Mission Control was a vaguely convincing room full of instruments and video screens manned by a crew of eight animatronic figures – all men, of course, because this was not monkey business and women could be put to much better use sewing spacesuits. The men sedately monitored a range of activities (in NASA footage) and took notes. As Bruce Gordon and Dave Mumford note in their fantastic book, Disneyland – The Nickel Tour, the fact that Flight To The Moon was presented by Disney as being “scientifically accurate” did not necessarily make for great fun.
Presiding over this somber affair was Mr. Tom Morrow, director of operations. He stood behind a bank of computer panels which conveniently concealed an inhumanly mechanical lower torso that allowed him to spin around handily in response to “hearing” an attraction host or hostess beckon him by name. Once introduced, he directed his attention to the group of guests waiting for a little pre-flight entertainment.
Morrow, whose voice resonated with the same authoritative timbre of white male America that characterized the majority of Disney’s Tomorrowland attractions, welcomed guests to the room and proceeded to explain just what the very serious-looking equipment was all about. He referenced assorted projects, among them Spaceport (a Disneyland throwback), a ship being prepared for a two and one-half year trip to Mars (foreshadowing!) and a rolling spacecraft returning to earth at 17,000 miles an hour. Then an emergency situation developed on runway 12, where – oh, of all the crazy things – a dizzy albatross came in for a hazardous landing and sent the entire operations crew into a panic. The host or hostess broke back in at this point to prod Morrow about a Saturn series rocket being sent out an a prospecting voyage to the asteroid belt. Guests were able to watch the rocket undergo first stage separation. Then an image of the Flight 92 vehicle on the launch pad was presented on the big screen. Morrow wished everyone a pleasant flight and guests were directed out of the Mission Control area to their rocket vehicle around the corner.
No attempt was made, incidentally, to account for the fact that the hike from the command center to the launch pad spanned a distance of approximately 25 feet. This was one of the credibility gaps that was to be filled in by the previously recommended personal supply of imagination.
During the short jaunt, guests passed by a window looking out onto the rocket refueling station. In the adjacent hallway they were directed into one of two opposing rockets. The circular seating sections of each rocket consisted of four rows rising up from the recessed center of the room. In that center area was a circular screen, parallel to the floor, enclosed behind a black railing. The room was split in two by twin stairwells that led down to the center of the room. High up on the blue cabin walls were two horizontal screens on opposite sides of the room. Another circular screen was situated on the ceiling. 162 guests could fit into the rocket. Once everyone was close to settled, a host or hostess would assure guests that the cabin would remain temperature-controlled and then issue the normal protocols about not smoking during the flight and how to exit when it was over. Then the Captain was summoned, and he made a brief welcoming announcement before take-off.
The subsequent final countdown was brief, and almost immediately the cabin and its contents shook from the force of the launch. A thunderous rumble emanated from below the seats as the craft shot into the sky at full velocity. After a few moments of confusion, the noise subsided and the seat bottoms underwent a quick level adjustment which simulated a reduction in gravity*. The captain’s voice came back over the speakers to notify passengers that they had passed “maximum flight dynamic pressure,” but were still under traffic control – which would hopefully prevent collisions with any space junk drifting in the atmosphere. At 1,000 feet per second, the craft passed near a weather satellite, one of many images to be seen on the cabin’s viewing screens during the flight. As the moon drew closer, the captain announced that the ship was clear of traffic and that guests would soon be treated to both partial weightlessness (“no floating about the cabin, please”) and a live telecast from the workers on a moon base.
Within seconds the cabin’s middle screens lit up with a view of several astronauts on the lunar surface. One of the astronauts – strangely enough blessed with the same impeccable vocal dynamics as every other man in the space program – addressed guests directly and welcomed them to the moon.
He explained how his bulky suit was successfully engineered to keep him alive and temperature-controlled in the absolute vacuum of space. Without his face plate, he cheerfully stated, his “blood would literally boil.” Gesturing toward his moon base in the distance, he mentioned that most of the facility had to be built below the surface for protection against radiation and meteorites. But the moon had its advantages, he proclaimed. Among them, the fact that gravity here was one-sixth of that on earth – which begged a demonstration. In an extraordinary display of recklessness, the moon host and two members of his team engaged in a round of “Toss The Astronaut.” He quickly amended the levity of the stunt by pointing out just how easy it would have been to rip one of the suits. “And that,” he elaborated, “would be the end.”
Running low on air, the half-wit entered his laboratory for a fresh supply. In these cramped quarters he said that, compared to his spacesuit, the trailer-sized compound felt “like a mansion.” He then bid guests farewell and the Captain resumed his spoken narration of the flight.
The next phase of the trip took the spacecraft near the moon’s surface, which could be viewed through the cabin’s lower screen. The Captain explained how the many craters were formed by both meteorites and volcanic activity. Passing over the top of the aforementioned moon base, guests saw its crew issuing a “Bon Voyage” signal via laser beam (probably at great risk to everyone aboard). Moments later the craft moved over to the dark side of the moon, which the Captain stated had been a mystery for centuries as it always faced away from earth. Little surprise that it turned out to look exactly like the other side.
Passing back over to the illuminated surface, the Captain directed everyone’s attention to the sun. Viewed through special filters and telescopic lenses on the middle screens, guests saw sun spots (cool, dark patches – only 7,000 degrees) and “incandescent gases bursting from the sun’s ring.” As he jovially contemplated how all life would come to an abrupt end should the sun suddenly burn up, the spacecraft was struck by a shower of meteoroids. This sent the entire cabin into an apocalyptic shaking fit as sirens blared and lights flashed. Incredibly, the ship emerged without any real damage – but the chaos nonetheless prompted a quick return to Earth. Within moments the craft underwent “terminal deceleration” and was sitting safely on the landing pad.
