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.

SpaceMountainOpeningThis 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.

SM_napkin_sketch_mcginnis_lgAn early concept by George McGinnis drawn on napkin.

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.

smstrcdrIn 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)

  1. The Hidden Line
  2. The Illusion of Progress
  3. Sensory Entertainment
  4. Cooling the Line
  5. Loading/Unloading of Attractions

Fjellman’s “Three Basic Forms of Lines at Walt Disney World” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 207)

  1. The Open Snake
  2. The Preshow Balustrade
  3. 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.

Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 3.20.46 PM

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.

Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 3.17.27 PMI 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.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 1.12.13 AM

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.


George Mc Ginnis on Space Mountain (2005) Part 1 Part 2