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Space Mountain has reopened at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, after about a week of soft openings that never quite made it all the way to a full day's operation. There appeared to be lots of technical hiccups - one hopes those will become infrequent, now that the ride is open for "real."

And just how is the ride? Let me start with the positives. You can tell that an Imagineer who cares was in charge (in this case, Alex Wright, author of those Imagineering Guide to the parks books). This is plain to see because there are insider jokes in multiple places, and homages to the past that us Disneyphiles have come to love and even expect. More on those in a minute.

I like how the ride has gotten darker, though it's nowhere near pitch black. My six year old said a surprising thing after riding the new Space Mountain and Rock ‘n Roller coaster on the same weekend; he found RnR better because the tracks are more hidden - I guess all those swirling projections of stars are too bright, and the track can still be discerned. They took pains to make it darker by enclosing the load zone (no more light leakage) and by removing the glowing stickers on the sides of the rockets.

I like that the ride is smoother. They didn't tear down the tracks and rebuild, but they did add new technologies (whatever that means) to make it stronger and smoother, and it surely feels less rickety now than it did when it went down in April.

The new color scheme highlights green.

I like the new interactive queue. I was wondering if games in the middle of the standby line would be disruptive and cause operational problems, but it's handled really well, the games are engrossing, and it causes very little harm to the overall experience of the ride.

And most of all, I adore how the ride's storyline has not only been continued, it's been boosted and strengthened. You do know the backstory, right? The key to the story has always been the blue "strobe tunnel" at the beginning and the red strobe tunnel ("explosion") at the end. Did you know these were meant to be wormholes? Space Mountain is supposed to be a journey through "Superspace," a concept in vogue in the 60s and 70s that postulated connectors and corridors through galaxies via wormholes.

Art in the queue make it explicit that wormholes are the whole point to the ride.

While Superspace gave Space Mountain its theme, its design came from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Designer Georgie McGinnis commented in later interviews that the Strobe Tunnel was meant to emulate a similar tunnel from the movie, but for real visual punch, check Google Images for the space ship in the movie and you'll see something that looks a lot like the rocket from Space Mountain (in Anaheim, it's above the loading dock, and in Orlando, it's above the upramp). I'm delighted to report that someone was paying attention to all this, because the 2001 connection was made even stronger. Glance up at the neon lights in the newly-enclosed loading zone, and you'll see a wheel-shaped space station. Remind you of any movies?

But while the positives are numerous, there are also significant limitations to point out. They did not add on-board audio and a soundtrack (which was cut from the budget). They did not replace the entire track and rebuild it from scratch (presumably also for budget reasons). And while the renovations to the show scenes, queue, and post-show are appreciated, all you really have to do to get depressed is look at Anaheim.

Passing under the train, the walls have not been rebuilt from scratch.

The Anaheim mountain is two years newer than Orlando, but it got a facelift in 2005, so you know Orlando was way-over-due. But Orlando's facelift is cosmetic in nature. Those post-show scenes no longer say anything about Fed-Ex, but the actual sets were only tinkered with in small ways rather than rebuilt from scratch. Ditto the queue walls, the walls of the ride, and so on.

But in Anaheim, just about every surface was brand new. New walls, new queues, new rocketship in the loading dock… everything was new. In comparison, the Orlando version looks a lot more like a band-aid. And that's too bad, because it means that whatever freshness it has now may not last another 20 years, or even ten. Pennywise and pound-foolish.

Let's step briefly through the ride from start to finish, the better to explain what's changed. Outside, the skyway building lost its top floor and the nearby bathrooms redone from scratch. A plaza has sprung up in the extra space now, which is pleasant.

There's less covered area in case of rain, but the plaza is nice.

The SM signs used to be red, but now they are green - this is apparently the new color of the attraction. Just inside, the oversized rear-lit mural is still there, but instead of bad puns having to do with star names, we get a graphic that represents galactic connections (remember Superspace?)

Fewer puns, but an inside joke.

In the long tunnel (where we go under the railroad), the lighted murals off to the left are new. Watch for Disney's Hyperion Resort and mentions of real planets like Venus and Pluto (the latter is also of course a Disney reference… but the reference makes sense because Disney's dog was named after the planet anyway!)

If the line isn't moving too fast, dwell for a second on the names.
On the FastPass side of the queue, older holograms remain.

Similarly, another existing heavenly body mimics a Disney name: Ariel. The name appears here with Miranda, Cordelia, Ophelia, Oberon, Titania, and Umbriel, and I'm proud to say I recognized them as names from Shakespeare. Too bad that a quick Google search turned up the reason they are here in Space Mountain: these are also the names of moons of Uranus (though Shakespeare was indeed the original motivation). The overlap with the name Ariel was probably too good to pass up.

Up next, in the "zigzag" corridor, we come across embedded game controls on the left-side handrails, directly in front of screens. We were walking by static screens saying something like "you can't get lost in our spaceport; you are HERE" when the screens flickered to life, and the controls lit up in several colors. Instantly, people stopped walking and found a set of controls – it was almost like watching musical chairs.

