Why Space Mountain Works:
Environmental Storytelling and the Thrill of the Unknown
“We were alone. Where, I could not say, hardly imagine. All was black, and such a dense black that, after some minutes, my eyes had not been able to discern even the faintest glimmer”
- Jules Verne “Mobilis in Mobili”
At its best, Space Mountain is an abstraction: both in form and in concept. Just as the classic “Pirates of the Caribbean,” at Disneyland acts a visual extrapolation of the “idea of piracy,” “Space Mountain” follows a similar line of thought, touching on the “idea of space travel,” often without revealing specifics. I like to call this themed design mode “environmental storytelling.” In environmental storytelling, the guest acts as the protagonist, while the changes in environments and the staging of various tableaus (in both the attraction and the queue space) gives the impression of progression through visuals, instead of through dialect or narration. The best attractions that employ this medium often pass the cultural litmus test of ride repeatability throughout generations.
We can trace the origin of this approach to the advent of Themed Entertainment design in 1955, more specifically during the development of the Fantasyland dark rides. Ken Anderson, one of the primary WED artisans assigned to the project, realized the medium’s limitations: guests would have little time to appreciate the subtleties of character development that are essential to a feature film while bouncing around in their ride vehicle for a little over two minutes. Anderson’s genius was his telling of these stories not through linear sequences, but rather through the emotions conveyed by the environments of the stories. Twenty years later, Space Mountain debuts in the Magic Kingdom and tells a different kind of environmental story.
It’s not an immediate thought but, on the surface, Space Mountain is riddled with contradictions. It’s name: “Space” implying an endless, negative void contrasts with “Mountain,” a solid, concrete, and tangible entity. Along the same lines, its gleaming bright white exterior is balanced with the negative of the dark star tunnel and the near-pitch black environment of the projection space. Aesthetically, it’s a much different experience than the colorful interior of planets, pedestrians, and PeopleMovers that John Hench sketched in 1965.
This is a great example of effective visual communication. Space Mountain’s exterior linear pattern acts as a visual magnet. Prospective riders and armchair astronauts are drawn closer as they look upward to the spires that point towards the sky. It’s a great moment that I love to observe when I’m in the park. In a sense, it almost evokes of a Robert McCall painting of astronauts waiting for their own departure. I think that’s the point. Foxx from the unrivaled “Passport2Dreams” blog has coined the term “Theme Architecture” to describe Tomorrowland, and subsequently, Space Mountain’s architectural style in her essay “The Tomorrowland Problem.” I couldn’t be more fond of the distinction. Hench recalls that “(Space Mountain) begged to be cone shaped; it wanted to echo the expanding spiral of the ride itself.” The cone-like structure allows for clever forced perspective towards the top of the mountain. At our eye-level, the base of the ‘mountain’ is imposing. The exposed T-Beams that lace the exterior of the structure have come to an ending focal point, which appear to be shortly in the horizon. George McGinnis recalled, “a spherical form would be perceived as space related from a show standpoint.”
The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was originally designed to emulate the success of Disneyland’s iconic New Tomorrowland of 1967, with Space Mountain becoming the pivot point. Clem Hall’s 1973 concept for Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland suggests a faithful directive to the final realization. In John Hench’s book, Designing Disney, Tim Delaney recalled, “the timelessness of the structure allows us to change our focus for the attraction. Originally, we were in a time fascinated by what the future might become; now, the focus is to create fantasy about the future.” The “cartilaginous structure,” as Hench described, does maintain an enduring futuristic presence, but is vague enough to have thematically fit, to a reasonable rate of success, through the lenses of multiple Tomorrowland incarnations.
Since it’s introduction to the Tomorrowland model, it seems to have served as a literal and metaphorical anchor to the Tomorrowland model. To see how it has assimilated to the themed space over the years, let’s take a look at the following:
Walt Disney’s original Tomorrowland dedication on July 17, 1955 states:
“A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements…. A step into the future with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals, the atomic age, the challenge of outer space and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.”
Now we can compare the statement to John Hench’s thoughts in 1971:
“(Space Mountain) evokes such ideas as the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown.”
There are some definite parallels, despite Disneyland’s Tomorrowland of 1955 and the Magic Kingdom’s fully-fleshed Tomorrowland, twenty years later, existing as very different environments. Hench’s thoughts are narrowed due to speaking on a singular attraction, but the biggest takeaway (and a cardinal “theme” behind many successful themed attractions) is the sense of exploration. Instead of the exploration of ideas through exhibition in 1955′s Tomorrowland, the fantasy-based journey is manifested with Space Mountain. I make the distinction of a “fantasy”-based journey, because Space Mountain’s predecessor was the very linear, hard science-fact Rocket to the Moon, which attempted to approach the venture of space travel from a very realistic lens. Along with the switch from a direct approach to a fantasy approach, and perhaps more importantly, is the switch from a “passive” show to an “active” environment. As the best themed attractions do, Space Mountain allows us to inhabit and explore environments that we would not have the chance to do so, outside of a theme park.
This also harps back to a discussion on “frontiers” in themed attractions and themed environments. Attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, or the Rivers of America allow us as observers to receive a better impression of the environment that we occupy. They extend the environment past shop facades and detailed walkways, often taking us to “real” places. It is the themed entertainment equivalent of a child sitting on their father’s shoulders to catch a better view. But “frontier” attractions also can serve as a wilderness for a themed environment and with these attractions there is an implied danger. We do not know what lies beyond the first corner on the Jungle Cruise or as we pass into the mined caverns of Big Thunder Mountain. Space Mountain is no exception, providing the ultimate “terra incognita” for Tomorrowland, once occupied by the primitive (in comparison) Flight/Rocket to the Moon. This “danger” is mostly implied. It is not simply because one may be afraid of a roller coaster, albeit one in near-complete darkness, but because the risk of casual space flight is part of the bargain. As a participant we are entering an unknown environment.
Some of the best themed environments in the world present to us a time and place unavailable to us in the real world, but often are rooted in some familiarity. We may not be familiar with inhabiting a space station, but we are comfortable with planetariums and are often eager to compare. The correct aesthetic choices create emotion through tactile and environmental means. Again, Hench nails the concept of Space Mountain in ways I fail to dictate: “the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown.”
