Enclosed Coasters: part one of a spectacular journey in the dark

Indoor coasters were inspired by the ancestor of the modern roller coaster:  the scenic railways. Some featured indoor segments where riders would look at show scenes and be a mix of both relaxing and thrilling sections. For this article, we will look at rides that are the main focus of a show building or soundstage and use it to the advantage of the ride.

In 1959, Disneyland (Anaheim, CA) introduced the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the world’s first tubular steel coaster. Built inside a 159 feet tall wood and steel mountain, this thrilling attraction featured long indoor sections that were unfinished until 1979. That year, the ride was renovated and higher capacity double bobsleds were introduced. As for the mountain, the indoor segments became ice caves along with a convincing snow storm effect on the lift hill. The mountain also became the home of Harold, the abominable snowman.


The Matterhorn Bobsleds

In 1959, Mack Rides designed and built a unique indoor coaster that used a spiral lift hill and wooden wild mouse track and cars at first. Then, after travelling from Germany (owned by Peter and Maria Biermann) to North America, where it was owned by Patty Conklin and Morgan Hughes. In 1962, Morgan Hughes acquired sole ownership and it travelled quite a bit. In 1968, Mack replaced the wooden track with a new steel track, keeping the original layout. Originally known as the Broadway Trip, it was then renamed the Love Bugs. In the early 1990’s, the ride was sold to Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, NJ and was rethemed to the Wizard’s Cavern. The ride featured two outdoor dips and then sharp wild mouse turns inside, with various light and water gags. It was sadly removed in 2003.

In 1960, Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters (PTC) main designer, John Allen, designed a family steel coaster for Hunt’s Pier in Wildwood, NJ. This was PTC first and last steel coaster and the 35 feet tall coaster is housed in a custom building, with short passages outside. Gentle dips provide family thrills as the ride went past the dark ride scenes. The ride ran until 1992, then reopened in 1996 and finally closed for good in 1998. In 2009, the ride system was sold to Knoebels (Elysberg, PA) and they built a new dark ride around it. Called the Black Diamond, this beautiful classic dark ride is a nice homage to the original ride.


1972 saw Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO start construction on a new roller coaster/dark ride hybrid. The ride opened in 1973 and this curious steel roller coaster is powered around most of the dark ride section. For the ride theme, the park went into the local lore and picked the Baldknobbers, a local folkloric gang of vigilantes that is have set fire to the town of Marmaros. Marmaros was built on the present location of Silver Dollar City, around the Guano mining operation in Marvel Cave and was burned down in the late 1800’s. In “Fire in the Hole”, we are the volunteer fire department and our valiant ride operators are dressed for the part and a brave dalmatian is also present.

At one point start executing drops that increase in height and intensity each time.The first drop take us down a burning bridge and is 13 feet tall. We then rise up and right before the train hit us, we go down an 18 feet drop and in a spectacular sequence, our train go up, hang over the ledge… right before going down the last 24 feet curving drop. The last drop takes us through a pool of water that act as a brake for our train.

Fire In the Hole can currently operate with 5 12 passengers train and has a capacity of 1000 riders per hour. The maximum speed is over 30 mph at the bottom of the third drop. To increase ride capacity, a large section of track after the first drop was mothballed in 1982 and a sharp left turn toward the second drop constructed instead. The ride current track length is 1520 feet long.

Fire in the Hole 70s

This picture of Fire in the Hole dates probably date back to the 1970’s.

Fire In the Hole

The ride today, you can see great scenery and fire effects in the background. The fire is created by having thin clothes shaken by fans and having rich yellow, orange and red lights focused on them. It is an incredible illusion.

Both pictures above were provided by the park. http://www.silverdollarcity.com/

Around 1973-1974, a small Japanese amusement park in Fujiwara, Japan called Nipponland opened with two coasters. One of them was an enclosed “Jungle Mouse” model from Sansei Yusoki and this was the first time ever that a park enclosed a thrilling roller coaster, versus using a gravity coaster as a dark ride method of transportation. The ride closed in 2004 and the park was renamed GrinPa in its later years.

After the success of the Matterhorn, Walt Disney and his team looked toward adding a second roller coaster to Disneyland. Eying a location to the right of Main Street, this would have been an impressive 4 track roller coaster housed in a large dome. The tracks would have dived out of the Space Port (the project name at the time). But, space was an issue already at the park and calculating the profile of the 4 tracks was an impossible task for computers available at the time. It would take hours just to calculate the radius of one turn! So, Space Port was put on hiatus…

After the opening of the Magic Kingdom (Lake Buena Vista,FL) in 1971, there was very a lot of demand for a thrill ride there. Disney had misread the guests that came to the park. They were forecasting a lot of seniors and families with very young kids, but, young adults and teenagers came in higher numbers. Disney had to scramble to fill that need and they turned their eyes toward Space Port.

