Space Mountain opened at the Magic Kingdom in Walt DISNEY WORLD in 1975, becoming the first indoor tubular steel roller coaster. The original idea was conceived by Walt Disney for Disneyland, but after he passed away, the attraction was shifted to Florida, with Imagineer John Hench leading a team of talented Imagineers to bring this iconic attraction to life.
In this episode, we discuss the history of Space Mountain, its impact on Tomorrowland, details and easter eggs, music, architecture, and more, plus we enjoy a binaural audio recording of the Walt Disney World version of the attraction.
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When you think of classic Disney thrill rides, one of the attractions that instantly comes to mind for many Disney fans is none other than Space Mountain. Opening at the Magic Kingdom in January 1975, it was the first Disney roller coaster built completely indoors, and one that was so popular, it opened at almost every other Disney castle park around the world, including Disneyland Park in 1977, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, Disneyland Paris in 1995, and Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005. In fact, the only Disney castle park in the world that does not feature Space Mountain is Shanghai Disneyland, which has TRON Lightcycle Power Run in its place as a kind of modern adaptation of this classic ride.
Although the attraction was finished nearly a decade after Walt Disney’s passing, the idea actually originated with Walt himself. After the success of Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, which opened at the park in 1959 and became the first tubular steel roller coaster, Walt wanted to take the concept to the next level, creating a steel roller coaster that would be built entirely indoors, giving his Imagineers the opportunity to control every aspect of the experience and creating the world’s first indoor tubular steel roller coaster. Walt was working towards a 1967 reimagining of Tomorrowland at Disneyland, which he felt was never truly finished. The working title for the attraction was Space Port, but after some initial work, Walt and the Imagineering team shifted their attention to the 1964 World’s Fair. As a result, Space Port missed its opportunity to be a part of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland expansion. Before work could be started, Walt tragically passed away.
Imagineer John Hench worked closely with Walt in the early stages of the ride and became the lead Imagineer on the project after Walt Disney’s passing. In John Hench’s book, Designing Disney, he has a great explanation of the origins of this ride.
“The idea for this ride was Walt’s, but it took eleven years to find a location and a financial sponsor to build the original Space Mountain, which finally opened in January 1975, eight years after Walt’s death. Walt wanted to build a roller coaster-style ride, but in the dark, which no one had ever done before. He wanted to have precise control of the lighting and to be able to project moving images on the interior walls. Just as Walt had wanted, we made most of the ride’s structure invisible to guests, thanks to pinpoint light projectors, which do not reveal forms. Being inside Space Mountain is like orbiting in space. The ride is full of surprises.”
Although the attraction was shelved for Disneyland, the Space Port project was restarted soon after the opening of Walt Disney World. Realizing that the Magic Kingdom needed more thrill rides, the Imagineers reopened the project and turned their attention to Florida. Eventually the name of the ride was changed to Space Mountain, as the concept for the structure morphed to its final design, with model work created by Imagineer Mitsu Natsume.
The design of the structure is one of the aspects that makes Space Mountain so memorable and iconic. The cone-like design was conceived by John Hench and includes concrete steel beams built on the outside of the structure instead of the inside. This design serves several purposes, and I personally believe the outcome is genius.
The first purpose of the exterior steel beams is to give it a modern appearance. Building the mountain in this way gives it a distinctive Tomorrowland feeling. In fact, the design also helps it match Disney’s Contemporary Resort behind it, a resort that opened 4 years earlier and was built to be an expansion of the Tomorrowland skyline.
The second purpose of the exterior steel beams is to give a greater sense of forced perspective. The mountain stands at 183 feet tall, but it looks taller because of the steel beams. John Hench says in his book, “the distance between the T beams varies, from narrow at the top to wider at the bottom; on the cone-shaped roof, this gives an appropriately dynamic effect of forced perspective. The resulting exterior design is strong, simple, and visually effective.”
