In the early 2000s, The Walt Disney Company opened a headline-grabbing new attraction at Epcot. The intention was to celebrate the space age, which had triggered some of Walt Disney’s visions for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. A new ride celebrating the company founder’s love of conquering the unknown felt like a fitting addition.
Alas, even the best ideas sometimes collapse under the weight of reality. Disney invested $100 million into their new project, only to realize early on that they’d woefully miscalculated.
A few unfortunate souls discovered that Disney Imagineers are human, too. They can badly miscalculate the physical limits of the body, overestimating what a person will consider fun as opposed to, say, torture. Today, this ride includes countless warning signs, but in the early days, optimism abounded.
Since the inception of Epcot in 1982, no ride proved more controversial than Mission: Space. Here’s the story of what went wrong (and right) for this most divisive of attractions.
The thankless task of running a safe theme park
Many theme park guests take for granted the complexity of their favorite attractions. Even the tamest carousels feature complicated machinery that’s a danger to anyone who touches it. That’s why such extreme safety measures are in place at your favorite amusement facility. The success of these warnings is astonishing from a mathematical perspective. The top five theme park corporations in the world claim global attendance of almost 300 million people annually.
How often do you read about a tragedy at one of them? Yes, they do happen, often due to human error from ride operators. The rarity of each event reflects that the standards in place are profoundly effective, though. And let’s not undersell the difficulty of what a theme park faces each day. Have you ever spent time on a playground? Kids are bundles of joy, the future, etc. They’re also tiny maniacs full of ineffable energy. Parents of small children look like they haven’t slept since 2006 for a reason. It’s the most difficult job on the planet.
Your favorite theme park faces the same peril each day, only with the heightened drama of needing to protect someone else’s children. At some point, you’ve babysat for someone else. You know from experience that it’s an entirely different sort of pressure. Screwing up your own kid simply means you’re human. Endangering someone else’s child makes you culpable.
The next time you’re at an amusement park, pick out the most annoying kid you see, the one whose parents have long since given up on the idea of trying to slow them down. You know the ones. Then, consider that the park operators have to provide enough safeguards to stop that unruly child from suffering an injury at their facility. Would you want the responsibility of that job? Of course not. The daily success of every theme park in returning uninjured children to their parents is a triumph of modern infrastructure. Even the best of the best is still imperfect, though.
The Walt Disney Company is the unquestioned gold standard in theme park management. With more than 130 million annual visits to their gates, they’re the big fish in a small pond that’s technically an oligopoly but closer to a monopoly. Still, they have their fair share of incidents. As far back as 1985, Disney suffered through an average of 100 lawsuits a year due to alleged theme park accidents. In today’s more litigious society, the numbers have surely grown.
Disney is in a seemingly impossible situation. They’re positioned to fail due to the unpredictable circumstances of life. They can’t control when a single child acts irrationally, just as they can’t blame someone that young for behaving unpredictably. It’s what kids do. While Disney’s primary goal is to maximize profit, their simultaneous goal is to deliver a visitor experience so memorable that the guest will want to return at a later date.
The complexity of this dichotomy is almost overwhelming. Disney has to invest millions of dollars in new technologies that provide original attraction experiences to potential park guests. They also have to craft architecture that will support the enormous demands of the machinery powering. And they have to do this while guaranteeing the comfort and safety of their customers. Sometimes, those three goals border on mutually exclusive. Mission: Space is the seminal example of this precarious balance.
Embracing the world of tomorrow
When Disneyland opened on that fateful day in 1955, one of the iconic landmarks stood out from the rest. It was a spacecraft, the proverbial Rocket to the Moon. Its presence aptly reflected Uncle Walt’s passion for space travel. The TWA Moonliner Rocket was simply the first of many appreciations his company would offer over the years.
A strange problem cropped up after Disneyland had been in business for 15 years. Once Neal Armstrong set foot on the Moon, traveling there no longer seemed that thrilling to guests. In 1975, Imagineers altered Tomorrowland to reflect changing goals. The updated version of their attraction was now entitled Mission to Mars. If that name sounds familiar, Disney created a movie of the same name 25 years later. One of its stars was…Gary Sinise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mission to Mars the attraction demonstrates that passion for the space program continued inside the company even after Uncle Walt’s unfortunate passing. As the United States and Russia engaged in a Cold War, outer space became a priority, an otherworldly place where the greatest minds of each country could prove their superiority. The intrigue toward space travel had an unmistakable basis in politics, as was true during Walt Disney’s era, but even after the Berlin Wall fell and buzzwords such as perestroika and glasnost ended decades-old feuds, the love of exploration remained. The decline of communism seemed like the perfect time to renew mankind’s passion to achieve the world of tomorrow.
