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Behind the Ride: Space Mountain

The Experience: Interstellar travel in the span of three minutes

The Trick: a slow ride back to Earth

The genius of Space Mountain is its dizzying experience. Because the coaster cart hurls guests into the great unknown of outer space, they quickly lose a sense of ordinary Earth standards. The perception of Space Mountain is that it’s a frenzied, kinetic coaster that travels at intergalactic speeds. The truth is shocking.

The maximum velocity for the original version of Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom is 35 miles per hour. In execution, it travels even slower, going 28 miles per hour most of the time. For perspective, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, an attraction critics assail for its gentility, goes 34 miles per hour. Why does it feel so soft whereas Space Mountain seems so frenetic?

In execution, Space Mountain is a glorified experiment in sensory deprivation. The rider starts in a room full of bright lights pulsating as they count down to liftoff. Once the cart explodes into motion from its resting position, the rider is suddenly thrust into the empty darkness of space. They’re like Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, alone in the void of outer space. All known sensations of Earth and gravity fall away into the nothingness as the person becomes a space traveler for 150 feverish seconds.

Disney Imagineers specifically chose this type of disruptive ride experience. Space Mountain is supposed to mimic a traveler’s return to Earth from a galaxy that may or may not be far, far away (although the similarity is unintentional since Star Wars was still three years away from reality when the attraction debuted). The trip back home is a bumpy ride, with the presumption that if air travel involves turbulence, intergalactic travel is rougher than a Rugby scrum.

The key is the setting. With a darkened interior and an indoor setting, Disney controls all light. They can trigger a sensory response any time they add a new sensation into the void of darkness. All sounds, flurries of lights, and whistling sensations of air snap the rider out of their empty isolation.

In the classic science fiction vernacular, Disney controls the horizontal and the vertical. The person in the ride cart is completely at their mercy, making Space Mountain a controlled environment where the rider is wholly at the mercy of the track in front of them. It was a revolutionary design for the early 1970s, and its underlying psychology continues to drive theme park innovation to this day. Space Mountain earned its reputation as one of the seminal theme park attractions of all-time. Its impact is profound, and it still offers a kickass ride experience almost half a century later.

David Mumpower is the author of the Disney Demystified series, which you can buy here.

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