The Decline of a Classic: Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris

Today, we’re hearing from guest blogger Nick Sim, founder and lead editor of Theme Park Tourist.  Take it away, Nick!

It’s a familiar story at theme parks all over the world. A shiny new attraction opens amidst a blitz of publicity, and instantly becomes the biggest draw in the park. If it’s a rollercoaster, it’s the tallest, fastest and smoothest around. If it’s a dark ride, it employs the latest and greatest technology and special effects. Plaudits follow from fans, and the park counts its money following a hefty boost in attendance.

The decline starts slowly at first. The attraction loses its “newness”, and guests gradually drift on to the next new addition. Paintwork starts to fade. Innovations are cloned elsewhere and lose their uniqueness. What was once the first stop for every visitor becomes just another ride or show.

Eventually, a state of terminal decline can set in. Older rollercoasters can degenerate into such a rough experience that guests begin to actively avoid them. Dark rides become plagued by missing scenes, stuttering audio tracks and unrepaired animatronics. At some point, hidden in the footnotes of a press release announcing a replacement, it’s quietly revealed that the ageing ride will be dismantled and removed.

Few theme park chains have proven more adept at avoiding this attraction lifecycle than Disney. All of its parks are packed full of rides that have lasted the test of time – in some cases for decades. Rather than being dismissed as old and outdated, classics such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Peter Pan’s Flight are adored by fans of all ages, and still draw huge crowds.

That’s what makes the fate of Space Mountain: Mission 2 at Disneyland Paris so depressing. Opened three years after the park itself, in 1995, it proved to be such a spectacular success that former Disney CEO Michael Eisner once told the lead Imagineer on the project, Tim Delaney, that he had “saved” the entire resort.

It really was that good. Rather than simply cloning the existing Space Mountain coasters at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, Delaney went all-out to create a completely new experience. Gone was the tame “wild mouse” design, to be replaced by a high-speed, multi-inversion steel monster. The generic “journey into space” storyline was also out, appropriately replaced with a backplot based on Jules Verne’s classic De la Terre à la Lune (“From the Earth, to the Moon”). The indoor space scenes and sense of disorientation remained, but riders reached the stars via a stunning launch sequence.

When it opened, Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune was a masterpiece of attraction design, and offered a smooth, comfortable, exciting ride. However, regular upkeep would be required to keep it in this state, and the expensive refurbishments seen on the US versions of the ride were out of the question for a resort that was struggling just to stay afloat. The Intamin-built coaster’s theming remained impressive, but riding it became painfully jarring, with the over-the-shoulder restraints becoming implements of torture rather than the safety devices that they were originally intended to be.

The problem wasn’t wholly ignored. A well-publicised overhaul did take place in 2005, resulting in a renaming of the attraction to Space Mountain: Mission 2 and a replacement backstory. Unfortunately, this removed some of the Victorian theming elements that made the coaster great in the first place (nothing could fit it more perfectly than De la Terre a la Lune), while fixing none of its shortcomings. The ride still attracts long queues (this is unsurprising, given the dearth of new additions at Disneyland Paris over the last few years), but you’d better wear padded clothing if you want to step off it unbruised.

In many ways, Space Mountain: Mission 2’s fate mirrors that of the Disneyland Resort Paris as a whole. Both still have a lot to offer, but are desperately in need of an injection of capital to bring them back up to their former glories. At some stage, Disney is going to have to bite the bullet and invest some cold, hard cash in order to prop up its European outpost. Space Mountain revived the resort’s fortunes once before. Who’s to say it couldn’t do the same again?

Nick Sim is a lifelong Disney fan based in Suffolk, England. When he’s not daydreaming about Toy Story Mania coming to Disneyland Paris, he can be found writing news and reviews for Theme Park Tourist.

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