Disney plans gentler Mission: Space

Less than a month after a second person died after riding Mission: Space, Walt Disney World is reworking its hazardous but popular Epcot ride to offer a Mission: Space-lite option for some people.

The thrill ride simulates a spaceship launch, flight and landing with a combination of centrifugal and other motion forces and audio and video “virtual-reality” effects. There are four separate centrifuge systems in the ride building, each with 10 pods that can hold four riders each.

Disney announced Tuesday that it will turn off the centrifuge on at least one system, so that riders who don’t want, or should not try, the spinning may still ride.

The new option would be available by early summer.

A company spokeswoman said the change is not being made because of the April 12 death of a German tourist, Hiltrud Blumel, the death last summer of a 4-year-old boy, Daudi Bamuwamye, or numerous other illness complaints.

Instead, Disney is characterizing the nonspinning ride as an exciting new option.

“By offering a second adventure, we hope to broaden the appeal of Mission: Space and enable even more guests to experience the attraction,” Al Weiss, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a prepared statement.

Weiss was not available to be interviewed Tuesday evening. Nor were Walt Disney World Vice President of Epcot Brad Rex, or Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chief Safety Officer Greg Hale.

Mission: Space has drawn 11.8 million people since it opened in the summer of 2003 and is a favorite of many.

Kim and R.J. Maurice, a sister and brother from Jacksonville, are among them. After they rode it Tuesday, Kim Maurice, 21, said she would ride it 30 more times if she could.

But Mission: Space also draws the most complaints of serious illnesses among all Disney World rides. And it is the only one that includes motion-sickness bags. Besides the two deaths, more than 130 riders have sought medical attention, including 10 reported with serious health effects, since the ride opened.

When asked whether the change was being made because of recent events, Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty responded, “The answer is no.”

“We are doing this for three reasons,” Prunty said. “To enable even more guests to experience the attraction; to provide an alternative that may be more suited for some guests, such as those who are prone to motion sickness or have other conditions; and to further encourage all guests to carefully consider and heed posted health warnings.”

The ride is safe as designed for people who heed the health warnings, she said. People with cardiovascular problems including hypertension, or who are prone to motion sickness, are warned away by 13 signs, plus video and audio warnings along the ride’s queue.

Since the April 12 death, Mission: Space lines consistently have been far shorter than those at Epcot’s two other major rides, Soarin’ and Test Track. Tuesday evening, the posted wait time for Mission: Space was five minutes, compared with 40 for Soarin’ and 30 for Test Track, a typical spread in recent weeks.

Without the centrifugal force — which the military and NASA have used for decades to help simulate flight and spaceflight — the ride would be more like Star Tours at Disney-MGM Studios or Back to the Future at Universal Studios. Both simulate flight experiences with rocking, rising and falling motions and video and audio.

Disney is still working out the operational details, Prunty said.

Other rides offer options. Many roller coasters, for example, allow riders to choose the front car. Typically, the queue splits just before the boarding area.

Prunty said Mission: Space warning signs will make the choices clear.

Many Epcot guests were considering the current warnings Tuesday, and some said they would think about riding the alternative if it were available. Kirk and Cosette Steehler of Erie, Pa., sat out the ride while two of their children rode.

They weren’t worried about serious problems but said they didn’t want to get sick. Kirk Steehler said he has gotten sick before on simulator rides.

“If it was toned down, I’d probably go on it,” Cosette Steehler said.

Theme-park analysts and ride-safety proponents welcomed the change.

“It sounds like a reasonable step for a self-regulated park to take,” said Kathy Fackler, founder and president of SaferParks, a California-based organization crusading for independent ride-safety reviews.

But some said they think Disney is reacting to the deaths and illnesses.

“I think it’s because of the problems they’ve had with it,” said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando-based theme-park consulting firm. “So I guess they [Disney officials] have got to, without scuttling the whole ride, try something, and make the liability less, to say, ‘We’ve gone to great lengths to offer you a safe ride. What else are we going to do?’ “

Nationally, some rides, notably The Rattler at Fiesta Texas, in San Antonio, and Son of Beast, at Kings Island, in Ohio, were changed after injury complaints.

But Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, said he knows of no park that ever offered a less-intense alternative following complaints.

Speigel said he thought the second option is a “logical extension.” He said it should encourage more people with health concerns to take the warnings seriously, because they’ll have more choices than just to ride or not to ride.

“I would imagine that if there was a question, and somebody realistically addressed that, they will stop and say, ‘Well, maybe I will take the less intense ride,’ ” he said.

Scott Powers can be reached at spowers@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5441. Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.



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