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SPACE MOUNTAIN: The Full Story of How Disney's Interstellar Ride Was Launched

Let's take a look at the ways Space Mountain changed decade-by-decade as it made its way around the globe...

Tokyo Disneyland

Space Mountain opened: 1983
Video: Click here

Image: Disney

Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983. The Oriental Land Company – the owners and operators of the Tokyo resort – specifically requested that rather than customizing the "Disney" concept for the unique culture of Japan, designers instead simply recreate Magic Kingdom as closely as possible... Americana and all!

They wanted their Tokyo Disneyland to be a copy of Magic Kingdom, including its '70s-built Tomorrowland of simple geometric towers, white and concrete, and mid-century architecture. (In fact, Tokyo retains that architecture today, whereas Florida's Tomorrowland covered it up with sci-fi, comic book fixtures in the '90s, and is now slowly returning to a more simplified, mid-century style one piece at a time.)

Image: Disney

Naturally, they also wanted Space Mountain. And given that their park was being built from scratch with the benefit of hindsight, the peak was placed directly at the end of the land's grand entry corridor. Though Tokyo Disneyland may be heavily influenced by Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain there is actually a copy of Disneyland's ride – a single-tracked coaster through space complete with a copy of Disneyland's loading dock but with a different docked ship inside.

Disneyland Paris

Space Mountain opened: 1995
Video: Click here

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

When Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, it didn't have a Space Mountain. In fact, it didn't have a Tomorrowland at all. In its place, designers had constructed a new take on the Tomorrowland concept: Discoveryland. Designed to resemble a gold-and-copper, literary, steampunk "retro-future" rather than actually trying to keep up with science and futurism, Discoveryland was meant both to curb the "Tomorrowland problem," and to make the park a better cultural fit for France (where a mid-century Americana land of swirling NASA rockets and Space Age architecture wouldn't exactly connect...).

Image: Disney

Though the Parisian park didn't have a Space Mountain when it opened, one was always planned. Called Discovery Mountain, this attraction would've been a land-within-a-land; a massive, towering peak twice as wide as Magic Kingdom's ride containing several attractions themed to Jules Verne's retro-futuristic literary novels: not only a roller coaster through space (themed to Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon), but a drop ride (themed to Journey to the Center of the Earth) a walkthrough (based on 20,000 Leagues), and a restaurant.

Right out the gate, Disneyland Paris failed to meet financial expectations. Discovery Mountain wouldn't be able to wait until the park's "Phase II" expansion; it was needed fast. The project was scaled down to the size of a typical Space Mountain, but it retained its Jules Verne skin. Rising up from the lagoons of Discoveryland, the copper and brass mountain was redesigned with rivets and cogs, while the ride inside is one-of-a-kind in every way; Paris' 1995 Space Mountain is a launched roller coaster with three inversions. 

Image: Disney

Unfortunately, that headlining, uniquely literary version of the ride is the subject of its own in-depth Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune entry because the mountain was stripped of its Jules Verne back story in 2005 to become Space Mountain: Mission 2, more closely aligning it with the sci-fi interstellar exploits of its American and Japanese sisters (and featuring its own Giacchino score). Perhaps worse, the ride was transformed into the long-term Star Wars themed Hyperspace Mountain: Rebel Mission in 2017, which is obviously a pretty drastic disconnect with the steampunk bronze exterior and the launch in a golden Victorian cannon... 

Many fans call Paris' Space Mountain: Mission 2 the best modern Space Mountain on Earth. We'll let you be the judge

Hong Kong Disneyland

Space Mountain opened: 2005
Video: Click here

Image: Disney

When Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005, it was the third of three cop-out parks built on a razor-thin budget after the financial failure of Disneyland Paris. By far the smallest Disneyland at the time, the park lacked many of the rides fans find essential; it opened without a Peter Pan's Flight, Big Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion, or even a "small world." Even so, it did feature Space Mountain. Just as in Tokyo, the ride is a duplicate of California's. But since Hong Kong's ride opened the same year California's was renovated, it benefits from the same on-board audio and projection technology. In fact, Ghost Galaxy originated in Hong Kong.

The first "classic" Space Mountain built since Tokyo's over twenty years earlier, the development of the ride in Hong Kong is perhaps notable for what it means in terms of the ride's durability... Space Mountain retains a sort of timelessness that such a time-anchored attraction usually wouldn't. Even recreated in its distinctly-'70s dressings, Space Mountain is somehow ageless... Each installation feels nostalgic, but current – able to withstand even the most dramatic changes in pop culture's vision of what "tomorrow" might really bring.

