When Walt Disney Imagineer Brent Strong was twelve years old, he had an epiphany. He was at Disneyland (at the Submarine Voyage in Tomorrowland, to be precise), when he realized that the ground upon which he stood “was not a naturally occurring phenomenon.”
“For that young, tween mind of mine, that was just a huge eye opener: I didn’t know who created these amazing places or where they were located, but I wanted to take part in that. I wanted to create things like the attractions that I was surrounded by,” Strong recently told us.
Flash forward. Strong is now an Executive Creative Director at Walt Disney Imagineering, most recently leading the transformation of Space Mountain into Hyperspace Mountain for Season of the Force in 2016, as well as similar transformations in Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. Most recently, Hyperspace Mountain was brought back to Disneyland Resort for a limited time (and will remain until June 3!). We got the chance to talk to Brent about what it’s like to make this stellar transformation to one of the most iconic Disney Parks attractions of all time.
It all begins with the soundtrack, and the already-existing attraction. “One of the things that we recognized was that, while Space Mountain doesn’t necessarily have a plot or a story, it definitely has a structure to it,” said Strong. “It definitely has a beginning, middle, and end. It has this slow build at the beginning as you go up those three hills into outer space. It has that moment where gravity takes over and you start maneuvering and spinning around in these unpredictable ways. And then it has this really amazing finale where you’re going faster and faster and faster, and you can feel that speed build. We looked at that story that the ride was already telling in a visceral way, and said ‘How can we complement that with a Star Wars adventure?’”
When riding Hyperspace Mountain (which we recently did several times), you can definitely feel this focus on storytelling come into play. Strong explained:
“You can see that in Hyperspace Mountain, the lift hills quickly became that squadron roll call … [Then] that iconic John Williams soundtrack [brings] us up that first hill. We have the ‘preparing for battle’ with the pilot roll calls, we have the jump to hyperspace, all these things that are building you towards the battle. When gravity takes over, we have that moment where you … start zipping around with the TIE fighters and X-Wings. And then in that final moment, when you’re going faster and faster and faster, we were really inspired by the trench run, and those other climactic space battle moments. That’s where we have the destruction of the Star Destroyer and that moment of victory where the ride is at its fastest.”
Anyone who has ridden Hyperspace Mountain knows that victorious feeling that Strong is talking about, as well as that feeling that you are deep in the midst of an epic space battle. One thing that stands out to us consistently anytime we ride Hyperspace Mountain is the fact that the music syncs up perfectly with the action of the ride.
When we asked Strong how the Walt Disney Imagineering team made that highly impactful music synchronization effect happen — seriously, where do you even begin? — he couldn’t help but compliment the source, composer John Williams.
“That was an amazing experience. We started with having one of the best soundtracks in cinema history to pull from for inspiration,” he said.
“We began by pulling elements from the soundtrack and editing together our rough cut, using exactly the sounds from the film. We used those directly and actually rode the ride with headphones, with portable music players, to get a sense of if this was working. What we quickly realized is that the score was definitely telling the story we wanted to tell, but no amount of taking the music that was originally designed for the movies was going to fit every single turn, dip, and drop, and the tempo of the ride.”
After figuring out what worked best, the Hyperspace Mountain team actually recorded a new soundtrack especially for the attraction. “We took those pieces that we loved and worked with composers and John Williams to actually re-edit and recompose a brand new soundtrack, that we actually recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, in Abbey Road Studios, where the original films were recorded,” said Strong. No wonder it is absolute perfection!
Also perfection? The effects and visuals on Hyperspace Mountain.
In between Hyperspace Mountain’s first appearance at Disneyland Resort for Season of the Force and its current iteration, Imagineers updated the attraction to include more projected scenes, lasers, and effects, thanks largely in part to developments made while building Hyperspace Mountain at Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
“They’re actually some of my favorite moments when I ride,” Strong shared. “It’s not often you get to perfect an experience. Most of the time, we design something once and install it once and then it’s the prototype and the finished product. This has been an amazing project to work on, learn from it, do it again, learn from that, do it again, learn from that, and take those learnings full circle and bring it back to the original.”
