On Its 45th Birthday, Space Mountain Remains an Untouchable Disney Theme Park Classic
15th January 2020

There are two dominant structures in the Disney theme parks, whether you’re in Florida, Tokyo, or Paris: castles and mountains. Each castle has its own story, and the same is true of each mountain. The Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland is smaller than that of the Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World — depending on how much size matters to you, that might make the original castle more or less impressive than the one in Orlando. But the castles at the Disney parks are largely visual icons. You can enjoy the novelty of, in Florida, eating inside a castle, but there’s no ride experience. The castles exist primarily as impressive landmarks. 

The mountains are different. Just as actual mountains are challenges to climb up or down, the Disney mountains are exhilarating experiences intended as thrill rides. Though it wasn’t the first, Space Mountain is one of the most foundational and important to the overall modern experience at the Disney theme parks.

Clear the Launch Platform

Space Mountain turns 45 today, with the inaugural attraction opening on January 15, 1975 at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. The current linchpin of Tomorrowland, Space Mountain is in fact one of the most novel and clever examples of Imagineering at the Disney theme parks. From the outside in, Space Mountain can be almost existentially terrifying: it’s a roller coaster set almost entirely in the dark. The premise is that your car is a rocket ship ascending through the outer-space heavens, turning and bucking through the stars in ways that you can’t possibly predict, because you can’t see the track ahead or behind you.

But Space Mountain is really one of the simplest attractions in theme-park history, not just Disney history. Yet to know how this magic trick was pulled off isn’t to ruin the illusion; knowing what’s going on only heightens the excitement. In essence, Space Mountain follows suit with the other major mountainous attraction that existed at either Disneyland or Walt Disney World to that point: the Matterhorn Bobsleds. That old-school roller-coaster owed a debt to a specific kind of roller coaster, despite not entirely being that kind of coaster: the Wild Mouse. There are two coaster attractions currently at Disneyland and Walt Disney World — Goofy’s Sky School at Disney California Adventure and Primeval Whirl at Disney’s Animal Kingdom — that are true Wild Mouse-style roller coasters.

A Wild Mouse attraction isn’t the kind of roller coaster that will take you to impossible heights and drop you down at 60 miles per hour, or the kind of coaster that will send you on five loops going upside down at incredible speed. No, the Wild Mouse is the kind of coaster that offers tight turns, unexpected but short drops, and G forces. The Matterhorn Bobsleds isn’t exactly a Wild Mouse, but as designed by WED Imagineering (as it was called back in the 1950s), it was inspired by the coasters.

System Check

Space Mountain takes the inspiration just a bit further through its themed queues and, of course, one key additional element: being set in the dark. That idea didn’t originate in the 1970s, though; before his passing, Walt Disney was working on an overhaul of Tomorrowland in Disneyland with Imagineer John Hench, and had lighted upon an attraction with space as its foundation. That, too, would be a roller coaster in the dark, with the name Space Mountain being proposed in the summer of 1966.

Of course, Disney passed away in December of that year, thus putting a strong pause on many of his plans. The one plan that didn’t stop, but was strongly altered, was building a new resort in Orlando, Florida. What Disney had envisioned as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow would become Walt Disney World, firmly putting Space Mountain on the back burner. Yet it was the success of Walt Disney World, which opened in the fall of 1971, that led to Walt Disney Imagineering bringing back the idea of a space-themed roller-coaster-style ride in the dark. The Magic Kingdom needed thrill rides for its adult and teenage audiences, and instead of repeating the Matterhorn Bobsleds, they would do something new instead.

Space Mountain, once it was unveiled in 1975, instantly became one of the most popular theme-park attractions in the world. The experience of the attraction begins well before you sit down into the ride vehicle, too, in ways that have inspired ride designers for the ensuing 45 years. Though the ride tracks — there are two in the Orlando version, each running close to 3,200 feet long — are extensive, so too is the queuing area, which sets a mysterious tone without quite being scary. After walking through areas meant to evoke the vastness of a starry outer space, guests are deposited into a loading area where they can ride either the Alpha or Omega tracks, as if they’re entering a space shuttle about to send them into the heavens.

