Today, we aim into the distant corners of the cosmos for a heart-racing journey through the stars. Since 1975, Disney Parks have been whisking guests into the frigid depths of Space Mountain for close encounters with shooting stars and exploding galaxies. But Disneyland Paris changed everything. There, a one-of-a-kind adventure of discovery was crafted by one of Disney’s most loved Imagineers. And it literally saved Disney’s first European park from declaring bankruptcy.
For years, we’ve been crafting a library of Lost Legends – in-depth features that tell the behind-the-scenes tales of forgotten favorites that have fallen to the wrecking ball. From Alien Encounter to World of Motion and everything in between, keep your eye out for links to Lost Legends entries across the site or jump right into the action from our Lost Legends Library index.
Today, we journey into the vast unknown to explore an unexpected masterpiece at Disneyland Paris. There, the classic Disney attractions you know and love took on entirely new forms, becoming romantic, story-centered adventures based on the collective European imagination.
And no lost ride exemplifies that unique shift in thought more than Disneyland Paris’ Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune. It was one of the bravest choices Disney’s designers ever made. And then, it was gone.
What lead designers to reimagine the tried-and-true Space Age classic coaster? What inspired the idea of a cannon blasting riders to the moon? Why is this one-of-a-kind coaster destined now to become a carbon copy of a U.S. ride from a totally different land? Today we explore the unbelievable story of the ride that kept Disneyland Paris from closing. Get ready for blast-off!
From the Snow to the Stars
The story of Disneyland Paris’ one-of-a-kind Space Mountain begins decades before Disney even considered a European park, and an ocean away. And strangely, the tale begins in a place familiar to many of our Lost Legends’ origins: Tomorrowland, 1955. Walt was infamously displeased with the corporate showcase that Tomorrowland had become (by necessity) upon the park’s opening, and made it a priority to expand and redress the land.
In 1959 – just four years after the park opened – an unprecedented all-at-once growth spurt expanded Tomorrowland to include three new headlining attractions, each earning the newly-invented E-Ticket designation: Submarine Voyage, the Disneyland-ALWEG Monorail, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The third is of particular interest, given that it was the first continous, modern steel roller coaster ever built. Manufactured by Arrow Dynamics of Utah, the complex ride system not only provided a smoother experience than traditional wooden roller coasters, but also came with a cutting-edge, first-of-its-kind electronic dispatch system allowing more than one train on the track at a time.
In 1964, Walt approached Imagineer and Disney Legend John Hench and tasked him with designing a new thrill ride that could serve as the focal point for an upcoming “New Tomorrowland” – a leap forward for the steel coaster concept, Walt and John developed the concept of an indoor roller coaster expanding upon the lessons learned from Matterhorn. The ride quickly gained the name Space Port.
Plans continued to move forward for this New Tomorrowland, and the indoor, outer-space themed ride would’ve been more than just the headlining E-Ticket… its graceful curves, Googie towers, and sleek white spires would set the visual style for the entire land-wide renovation.
Before any ground would be broken on Disneyland's Space Port, though, development in the mid-1960s shifted to the new “Disney World” to be built in Florida. Then, Walt’s unexpected death in 1966 seemed to sideline any hope of Disneyland getting a Space Port coaster at all.
But upon Disney World’s opening in 1971, Magic Kingdom proved unexpectedly popular for pre-teens and young adults, spurring Imagineers to reconsider the forgotten coaster plans as an added thrill. The Tomorrowland in Florida offered the right amount of space, and technology had advanced sufficiently to imagine that this complex coaster could actually exist in a refined, conical peak just outside of the park's railroad tracks.
Space Mountain opened first in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, on January 15, 1975. The dual mirror-imaged roller coaster tracks inside were actually faithfully modeled off of the two tracks on Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds! So when the attraction proved wildly popular at Disney World, the opportunity to bring the concept back West was too much to pass up. But in California, the ride would be entirely redesigned (since a duplicate of the Matterhorn wouldn’t do) with a single roller coaster track.
Icons of the close of the Space Age, the two geometric, white peaks in Florida and California gave guests the chance to become astronauts on a futuristic trip into the starry reaches of the universe.
The Man Behind the Magic
So by the late 1970s, both Magic Kingdom and Disneyland were launching guests to the stars. But as for Paris’ stellar take on the concept? That story was just beginning.
Like so many beloved-and-lost Disney Parks masterpieces, the creation of this Lost Legend revolves primarily around fan-favorite Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter.