At Walt Disney World, Disney battled against a problem they couldn’t solve. Despite numerous attempts to draw attention to one of their earlier attractions, audiences continued to ignore it. That’s not to say it wasn’t popular. To the contrary, the most ardent supporters of the dark ride, myself included, continue to lament its absence to this day. Alas, Horizons lost its corporate sponsorship with GE during the early 1990s. From that point forward, Disney viewed it as something of a financial albatross.
Park planners felt stymied by their situation. They’d already spent a small fortune on Horizons, even if they hadn’t built the building as large as their blueprints had originally indicated. They had this massive building, and they wanted to reinvigorate it with a product that would attract lots of tourists to Epcot. In a perfect world, they’d also persuade some deep-pocketed corporation to sponsor the new ride.
Given Disney’s tendency toward space travel, a logical successor to Horizons would be something similar to Mission to Mars, only modernized. The catch was that the corporation had penny-pinched during the construction phase of Horizons. They’d saved $10 million by making it smaller, with a shorter ride track. It also lacked many of the features that state codes by that point required for disabled guests. For Disney to build something new at Horizons, they’d face a seemingly impossible choice. They could either retrofit a new attraction as an overlay on the original, or they could tear down the entire building.
Ordinarily, analysts who follow the history of Disney would rightfully expect the company to do whatever is cheapest. People were going to come to their parks anyway, which meant that the corporation felt no need to spend extra money pointlessly. Conveniently, this turn of events transpired during the "Disney Decade", the timeframe during which then-CEO Michael Eisner wanted to push his company toward, you guessed it, a better tomorrow.
After careful analysis, Disney’s management team chose to do something new, something unprecedented. They would destroy the building that hosted Horizons and start from scratch. 25 years after calling their shot with a different attraction, Disney was finally going to Mars!
If you want to go to Mars, you’re gonna need some astronauts
Authenticity is always critical to the inventors in Disney’s Imagineering department. They weren’t about to waste thousands of man-hours on something that critics would deem scientifically inaccurate. Once Disney execs settled on a premise for their new ride, one of their first moves was to contact NASA. The working relationship between the two entities went back decades, and the debut of EPCOT Center had cemented their connection. Disney employed several former NASA officials and astronauts, and carried a few others as frequent consultants. Walt Disney would surely have smiled if he’d seen how closely his employees interacted with men who had actually been in space.
In the months leading up to the debut of the new attraction, NASA delivered several press releases to the media. In one of them, they noted: “Over the past few years, NASA provided Disney's Imagineering team with tours, briefings and discussions on current human and robotic missions, as well as the challenges that future missions, like a trip to Mars, might present.”
Phil West, a retired engineer and company spokesperson, offered his thoughts. “Part of our mission at NASA is to inspire the next generation of explorers. The U.S. needs them to be our inventors of tomorrow, and NASA needs them to explore new worlds and improve life here on Earth.” He later added, “So when Disney approached us, it was a natural fit.”
In the early 2000s, NASA and Disney intended their joint venture to boost space travel. The idea both organizations have held is that the young minds of today will become the scientists, inventors, and astronauts of tomorrow. All they need is an understanding of what’s at stake as well as what’s possible.
To stimulate dreams of a second space race, the first step Disney needed to take was to identify what they could and couldn’t do. NASA employees found this process puzzling but engrossing. Part of the magic of Disney is that they must craft rides that will do more than prove scientifically accurate. They must also add a sense of whimsy and wonder so that their park guests will remember each visit long after it’s over.
Mission: Space in theory needed a great deal of scientific fact. In execution, it would also require science fiction, the extra touches not based in reality that are always the secret sauce in Disney’s theme park recipes. In the particular case of plausible travel to Mars, Disney chose to add a second play area, one where kids could enjoy videogames based on the ride they just experienced. That way, they’d enjoy a highly educational theme park attraction without it feeling like a science fair. Then again, Mission: Space’s fixation on appealing to kids might be where the situation took a turn for the worse.
Does this ride make me look fat?
