Home » SPACE MOUNTAIN: The Full Story of How Disney’s Interstellar Ride Was Launched

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

Some Disney Parks attractions feel so classic – so essential – it’s almost difficult to imagine the park without them… That’s exactly how fans feel about Space Mountain, a perennial favorite whose mid-century, Space Age silhouette is literally an icon of Disney. But believe it or not, there was a time when Tomorrowland existed without Space Mountain as its anchor; a time when Disney’s designers were hard at work figuring out what, where, and how an interstellar race through space should exist…

That’s why the spectacular tale of Space Mountain enters Theme Park Tourist’s much-loved LEGEND LIBRARY – our one-of-a-kind Imagineers’ index, and a growing, comprehensive collection of in-depth stories exploring Disney’s best (and worst) attractions on Earth. Standing among other revered Modern Marvels from Phantom Manor and The Enchanted Tiki Room to DINOSAURRadiator Springs Racers, and more, Space Mountain has earned its status with over forty years of whisking guests through the coldest depths of our galaxy and beyond.

How did this roller coaster in the dark come to be? How does it differ between its installations in Florida and California? How have Imagineers tweaked (or sometimes, entirely rewritten) the ride for Disney’s international parks? Join us as we blast off into this Modern Marvel. Go for launch!

Yesterday’s tomorrows

Image: Disney

So many stories of Disney’s most legendary attractions begin in the Tomorrowland guests found when they stepped into Disneyland in 1955. Given that Disneyland’s opening was just one year and a day after the first shovel of dirt had been moved, it was inevitable that parts of Walt’s park wouldn’t look exactly the way he’d hoped, and Tomorrowland was the prime offender.

With a short time table and a quickly-dwindling budget, Tomorrowland turned out to be little more than a land of corporate displays and showcases rented out to Kaiser Aluminum, Dutch Boy Paint, Crane Plumbing, and more. Still, the ingredients of Tomorrowland were born. Set in the inconcievably distant year of 1986, this land of the future did feature a few stand-out experiences, like a walk through the “Nautilus” from Disney’s blockbuster hit of the prior year, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Image: Disney

One of the few “Disney original” attractions offered was Rocket to the Moon, a (motion-less) simulator giving awe-struck audiences of the 1950s a glimpse into what space travel could look like. While simple, the theater-in-the-round production was one of the few “Disney originals” in the land, and set the stage for connection between Tomorrowland and space that seems so essential today. 

Walt was often known to remark that Tomorrowland was not yet complete. Just four years after the park’s opening, the land make a leap forward. Three brand new attractions opened that year, each astounding enough to warrant a new “E-Ticket” ride coupon – the park’s most expensive and limited.

Image: Disney

While the Submarine Voyage was astounding in its scale, and the Disneyland-ALWEG Monorail was a first-of-its-kind prototype of what tomorrow’s mass transit could hold, it’s the towering Matterhorn Bobsleds that matters to our story today. The first modern, tubular steel-tracked roller coaster (and the first roller coaster to permit more than one train on the course at a time due to block brakes and a controlling computer system), Matterhorn Bobsleds is best known today for being the first of Disney’s mountains… and thus, the first overt thrill ride at Disneyland.

Image: Disney

Walt’s long-standing moritorium on thrill rides had been lifted by way of the Matterhorn; evidence that roller coasters could indeed fit in his park, but only if they were masquerading as more…

From snow to the stars

Despite its massive build-out in 1959, Walt still wasn’t quite finished with Tomorrowland. He and his designers were already ruminating about a potential floor-to-ceiling overhaul of the land’s aesthetic. Naturally, we can see why. In the 1960s, a very clear vision of “tomorrow” was created in American pop culture. Our collective, societal consciousness had settled into the sleek, “mid-century modern” style of upswept roofs, parabolas, “mod” furniture, atoms, starbusts, and simple geometric patterns.

This was a country in the midst of the Space Race, on the verge of the Atomic Age; a society imagining an optimistic future among the stars spurred by NASA; a culture shaped by Populuxe architecture.

The boxy, corporate, ’50s-designed Tomorrowland was outdated before its tenth anniversary. Tomorrowland needed to catch up.

Image: Disney

Luckily, the work WED designers had put into the 1964 – 65 New York World’s Fair was about to pay off. For that international expo, Disney had debuted four spectacular attractions, each of which was now en route back to Disneyland where a New Tomorrowland was taking shape. The newest iteration of the land would debut in full in 1967 with a star-studded attraction lineup to make Disney Parks historians weak – Lost Legends: Adventure Thru Inner Space, Carousel of Progress, and The Peoplemover to name just a few.

