Thirty years ago, in the summer of ’75, my Pirate T-ball team and I — wearing our hats and jerseys — piled into a couple of pickup trucks with our coaches and made our way over to Disneyland during the opening month of Space Mountain. I have yet to experience such potent anticipation in life. There was nothing like it. Disneyland was the best thing ever, and Space Mountain — while I hadn’t experienced it yet — was already the best thing there. It was a day to experience the best of the best.
The line that day was record breaking, crawling back west all the way through Tomorrowland, past Monsanto’s Adventure Thru Inner Space, and out to Main Street. A two hour wait minimum. The whole experience marked the peak of my young imagination. We’d all heard about what Space Mountain was, a roller coaster through space, yet it was nearly impossible to comprehend such a thing at the age of six. I can remember one person coming out of the ride while we were standing in line, exhilarated, claiming “everything’s invisible!” Looking back now, I’m amused to realize that, at the time, it never occured to me that “darkness” equated to “invisible”. I can remember thinking that once we got inside, we’d all disappear. Like little invisible men, hats floating in mid-air.
On April 10, 2003, Disneyland abruptly shut down Space Mountain in order to redesign it and relaunch it in conjunction with the Disneyland 50th Anniversary in 2005. Additions such as new special effects, digital technology, an integrated audio system, and a completely revamped queue were to provide a new level of excitement to our classic ride.
Hmmm…was this going to be a good thing? Why change something so close to our hearts? They’d already robbed us of Adventure Thru Inner Space and Mission To Mars. Was the Space Mountain “improvement” going to follow that trend of loss?
We went last night to find out. The FASTPASSes were sold out, so we got in line in what was calculated to be a 70 minute wait.
Getting in line for Space Mountain in 2005 — at least last night — is the first difference you’ll notice. Rather than immediately boarding the escalating conveyor belt that takes you up to the upper courtyard, we instead enter the pavilion area to the left of that at ground level. Towards the back of that pavilion area is a ramp that goes counter clockwise, circling us back up to that upper courtyard. Once in the courtyard area, the experience of standing in line is much like what we remember, zig-zagging our way through the courtyard just outside the top floor of the Starcade.
Where the upper courtyard portion of the line ends, we used to continue our way into the blue hallways which took us downward into the building of Space Mountain. From these hallways we’d hear the soundtrack of space sound effects and flight control operators. However, in 2005, the line stops here, outside, in the courtyard. There are attendants that then count people out in finite groups, and we’re then allowed into the hallways one group at a time. This means that the hallway portion of the line is now cleared out, with no congestion. This is probably a safety decision. Walking through these descending hallways now, even on the busiest day, is reminiscent of those nights when you’d get in line at the last minute with nobody in the park.
Things different about the hallways include new plastic paneling, with only a couple sectors still retaining the familiar metal corrugated paneling on the walls and ceilings. Another big difference is that these hallways are completely closed off to the roller coaster itself. In the old days, we could look into the main building to see the glowing cars flying through the star-lit room over sillhouetted tracks, with the occasional chocolate chip cookie flying across the room, projected on the ceiling with the rest of the stars. This is gone. We do not get a glimpse of the inside of the ride until we’re actually in the car.
After the hallways, we get into the main multi-level room with the space probe hanging from the ceiling over the boarding area. This is all very familiar, except the paneling of the room and the probe itself is updated, displaying sleeker, more contemporary lines and looking less “boxy” than the ’75 version.
We got to the front of the line, and requested the front seat. Here we go…
Like before, we begin by heading directly towards the control operator behind the glass window and make a hard right to go upwards. This part is different, with new lighting effects, no longer having the red multi-beam light shining down in your face. One of the first things you’ll notice — almost subconsciously — is that the experience immediately feels richer. After a couple moments it’ll dawn on you that this is due to the personal speakers that are mounted right behind your head on your seat, playing sound effects.
We level off, make another right, and go through a tunnel with fantastic lighting effects that differ from the old version (they’re actually better). As we approach the end of the tunnel, we can see the stars approaching, and hear a control operator counting us down from our speakers: “Five … Four … Three … Two … ”
Blast off. It’s party time.
OK, the roller coaster’s track is basically the same as it was before, including that mandatory final drop that gives us that delicious moment of zero-gravity that all Space Mountain fans crave. What’s different is the visual and auditory experience. Gone is the big spherical glowing orange core thing. Completely redone are the projected stars on the walls and tracks, which surprisingly seem less convoluted and more focused than before. The lighting effects now seem to be stars exclusively, with no chocolate chip cookie or other secondary objects. Everything felt darker. I loved it.
I must say that the integrated audio effects profoundly enrich the experience. What I didn’t like was the choice of soundtrack during the main portion of the ride. It’s an upbeat rock and roll groove, sounding like something you’d hear while watching a chase scene on The A-Team. In my opinion, Space Mountain has always been rooted in unpredictability, being very elastic and unstructured, keeping you guessing. Mixing this up with a structured backbeat blaring in your ears didn’t work for me. They need to jazz that up a bit, or do away with the music altogether and use something more atmospheric.
Now for the end of the ride where we reach the bottom of the track and enter the orange lit tunnel as the cars stop and we all catch our breath. This is completely redone. Gone is the orange, replaced by a state of the art lighting effect that almost defies explanation. You need to see it for yourself.
It had been several years since I’d been on Space Mountain, and I’m happy to say that it was as big a rush last night as it was 30 years ago. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
No disappointments here. It’s back!