Now that we have examined Space Mountain’s fundamental themes, so to speak, we can begin to explore it’s minutiae from the outside in. To start, something that I think is particularly interesting about Florida’s Space Mountain is that it given to us in whole. We can see it from almost every angle. .We can easily observe it from the railroad, the brick-laden pathway to the Contemporary Resort, from the ferryboat, and even traveling on World Drive. However, at no time can we actually get close enough to touch the structure itself. We are separated by green space, fences, and by show buildings.
When we traverse through the entranceway to Space Mountain, we first enter an open chamber as we walk on railing-laced pathway. There are tall spires that reach the ceiling towards our left, but the main focus is on the back-illuminated panels that draw us forward. The copy on the main side reads: “Welcome Space Travelers (STARPORT Seven-Five), Your Gateway to the Galaxies.” However, this was not the show originally presented in this room. To best understand the thematic sensibilities of the current show, we must look at what occupied this space in the past and the inspect the changes thereof.
Upon descending the entrance ramp, guests were originally greeted by Nipper the Fox Terrier: RCA’s mascot. Enclosed in a slowly rotating spaceship and accompanied by his ever-present phonograph, it conveyed “RCA Welcomes You to Space Mountain.” RCA”s musical theme “Here’s to the Future” played here and in the elaborate post-show. You can see George McGinnis’ faithful rendering of the scene to the left. Following the entrance room, guests enter the ever so memorable “Star Tunnel” corridor.
George McGinnis recalls that early plans for the Florida pre-show’s second room were quite different. Claude Coats had fashioned an intricate interior based on Werner Von Braun’s “space wheel,” probably similar in fashion to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Space Station V.” Coats’ space wheel would feature audio-animatronic figures living in an interior habitat, accompanied by rear projections of space imagery. McGinnis worked with Coats’ concept to have it be retrofitted for Space Mountain’s interior. According to McGinnis, this concept was scrapped due to a moving ascending belt would move too many people into the loading area at once. If the ride would be delayed by any reason, Space Mountain’s upstairs queue space would have overflowed. The costs associated with Coats’ use of audio-animatronics were probably another large determinant. However, Coats maintained his audio-animatronic tableaus in the post-show: RCA’s Home of Future Living.
In its place, McGinnis designed what we now know as the “Star Tunnel,” a long winding, ascending corridor that leads guests to the main queue room and the loading area. To fill the interior space, McGinnis utilized a great bit of WED Illusioneering with his “Infinity Windows.” Some of these spaces originally gave RCA their proper due in the queue, while others featured mirror illustrations of starfields, planets, spaceships, and rockets. Due to their convex shapes, they play a trick on the viewer’s eyes as they are walked past.
But surely, these windows can’t be the sole reason why Space Mountain’s queue is so memorable. Perhaps a broader look at queue functionality is in order.
In 1992, anthropologist Stephen M. Fjellman wrote a comprehensive overview of Walt Disney World called Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America. Calling the Vacation Kingdom “the most ideologically important piece of land in the United States,” Fjellman explores the resort’s impact on society and culture, while exploring it’s thematic devices: such as the cinematic scope of its attractions and landscapes. I find Fjellman’s classification of queue structures to be fascinating and of interest to this piece.
Fjellman’s “Five Basic Elements of Disney Line Practice” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 206)
- The Hidden Line
- The Illusion of Progress
- Sensory Entertainment
- Cooling the Line
- Loading/Unloading of Attractions
Fjellman’s “Three Basic Forms of Lines at Walt Disney World” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 207)
- The Open Snake
- The Preshow Balustrade
- Inside Corridor
(as well as combinations of these patterns)
So now, with Fjellman’s classifications, and an early diagram of the Space Mountain’s interior (taken from “The E-Ticket Magazine Issue 30 and assembled in Photoshop), there is only one more facet I’d like to explore: it’s soundtrack. In doing so, it is essential to discuss the 1985 makeover dubbed “RYCA-1.” Specifically, I would like to talk about the musical variations that were introduced. RCA’s “Here’s to the Future” had been replaced by a few pieces of music, the “Entrance Music” and “Star Tunnel” as well as the lyrical “We’ve Come So Far.” Kudos, again, to Foxx from Passport2Dreams for confirming my suspicions that the composer of these pieces was indeed, George Wilkins.
I suspected Wilkins, not only because of the time period that we are discussing, but rather his mastery of transitions of musical signatures. Wilkins’ earlier effort with the Horizons score is a fantastic, if not the greatest, example. Recall how Wilkins was able to transcend genres and blend the music for the Robida Flats area by following the same chord progression as “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in the proceeding scene, then later repurpose “New Horizons” to fit each scene in “Tomorrow’s WIndows,” i.e. using traditional rural instrumentation for the Desert Farm scene. Wilkins was able to do this again by blending the three compositions for Space Mountain ever so seamlessly by having them follow the same chord pattern.
The changes in tone come with differences in instrumentation, tailored to mirror the intended queue experience. Let’s follow the queue experience, once again, through it’s soundtrack. The “Entrance Music,” with it’s regal french horn melody, evokes Hench’s “excitement of setting out on a journey.” I almost feel as if the piece acts as a call to action, starting with long-toned strings then phasing into a staccato movement accentuated by light hi-hat symbol work. It’s upbeat and keeps us moving forward. I’ve expressed this before, but I think the greatest special effect in Florida’s Space Mountain is the auricular transition between the “Entrance Music” and “Star Tunnel” compositions. It’s a seamless, yet instant, movement in tone. The “Star Tunnel” composition is permeated with theremin-like sounds that always evoked what a shooting star may sound like, a high note descending rapidly before fading into the distance. It’s especially poignant when passing one of McGinnis’ convex illusions and the sound effect happens to be in-sync. Eventually, “Star Tunnel” fades into a piece that I see commonly referred to as the “Third Tunnel.” In this selection, the common theme is still there, but is masked by darker, ambient tones. There’s a significant increase in audible texture as the number “shooting star” sound effects increase, as well as the “com chat” track from Disneyland’s Space. The dynamic is carried over to the load/unload area as a result of the 2009 refurbishment.