The third purpose of the exterior steel beams is to create a smooth surface on the inside of the mountain. If you look up at the ceiling of Space Mountain from the inside with the lights on, you’ll notice that the majority of the surface is flat and unobstructed. With the lights off, this allows for better star and planet effects above the rockets, making guests feel like they’re truly flying through space.
The final purpose of the design was to echo the expanding spiral of the ride inside. The track is designed to be narrow at the top and wide at the bottom, climbing up to the central point of the structure, then spiraling downward and outward. The mountain’s exterior follows the same design, flowing from a narrow central point out towards a wider circular base 300 feet in diameter. All of these architectural characteristics give Space Mountain a sense of mystery, adventure, and excitement. Even before boarding a rocket, guests can sense the thrill of the experience.
Amazingly, the original design called for 4 separate tracks, which would have certainly given the ride an incredibly high guest capacity and would have been amazing to see as all the tracks would twist and turn around each other. One concept even called for the rockets to briefly make an appearance outside the mountain, but the Imagineers soon moved the entire ride design back into the structure.
In working with Arrow Development, the same company who helped design Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Imagineers soon realized that four tracks was perhaps a bit too ambitious, requiring more space (pun intended) than they thought. Instead, the concept was cut in half, following a similar strategy to Matterhorn Bobsleds, with two separate tracks occupying the same show space. Even with cutting the design plans in half, Space Mountain still occupies two acres, about the size of two American football fields. The building is so massive that it could not fit within Tomorrowland, so the Imagineers built the structure outside the boundaries of the Walt Disney World Railroad track. This also helped keep Cinderella Castle as the focal point for the park, with the massive 183-foot-tall mountain positioned on the far edge of the park.
Like Matterhorn Bobsleds, each track called for guests to be seated in a single file row, occupying six seats across two rockets for each train. Unlike Matterhorn Bobsleds, the two tracks are nearly identical, with one acting as the mirror image of the other. However, there is a slight difference between the two Space Mountain tracks, which are called Alpha and Omega. The Alpha track is to your left as you’re approaching the loading area from the front of the mountain, and the Omega track is on your right. At one point on the ride, the tracks switch places on their respective side of the mountain, go through a short series of curves and drops, and then head back to their original side of the structure. This means that of course the tracks can’t be exactly the mirror image of each other, so one track is slightly longer than the other. The next time you’re riding on the Alpha side, you can boast to your friends on the Omega side that you’re experiencing an additional 10 feet of track. Sure that amounts to just about a second more of ride time and most guests won’t know the difference, but I’m a Disney geek at heart and these are the fun facts I love to share.
While we’re on the subject of the track, it’s worth noting that the lead Imagineer responsible for the ride system was Bill Watkins, an engineer who worked at Walt Disney Imagineering from 1966 to 1985. Bill helped design the track layouts for Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and he worked on the opening teams for EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland. One of the brilliant aspects of Bill’s work is how he was able to make a rather slow roller coaster feel like an exhilarating journey through the stars. Amazingly, Space Mountain only achieves a top speed of 28.7 miles per hour, at least according to the Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom written by the Imagineers. That’s only slightly faster than The Barnstormer over in Fantasyland, and it’s actually slower than Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which achieves a top speed of 34 miles per hour. Still Space Mountain is no doubt the most intense of these three experiences, and much of that has to do with the tight turns and sudden drops you experience on the ride. In addition, the fact that you’re riding the attraction in the dark makes the roller coaster feel much faster, since it limits your perception of distance and spatial understanding, so the only information your brain has to process the speed you’re traveling is the force you feel around each turn or drop. Long story short, we have to give a great deal of thanks to Bill Watkins for creating a track that makes us feel like we’re on a rocket traveling at a high velocity.
While the attraction doesn’t seem like a technological marvel by today’s standards, Space Mountain also presented a groundbreaking system that thousands of roller coasters utilize today: a computerized zone system. For roller coasters that were built prior to 1971, a ride operator would need to manually control the spacing of each train and would need to monitor the positioning of each vehicle to determine if an emergency stop was required.
