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The Story of Euro Disneyland

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When the results of fiscal 1995 were announced, Disneyland Paris executives were ecstatic-and undoubtedly more than a little relieved. They credited the financial rescue package with easing the high debt burden. They pointed to new marketing cam-paigns and tight cost controls, which had helped to push themepark revenues up by 8.7 percent to $500 million and hotel revenues up to $360 million. Company officials also identified one other reason for the dramatic upward surge in 1995: Space Mountain, the newest and most celebrated attraction at Disneyland Paris.

The decision to build the new ride, however, was not unquestioned. Imagineers had left vacant a spot at the center of Discoveryland so that one day the popular state-side attraction could be installed to serve as the area's main visual magnet and "people-pump." Thinning crowds and worsening financial conditions, however, made it ever more difficult to justify the expense. Even Disneyland Paris executives who be-ieved that it might help to increase ticket sales resisted plans to move forward with the colossal project. They simply couldn't afford to plow as much as $100 million into something that wasn't guaranteed to pay off. In the end, the Imagineers convinced them that the new attraction would create a second wave of interest in - and add force to the unique identity of - Europe's Disney park. "Discovery Mountain," as they planned to call it, was to be much more than a hand-me-down Space Mountain from other Disney parks. It would be an all-new attraction: something bigger and better than previous models that would strengthen the overarching motif of Discoveryland.

The new name, however, failed to generate excitement in Europe. Philippe Bourguignon expressed concern that it sounded too much like a museum exhibit. Many of the park's customers (and cast members) were also reluctant to embrace the name. Despite repeated assurances that the ride would be "much more technical and much more fun than the Space Mountains in our other theme parks," they feared that Discovery Mountain would be something less than its legendary predecessors if its differences were substantial enough to warrant a name change. After much discussion, Michael Eisner authorized the official renaming of Discovery Mountain. Henceforth, he decreed, it would be Space Mountain. The signs and electrified marquee reading "Discovery Mountain," which had already been installed, were quickly replaced. But the more understated "DM" monograms etched into the space vehicles and handrails were permitted to remain as the symbol of a future that been swept into the past.

The story, as related by Imagineer Tim Delaney, is ironic: it shows how perceptions can shape reality. Even more important, it attests to the great cultural currency of the Space Mountain and the Disney name in Europe. Doubters, convinced that the original thrill ride could not be improved upon, were in for a big surprise. The new Space Mountain would share with its predecessors the basic premise of an indoor rollercoaster ride in the dark, but it also set out to accomplish something unique: the seamless marriage of architecture and ride technology with storytelling. Jules Verne's 1865 tale, De la Terre la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), provided the thematic inspiration and guided Imagineers as they fleshed out ideas for how the adventure would be designated and experienced, both conceptually and physically.

To blast guests into the story, Disney Imagineers created the first ever inclined ride catapult launch system. Located on the outside of the mountain, it would rocket passengers up a thirty-two-degree slope to the summit in 1.8 seconds before hurling them inside for a "fictional" journey through outer space. An onboard sound system, equipped with six speakers for each person, was also added to enhance visual effects with carefully synchronized music and sounds. But the most shocking feature of all in the new Space Mountain was a stretch of track with three inversion loops to spin passengers upside sown in the darkness, dramatizing the climax of the Jules Verne tale with a touch of terror. Because of the ride's special intensity, Imagineers added one final feature: "la voie stellaire," an observation walkway that tunnels through the inside of the mountain at ground level so that interested onlookers could get a sense of the ride before deciding whether or not to venture inside.

The Space Mountain created for Disneyland Paris was an all-new attraction, through and through. Its external appearance, electrified by gleaming shapes, colors, and Victorian styling, was equaled only by the adventure within. By blending drama, special effects, and carefully controlled motion through spaces charged with narrative meaning, the Imagineers succeeded in creating one of the premier thrill rides anywhere. Moreover, they succeeded in reinterpreting a famous Disney attraction for a new park and a new multinational audience. Its debut on June 1, 1995, more than three years after the park's grand opening, was celebrated with a musical appearance by Elton John that attracted other stars, including Yves Mourousi, Alain Madelin, Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield. At last, many concluded, Disneyland Paris was complete. But of course, no Disney theme park is ever complete. In the words of a professor visiting from Sweden, the mountain created at the center of Discoveryland represented anything but a final chapter. "Space Mountain," he predicted, "will be the beginning of this park."

Andrew Lainsbury: Once upon an American Dream - The Story of Euro Disneyland, p. 164 ff., University Press of Kansas, 2000

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