I adore the 2009 refurbishment of the attraction, because I believe it strengthens the Florida show’s strong suits and preserves its eccentricities. Enclosing the load space makes the environment even darker, a facet that is absolutely essential for the gradual dim. Not being able to see the ride structure is essential for the illusion of the on-ride lighted tunnels to work as transportive mediums. Also, the control buttons for the inoffensive interactive games bring some nice accent colors to the deep blue queue space.
One last note, the “Check Invisible Oxygen Dome” pre-flight backlit signage was the hardest I had genuinely laughed in a theme park since the first time I saw MuppetVision 3D.
I would now like to take into consideration everything that has been discussed about the queue thus far and apply it to Fjellman’s classifications.
1. The Hidden Line - Fjellman actually cites Space Mountain as an example, as the flow of guest traffic in the Star Tunnel often moves swiftly, leaving the majority of the queuing portion to the switchbacks before the loading platform. This can be observed in the diagram shown earlier in this piece.
2. The Illusion of Progress – In designing effective queue spaces, it is essential to provide the guest with movement or other stimulation to ease the tension of lenghty wait times. Fjellman rationalizes that adding more “open snake” turnstile channels will promote near-constant guest movement and increase wait time tolerance. Even though the potential majority of wait-time is held in the loading area, common guest perception assumes that once they have ascended the top of the Star Tunnel that boarding is immediate, hence the illusion.
3. Sensory Entertainment – Before the 2009 refurbishment, guests were able to see part of Space Mountain’s infrastructure, allowing anticipation to build through seeing the kinetic movement of the ride vehicles above. Now, the experience is different and the main sensory element (other than total immersion into darkness) are the interactive video games.
4. Cooling the Line – Refers to Walt Disney World’s necessary practice of air conditioning it’s queues. It is noteworthy that the Florida iteration put it’s loading and unload stations on the far side of the show building to draw the queue inside, while in California and Tokyo a more significant portion of the queue is held outside. It’s design by necessity as the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain has become a respite for many tourists to the Vacation Kingdom from the hot Florida sun.
5. Loading/Unloading of Attractions – It’s noteworthy that the two tracks are nearly identical, but are mirrored. The 2009 refurbishment has upgraded the loading experience by introducing fictional written commands on backlit panels.
There’s not a whole lot for me to analyze (in this piece at least) for the on-ride experience. I do find the blue and red tunnels to be poetic bookends to the ride experience, especially because they act as portals. I do enjoy the symmetrical show staging on the lift hill as well, the designs of those control towers have withstood the test of time.
There’s much discourse over the lack of an onboard soundtrack. I don’t believe that I subscribe to that thinking as of this time (I have yet to experience Disneyland’s Space). I believe there is merit in both practices. I’ve always appreciated Florida’s because, if I suspend disbelief, I can rarely anticipate when there is bound to be a tight turn or sharp drop. Disneyland’s Space Mountain embraces the aural cues and everything is in syncopation. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, it’s just different. My ideal improvement would be to illuminate the other ride vehicles to get a better sense of the echoing chaos of the interior space. As a rider, I often hear the other rocket ships but never see them and I don’t appreciate the disconnect.
The winding corridor denies the guest the ability to see the load/unload space and the “upstairs” switchbacks for quite some time. It’s a long, ascending march in the darkness. As riders, our eyes have adjusted to the low-light level by the time we have reached the boarding area, but how did we get there? It’s the abstraction of this space fantasy that counts. “How?” and “Why?” simply fail to matter.
In the queue, we observe diagrams of galaxies real and fictional before we gaze into “real” star-fields. If I had to make an argument, I would say that the beginning of the queue employs the more abstract elements (the spired towers and ballpit-like laced floor of the entrance room) and that the elements of the attraction based in realism (the control tower, the rocket ride vehicles themselves, and the diagetic sound elements) materialize in the latter half. However, I think Space Mountain is one of the few themed attractions where that kind of thinking is deemed unnecessary. If we return to looking at a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can understand that the effect of the film would be heartily diminished if it explained itself through every act. 2001 and Space Mountain each work best as ambiguities.
Let’s face it, from a narrow on-ride standpoint, Space Mountain is truly a just roller coaster in the dark. However, the average park guest to the most veteran park aesthete will argue to the contrary: and that is a testament to the marvelous illusion that it is! And in this case, we owe credit to one of the best designed queues ever built.
In March I was practicing creating faux retro pieces in Adobe Illustrator and I mocked up an advertisement for the “Date Nite at Disneyland” events of old. I got a really good response, but I kept returning to the piece examining it’s flaws and thinking that I could do a better job if I was to attempt it again. Luckily, I had a free weekend to do so!
While I’m still not comfortable with the typography in either piece, I do like my color selection better here. I thought it would be fun to play with light reflecting off of the castle at sunset.
I hope that you enjoy! Thanks!
“Looking Back at Tomorrow”
The Dream of Horizons and the Merit of Great Design
“It is a careful synthesis of all the wonders within Epcot, and applies the elements of communication, energy, transportation, creativity, and technology to a better life-style for the family of the future.”
- A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney World” © 1990 Disney
There’s no one thing that makes a great dark ride. No magic formula, cure-all, or simple trick can produce a great experience or fix an ailing one. This is what makes great themed design an intricate puzzle. These experiences are incredibly complex entities that operate under fairly simple pretenses. Dark rides immerse guests in new settings, recall familiarity, and have the power to leave riders with a lasting impression. Just as a powerful film or a great novel can inspire an emotional reaction, themed attractions have the ability to do so, as with any other art form. By looking at their intricacies, we can award great aesthetic choices and examine the components of effective themed show.
Fundamentally, these experiences are designed for entertainment, but at times can represent additional purposes. Among these: education, inspiration, and reassurance. EPCOT Center’s Future World showed us, by example, how the use of information could benefit our lives. World Showcase taught us how to absorb culture. The Horizons experience was unique because it stood on the shoulders of Future World’s other pavilions, embraced those ideas, and dared to look ahead. It was the synthesis of EPCOT Center’s vision: to provide a better life for our Future World by best utilizing the information and resources available.
