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It Was the Most Controversial Disney Ride Ever Built. Here's Why.

New Horizons

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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

Image: Disney

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.”

Image: Disney

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.

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There are 18 comments.

Fascinating--I hung on every word. But I still don't know exactly where I stand on Mission:Space. I rode the intense side first, didn't effect me too much, but on each time after that, I rode the green side. I think the warning signs need to be in more languages--Could that German woman read of the dangers the ride presented?

Germany is a bilingual country for the most part, with most people speaking English in addition to German.

I rode Mission Space years ago, and was nauseated for three hours afterwards. Now being older I have been experiencing claustrophobia, so I will not ride Mission Space ever again. Sad.

It is a very interesting article, but many people fail to realize that other beloved attractions at Disney parks have had more deaths-Space Mountain at WDW for example has had three. And simply because of the incredible amount of people that visit Disney parks each year attractions will just happen to have a death occur in conjunction with a ride on them. Even the carousel at Magic Kingdom has had a guest die after riding it.

Actually, 1 G of force is equivalent to your body weight. 2 Gs would be twice as much as your body weight while 0 G is weightlessness. 1 G does not make you feel twice as heavy as this author stated.

Okay, former Mission Space cast member here (Using a pseudonym to protect my identity cause it's necessary, just hear me out). I worked at Space for about 6 months before moving to another park for higher pay, but I loved Space. Most of the information in this article is incorrect. It's not falsified, just misinformed, not qualms there, but those "Closets" are nothing more than a sink with clothes and towels. Oh and our lost and found. Now, when you get into a capsule, a cast member checks your restraints (Don't ever say "I CAN'T REACH THE BUTTONS." We know, and we don't care). Once we close the capsule, we make sure everything is okay and we close and lock the doors, then we push the big green button and begin loading for the next cycle. After that, we have about 4 minutes to do nothing, but we monitor the ride using cameras and a series of messages, we also have a cast member sitting behind that glass in the queue, which EVERYONE always asks "Are they real, and what are they doing?" The answer to both is yes, and they're making sure your sorry butt is safe. They mark down all the red text that pops up on 4 different monitors, usually if a door fails open it causes a ride stop or a dispatch inhibit. No big deal, we just clear them and continue. If someone Code Vs, that cast member calls custodial who then shows up 30 minutes later, and takes 40 minutes to clean. The floor on the ride drops out and the ride itself spins at 35 mph. Not that fast, right? Right. 2.5 G's are literally nothing compared to what real astronauts encounter, up to 8 even 10 G's. Also, please don't bend the launch tickets, we reuse those.

"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."
"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."
"...and one of its most popular draws in the 21st century."

Some contradictory comments.

One error in your article, Mission Space is not the only Disney attraction with sickness bags. Mickey's Fun Wheel at California Adventure in Anaheim features sickness bags as well.

All in all, a good article. There is some speculation in there with regards to some things, and some facts that aren't quite right.

I want to point out some technical errors with the way the attraction operates. I'm not sure what these "lifts" and "spinners" you mention are. There are four separate centrifuges in the building, one for each flight bay. Each centrifuge, or MAC, has five arms, with each arm supporting two capsules, for a total of ten capsules per centrifuge. The MACs operate completely independent of one another.

Nothing is ever lifted. In fact, the floor drops out from under the capsules for the duration of the ride. On the More Intense side, MACs 3 and 4, the centrifuges spin at certain points to create G-forces all while the capsules pitch and roll. On the Less Intense side, MACs 1 and 2, the centrifuges do not spin (except for one very slow rotation to "rehome", leaving the capsules to handle all of the motion experienced during the ride. This was mostly a software change. They could easily convert 1 and 2 to be More Intense again in the future, if they chose to.

Also, depending on how you look at it, the Less Intense side does not really mark the first time Disney has offered two version of a ride. On the old version of Star Tours, and on Body Wars, "flight test" versions of the rides were offered on occasion that removed the motion aspect of the ride.

Great article. I was just discussing this attraction with my wife. We both rode this back in the early 2000s, before they had the two intensity levels, and she immediately hated it. I thought it was neat but did not appreciate the feeling it left me with. I only recently went on the Green side and while neat I don't really see the point. If you think about the most popular movies, games, rides etc the one thing they all have in common is people always want to experience it again and again. Mission Space leaves me with zero desire to ride it again. It's kind of a one and done kind of ride and based on the low wait times for this ride I suspect that others think the same thing.

One thing is I hope the new millinium falcon ride isn't based on this ride design but based on the description and Disney's propensity to wanting to utilize one ride design for multiple attractions this wouldn't surprise me at all.

Our family is big thrill seekers and love all types of rides. We have ridden both the orange and green one. Both made us all sick, the orange one made us sick for hours after we rode and although the green was less force it still made us all uneasy for a couple hours. It's a shame there isn't the option of riding it without it moving at all as I think more people would be able to experience it. It's a pretty cool ride if u take out the feeling sick after the ride factor.

1G, or "a G" is your normal weight. IOW, what you feel everyday you are on Earth. 2G is two times the force of gravity, thus twice your normal weight. Continue in the same progression. A "G" is not twice your weight.

I know I'm in the minority, but I love Mission Space.

I like it, too, the mild side anyway. I like Horizons better, but I do also like Mission: Space.

Interesting article. Mission:Space, to me, exemplifies what is wrong with EPCOT. I went with my parents shortly after it opened and liked what was there, but really felt like there weren't enough rides. With Norway currently under construction, there Is now oneFEWER ride. Mexico and now Nemo have been upgraded while Journey to Imagination and arguably Mission : Space are not as good as the original. Soaring over California is a welcome addition as it Test Track, but the complaint is the same; there aren't enough rides. If you were going to rip out one of the originals, it should be Energy; still the best place in all of WDW to take a nap. As much of.a fan as you may be of EPCOT, there is no denying that it would be far better if Horizons, World of Motion and Body Wars were still in operation. That is to say nothing of the various rumored attractions that never came to be in World Showcase. Yes, I know that is because the EPCOT model is to have each pavillion sponsored, but there Ellie's the problem, NOT having enough active sponsors has, and always will keep EPCOT from being great, and that's a real shame. It just makes it harder and harder to keep dragging my kids to EPCOT when it really hasn't changed since the last mediocre trip we made there.

Mission: Space is one of my "must-do" attractions each time! I've ridden it three times in a row after finishing a couple of yards (when they still sold them) of Strongbow cider. Then again, I was always one of those kids who rode the teacups as many times in a row as my parents would let me.

From the times I've ridden it with people who didn't enjoy it, it was usually because they ignored the instructions to keep their head back and eyes always facing forward. I think it's not for everyone, but I think anyone who lays blame at Disney's feet for anything is just looking for a quick payday.

I'm not much of a fan of M:S, but I don't begrudge it for the people who love thrill rides. Epcot needs an overhaul, but I think this is one case where they need to go back to the past. In Future World, as long as you didn't aim towards Test Track or Soarin', you could fire a rocket and stand a good chance of not hitting anyone. I tell people to think of World Showcase as a widely-ethnic shopping mall. But all in all, the list of 'old rides I miss' is much longer than the 'new rides I like as well if not better'.

Mission:Space is the best attraction at Epcot, to suggest Speed track is better, like the article implied just seems strange, but perhaps this is because I had no negative effects from the ride.

For me it is one of the top attractions at Disney parks.

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