BACKSTORY (1955–1967): The TWA Moonliner was a futuristic exhibit in the 1950’s that marked TWA product placement by Howard Hughes. At 80' it was the tallest structure in the park—8' taller than Sleeping Beauty Castle. Adjoining the rocket was the “Rocket to the Moon” exhibit/show. 100 guests at a time would enter either the Luna or the Diana (changed to Arcturus & Polaris in 1959) for a 10 minute trip to the Moon and back. Disney archivist Dave Smith recalls “Space flight was still years away when Disneyland opened in 1955 so the Rocket to the Moon experience was a big thrill for the Park Guest. They would sit in a pseudo rocket and live through a simulated trip to observe the far side of the moon. Projections above and below enabled guests to see where they were going and where they had been. It was always impressive to see Disneyland and then the earth getting smaller and smaller as the rocket left for the moon.”
The first illustration below was used on the attraction (the pre-show viewer) to convey the fiction of what the guests would be experiencing. The technique was similar to the “Man in Space” series (part of the Tomorrowland segment of the Disneyland TV show). The story suggested that guests would leave the pre-show holding area and then walk through the gantry tunnel that passed through the domes (rather than stopping inside of the ride passenger cabin). Of course from inside the guests could no more see outside of the gantry tunnel than they could see outside of the Mighty Microscope glass tube. This illustration matches with the animation of the spaceport ground plan as seen in the lower cabin viewer during take-off and landing. The same footage was repeated in Mission to Mars (which launched from a different show building) and it was also used for the Florida versions despite the fact that it is a desolate Harbor Boulevard that runs behind the spaceport. Also, to further the fiction, a cut-away of the rocket was posted (picture #2 below) in the attraction. This wonderful cut-away matches well with the fictional spaceport and gantry entry point.
Designed by John Hench, one of the original Disney Imagineers, with the help of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the Moonliner looked like a V-2 rocket and was supposed to represent what atomic space travel would be like in 1986. Its “retractable” legs were said to resemble TWA’s famed Lockheed Super Constellation. It featured port holes, a cockpit, and a boarding ramp. After Hughes left TWA, the airline pulled the sponsorship of the Moonliner and in 1960 became the Douglas Moonliner, after new sponsor Douglas Aircraft Company. The Moonliner stayed at the park until 1967 when the “New” Tomorrowland debuted and the attraction was retitled “Flight to the Moon.” Guests were able to “meet” the director of operations, audio-animatronic man Tom Morrow. By the 70's, traveling to the moon was considered old hat (since American Astronauts had already walked on the moon), so the show was changed once again, becoming “Mission to Mars” in 1975. Finally, in 1992, even this show was removed.
A scaled-down version with the familiar TWA red stripes (sans logo) was added as part of the new 1998 version of Tomorrowland and is used to promote Coca-Cola “Delivering refreshment to a thirsty galaxy.” It’s next to the building that used to house Rocket to the Moon, now Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port.
When I first visited Disneyland in July of 1955, Tomorrowland was the first thing I wanted to see. My parents were more interested in Main Street and the shops, but I pulled and pulled to just see, and ride in, the Moonliner. I never dreamed that I would be working day after day in its shadow.
The 6 years I worked under the Moonliner never jaded me. Each day we would leave the wardrobe building and enter the Tomorrowland area through the gate just to the left of the domed builders, and I would always look up as I passed through the big gate. The feeling was like leaving black and white Kansas and entering into the color world of Oz. The smell of new slurry and compressed air, and the sounds of the announcers (not tape then) telling people to remove their tickets and remain seated while the ride stops.
Take it from one who was there (and visited the back room of the RTTM ride too). There were two theaters. As I recall, there were two different names for the rockets in the ride, the Luna and the Diana. If you look at the arial view, you can see two domes with kind of a fin on the top. This was not just decoration, but a channel for the projection system. The projectors were actually in the center of the buildings and the images were shot onto mirrors in both the top and the bottom. There were four projectors in all. We used to go down below and watch the show from the underside of the bottom screen. The film was flipped so that it was flipped again when bounced off the mirrors and onto back side of the screens. The vibrations were created by out-of-balance air driven motors. The shows would be staggered to avoid massive crowd jamming.
As I recall, the images that these kids are looking at are 3-D models of a moon station, etc. I was still there in 1963, but had left mid-summer for Naval Air Training. I came back the following summer and stayed until 1965, when the Flight Circle closed and Tomorrowland was getting ready for the big re-build.
Of all the changes in Tomorrowland over the years, the only thing that was a huge disappointment was the removal of the Moonliner.
Disneyland’s Moon Age Adventure Utmost in Space-Age Realism
Disneyland, working with Douglas Aircraft, has created a realistic and exciting “Flight to the Moon” adventure for the new multi-million-dollar Tomorrowland.
“Flight to the Moon,” replacing the earlier Douglas Rocket trip, carries guests “out through space” where they feel the pull of gravity during blast-off and the weightless escape from earth.
Based on the latest information from the nation’s space exploration projects, the new adventure will give guests the thrill of seeing the moon come closer and watching Earth become a colorful basketball in the sky. Visitors will get a good idea of the texture and roughness of the moon’s surface, and see a future lunar exploration party at work.
Before their flight, space voyagers will visit Mission Control, where outer space activities are monitored on huge viewing screens throughout the center. A “control central director” will present the latest, most accurate information on space exploration to Disneyland guests.