Long Before Apollo, I Went on a Lunar Flight at Tomorrowland

Sure, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins did it better. But I did it first.

From 1955 to 1961, the TWA-sponsored “Rocket to the Moon” was the E-ticket attraction of Tomorrowland, the neighborhood of the Disneyland theme park modeled after a speculative utopian future. (© Disney)
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Earlier this summer, we celebrated the half-century anniversary of the first human touchdown on the moon. I don’t want to diminish that heroic achievement, but for the record, I repeatedly crossed the vacuum void between Earth and the lunar landscape in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It was trouble-free space travel. No bulky space suit, no eating from a tube. And no New York City ticker-tape parade upon any of my returns.

My point of departure was Tomorrowland, a futuristic utopia complete with a visionary, one-of-a-kind spaceport right there in Anaheim, California—25 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and within hitchhiking range of my home in San Diego.

Tomorrowland was one of Walt Disney’s five original “lands” within the Disneyland amusement park that opened in July 1955. I never had jungle fever enough to keep me in Adventureland. I didn’t want to travel back in time within Frontierland. Main Street sounded way too pedestrian. More promising was Fantasyland, but watching Tinker Bell flutter around on tiny wings didn’t suggest to me any immediate or viable answer to interplanetary propulsion.

But Tomorrowland got me. This, after all, was the specific part of the park that Walt Disney himself had promised would present “a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come.”

He’d made this declaration in a December 1955 episode of the TV series Walt Disney’s Disneyland called “Man and the Moon.” (The weekly series would change titles several times, but remained on the air for decades.) The episode included an appearance by Wernher von Braun, who explained in matter-of-fact terms how a trip around the moon would work. This was almost two years before the Soviet Union hurled Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit, an event that made Disney look more like an oracle than an animator-turned-entertainment mogul.

Tomorrowland had plenty of allure. You could take a high-speed drive on the “Autopia” freeway then dive “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” via a submarine on tracks. But neither of those could compare with Tomorrowland’s crown jewel: “Rocket to the Moon.”

The dazzling red-and-white moon rocket stood even taller in the theme-park skyline than Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. The mind-expanding excursion cost a top-tier “E-ticket” but was worth it. It was sponsored by Trans World Airlines (TWA), which made it seem safe and generally legitimate to me.

A Disneyland advertising supplement in the Los Angeles Times in July 1955 delivered the pitch: Welcome aboard Trans World Airlines’ Rocket to the Moon! In Tomorrowland’s world of 1986 you’ll zoom through space at speeds over 172 thousand miles an hour! Actually experience the “feel” of space travel—see Earth below and Heavens above as you pass space station Terra, coast around the Moon and return! An eight-hour flight in ten thrilling minutes—all without ever leaving the ground.

If the ride’s 10 minutes sounded short while you were standing in line awaiting your turn, you forgave the brevity of the adventure. You had to consider those waiting impatiently behind you to blast off on their lunar cruise.

Once through the turnstile, we were ushered inside a Moonliner. I recall three rows of passenger seating encircling a large circular screen on the ceiling and another on the floor. These observation portals let you view the rocket’s liftoff from Anaheim, but more importantly, the sky and space we all were headed for. At liftoff, the seats pulsated and inflated while wall-mounted gauges indicated our speed and altitude as we streaked moonward. A calm (and fictional) “Captain Collins” narrated our trek. Who could have guessed then that the name of Apollo 11’s Command Module pilot would be Michael Collins?

Suddenly, a shower of meteorites began to strike our craft, setting off alarms and flashing lights. Captain Collins announced that the ship was safe and that our journey would proceed. That on-the-spot decision felt good to me as I didn’t want to ask for my money back.

As our Moonliner made its backside swing of the moon, riders were treated to facts about Earth’s single satellite. To this day, I remember the voyage leaving us space commuters in a quandary. During the far-side flyby, our ship launched flares onto the moon’s darkened terrain. Those projectiles brightened up the surface for a few seconds. One of them revealed some kind of structure—ruins of an ancient city, perhaps? Our minds reeled at the possibilities, but already we had circled the moon and were on a homeward trajectory. Piercing the Earth’s atmosphere, we broke the sound barrier before our captain skillfully reduced our speed, eventually touching us gently back down on the tarmac at Anaheim.

Our feet firmly planted on Earth, each passenger got a “Lunar Flight Certificate” indicating that we had rocketed round-trip to the moon from the Disneyland Spaceport via the TWA Rocket Ship, with some extra public relations spin appended: “The distance to the Moon, 238,857 miles, is exceeded daily by TWA on its regular Earth flights across the U.S.A., Europe, Africa & Asia.”

TWA ended its association with “Rocket to the Moon” in 1961. The Douglas Aircraft Company become the ride’s sponsor, remaining so for the next three decades, even after the company became McDonnell Douglas in 1967. (The attraction’s name was updated to “Flight to the Moon” that year.) In 1975, Disney revamped the ride to carry visitors to a new destination, Mars, because the advent of humans on the moon was old news by then. The “Mission to Mars” ride offered tours to the Red Planet until it closed in November 1992.

The ride’s building was dormant until “Rocket Redd’s Pizza Port” opened there in 1998. Last year, the restaurant was renamed “Alien Pizza Planet,” after a fictional location in the Toy Story films, which star a character named Buzz Lightyear, a sort of 1950s imagining of a 21st century spaceman. Like me, he’s been to the moon too many times to count.

Leonard David wrote the books Moon Rush: The New Space Race and Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet. He has reported on space exploration for over 50 years.

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