One of the elements that was added to Hyperspace Mountain at Disneyland Resort that guests of the Park will find this month was inspired by the Hong Kong Disneyland attraction. Strong told us about it:
“There’s actually a moment in Hong Kong Disneyland where as you come around the final turn, before you get to the Star Destroyer, you actually fly right through a whole squadron of TIE fighters. In rapid succession, there’s a TIE fighter on the left and on the right and on the left. We see our laser beams come from our vehicle and explode those TIE fighters, and it feels like you’re going right through the center of the battle … We loved it so much in Hong Kong that we duplicated it again in Paris. When we had the opportunity to come back and upgrade Hyperspace Mountain in California, we made sure that we found a spot to put it.”
Surprisingly enough, implementing all of these changes to the soundtrack and effects are no longer the most lengthy part of the process. While the initial concept took about twelve months to design, test, and launch, the transformation of the attraction itself from Space Mountain to Hyperspace Mountain only takes one hour!
“We got that down to a science,” Brent told us.
“The longest part of switching from classic Space Mountain to Hyperspace Mountain is actually putting up the marquee in front of the attraction.” Who knew?!
We asked Strong what he felt was the biggest challenge when developing a transformation like this one: “Space Mountain has always been one of my favorite attractions,” he said. “Whenever you touch something as beloved as Space Mountain, the bar is set incredibly high. You come in with those expectations, and anything short of awesome is going to feel like a step sideways or a step backwards from the classic ride that has been there since 1977. That was probably the most daunting part, was making sure that what we were doing was actually improving on the experience and telling a different story.”
Keen-eyed guests might observe another key element to the story taking place on Hyperspace Mountain, especially if they are huge Star Wars fans. Hyperspace Mountain actually falls authentically within Star Wars!
“We did work with the Lucasfilm Story Group to make sure that the mission that we’re on actually has a place in Star Wars continuity,” said Brent.
“If you’re listening to the briefing by Admiral Ackbar at the beginning of the attraction, before you actually get on your rocket, you find out that the mission we’re on is actually a surveillance mission headed to Jakku, which of course is the planet that Rey grew up on. We see Rey scavenging from destroyed Star Destroyers and the remnants of this battle. That is the battle that we are launching into in Hyperspace Mountain.”
This means that when you ride Hyperspace Mountain, you are actually taking part of Star Wars lore! How cool is that?
While building Hyperspace Mountain’s first iteration, Strong rode the attraction at various different stages of completion over 300 times! So how do Walt Disney Imagineers know when the ride is ready to go?
“It sort of comes together piece by piece, and suddenly there’s a moment where enough of the pieces are working together that you actually forget that you’re assembling this thing and you just suddenly enjoy it,” Strong explained. “As designers, we tend to ride it looking for what can be improved, or what’s not working yet, and what could be better. I remember I got off at some point and the team said ‘Do you have any notes?’ and I said ‘That was awesome, I want to do it again.’ I was so lost in the moment that I actually forgot to look at it with a critical eye, I forgot to have any notes.”
That is certainly a good sign! Riding Hyperspace Mountain 300 times for your job feels like a complete dream. Strong has these words of advice for aspiring Imagineers:
“The most important thing is to do what you love. Find that thing that you’re passionate about, whatever it might be, and pursue it, study it, develop your skills in it. At Walt Disney Imagineering, there’s such an amazing diversity of talent. Every day, I work with writers and cinematographers and horticulture experts and architects and voice performers and costuming, and all of these different skills. What’s most important is that you love what you do, because that love shows.”
For more Star Wars fun at Disneyland Resort, be sure to check out Captain Phasma’s March of the First Order until May 31, and ride Hyperspace Mountain from now until June 3!