The construction of Mission: Space was costly, to be sure. Disney invested $100 million in the tear-down and rebuild of the former Horizons building. It’s far from the most expensive attraction at Epcot, but it’s also a bit pricier than, say, Journey into Imagination with Figment. And from the beginning, Imagineers and NASA experts alike understood that what they were planning would push the limits of theme park tourism, albeit with a remarkably straightforward ride structure.
Anyone who speaks of amusement park attractions occasionally tosses out the term g-force, as if they could teach a physics class on the subject. That’s because the underlying premise is simple. When you experience a G of force, your body feels as if it’s twice its normal weight. As someone who weighs about 215 pounds, that means a single G turns me into a sumo wrestler. Two Gs means I feel like Ahab the determined sailor is my mortal enemy.
We’re all the same in this regard. No feeling is as strange to humans as the sensation of g-force, which is why there are all those funny videos demonstrating what it does to a human face. Space travel demands a lot of facial combat with dramatic g-force. In order to simulate this sensation, NASA developed something their trainees do not affectionately describe when they call it the Vomit Comet. It’s a stress test for the human body, revealing which potential candidates can hold up to the extreme challenges of g-forces and zero-gravity environments.
As a reminder, NASA does this to test the best and the brightest among their ranks. Disney Imagineers consulted with NASA, eventually settling on the construction of a ride that basically does the same thing. It was a bold gambit as well as a questionable decision that many Disney fans debate to this day. Suffice to say that there’s a difference between someone competing to earn a trip to the International Space Station and a theme park visitor sneaking in a four-minute ride before their dinner reservation triggers at the World Showcase.
Disney believed that they could pull off the feat. They designed a structure similar to classic amusement park rides of old. It’s a series of rides connected to spokes. A large apparatus is the wheel that tethers each piece together. If you struggle to visualize this description, here’s a terrific explanation from someone who used CAD to create a mock-up. The trick is that classic amusement cart rides spin people from the bottom up. Mission: Space inverts the structure. The spokes point down instead of up. Otherwise, the premise is generally the same.
The catch is that Disney wasn’t satisfied repurposing a classic amusement park staple. Instead, they wanted to add their own twist, the zero-gravity element that creates the sensation of space travel. The attraction is a trip to Mars, after all.
The first phase of the journey is lift-off from planet Earth. That requires a great deal of friction in the form of 2.5 Gs, which means that if you weigh 200 pounds, you’ll feel as if you’re 500 pounds during the start of Mission: Space. It’s in this phase where the centrifuge comes into play. The structure whips you around at an alarming rate.
Once you reach orbit, the sensation changes. You are now in a zero-gravity environment. Nothing holds you in place. You’ll feel as if you’re floating weightlessly. Mission: Space thrusts you into a confusing combination of experiences that transpire in a single minute of real-time. First, you weigh too much and then you weigh nothing at all.
If that doesn’t make you dizzy, well, Disney has you covered. The final part of the ride is a controlled crash landing on the surface of Mars. Mission: Space is functionally a stress test of the entire human body. To wit, it’s neither the fastest nor most thrilling ride at Walt Disney World. Despite this, it IS the only attraction that includes a motion sickness bag.
Early warning signals
NASA engineers alerted Disney to the potential downsides of their joint venture. When Mission: Space debuted in August of 2003, many of the opening day comments focused on the comical number of warning signs in the line queue. The company understood the dangers. It’s hard not to laugh about them when listed together.
Due to the isolation of the ride cart, which is functionally a tiny closet enclosure, it’s terrible for sufferers of claustrophobia. Because of the twirling and dramatic weight changes in a short period, Mission: Space isn’t for pregnant women or guests with heart conditions. Yes, a lot of rides state those terms. The difference is that this attraction has tragically proven its dangers.
What’s important right now is that Disney was so well aware of the potential nausea issues for their ride that they built a rest area just outside the ride. When Cast Members recognize that a guest is suffering from the lingering effects of Mission: Space, they take the person to this room, which has various bathroom cabinet types of medical options and a sink. Most guests simply sit still until they can catch their breath and feel the room stop spinning. Stating the obvious, interplanetary space travel isn’t for everyone.
In addition to having onsite caregiving just outside the ride, Disney added warnings as a key part of the Cast Member dialogue. They wanted all the potential riders to understand the challenge they were embracing. Alas, sometimes a batch of warning signs and ride restrictions simply adds to the intrigue. Epcot never had the reputation as a thrill ride park. The introduction of a 2.5-G attraction that also simulates zero-gravity conditions wasn’t something that guests would ignore.