For Space Mountain, the Imagineers created a computerized system that would automatically space out each vehicle along the track through a series of braking zones. Now, a computer would decide how far apart to space each vehicle. In fact, the zone system not only controls when to send the next train out of the load area but also calculates if any individual train needs any adjustment in its speed along the track, applying adjustments accordingly on any given section of brakes, taking into consideration the weight of any given vehicle. Plus, in the event that any individual train is at risk of colliding with another, the computer system automatically stops each vehicle at the next respective zone. This system not only dramatically increased the safety of roller coasters but also enhanced their efficiency. With these computerized zones, Imagineers could place more rockets on the track and deploy them at a higher hourly capacity, sending more guests through the attraction. Plus, the brilliant idea of creating two separate tracks meant that even if one track experienced a maintenance issue or emergency stop from the computer system, the other could still operate. At max capacity, though, 14 trains can operate on each track at a time, accommodating a total of 168 guests on both tracks.
It’s also worth noting that much of the success for Space Mountain can be attributed to RCA, the ride’s original sponsor, who made the ride financially viable to build in 1971. To help connect Space Mountain to its sponsor, Disney’s Imagineering team focused the original theme for the ride on communications. Entering the load area, guests could see RCA satellites orbiting in space above them. The Imagineers also created a post-show experience along a moving walkway to the exit that featured the Home of Future Living, which demonstrated RCA home entertainment products and a few ideas for future technology.
In addition, the team added an RCA theme song to the entrance of the queue. Just in case you didn’t get the chance to visit the Magic Kingdom in the late 1970s or early 1980s, here’s a clip from that theme song, with music written by Buddy Baker, a prolific composer of many Disney Parks songs, and lyrics by Xavier Atencio, the Imagineer who also wrote the lyrics for Yo Ho A Pirate’s Life For Me, Grim Grinning Ghosts, and more.
[Play “Here’s To The Future”]
RCA’s sponsorship lasted for over a decade, but eventually the sponsor cut ties with the Disney attraction. Thankfully, Disney secured a new sponsor in 1994, Federal Express, who sponsored the attraction for 10 years. To accommodate this new sponsor, Disney updated sponsorship signage on the attraction, added a mention of Federal Express on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover, and modified the post-show experience to focus on intergalactic shipping instead of home entertainment. Since 2004, Space Mountain has gone without a sponsor, but increasing Magic Kingdom attendance, the remaining popularity of this classic attraction, and changes to Disney’s financial model reduced the need to find a new sponsor for the attraction.
Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom has seen many changes over its nearly 50-year history, and each change has helped it remain a relevant and timeless classic at the park. Rather than list out each individual change, I’d love to share the current version of Space Mountain with you, highlighting some of the alternate experiences you might have seen in past versions.
When you reach the far end of Tomorrowland, your journey to the stars begins by entering a Space Port called StarPort 75: “Your Gateway to the Galaxies”, a tribute to the year the attraction opened, 1975. Here, you begin descending down a series of ramps and pass by a digital board that advertises destinations you might be able to visit. While some of the destinations are references to fictitious intergalactic locations, a few are actually Easter eggs that represent the other Space Mountain attractions around the world. Tomorrowland Station MK-1 represents the station you’re about to enter, with the letters MK standing for Magic Kingdom, and the number 1 identifying that this version was the first Space Mountain to be built at the Disney Parks around the world. Meanwhile, TL Space Station 77 represents the Disneyland California version, which opened in 1977 in California. Discovery Landing Station is a reference to the Disneyland Paris version, a Jules Verne inspired rendition of Space Mountain that opened in the Discoveryland section of the park in 1995. Ashita Station represents the Tokyo Disneyland version, which opened at the park in 1983, and HK Spaceport E-TKT represents the Hong Kong Disneyland version that opened in 2005. The E-TKT label at the end is also a reference to the term E-Ticket, since Space Mountain opened as an E-ticket attraction when Disney charged guests to ride individual attractions.