Horizons’ exterior, designed by the architect George Rester, was fittingly vague in contrast with Future World’s other pavilions: World of Motion resembled a wheel, the Universe of Energy had solar panels on its roof, The Land’s murals appearing to be cutting into the terrain. Even later pavilions like The Living Seas would continue this aesthetic trend. Like the future, the architecture of the Horizons pavilion was indefinable: was it a finely cut gem? a spaceship? (the generalized consensus) Perhaps it’s perceived to be a spaceship in the same fashion as Space Mountain. It’s still largely unclear. Maybe the answer is more symbolic, lying in the form of the exterior. It’s lines reaching into the far perspective may represent a mountain in the distance, a road going into the sunset, or even a mirage on the horizon line. Regardless, the Horizons pavilion was never defined from the forms of its exterior, its message was found inside (quite literally).
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” There it is – a given thesis statement, displayed to the guest immediately through its entrance. The exhibitionist nature of EPCOT Center’s pavilions marked a paradigm shift from the Disneyland model on how themed attractions were displayed. Mostly linear stories drawn from works of classic fiction were substituted with non-narrative discourses. However, Horizons, along with the Universe of Energy and other single-attraction pavilions, followed a more familiar pre-show/show/post-show format. The closest comparison to an attraction revealing its fundamental theme in its early stages may be X. Atencio’s “When hinges creak in doorless chambers…” script for the Haunted Mansion, I can’t think of any other off the top of my head although I’m positive there are more. The primary theme is usually revealed at the attraction’s climax or made aware at the end of the experience.
The travel windows themselves, described by Richard Beard in the pre-opening EPCOT Center book as “Large octagonal picture windows-the future equivalent to travel posters” were likely influenced by Show Designer George McGinnis’ work on the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain. Florida’s queue, which brilliantly doubled as its RCA-sponsored pre-show, featured a series of, what McGinnis called “infinity windows.” These illusions, which use convex mirrors to create the illusion of movement for objects like asteroids and satellites, differed from the kaleidoscopic motions of the travel posters beautifully rendered by the artist Robert McCall, yet provided essentially the same function. The illusion of infinite space was also suggested in the queue: notably, the use of mirrors behind the “Futureport” sign. Also, Gil Keppler placed a few faux sliding doors to nowhere throughout the Futureport to give the illusion of a greater space.
This was not the first time that WED Enterprises had utilized an airport setting for an attraction’s queue: this distinction belongs to 1972′s “if you had wings” in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. It’s important to note that Claude Coats, the primary creative force behind “if you had wings,” was involved in determining the Horizons attraction’s early scope. “if you had wings,” which drew influence for it’s contemporary terminal queue from another Coats show: Adventures Thru Inner Space, may also serve as an influence for Horizons’ use of visual patterns.
Perhaps most importantly, the Futureport worked to adjust the rider’s eyes to dark spaces just as Space Mountain’s queue does so well. Essentially it introduced the reoccurring musical theme, primed the ride experience, and began to create the illusion of a ‘dream state.’
Act One: Yesterday’s Tomorrows
George McGinnis once admitted that the Horizons show was derived as a spiritual successor to the Carousel of Progress, with optimism as an undercurrent, but with “dreaming” as the message instead of “progress.” So, in accordance with the ride’s thesis statement, the Horizons experience invited us to “take the trip you’ve always dreamed of.”
Much like Spaceship Earth’s use of alternating lighted panels as the riders pass under archways to simulate an mysterious journey through time, Horizons used a wall of acrylic clouds laced with fiber optic effects to create the illusion of going into a dream.
The designers must have determined that “clouds” were synonymous with “dreaming,” for the motif appears several times within the avant garde “Looking Back at Tomorrow” segment. We pass through them as we begin our journey and then view the early show scenes through their outlines. An example of this can be seen here in Collin Campbell’s rendering for the Parisian future scene, taken from the G.E. Promotional Booklet.
Not only is this a framing device for the themed show, it reinforces that what we are seeing is the result of dreams and the dreamers behind them. Tom Fitzgerald, who was a primary architect in crafting the story, noted that the designs of the earlier scenes are rooted in the time period in which they were dreamed.
It’s important to note that these early sequences were viewed as the ride vehicle was rounding a gradual arc, which the show scenes mirrored, slowly panning from left to right and revealing details as we peek into the cutouts.
Our first foray into the thoughts of past visionaries is a series of projections that mimic attempts at flight: drawn from the legend of Icarus, early attempts at balloon aviation, and eventually Verne’s own ‘Rocket to the Moon’ launch (complete with adoring spectators). These projections were done in the style of traditional woodcuts, which in accordance with Fitzgerald’s quote, fits the designs of the time period.
Let’s start by looking at a 15th century woodcarving by the artist Albrecht Dürer. Likely the oldest influence on Horizons, the Dürer illustration doesn’t represent a direct lift, but rather a borrowing of style. It’s an appropriate time period to begin with, Early-Renaissance art fits both the woodcut illustrations and the DaVinci-esque flying machines. From a narrative standpoint, here marks a transition from “mythology” to “fantasy” to “near-reality” as “the stuff that dreams were made of” materializes and disappears. This only perpetuates the notion that the Horizons experience is nothing more than a ‘dream state.’ The Horizons attraction was not the Walt Disney Company and G.E. predicting what the future would be, but rather what it could be. G.E. executive Ned Landon, who worked with WED Enterprises in developing the attraction, gave the subtitle “An Achievable Future.”
The staging for the Jules Verne tableau was influenced by the work of Henri de Montaut, who was the primary illustrator behind Verne’s De la terre à la lune. The Victorian furnishings of the cabin, with its plush crosshatched red fabric walls, are replicated as well as the curved furniture and the viewing portal in the upper left section. Horizons’ Verne is accompanied by two audio animatronics: a chicken and a dog. An element of whimsy is added with the figures, which derive from the “From the Earth to the Moon” novel and cross-references another piece of classic science fiction in the next scene: George Meilies’ 1902 classic “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” The attraction script’s narrative of “the grand old man himself” gave gravitas to Verne himself and his representation as the singular futuristic visionary. The following scene completes Horizons’ mini three act play as we have followed Verne’s vessel from takeoff, to mid-space, and to it’s landing site in Meilies’ moon.