Interestingly, at the time, RCA Victor was interested in sponsoring a Disney attraction. After a failed sales pitch to the CEO, they finally got them onboard after a second try and thus, Space Mountain presented by RCA Victor was launched. The ride also took a different shape, as the rainy Florida weather was not conductive to an outdoor coaster that relied on friction brakes and speed adjusting rubber tires. So, Arrow Development was dropped out of the project and the project now housed entirely inside its custom show building. That unique building is shaped like a raised cone and to provide a perfect show surface inside, the support columns are outside. The dome interior is smooth inside.


View of the Mountain from outside the park berm.

The mountain is over 180 feet tall and is 300 feet wide.  It was constructed between the Walt Disney World Railroad track and the Contemporary hotel. A tunnel was built between Tomorrowland and the mountain. Initially, a Goodyear Speedramp was to take riders between the tunnel entrance and the mountain, but operationally, it was impossible. If there was an issue loading guests, there would be safety issues due to the guests being forced into the loading area. The Speedramp was kept, but instead used for the exit tunnel.


The mountain with the Peoplemover roof on the right side.


The Peoplemover tracks head into the mountain at this point.

The main designer of the ride is Disney Legend John Hench. In charge of the track profile and rocket design is William Watkins, the head of mechanical engineering at the time. William Watkins used his experience as an airplane pilot to design the ride layout, trying to make it the smoothest experience possible. Unfortunately, the quality of fabrication for the in-house style Arrow Development style track was not perfect and it leads Mr. Watkins to look for an alternate track style for the next installation.

The ride feature two tracks with each having a 90 feet tall chain lift hill at the start and a smaller lift hill between the unload and loading stations. The ride layout includes 4 drops, with the largest dropping rockets 30 feet at a 39 degrees angle toward the end of the journey. It originally ran trains of two rockets with two seats each. Each seat was designed for two travelers in a lap sitting position and seatbelts made sure the riders remained seating through the whole experience. In 1989, the rockets were changed and introduced 3 individual bucket seats per car. A U shaped ratcheting restraint replaced the seat belts and that lead the ride to now feature a 44 inches minimum height restriction, versus 36 inches originally.

Space Mountain WDW (1)

In 1998, the rockets were again replaced and those padded seats and T shaped restraints appeared.  Notice the little cargo pocket on the side to accommodate loose items.


The Peoplemover goes in the middle of both lift hills and you can see the starship hanging in the lift area.

The experience feature a themed launch tunnel, where blue strobe lights and sound effects give the illusion of going through a blue nebula before a mirror give the illusion of running toward another rocket. A sharp 180 degrees turn takes the rocket up the main lift hill. That lift hill feature a launch control center at the bottom and toward the top, we are in space and are released in a dark environment. The smooth surface of the dome lead to projections of flying meteorites and fixed disco balls simulate star fields.



Those two pictures show the incredibly tight ride structure inside the dome. Notice though that unlike the later Space Mountain, there is still a lot of open space inside the mountain.

2009 saw a major refurbishment to the attraction. While originally new track and reinforced supports were to be installed, the rehab was cut in length and the original track was smoothened and some track sections replaced. Most of the planned new effects were never installed and the only major change on ride was enclosing the station area, thus making the ride area darker. For that purpose as well, the rockets were repainted and the glow in the dark strips removed. In 2010, “Starry-O-Sonic” sound was added to the mountain, using speakers installed around the track. The track is a roughly a 3 minutes remix of the 2005 Exit Music.




The post 2009 loading area. Notice the new ceiling and lighted air gates that were added.

The waiting line in 2009 saw interactive games installed to the “stand-by” side of the waiting line, replacing most of the original waiting line effects. Part of the clever illusions are still present, but are experienced from the side of the line used for those with Fast Pass + ride reservations. It also unfortunately destroyed what was probably the best transition toward an attraction ever dreamed up. It was a subtle use of beautiful music that changed in pace along with the lighting. It progressed as we went from current day Earth toward our Rocket for a journey through time and space. The only positive of this is that a new Interstellar map hides a clever Easter egg in the first room when we enter. If you look closely at the fictional destinations, under “Active Earth Station”, you will see a reference to the 5 Disney Space Mountain:

– Tomorrowland Station MK-1 (WDW Space Mountain, the first one)

-TL Space Station 77 (Disneyland port, opening in 1977)

-Discovery Landing Station-Paris (Disneyland Paris version, was to be originally called Discovery Mountain)

-Ashita Base Tokyo (Tokyo Disneyland version, Ashita mean Tomorrow in Japanese)

-HK Spaceport E-TKT (Hong Kong Disneyland installation, the E-TKT refer to the original Disney ride ticket system).


The list of Active Earth Stations.


The welcome sign in the first room of the waiting line.


The 2009 entrance sign.


The Tomorrowland Station MK-1 name is referenced in the unload areas.


Now that both tracks have a formal name, the unload areas are now referred to as Alpha Lounge and Omega Lounge.



Those two pictures show the 2009 post show, showing off futuristic vacation spots. There is an hommage to the 20000 Leagues Under The Sea attraction as well.



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