Note: The next few posts will be devoted to the history of space rides at Disney parks. The guys at WEDWay Radio are also tackling this subject, and I encourage you to check out the first installment of their Disney In Space series, devoted to the forgotten Disneyland attraction Space Station X-1.
Among Walt Disney’s many interests was space travel. And although human spaceflight was still in the future when plans for Disneyland were made, it seemed logical that it might become a routine fact of life by the end of the 20th century. After all, the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903 and by the end of the Second World War airplanes were commonplace.
In March 1955, about four months before Disneyland opened, the Disneyland TV series debuted the episode Man In Space, which used a mixture of lighthearted animation and staid academic sequences to educate audiences about the possibilities of human spaceflight. The opening of the original Magic Kingdom in 1955 gave the public a new prospect: a simulated trip to the Moon.
Early Tomorrowland’s attraction lineup wasn’t all that impressive, and things like the Aluminum Hall of Fame and the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry are just footnotes in Disney history. Rocket To The Moon, though, was destined to become one of Disneyland’s great shows. One of the park’s iconic structures, the gleaming white-and-red TWA Moonliner (which inspired the visual design of this very blog, among other things) served as a beacon to draw visitors to the futuristic-looking twin-domed show building, where audiences were seated in one of two circular theaters meant to mimic the cylindrical interior of a rocket ship. The “flight” into space played out on two screens on the floor and ceiling of the theater. Although it seems crude to us, Rocket to the Moon really was an excellent “mass-market” simulator by 1950s standards. More rigorous simulators might be fine for the test pilots that would become America’s first astronauts, but Walt Disney was not about to strap his customers into some kind of a spinning centrifuge that would make them lose their lunch.
Despite the fact that it was among the first Disney attractions, Rocket to the Moon survived more or less intact into the 1990s. It gained an Animatronic preshow and a new name, Flight To The Moon, during the 1967 New Tomorrowland upgrade. That upgraded show was cloned for Walt Disney World in Florida, but in 1975 both the East and West coast shows were refurbished once again into Mission To Mars. The destination of your rocket trip had changed, and the sci-fi convention of hyperspace travel was used to explain how you could cross the vast distance from Earth to Mars and back during the course of a five-minute show, but underneath all that it was virtually the same experience that greeted Disneyland’s first crowds in 1955. Even the takeoff and landing animations remained unchanged from the 1955 version of the show.
Much like the Man In Space episode of the Disneyland TV series, and its follow-up installments Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond, Flight to the Moon’s purpose was not to provide thrills, but to simulate as realistically as possible what an actual trip into space might be like in the future. Much like the more whimsical animated sequences in those television shows, though, Disney’s next big space ride would eschew realism in favor of entertainment value. Check back soon for the next installment of my Disney In Space series where I’ll dive into one of Disney’s landmark attractions: Space Mountain. In the meantime, check out Daveland’s excellent photo page devoted to the Moonliner and the Rocket to the Moon attraction.