options for track layouts. This success was the inspiration for Tomorrowland to get its biggest attraction: Space Mountain.
Yes, Space Mountain, initially called Space Voyage, was originally planned to be part of Tomorrowland in Disneyland, not Walt Disney World. The plan was hugely ambitious, with a ride consisting of four tracks, which would be cut down to two when it was built, that would all be controlled by a computer.
These days, rides controlled by computers are standard to pretty much every ride in every park, but in the 1960s, this was an incredibly new idea. Unfortunately, the computers of the early ’60s weren’t exactly up to the task. And with Walt’s attention turned towards his new resort in Florida, Space Mountain was put on hold.
After the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, it was decided the Magic Kingdom needed something thrilling for older guests and teenagers. Space Voyage, now called Space Mountain, was seen as the perfect project. Also, computer technology had advanced enough for the computer-controlled block system that Walt had wanted.
For those who don’t know, a block system allows multiple trains to run on the same track. The track is divided into block zones. Each block zone can only be occupied by one train at a time, and each zone has its own brake system to prevent the trains from colliding. While this system did exist before (even the Matterhorn Bobsled had a block system), computers made this system more reliable and efficient, allowing many more people to get on the ride.
The huge success of Space Mountain when it opened in 1975 led to Disney bringing it to its originally planned home in California’s Tomorrowland at Disneyland.
Much like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the smaller amount of space in Anaheim meant that there would be changes to the design for the Disneyland version, with the iconic cone-shaped structure being slimmed down to 200 meters in diameter compared to the 300 meters of the Magic Kingdom original and having only one track instead of two.
Also, like the Tower of Terror, even with these changes, the California Space Mountain was still a huge success and became just as iconic as its East Coast cousin. The third thing this new Space Mountain had in common with the Tower of Terror was that the Californian version would get copied to other parks around the world, with Tokyo Disneyland getting an exact copy in 1983 and Hong Kong Disneyland getting one in 2005.
The one version of Space Mountain that changed things up the most was the one at Disneyland Paris that opened in 1995. This version had a brass and gold steampunk aesthetic inspired by the Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon. This version used a catapult launch system to launch the ride train out of a giant animatronic cannon, imitating the space travelers’ journey from the book.
There is still one last tidbit to the story of Space Mountain.
With the opening of Shanghai Disneyland in 2016, there was a plan to make a new version of Space Mountain. One that truly seemed futuristic in the 21st century. Those plans eventually became TRON Lightcycle Run. Now, here in 2023, Tron Lightcycle Run is opening in the Magic Kingdom right next to the ride that inspired it.
Even now, Space Mountain is inspiring the future.