A recent episode of SyFy Channel’s The Expanse featured a character struggling against force of gravity. A space pilot, he found himself crushed by the unexpected velocity of his engine modifications. While watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Mission: Space, the Disney attraction notorious for its body count. Fairly or not, the media chronicled a series of misfortunes that painted Mission: Space in a horrific light. Read on to discover what Disney has learned from what’s become known as their killer ride and how its legacy has impacted their overall ride design.
There’s such a thing as too real
Roller coaster enthusiasts love to trumpet the g-forces of various attractions. It’s a way of keeping score, with the higher g-force ride earning the title of most epic. A problem exists with this line of thinking. Not everybody loves the idea of extreme, condensed gravity. To the contrary, a bit of it goes a long way.
That’s doubly true of guests who suffer from motion sickness. Speaking from experience, a couple of rides at Universal Studios Florida are enough to make me nauseous since so many of them are motion simulators. I have to space out these attractions, even though I enjoy them. Even as a diehard fan of The Simpsons, I cannot journey on The Simpsons Ride multiple times in a short period. My body simply won’t allow it. And I’m an adrenaline junkie.
Now imagine this situation from the perspective of someone who doesn’t enjoy rough rides. An attraction that simulates space flight doesn’t sound like escapist entertainment. To the contrary, it sounds like something such a person would endure rather than enjoy. NASA’s particular about their astronauts for a reason. Extreme gravity’s not for everybody, which is why they do all those tests. Similarly, a change from weightlessness to extreme gravity is brutal on the body. Sometimes, an honest recreation like this is too much.
Disney badly miscalculated by making Mission: Space too realistic, with 2.5 Gs of force applied to each rider. That balloons a person’s weight by a factor of 2.5. Most folks aren’t prepared for that sort of alteration to their body, and the change aggravates them.
Mission: Space was designed as a kind of tribute to Walt Disney’s love of outer space exploration…but would he have liked the ride? That’s unlikely since it’s lacking anything resembling fun. Mission: Space is a simulation more than it’s an attraction, and simulations only work if they entertain enough to persuade the guest that they’re somewhere else. It’s the first law of theme park ride creation yet Imagineers forgot that.
All the rides they’ve created since then have either toned down the thrill portions of found ways to magnify these elements without impairing the rider’s comfort. The company went back to basics, accepting that Disney rides are supposed to be immersive experiences, not ones with an adrenaline rush.
Disney needs to learn from past mistakes
One of the greatest attractions in Magic Kingdom history was also one of its most divisive. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter bragged about its intensity, brazenly warning guests in the line queue that they were moments away from an intense situation. It was an alien horror attraction that warned guests under the age of 12 that they shouldn’t even bother until they reached puberty.
The original version of the attraction was an adaptation of the Alien movie franchise. The intersection of Disney with that particular storyline is still difficult to grasp today, much less in 1994, the soft opening for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Disney execs knew that they had problems with the intensity of the ride, which is why they delayed its full opening until the following summer. They brought in George Lucas to add some charm and whimsy to the script, but even his version too grim. The eventual ending of the ride wound up seeing the alien explode, after all. It wasn’t for everyone.
While ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter delivered exactly the interactive show that it promised, some Disney guests hated it. The ones who ignored the warnings lamented the fact that it was exactly what it said it was: terrifying. The strange part was that Imagineers had expected this to happen. They knew that they were constructing something too scary for many guests, yet they built it anyway.
Almost a decade later, Imagineers repeated the mistake with Mission: Space. They knew that they were crafting a gravity simulator that would recreate outer space exploration to the best of their ability. Theme park tourists could enter one of the ride carts and feel as if they’d suddenly completed their NASA training, qualifying for a trip to Mars. It sounds great in theory.
In execution, guests sit in a confined space for more than five minutes. They have little room to move, and their primary assignment is to press a button once, twice if they’re lucky. With so little engagement, the rider is all too aware of their circumstance as a glorified crash test dummy in tight quarters. The only noticeable thing other than the tiny monitor is the gravity or lack thereof. Imagineers knew this ahead of time, yet they again built an attraction that was innately flawed. Given how few new rides they construct at Walt Disney World each decade, this sort of wrongheadedness is extremely frustrating.
Thankfully, Disney’s since started planning ahead in a more effective manner, using emerging technologies to project rides years ahead of time. This type of virtual reality is an open secret, although few people outside the company get to see the simulations. What it’s accomplished quite well is preventing missteps like Mission: Space and ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Virtually every new ride over the past decade is a classic. Disney’s finally started admitting and learning from its mistakes.
Think about the future
This is admittedly a weird criticism of a space exploration ride, but it’s true. At the turn of the 21st century, AOL was a $220 billion dollar company, while MySpace, the first dominant social media website was still three years away. Apple wouldn’t release the iPod until 2001, and the iTunes Store wasn’t even open yet. That’s how quickly technology has changed society.
The one concept Disney execs believed would maintain popularity was the space program. Similar thinking is how Ted Turner originally lost a great deal of his fortune in banking on AOL/Time Warner. Society changes, and Disney failed to anticipate consumer passion for space exploration. They knew that Walt Disney had loved it and saw Mission: Space as a way of paying tribute to the timelessness of the concept, only it wasn’t timeless.
The internet revealed so many new mysteries about our own planet that mankind’s passion for outer space waned. It has only recently started to rise once more, and the reason why is that entrepreneurs are paying for their own ventures. NASA’s still amazing, but outer space is where people send their telephone signals rather than a mystical place representing the great unknown.
Disney built the wrong ride at the wrong time. They jumped on the bandwagon right as everyone else jumped off. They still could have survived this mistake if they’d made a better attraction, but we’ve already discussed why that didn’t happen. Instead, they built a flawed ride at the worst possible time.
Since then, the company has worked hard to select the best attractions independent of where they’d fit into Disney folklore. The re-imagining of New Fantasyland included some shuffling since the original ideas weren’t tight enough. Pandora – The World of Avatar suffered through countless delays as Imagineers demonstrated patience in building great attractions rather than rushing to open with mediocre ones.
Finally, Star Wars Land, the most important Disney creation since Animal Kingdom, will take its sweet time, too. Execs want to study everything that they can about consumer behavior involving the various films and television episodes plus theme park attendance. That way, they will be hailed as conquering heroes when it opens, unlike what transpired with Mission: Space, the Disney attraction that will always be remembered for garnering headlines for all the wrong reasons.