Resume Countdown

Riding Space Mountain is an experience largely as mysterious as walking through its queue. Being placed in the dark would seem like it’s entirely antithetical to the point of riding a roller coaster. So many of the world’s most daunting roller-coaster attractions start reeling you in (or pushing you away, depending on your propensity for being terrified) as soon as you see its largest loop, or as soon as you hear the delighted screams of its passengers. Though the Matterhorn Bobsleds obscures some of its sharp and short drops by the design of being embedded within a mountain, it was Space Mountain to first entirely remove its thrills or terrors from the audience.

The ride experience is at all turns delightful, perplexing, and thrilling. For those of us above a certain height, of course (I’m 6’ 2”), Space Mountain can also be mildly terrifying if you worry that the next time your ride vehicle drops, your head might get chopped off too. (Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous to worry that something of that nature would happen, but you never know.) By the time it’s over, you can barely remember what happened, and which turn or which steep drop was your favorite. But there’s always a distinct sense of wanting to experience Space Mountain just one more time, if only it wasn’t for the massively long line.

Though it’s not the same experience as the ride, the exit area, in which you ascend an escalator to return back to Tomorrowland, is its own paean to the future. Space Mountain, for nearly its first two decades in Orlando, was sponsored by RCA, which bore fruit in the exit area because that’s where they could present a captive audience with a vision of a “Home of Future Living”. What, to the eyes of travelers in the mid-1970s, would the 21st-century home look like? Of course, a 70s-era vision of the future was trapped by the limitations of technology, with boxy video players that have long been supplanted. Over time, the exit area has been revamped, including more references to the departed Epcot attraction Horizons, Disney’s vision of a futuristic locale called Progress City, and more.

Go For Launch

Space Mountain was an instant success in the Magic Kingdom, vastly more so than the Matterhorn Bobsleds were in Disneyland. (Matterhorn was initially going to be replicated the Orlando version of Fantasyland, but Imagineers couldn’t figure out a way to make it fit.) That success can be measured easily enough — five of the six Disney resorts around the world have a Space Mountain attraction, with just Shanghai Disneyland missing out. (That resort opened in 2016, and has a Tron-themed roller-coaster as its linchpin Tomorrowland attraction.) Just over two years after the ride opened in Walt Disney World, the Disneyland version of Space Mountain opened to solid reviews and crowds. The size limitations of the park, though, meant that the Disneyland version can only have one track instead of two. 

Over time, the Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong versions of Disneyland have had a space-themed coaster to receive the “Space Mountain” moniker. The Paris edition was originally themed to the science-fiction stories of Jules Verne, only becoming Space Mountain: Mission 2 in the mid-2000s. Space Mountain, though, is a bit unlike other mountain-themed attractions at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Splash Mountain, opening in 1989 at Disneyland, has always been inspired by Song of the South; Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which opened in 1979 at Disneyland, has always been free of intellectual property. 

Space Mountain, though, has had two different thematic overlays in the last decade or so. One, entitled “Ghost Galaxy”, is a Halloween-themed version of the ride where there are screen projections with plenty of spooks. The other renames the attraction to Hyperspace Mountain, and is themed to Star Wars, replete with snippets of John Williams’ iconic score and appropriate audio-effects noises.

Hyperspace Mountain was in effect at Disneyland well past Halloween this year, as Ghost Galaxy took a hiatus. But Space Mountain is back to its normal, darkened self now, and remains one of the most thrilling attractions in all the world. No, this is not a roller coaster that will send you spinning upside down, or launch you at a ridiculous speed. (Though it’s far from the most intense roller coaster of that kind, head over to the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for that type of experience.) Space Mountain is a very simple, old-school ride with the light switch turned off. It’s a magic trick with so many easy ingredients that you might be amazed no one had tried it before. But that’s the thing about magic tricks: they only seem easy once you know how they work. In the moment, as you’re riding through a starry oblivion, all that matters is that Space Mountain is a hell of a ride, easy or not.

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