Image: Disney

Though the era of Googie architecture has long-since passed, Space Mountain adapts. Hong Kong's Tomorrowland – a sort of sci-fi, comic book plaza that's more thematic than immersive – is filled with metallic planets, gold arches, up-burst gray rocks, and comic-colored flourishes... And without any other element of mid-century flair, Space Mountain still feels at home.

Shanghai Disneyland (2016)

Image: Disney

You won't find a Space Mountain at Shanghai Disneyland, in part because of an alleged agreement between Disney and the Chinese government that the "next generation" Chinese park would feature new anchor attractions excluse to Shanghai. The results – which we saw in our in-depth walkthrough of Shanghai Disneyland – include entirely new lands and astounding, technological E-Tickets.

Image: Dan Brace,

Can Tomorrowland even exist without the iconic, symmetrical, conical "mountain" rising over it? As it turns out, yes. Shanghai Disneyland does feature a Tomorrowland, but it looks very unlike anything seen before. Clearly designed in the 21st century, the plotless land is a unique "glass-and-grass" plaza of metallic pits belching fog or vines; metallic trellaces; spiral stairs and leaping fountains... it's an almost-amorphous land fit for Shanghai – a "city of the future" in itself.

And snaking its way along the length of the land is an undulating glass canopy pulsating with light and color – the upload circuit of the land's Space Mountain-replacement, the Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run. A rare in-park reference to Disney's Tron, this high-speed, launched roller coaster positions riders on unique Lightcycle vehicles, blasting them through the Upload Circuit and into the day-glo electronic world of Tron, revving its way into an iconic Lightcycle race. 

Image: Disney

It's clear that TRON is the park's Space Mountain equivalent... but it might also be its "spiritual sequel!" While baby boomers living through the Space Age dreamed of the outer reaches of the universe, today's tomorrow is all about the worlds we hold in our pockets: the invisible world of technology. Disney's TRON sequel just happened to hit at exactly the right time to make the ride possible in Shanghai... and now that it's proven its worth...

Tomorrow Mountain(s)

After the opening of TRON Lightcycle Power Run, inevitable rumors began to circulate among Disney Parks fans (as they typically do after any E-Ticket opening in an overseas park) that Disney was looking to incorporate the ride back in America. Of course, that kind of talk is usually fodder for discussion boards... Until it's not.

Image: Disney

On July 15, 2017, Disney announced that a new TRON-themed roller coaster was indeed coming to Magic Kingdom just in time for the resort's 50th Anniversary in 2021. The attraction (which some even thought could replace Space Mountain) will instead do something stranger: be located just behind it. The unthinkable addition of the ride – and in such a conspicuous place – essentially arms Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland with its classic, Googie, '70s Space Mountain... and it's streamlined, glass, 21st century counterpart literally nestled up against one another.

We dove deep in an analysis of the addition (and what it means for the "story" of Tomorrowland) in that Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run feature, but suffice it to say, the power play of Tomorrowland E-Tickets just got a lot more interesting... Will TRON eclipse Space Mountain? That remains to be seen... But in the meantime, there's still much to celebrate about the "retro" classic.

Modern Marvel

Image: Disney

Today, Space Mountain is a staple of Disney Parks; a visual, architectural icon whose mere silhouette is known, even by those who've never been to Disneyland or Magic Kingdom. As natural a fit as Peter Pan's Flight or the Omnibus, it's nearly impossible to imagine that Space Mountain was game-changing attraction. But what we especially can't forget is that Space Mountain – and the Tomorrowlands it resided within – helped shape the look and feel of the Space Age.

The ride is a chameleon. As Tomorrowlands evolve around it, that sparkling, clean, white, symmetrical Space Mountain remains... and no matter what happens around it, the journey housed within is evergreen. That's the power of a ride that's not dated by intellectual properties or constrained by a "book report" retelling of a story. That's why Space Mountain is ageless.

Though TRON may succeed Space Mountain as a new-millennium equivalent to the "dated" simplicity of Space Mountain, we can't help but see Space Mountain's ease as its strength. A brilliantly executed family adventure, Space Mountain is the kind of Disney classic that wouldn't get the green light today: a completely original experience whose ambitions were simple (ride through the dark), but grand (experience the thrill of the unknown in space); a cultural icon cementing a moment in time, yet forever timeless.

How do you rank Space Mountain among Disney's classic rides? Does this roller coaster hold up for the 21st century, or do you think TRON Lightcycle Power Run will leave Space Mountain's queue a ghost town come 2021? We can't wait to hear your memories and stories in the comments below...

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