Originally published in October 1995, in Washington DC's "The Beacon" Newsletter
Ever since I first heard about Space Mountain I was fascinated by it, and tried to get hold of every single piece of information available about it. I got artists' renderings of it, I got descriptions about it from travel brochures, I even managed to get hold of a castmember magazine by writing to Disneyland Paris. I recorded news reports on television, I got information from helpful shop assistants in the Disney Store, and I bought a mug and a t-shirt, all before it opened. I was fanatically interested in it. Well, in August 1995, after months of anticipation, I finally got to ride Space Mountain.
The date was Thursday the 31st of August 1995. The time was 8:15am. The place, Disneyland Paris. The park was deserted. I approached Space Mountain and looked at it in amazement. I then noticed the screaming passengers getting shot out of Columbiad, and I thought to myself, "uh oh, that looks a little scary." But, since I was so fascinated by the ride, I simply HAD to go on it. So I passed under the Space Mountain entrance sign, with its strange photochromic paint, its two gold plated cannons, and its mechanical moon with orbiting rocket ship. I walked over a bridge, lined with ornate lamps that looked like Saturn with their sphere and rings. And, as I got closer to Columbiad, I started to feel the bangs rumbling through the ground. I walked past a huge poster, done in a Victorian style, advertising daily excursions to the moon. I walked around a corner, and then I entered the mountain.
I walked along a disorientating, futuristic, winding corridor, in almost complete darkness. The only visible lights, were the blue lights that lined the black rubber floor. It was very noisy. Loud orchestral music surrounded me. I continued walking further along the corridor. I noticed that the walls were now glass. I stopped and looked out through the glass into "deep space". The swirling music got louder. Suddenly, a vibrant streak of colour whizzed past me in a flash, with a horrendous ear-piercing roar. I thought to myself, "what the heck was that?" I then realized it was one of the rocket trains; one of the same rocket trains that I'd be boarding very shortly. I thought, "woah, that was way too fast." It looked horrific, but I pressed on, somewhat nervous and shaky.
The corridor went on and on, into the darkness, with trains suddenly roaring past in a terrifying manner. I climbed some metal steps, up and up. I then looked to my right, out into "space". I saw something amazing. I saw another streak of colour shoot, straight up, high into the air and over. Uh oh, THAT was the 360 degree loop. I continued climbing the stairs. My heart was pounding. But, I saw daylight ahead.
I walked around some (dark green and brass) Victorian rooms in the Baltimore Gun Club Armoury. In one of them was a domed ceiling, with a starfield above me. In another room was a huge, Jules-Verne-style, brass chandelier, that looked like some strange, mechanical, astronomy instrument. With its shiny spheres hanging down, it was like a mini Orbitron. On the wall of this room was a huge technical diagram of the Columbiad cannon. Also on the wall were the following words, taken from the 26th Chapter of Jules Verne's book, "From the Earth to the Moon":
"An appalling unearthly report followed instantly, such as can be compared to nothing whatever know, not even to the roar of thunder, or the blast of volcanic explosions! No words can convey the slightest idea of the terrific sound!"
Then, I walked out into the outdoor station. The walls were bricked, and there were huge flags hanging down from the arched ceiling. I descended a stair case, onto the platform of the ride loading area. There had been no queue, which was probably because it was so early, and because Space Mountain has such a high ride capacity. There were two loading areas, just like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (i.e. two tracks on either side that went off into one). A train pulled into the station on the left track, accompanied by triumphant music, and full of people with watering eyes. That proved that the ride must be fast, if there was so much air whizzing past you that it made you cry!
The trains looked almost as amazing as the mountain. They were very ornate, with their gold tubing, and rivets, and looked like something out of the Rocketeer. The train came to a halt in front of me, the shoulder restraints lifted up, and the 24 passengers exited. I nervously stepped down, into the train. The seat was very comfortable, and very well padded. I pulled the restraint down over my head, as it made a clicking sound, and gripped the 2 silver bars. The restraint was reassuringly chunky and very well padded. At least I'd be safe. 2 Disney ride assistants either side of the train, walked from the back of the train to the front, checking that all 24 restraints were lowered and securely locked. They were, and they gave the okay signal. With that, our on-board audio system roared into life with the Space Mountain theme, and the train smoothly pulled out of the station.
Just after our train passed over the points, they tumbled round joining onto the other track. We made a long turn-around inside a tunnel, and then suddenly we accelerated and plunged down a steep drop, into the barrel of the cannon. We then stopped, suspended at an angle of 32 degrees, looking directly up the shaft of the cannon. The music was getting more exciting, and suddenly we climbed further into the cannon, grinding to a dead halt. We waited and waited. In front of us was a long, tube like, tunnel of glass. We waited in suspense.