Walt also spoke with Imagineer and Disney Legend John Hench about the possibility of a roller coaster through outer space as a headliner of this reborn land. And like Matterhorn, it would hidden away in a “mountain” of its own; an iconic, Space Age-inspired, Googie-style dome looming over the land and anchoring this “New Tomorrowland’s” visual style. The attraction was called Space Port.

Image: Disney

It’s said that Walt and his team even began initial talks with Arrow Development – the manufacturers of the Matterhorn Bobsleds – on the design and development of a potential roller coaster. Or maybe, coasters.

Matterhorn is actually comprised of two separate, slightly-different roller coasters (the “Fantasyland” track and the “Tomorrowland” track), each operating independently even as their tracks slalom alongside each other. To up the concept’s capacity, it’s said that Walt hoped to have four independent tracks operating on Disneyland’s second coaster, Space Port.

However, Space Port and the entire New Tomorrowland project were sidelined. That’s because Walt and his WED Enterprises had turned their attention elsewhere. While a team would continue on at Disneyland on Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, another would head east to a swampy plot of land outside of Orlando where the long-gestating “Florida Project” was coming together…

1. Magic Kingdom

Space Mountain opened: 1975

When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, designers had intentionally drafted the park differently than they had Disneyland. For one thing, Magic Kingdom was comparatively massive. While Disneyland was surrounded by an earthen berm to keep the outside world away, Magic Kingdom has no berm. It doesn’t need one. The park is placed in the northwestern corner of Disney’s San-Francisco-sized property in Florida, giving the park plenty of room to spread out with wide paths and plazas built for crowds.

But Imagineers also did some resetting for something else they expected to be different: who those crowds were composed of. It was believed that Walt Disney World would attract a fair share of adults without children. After all, while Disneyland was a fantasy playground, Walt Disney World was “The Vacation Kingdom of the World,” offering water skiing, hiking, boating, shopping, dining, and more with the theme park itself being just one part of the complex. As a result, Magic Kingdom opened with a heavy emphasis on theater attractions, placing them front-and-center in most lands.

Image: Gorillas Don’t Blog

Take Tomorrowland. Just as with Disneyland 16 years earlier, designers had sort of fallen behind on Tomorrowland during the park’s construction. When Magic Kingdom opened, the main thoroughfare leading into Tomorrowland was about all the land contained other than the Lost Legend: The Skyway. And what was in those two mirrored showbuildings along the entry? Shows… The north contained Mission to Mars (the latest iteration of Disneyland’s original Rocket to the Moon) and the south held a CircleVision 360 theater.

But as the story goes, Disney was surprised just how many of the families and adults that descended on Walt Disney World had older siblings in tow… pre-teens and teenagers who didn’t find too much to write home about in the intellectual park.

Image: Disney

Luckily, the unexpected need for a thrill ride and Magic Kingdom’s undeveloped Tomorrowland coalesced with those old plans for a Space Port… Disney Legends John Hench and Marty Sklar and CEO Card Walker set out to find a sponsor to underwrite the construction such an epic attraction. Electronics company RCA bought in, investing $10 million in the project in exchange for promotion. Construction on the ride began in 1972 – the start of a three year project. 

Altogether, the “mountain” occupies over 80,000 square feet – one of Disney’s largest showbuildings ever. In fact, Space Mountain is so large, it was built outside of the park’s circumnavigating railroad. The massive, conical white tower reaches 183 feet high – just six feet shorter than Cinderella Castle. 

Image: Disney

Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain opened on January 15, 1975 as an official (if somewhat late…) launch of Tomorrowland, debuting alongside the park’s Peoplemover and the Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress – relocated from Disneyland at the request of sponsor, General Electric. On board the first train dispatched was Colonel James Irwin – pilot of the Apollo XV Lunar Module. By the way, the $15 million attraction is said to have earned $25 million in revenue in its first four years by the cost of E-Tickets redeemed to ride it.

Like Matterhorn, Space Mountain is actually made of two side-by-side mirrored tracks (called “Alpha” and “Omega”). Also owing to its origins as a Matterhorn spin-off, guests are seating in “bobsled” style rockets with a single guest in each row – a historic test of bravery for generations of young Disney World visitors.