A host or hostess directed guests to exit the cabin through the doors opposite those through which they had entered. Depending on which cabin they were seated in, they would re-enter Tomorrowland via a pathway facing Cinderella Castle and the Hub, or through a hallway spilling them out into the land’s main drag, just north of the attraction’s entrance. With that, their moon trip was complete.
* This probably made Flight To The Moon the first theme park attraction to enhance the guest experience in such a butt-centric way, paving the road ahead for plenty of 3-D movie seat tricks.
Unlike Disneyland’s version of the attraction, Flight to the Moon never had a sponsor in Florida. McDonnell-Douglas, who had linked up with the show in California, later hosted WDW’s Mission To Mars for a five year period.
Flight To The Moon had debuted in California two years before NASA achieved its first manned lunar landing in 1969. It was the product of a decade where the ambitions of the US space program had been pinned on the successful arrival of Americans on the moon; a goal made concrete by President Kennedy in a 1961 speech. So in the late 1960s, the country was right in the middle of moon fever. By 1974, however, things had changed. With NASA’s last manned mission to the moon having taken place in 1972 – and with further 1970s lunar missions destined to be cancelled – WED Enterprises sensed the need to refit Flight To The Moon with something that spoke both to the more immediate realities of space science (such as Skylab and the in-development Viking Program) and a somewhat more fantastic projection for the future than manned moon bases. Thus was born the concept for a Flight To The Moon update that would take Magic Kingdom visitors on a Mars fly-by. The resulting attraction, Mission To Mars, debuted in Disneyland on March 21, 1975
Florida’s version opened June 7 of the same year (Flight To The Moon had closed a few months prior). The changes introduced at that time were arguably scant enough that it could have been called a simple makeover. Aside from some new cosmetic treatments, new films, name changes and, of course, a change in destination, Mission To Mars was at first glance nearly identical to its predecessor.
Some of the specific changes:
– A remake of the entrance and holding area with new signs, wall colors and photographs. The Flight # changed from 92 to 295.
– The introduction of a woman to one of the seats in Mission Control*.
– The replacement of Mr. Morrow with Mr. Johnson. Johnson had the same voice, that of George Walsh, as Mr. Morrow. Johnson, however, was more hip to the jive than Morrow. Instead of a button down shirt and necktie, he rocked a (usually) red turtleneck sweater beneath his lab coat. He also had a luxuriant head of hair and a moustache of a style seen infrequently on anyone other than Burt Reynolds, Rip Taylor or porn stars. It’s possible that he lived down the street from the Carousel of Progress family.
– Most of the film footage shown in the cabins had to be changed. There was no base on mars from which a host could transmit a video signal, so the images came from probes launched from guests’ rocket. So while the moon host was gone, his voice (that of Peter Renoudet) remained as that of a now-unseen guide, “Third Officer Collins.”
Some things that could easily have changed but didn’t:
– The albatross continued tripping the emergency system.
– Meteoroid showers still panicked every departure and prompted hasty returns to the launch pad.
I have no specific childhood memories of Flight To The Moon that I can truly distinguish from Mission To Mars. My earliest recollections of either attraction are the albatross setting off the alarms in Mission Control and of the seats “popping” in the flight cabins. As a six-year-old I don’t think I believed I was actually traveling into space, but I did find the experience to be slightly intense – or at least noisy. Over time it just became more and more silly. By the late 1980s Mission To Mars was so hopelessly dated that I appreciated it on a whole new level, by which I mean its camp value had become evident. Watching cast members interact with Mr. Johnson during the pre-show became the best part of the attraction for its sheer absurdity. It wasn’t unusual, during the attraction’s final years, for them to pitch alternate questions to which he would respond with, “of course, just a moment.” My favorite, which I only heard once and have to paraphrase, was “Excuse me, Mr. Johnson, but since no one came here for a lesson in aviculture could you please take the pictures of the bird off the screens and get back to something space-related?”
When plans for a new Tomorrowland were revealed to Magic Kingdom guests in 1991 as part of a modified Walt Disney Story post-show display, it was clear from Alien Encounter concept art that it was intended to take Mission To Mars’ place. There wasn’t any resistance; Mission To Mars had definitely run its course and no one would argue otherwise. The only part of this that caused fans of the original Magic Kingdom any grief was that Alien Encounter became symptomatic of Tomorrowland having lost its way. While parts of Tomorrowland took on a retro look and feel in 1994, more of it was left in a kind of midway state of existence that suggested the makeover money had run out. Alien Encounter went in a different direction altogether (a blend of humor and horror that was not particularly funny or scary in the final analysis). Mission To Mars, in retrospect, was more entertaining because it had a distinctly “I can’t believe this is still open” aura to it, whereas Alien Encounter provoked something more of an “I can’t believe this is what they came up with” response.
I have more images, audio and video to roll out from both Flight To The Moon and Mission To Mars, but as of January 2010 I’m still recovering lost data from a computer crash and will have to come back to these fine attractions at a later date.
|Part III – Flight To The Moon & Mission To Mars Audio & Video|
AUDIO – click on any of the LP icons or track names below to hear or download audio files
Flight To The Moon – full live recording of the Disneyland version
c. 1973, mp3 file, 14.2mb, 2:06, original recording courtesy Dave Barker, Jr. R.I.P.
|Part IV – Links to other Flight To The Moon & Mission To Mars Resources|
|Yesterland – Rocket To The Moon|