There’s a unique balance of warm and cool tones in these early scenes. The soft yellows and pinks in the early aviation projection scene contrast the dark black background, while the shifting between projections guided the rider’s eyes through the scene accordingly. The Jules Verne staging is a good example of effective set design, for it communicates it’s message quickly and directs the viewer’s eyes to a focal point, using selective lighting to hone in on details. The placement of the moon to the right correlates to the ride vehicle’s movement and viewer sightlines as well as the progression of Verne’s capsule in the ‘mini-three act play.’
The ‘French future’ scene brought kineticism what would have been a static vignette, which was nothing more than painted flats. It’s equivalent to a pop-up storybook coming to life, enriched by colored lighting. While often attributed, and rightfully so, to the French Artist Albert Robida, I have found elements of another French artist named Villemard, who in turn, was likely influenced by Robida. A comparison can be seen below. Throughout the show scene, Campbell did great work with placing people and vehicles at varying heights in the foreground and architectural details in the background. The result is a visual cacophony which mirrors the American “Future from the 50′s” shown in a later scene. The works of the two French artists provided an essential absurdist view of the future and continued what had been a dominantly European view.
From a film perspective, Horizons was essentially a continuous tracking shot from left to right, as the vehicles traveled sideways. A modified omnimover, the Horizons ride system was still able to produce manipulated sightlines, even if it was limited to only facing the left side of the track. It is interesting how the narrative at times could echo the ride vehicle movement: we sink below the sea level, we ascend into outer space, and easy living is “right around the corner”…
It is at this point where the clear European influence fades into twentieth century American thinking, with regards to the future. We enter a more familiar environment too: it’s a cross section of an urban apartment. Having the apartment set in an Art Deco styling was a brilliant choice for a transition in art direction. Art Deco, as a design style, first appeared in post-World War 1 Europe, but was popularized in the United States. Perhaps best encapsulated in style by the World’s Fairs of the 1930′s: 1933′s “Century of Progress” and 1939′s ‘World of Tomorrow,” both fairs reflected themes of easy living and innovation. Depicting “easy living” in the Machine Age allowed Imagineer Ernie Soos to dream up some of Horizons’ most recognizable characters: the robotic servants.
It is a testament to the great character and set designs that the show scene is so fondly remembered to this date. Later in this essay, during the “Urban Habitat” scene, we will discuss the use of stratified levels to build emphatic interior spaces.
The beauty of exhibitionist pavilions like Horizons, and what let its designers have creative freedom, is that the experience isn’t bounded to a single location i.e. Caribbean Plaza. We are temporary transported to different periods of time and place. Yet, the locales that riders visited aren’t seemingly infinite like The Universe of Energy’s expansive prehistoric dinosaur diorama, or set between endless voids like those in Spaceship Earth. Horizons’ show scenes were shallow in comparison. The depth of field was smaller, but the show scenes were larger in width. Large backdrops coupled with projected effects gave the illusion that there was more beyond the interior.
A nod to the attraction’s spiritual predecessor and shared sponsor was placed with the addition of “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” written by the Sherman Brothers. If one listens carefully, one will notice that the scene music for the Robida segment follows the same chord progression as “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” It’s a testament to the brilliance of the George Wilkins/John Debney score. Personally, I think Wilkins’ true genius lies in his ability to craft exceptionally captivating musical hooks with seamless transitions. For example, look at the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain. In my opinion, the transition between the entrance music in the first room to the familiar “Star Tunnel” piece, to the ambient sounds as we reach the loading platform is just as brilliant as any special effect in any attraction.
The backdrop of a science fiction city was clearly influenced by the work of Frank R. Paul. Paul’s work would be revisited for the Magic Kingdom’s Avenue of the Planets, a land heavily influenced by pulp art. It’s quite easy to compare and contrast the backdrop in this concept model (below right) with Paul’s 1942 rendering of a ‘City of the Future’ (below right). Horizons was originally set to have more of a pulp influence, but McGinnis and Campbell’s “Amazing Stories” spiral track to the top of the Omnimax theater was cut for budgetary reasons.
We then view the future through the lens of popular culture. Both the “matinée” and the “Future from the 50′s” sequences share a similar neon-outlined aesthetic. As noted earlier, I believe that the “Future from the 50′s” sequence was the American mirror to the “Robida Flats” tableau.
We should note that the bill of film and television specials (listed below) compromise the primary list of influences for the Magic Kingdom’s New Tomorrowland expansion in 1994.
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926)
Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1928)
Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
Things to Come (William C. Menzies, 1936)
Buck Rogers (Ford Beebe, Saul Goodkind, 1939)
Magic Highway USA (Magic Highway USA, 1958)
The “Looking Back at Tomorrow” segment does more than just to just ground us in familiarity, it primes us for the later show scenes, as one Future World slogan read “travel the corridors of time and discover the future.” Our visual palette is cleansed with in the transitional space by alternating colored theater lights on a curtain.
Act Two: Today’s Achievements
While not directly tied to Horizons, and rather early in the development for the Wonders of Life pavilion, Imagineer Rolly Crump once spoke on the power of these attractions to stimulate thought. “If it’s a ton of fun, and an ounce of information, you’ll reach a teachable moment,” Crump parlayed. I believe that Horizons’ “teachable moment” occurs in this second act during the film message. Not only did it depict the leading technology of the day that helped inspire the proceeding scenes, it reflected the ethos of Future World at that time. Let’s take a look at some dialogue from the attraction’s script for this Act:
“This is no distant dream, “we’re at the threshold now.”
“The sun. Today we’re learning ways to harness its limitless energy.”
“A living tribute to our richest resource – people.”
“ready to fuel tomorrow’s needs.”
In arguing my notion that the Horizons experience is a trip into a dream state, no other quote is more important than the first listed. It’s meant to act as a narrative “boost for the finish line,” a call to action for achievement. Act Two represented real accomplishments and hard sciences that we can use to construct our future. One could view it as a “commercial break” of sorts, non-fiction placed in the middle of two sequences of fiction. It’s the true brilliance of the attraction’s script that presented a future that was warm and reassuring, yet not overtly naïve. One can hear an echo of “we’re learning” today, found in Living With The Land’s barn scene.