I mentioned earlier in this episode that the main show building for Space Mountain was built outside the boundaries of the Walt Disney World Railroad. You might not realize it, but that’s exactly why the queue in this section of the experience descends down a series of ramps. To get to the other side of the railroad into Space Mountain, the Imagineers built a tunnel below the railroad tracks. When you reach the lowest part of your journey, which happens between the star tunnel and star map sections of the queue, you’re actually right below the railroad. In fact, if you listen carefully at just the right time, you can even hear the rumbling of the locomotives passing by above the tunnel.
Speaking of transitions, if you’ve been listening to the show for a while, you’ve probably heard me wax poetic about the incredible transitions the Imagineers create between lands and individual attractions. Well, here’s another example I get to geek out about with you, and it involves music.
If you’re familiar with the Tomorrowland area music loop, you likely recall that it’s full of happy electronic music that plays into a sense of discovery and adventure. Just in case you’re not familiar with the music, it’s what you’ve been listening to in the background of this episode. Take a quick moment to enjoy.
[Pause script and bring music up to normal sound level, then fade back to background]
Space Mountain enjoys that same sense of discovery and adventure, but it also has a sense of mystery and suspense. The Imagineers wanted you to feel as if you were journeying far away from Tomorrowland, to quieter, more mysterious space. To accomplish this transition, they started by creating entrance queue music that fits the same kind of happy vibe as the rest of Tomorrowland. Listen carefully to the theme they created, called “Promising Tomorrows”, which you hear as you descend the ramps in the first section of the queue.
[Play Space Mountain queue theme]
It’s cheerful and fun isn’t it? Well, it leads into a star tunnel section of track that plays a very familiar tune many Disney fans love to listen to, often on repeat in YouTube videos, myself included. Here’s the music you’ll hear in this next section of the queue.
[Play star tunnel music]
I could listen to that song on repeat for a long time. It’s mysterious but also incredibly relaxing. Well, it’s worth noting that the star tunnel music and Promising Tomorrows are connected melodically. The Imagineers knew that transitioning from one song to another could create a kind of cacophony of sound as you moved from one tunnel to the next, especially if you’re standing in line there for a while, so the songs actually enjoy the same melodic sequence. Want some proof? Well, here are the two songs played over each other.
[Play Promising Tomorrows with Star Tunnel overlay]
Isn’t that awesome? It’s one of those Imagineering details 99% of guests will never notice, but that’s precisely the point. The music seamlessly transitions you from one section of the queue to the next, and this part of the queue is one of my favorites.
As you descend down the ramp to the bottom, you pass by a series of concave windows that look out to the stars. These windows are designed so that as you pass them by, they give a perception of movement. It’s a very similar illusion to the one used for the moving busts on the Haunted Mansion, but employed to convey a sense of adventure rather than horror.
After reaching the bottom of the ramp, you begin ascending back up to the park level into the base of Space Mountain. Here, you pass by a series of star maps showing potential routes you might take within and between galaxies. In the meantime, the star tunnel music you heard in the last part of the queue begins to fade and is replaced by a much more intriguing series of electronic sounds, enhancing the sense of mystery. Here’s a brief clip of the music you’ll hear in this section of the queue.
[Play star corridor sounds]
After leveling off, the queue zigs and zags toward the back of the mountain. This layout serves two purposes. First, it increases the wall space you see looking out into space, giving the Imagineers more opportunities to build show elements around guests. Second, it minimizes the distance you can see ahead of you in the queue. If you were to look down the queue in a straight line, you’d see perhaps a few hundred guests in front of you, as this section of the queue goes to the other side of the building. Not being able to see that many guests in front of you makes the wait time feel less intimidating. In queue line design, not knowing how many people are in line in front of you is often better than knowing, especially with high-capacity attractions like Space Mountain that can accommodate thousands of guests per hour.