And then, BOOM, we accelerated from 0-50mph in 1.8 seconds, hurtling out of the cannon, plunging through a ring of smoke, with stroboscopic lights flashing all around us. My head was pressed back hard in the seat, and I was going "whoa" because the speed was overwhelmingly fast. We then entered the mountain. The train waited for a brief second at the top, hanging down at a steep angle, with blackness surrounding us. And then we were released and dropped downwards, banking to the left.
We zoomed through complete pitch blackness, at a very high speed, with air whizzing past us, and large black-lit meteorites. We then flew down a drop and plunged into the (very tall) 360 degrees sidewinder loop. It was like a normal 360 degrees loop, except at the top the track changed direction, turning 90 degrees to the left, and bringing you down again. I couldn't really tell I was upside down. I just remember being flung up into the air, and I suddenly found myself looking down at my feet. I remember, being pressed back hard in my seat, and seeing the front of our glowing train curved straight upwards in front of me.
Anyway, we dived down, out of the loop, and we zoomed through a black-lit "Blue Moon" mining machine. We then whizzed around again in complete darkness. We then slowed down, in front of a large red asteroid. We then dropped down through it, with smoke and flashing lights all around us. We set off at high speed again, through the darkness, and then we whizzed through the corkscrew. This time you could feel you were upside down. You could feel yourself hanging upside down. But it was amazing. The track sort of twisted, completely upside down, so you were hanging, and then it sent you diving down in a steep spiral.
We whizzed out of that and we latched on to the second chain lift, and we were pulled up, quite quickly, towards the moon, accompanied by the main Space Mountain theme (Da da da, da der Da da - kind of like the Jurassic Park theme) A road sign in front of us read "to the Moon: 50,000km." As we got closer and closer to the moon, we could see a man's grinning face in it. But before we got too close, we dropped down, banking to the right, with the music suddenly changing to a more suspenseful/action packed tone.
We then went through the 180 degrees tongue inversion, but I do not remember being upside down. I remember being on my side, but not upside down. Anyway, we whizzed out of that and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, with black-light effects. We roared through the "Electro De Velocitor" (some weird, black-lit, monster machine) with flashing lights all around us, and then we slowed down and gently pulled back into the station.
The train came to a stop with a "Da da Daaaaaaaaa, Boh boh BOM." The restraints were released, and I exited. And I knew one thing, I definitely had to do it again; and I did. I went on Space Mountain 10 times during the course of our three night holiday, and it got better and better, each time I went on it. Although, the track was 0.62 miles long, which is 3300 feet, the ride only lasted 2 and a half minutes. However, Imagineers plus $65 million can give you one hell of an experience, in such a short time.
But how does Space Mountain rate, compared to all of the other Disney thrill rides. Well, it wasn't as scary as the Tower of Terror, but it was more exhilarating. It was better than the old Space Mountains, in terms of thrill and design and magical music, however, I missed the thousands of twinkling stars that you whiz through on the old rides.
Overall it was an excellent experience, and I bill it as the most imaginative roller coaster in the World. The whole concept of being shot out of a cannon, and whizzing upside-down through a black-lit cosmos at incredible speed, is excellent. The music really made the attraction. It swept you along into the action, and it made the ride very dramatic, and more emotional.
Space Mountain now dominates Disneyland Paris. It's more impressive, and a lot bigger, than Sleeping Beauty's Castle which seems somewhat over-shadowed. The building is the new centerpiece of Disneyland Paris. It's 141 feet tall and it's 203 feet in diameter. It's so huge, in fact, that it can be seen from miles away, when driving through the French countryside to the resort. And it seems like, wherever you are in the Disneyland Paris theme park, you can see (and hear the muffled blast of) Space Mountain. You can see it from Main Street, you can see it from Frontierland, you can see it from the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house in Adventureland. But, the best view of Space Mountain is, of course, from Discoveryland.
Space Mountain sits in the heart of Discoveryland, surrounded by large angular rocks, rising above the large boiling lagoon that houses the Nautilus attraction. The attraction is really impressive and breath taking to look at. It's more like a machine than a building, and it's been covered with a film of "oil" and "soot" to make it look that way.
Although it has a similar exterior to the earlier Space Mountains in Disneyland and Walt Disney World, this new version is far more interesting! It's the same shape as the old Space Mountains; it's basically a cone. But this cone isn't plain white concrete. This cone is bronze, with dull turquoise metal-work wrapped all over it. This cone is metal, with rivets, and huge bolts. And this cone has an enormous, immensely detailed, chunky cannon resting on the side of it called Columbiad. Every 36 seconds this cannon recoils and, with a thunderous bang, and an explosion of smoke, it fires a train of 24 brave passengers up the side of the mountain, towards the moon. Wow!
"This cannon clearly represents the fact that, this is an experience that when you get in, and you're launched ... I mean, a cannon, big bang, launch, high speed, it will pay off." - Tim Delaney, Executive Designer of Space Mountain.