The Omnimax format is a wonderful illusion for Disney’s use of multiple screens and optical tricks made the image appear static, even though the participant was moving around the theater space at all times. It’s easily arguable that a viewer engulfed in an 80-foot high screen in the Omnisphere message will have more weight than something displayed on a 12” plasma screen. While McGinnis had hoped to utilize the technology for the attraction’s finale, the sequence added weight to the current message of Future World.
Act Three: Tomorrow’s Windows
As with any attraction that dares to look into the future, there are two fundamental obstacles. That is, “how does one present and design a vision of the future that will not become dated by the time of its operation?” The second is echoed here by Marty Sklar: “One of the problems we face is getting people to make predictions, particularly companies who don’t want to show a product they’ll have in ten years, for competitive reasons, If we go too far, people will say it’s just fantasy … a balancing has to take place when you’re talking about the future.” So Fitzgerald’s team added a qualifier after the Omnimax sequence: “What you’ve just seen are the building blocks for the future up ahead. And while it may look fantastic, remember, it’s all possible.”
The differences in the attraction’s acts are as follows:
Act One explored in an avant garde fashion how the visionaries of the past viewed the Future.
Act Two exhibited in grand fashion the innovations of the day and worked as a ‘call to action’ for an achievable future.
Act Three builds upon both acts to present it’s own vision of the future, utilizing the hard science of the time.
The “Tomorrow’s Windows” sequence had been primed since the beginning of the attraction. The Futureport displayed the wondrous vistas that we could travel to, then Acts I and II showed us the dreamed futures of the past and present.
The design team looked for a timeless constant that could make a foreign concept such as the future instantly relatable and found one in the family structure. “We wanted to emphasize the family unit,” Fitzgerald explained. “Some people think that it may not exist in the future, but our feeling was that advances in transportation and communication will bring families closer together.” So when that was determined, in turn, it was set that most of the show scenes would take place in domestic environments.
George McGinnis was concerned about how Horizons’ set design would affect the tone of the rendered future. He recalled “the future is often presented as all sterile colors and threatening angles, so we used a lot of soft forms – the circular kitchen comes to mind-and warm colors, particularly in the urban setting, the first future habitat presented. We kept ‘people’ details in mind, too. We’re convinced that even though environments will change, people won’t. Teenagers in our show still monopolize the phone; kids and dogs still exasperate mom and dad. We believe one of the main differences high technology will make is that it will give us more choices.”
The “Tomorrow’s Windows” scenes were aesthetically different than the tableaus in Act I. They were rich in giving the illusion of depth. If you recall, we have discussed how Horizons’ show scenes tended to be long in width, but short in depth, as our vehicle travels sideways. This horizontal space allowed WED’s designers to play tricks on the eye as we will see with techniques like forced perspective and implied space. The “Tomorrow’s Windows” sequence showcased future living, work, and recreational spaces, the blending of these spaces is what makes “Tomorrow’s Windows” particularly interesting.
Let’s take a look at a concept piece for the Nova Cite apartment:
As shown here in this concept, and in the attraction, we mostly view these show scenes from their exterior. We quite literally peer into “Tomorrow’s Windows.” This is no coincidence, this is a good aesthetic choice. I don’t know the validity of my assumption, but I always viewed the window support structures were a similar framing device to the cloud motif that bordered the early show scenes. I think that the soft curved forms of the clouds contrast with the sleek, practical lines of the framing for these show scenes, the latter representing a more feasible future. It could be the author putting to much faith in EPCOT Center’s affinity for geometric symbolism, but I would like to believe it to be true. To further explore the interior space, we can look at a rendered model as well as the finished staging.
The living space presented in Horizons’ “Urban Habitat” (more commonly known as Nova Cite) scene was inherently believable because of its functionality. Our sightline is crafted so the ceiling is visible and it includes its recessed lighting. But even before we can peer into “Tomorrow’s Windows” we see the exterior of the apartment complete with exotic foliage furnishings. We are then showed the living space and our eyes are led to the distant exterior: The beautifully rendered Nova Cite backdrop. The painting’s deep blues and purples, featured light projections that simulated movement. It tricks the rider’s eyes into thinking there is considerate depth to the scene. There is a direct contrast between the cool tones of the backdrop and the rich tone of the living room carpet. White furniture is used, not only for modernism, but to accentuate focal points: specifically the placement of the audio-animatronic figures.
This type of themed design is effective, because not only does it suggests lived space, it perpetuates it. For example, we may see a propped exterior balcony in New Orleans Square or Caribbean Plaza that implies lived space, a show scene like Nova Cite displays it in full with “living” characters. One is not a better type of immersion than the other, it’s just different. In a dark ride setting like Horizons, we experience immersion in a passive way: we peer into environments to see how the characters relate to them. With an exterior environment, themed queue, or walk-through attraction, we experience immersion in an active setting: it is a first-person experience.
Returning to Nova Cite, “warmth” is a very hard thing to quantify, yet it has unanimously been attributed to this scene. It seems to be of essential human nature that we desire to occupy these lived spaces. It does help, in the case of Horizons, that the protagonists invite us to this space in the narrative. Perhaps domestic environments like this Nova Cite apartment or the Act IV scene from the Carousel of Progress are often desired spaces of occupation because we inherently know that we are guests and visitors, not residents. At the end of the day we know that we don’t belong. I am not a psychologist, but I believe these experiences do perpetuate a craving to spend time in these false spaces. We do so because these spaces are primarily, believable. This speaks to the validity of great aesthetic choices and well-thought show design. Let’s refer to the following image to examine implied interior space.
All three images frame the Father figure, but do so from distinct vantage points. Ultimately, these perspectives give the illusion of additional space. The first, on the left, is the reveal of the male protagonist, we see him through the exposed beam supports of the apartment. The illusion of depth from this angle has already been explored, so we can move on to the center image. Keep in mind, this perspective requires that the rider’s eyes track the father figure. On the right hand side of the center image, we view the exterior set elements, added for the illusion of depth, as well as my favorite accessory of implied space: the faux stairway (to nowhere!). The third panel offers a striking view of the space that suggests considerate depth of field, as well as being exquisitely framed.