While this part of the queue originally featured windows looking out into space on both sides, the design was updated in 2009 to feature a series of video games on the standby side (the left side) of the queue. These games remained in place until 2018, as Disney eventually created more gaming opportunities through the Play Disney Parks app, replacing many of the gamified experiences they created in various queues throughout Walt Disney World with handheld games you could play from your own device.
From here, your journey continues up one more set of ramps, taking you up to the load area on the second floor of the mountain. Here, guests are separated into the Alpha and Omega tracks. Originally, guests would separate first and then go through a series of switchbacks in the load area on either side. However, once FastPass was added to Space Mountain, the load area was changed so that only Standby guests would walk through the switchbacks on the Alpha side, while FastPass guests would walk in a single file line directly to the trains on the Omega side, offering a much shorter wait. The load area operates in a similar fashion today, except Lightning Lane and standby guests are eventually sorted into a single file line on both the Alpha and Omega sides, although standby guests still spend some time in the switchbacks on the Alpha side first. On the busiest days of the year, the switchbacks on both sides of the load area are utilized.
In the original version of Space Mountain, the load area ceiling was exposed to reveal the inside of the mountain and the Alpha and Omega tracks. Guests could look up to see part of the experience ahead and hear the screams from guests riding the attraction. To make it easier to see the rockets floating through space, the 1994 version of the ride even featured glow-in-the-dark stripes painted on the side of each rocket. This feature was eventually removed in 2009, at which point the ceiling of the load area was also closed off, making the ride darker than its previous versions. In the current version of the ride, faux windows above the load area look up into space, with digital screens showing various celestial bodies.
The 1994 version also featured an updated queue experience that included the addition of TV monitors above the load area. These monitors would play a variety of shows and ads on what was called SM-TV, which was an acronym for Space Mountain Television. The clips even included various mentions of Federal Express, which was the attraction’s sponsor at the time. It was a short-lived addition to Space Mountain, but just in case you weren’t there to see it, here’s a brief clip of what you might have heard in this part of the queue.
The load area also features a com chat that is also heard on the Disneyland version of the ride. This audio serves to build the anticipation of boarding your rocket, as if you’re approaching the final checklist before your trip through the cosmos. Here’s a brief clip of what you’ll hear in the background as you make your way to your rocket.
[Play com chat]
Boarding your rocket on either side, you’re assigned one of six seats across two individual rocket cars. You pull down the lap restraint and move into a safety check zone, where a Cast Member personally checks that each restraint is properly lowered for each guest. The rockets then turn into a pre-launch area and are sent down a drop back to the first floor of the mountain, entering a blue strobe tunnel. It’s perhaps one of the most iconic parts of the ride, sending rockets all the way to the other side of the mountain, at which points the rockets turn around to ascend the lift. Here, the tracks begin to converge as the lift segments are angled slightly inward toward the center of the mountain. This part of the ride is also one of the brightest and the most dynamic, as guests can see rockets ahead on the chain lift, rockets on the opposite chain lift track, rockets flying by in the opposite direction on a section of track on either side of the chain lift, and even cars from the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover down below, plus a pair of astronauts hanging upside down from an X-1 shuttle and a window revealing a control center for Tomorrowland Station MK-1.
Reaching the top of the track, about 65 feet high, guests then begin their journey through about a minute and a half of sharp turns, sudden drops, and even the occasional quick ascent back toward the top of the mountain. All the while, stars and planets fly by overhead, and pinpoint star projectors throughout the mountain illuminate along nearly every corner of the dark track and support system, making it difficult to see where the rocket might turn next. Reaching a top speed of 28.7 miles per hour and a maximum drop height of about 25 feet, the rockets gradually make their way to the base of the mountain. Near the end of the experience, they turn into a red re-entry tunnel, which lets out a sonic boom as you turn into the final section of brakes and enter the unload area.
While Space Mountain was designed without a formal music soundtrack, synchronized sound was a feat the Imagineers always wanted to accomplish. Thanks to Imagineer Tom Morris, this dream became a reality in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the Magic Kingdom’s version was not built to accommodate even modern synchronized sound because the rockets were too small to allow for the speakers and equipment needed to be added to the trains.
