Tuesday, May 27, 2014

37 Years Ago Today: Fast Times on Space Mountain

In honor of the May 27, 1977 opening of Space Mountain at Disneyland I am sharing the true-life tales of former cast member Ken S., accompanied by some amazing construction photos taken by Bill H. As Ken recalls:

There was a recent item in the OC History Roundup blog about Tomorrowland which registered a memory of mine from the days before Space Mountain was open to the public. By mid 1976, much of the Mountain’s track was complete inside the shell of the building. By then the building looked like a round circus Big Top without most of the exterior walls, especially those panels fronting the ‘employee side’ of the building. There was quite a bit of excitement among the cast members as we had all witnessed the attraction slowly taking shape, and now were hearing the sounds of a test sled vehicle occasionally making the rounds of the track. We weren't allowed to walk up to the building and peer inside as there was construction fencing keeping us at some distance. But we all clamored for a glimpse.

While I was working over in Adventureland, I had a chance meeting or two with some of the Disney supervisors overseeing and validating the vehicle testing. I must have impressed them enough that one day, I got a quiet invitation..almost a whisper...from a supervisor to meet up at the construction gate after my shift. Once there, I joined a very small number of other cast members who must have also received the same invitation. We were invited to take a ride on Space Mountain!

What we didn’t realize at the time was that few, if any others, had ridden the vehicle(s) to date; most of the vehicle trips were done empty or filled with sand bags to replicate the experience of real riders. We realized later we were chosen to be real-life ‘test dummies’.

Given hard hats, we walked into the building still under construction down to the load position. At that point, the hard hats were then left behind. I can’t recall the instructions we were given, but no doubt they were the ones that all guests receive, other than a discussion reminding us that if the ride shut down we should stay inside the vehicle, and to “remain seated at all times”. We were the only vehicle on the track.

Once released, off we went up the chain drive, through the tunnel to the top of the ride. Now remember, there were no special effects and you could see outside the building, and the entire track complex. We were all primed for a good ride.

And a good ride it was. We were whipped and dropped and up and down and round and round we went at a very fast rate. The part where the bottom drops out for a momentary feeling of weightlessness would have pulled us out of the vehicle if it weren’t for the safety bar.

By the time we arrived back at the station, we were all full of adrenaline and, after catching our breath, wanted to go again, but were politely told no and given a ‘Thank you’ for volunteering. So provided our hard hats, we got out of the vehicle and with shaky legs walked from the building thinking this was the most fantastic experience we had experienced and couldn’t wait to do ride it again.

For a few days later, the test vehicle continued to run, but there were no riders which seemed odd. Speaking with one of the workers I learned there was a reason. Those of us who rode that day were in a vehicle that was running up to 10mph faster than considered safe…that if the emergency brakes were applied to stop the ride, we would have blown through it. They were now beginning modifications to the wheels and who knows what else to make the ride run slower. Obviously a solution was found, as Space Mountain was completed and opened.

There was a special ‘cast member only’ party one evening before it was opened to the public. I was excited to be there and was ready for the experience, but the experience wasn’t the same, the ride was definitely slower.

Thinking about it now, it's too bad there wasn’t a photo taken of us intrepid test riders coming back to the station as they do today. I wonder what the look was on our faces after we broke the ‘speed barrier.' It was probably much like the look of the supervisions and test personnel on the dock staring at us. I’m not sure it was a look of relief or the shock that we made it safely all the way down.

Many thanks to Ken for sharing these great first-hand stories!

See more vintage & current Space Mountain photos on my main website.

1 comment:

K. Martinez said...

What a cool story! So much has changed on this attraction since it opened in 1977. I remember the "silent" version of Space Mountain and the peek-a-view area from the interior queue where you could see a few rocket vehicles in action before you headed into the main load area. Later on they sealed it up. I was bummed. I also remember the bright blue colored tunnel on the 2nd lift hill before they darkened it up with special effects. Lots of great memories.