I suppose this would be an appropriate time to address the attraction’s narratology. Horizons operated in a similar way to its Carousel spiritual predecessor. The rider is directly addressed from the beginning of the attraction by the tandem narration of the Mother and Father characters. They guide us through the early non-diagetic tableaus, then become protagonists when we are exposed to their story world. If the rider was not directly addressed and the fourth wall remained unbroken, there would be more of a sense of voyeurism to the living spaces. However, there is no tension because we are invited by the hosts.
The narration does something terribly interesting as we leave the Nova Cite apartment onto the Harvester scene. We pass through an implied exterior terrace that showcased the genetically engineered fruits modeled by Imagineer Alex Taylor, providing a brilliant transition into the farming sequence. While we still have the narration by the two protagonists, we do not share the correlation with the secondary family members. Although we are seeing these exotic environments and the family members that live in them first-hand, they are expressed and explained by the parental figures. What this means is the fourth wall is put back up and riders revert to being spectators. We are not engaged in conversation with the figures we are seeing, we easedrop. Going back to the notion that the Horizons experience is a dream state, the seamless transition in naratology makes sense. The parental figures are boasting about their kids, and how the future has impacted their lives to us as if we have never left their living room. The ‘dream state’ allows us to view those environments and to overhear their dialogue.
We now enter what was commonly known as Mesa Verde. Remember, the travel windows in the Futureport maintained that Mesa Verde was a “desert reclamation complex.” Horizons had an undercurrent on capitalizing on unused potential.
But this idea of desert reclaimation in an attraction was not a unique one, for it had been explored almost two decades earlier in General Motors’ Futurama pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was really an extension of the 1939 Futurama show. I recommend watching this promotional film produced by GM, for it might allow a quick digestion of the similarities in attractions.
Familiar, isn’t it? Let’s continue with other influences, but this attraction will certainly be revisited.
The top panel comes from a March 30, 1958 strip of “Closer Than We Think.” The text reads: “A floating tower will oversee a swarm of robot implements and tractors operated by electronic command.” The second panel emphasizes that “by the turn of the century, farmers may do some of their most important jobs from the air.”
Perhaps Claude Coats, who developed the early concept and layout for the harvester scene, came across these images and was inspired to utilize them in a forced perspective setting. The harvester scene that Coats had designed, later refined and detailed by McGinnis and Gil Keppler is a master’s crafting of effective forced perspective in interior themed show. The triangular positioning of the robotic harvesters on an inclined plane only truly worked when viewed from the middle of the show scene. This presented a problem, for Horizons’ sideways-moving ride system pans from left to right, only a small proportion of the scene would be viewed correctly.
The concept model to the right shows how some of these problems were fixed. Like the previous scene, we are first exposed to the environment by natural elements. Faux rocks and trees help frame the scene and integrate us into our new environment. However, these efforts were most likely trumped by the memorable and pleasant orange smell that was piped in. The woodland elements do help mask the disproportion, but do not provide the answer. The solution? The form of the control room designed by Gil Keppler. See, a circular shaped set piece maintains its proportion from any angle. That’s why the control tower was placed in the exact middle of the scene, it creates a central focal point. Keppler’s open forms for the circular tower, not only worked to correct proportion, but allowed the rider to peer through and appreciate the intended perspective. When the perspective dissolves past the mid-section of the scene, the hovercraft (seen on left) misdirects the eyes of the viewer so the disjunction is not observed.
Also designed by Keppler, the circular kitchen in the following scene featured a glass floor and partial sightlines to the backdrop and accompanying scenery. We transition from a “work” space back to a “living” space. We can appreciate the use of levels and layered space when we look back at the scene. Observe how the foreground elements are separated from the kitchen scene. When we look back at the kitchen scene (shown in the image below) we can see the fully realized space.
The circular ceilings mirror each other but serve different aesthetic and practical functions: the kitchen scene is open and airy to allow a greater visual of the exterior, while the closed ceiling in the living space directs our attention to the screen showing the ‘beach boy’ and the granddaughter animatronic figure. Combined we get a true sense of the domestic environment and the exterior space. It’s quite interesting that this stratified theme design is arguably more effective when seen from this perspective, than the intended, and given sightline of the omnimover. These transitional spaces made Horizons appealing to me, in retrospect. Transitions between work areas, domestic areas, and recreational areas made sense. This harps back to the emitted “warmth” from displaying a indicated living space.
Our ride vehicle travels the contour of the show scenes as they start to influence our elevation. The ride vehicle travels downward as we approach the floating city. The Sea Castle backdrop painting by Shim Yokoyama establishes our position by showing the sea level. As our ride vehicle dips down further, revealing more show scenes, we reach the understanding that we are traveling underwater.
Aesthetically, one can draw influences for Sea Castle from a couple sources of retro-futurism. Klaus Bürgle, a renowned forward-looking artist produced the rendering on the left, and other forward-reaching works in the 1950′s. The scene on the right is recognizable as “Hotel Atlantis” from 1964′s “Futurama” attraction.
When looking at the circular interior design pattern for the Sea Castle scenes, one can observe that both the Repair Bay and the Undersea Classroom “rhyme” with the Mesa Verde kitchen and living spaces.
Note that the show scenes in “Tomorrow’s Windows” progress to more and more exotic environments. We are familiar with cities and have occupied them. We have spent time in deserts and are familiar with their offerings. We have spent less time exploring the depths of the ocean. We have neither spent time or have occupied an outer space setting: it is the ultimate foreign environment. Horizons reverses the order of “Futurama”and shows the City of Tomorrow first. Instead of the environments getting more familiar, Horizons pushed the audience into more far reaching spaces. I do wonder if an arctic scene, as depicted in “Futurama,” was considered when developing the attraction. Yet, all of the environments shown are frontiers: wilderness areas that if we journeyed there in 1983 – or today for that matter – would take us out of our comfort zone. Horizons countered and tempered that notion through it’s themes of ‘family’ and ‘innovation’.