The sickest ride at Walt Disney World
The early reception to Mission: Space was mixed but decidedly positive. What’s strange is that while the overwhelming majority of guests praised Disney’s latest offering for its technical genius, the people who disliked it really, really hated it. From day one, some of the adventurous theme park tourists departed Mission: Space then immediately threw up. Some of them didn’t even make it through the ride before their Disney Jumbo Turkey Legs came back up. Cast Members use code words whenever vomit is released onto an unsuspecting public. They call it a protein spill or a Code V. From day one, Mission: Space has always reigned supreme in the category of Code V.
Starting in August of 2003, Disney employees regularly treated guests who became physically ill on the new attraction. In a one-year period, they reported 194 instances where paramedics treated ailing faux-space travelers. Most of them were simply dizzy or nauseous, and many of course suffered an unplanned protein spill. Mission: Space developed a buzz as the sickest ride at Walt Disney World, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
In a time before social media, reporters from across the country picked up on internet accounts of attraction-related illness. Disney’s public relations department continued to stress the company line, which was largely valid. They’d placed warning signs in more places than for any other attraction on-site. They informed guests of the dangers before they got onboard. All the victims suffered from a kind of self-inflicted wounds. They chose to go on the ride, understanding the potential consequences. And the metrics supported Disney’s stated belief that guests loved Mission: Space. After only three years in operation, it’d already created the sensation of space travel to more than eight million guests. Despite all the negative publicity – or perhaps because of it – Mission: Space was a huge draw for Epcot.
Tragedies befall one of Epcot’s most popular rides
What follows next is an uncomfortable discussion about the deaths of Disney vacationers. Despite the company’s best efforts to prevent such tragedies, they do occur from time to time. Sites such as Wikipedia keep updated data about such incidents. Mission: Space holds the dubious distinction of having one of the longest sections. That’s primarily due to its frequent medical issues caused by the centrifugal force of the ride. Two other reasons exist, though.
In June of 2005, every parent’s worst nightmare happened at Mission: Space. A four-year-old boy stopped breathing in the immediate moments after the ride, and passed away before paramedics arrived on the scene.
Later test results would reveal that the boy suffered from a disabling heart condition known as myocardial hypertrophy. I won’t speculate as to whether the ride itself contributed to or triggered his condition. All that’s certain is that he did have an enlarged heart, one of the conditions Disney notes should disqualify riders from boarding Mission: Space. It’s also important to note that the child’s family later sued Disney, with the matter eventually settled out of court.
In the aftermath of this event, critics harped on the already well-established health problems that Mission: Space caused. They also questioned whether the height restriction for the attraction was suitable. The four-year-old boy had been tall enough to pass this test despite his young age. Given the way that Mission: Space can reduce adults to a fugue state, their arguments were reasonable. Then again, so was Disney’s. The company’s publicists defended their popular attractions as statistically among the safest in Orlando. They’d have to do so again within a year.
In April of 2006, almost exactly 10 months after the first tribulation, another person died after riding Mission: Space. This time, it was an adult, a 49-year-old German woman who started the ill-effects of the ride the instant she exited. Disney paramedics tended to her, and they briefly believed that they had stabilized her condition. Once she arrived at nearby Celebration Hospital, her situation declined, causing her to pass away.
Autopsy results again revealed that the victim suffered from a lingering malady. The German woman had dealt with severe high blood pressure for an extended period. At some point, she suffered a brain hemorrhage from which she never recovered. Disney’s culpability in the incident was yet again up for debate. It’s entirely possible that the hemorrhage would have triggered no matter where she’d been at the time. It’s equally possible that she could have lived for years had Mission: Space’s centrifuge not shaken her so dramatically. Disney’s PR spin this time was based in truth. They maintained that more than eight million people had ridden the attraction by this point. Only eight serious incidents were recorded. Tragically, two of those eight victims died, though.
No matter where anyone stood on the subject at the time, the entire situation was a huge black eye for Disney. The Most Magical Place on Earth couldn’t safeguard its guests against the traumas of Epcot’s hottest new ride. Virtually every media outlet in North America as well as others around the world picked up on the story. Whether Disney was guilty of poor ride design was irrelevant by this point. They had to announce changes, demonstrating another act of contrition. Without that unstated apology, guests would struggle to trust Disney. The twin tragedies at Mission: Space jeopardized the theme park titan’s sterling 50-year reputation.
