If ever a theme park attraction pushed the entertainment technology envelope to its furthest limits, it has to be Walt Disney World's Mission: SPACE, the hot new attraction that opened at EPCOT in Orlando last October. Housed in a spectacular new building (on the site of the former EPCOT attraction, Horizons), Mission: SPACE combines Disney's penchant for architecture, state-of-the-art technology, and the most sophisticated ride systems anywhere on the planet Earth.

“The initial story was just to go into orbit,” says Luc Mayrand, senior concept designer for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), the developers and designers of the attraction who worked on its creation for over five years. “Eventually we enriched the story and decided to take people to Mars in space capsules, using space training as the reason you go to this place and prepare in this way.” Designed by architect Michael Lingerfelt of WDI, the building that houses Mission: SPACE is a marvel of contemporary architecture. Since the attraction's story concept is set in the year 2036, the architecture has a decidedly futuristic feel with cantilevered swirls and a bold red sphere with a custom finish (many hues of red were looked at before the final color was chosen) that represents the planet Mars.

“The exterior has a sculptural grandeur, with architectural finishes including stainless steel, plaster, and custom concrete with special aggregates,” says Mayrand. “The interior is more factual and very sophisticated.” Metallic finishes, rubber tile, lines and numbers on the floor to help direct people, as well as aluminum railings and protective corrugated metal panels for acoustics, all add to the futuristic look.

The conceit is that the building is actually the International Space Training Center (ISTC), a place where astronauts come to train. Conversations and research with real astronauts helped fine-tune some of the design ideas; the astronauts who have been to Mission: SPACE report that it is quite realistic. The section of the building called the Space Simulation Lab features a large gravity wheel, representing the part of a space ship where astronauts could live and work in an environment with gravity. “The gravity wheel was a set element from the film Mission To Mars,” says Mayrand. “It was impressive but too big for the space we had, so we took out some segments and placed in it a pit and raised the roof.” At the center of the wheel is a logo from the old Horizons attraction that featured a look at futuristic habitats, including space.

“From the cue line to a single seat in a space capsule, we wanted to provide a single story line and include safety messages, while also building a certain tension,” says Mayrand. “The groups of people get smaller until the final four that ride the ride together, and the rooms get smaller until the capsule,” he points out. It also seems to get cooler in each room, so that the capsule itself is the coldest part of the building (there is even a cool breeze as part of the capsule experience to help prevent people from feeling nauseous. This is a very intense ride!)

“The capsules are very realistic,” Mayrand notes. “People have seen the inside of an Apollo space capsule, but we wanted to give them a lot to look at.” Each capsule is designed with four seats very close together. There are four identical ride bays, each with ten capsules with the four riders, for a total capacity of 160 guests for each four-minute ride cycle. When the capsule closes right before the ride launch, the front wall tilts in (making the space even smaller), bringing a video “window” very close to the riders. The core of the ride is a sophisticated centrifuge system that delivers a wicked spin cycle.

“There are also buttons and joy sticks close to the people, making it an interactive experience,” says Mayrand, noting that each of the four riders has a role, as if on a real space mission, with interactive sounds and instructions of what to do throughout the trip to Mars. “It is a very personal ride, yet the window makes it look as if you are looking out into space,” he adds, “even though it is really very close.”

One of the biggest challenges in the design process was weight. “The ride system has to perform the same way each time,” explains Mayrand. “The environment is very complex, and a great achievement by the engineers. We spent a lot of time in concept development, almost two years,” he says. “When the designs were approved, we hit the ground running and the design/build/installation process, as well as commissioning the ride, took about three years.”

Mayrand is particularly proud of the exterior of the building. “It all came together in an amazing way,” he says. “It is a powerful design that has cantilevers and plays music. You can't confuse it with anything else.”

Light Years Ahead

The curved design of the building had its own set of challenges for Ken Lennon, WDI's principal lighting designer for this project. He was responsible for the design, specification, and programming of the interior and exterior lighting (for which he won the Lighting Designer of the Year award at ETS-LDI 2003 last November). “There are very few flat surfaces,” he notes. “Our goal was to light the architecture yet stay out of it, with as few lights in view as possible.”