Everything about Space Mountain is designed to look Victorian. It represents the Victorian era's fascination with space travel, and their turn-of-the-century, interpretations of the future. Yet, although it represents a much dated view of the future (i.e. Space travel involving astronauts getting shot out of a cannon) it still manages to look futuristic. It is much more visually dynamic than the old Space Mountains found in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. There is so much more to look at. There is so much detail. Plus, there's a story behind it, a very famous story. The ride is based on Jules Verne's 1865 book, "From The Earth To The Moon".
Columbiad weighs 15.5 tons, and it's 72 feet long. The main barrel of the cannon is 16 feet in diameter, and it is metallic dark blue and gold. The huge chunky stand, the cannon rests on, is silver with a decorative 24 kt gold-plated archer on the side. The cannon is bolted to the ground. On top of the cannon is a large gun-sight. The cannon is covered in 24 kt gold stars, suns, and moons. It's lined with rivets, and it has large magnificent writing on the stand. The end of the cannon, that you get shot out of, is split into two retractable, tube like, sections. They're both gold, with decorative copper edges.
Everything on this huge cone, including the cannon, focuses towards the top. The top of Space Mountain is a bundle of striking terra cotta and turquoise metal work. There a three large communication towers that jut into the sky, each surrounded by three blue neon rings. There's also a large section of track that curves upwards towards the sky, that is supposed to be a continuation of the track in the cannon.The effect is meant to make you think that you get shot out of the cannon, and then fly off the track, into the sky. It's a similar idea to the ski jump on the Summit Plummet slide at Blizzard Beach.
If you think the exterior of Space Mountain sounds pretty amazing by day, you should see it at night. At night Space Mountain is a neon fantasy. There's this great effect each time Columbiad fires. Strobe lighting twinkles along the launch tunnel, up through the metal work, and up to the tip of the communication towers, just like pixie dust.
"The biggest challenge was trying to light a monster. You know, it's a huge building, and it's such an unusual shape. But to light it in such a way that it wasn't heavy handed. To light it in such a way that the lighting was a living part of it, an intricate part of it. That was the challenge." - Joe Falzetta, Principle Show Lighting Designer.
Space Mountain is the only roller coaster ride in the World to have a synchronized score, played through a technologically advanced on-board sound system. The music was written by movie composer Steve Bramson, who won an Emmy for his work with Steven Spielberg. The music is a sort of mix of John William's themes for Jurassic Park, E.T, and Star Wars, and it was finally recorded by an orchestra in Hollywood, just 10 days before the ride officially opened!
The Local Control Unit (LCU) was installed on the trains by John Groper, a senior audio and video engineer at WDI. The music is controlled by WDI's proprietary "Digital Sound Source and Sequencer" software on a laptop PC, that is kept in the back of the trains. The music is stored digitally, in solid state form, on small flash memory cards that each hold roughly 20MB of data. The music for the ride is divided up into sections. As the trains roar along the track their exact position is plotted, by infra red sensors. A computer receives this information and triggers off the appropriate section of music, automatically adjusting the playback speed, to synchronize the musical score with key elements of the show.
The music is played through the six built-in speakers, per seat. Considering that there are 24 seats to a train, there are a grand total of 144 speakers per train, which explains why the music is so loud. But then the music needs to be loud, if it's to be heard over the roar of the trains and the screams of the riders!
The catapult launch at the start of the ride is also a World's first. Space Mountain is the only ride in the World to launch you from 0-50mph in just 1.8 seconds, at a raised trajectory of 32 degrees, as part of a continuous ride circuit. The acceleration is very fast. Just to give you something to compare it to, a Ferrari F-40 accelerates from 0-60mph in 3.98 seconds, and that's the fastest accelerating car in the World. So, when you get shot out of Columbiad, you're moving pretty fast; 30% faster than any other Disney thrill ride in fact. As you can probably imagine, this creates quite a bit of G force on your face. You pull 1.3 G's, so the skin on your face gets pushed backwards quite a bit, and your head gets forced back into the seat.
The pusher vehicle consists of a chassis that's mounted on rails, below the main ride rails, and has a fin that interfaces with the launch pole on the train. An electric motor rapidly winds up a thick metal rope, that pulls the pusher vehicle up the track, that pushes the train up to the top of the catapult. This system is very similar to the high speed winch systems used to launch aircraft on carriers, only its more reliable and safer.
Anyway, that concludes this report. The only aspect of Space Mountain I can criticize are the consequences of the name change. Originally the ride was going to be called Discovery Mountain, but at the last minute the name was changed to "Space Mountain De La Terre A La Lune". As a result, there are DM logos all over the attraction (e.g. on the trains, and on warning signs on the walls) which don't fit in, and shouldn't be there. Oh well. Nothing's perfect.
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