In Sea Castle we continue to easedrop. There is a break between the family segments. We observe restaurant patrons, a classroom, and scuba divers. It’s not as important to hear what the figures are saying (often we can’t), but rather observe their actions. Our visuals are accompanied by the omniscient narration which acknowledges our unfamiliarity: “There’s always been something sort of mysterious about our oceans. We knew they were filled with valuable gifts for us.”
The friendly back-and-forth nature of the mother and father dialogue (which ironically, may have inspired the “sitcom” 1994 iteration of the Carousel of Progress) explores how these future environments are not only practical, but “fun.” I’ve always viewed the Horizons experience as Future World’s payoff. Through the other pavilions, we were introduced to a bevy of hard science and serious information. Horizons represented “the fruits of our labor,” so to speak. I’m not sure how many people actively dream about living in the depths of the ocean or in a space colony, but “Tomorrow’s Windows” gave us the luxury of choice. It embodies the pavilion’s mission to show us how we can apply what we are learning to enhance our future lives. “If we can dream it, we can do it.”
When some of the non-domestic spaces like the underwater restaurant and classroom were in jeopardy for budgetary reasons. McGinnis was able to draw a solution by crafting two-sided sets (seen below).
We can observe from the concept model and the McGinnis sketch how the support structures for “Tomorrow’s Windows” are detailed. As we’ve explored, the windows frame the show scenes and give us our bearings as we traverse through this dream state which I have discussed. In fact, the Richard Beard text specifically refers to these shown as “the underwater observation tube.” McGinnis’ two-sided set design had other benefits, which helped with implied space. Since the ride vehicle traveled downward when passing the “Sub Repair” and “Underwater Classroom” scenes, and the trio of domed windows were close to the “sea floor,” the set piece had to be very tall. One could not see the top of the show set from the omnimover vehicle. A result of this height was a feeling of tranquility in a deep undersea setting. The environment was also supported by kelp on tension springs, often hiding support beams, and lighted effects.
Of course, another visual pattern was the vehicle design. Much has been written about the ill-fated special effect developed by Don Iwerks that bridged the gap between sea and space, so I won’t delve into specifics. The concept models shown below demonstrate their similarity. However, the spacial transition in elevation gives ample weight to the effect of rising into outer space.
Allow me to revert back to the genius of the musical score for a brief moment. In my opinion, the sequence from the “Undersea Classroom” to “Space” scene music are just as quintessential contributions to the Disney Parks canon as any other work composed by Walt Disney Imagineering. This musical transition helps us believe that we are entering the last, and most exotic frontier. One can note that more stringed instruments are used here, to implicate a more grandiose spectacle.
Again, we can recognize aesthetic patterns. Seen below is a concept model for the much remembered “floating family” segment.
We see the soft, warm, curved forms once again, avoiding the harsh and sharp lines that McGinnis strived to avoid. Just as we saw in the Sub Repair Bay and Gil Keppler’s Mesa Verde Kitchen, the dual circle configuration is seen again from a different angle. In Mesa Verde, we see the open roof of the kitchen from below. In Sea Castle we see the pattern from above with the “Tom II” audio-animatronic figure sitting on the edge of its center. Here we observe it from a sideways perspective, but the motif is subconsciously familiar.
As we approach the final show scene, Horizons’ third act: “Tomorrow’s Windows” concludes with visual and musical resolution. The synthesis of all of Future World’s ideals ends with the family structure, utilizing the technology for an improved lifestyle. Compare the scene shown to the left with the first reveal of the protagonists in the Nova Cite apartment. It’s absolutely striking how each vantage point is framed. We must applaud Horizons for its ambition and its continuity of aesthetic vision.
By framing the attraction from the perspective of a ‘dream state’ we can begin to see why it was so successful. The ‘dream state’ that Horizons employed helped solve a few issues that plague other themed attractions:
1. The use of clouds, alternating lights and other motifs helped signify a transition between acts.
2. The seamless shifting of narrative structure simultaneously adheres the rider to the family.
3. The lucidness of spacial differences can signify scene transitions i.e. the sea to space transition.
4. The “Looking Back at Tomorrow’s” period stylizing and contrasting to the Art Direction of the rest of the ride.
Now, this does not mean that any attraction’s disjunctions in sequencing can be classified this way. Horizons can do so because it exhibited this notion from the start. The reoccurring narration rationalizes what we are seeing, because it pertains to their “story world” that we see in the Third Act.
The lessons that Horizons bestowed on us will help create the compelling experiences of tomorrow. We can observe the importance of a ‘capstone’ attraction to a park or land. Much as been said about Horizons being the synthesis of Future World’s ideas. While completely true, what often goes unsaid is how it enriched the existing pavilions. By being warm, optimistic, and relatable, Horizons gave weight to the ideas and hard information exhibited there, an illustrated payoff.
Something that will always stick with me is the grandfather’s closing dialouge: “And I’ll tell you something … if we can dream it, we really can do it. And that’s the most exciting part.”
I was very lucky to “take the trip you’ve always dreamed of” once in my lifetime. The day was January 7, 1999 and my eight year old self had no idea that I had nearly avoided having never experienced it. While Horizons clearly reached me at an impressionable age, for it helped developed my passion for themed design, I could have never developed all of these points from one ride-through of the attraction alone.
If you have never seen the attraction, and in turn are probably very confused, or if you’d like to relive it, I highly recommend Martin Smith’s Ultimate Tribute Video.
Also, this past October I had the opportunity to experience a virtual simulation of the attraction developed by the incomparable Chris Wallace. The work that he is doing is truly inspiring and I am so grateful to him that I got to experience the attraction in a near real life setting, once again. Check out his simulation if you haven’t already done so: Horizons Ressurected
Another unique Horizons resource is a blog named Mesa Verde Times. If you take a look at the site, you will see Horizons from a unique perspective to say the least. At EPCOT’s 30th event I, coincidentally was seated by Hoot and Chief who were nice enough to swap some stories. I finally took Hoot up on his offer of a piece of gum when he insisted that it was “orange flavored.”
Also, I would like to thank my friends who helped look over this article and gave great suggestions. You can follow them on Twitter @EPCOTExplorer and @joebillmatt .
Lastly, we shouldn’t mourn the loss of Horizons. Let’s take the lessons that we learned from it, apply them, and look further.