The result is a building that is cleanly lit at night. The exterior lighting is 99% uplight, much of which comes from hundreds of 35W Hydrel metal halide landscape fixtures embedding in the concrete on the ground in front of the curved walls and around the globes of the planets and the moon. “The intensity of these fixtures is right, yet they do not generate much heat,” says Lennon. “A barefoot child could walk on them and they are not hot to the touch.” The in-ground Hydrel uplights have custom slip-resistant lens with sandblasted frosted glass. Cast brass backplates with perforations allow light to peek through the edges.

Lennon designed the exterior lighting so that the courtyard is illuminated with light reflected off the building from Thorn CSI fixtures on poles. To light the upper edges of the structure, Lennon opted for 35W Elliptipar fixtures that are surface mounted on lower roof levels to bounce up and catch the upper portions. A large globe of planet Earth with a rocket taking off (ostensibly toward Mars) is lit with color-changing LEDs as well as a BK 35W fixture. The large red Mars globe is lit with 1000W Pars. “The building is magical in the sun,” says Lennon. “At night it really comes alive.”

The pre-show “recruiting area” has a sample ride vehicle lit with LEDs under the seats, while the room is lit with clever 70W Targetti fixtures and MR16 accent lights. “You configure the Targetti fixtures the way you want them, and the factory builds them like erector sets,” says Lennon, who ordered five small units (three feet high by 2 feet in diameter) and one large center cluster light (three feet high by 4.5 feet in diameter). F/X glass filters in warm and cool shades hit the walls.

Throughout the attraction, Lennon used fixtures with a futuristic look, including a Targetti fixture with concentric metal circles, LSI MR16 track lighting, and rows of twinkling MR16 accent light and colorful LEDs over the doors to the ride bays (each has its own color: red, blue, yellow, or green). The ISTC logo on the glass wall of the control tower is lit with LSI fiber optics. The LSI “Space Bird” fixture is used with various lamp sources in different rooms of the attraction. A theatrical touch is added with Strand Lighting's 575W SL ellipsoidals, while an actual “artifact” lunar landing module on loan from the Smithsonian needed low light levels.

“We used off-the-shelf products where we could,” says Lennon. “But there was also a lot of invention, and we had to go back and work with the manufacturers to customize many of the fixtures. The fronts look the same but in back we needed to minimize the weight as much as possible.” In the actual ride capsules, there are black lights at the moment, but Lennon has discovered they don't like “going to Mars,” so he is looking at an eventual retrofit with UV LEDs that would fit behind perforated panels.

The color-changing lights that add pizzazz to the actual ride experience are all LEDs. “The real time, four-minute continuous light show in the capsules could only have been done with LEDs,” says Lennnon. “Due to space restraints we couldn't have large or multiple fixtures, and weight was also an issue, so color-changing LEDs were the answer. At the time, the technology was almost there so we made a leap of faith and went ahead and specified the LEDs.” All of the lights used in Mission: SPACE must withstand continual spinning.

Stars on the floor are projected from 150W LSI pattern projectors with a Fiber Stars fiber-optic drop on the high walls of the dark, starry environment of the post-show interactive game area. Hewlett-Packard, sponsor of the attraction, has provided a clever booth where guests can send ePostcards from space. LSI fixtures with saturated dichroic filters provide an otherworldly glow. Times Square MR16 fixtures run around the edge of the room.

Control for the attraction includes ETC Sensor dimmers and an ETC Unison architectural control system that runs the attraction, with Disney's own show control system running the on-board capsule lighting. “We worked closely with Ken Lennon on the programming,” says Doug Tuttrup, project manager for ETC, who worked from the company's home base in Wisconsin. “The large Unison system has electronic contact interfaces that receive closures from their show control system. Each vehicle has its own series of cues, and it is all automated.” Dan Talajkowski, ETC's Unison guru, consulted with Lennon on the programming, as the two emailed back and forth to solve configuration questions. Additional ETC gear, including an Expression III LPC, is found in the post-show area.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

Steve Pryor, senior A/V engineer at WDI, was responsible for all the audio and video hardware for the facility and aboard the ride capsules, with the capsule speaker system developed by WDI sound designer Joe Herrington and Steve Kadar of WDI's R&D division. The Capsule Proprietary Optical system was developed by Alfredo Ayala of the R&D division, while Ken Petersen of WDI Florida and Richard Simonton of RSI Incorporated both were instrumental in the design and installation of the systems.

The audio challenge began on the outside of the building, in the courtyard. “The openness and the curved shape of the walls was a particular challenge,” he notes. “The sound system had to play down rather than accentuate the problem.”