A quick game introduction by our robotic host.

A quick game of a minute or two was introduced and then played; we first saw a version of Asteroids and then a hovercraft game. Each time a game ended, the line surged forward and then stopped when a new game began. I had been worried that this kind of surging would lead to operational problems, but we didn't see too much of that.

Asteroids, kind of.

On the second game, the front of the "line" started moving again, and players abandoned the game despite it not being finished. The family behind us prodded us to go, and we set the game aside to move ahead. In retrospect, we should have stayed put and played the game; the line stopped up again a few yards after the game zone.

The buttons are inviting. Will they spread swine flu? Disney recently installed hand sanitizers
to great PR fanfare, but we only noticed them at the main gates to the parks and nowhere else.

I guess we could have let the family go in front of us, but then we would have "lost" a few minutes extra in line, especially if lots of folks passed us by instead of playing the game. Hm, I wonder if I could just keep walking during game time next time, and see how far up the line I can advance. That seems… less than ethical. Yet I have no doubt others will do it to me. Just what I need: a Sophie's Choice to add complexity to my day.

We then advanced past the warning video (unchanged, and perhaps a warning to riders about 90s hairstyles) into the queue area. FastPass riders went to the right side (Omega) and Standby to the left (Alpha). Most of the switchback zone was empty, perhaps intentionally.

Having this area enclosed even adds visual excitement, without
losing too much ambiance, so it's a net win.

This area used to be open to the coaster above, letting in sound, but now it's enclosed and a real "room." Blue neon dominates the ceiling in dramatic fashion, and a few digital projections are visible in the center, such as the aforementioned spinning wheel-shaped space station.

The space station in the ceiling.

From here, the line wrapped back around to behind the control tower, where a new sign labeled definitely which side was Alpha and which was Omega.

Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.

We were then directed to a hallway *behind* the queue we just did a switchback in. Was this hallway always here? What did they use it for previously? It seemed far less themed, and somehow a letdown.

Above: That's not a reflection; that's a hidden walkway behind the one-way
 mirrors. Below: The plain walkway as seen on the other side.

The station had new gates to prevent guests from injuring themselves, or jumping onto the track too early. The cars were unchanged, though perhaps cleaned up.

Lawyers working their magic.

Then the ride began. A few blinking messages at the start of the ride were different, but the strobe tunnel was largely unchanged. I think perhaps the music and and sound effects were different this time, but the obvious change was around the corner after the strobe tunnel, where a blinding light meant we'd just passed the onride photo location. Then it was up the lifthill.

The strobe tunnel was exciting as always.

The hanging space ship was still there, and the upside-down astronauts missing a few weeks ago were back in place. Were those dummies in the control room new, or just freshened in appearance? They looked different to me, but perhaps that's just my memory playing tricks.

At the front of this hanging spaceship, now named MK-1 instead of FX-1, the front pod contained a tribute: H-NCH 1975 pays homage both to 1975 and to John Hench, the first designer of the ride.

The ride was the same, more or less, but with additional smoothness. The ride dynamics and the track layout certainly didn't change. Making the ride darker by removing light pollution and glowing stickers had the effect of magnifying the thrilling dynamics of flight, but in space where you can't see what's coming. In the later Anaheim mountain, emphasis was placed on smoothness, and effortlessness, so sharp turns were minimized. But in the Orlando mountain, sharp turns were the whole point of mimicking the thrilling dynamics of dogfighting.

Just after you disembark, you can preview your photo.

The postshow keeps most of the sets intact, as noted above, but adds some new color and twists. Look for a piece of luggage at the start with stickers. One sticker is labeled Space Station X-1, which was an old Tomorrowland exhibit from Disneyland. Another announces Mesa Verde, the onetime fantasy destination of Horizons, the futurism exhibit in Epcot that has since been replaced by Mission:Space.

Ooh! Stickers! They should sell these.

The show scenes at the end function just a little bit like a dark ride, spilling out more story as we glide by mutely. Instead of showing us how packages will be sent through space on a beam of light, these scenes now represent different parts of the galaxy we might want to visit as a space tourist, complete with video screens excoriating us to visit, once again hammering home the theme of Superspace.

After the show scenes, the uphill part of the ramp lacked cameras on our visit, but they should be there soon. That wall is green not only to match the mountain; this is going to be a "green screen" to superimpose visitors on alien tourist locations.

Green screen.

My overall impression was positive – they added some things, plussed the story, and made the queue interactive. But it's not nearly as major a makeover as Haunted Mansion, or even Pirates of the Caribbean. It's a more minor, more stylistically-driven makeover, and at the end of the day, not that big of a deal. I'm glad they did it, and I hope they keep doing such makeovers, but I just wish we had had dramatically different results after so many months of downtime.

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally.

2009 Kevin Yee

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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link. Kevin is currently working on other theme park related books, and expects the next one to be published soon.