Space in the Seventies: Space Mountain and Astronauts (1975–1977)
How to open an iconic Disney attraction? Bring on the astronauts.
As 1975 dawned, a soon-iconic attraction was on the cusp of opening at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. A part of the park’s rocket-strewn Tomorrowland, it was (and remains) situated just across from the sleek mid-century modern Contemporary Resort and Hotel, where futuristic monorails trekked (and continue to trek) to and from the theme park. Its distinctive design — even though nearly half a century old — continues to represent what many envisioned the “future” to be circa the mid-1970s. That attraction is, of course, Space Mountain, perhaps one of the world’s best-known Disney rides.
If you’ve never visited Disney World, here are some spoilers: Space Mountain essentially is a roller coaster ride in the dark. While it contains indelible, atmospheric theme music and “space-y” lighting effects, the thrill of the ride is generated by not really knowing what will happen next. Having been under construction since late 1972, the anticipation for the ride’s opening was stunningly high. A front-page January 15th, 1975 Florida Today article, published on Space Mountain’s debut date, was cagey in describing the actual ride but waxed eloquent about its gleaming white building (which remains virtually unchanged since its opening, save for changes in corporate sponsors and a few pressure washes). The article raved:
The massive reality of Space Mountain is readily apparent to anyone approaching the Magic Kingdom. The conical-shaped structure, topped by thin spires, contains 4,508,500 cubic feet — making it large enough to contain a small skyscraper…the visitor then reaches the launch platform where he will board one of the rockets (and, incidentally, you are cautioned to not wear eyeglasses or to make sure they are securely gripping your head. Sudden turns could throw them off). The rocket slowly ascends into “outer space” — and then plunges back toward the “earth,” racing through meteoric showers and other obstacles before “re-entry” into the atmosphere and a safe landing.
To this author’s knowledge, both U.S. Space Mountain attractions — there is also one at California’s Disneyland, which opened in 1977 — are among two of the United States’ only indoor roller coasters. However, in today’s world, they are dwarfed in both speed and height by the rollercoasters at Busch Gardens theme parks.
Florida’s Space Mountain is actually the state’s oldest surviving roller coaster. But, at the time of its 1975 opening, its computerized system represented a huge technological breakthrough. Space Mountain feels like it’s traveling at breakneck speeds but chugs along at a modest 28 miles per hour and is 90 feet high at its apex. It has two tracks — Alpha is slightly longer than Omega (Disneyland’s ride has only one track). If you’d like to learn more about the ride’s conception and design, check out the photos and concept art displayed at Steakhouse 71, the retro-themed restaurant nestled inside the neighboring Contemporary Resort. (There’s a less expensive way to learn more — watch this YouTube video by Mountaineer Productions.)
On January 15th, 1975, Walt Disney World’s Space Mountain had a gala opening day featuring retired NASA astronauts, including Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, and Apollo 15’s Jim Irwin, who had seen some real space mountains in 1971. Irwin, who by then was deep into running his High Flight Foundation, spoke at the event against the backdrop of marching bands, fireworks, and other quintessential Disney touches. Rather adorably, all three astronauts posed with “Astronaut Mickey,” who was sitting in the driver’s seat of a lunar roving vehicle— a not-so-archaic piece of space technology at the time. The video of the opening exists and can be viewed on YouTube. Mickey Mouse, the Magic Kingdom, and space would intersect again in 1975 when the combined Apollo-Soyuz crews visited Disney World and posed for a photo opportunity in front of the ubiquitous building — again, with adorably helmeted Astronaut Mickey.
Space Mountain was feted as an attraction capable of replicating spaceflight for everyone, but not everyone was captivated by the three-minute thrill ride. An insanely critical article in Kansas’ The Leavenworth Times entitled “Gloomy Reflections after Riding into Disney’s Space Mountain” read in part:
What does this ride say about the future? The following gloomy thought occurred. Our technology is taking us all on a frightening trip on which the individual passenger does not know where he is going and is at the mercy of an unseen, unearthly pilot. The ride says that if the passenger remains buckled in his seat and holds on to his glasses, he will arrive safely at his destination. While brooding over these thoughts, one feels the space shuttle slow down and stop. And then one steps out onto a solid floor. “I don’t think I’d ride it again,” one middle-aged woman gulped as she thumped her chest repeatedly to make sure she was all right. “At least not right away,” she concluded as her breath returned.
The piece then stated that the ride, despite its support from astronauts such as Irwin, probably wouldn’t inspire people to support the U.S. space program — which, by then, was wrapping up Apollo and beginning to develop the Space Shuttle. Arguably, the purpose of Space Mountain wasn’t just to inspire people to support or even like the space program; it was just a pretty badass roller coaster ride, pure and simple. If the woman profiled in the article didn’t enjoy Space Mountain, she would’ve hated Epcot’s Mission: SPACE, which visually simulates a vertical liftoff and subjects its riders to a cool, bowel-shaking 2.5 g’s and intense claustrophobia. Mission: SPACE was built after Horizons, Epcot’s version of Disney World’s Carousel of Progress ride, was demolished, but that’s a story for another time.
By April 1975, the ride’s “roughness” was already being addressed by Disney; an April 25th, 1975 Orlando Sentinel article confirmed, “the Omega side of the mountain is shut down and…some of the dips are being smoothed out and more padding and handrails are being added to the passengers’ compartments.” Despite these bumps and bruises, the ride remained wildly popular, so much so that one was built in Disneyland.
The west coast version of Space Mountain opened on May 27th, 1977, also boasting astronaut guests and space royalty — this time, Cooper, Carpenter, first U.S. man in space Alan Shepard, Senator John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Betty Grissom, and Marge Slayton were in attendance to kick things off. According to a May 29th, 1977 Sacramento Bee article, Shepard reported of the ride, “It duplicated very well the launch into space. It was all too short. And there’s too much to see. I’m ready to try it again.” To which Carpenter quipped: “Like Al’s [Shepard’s] trip, it was all done with mirrors.”
Fast forward to 2023, the future Tomorrowland was supposed to embody. Even though it’s a relatively wimpy roller coaster by today’s standards, the unexpected thrills of the original Space Mountain continue to attract visitors from across the world. As of writing this, it’s 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. According to my Disney World app, the wait time for Space Mountain is 35 minutes. Here’s to the future.
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