The true story of Baxter’s rise is more fantastic than any invented biography could be – working part-time as a ride operator on Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage, one of Baxter's college design projects was spotted by Imagineers, earning him a tour of their facilities. Inspired by the visit, Baxter changed his major and was hired on right out of school as the production designer on a little ride under development for the new Walt Disney World being built in Florida: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
That’s right – Baxter went from operating Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage to designing the enhanced version that would call Magic Kingdom home.
Given that, by the 1970s, submarines were no longer the stuff of the future, Disney World’s version of the ride would need moved out of Tomorrowland. Instead, Baxter oversaw an evolution of the concept, retooling the ride into the universe of renowned 19th century author Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Disney's 1954 movie adaptation of it. Under Baxter’s leadership, the fantastic Floridian submarine ride became an instant fan-favorite. You can catch up on that full, in-depth story in its own standalone Lost Legends: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Submarine Voyage feature.
In short, Baxter proved himself right out the gate as a leading mind at Imagineering, and a figurehead for an up-and-coming second generation of designers – individuals who, unlike Walt’s first generation, had actually seen Disneyland as guests first.
Still, it was Baxter’s next project that would shape his portfolio for the rest of his career… and set the stage for Space Mountain in Paris.
The Ole’ West
Shortly after work was finished on Magic Kingdom – just as one group of Imagineers got to work creating Space Mountain for the park – another set of Imagineers returned home to Burbank, California where a roster of new ideas for Disneyland awaited.
The next major project for Baxter would be a difficult task. In the nearly two decades since Disneyland had opened, pop culture had changed dramatically. Frontierland was living proof. In Walt’s era, the Old West was a place and time defined by adventure, drama, and intrigue. Shows like The Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett captivated a generation, and it seemed that the exploits of cowboys and Indians would forever remain a staple of American fascination.
Trouble is, it didn’t.
By the 1970s, Americans’ obsession with the West had waned (and, arguably, has never returned, despite some earnest efforts). The idling past was no longer a place of romance and nostalgia in the collective consciousness. Frontierland’s solitary draw was the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland – a 1960 ride that had been around a few years too long, only adding to the feeling that Frontierland was particularly rusty.
Baxter’s goal was simple: reinvigorate the past by giving Frontierland something to appeal to modern audiences who couldn't care less about the American frontier.
His answer was a brilliant one. In part, Frontierland would lose one Mine Train and gain another. A brand-new E-Ticket thrill ride would replace the aging Nature’s Wonderland. A runaway train would careen through canyons and fanciful hoodoos modeled on Utah’s Bryce Canyon on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
But this new steel coaster would be only the start of a reborn Frontierland.
The Story Continues
Think of it this way – Frontierland is set in the mid-1800s. We can identify the land as representing a sleepy forested mining town built around the mysterious peaks of Thunder Mountain, with intrepid miners excavating its supposedly cursed caverns in search of riches beyond their wildest dreams!
Baxter’s plan to reboot the land for more modern audiences depended not just on Big Thunder Mountain, but on the one question that the ride would inspire: Once those prospectors braved Big Thunder Mountain and found the gold inside, what would they do with it? Would they simply settle down in the sleepy, dusty mining town? Of course not! They’d continue their "Westward Ho" journey, arriving at the Pacific coast!
Which is why, at the intersection of Frontierland and Fantasyland, a path from Big Thunder Mountain would lead to a brand-new land built along the northern edge of the Rivers of America. Discovery Bay would’ve been a living, breathing port city; a San Francisco that never was; a fantastic realm of inventors, tinkerers, and thinkers; a steampunk metropolis of Victorian homes, crystal towers, submarines, lighthouses, zephyrs, and wharfs.
This brand new land would be the continuation of Frontierland’s story… an integral element of the Rivers of America. Among its highlighted attractions could’ve been the Fireworks Factory (a dark ride through the land’s Chinatown), the Voyage Thru Time (a Jungle-Cruise style adventure into the prehistoric past), the Island at the Top of the World (a suspended dark ride), and Captain Nemo’s Adventure (an unprecedented “simulator” ride that later inspired another Baxter creation and fellow Lost Legend: Star Tours.)
And in the mid-1970s, Discovery Bay was officially announced. It would become Disneyland’s seventh land when it opened in 1976 – America’s bicentennial.
Of course, as we well know, Discovery Bay never came to pass. Perhaps the most lauded and loved never-built project ever to hit Imagineering’s cutting room floor, the full story of the land Disney almost had is chronicled in our Possibilityland: Discovery Bay feature that’s a must-read for Imagineering fans.
But what does any of this have to do with the stunning Space Mountain that opened two decades later and a continent away? Read on…