Nevertheless, in 2009, Space Mountain reopened from a lengthy refurbishment and suddenly featured a new soundtrack called “Mount Bop”, which was actually created by Mike Brassell, a talented composer who also served as the voice of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover from 2009 to 2022. He also currently voices the greenhouse narration for Living with the Land, at least as of the time of this podcast recording. Mike’s “Mount Bop” score for Space Mountain was inspired by Michael Giacchino’s 2005 Space Mountain theme for the Disneyland version, and it even features a few similar melodic phrases. Unlike Disneyland’s version, though, the Magic Kingdom soundtrack is not synchronized with each individual rocket but is instead played in the background on a loop throughout the mountain, something similar to the early days of Disneyland. Disney advertises this technology as “Starry-O-Phonic” sound, and while it might not be as perfectly timed as its synchronized sound counterparts, it still creates a thrilling addition to the ride. Again, just in case you’ve never heard this song before, here’s a brief clip for you to enjoy.
[Play “Mount Bop”]
Upon exiting the ride from the unload area, which is directly below the load area of the attraction, guests meet back in between the tracks and head toward the front of the mountain through a long carpeted walkway that’s adjacent to the queue tunnels. While this post-show experience originally featured a moving walkway that took guests all the way to the other side of the building, the walkway was replaced with carpet in 2018 to create a safer experience for all guests. Here, guests pass the once sponsored post-show environments for RCA and Fed-Ex, which can also be seen from the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover directly above the walkway. Again, guests descend under the Walt Disney World Railroad and eventually make their way back up a series of ramps, which leads to the Tomorrowland Launch Depot, which was once the Tomorrowland Power & Light Company and formerly the Tomorrowland Arcade.
Still nearly 50 years later, Space Mountain remains one of the most popular and iconic Walt Disney World attractions, maintaining an average 4.6 out of 5 stars on Google Reviews with over 3,600 reviews. That’s not bad at all for a roller coaster that opened in 1971! But if you couldn’t tell from this episode, the ride’s success has so much to do with the Imagineering designed for the experience, the combination of track layout, special effects, music, sounds, architecture, and so much more. Guests boarding the attraction are led to believe they’re truly taking a joyride on a high-speed rocket through the stars, leaving Tomorrowland Station MK-1 for two and a half minutes of fun before making their way back to the station. To this day, guests young and old exit the attraction with a sense of exhilaration and adventure. In fact, just to show how times really haven’t changed much for this classic, I want to read for you another reflection from John Hench’s Designing Disney book, where he describes watching guests ride the attraction for the first time.
“I wanted to observe the first guests to take the trip. They were middle-aged and laughing among themselves as they sat in their vehicle waiting to go. As they took off, I walked over to the exit where the ride ends to wait for them. As their vehicle came to a stop, there was dead silence. Some seemed to be hyperventilating. One woman stirred first and got out of the car. She knelt down and loudly kissed the carpet. The others got out of the car and started up the exit ramp. I followed them about halfway up the ramp; they broke into spontaneous weak-in-the-knees laughter, patting each other on the back. It came to me then that these people had not felt so alive in years as they did at that moment. These guests felt alive because of the effect of story forms we had designed for sensation and thrill. This is a demonstration of what playtime does for guests. I haven’t figured out yet how Walt understood so much about playtime. I do know that he always felt very much alive himself and guided us in creating forms that inspire play. He helped us to understand that to create a play space, we Imagineers must trust our own feelings and instincts, and must always nurture our own sense of play.”
With this incredible observation from John Hench, I would love to take you for a ride with me aboard Space Mountain at Walt Disney World thanks to some binaural scenic audio I recorded from the parks. Like most binaural recordings, this audio is best experienced using earbuds or headphones, but listening on speakers or another audio device should still help you relive the thrill of this iconic attraction. With that, let’s take a journey to our favorite Gateway to the Galaxy and enjoy Space Mountain.