A fairly simple solution presented itself. You may not realize this now, but Mission: Space once featured the same single rider line as other popular Walt Disney World attractions such as Test Track and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. The idea was to ship as much foot traffic as possible through the facility. In lieu of recent events, park planners developed a new strategy. They could repurpose that region of the facility.
What they chose to do with that space was (and still is) historic for a Disney theme park. Mission: Space includes a series of lifts, the apparatuses that provide the motions for the simulator. Imagineers researched the problems guests experienced with the ride. They deduced that the centrifugal force caused most of the problems. In order to negate these troubles, they could simply remove that part of the experience from the attraction.
Where there had previously been 10 spinners with centrifuges, Disney would neutralize five. These giant lifts would operate the same as the originals save for one critical difference. They’d never interact with the centrifuge. It’d be a much more tolerable ride, albeit one that eliminated a key part of the simulation. Effectively, Imagineers were building Mission: Space-Lite.
In May of 2006, only five weeks after the second death at the attraction, Disney revealed the split version of Mission: Space. The Green Team version would offer most of the features of initial concept, only in a more palatable form. Internally, they referenced it as the Less Intense training simulator. Meanwhile, the Orange Team version became Mission Space Classic, for lack of better terminology. Disney describes it as More Intense training, which really means More Intense spinning. To this date, it’s the only time Disney has ever offered twin versions of the same ride concept, one of which is safer (well, calmer) than the other.
A decade later, the results speak for themselves. Mission: Space riders have not suffered an additional fatality in the interim. Unconfirmed reports also indicate that total incidents requiring paramedics have also declined. No matter how desperate Disney became in altering the dynamics of the ride, the results are universally positive. The developers of Mission: Space, who by the way participated in a protracted legal dispute with Disney over payment shortfalls and intellectual property, claim that more than 35 million people have ridden the twin versions of the attraction. It’s undeniably one of the most popular Walt Disney World additions of the 21st century.
Still, anyone who paid attention to early 2000s news cycles or researches Disney history is aware of the stigma of Mission: Space. Its arrival was unwelcome mainly due to the popular attraction it replaced. While it was well-intended and carefully crafted to reflect science fact and science fiction, the NASA seal of approval only went so far.
The harrowing demonstration of the trials would-be astronauts face in the space program has proved one of the most divisive topics among Disney aficionados. Some fans claim its authenticity and adrenaline surge delivers the best thrill at Epcot, even over Test Track, the fastest ride onsite. Given that it’s the only attraction that includes a motion sickness bag and a post-ride treatment room, there’s cause to believe that argument.
Then again, any ride that needs a treatment room is of questionable design. The entire purpose of a theme park is to provide a day of fun for family and friends. Guests who wind up nauseous or experience claustrophobia aren’t getting their money’s worth from the Most Magical Place on Earth. It’s the incongruity of Mission: Space as an attraction. Are novelty and realism enough to outweigh actual physical discomfort?
Wherever you stand on the subject, the unmistakable reality of Mission: Space is that its history is sordid. Innocent people lost their lives in the moments after they exited the space simulator. Hundreds more guests experienced such intense nausea in the wake of the ride experience that Disney paramedics provided immediate medical treatment. That’s a scary piece of information to process at a place known for big smiles.
Perhaps this news explains why the lines at Mission: Space remain modest during all but the most popular periods on the calendar despite the paucity of thrill rides at Epcot. The media opprobrium has left a lingering impression on theme park tourists, even after a decade of safer performance.
Worst of all, the stated purpose of the attraction was to boost interest in the space program. The negative perception of Mission: Space has possibly counteracted that goal. The attraction is synonymous with poor ride design, even though Imagineers have done nothing tangibly wrong. They did exactly what they intended, realizing the dangers. Then, they provided plenty of warnings so that fence-sitters would recognize that the Vomit Comet-style attraction isn’t for everyone.
Were Imagineers unlucky or did Mission: Space fail in the design phase, never giving them a chance to succeed? Or is the ride a tremendous triumph due to the sheer volume of foot traffic it’s enjoyed over the years? Has Disney simply been unlucky that tragedies happened to guests of the ride or were they culpable? There’s no definite answer to any of these questions, which makes the legacy of Mission: Space all the more frustrating. It’s somehow both a black eye on Disney’s reputation and one of its most popular draws in the 21st century. What went wrong? Everything or nothing. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.