The exterior music is an orchestral score that Pryor describes as, “spacious, grand and dramatic. We wanted it to have some oomph, yet not bounce off the walls.” The solution is surround sound using a large number of line-array loudspeakers and sub-woofers, not turned up very loud. Mayrand and the design team integrated the speakers into the walls, tucking them behind metallic grilles of various shapes that fit with the exterior design of the building.

The gravity wheel section of the attraction has line-array speakers near the ceiling, and sub-woofers in the pit below, as well as additional full-range speakers in discreet locations around the wheel. “There are low-end and high-end, as well as mechanical sounds, to make this space come alive and create an environment,” says Pryor.

An important element of all theme park rides is the operation tower where the ride operator keeps an eye on ride control and error messages that would stop the ride from operating. “This is the first time this room has been visible,” says Pryor, noting that the high-tech room fit into the overall theme of the attraction. “There is a lot of technology in one spot,” he adds. “The show control and A/V is integrated for one operator to run the ride.” This technology includes WDI proprietary video servers, a Peavey MediaMatrix with Cobranet, Crown amplifiers, Panasonic High Resolution Plasma Displays, Samsung LCD Displays, and loudspeakers by JBL, EAW, ACE, and WDI proprietary outdoor speakers. There is also a WDI Proprietary Intercom System and the Ride Tower has a custom-designed integrated intercom and PA/microphone system.

“In some cases, the architecture influenced the choice of technology,” Pryor points out. This is true of the use of flat LED screens in the pre-flight corridor. These are placed horizontally on the walls so that the “talking heads” providing safety briefings can be as large as possible. “There is not too much scenery in the background,” Pryor adds. Small full-range speakers overhead deliver the messages.

Onboard the capsules themselves, the A/V equipment includes a Peavey MediaMatrix with Cobranet, a WDI proprietary video server, custom designed LCD displays, WDI's proprietary optical system, Crown and QSC amplifiers, and loudspeakers including Infinity two-way speakers and JBL subwoofers. Each of the four ride systems has 42,450 watts of amplifier power. There are 116 channels of audio on each ride system.

“There are lots and lots of amplifiers, all located in the center core of the ride,” says Pryor, explaining how the capsules are on arms that reach back to the central core or hub. The ride control, show control, and A/V control are all located in the core, and all spin with the ride. “That was the biggest challenge. The equipment had to spin as well as be crammed into a small space. We were initially worried about the force in the center of the hub, but it is a lot less than in the capsules,” he adds.

“The sound experience in the capsules is forceful, dynamic, and realistic,” Pryor continues. “The sound adds to the aural excitement of blast off.” During the blast-off sequence, the sound creates the shakes and rattles, as the ride system itself is amazingly smooth. “We used the capsule space as an acoustic chamber to maximize the sub-woofer effects,” he adds. “They are placed under and behind the seats.”

The audio system is state-of-the-art digital (as far as the amplifiers notes Pryor), while the video system is analog. “We wanted to go to digital, but were just on the cusp time-wise in terms of the technology,

Pryor explains. “We had to meet the design schedule and wanted the latest technology, but digital just wasn't ready at the time.” The video does include WDI's optical system that changes the focal length so you can't tell how far away the display really is. “The intent was to create an infinity effect as if you were looking through the capsule window into space and Mars. The images give the depth of infinite space,” says Pryor.

The audio, video, and game content in the post-show area are all sourced off of HP computers, with Pioneer High Resolution Plasma Displays. The Space Race stage system includes EAW speakers and Crown amplifiers. The entire attraction including the post-show area and all four ride systems has 433 video displays including LCDs, plasmas and CRTs, as well as 598 amplifier channels with a capacity of 208,430 watts (enough A/V equipment to fill up 36 racks).

With this kind of technology involved, it was essential that the designers worked in close collaboration with the architect. “We had many team meetings, and hallway conversations to discuss things,” says Pryor, noting that one advantage was that the entire team was working in the same WDI building. “We can all sit around one table and accommodate each other's needs,” he says. “When you get to the field, there are continual changes as you integrate the technology, and we often worked second and third shift when the building was available. It ran 24/7.”

“It's great how beautifully the ride and the architecture came together in this attraction,” adds Lennon. “The design of the capsule is so tightly integrated that any small change in design would ripple through the whole space. It's really a new space pavilion at EPCOT and so much more than just a ride.”