Space Mountain, 1990
Space Mountain, 1990

Slipping into the skinny seat of the shuttlecraft at Space Mountain, I kept hearing the voice echoing throughout the noisy room. “Shuttle preparing for launch. Shuttle preparing for launch.” In 1975, the year Space Mountain opened, my sisters and I – kids, then – waited for more than an hour for the thrill of zooming into the Space Age on a brand-new rollercoaster. In the heavens above, the Apollo program was ending, with no idea what would come next. As it turned out, it would be a Space Shuttle.

Speeding through Space Mountain

It’s no surprise that astronaut Gordon Cooper was on the team that helped bring Walt Disney’s dream of a space-themed rollercoaster ride – based on the 1950s Matterhorn bobsleds at Disneyland – to reality. Thematically, nearly 40 years after it opened to a wowed audience, the sets in Space Mountain are still more futuristic than anything you’ll see around the operations at Kennedy Space Center. It’s the oldest coaster at Walt Disney World, and has been replicated in all of the Disney theme parks around the world. I took this spin with my sweetie, who spent his career working on the Space Shuttle; we both had fond memories of the ride as kids.

Space Mountain
Space Mountain from Tomorrowland

Time spent standing in line – or walking up the long, angular corridors, if you have a Fastpass – immerses you in the science fiction surroundings before you get to the queue to get on board. Making a quick turn out of the station, you’re blasting off up a corridor of flashing blue lights meant to simulate liftoff. With a sudden glimpse of planets and asteroids rushing past, the coaster plunges into sharp twists and turns along a wild mouse-style track in the dark. You catch glimpses of the other coaster, leaving the opposite station, at different points in the ride. While it’s tough to brace yourself for the sudden twists and turns if you’re in the lead car, the ride never exceeds 27 miles per hour. Coming back down to Earth, the shuttle slows down in a tunnel of flashing red lights before stopping for you to disembark. A moving walkway challenges your post-ride balance, sweeping you past vignettes of travel on foreign planets.

Space Mountain
Camping on a backwater planet

After the Space Shuttle program ended, a 747 carried Space Shuttle Endeavor on a low flyover of Space Mountain as the shuttle headed for a California museum, an homage to the connection between space dreams and space reality.

Buzzing around the Barnstormer

When Toontown opened in Fantasyland in the late 1990s, the Barnstormer was one element that attracted visitors to this far corner of the park, a gentle runaway-train style ride themed as Goofy’s flying school. It closed for several years as this portion of the Magic Kingdom was re-imagined as Storybook Circus. Reopened, the ride is still as gentle as ever, perfect for young ones to try their very first rollercoaster since you can sit right next to them.

The Barnstormer is meant for the younger set

Now sporting a “Great Goofini” theme, the coaster train looks like a set of small acrobatic planes and, after a pull up to the top of the lift, glides easily down through loops and swirls to the station below. The ride took all of a minute, if that, and there wasn’t even a touch of the dizzies upon stepping out of the car.

Tearing through Thunder Mountain

At Space Mountain, the lines are hidden inside a building. At the Big Thunder Mountain Railway, you see a steady chain of thrillseekers snaking up the mountain to the station. I have photos from when the “mountain” was under construction before the ride opened, with much fanfare, in 1980, and it’s by far my favorite of all of the rollercoasters around Walt Disney World. The mix of storytelling, staging, and motion just can’t be beat. On a trip to Utah, I stumbled across a hiking trail in Dixie National Forest through a place called Red Canyon, a rock forest that looked identical to this rocks in this attraction. It made me appreciate both even more.

Big Thunder Mountain Railway
Taking the curves on Big Thunder Mountain Railway

What makes this trip special are the detailed vignettes and nuances that you may not catch until you’ve ridden it a few dozen times, photographed it from Fort Samuel Clemens on Tom Sawyer Island, or peered over from the Walt Disney World Railroad and examined the tableau from different angles. Smoke curls out of an explosives shack next to a casket company. There are shimmering pools inside the cavern that the train climbs through on its initial ascent. A family of javelinas – a peccarary only found in the Southwestern USA – race along the tracks. Travertine pools boil and bubble; a geyser spouts, surprising guests, along the exit path.

Big Thunder Mountain Railway
Swooping through Frontierland on Big Thunder Mountain Railway

A variant on the steel runaway train, the trains depart from two parallel stations and zip through drops and curves at about the same speed as Space Mountain, but in this case, you can see what’s coming, and visual tricks are used to fool your perception. Your train returns to the opposite station. By the time you’re done – less than four minutes – you know you’ve been on a coaster. And you’re ready to do it again.

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Get ready for another wild mine ride! Right now, Disney Imagineers are putting together the thrills on their newest rollercoaster-under-wraps, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. In part taking the place of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, in part a whole new central anchor for Fantasyland, this project is still in the construction phase. I had the opportunity to chat with some of the team of dreamers about their “three dimensional storytelling.” According to David Minichiello, Creative Director, “we developed these amazing ride vehicles just for this ride. It’s the first place in the world that we’re doing this. ” Based on the mine cars from the movie, the ride vehicle, “sways back and forth. Each vehicle sways independently, so as you corner, it will be really fun.”

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Sneak peek at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (WDWNews)

As the attraction will tell the Seven Dwarfs side of the classic tale, the rollercoaster will immerse you in the mine, “where a million diamonds shine,” and the countryside surrounding it. “As a centerpiece for the new Fantasyland,” said David, “it’ll be an exciting kinetic element.” It debuts late 2014.

Visiting Disney’s Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom remains the most popular of the theme parks at Walt Disney World, which means you need to hit the park early to make it to these always-busy rides. One strategy: stay at one of the onsite resorts to get the perk of early guest admission; folks staying at the Magic Kingdom Resorts (Contemporary, Polynesian, Grand Floridian) have the shortest trip to the front gate.

Use Fastpass to your advantage. Take the train from Main Street USA to Frontierland and grab a Fastpass for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. If your return window is a couple of hours off, jump back on the train and get off at the next stop, Storybook Circus, to either ride the Barnstormer or, if you have enough time, take the crowd-free walk from the Barnstomer that parallels the train tracks over to Space Mountain and get in line. The Fastpass distribution point for Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are right next to the entrance to the ride. The Fastpass for Barnstormer is hidden in the yellow Big Top tent on the far side of the railroad station from the ride.

If you’re going to be stuck in line, choose Space Mountain for the big wait. Interactive games are now a part of the waiting-in-line experience.