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Behind the Ride: Space Mountain

The Experience: A steel roller coaster system that provides a satisfying bumpy ride

The Trick: Computer relay systems

Image: DisneyDisneyland wasn’t the place where Space Mountain debuted. Instead, it became the first truly new ride in the history of Magic Kingdom. Almost everything else there was a recreation of something already existing at Disneyland. The lone exception wasn’t a ride but instead an audio-animatronic show, Country Bear Jamboree. Why did a ride Walt Disney worked on get delayed until nine years after his death?

Imagineers honed in on an emerging technology of the 1960s. At the time, business computers were literally as big as an office floor, and their processing power was inferior to a Commodore-64. Disney knew that they wanted computer controllers to pick and choose the times when coaster carts were supposed to leave the departure area. They had a similar idea in place to the way that air traffic control worked at the time. Unfortunately, technology hadn’t caught up with them yet. The hardware required to build what they were now calling Space Mountain didn’t exist yet. Even if it had, Disney would have found the prices exorbitant and prohibitive.

The company had no choice but to wait for computers to grow more powerful. Walt Disney unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see his dream of indoor space travel come to fruition. In his absence, Walt Disney World became a reality, but Space Mountain wasn’t one of the original rides. The attraction wouldn’t open for another several years. Part of it was the economics of opening a new theme park. Most of it was that the technology still needed improvement.

By 1972, Disney projected that they’d soon have the computing power needed to build an indoor, fully automated roller coaster. So, they spent a couple of years building a mountain, one carefully measured so as to avoid outshining Cinderella Castle, and they waited for the strongest computer technology available.

In 1974, Disney implemented a control system that decides when roller coaster carts leave the station as well as when they return. The power of these computer sensors was so impressive for the 1970s that they could recognize when a cart was out of position and automatically shut down the ride. It was a hallmark achievement in ride safety and perhaps the first vision of the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow that Uncle Walt had prophesied.

Space Mountain took all the danger out of its ride system by removing cast members from the equation. Its computers track every movement all 30 carts in operation, guaranteeing that collisions never occur. This might not sound like a huge deal today, but in 1975, it wasn’t just state of the art technology. It was revolutionary theme park design that was years ahead of its time.

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