It’s easy for EPCOT Center fans to dislike Mission: Space. It replaced Horizons and signaled a different approach from Disney to Future World. Along with the nearby Test Track, this ride emphasized thrills to draw younger guests to the park. Opening in October 2003, the big-budget simulator arrived at Epcot with sky-high expectations. Despite the lukewarm reception from many, the idea of traveling to space is exciting. Here’s the current description of Mission: Space from Disney’s website:
“Experience authentic NASA-style training and an out-of-this-world space launch on this shuttle simulator.
That sounds amazing! Where can I sign up? This attraction definitely sounds like it’s made for me. My Star Wars fandom as a kid has morphed into avid interest in space and the Apollo program as an adult. If I lived in central Florida, I’d definitely make regular trips to the Kennedy Space Center. There is almost no way that Disney could build something about space that wouldn’t be a favorite. The foundation is strong at Mission: Space, but the execution falls short.
Before continuing, I should make one point clear. I do like Mission: Space; it’s a fun experience, and the launch is quite thrilling. My ideas on fixing the attraction exist because the pavilion still feels like a missed opportunity. Disney put a lot of care into the queue and ride vehicles, yet they don’t attract repeat guests like other headliners. That feeling of “magic” that makes the classics never grow tired is missing here. That doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause, however. Before digging into the ideas, let’s take a brief look at the attraction in its current form.
When approaching Mission: Space, what really stands out is the pavilion’s striking exterior. It’s a sharp contrast from the colder structures of the original EPCOT Center. With a futuristic look that isn’t locked into a specific time period, the attraction promises a wondrous experience. The pre-show area includes several nods to Horizons and props from the Mission to Mars film. It’s well-done and sets the mood, but it also feels like a theme-park queue. This is especially true if you’re trapped in the switchbacks on busier days.
The most distinctive feature of the pre-show is the frequent warnings to guests prone to claustrophobia or motion sickness. Given this attraction’s rough history, I understand the need for this caution. On the other hand, it does lessen the excitement for new riders. Instead of feeling thrilled about the wonders of spaceflight, we’re nervous about puking. The Green version does allow guests to experience Mission: Space without the spinning. Despite the more relaxed experience, it may be the right choice for many of us.
The premise of the ride is a flight training to prepare for the first mission to Mars. Gary Sinise brings weight to the ride as the man running the show. The choice to make the story a simulation is odd because it eliminates the feeling of danger when all hell breaks loose. It does connect more closely to the constant testing experienced by astronauts in reality. Despite a believable setting and straightforward tone, the resolution is strange. Why are all four passengers using the joystick? Who is really flying the ship? The duration is only about five minutes, and it flies by. There’s little time to enjoy the journey before the climax at Mars.
Thrill junkies take note; the launch is no joke. I’ve never gotten sick but have definitely felt the effects of the g-forces after the ride. The centrifuge is remarkable technology and creates a different sensation than your everyday theme park ride. My favorite portion is the brief time for hyper sleep in the darkness. It’s a relaxing break following the lunch and before the chaos at the end. The move to give each rider a job is simple but adds a little fun. Missing your cue doesn’t really change the ride, but it does add some participation and variability to each visit.
Adjusting the Tone
Without breaking the bank and starting over, there are several ways that Disney could improve Mission: Space. The first is adjusting the tone; no one is having any fun! I’m not asking Disney to dumb down the story. The pre-show needs more clever touches. Just look at how much Soarin’ gains through Patrick Warburton’s tongue-in-cheek spiel. Sinise and the other hosts are playing it all so straight! I appreciate intelligence in my Epcot attractions, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of fun.
A good model is the work of Bill (John Michael Higgins) and Sherry on the original Test Track. They still conveyed the important details but had fun with it. It would take some capital investment to create new video and audio, but it wouldn’t be a crazy amount. I’m the target audience for this attraction, but it feels too flat. Sinise is known for playing serene guys, but he has expressed more energy in some roles. Just look at Lieutenant Dan or the villains in Ransom and Snake Eyes. Replacing him wouldn’t be the worst idea; it doesn’t take a major actor to sell the illusion. Sinise is a solid participant, but something must change.
The Star Tours Model
Lightening the tone would help, but the most important fix is with the ride itself. Screen-based attractions benefit tremendously from variations. When you consider the possibilities of space travel, only having one scenario is lazy. The success of Star Tours — The Adventure Continues shows what’s possible with simulators. They could even keep the premise of flight training. Astronauts experience countless possible issues while training in their simulators. Why not set up Mission: Space in the same way? This type of change would revitalize the pavilion.
Admittedly, it would take significant investments for Disney to re-program the attraction and create new videos. However, the benefits for drawing crowds and alleviating lines at nearby rides like Test Track would be worth the money. Disney could maintain the orange and green versions and build multiple options for each side. The launch is the show stopper, but the rest of the ride could be varied. A good move would be splitting the ride into three sections; Disney could then mix and match the variations randomly like they do with Star Tours.
A Permanent Fixture
Mission: Space has its fans, so I’m generalizing in claiming that many dislike it. I’d just like to see Disney work to improve a product with so much potential. Walt’s idea of “plussing” is cited constantly by the company, so why not follow through on those claims? I don’t see Disney making huge changes to Mission: Space anytime soon. That’s why I’m not writing about my hopes for a new attraction in this spot. Epcot has other spaces that deserve that treatment first, particularly Energy and Imagination. They also have a nearly empty Innoventions sitting right in the middle of Future World. The positive aspect of my ideas is that they wouldn’t take five years.
My final point is about the influx of IP in Epcot. Finding ways to connect the attractions to the brand will continue in this park, especially under Iger. Even so, I hope they don’t try to connect Mission: Space to an obvious property. You could make a cool Star Wars ride with this system, but it would be too similar to Star Tours. Why not create something unique that’s universal (no pun intended) and may connect to future space exploration? There’s so much potential in this pavilion; Disney just needs to think outside the box and work to improve the experience. With the right upgrades, Mission: Space could be a true E-ticket attraction. Let’s make it happen.
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