Image: Disney


The ride begins memorably with trains being dispatched down a spiraling drop into pulsing power tunnels with a pitching warp sound and racing blue lights pulling back alongside the slow-coasting trains. At the end of the energizing corridors, the train jerks around a 180-degree turn and aligns with parallel lift hills through a (distinctly ’70s) space station, with the PeopleMover memorably gliding directly between the two en route to its inside look at Space Mountain.

At the crest of the lift hill, the coaster begins its spiraling, “wild mouse” style descent through the black interior lit by projections and reflections of stars, twisting and turning through the dome.

Image: Joe Pennison, Flickr

Despite ineviatable childhood memories, Space Mountain’s maximum speed as it races through the course is only 27 miles per hour – the speed limit in most residential neighborhoods. But the brilliance of Space Mountain is in its illusion. With stars flying past and the inability to see (and brace for) upcoming turns, the ride feels like a wild, sensational, breathless race through outer space. Finally, a swirling red wormhole tunnel signals a return to Earth as the trains pull into an underground loading dock.

2. Disneyland

Space Mountain opened: 1977

With Space Mountain acting as a new headlining E-Ticket for Walt Disney World, it was inevitable that the interstellar roller coaster would make it ways back to Disneyland.

However, there was a problem… Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain was closely modeled off of the Matterhorn with its doubled, side-by-side, diverging coaster circuits. Of course, that wouldn’t work at Disneyland, where Matterhorn was already a favorite.

Image: Disney

Space Mountain would need redesigned not only to bring an original experience to Disneyland, but to accomodate for the park’s small size. California’s peak would be 2/3 the size of Florida’s, with a 200 foot diameter mountain built on an expansion pad between Tomorrowland and Main Street (originally planned for the never-built Edison Square, and later housing the failed Flying Saucers).

Designers also “sunk” Disneyland’s mountain 17 feet into the ground to keep the peak from throwing off the park’s subtler scale, where it would’ve dominated Main Street.

Image: Disney 

Since this Space Mountain would need to fit within the park’s berm, it was nestled among showbuildings with the 3D Magic Eye Theater set directly in front of it. Guests ascend to the theater’s roof, then step directly into the side of the mountain. From there, winding metallic corridors descend into the core of the mountain, eventually emerging in a cavernous space station with wisps of starlight zooming past outside.

Balconies clinging to the perimeter of the hangar gradually lead guests down to the ride’s loading are beneath a docked starship. Disneyland’s rockets resemble traditionally coaster trains: side-by-side seating, carrying 12-guests per train.

Image: Disney

Disneyland’s Space Mountain is entirely unique from Magic Kingdom’s. Dispatched from the hangar, the first major change is instantly clear: rebuilt from scratch in 2005, Disneyland’s Space Mountain features synchronized on-board audio scored by Disney favorite Michael Giacchino (who also scored Alias, Lost, and The Incredibles). This invaluable addition turns the ride into an emotional experience rather than just people shrieking in the dark.

The orchestral music at once overwhelms the train as the rockets round the corner and climb a small lift hill, where glowing bars of light pulse and energize the train. Then, a version of Florida’s blue energy corridor follows. But next, the ride enters its main lift hill – a tunnel completely enclosed in projections. As the train engages with the lift, a massive swirling galaxy develops at the top of the lift, and the tunnel around is overcome with swirling coordinates, turning the hill into a dizzying optical illusion.

Emerging from the lift, a grand musical crescendo follows. Now set adrift in outer space, the train engages with a final small lift as the voice of ground control counts down: “You are go for launch… in… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…” Now, the melody changes, and Giacchino’s signature retro-inspired electronic spy score kicks in. It syncs to every dip, turn, and hop in the track, as Space Mountain dives and twists. The ride is faster, longer, and much smoother than Magic Kingdom’s, with an original layout and original special effects.

For better or worse, Disneyland’s updated Space Mountain also means its easy adaptable. Each Halloween, the ride becomes the chilling Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy, with a malevolent nebula dramatically appearing on the lift, then proceeding the chase riders through the peak in surprising projections in the darkness. The ride was also the first to feature the Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain overlay – made easy by a simple swap in audio and projections.

Space around the world

Naturally, the success of Space Mountain meant its placement in future Disney Parks was assured. And even more so, that it would be given prime real estate in its next installations… On the last page, we’ll explore the ways that Space Mountain and evolved over the decades as it found its way to parks in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s – long after the “Space Age” was over! Read on… 

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

3. 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.

4. 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

5. 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, TwoLostBoys.com

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…